Galaxy S5 translation guide: A no-nonsense, hype-free look at Samsung's new phone

Samsung Galaxy S5

Oh emm gee, you guys. Did you hear? There's, like, totally a new Samsung Galaxy phone about to enter the world.

Sammy took the wraps off its long-anticipated Galaxy S5 during a media event in Barcelona this week. And wonder of wonders, the crazy rumors were all wrong: The phone isn't metal, it doesn't have a 4K screen, and it doesn't have a three-sided display that magically tracks your head movements. (Rumors wrong -- huh. Who woulda thunk?)

So, wait -- if the new Galaxy S5 isn't all of those things, what is it? Brace yourself, homie: It's a phone. A Samsung phone. The same kind of phone Samsung has made before, only with some minor design tweaks and incremental upgrades.

That doesn't mean it's bad, by any stretch of the imagination -- but it's far too easy to get caught up in the hype of a new device, especially one as heavily marketed as Samsung's Galaxy S5. As I mused on Google+ yesterday, watching presentations from a tech show is kind of like hanging out in a strip club: Everything looks amazing and is filled with tantalizing promises -- and then you see it in the light of the real world and snap back to reality.

So let's skip all the hype and jump right to the reality. Here's a no-nonsense translation of what Samsung's latest phone is really all about -- and what's actually significant about it from a consumer perspective.

Galaxy S5: The design

Galaxy S5 Design

Samsung says the Galaxy S5 has an all-new "modern glam look." Um, right. I don't think anyone quite knows what a "modern glam look" is, but the Galaxy S5 basically looks like the Galaxy S4. Almost strikingly so. The phone is slightly bigger and heavier, but not so much that'd you notice unless you were paying careful attention.

The only significant physical distinction is the phone's back panel, which is still plastic and removable but sports a new textured matte finish (available in a choice of four colors). The panel is best described as a cross between the faux-leather look of the Galaxy Note 3, the soft-touch textured material of the original Nexus 7, and, well, a golf ball. 

It's arguably an improvement over the chintzy glossy plastic Samsung has long adored, but we're talking a baby step within the same basic design framework. If Samsung had released a phone with this appearance six months ago and called it the Galaxy S4 Fit, most of us wouldn't have batted our eyes.

Galaxy S5: The specs

As you'd expect, the GS5 has updated internals all around -- things like a newer processor, a bigger battery, and a slightly larger display.

The processor alone shouldn't make much of a noticeable difference from a consumer perspective. Remember, last year's Galaxy S4 had a blazingly fast CPU and the phone still suffered from imperfect real-world performance. We'll have to see if Samsung has managed to fix its software issues with this year's device; that'll make far more of an impact than any 0.2GHz bump in processing power.

The GS5's battery improvements, meanwhile, should help the phone last longer: Samsung says the new device will provide "20 percent better" battery life than the GS4, which already had respectable stamina.

As for the screen, the panel alone isn't much of an upgrade -- the GS5's 5.1-in. display uses the same 1920-x-1080-pixel resolution as the GS4's 5.0-in. screen -- but Sammy says the GS5 includes a new system that dynamically adjusts colors based on the lighting in your environment. Kind of like an advanced auto-brightness mode that goes beyond just brightness. We won't know how meaningful that is until we get the phone out in the elements, but it certainly sounds like a smart idea.

Galaxy S5: The camera

One area where the GS5 appears to have some nice improvements is in its camera: The phone has a new 16-megapixel camera, up from 13MP in last year's flagship. The megapixel value alone isn't everything -- that essentially just means the phone can take larger images, which doesn't have any direct correlation with image quality -- but numbers aside, Samsung says the GS5 has a superspeedy 0.3-second autofocus, which could definitely make photo-snapping snappier.

The GS5's camera also boasts a new "live HDR preview" mode, which allows you to check out how HDR mode will look on an image before you press the shutter button. And Samsung has updated its camera interface to make it a little less overwhelming, which is always a good thing.

Galaxy S5: The software

Galaxy S5 TouchWiz

Much fuss has been made in the rumor mill about Samsung scaling back its bloated TouchWiz software and coming up with something a little more restrained and tasteful. Sammy itself seems to be focusing on a "back to the basics" line for the GS5's marketing, which makes sense given the many knocks it's gotten for prioritizing gimmicky features over good user experience over the years.

"Back to the basics" is all relative, though: While the Galaxy S5's user interface is a bit less garish and cartoony than past efforts, the changes appear to be far less drastic than many of us were hoping to see. Make no mistake about it: This is still TouchWiz through and through -- and design aside, it's still larded up with oodles of superfluous Samsung add-ons like S Voice, My Magazine, and the Samsung Apps collection.

Best I can tell, the real meaning of "back to the basics" is that Samsung isn't adding a slew of new circus tricks to its setup this go-round -- wave here to do this, roll your eyes four times to do that, and so forth -- but in terms of the existing stuff, the evolution appears to be more of a subtle refinement than any sort of sweeping rebirth.

The Galaxy line does finally join the post-Gingerbread world by swapping the capacitive Menu button for Android's current Recent Apps key, which is a positive and long overdue leap into the present. The buttons are still arbitrarily reordered from the universal Android standard, but hey -- one step at a time, right?

Galaxy S5: The other stuff

A few other noteworthy elements of the Galaxy S5:

• Taking a cue from Sony's handsets, the phone is both dust- and water-resistant. That has its benefits, no doubt, though it also comes with a mildly annoying downside: You have to remove a protective flap every time you want to plug the phone in.

• The Galaxy S5 has a heart monitor. I'm not sure how many people will actually use it beyond the initial "Hey, look at that" trial, but if such a feature sounds useful to you, well, there ya have it. (See also: How to measure your heart rate with any Android phone)

• The GS5 has a fingerprint scanner, but don't get too excited: Like other phones that have attempted that type of technology, it looks like this one may be more impressive in concept than in reality. If a security measure takes multiple tries to work and is impractical to execute, most of us stop using it pretty quickly.

• Like the Note 3, the GS5 supports USB 3.0, which allows for faster charging and data transfers (provided the system on the other end of the cord also has 3.0 support).

• The GS5 has a new "Download Booster" mode that's supposed to combine Wi-Fi and LTE to make for faster data transfers over the air. Can't say no to that.

Galaxy S5: Putting it all together...

So what to make of Samsung's latest offering? Like so many phones before it, the Galaxy S5 suffers from High Expectation Syndrome. When Internet rumors lead you to believe you're going to see a massively reimagined device with premium materials, an insane display, and a clean start on user interface design, it's hard not to see the GS5 and think: "That's it?"

But the truth is Samsung has taken a successful device and given it a respectable, if not terribly exciting, refresh. If you're a fan of Samsung's mobile products, the GS5 looks like a nice step forward from the previous generation. It's nothing earth-shattering, mind you -- and probably nothing that'll convince throngs of GS4 owners to run out and upgrade -- but it has more than enough to make it feel like a fresh and improved 2014 version of Samsung's flagship.

The real test, of course, is what the Galaxy S5 is actually like to use -- and that's something we won't know until we've had a chance to live with it in the real world. The phone is set to launch in April, and you can bet I'll be spending some quality hands-on time with it once we're closer to that date.

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And with that, my friends, the great Android flagship race of 2014 is officially underway. Next up is HTC's second-gen One device, which is set to make its grand debut a month from today.

This is the fun part. Let the games begin.


Hands on: The first things you notice about the Galaxy S5

Galaxy S5 deep-dive review: Long on hype, short on delivery

Galaxy S5 vs. HTC One (M8): Camera shootout!

Galaxy S5 vs. HTC One (M8): Which should you get?

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