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The Samsung Galaxy S5: When a Committee Builds a Smartphone

April 10, 2014

Why do all the new, hotly awaited phones produce global sighs of disappointment?

Maybe it’s because phones have reached their final form. Their primary features have evolved as far as they’re going to go.

Or maybe it’s because Steve Jobs is gone. There’s nobody in that Driver’s Seat for the World, choosing the direction for the entire industry to follow. There’s no single source of decisions like “Cellphones will have touchscreens from now on,” or “The next big thing is the tablet,” or “The next important mobile feature is voice control.”

The Samsung Galaxy S5. (Photos by David Pogue/Yahoo Tech)

Exhibit A: The new Samsung Galaxy S5, which goes on sale tomorrow ($200 with a two-year contract from Sprint or AT&T; $200 for two from Verizon, with contract; $660 with no contract from T-Mobile). It’s the successor to last year’s very popular Galaxy S4. It’s a large, beautiful, fast phone that runs Google’s Android operating system. It’s one of many phones in this category. 

And if you had to characterize the direction Samsung has chosen for its new flagship phone — well, you couldn’t. There isn’t one.

Oh, there are a lot of nips and tucks, all welcome. And there are a couple of minor new hardware features. But current owners of last year’s Galaxy S4 model will not experience any obsolescence anxiety.

You know how Apple refines every other year’s iPhone instead of redesigning it (iPhone 4, iPhone 4s; iPhone 5, iPhone 5s…)? Well, if Apple had named this phone, it would have been called the Galaxy S4s.

The hardware: Giant, plastic, and waterproof 
The S5 looks almost exactly the same as last year’s model. It’s handsome, although its body is made of plastic. It’s not nearly as classy as the metal or glass of the iPhone or the HTC One (M8).

Plastic has its advantages, of course: It’s durable, it allows a good wireless signal to pass through, and it pops off easily when you want to replace the battery or insert a memory card (take that, iPhone!). The S5’s plastic back has little dimples that make it extra grippy. It just doesn’t look or feel as satisfying as its rivals.

The 5.1-inch screen is too big to operate with the hand that’s holding it, unless your thumb can stretch like Mrs. Incredible’s. But Samsung has a clever, if weird, fix for this: Among the Galaxy’s 732,852 features is one called “One-Handed Operation,” whose function is to shrink the screen so that you can reach all of it with your thumb. It leaves empty black areas around the shrunken image. Clever! But if you wanted a smaller screen, why would you have bought a big phone?)

But big is good when you’re looking at maps, photos, movies, and so on. They look especially good on the S5’s screen, which is bright and beautiful. (Samsung says that it looks uncommonly good in sunlight, but I couldn’t tell much difference; it’s fine at full brightness.)

The S5 is now reasonably waterproof. It can sit for up to 30 minutes three feet underwater, even turned on and operating, without blinking.

That’s a huge feature, considering that (a) the waterproofing doesn’t make the phone any thicker or bulkier, and (b) a shockingly high number of people will, at some point, drop their expensive phones into the toilet.

Actually, there’s one design penalty imposed by the waterproofing: The charging jack at the bottom is now sealed by a little plastic plug that you have to dig out with your fingernail each time you connect the USB cable. Sounds like a little thing, but it gets old in a hurry.

And Samsung has turned the Home button into a fingerprint reader, like the one on the iPhone 5s.

Actually, not like that one. It’s not nearly as good. The iPhone can learn five fingers; the Samsung only three. The iPhone doesn’t care about the angle of your finger; the Samsung requires you to place it perfectly straight every time, aligned with the screen. The iPhone reads your fingerprint with a touch on the Home button; the Samsung requires you to swipe your finger — the full height of your finger across the button.

The iPhone finger reader almost always works. The Samsung’s is moody in the extreme.

You can use your fingerprint to unlock the phone, to open a special private folder on the phone, or to make PayPal purchases without having to enter your name and password.

The other new hardware feature is a heartbeat sensor on the back, just under the camera lens. You’re supposed to hold your finger on the sensor and remain “calm and still”; after about 10 seconds, a readout says “72 bpm” or whatever. It works fine for me, although it can be balky. And, not to be a gift-horse mouth-looker, but it’s not entirely clear that a heart-rate calculator is just what the public has been clamoring for. 

