The way Samsung hawked the many features in prior versions of its Galaxy S series smartphones, you'd think the devices belonged in a circus act: Step right up and see all the tricks your phone can do.
However, this wow-the-consumer strategy too often went over the top. Things such as waving your hand to take a call made a neat demonstration, but I don't know many people who actually answered that way.
Not that you could entirely blame Samsung for trying to make its phones stand out against formidable competition. The fact is, along with Apple's iPhones, the Galaxy phones are the most popular premium smartphones around the world.
With the Galaxy S5, which becomes available across all major U.S. carriers (and globally) on Friday, Samsung has made a strategic decision to tone things down, which actually makes things better. Certain gimmicky features have been pushed to the background, and for others, you must visit the Samsung store to fetch them. While the global version of the Galaxy S4 had more than 50 pre-loaded apps, the S5 knocks the pre-load list down to 40. Oh, and that bit about waving your hand to answer? Gone.
Samsung hasn't done away with new features — far from it — and this latest flagship arguably goes further than any rival device in pushing health and fitness and a connection to wearable computers such as Samsung's own new Gear Fit. Wearables are the nascent next frontier for mobile computing.
The Galaxy S5 is the first smartphone to boast a dedicated heart-rate monitor. The phone is dust- and water-resistant, too, to a depth of one meter for 30 minutes (though the evaluation units that Samsung supplied weren't ready for any kind of water-testing). The USB connector is sealed under a protective flap.
Samsung also added a fingerprint scanner that you can use to unlock the phone, log on to your Samsung.com account, or to make payments through PayPal. Alas, I had trouble with the first test unit Samsung supplied — my fingerprint batting average was no better than 30%. To be fair, Samsung suspected I had gotten a wonky phone, and on a replacement device, I did a whole lot better (though the results still weren't perfect.). The fingerprint scanner doesn't work as well as the similar feature Apple has on the iPhone 5s.
A heart-rate monitor, protection against water and a fingerprint scanner may be the Big Top attractions this time around. But it's the basics that should sell this very solid Android handset. I can easily recommend it, even if aside from that heart-rate sensor, it doesn't break a lot of new ground. In other words if you have an S4 and are happy with it, there's no urge to upgrade.
The S5 has an eye-popping 5.1-inch Super Amoled 1080p display that can adapt to its lighting environment. It's thin but a bit longer than the S4. At 5.1-ounces (vs. 4.6 ounces) it adds some heft, but not to the point where I was bothered. Samsung chose a design with a dimpled plastic back. It doesn't come close to measuring up to the premium feel of the HTC One (M8) that was recently introduced and that is crafted from an all-metal uni-body design. It was much the same design story with last year's models. But the S5 is comfortable to hold.
The S5 does have a big advantage over HTC's phone in that you can remove the back to swap out the battery. Speaking of the battery, this one is higher-capacity than the one in the S4. And Samsung includes an ultra-power-saving mode that can bail you out when you only have a little juice left. Turning on this mode changes the color of the screen to gray scale while restricting usage to only a few apps you care about. You can still get calls and messages, but network speeds are slowed, and mobile data is suspended when the screen is off. Back in regular mode, the S5 exploits the latest network speeds and flavors of Wi-Fi.
The fast quad-core phone has a rather paltry 16 gigabytes of storage on board (with less available to the user) but is expandable via MicroSD (up to 128 GB).
HTC still gets the nod over the Galaxy for its external stereo speakers. As with other phones, you can use the S5 as a TV remote control.
I tested the Galaxy S5 in New York, New Jersey and parts of South Korea. I employed a T-Mobile SIM inside the device; in Korea, the phone roamed via KT's (Korea Telecom) Olleh service. I was impressed with the voice quality of calls back to the U.S.
The 16-megapixel rear camera on the Galaxy S5 is excellent, especially on images captured with Samsung's real time HDR (High Dynamic Range) setting. The video (and audio) quality were also really good. (The front camera is 2-megapixels.)
Auto-focusing is fast — about a third of the time compared with the Galaxy S4, Samsung claims. Other camera features are holdovers from the Galaxy S4, including Dual Camera mode (which lets you shoot stills or images using the front and rear cameras simultaneously), and Eraser mode (erasing moving subjects in the background). You can apply certain effects after taking the shot.
But a new "Selective Focus" feature that allows you to focus on a given spot in a photograph while intentionally blurring another isn't as easy or reliable as a similar feature on the HTC One.
Overall, there are fewer shooting modes than before (though you can download more). Samsung has simplified the grid that represents the main camera-settings menu.
The heart-rate scanner was a breeze to use. You gently place a single finger against the sensor on the rear of the device and wait several seconds to receive your measurement in beats-per-minute. Results are stored in Samsung's S Health app, which is also a repository for food intake and nutritional information. The app also works with the Gear Fit wearable wrist computer (stay tuned for a review.)
AT&T, Sprint, Verizon Wireless and U.S. Cellular are charging about $200 for the S5 under a two-year plan, with other pricing options. The full T-Mobile retail price is $660, or $27.50 per month over 24 months.
The Galaxy S5 doesn't have all the circus tricks. But water resistance (if it works as advertised) and heart-rate sensor are definitely welcome, and this is a solid device. Sometimes less is more.
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THE BOTTOM LINE
Samsung Galaxy S 5
$200 with two-year contract (other pricing options available).
Pro. Solid phone cuts down on certain over-the-top features while adding heart-rate monitor and water resistance. Good camera. Good voice quality. Fast. Power-saving mode.
Con. Ran into issues with fingerprint scanner. Some camera features could be simpler. Relatively paltry internal storage.