Technology review: Samsung comes up shy of lofty goals for Galaxy S5

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Posted: Sunday, April 27, 2014 12:00 am

Just because Samsung is the world’s biggest smartphone maker doesn’t mean it makes the world’s best smartphones.

The company’s new Galaxy S5 is a case in point. It’s a decent device that includes a few neat features. But its design is pedestrian at best. Many of its new features don’t work very well. And its interface is cluttered and confusing.

The S5 has a large, beautiful screen and a fast processor. Although it’s somewhat larger and heavier than last year’s S4, it’s still fairly light and relatively easy to put in your pocket. It also features a larger, more powerful battery.

But it has the same rectangular shape with rounded corners and a plastic case similar to previous S-series phones, which look and feel cheap compared with HTC’s sleek aluminum-encased One. And despite the new battery, I found the S5 rapidly depleted its power. Even with moderate use, I was able to get through only a day without charging it.

Like many smartphone makers lately, Samsung has paid particular attention to the camera and related apps on the S5. Its rear camera has a 16-megapixel sensor, up from 13 megapixels in the S4. And it has a new autofocus system that’s supposed to be superfast — focusing on objects in less than a third of a second.

I wasn’t impressed with either of these improvements. The photos I took on the S5 weren’t noticeably better than those I’ve taken using the 8-megapixel sensor in my iPhone 5S. And the autofocus system was a dud in my tests; I found that the S5 often took a second or more to focus — or about the same time it takes on most other smartphones.

The S5 also has a new version of a feature called HDR, which stands for high-dynamic range and is supposed to help users take better photos of scenes that have a large contrast between light and dark areas. Unlike other smartphones, the S5 applies HDR in real time, rather than after-the-fact using a combination of photos. Because of that, there’s less chance that the resulting image will be blurry. I found the feature worked well in some situations but not others, such as a bright outdoor scene framed by an interior window.

Samsung has also added “Selective Focus,” which allows users to blur out everything but the subject or the background of the photo. It’s a neat trick that helps users create photos that look like ones they might take on a DSLR.

But Selective Focus isn’t as capable as a similar feature on HTC’s One, because it allows only two focal areas — less than one-and-a-half feet away and everything beyond that. If the nearest object is beyond 18 inches, the feature won’t work. And unlike on the One, there’s no way to focus on something in between the foreground and the background.

The S5 includes two new sensors — a fingerprint reader and a heartbeat monitor. As on Apple’s iPhone 5S, the fingerprint reader can be used as a security measure to unlock the phone and to log users into an account. S5 users can also use the sensor to make a payment with PayPal.

I’ve not been terribly happy with the fingerprint reader on my iPhone, but it puts the one on the S5 to shame. Samsung’s fingerprint sensor failed repeatedly. At best, I would get it to recognize my print on the second try. But quite often, it would fail so many times in a row that I’d be prompted to enter my password instead. I ended up turning it off because it was so unreliable.

The heart rate monitor was less aggravating. It’s essentially an additional LED light that’s built into S5’s camera flash component that reads your pulse when you place your finger over it. When sitting at my desk, it could detect my heart rate in just a few seconds.

But the sensor doesn’t work in the situation where you’d most want to use it — when you’re exercising. That’s because it requires you to stay still and quiet while it’s tracking your pulse.

One other feature of the S5 that Samsung touts is “Quick Connect,” which is a kind of central clearinghouse for wirelessly connecting the phone with other nearby devices, such as TVs, printers and computers. The feature not only detects those devices but automatically figures out how to connect to them. I used it to easily send a photo to my computer over Bluetooth and to beam one to my TV over Wi-Fi.

But the feature appears to work only with the S5’s native apps, not with third-party ones. So, for example, you can use Quick Connect to beam music to your entertainment system from Samsung’s own music app, but not from Google Play Music app.

The S5 has another “feature” that isn’t new but very annoying. It’s loaded with “crapware” — apps that you’re unlikely to use that come preinstalled at the behest of its carrier or marketing partners — and numerous duplicate applications, such as multiple browsers, email programs and even photo gallery apps. All those unnecessary apps — and the limited ability to sort, organize or in some cases delete them — help make the S5’s interface a frustrating mess.

Samsung says it was aiming for a more refined experience with the S5. I think it missed the mark. If you want a truly refined Android phone, I’d take a look at the HTC One instead.

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