The most anticipated Android phone of the last few months has arrived. After being the object of endless rumors, the Samsung Galaxy S5 is finally –and officially- revealed at Mobile World Congress. While observers digest the news stream coming out of Samsung, we have had the opportunity to spend a short quality time with the handset, and here is a first batch of information that should answer a lot of your questions, maybe with the exception of synthetic performance benchmarks, which will happen when the retail units hit later.
Update: our complete review of the Galasy S5 is out, and after a couple of weeks of real-world use, we have even more information.
Let’s dive directly into what you really want to know: what’s new? Samsung has added a number of feature, but the company made it clear that their philosophy was not to just add more features, but add some that have a meaningful impact in users’ daily lives and routine. This is a change of trajectory from the rapid pace at which features were being added in the past. Samsung told Ubergizmo that they have spent a lot of efforts listening and studying what people want, and the Galaxy S5 is their own synthesis of that. Here it comes:
- Fast: The Galaxy S5 has a camera with super-fast auto-focus and WiFi with 2×2 MIMO
- Sturdy: It is water and dust resistant (IP67 standard)
- Battery life: It has 20% better battery life than the Galaxy S4
- Secure: GS5 has a swipe fingerprint scanner embedded in the home button
- Design: the new Galaxy S has an updated industrial design
- 5.1” Super-AMOLED 1080p display
- Android 4.4
- Snapdragon 801, 2.5GHz with 2GB of RAM
- 16 Megapixel Rear Camera, 2.1 Megapixel Front Camera
- 16/32 GB of internal storage + microSD (128GB max!)
- LTE Category 4
- USB 3.0
- IP67 dust and water resistance
- 2800mAh battery
Since the first impression will come from the outside, it’s fair to start with the design aspect of the phone. For the Galaxy S5, Samsung has updated the industrial design and the back has seen the bulk of the changes with a new texture that feels soft, but provides some grip at the same time. Samsung calls this design language (style) “Modern Flash” and it will make it easier to provide multiple colors with variations of the back cover.
I found the back texture to be quite agreeable. It should address some of the feedback about the “plastic feel” that the Galaxy S4 can have, and to the extent that this is still plastic, it works. I’m not sure if I prefer this or the faux-leather one as seen in the latest Galaxy S4 in Russia and other markets, but in both cases there is a significant reduction of the plastic feel for something a little softer.
To me, the main advantage is that plastic can feel a little “greasy” at times, and these textures make this feeling go away or tone it down a lot. At the end of the day, this is still plastic (so it’s light), so if you absolutely must feel glass or aluminum, I don’t think that you should expect a miracle, but try holding one and see what happens. if you want to keep a classic look, I recommend the black. There was not white version right there, but it may come later.
The front has evolved to look closer to the Galaxy Note 3. This is relatively consistent with past evolutions, except that the design language is now even closer than it was for the GS4/Note 2 pair. The change does not affect how the device feels in the hand, and it is very close to the S4. The Galaxy S5 has a slightly larger screen with a 5.1” diagonal (vs. 5.0”) before. When I first tried it, I noticed that it was a little larger, and I had to look at the specifications to verify. The small bump in size is perceptible but not to the point that people familiar with the previous version would worry about it. For all practical purposes, I handled it just like an S4.
“Design” back-covers: Samsung has had a little bit of fun with the back-cover/cases this time, and they took advantage of the more “square-ish” look of the Galaxy S5 to make the covers completely rectangular. This is a pretty cool look, and I’ll let you decide for yourself with the photo gallery. The covers replace the original back-cover and snap right in. The hold is very strong, and I can imagine how wallet version of this will appear soon.
At the bottom, the USB 3.0 port is now covered. I know that some people did take notice of the size of the USB 3.0 connector because it is quite big. This is a standard connector, so Samsung can’t do much about it (except stick with USB 2.0 maybe), so it looks like they decided to cover it. I would prefer not to have the cover because I don’t like removing it and putting it back, but you may have different take on this. Do you?
Water and dust resistance
This is most likely the change that will be the most appreciated. Since nearly half of smartphones die from water-contact, I can say with assurance that millions of people waiting for the next Galaxy are smiling tonight. Design changes are always up for discussion and debate – it is by nature a personal taste after all. But water and dust-resistance is a fact, and it is something that every single phone should have. If you are unfamiliar with the IP codes, here’s what IP67 means:
The “6” digit means: Protected from Dust
The “7” digit mean: Protected against the effects of immersion in water to depth between 15 cm and 1 meter
So in theory the Galaxy S5 could be called waterproof for up to 1 meter (1 yard), but it looks like Samsung is being cautious and would rather call it “water resistant”, which implies splashes rain, and small quantities of water. I can’t wait to see the underwater shots… don’t say that I made you do it, you’re not supposed to!
The new fingerprint reader is a “swipe” sensor, which means that it has a narrow array of sensors, and as you move your finger on top if it, it gets a full picture of your prints. This is very different from Apple’s sensor which is bigger, but only requires a contact – not a swipe. In theory, the swipe sensor is less accurate because it has literally more moving parts. Maybe the user swipes too fast, or too slow, which could cause your prints to be distorted enough to cause a false-negative (false-positives are unlikely).
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to test this thoroughly and although the demo from Samsung looked convincing, this is something that I need to try for myself. Overall, it seems to work well enough, but we’ll see if it can equal, or beat, a fixed-contact solution. My measure of success for the system is based on the reduction of the number of taps (or seconds) necessary to unlock a phone. If it is shorter, then we have a winner.
Keep in mind that while most people think of fingerprinting as a “security” feature, it is probably best to think of it as a “convenience” feature. Most such system allow the user to fall back on a password or a 4-digit pin code, so the effective security of the fingerprint does not really matter since it can be bypassed toward the last line of defense which is the 4-digit code. Samsung also mentioned that the GS5 lets you password protect specific files and text messages with the fingerprint.