Some excellent hardware news is that the battery has been beefed up; it holds 20 percent more juice than before. You’ll still have to charge this phone every night, but it’s much less likely to be dead by dinnertime.

The software: Get your junkware from the cloud
Samsung’s phone software has always been characterized by chaos, and apparently someone has finally decided to do something about it. The S4 came loaded with a junk drawer’s worth of apps that barely worked, like an app that purported to translate your voice into other languages but didn’t.

The S5 relegates them to a special app store where you can download them if you really want them — but in the meantime, they’re not gunking up your screens.

Samsung has done excellent work in the Settings screens. Now it has a search icon, so you can find a certain setting without having to know the name of the icon it’s hiding under.

And here’s a home run (if not a grand slam): “ultra power saving mode.” You turn it on when your battery is at death’s door. It shuts down all cellular data, background apps, and even color. All you can use is your phone, text messages, and maybe a couple of other apps that you choose. In this condition, Samsung says, even with only 10 percent battery remaining, you can coast for another 24 hours.

It’s a fantastically great idea. Too bad you have to turn it on yourself. If your phone is quietly burning through its battery because you forgot to turn it off on the plane, you’ll land with a dead phone. (The similar battery extender feature on the HTC One, by contrast, is automatic. It’s looking out for you even when you’re not.)

Also good: Samsung has incorporated something called Quick Connect, modeled on Apple’s AirDrop. It lets you create instant, impromptu phone-to-phone (or -to-tablet) connections for the purpose of sharing photos, business cards, or other morsels wirelessly.

What is gunking up your screens is Samsung’s usual not-fully-thought-through assemblage of app flotsam. Why do you need one app for Gmail and another for other kinds of email accounts? Why do you need two photo apps — one from Samsung, one from Google? Two Settings apps? Two text-messaging apps? Two video players?

This is the dark side of the Android experience: One company makes the hardware, another makes the software. Now they’re becoming rivals, and we can already see who the loser will be: you.

The camera
The S5’s camera takes excellent photos and movies, at least in good light. It focuses much faster now; Samsung says that’s because it has inherited phase-detection focusing, the same technology used in professional SLR cameras.

But the camera, too, has been Samsungized. It’s teeming with unhelpfully named filters and special effects that you’ll rarely use. Quick — what does the filter called “Shot & More” do?

One new mode purports to do what the Lytro camera does: let you take a picture first and then refocus it later. In fact, it creates only a “fake” effect, says a Samsung spokesman, and only on photos where the subject is very close to the lens and the background is very far. Even then, I could only rarely make it work, even when I followed the instructions to the letter.

Is nobody at Samsung authorized to pull the emergency stop cord on stuff like this?

Just a megalomaniac away from greatness
Overall, the sense you get of the S5 is that it was a dish prepared by a thousand cooks. It’s so crammed with features and options and palettes that it nearly sinks under its own weight. No instructions are provided for any of it. Some of it is obviously unfinished, as evidenced by chopped-off messages like this one:

This “More is better” philosophy smacks of insecurity. (So does Samsung’s shameful attempt to cheat on phone benchmarks, as it did last year in hopes of looking better in reviewers’ speed tests. It’s no longer doing that.)

The thing is, Samsung doesn’t need to be so insecure. The phone is terrific. The audio quality is good, the screen lovely, the camera state of the art. And despite having a removable cover, removable battery, and removable memory card, the S5 is nonetheless waterproof. That’s amazing!

So why does the company feel compelled to shovel on these gimmicks that never worked and never will — that few will use, that weigh down the phone with clutter? Why can’t the company appoint a Steve Jobs — somebody with a certain amount of taste and the authority to say, “That’s a horrible design,” or “We really don’t need two different email programs and two different photo apps”?

Among Android phones, the S5 joins the HTC One (M8) (shown below) at the top of the heap. The HTC is much better looking, it has superior speakers, and it gives you twice the storage for the same price (32 gigabytes instead of 16); its one weakness is the camera, which isn’t as good as Samsung’s.

The HTC One (M8)

In short, Samsung clearly has no problem coming up with stuff to put into its phones. The challenge, as Jobs once said, is “knowing what to leave out.” 

You can email David Pogue here. For all the latest tech news and reviews, follow Yahoo Tech on Facebook right here