The Samsung Galaxy S5 is a flagship smartphone that focuses less on gimmicks (scrolling with your eyes) and more on innovations you’ll use more often. Unveiled at Mobile World Congress here in Barcelona, the 5.1-inch Android handset adds a bevy of useful features, including a high-speed camera that shoots HDR (high dynamic range) photos and videos in real-time, a heart-rate monitor and a fingerprint reader. We had a chance to spend some time with the Galaxy S5 and were particularly intrigued by the phone’s slick new design, convenient security software and wide range of photography features.
The first thing we noticed about the Galaxy S5 is its attractive new backside. Where the Galaxy S4 had a glossy plastic back and the Note 3 used faux leather, the Galaxy S5 sports a luxurious soft-touch material with a pattern of textured dots that give it a very modern feel. While the front is black, the back comes in white, black, gold or, our favorite, electric blue. Though many observers have urged Samsung to go with an HTC or Apple-like aluminum chassis, the company has stuck to its guns. The new back comes off, allowing users to swap out the battery, something you cannot do with unibody designs.
Placed next to the 5.31 x 2.69 x .25-inch Galaxy S4, the 5.6 x 2.85 x .32-inch Galaxy S5 is noticeably larger. However, at 5.1 ounces, the new phone is only half an ounce heavier than its predecessor. Considering the larger battery and screen, it’s impressive that Samsung was able to keep the weight nearly unchanged.
MORE: Galaxy S5 vs. iPhone 5s
TouchWiz, Samsung’s Android skin, has also been redesigned, sporting a flatter interface with a different set of icons. However, contrary to some rumors, the Galaxy S5 has in-bezel buttons for home, back and menu, with the home button doubling as a fingerprint reader.
The Galaxy S5 has a 1920 x 1080 super AMOLED display, just like its predecessor. However, the screen has grown from 5 inches on the Galaxy S4 to 5.1 inches on the S5. The device sports a new ambient light sensor that adjusts not only your screen brightness but also your contrast ratio and color gamut to make the screen look great in direct sunlight. Samsung also said that the display uses object recognition to adjust its settings based on the content on screen, not just the ambient light hitting it. We weren’t able to test the screen in direct sunlight, but it did look sharp and colorful in our brief hands-on time.
On the inside, the Galaxy S5 has a 2.5-GHz, quad-core Snapdragon 801 CPU, along with 2GB of RAM. A 2,800 mAh battery promises longer battery life than on the Galaxy S4, which lasted just between 5 hours and 25 minutes and 6:41 on our battery test (continuous surfing over LTE), depending on what carrier we used. A new and improved power-saving mode should also help.
We were most impressed with Samsung’s new camera features. The S5 boasts a 16-MP camera, up from 13-MP on the Galaxy S4 and Note 3. But sharper images are just the tip of this high-definition iceberg. The device can now autofocus and shoot in .3 seconds, a big improvement over the rather-slow image capture process on previous Galaxy phones.
The Galaxy S5 also provides real-time HDR for photo and video shooting. When we tapped a button in the camera app, we watched as HDR toggled on or off, making our image preview brighter or dimmer. According to Samsung, the HDR is based on a single image, not multiple shots.
We’ve long been fans of Samsung’s feature-packed camera app, but some found the amount of choices overwhelming. As a compromise, Samsung has limited the number of modes somewhat, but also provided a download button in the app which will allow users to install additional modes. One of our favorite modes, Animated Photo, was missing from the list of default modes, but a Samsung rep told us that it will be available as a download.
Samsung has also added a couple of new modes. The Shot & More mode shoots for a few seconds then allows you to activate other modes for your photo, such as Drama Shot, Eraser Mode or Best Face mode after the fact. On previous Samsung phones, you had to guess in advance that a stranger might walk through your photo so you could choose eraser mode. But with Shot & More, you can determine that afterwards. The software even shows which modes your photo is eligible for, based on its content.
We shot a photo of some people leaning against the wall and were presented with the best face option, but not Drama Shot because nobody was running through the scene. There’s also a new Virtual tour mode for creating walk-throughs of buildings, which is particularly useful for selling a home.
As rumored, the Galaxy S5 has a fingerprint reader for biometric security. The reader, which is built into the hardware home key, can be used as a security check for unlocking the phone itself or logging into PayPal. You can also use the sensor to enter Private Mode, a special area that houses your most private documents, emails and other data. That’s a lot more than what the iPhone 5s can do. Its Touch ID sensor can only log into the device and be used to authenticate iTunes purchases.
MORE: Top 10 Smartphones
Upon entering Private Mode for the first time, we were asked to choose a security method, ranging from a password to an unlock pattern to a fingerprint. When we chose fingerprint, we enrolled our right index finger by swiping eight times and found the process fast and straightforward. Each time we needed to swipe, the software showed an outline of a finger at the bottom of the screen, giving us a place to start our downward swipe over the home key. We would definitely prefer using a fingerprint to using a pattern unlock.
Samsung has overhauled its S Health fitness app with a new, more colorful UI. More important, you can now measure your heart rate via a monitor that sits next to the LED flash on the back of the phone. When we hit the button for heart rate and placed our finger over the sensor, the sensor lit up red and the phone showed our rate as 72 bpm. The software is designed to give you advice during your workouts, telling you to raise or lower your heart rate at different points. S Health will also sync with your Gear 2, Gear Neo watch or Gear Fit band, each of which has its own heart rate monitor.
There’s no word yet on pricing or availability for the Galaxy S5, but if it’s like the Galaxy S4 or Galaxy S3, it will probably launch later this spring on all four major U.S. carriers for an on-contract price of $199. Although this Android phone offers a host of new capabilities, it looks as though Samsung listened to critics who said the S4 was bloated with novelty features. The S5 once again pushes the boundaries of what you think a smartphone can do but in a more practical and refined way.