Camera with uber-fast auto-focus (AF) + real-time HDR
Since taking photos is the #2 most desired usage for smartphones, and with increasing competition from all sides, Samsung wanted to up the ante. They looked at the current challenges and decided to improve two critical points: AF speed and exposure.
Just about everyone wants super-fast AF, and that’s normal: our own eyes seem to focus immediately, and it would only feel more natural if our cameras would do the same. Unfortunately, that’s pretty hard, but Samsung has integrated some proven technologies from the camera world to a mobile camera. The sensor used in the Samsung Galaxy S5 has phase-detection AF in addition of contrast-based AF.
Phase detection tends to be a lot faster and typically performs much better with situations like “shiny objects” where contrast-based AF will go “hunt” for the proper focus settings, with more or less success. Some manufacturers have tried to solve the problem by having the camera try to focus at all times. It is somewhat effective because it reduces the perceived focus time, but it is not battery-efficient and doesn’t always work as expected. In any case, phase-detection AF can also be used for always-on AF, but it is just faster in general. How fast? Our hands-on session showed “up to 3X faster” when compared to the Galaxy S4 in the worst case scenario. It is a very perceptible difference.
Just like regular HDR (multi-shot), real-time HDR wants to solve the same problem: choose the best exposure to keep the most important photo details when a photo features areas with extreme contrast differences. Most of the time, this happens if you stand in front of a light-source, or if a bright light source is in the field of view.
Regular HDR shoots several photos, and applies an algorithm to choose the best pixels among those to composite a final HDR photo. This works great, but since multiple photos are taken, any moving object will create quite a bit of blur.
On the contrary, Samsung’s real-time HDR is a single-shot method in which a photo is captured and kept at a higher precision (12-bit?), so there cannot be a blur issue for moving objects. The good news is that it works decently, and the phone can generate a real-time preview of the photo to tell you if real-time HDR is better or not than shooting a regular photo.
In theory, taking many shots with different exposure could yield an even higher precision. However, there’s a good argument for those who think that mobile photography is more about capturing the moment, and not having to worry about setting up and have the perfect scene.
Besides these two big changes, you will find the existing photo effects and app that Samsung has added in the past. They even have added new ones, but I decided to spend my time on that matters most: image quality. And after playing with it for a short while, I came away pretty impressed by the results. Not only the image quality seems very good, but the general user experience has been much improved when compared to the Galaxy S4, and the Galaxy Note 3. I have seen camera-phones improve image-quality at the expense of a great user experience, and I’m glad this is not the case here: the Galaxy S5 camera is a winner from end to end.
For this Galaxy S edition, Samsung has made the display smarter. The phone will sense the current lighting environment and apply changes to the display settings (brightness, contrast, saturation etc…) but also the image itself in order to make it look more natural. Samsung says that there is a little chip dedicated to this task. The end-goal is to have the original image to always look the way it is supposed to, regardless of your lighting environment. That’s a tough one to totally achieve, but if this takes us a good deal closer, it is worth looking at it.
The GS5 screen is a little bigger, but overall, it feels very much like the one in the Galaxy S4. Maybe the Galaxy S5 display is a little brighter, but I really need to measure it to confirm this. I have tested this in a somewhat unfamiliar environment, so while I can eyeball it and expect that the measu rements will confirm my initial impression, we’ll just have to wait and see.
At 2800mAh, the Galaxy S5 has a slightly larger capacity than the 2600mAh from its predecessor. However, this difference doesn’t explain the 20% improvement that Samsung has told us about. Software improvements would represent the rest. We’ll put that claim to the test, but it is likely that Samsung has done a number of software optimizations to improve battery life. They have also added a Power Savings mode that double the remaining battery life – if you start getting anxious about the remaining battery left, that’s the button to hit.
Ultra Power Saving Mode is a new feature that turns the Galaxy S5 into a monochromatic, phone and SMS only device. Using the Super-AMOLED display in black and white mode saves a LOT of power since each individual pixel is a tiny light source. The minimalist power-saving user interface helps greatly too. When it comes down to it, your phone is… a phone, and this feature could just allow you to make or receive that critical call or SMS.
Fitness / S-Health
As you may remember, the S4 introduced the notion of Health in the Galaxy line of product. Going forward, Samsung wants to extend this, not only with wearable tech devices like the Gear 2 and its sensors, but also with the Galaxy S5 as a standalone device.
The idea is that many people use their phones while working out, and since it is now waterproof, sweat is clearly not an issue. The pedometer using the motion sensor is still here, but Samsung has now added a heart rate monitor, which works with the help of the camera LED flash. The light coming from the flash makes it possible for an optical sensor to see minute changes in color which corresponds to blow flow, which itself corresponds to heartbeats. Simple but efficient.
I don’t expect people to measure heart rate this was constantly, but it impossible to do so before and after a workout sessions or exercise.
More importantly, the S-Health app is now starting to act like a coach and provide some feedback based on the data that has been gathered. Action items are the real goal of all the “quantified-self” which is quickly rising as the greatest source of data creation ever devised.
This is quite an interesting update, and as you can see, it is not about an increase in processing or graphics speed. Instead the focus has been put on more practical things like battery life, and my personal favorite: survivability of the phone.
And this is not unexpected. Since the underlying chips that power these devices have not become significantly faster during this cycle, there is not much that Samsung can do about that, so this is a great time to reinforce the essentials that users really care about.
In the past, many have said that Samsung should focus exactly on this instead of introducing new features that were perceived as “gimmicks”. Well, it seems like Samsung has listened: ultra-fast auto-focus, better battery life, and water-resistance are definitely not gimmicks, I think that most people can agree on that. What’s your take?