There's a lot to like about Samsung's new Galaxy S5 smartphone -among them, its relative lack of features.
get me wrong. The company's new flagship smartphone has plenty of
innovations, including water resistance, a heart rate sensor and a
fingerprint reader to bypass security passcodes. The screen measures 5.1
inches diagonally, which is slightly larger than its predecessor's 5
inches and much bigger than the iPhone's 4 inches. The S5's camera is
capable of taking 16 megapixel images, an improvement from 13 megapixels
in last year's Galaxy S4 (Review I Pictures).
What's most notable, though, is
Samsung's decision to focus on features people might actually want. Some
of the S4's features - such as automatic scrolling of content when you
tilt your phone or head - came across as clutter or gimmicks that often
didn't work as advertised.
Samsung also simplified the phone's
interface. Like other Android phones, the Galaxy S5 is still more complex to
use than Apple's iPhone, but the flip side is you get many more ways to
customize it, including the ability to unlock a phone by drawing a
pattern on the screen rather than using a passcode. In the S5, Samsung
plays down or removes many of the S4's less useful features, while
rearranging the settings and layouts to make things easier to find.
phone goes on sale Friday around the world, though a few carriers in
Korea released it early. Through the major U.S. carriers, it will cost
about $200 with a two-year service agreement or $600 to $660 without
Samsung is emphasizing fitness activities in its latest phone.
heart rate sensor, located on the back just below the camera lens,
doesn't measure your pulse continuously. Rather, you have to hold your
finger on the sensor for about five seconds before and after your
activity. The information gets stored in Samsung's S Health app. Other
app developers can make use of the sensor, too.
If you need
continuous tracking, Samsung has three fitness-focused wrist devices out
Friday. They sync with the S5 and other Samsung phones to give you a
broader snapshot of your activities. I'll be reviewing those features
separately after I've had a chance to use the phone for more than an
In keeping with the fitness focus, Samsung also offers
water resistance, meaning you can submerge it as much as 3 feet deep for
up to 30 minutes. You can splash away by the pool, or sweat on it
during a run.
Sony Corp. goes further in letting you dunk its
latest Xperia phones up to 4.5 feet deep, but multiple plastic covers
must be intact to get the protection. With the S5, there's only one
cover to worry about, plus the phone's removable plastic back. The S5
isn't meant for underwater use, but I was still able to take photos and
listen to audio.
The camera's 16 megapixel resolution brings the
S5 closer to what stand-alone cameras offer, though the megapixel count
is just one factor. In my limited tests, many indoor shots came out
blurrier compared with the 8-megapixel iPhone 5s (Pictures). I'll be reviewing the
camera features more extensively.
For now, I'll point out that the
camera interface is simplified. With the S4, I would often turn on
special modes and features by mistake and miss the shot trying to turn
them off. The S5 reduces your choices or at least hides many of them.
For instance, one button combines many of the previous choices and
offers you the relevant ones based on circumstances. The S5 also
promises a faster auto-focus, though it'll take time to test that
The fingerprint reader is what excites me most about the
S5. When it arrived on the iPhone 5s last fall, I had a lot of fun using
the fingerprint reader to unlock the phone without needing to punch in a
To set it up on the S5, you simply swipe your
finger over the home button eight times. You can do it with up to three
fingers. The device recognizes my print when I swipe it sideways or
upside down. It even works after handling oily Indian bread, though the
phone drew a line after I dipped my finger in grease. It chided me to
clean the surface and my finger.
The S5 goes further than the
iPhone in letting you use your fingerprint to buy things at retail
stores that accept PayPal's mobile app. You swipe the sensor instead of
entering your passcode.
(Also see: Samsung Galaxy S5 fingerprint sensor certified for PayPal support)
Your fingerprint can also be used to
unlock a new, private mode on the phone. When you exit that mode, photos
and other documents you designate as sensitive are hidden as if they
Some people may be concerned about losing their
fingerprint identity to hackers. Unlike passcodes, fingerprints can't be
changed. I'll just note that it's optional, and you can still use
passcodes the way you always have. Like Apple, Samsung keeps the
fingerprint ID in a secured part of the phone, so it never goes to any
servers. When PayPal needs to verify an identity, the phone simply tells
PayPal's app about the match, without needing to send the print ID.
will also appreciate a kids mode filled with age-specific apps for each
child. But to leave kids mode, all you have to do is enter a birth year
that's 2001 or before. The app is even helpful enough to tell the kid
to pick an age older than 13. You'll need to pay $5 a month for a
premium service that includes a real passcode, not just your birth year.
area where Samsung phones still fall short is in their construction.
Although the removable plastic back makes it possible to replace the
battery, it comes across as cheap next to the iPhone's glass back and
the HTC One's metal body.
And Samsung hasn't completely removed
all the clutter. There are still two separate apps to listen to music,
watch video and buy apps. The S5 comes with the standard Google apps for
Android, but Samsung Electronics Co. loads its own, too.
These aren't huge shortcomings. There's more to like than not.
The S5 isn't the only good smartphone out there, but there's enough in it to give Samsung another hit.