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

Samsung's Galaxy S5 carries a powerful lineage -- but it no longer stands out in a sea of thoughtfully designed competitors.

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Body parts

The Galaxy S5 has a few new bells and whistles on its body: First of all, the phone is water-resistant (rated up to one meter deep for 30 minutes), which could be a nice bit of added protection if you ever find yourself in a storm and/or swimming pool with your phone in your pocket. Like we've seen with Sony's waterproof phones, the downside to that setup is that charging the device is a minor hassle, as you have to remove a protective flap every time you want to plug it in (and the GS5 doesn't support wireless charging unless you opt to buy a separate and yet-to-be-released special case).

Next, the GS5 has a heart-rate monitor on its back, which seems to be addressing a problem that doesn't exist -- honestly, how many people are going to use that with any regularity? But hey, it's there if you want it. Just note that it's far from scientific; its results have been pretty scattered in my experience. And you can actually set up a similar feature on any Android phone by downloading a free app -- no special hardware required.

Samsung Galaxy S5
Once you set it up, the fingerprint scanner will prompt you to slide your finger down the lower part of the screen and over the Home button to unlock it.

Last, but not least, the Galaxy S5 has a fingerprint scanner built into its face. Once you set it up, the device will prompt you to slide your finger down the lower part of the screen and over the Home button to unlock it. It's been fairly accurate for me -- not a single false positive so far -- but the sliding process is finicky and often takes a few tries to get right. I suspect it'll be annoying enough that the vast majority of folks will give up and stop using it after a few days.

Speaking of the Home button, Samsung sticks with its usual hybrid button configuration on the Galaxy S5, providing a physical Home key flanked by two capacitive buttons. The setup remains awkward and unnatural compared to the virtual on-screen buttons that have been standard on Android since 2011 (and are now used on most other manufacturers' devices). Once you get used to gently touching the capacitive buttons to activate them, having to forcefully press the adjacent physical home button is jarring and unexpected. Beyond that, the capacitive keys are frequently not lit up and thus impossible to see.

On the plus side, Samsung has finally let go of the Gingerbread-level Android Menu button and provides the standard Android Recent Apps button in its place, which makes an enormous difference in the usability of the phone. With the old-fashioned Menu button gone, all options now appear on-screen throughout the system instead of frequently being hidden with no visual cues as they were on past Samsung devices.

The Galaxy S5 has one small speaker on the bottom-left of its back. The audio is reasonably loud but very tinny and hollow-sounding. You'd expect it to be inferior to the bass-heavy stereo speakers on HTC's One (M8), but it sounds bad even next to other phones with similar single-speaker setups, like Motorola's Moto X.

The GS5 has a small LED notifier above the display to alert you of any missed calls, messages or other pending notifications.

Under the hood

Despite having impressive-sounding specs, Samsung's Galaxy devices have suffered from imperfect performance in the past. I'm happy to report that with the Galaxy S5, the company has finally ironed out the kinks and delivered a phone that's free from any overt jerkiness or lag-laden behavior.

That said, even with its 2.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor and 2GB of RAM, the Galaxy S5 feels noticeably less snappy than other high-end devices. Loading apps isn't quite as instantaneous as it should be, for instance, nor is the act of opening a system tool like the Recent Apps switcher. To be clear, I'm talking about an extra second of delay here and there, but it all adds up to make the phone feel less zippy and responsive than what I've come to expect from flagship devices today.

One area where the Galaxy S5 doesn't disappoint is in the realm of stamina: With its 2800mAh removable battery, the phone has consistently gotten me from morning to night without coming close to hitting empty. Even with relatively heavy usage -- three or four hours of screen-on time with a mix of phone calls, Web browsing, camera activity and social media use -- I've yet to worry about running out of juice before going to bed.

The GS5 comes with 16GB of internal storage, which leaves you with about 10GB of usable space once you factor in the operating system and various preinstalled applications. Luckily, the phone has a micro SD card slot -- hidden under its removable back panel -- so you can pop in your own external card and add more space if you need it.

In terms of connectivity, you'll be able to get 4G-level data on the GS5 -- either LTE or HSPA+, depending on your carrier and what's available in your area. Data speeds have been A-OK on the AT&T model of the phone I've been testing, with nothing out of the ordinary to report. Samsung has touted a new "Download Booster" feature that's supposed to combine Wi-Fi and LTE to make data transfers extra speedy, but that feature isn't available on most U.S. models of the phone (including the one I've been using).

Voice calls over AT&T's network have been peachy keen for me; folks with whom I've spoken have sounded loud and clear, and everyone's reported being able to hear me with zero distortion as well.

The Galaxy S5 supports near-field communication (NFC) for contact-free payments and data exchanges. The phone also has an IR blaster, which lets you use it as a remote for your TV and other home entertainment components.

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