If it seems like the latest in the Galaxy line was out just last year, that's because it was. About a year ago, Samsung released the Galxay S4, which was released about a year after the Galaxy S3.
I know this, because there's an S3 and S4 in our house. My family members like the phones because they are some of the best devices for the money. They aren't packed with cutting edge features, they don't sport trend-setting design. They simply offer great graphics, impressive performance and solid function. Each version has offered a modest list of upgrades from the previous one, but each one has been a solid, reliable device.
The device is available from AT&T, which provided us a device that we tested for about a week. It took less than a day to see that the S5 changes that in a sense: It's the first in the Galaxy line to offer an impressive upgrade to the device.
That's not to say Samsung didn't try to carve a niche for the S5. It put an emphasis on a healthy lifestyle and equipped the device with a built-in pedometer, heart-rate monitor and S Health app.
There are probably better apps for those funcitons available for Android, but the native apps are highly functional and run in the background with no problem. While I never tested the heart-rate monitor, the pedometer worked really well, and showed me that I walked more than 11,000 steps during two hours of Third Thursday. I was able to track daily step amounts easily, and it actually inspired me to stay as consistent and active as I could (still, I had a lot of less-than-2,000 days).
Other upgrades included a nice smart remote app that can operate a number of home entertainment devices, a native Flipboard-style app called Magazine and an iPhone-style fingerprint sensor that can be used to protect privacy or operate payment services such as PayPal.
But those things are extra. The real improvements are in the device's hardware, not software.
The exterior is the first noticeable upgrade. Where the S3 and S4 had simple plastic shells, the S5 has a back coated with a perforated surface that feels a little bit like leather (available in four colors). It makes the phone easy to hold and use -- especially one-handed.
The device is also waterproof and dustproof -- Samsung said it features IP67 certification, which means it should survive sweat, splatter and dust. I didn't test this feature out, which is surprising, because my natural klutziness usually ends up conducting those kinds of tests for me.
Bigger than before
The 5.1-inch screen is a tenth of an inch bigger than the S4 (pictured, left) but features the same Super AMOLED technology and a similar pixel density. It's a sharp, bright display made even better with an adaptable display.
With other phones, I'm constantly messing with brightness settings, from "smart" auto settings to manually changing the brightness to what I need. The S5 has an adaptable display that worked without me noticing screen issues -- high praise. Whether I was in sunlight, shade, dark rooms or fluorescent-lit areas, I never had an issue with seeing the display clearly.
With a 2.5 GHz quad-core processor and 2 GB RAM, everything I tested ran excellently, from the graphically-intensive game "Smash Hit" to movies on Netflix.
It has enough power to effectively run a moderately flexible dual-window. Apps can be added to it fairly easily; choices aren't limited to just a browser and YouTube, for instance.
And the device's dual Wi-Fi antennas are legit. There's a WiFi "dead zone" at Geek Central -- it's the spot furthest from our antenna. In that spot, it took the S4 about 8 seconds to load up a website I chose. The S5 loaded that site in about 3 seconds.
Because the WiFi antennas work so well, and because AT&T's LTE network blankets Joplin, I'm not even sure the device needs a Download Boost feature. Advertisted on Samsung's product page, the booster lets users combine the network and WiFi coverage for a super-fast download. The feature was disabled on the device I tested; it may appear in software updates in the future.
The camera is above-average but not as impressive as the rest of the phone.
While it offers high dynamic range shots, fast focus lock and selective focus with its 16 megapixel camera, the pictures take a bit of correction work to become truly eye-popping.
Low-light situations will frustrate users. HDR can help a static night shot, but if people are moving, be prepared for blurs. I got some great outdoor shots when sunlight was plentiful, and I also got some good macro shots. But overall, the camera's shutter speed and color are serviceable, yet underwhelming.
The camera has a fast focus lock that can be tapped to anywhere on the screen. But the native touch-up app takes up a lot of screen space, making it hard to see the corrections that have been made. Instead of a slider at the bottom, most of the controls for brightness, contrast, saturation and those types of things are in the middle of the screen. What's in the bottom? Big windows of each function that get in the way of work, when the device is held horizontally for maximum screen image.
Video is a little better. It offers 1920-by-1080 resolution filming and fares better in low-light. It has the same sound problem as most phones: A minimum of mics means shooters need to be aware of sound. But the sound range that the S5 captures isn't that bad.
Spellchecking issue, srsly
Typing was also an issue. It has swipe functionality that works great, as long as you are entering in common words. The keys of the Samsung keyboard are smallish, so I missed letters often. Most spellcheckers are pretty forgiving of an intentionally misspelled word.
Say I wanted to write the phrase "totes adorbs." Most of the phones I've used would bring up recommendations I could select, but if I didn't, what I typed would stay. Not so with the S5: Out of the box, it automatically changes something misspelled into a most likely alternative. To keep "totes adorbs," you have to manually approve it by tapping a check box. That adds it to the dictionary, but still, it's an extra step that slows down typing.
But camera and typing issues are pretty nitpicky compared to the device's overall quality. Upgrading was way too easy: Once I signed into my Google account, it began downloading apps that I had on a previous device.
One of the most pleasing changes to the S5 was the easy-to-access application manager (pictured). Usually, getting to it requires holding down a button, meaning you have to discover it. But with the S5, it pops up with the touch of a button.
Battery life was great. I was able to use the phone intensely for a solid day before needing a recharge -- including browsing, gaming and video watching. The device has plenty of storage for music and pictures -- it comes with up to 32 GB of internal memory and is expandable with microSD memory up to 128 GB.
A variety of wearable accessories, such as Samsung Gear, are available for the device. And the screen sensitivity can be ratcheted up to where a pencil tip would be detected.
Where the S4 wasn't impressive enough to make S3 users dissatisfied, the S5 should make S4 owners a little green with envy -- mainly because of the bigger display, faster browsing experience, improved exterior look and finish, and ease of use.
But the Galaxy S5 will make other device owners jealous, as well -- mainly because it is a solid, reliable workhorse of a device. It does more things better than a lot of different devices.
It's available from AT&T for $199.99 with a two-year contract or $649.99 by itself. With several holidays coming up, including graduation, the device merits consideration for gift-giving. But beware -- seeing it used as a gift might cause cellphone envy.
More pictures: Low light
HDR mode helps low-light shots a lot, but it requires a steady hand and scene.
More pictures: Color contrast
The S5 captures decently vivid color, as shown in this uncorrected shot. But amazing, eye-popping color doesn't happen without touch-ups.
More pictures: Obligatory foodie shot
Another uncorrected shot on full automatic mode, this time of a homemade pepperoni pizza. Be prepared to play around with white balance and color correction.
More pictures: Focus lock
The focus lock also works on exposure. For this shot, I tried focusing in on the ground, but got a washed-out, over-exposed capture. So I tapped back on the clouds and got a good glow of this sunset.
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