The Galaxy S5 runs on a 2.5 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset and 2 GB of RAM, virtually the same innards you’d find in the HTC One and Sony Xperia Z2. As was the case with those Android flagships, the Galaxy S5 handled everything we threw at it with ease.
Graphics-intensive games like Riptide GP2 brought about no noticeable hitches, and multitasking through various apps was a breeze — so long as I didn’t use Samsung’s choppy “Multi window” software. Navigating TouchWiz was supremely fast, with apps usually loading in less than a second. The phone itself stayed consistently cool throughout all of this, with only the harshest of tests warming up the plastic rear plate.
Verizon provided us with our test unit for this review, and we found its LTE connections to be similarly quick in the Boston area. The Galaxy S5 gave us consistent download speeds at or above 30 Mbps on the Speedtest.net app, and very rarely did we ever lose our mobile connection when using the device. WiFi connections were highly efficient as well.
It’s also worth noting that the Galaxy S5 includes a new “Download Booster” tool that combines WiFi and LTE connections to hasten larger downloads. That might be worthwhile if you’re crunched for time and subscribe to an unlimited data plan, but sadly our Verizon unit didn’t include the feature at all, so we can’t make any judgments yet.
When it comes to storage, the Galaxy S5 comes with either 16 or 32 GB of room by default. If space is a priority, you may want to pony up the extra $50 or so for the larger of the two models, since only 10.7 GB of the 16 GB model is usable. Thankfully, both devices come with a microSD slot that can carry up to 128 GB of additional room, but having to pay more for some breathing room is still an annoyance.
We were spoiled by the HTC One’s BoomSound speakers before testing the Galaxy S5, and switching from those two powerhouses to the more traditional ones here really demonstrated how much of a leg up HTC has in the mobile audio department. The Galaxy S5’s rear-mounted grilles aren’t bad, but they’re wholly ordinary. The sound here just isn’t as full or loud as we’d like in a post-BoomSound world.
Finally, call quality with the Galaxy S5 was great. Voices were clear, and any background fuzz was kept to a minimum. Testers told me that my voice was sufficiently loud and haze-free on their end as well. The only issue here is the S5’s speakerphone quality; its sound does not travel well if you take the phone any significant distance away from your face.
The Galaxy S5 runs on Android 4.4.2 “KitKat,” the latest version of Google’s increasingly robust mobile OS. You’re not going to really notice that, though, because Samsung has once again covered the whole thing up with its own “TouchWiz” skin. Samsung vowed to make its UI less overbearing in the run-up to the Galaxy S5’s launch, but in reality, this is the same redundant and counterintuitive TouchWiz that’s been overwhelming Galaxy users for years. Some of its nonsense has been stuffed farther away, but its clutter still hasn’t been destroyed completely.
There’s just too much going on here. The drop-down notifications menu, for instance, has 22 separate toggles. The settings menu is buried in the app drawer by default, and contains 37 different submenus, many of which have submenus of their own. For some weird reason, it also uses Tizen OS-style icons, which only furthers the inherent styles clash between Samsung and Google’s software on the device.
All of the Samsung-made features you’ve likely ignored in the past are still here, and the vast majority of them are either half-baked (the glitchy multitasking of “Multi window,” the overly vague “Kids mode,” etc.) or totally unnecessary (the goofy hand gestures of “Air view” or “Air browse,” etc.).
Thankfully, most of those things are turned off by default. Samsung’s even turned some of its especially worthless apps into optional downloads, now located in a pre-loaded “Galaxy Essentials” widget that can be totally ignored. It’s also brought back the stripped-down “Easy mode” from last year’s model, which dumbs down the S5’s home screens and menus to only show essential functions. Samsung seems to realize that these things don’t need to exist, but it hasn’t done much about it anyway.
There’s a ton of bloat here, but the worst part is just how redundant most of it is. Samsung’s insistence on tearing out kitchen sinks, combined with its contractual obligations to Google and carriers like Verizon, mean that there are at least a dozen apps here that do exactly the same thing as some other program on the phone. Our Verizon unit was especially bad with this, as it came with four messaging apps, three music apps, app stores from both Google and Amazon, two photo galleries, two reading apps, and both S Voice and Google Now. This is crapware run amok, and it takes up storage space that doesn’t need to be taken up.
To the left of the S5’s main home screen lies “My Magazine,” Samsung’s take on a Flipboard-style news reader widget. Like most of the built-in apps here, it doesn’t do anything that an optional, third-party program couldn’t do just as well. It’s more of a launcher, if anything, since clicking on any story within your feed sends you out of My Magazine and deep into the Flipboard app itself. HTC’s BlinkFeed, by comparison, functions entirely on its own, gives more personalized suggestions, and doesn’t feel as haphazardly put together.
Most of these things have been around for some time now, though. The Galaxy S5 adds a few new features, of course, in the form of a built-in heart rate monitor and a built-in fingerprint scanner.
The former works with S Health, Samsung’s proprietary health and fitness app, and is located just underneath the rear camera. Questions of actual utility aside — this seems much better suited for a wearable than a phone — the monitor itself is fidgety and inconsistent. Within a span of 30 seconds, for instance, I was told my bpm ranged from the low-60s to the high-80s, despite the fact that I was sitting perfectly still. It often refuses to work if you aren’t motionless and quiet too, which is an awkward requirement for an exercise tool.
The fingerprint scanner, meanwhile, is built into the home key. It’s much more functional than the heart rate monitor, but just as inconvenient to use. Unlike the iPhone 5s’ “press-and-hold” method of getting prints, the Galaxy S5 requires you swipe your finger down across the screen and over the home button, a process that is just about impossible to do with one hand. The scanner can serve as a lock screen key and a verification tool for PayPal, but that’s it, so it isn’t worth slowing down the time it takes for you to actually use your phone. That being said, it is very accurate, correctly identifying my fingerprint about 99 percent of time.
Yes, for all of TouchWiz’s silly, worthless bloat, Samsung does manage to get a few things right here. The new recent apps key makes multitasking much more straightforward, for one. It also means that an on-screen menu button has been built into the app drawer and most Samsung apps, which feels more natural and makes it easier to find each app’s features.
The built-in IR blaster allows for a helpful “Smart Remote” app, which uses Peel to turn the S5 into a substitute clicker. A couple of power-saving modes let you get noticeably more juice out of the phone’s battery. A “Toolbox” function puts a floating, Chat Heads-style icon on screen, but gives you easy shortcuts to frequently used apps. Heart rate monitor aside, S Health is still a simple and beginner-friendly entry point to the world of health and fitness software, one that works especially well if you own one of Samsung’s existing wearables.
And if nothing else, most of what’s troublesome here won’t be all that noticeable to casual users. It is very much possible to browse the web, watch some movies and play some games without TouchWiz getting too in the way. Samsung still shouldn’t be throwing so much at the wall here, in other words, but at least some of it sticks.