Review: Samsung Galaxy S5 Is Its Best Smartphone Yet

Protection from water and dirt, iron-clad security, new UI features and a vastly improved camera experience make the Galaxy S5 Samsung's best smartphone yet, and well worth the investment or upgrade. It's built around some of today's most powerful processor hardware and is running the latest Android and TouchWiz software, both of which deliver plenty of whiz-bang for the buck.

One of the Galaxy S5's most remarkable new features is its IP67 rating for ingress protection. You'd never know to look at it, but this sleek-looking unit is impervious to dust (with a 6 out of 6 rating) and almost completely waterproof. Its 7 out of 9 rating means that it can be sprayed with water from any direction for three minutes without incurring damage. It felt oddly foreign at first to allow this elegant device to become completely submerged in water. But as dedicated product testers, duty demanded that we bring the Galaxy S5 on two rafting trips, including one down the Rio Grande.

When removing the USB charging connector, a dialog pops up to remind you to reseal the charger port. It's one thing to seal that port behind an O-ringed cover, but it's quite another to see the headphone jack, mics and speakers exposed to the elements with no obvious protection whatsoever. Yet all continued to function normally, despite being submerged and removed from the water for about hours at a time. We're now confident that the Galaxy S5 is impervious to this kind of treatment. It even continued to record video and audio when submerged in a hot tub. The inside of the cover remained bone dry at all times.

Building on the Galaxy S5's durability is its use of the USB 3.0 Micro-B connector, which serves for charging, data transfers up to 5 Mbps and connections to monitors and other devices via the MHL 2.0 spec. The new Micro-B (which also is used on the Galaxy Note 3) is about twice as wide as the USB 2.0 micro-B plug of previous models, of which we've been critical for its potential for damage. Despite being the same thickness as USB 2.0 connector, the width of the USB 3.0 plug instills a bit more confidence in its durability.

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A bit more about the hardware. The Galaxy S5 contains Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 801 SoC, with a 32-bit quad-core processor running at 2.5GHz and 2 GB of RAM. There's also an Adreno 330 GPU, which Qualcomm says delivers 50 percent better performance than the Adreno 320 in the Galaxy S4. It supports OpenGL 3.0, DirectX and other modern graphics APIs, as well as FlexRender, an emerging distributed architecture standard used for displaying highly realistic ray trace images. The bottom line: The Galaxy S5 is an animal. It's available with either 16 or 32 GB of storage, and can add as much as 128 GB more with its microSD card slot.

It's also a star in the communications department. In addition to infrared and NFC, the Galaxy S5 is the first device of its kind (according to Samsung) with two Wi-Fi antennas, effectively doubling transfer rates on compatible infrastructure. It also employs 802.11 ac, which in time will offer Wi-Fi approaching 1 Gbps. In the meantime, the device can bond Wi-Fi and 4G communications for download speeds up to 450 Mbps, and with carrier support also can boost downloads by bonding 4G channels from multiple towers simultaneously. It's available on all major carriers, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon.

When the full-HD display of the Galaxy S4 came out, we thought its 5-inch Super active-matrix organic LED (AMOLED) would be hard to beat. And while the Galaxy S5's 5.1-inch display offers the same 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, it's about 50 percent brighter at 450 nits (vs. 300) and it can dim to around 2 nits for stealth viewing in super-dark settings. The Galaxy S5's larger glass dropped its pixel-per-inch stat to 432 (from 441). Samsung compensates for its zaftig nature with a one-handed operation mode, which shrinks what's displayed on the screen by about 25 percent and virtualizes the phone's physical buttons. The feature is invoked with a back-and-forth flick from the either long edge of the screen.

The Galaxy S5 includes a 16-megapixel main camera that can capture 5,312 x 2,988 pixel images at maximum (the front camera is still 2 megapixel). Samsung delivers a vastly improved picture-taking experience plus lots of new on-camera photo editing capabilities. Firstly, all camera settings are presented in a single panel that's editable for feature positioning. To manage file size, the camera also can operate in 6-, 8-, 9- and 12-megapixel modes with aspect ratios of 1:1, 4:3 and 16:9. All settings are visible in the panel. An ISO control adds settings between 100 and 800 to the automatic control. Digital stabilization is available for still and motion video; a time-lapse setting can achieve slow- and fast-motion photography. Using one-eighth setting, we were able to capture the flapping wings of a hummingbird.

Once photos are taken, the Galaxy S5 can resize, crop and rotate the images, as well as adjust their contrast, brightness, tone, saturation, hue and individual red, green and blue levels on all or part of an image. It's not PhotoShop, but it does provide control over enough image settings to be useful to amateurs and pros. There's also a decoration mode for adding vignette effects and image art ranging from creative to wacky. As with the Galaxy S4, there's also the ability to shoot with both cameras at once for various multiview effects. A burst mode can be used for best shot, drama shots, panning, eraser mode and other visual effects. This is the mode we used to capture the hummingbird in various stages of flight and light.

To its already impressive list of sensors, the Galaxy S5 adds a pedometer, a heart-rate monitor, and probes for humidity, barometric pressure and proximity, plus gesture and magnetic hall sensors for accessories. As in prior models, it also has an accelerometer, gyroscope, compass and ambient light sensors. Also significant for the enterprise, a new fingerprint scanner is implemented as a Synaptics Natural ID capacitive sensing device within the Home button. Beyond simple device access, Samsung permits the device to be used for authentication in commerce apps and to privatize portions of device storage. However, we'd wait for further refinements; it had trouble recognizing our prints without several swipes.

The Galaxy S5 runs Android 4.4.2 Kit Kat, the most refined and mature version to date. It's also running the latest version of TouchWiz, Samsung's excellent UI overlay. The Samsung Galaxy S5 is its best smartphone yet; it began shipping in April for around $200 with a contract.