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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Cameras

Samsung's Galaxy S5 features a 16-megapixel rear-facing camera that's capable of taking some great-looking photos. Like most smartphone shooters, it can be hit and miss -- some shots end up overexposed and washed out, while others look dark or have unnatural coloring -- but all in all, it's a solid setup that should be more than sufficient for most photo-taking purposes.

Even without optical image stabilization, the Galaxy S5 does respectably well in low-light conditions -- an area where many smartphone cameras struggle. It's not quite at the level of the HTC One (M8) in that domain, but it holds its own and manages to deliver usable images even in fairly dark environments.

(You don't have to take my word for it: I put together a detailed gallery of Galaxy S5 and One (M8) comparison photos so you can see how both phones perform for yourself.)

Samsung claims the Galaxy S5 has "the world's fastest auto-focus speeds," but the One (M8) is significantly snappier at focusing and capturing photos. As I noted in my comparison gallery, the GS5 is by no means slow, but the One is practically instantaneous. When you use the phones side by side, it's a noticeable difference.

The GS5 also occasionally does a strange thing where it shows a progress ring on the screen after you press the shutter icon and then takes a full three to five seconds to finish capturing the image. As you can imagine, that's anything but ideal when you're in the midst of a photogenic moment.

The Galaxy S5's camera interface is rather cluttered and confusing compared to what's present on other phones, but it does have a decent array of shooting modes and options available for those who want them -- including a burst mode, where you can hold down the shutter icon to capture multiple images in a rapid-fire style, and an HDR mode that can help improve the look of outdoor shots.

The phone also has a new Selective Focus mode that aims to emulate the type of background-blurring effect provided by the One (M8)'s dual camera setup. Here, though, you have to think ahead and enable the mode in advance for it to work -- and even then, it's unreliable. I tried using it in numerous shots where an object was clearly in the foreground and the phone was rarely able to detect the object and process the image properly.

The Galaxy S5 can capture both 1080p and 4K-quality video. It offers several options for improving the quality of your videos, too, including a video stabilization setting and a video-specific HDR mode.

The GS5's front-facing camera, meanwhile, can capture 1080p-quality HD video along with 2-megapixel photos.

The software

The Galaxy S5 runs a new version of Samsung's custom TouchWiz software, which is based on Google's Android 4.4.2 KitKat operating system.

Samsung Galaxy S5
The menu is so complex that the only reasonable way to find what you need is to use the newly implemented search function.

While early speculation suggested Samsung might scale back and simplify its software with the GS5, the actual evolution is far less dramatic than many were anticipating. There are changes here and there, most notably within Samsung's suite of preloaded apps, but overall, the software is the same garish mishmash of conflicting styles and overwhelming elements we've grown accustomed to seeing from the company. As I opined in an editorial earlier this week, focus, taste and restraint just don't seem to be in Samsung's DNA.

The GS5's revamped settings section pretty much says it all: Samsung has created an interface that's so visually overwhelming, it's almost comical. The menu is so complex that the only reasonable way to find what you need is to use the newly implemented search function. (Hint: If your settings are complicated enough that you need a search function for users to be able to navigate them, you might be doing something wrong.)

Ironically, Samsung's marketing tagline for the Galaxy S5 is "back to the basics." In reality, the only thing basic about the GS5's software is the fact that not many new circus tricks have been added into the mix. Most of the old, rather silly stuff -- wave here to do this, roll your eyes four times to do that and so forth -- is still there, as are many of the superfluous Samsung services like S Voice, the Samsung app store and the Samsung Web browser.

All of those services overlap with their also-present (and universally superior) native Android equivalents. In all, the phone ships with two app stores, two Web browsers, two voice assistant services, two photo galleries, three music-playing services and four messaging services (!). I can't even imagine how a novice user would make heads or tails of any of it.

Samsung has also added its My Magazine feature into the home screen, which feels like a half-baked and hastily implemented response to HTC's BlinkFeed news-reading service. The feature lives on the left-most panel of the home screen and shows you a small handful of news headlines; when you tap on any headline, you're taken into the regular Flipboard app. The whole thing is pretty pointless, but it's at least easy enough to disable.

Amidst all the clutter are a few genuinely useful features that have been carried over from past Samsung products. The company's Multi Window option is in place, for instance, if you ever want to view two apps side by side on your screen at the same time. It still works only with a handful of apps, but the selection includes quite a few commonly used programs like YouTube, Gmail and Facebook. The phone's pedometer feature, which works with varying accuracy, is also still present.

The problem is that, like past Samsung devices, the Galaxy S5 feels like a bloated and incohesive mess. Samsung may be saying it's going "back to the basics," but it needs to actually do that soon if it wants to stop falling behind other Android manufacturers when it comes to user experience.

Bottom line

No question: The Galaxy S5 has some good things going for it. The phone boasts an excellent display, superb battery life and a respectable camera. It's water-resistant, too, which is a relatively unusual trait in smartphones today.

But Samsung's weaknesses hold the GS5 back in some meaningful ways -- ways in which other manufacturers are currently thriving. The phone feels cheaply made, it's unnecessarily large with no accompanying benefit to the bulk and its software is cluttered and visually inconsistent. Beyond all of that, there's just nothing about the device that sets it apart or makes it feel particularly special.

If the Galaxy S5 existed in a world of its own, it'd look pretty darn impressive. The problem is that the real world isn't so one-dimensional -- and when you start making comparisons, Samsung's "next big thing" looks a lot less grand.

This article, Galaxy S5 deep-dive review: Better, but not up to the hype, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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