Galaxy S5 review: Everything you need to know about Samsung's new flagship phone

The Galaxy S5 (Peter Nowak)

The Galaxy S5 (Peter Nowak)

The cavalcade of new phones continues, with today’s spotlight shining on Samsung’s latest, the Galaxy S5. The company’s flagship device is coming to Canada on Apr. 11 through just about every wireless carrier and it’s likely to be one of the top sellers of the year. With Samsung’s marketing muscle behind it, the Galaxy S brand has become the preeminent Android smartphone on the market.

The devices have been, generally speaking, solid challengers to Apple’s iPhone. The S5 continues that tradition, even if there isn’t much about it that’s terribly new or exciting.

Featuring a 5.1-inch Super AMOLED screen, with a resolution of 1080 x 1920 pixels and 432 pixels per inch, the S5 has one of the sharpest screens out there. And though it’s still made of plastic, it feels better in the hand than last year’s S4 thanks to a dimpled back cover, a little more weight and corners that are a bit less rounded. By nailing that all-important “hand feel,” Samsung has all of the basics down.

Otherwise, most of what’s new about the S5 is incremental, and some of it is questionable, starting with the fingerprint sensor. Samsung’s version works differently from Apple’s in that you have to swipe your finger down over the home button at the bottom of the phone, rather than just hold it over the button for a microsecond. I wasn’t sure I’d initially like the feature on the iPhone 5S but I quickly became a convert after seeing how quickly and accurately it worked. That’s not the case with the S5. The iPhone’s scanner can pick up your print from many different angles but on the S5 your swipe has to be precise, which makes it easy to mess up.

Samsung is opening up the sensor to other app developers so that it can be used for more than just unlocking the phone (PayPal is on board for payments, for example), but I got so frustrated with it that I ended up turning it off. I can’t see too many app developers jumping on board unless this issue is fixed.

The same goes for some of the phone’s S Health tracking functions. The step counter doesn’t appear to be very accurate. I found it often wouldn’t track me while I was walking and then mysteriously add steps while I was sitting at a desk. Moreover, the function needs to be turned on and off, which is a pain to remember (who wants to track the tracker?). Step counting thus seems better suited to an always-on device such as a wristband fitness tracker, like perhaps Samsung’s Gear Fit. I did like the heart-rate sensor on the back of the phone just under the camera – you simply touch your finger to it for a second or two and it tells you how fast your ticker is going.

Samsung has also incorporated some innovative connectivity technology into the S5 that combines both cellular and Wi-Fi signals into faster downloads. It’s a nifty addition, but again, it doesn’t seem very practical – or at least not in Canada, where download speeds on both cellular and Wi-Fi are generally pretty good. Indeed, the primary reason to jump onto Wi-Fi with your phone is to avoid using up your precious monthly data allotment, so why you’d want to do that and still use wireless data is puzzling.

I did like some of the new features added to the S5′s 16-megapixel camera, with “selective focus” being a particular standout. With the function enabled, you can shoot a close-up subject (less than 50 centimetres away) and get the same blurred background effect that you might with a proper single-lens reflex camera. You can also reverse the blur in “post-production,” with the camera blurring the subject and bringing the background into focus. And, not to be outdone, you can also just simply bring everything into focus.

It works well. Although phones will probably never match the capabilities of full SLR cameras simply because lens and sensors sizes do matter, I continue to be amazed at the improvements being made. The decision to bring along a full, heavy camera on a trip is getting harder to make with each passing iteration of phones.

I’m also a fan of the S5′s “ultra power saving mode,” which shifts the phone’s screen into black-and-white and shuts off all non-essential functions. Only a few necessary apps can be enabled in this mode, including phone, text messages and the Internet browser, although comically, Google+ is somehow among the small handful of available apps. In any event, the mode greatly boosts available battery time – if you turn it on with 10% of your battery power left, you can just about squeeze another full day out of it.

The S5 is also largely water- and dust-proof, able to stay submerged in a meter of water for up to 30 minutes. Some users might find these features handy, but as someone who has never gone swimming with a phone or used one in the heart of a desert, they’re more nice-to-haves than have-to-haves.

And so goes the story of both Samsung’s new flagship device and smartphones in general. Most of the major manufacturers have got the basics right, with further innovation and differentiation really a matter of throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. The S5 gets a couple of these things right while a few of them flop. I’d like to have seen more of the former and less of the latter, but perhaps they’re just iterations that will be improved on with the inevitable Galaxy S6 next year.