Samsung Galaxy S5 review

Can the Galaxy S5 still be considered a viable buy?

Samsung Galaxy S5 review
It might not look like much, but the S5 is a very capable smartphone

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I've always played it safe when talking about the design of a Samsung phone. The Galaxy S2, the brand's first big hitter, was made mostly of plastic and still was one of our very few five star phones, after all.

That said, year after year, Samsung has failed to bring out something that wows where the rest of the competition has seen this as a key battleground.

HTC is the frontrunner here with the metal unibody design of the One M8, and Apple has maintained its position at the sharp end of design ever since the launch of the iPhone 4 - and has jumped forward again with the iPhone 6.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

Happy as a phone in mud

Sony's efforts with its Z range have culminated in the industrially-designed Xperia Z3 and even Nokia has been toying with aluminium to make things feel a little more premium.

All of this makes me curious: why is Samsung refusing to give the consumers what they want… namely, a metal chassis?

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

It's plastic, not metal

There are a few possible reasons: cost of manufacture could be too high, especially at the volume Samsung spits them out at, Samsung likes to keep things lighter, waterproofing with a metal shell could have been trickier.

However, none of these arguments really holds water, given Apple does the same with a metallic phone, balanced handsets are better than lighter ones and Sony's Xperia Z range has combined metal and water without a problem.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

A bright and clear screen

The Samsung Galaxy S5 is a more solid phone than the Galaxy S4, that's for sure, and looks more well-packaged thanks to the wider back and the grippier, pock-marked battery cover.

However, it doesn't look like a cutting edge smartphone. It seems more akin to the product of a Galaxy Note 3 and the S4, with the metal-effect band around the outside subconsciously making me search for an S Pen.

The Samsung Galaxy Alpha is an interesting proposition, following Nokia's lead of encasing a polycarbonate body in a metallic rim, a la the Nokia Lumia 930. It seems odd Samsung didn't think to do the same with the S5 - it's hardly a new concept - and would have given the phone a much bigger selling point.

The rear of the phone isn't something that wows either. While I think the comparisons to a sticking plaster are a little cruel, it does share a more 'medical' feel, especially in the white colour.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

Gold, white, black and blue

The blue and copper options are more attractive, but still don't have anywhere near the appeal of the likes of the HTC One M8.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

White is particularly uninspiring, looking quite medical

With the larger screen on board, Samsung's still managed to keep things well in proportion. Although the chassis is larger, it's not unmanageably so, although if you're coming from an older iPhone, you might find it a little tricky to move up.

Those that have previously been fans of the Samsung Galaxy range before will find a lot to like here though. The home button – which now houses the fingerprint scanner, remember – is solid and easy to press, and the power key remains on the right-hand side of the phone, raised slightly and very easy to hit.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

The screen is clear even in daylight

The same can be said of the volume key on the right, although as the handset has increased in height I found it a little harder to get to this area when I wanted to change the level on music when walking along.

One of the key changes to the Galaxy S5 is the fact that it's now water-resistant, with IP67 rating meaning you can dunk it water for a short while, although going swimming with it isn't advised.

It's also dust resistant too, which makes the uncovered headphone port all the more impressive as it makes the S5 much easier to use without having to pull open a flap to listen to some tunes.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

The water and dust cover is tricky to open

The USB 3.0 connection – which will look odd to some, but is the same used in the Galaxy Note 3 to give more power quickly while still allowing standard microUSB cables to be used – is covered to facilitate this IP rating, and it's a little stiff to get off.

The groove to get your nail in to open it is quite small, and might be the only thing that irks those looking to get their hands on the best Galaxy phone and don't care much about it being waterproof.

The capacitive buttons still flank the home key as before, but are slightly different now. Gone is the menu key, replaced by the multi-tasking button that seems to be Google's new favourite in Android 4.4.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

The capacitive buttons have been tweaked

You can still use this as the menu key with a long press, but it doesn't work intuitively and the distance from the right-hand side, where the right-handed will predominantly have their digits, is a little too far.

It's not a bad system though, and the presence of a physical home button, while less necessary than before, still provides welcome tactility.

The other big design win Samsung still maintains with the Galaxy S5 is a removable battery. This is mostly for peace of mind nowadays, given that the battery life is so good on the S5, but if you're worried about failure then this is a good option.

It also means the ugly FCC regulation stamp can be hidden from view, and you won't need a SIM tool to get your card out – plus it's easier to pop in a microSD card too.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

Muddy water still got in under the cover, but not into the port

The cover does give me slight cause for concern when you consider it from a water-resistant point of view, as it can be hard to make sure all the clips are securely fastened when snapping it back on.

A warning message does come up on the screen to remind you of this, but it can take a couple of passes to make sure it's completely fixed on.

If you look under the battery cover, you'll see that the battery is protected by a tight ring of rubber - if you've just dunked it in water, it's a little disconcerting to see how much fluid is in the phone already... but this seems to be fine.

I did worryingly notice some grit got into the home key, but after an hour or two it seemed to dislodge itself, although it doesn't make me think this phone is really that dustproof.

Samsung Galaxy S5 review

Put it on stones, drizzle it in water. It'll be fine.

Overall, the design of the Samsung Galaxy S5 is likely to be the area that receives the most criticism, and for good reason.

It doesn't command a premium feel in the hand like so many other high-end phones on the market, and while some will point to how strong and high-quality the polycarbonate used is, it still pales in comparison to the competition.

Yes, it's lighter and probably more hard-wearing (you're much less likely to need a case with the Galaxy S5, for instance) but this is the biggest pain point for Samsung and it's one that it needs to improve with the Galaxy S6.

Gareth Beavis
Formerly Global Editor in Chief

Gareth has been part of the consumer technology world in a career spanning three decades. He started life as a staff writer on the fledgling TechRadar, and has grown with the site (primarily as phones, tablets and wearables editor) until becoming Global Editor in Chief in 2018. Gareth has written over 4,000 articles for TechRadar, has contributed expert insight to a number of other publications, chaired panels on zeitgeist technologies, presented at the Gadget Show Live as well as representing the brand on TV and radio for multiple channels including Sky, BBC, ITV and Al-Jazeera. Passionate about fitness, he can bore anyone rigid about stress management, sleep tracking, heart rate variance as well as bemoaning something about the latest iPhone, Galaxy or OLED TV.