How do you get consumers excited about yet another expensive high-end smartphone, in a U.S. market that seems to be maturing? Maybe the answer is to simplify the thing, and stress just a few interesting new features, like the ability to survive being submerged in water, or to act as a heart-rate monitor.
That’s the strategy that Samsung, the global smartphone leader, hopes will work for its latest top-of-the-line model, the Android-based Galaxy S5, which goes on sale in the U.S. on Friday at all major carriers.
The S5 will cost $200 with a two-year contract at AT&T and Sprint, and $660 without a contract at T-Mobile. Verizon, in a somewhat unusual move for a new, premier big-name phone, is offering a buy-one-get-one-free deal for $200 with a two year contract (after rebates) — making the up-front cost just $100.
I’ve been testing the new S5 for a couple of weeks, and I like it, though I didn’t find it especially exciting or novel. In every major hardware area, it’s a very good phone, with a sharp, gorgeous screen that, at 5.1 inches, is a teeny bit bigger than the five-inch display on last year’s model, the S4.
The rear camera’s resolution has been upped to 16 megapixels from 13, and it took excellent photos and videos. Calls were clear. Cellular and Wi-Fi speeds were fast. Battery life was excellent. While the phone is all plastic, with cheesy fake-metal edging, it feels solid.
But there were also some disappointments. Samsung deserves credit for burying or offloading some of the gimmicky, duplicative software that burdened the S4, and for simplifying the bewildering array of camera options, but it didn’t go far enough. Out of the box, the Galaxy S5 still has two browsers, two voice-control apps, two photo-gallery apps and two video-player apps — one each from Google and Samsung.
I also had some issues with two of the three big new features on the S5 — a fingerprint reader, the built-in heart-rate monitor, and that water-resistant body. First, none of the three is truly novel. Apple introduced a fingerprint reader last year on the iPhone 5s. Sony introduced a water-resistant smartphone, the Xperia Z, last year. And while I haven’t previously seen a smartphone with a built-in heart-rate monitor, there are apps for the iPhone and Android that work similarly to Samsung’s. But that’s not the problem.
The fingerprint reader failed for me most of the time. It works by swiping your finger over the home button, rather than keeping it stationary, as on the iPhone. In my tests, it either required multiple passes, or just didn’t work at all, almost every time. Samsung says my experience was unusual. (Apple’s reader worked perfectly in my initial test period last year, then began to fail too often, and now, after a software update, is working great again for me.)
The heart monitor works when you rest a fingertip over a small sensor area beneath the camera lens on the rear of the phone. An app then translates signals from the sensor and displays your heart rate. In my tests, it failed for me more than half of the time, yielding no reading. So I tried it on others, with mixed results — much better than mine, but still with too many failures, which bring up a nagging instruction screen telling you you’re doing it wrong. (After four or five of these pop-ups, your heart rate will likely be elevated.)
The water-resistance feature, by contrast, was a great success. I tested it twice, and it worked perfectly both times. Samsung says the phone can withstand being in water up to a meter deep for 30 minutes. But I figured that nobody would leave a dropped phone in a toilet or sink for that long, so I submerged it in a large mixing bowl for 15 minutes, while it was powered on. I even called it when it was underwater, and it received the call just fine.
When I finally pulled it out of the drink, it worked perfectly, even before I dried it off. Samsung does nag you now and then to make sure the removable rear cover is fastened tight; and when you open the charging port, which has a cover, it reminds you to close the cover firmly. But this is a great feature. Oh, and Samsung says it doesn’t work only in plain, clear water. The company claims that the phone will also survive in toilets containing other common fluids and solids, in chlorinated pools, in coffee cups and in other liquids.
I didn’t do a formal battery test, but easily got more than 24 hours in moderate use. Samsung has also built in two different power-saving modes.
The camera now has fewer shooting modes, partly because Samsung says most people just use the basic auto mode. And many of the modes have been consolidated into a sort of mega-mode called Shot and More, which allows you to apply various special effects after the shot has been taken.
Samsung has also consolidated the camera settings into a 16-square illustrated grid that’s supposed to make them easier to select. But I still found it intimidating.
Although the company admits that the pixels are smaller, it says it was able to improve the photo quality with a new technology that allows less light to leak out of each pixel.
In addition to the heart-rate monitor, the Galaxy S5 has a big emphasis on health and fitness. It even works with a $200 companion fitness band, called the Gear Fit, which my colleague Lauren Goode reviewed.
But you don’t need the Gear Fit to measure certain kinds of fitness on the S5. The phone itself acts as a pedometer, a function that worked quite well in my tests, even when the fitness app, called S Health, was running in the background. It can also estimate the calories you burn while running, walking, hiking and cycling. And it has a module for manually logging the calories you take in via food.
The phone also has a magazine-like newsreader, powered by the popular app Flipboard.
Overall, the Galaxy 5S is a very good phone, but not one compelling enough for me to recommend that you buy it to replace last year’s Galaxy or the current iPhone. But there’s one caveat: If you drop your phone in water a lot, you want this one.
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