Hands on: Samsung Galaxy S5 review

If Samsung hadn't hinted enough with its 'Unpacked 5' press invitation, it used MWC 2014 to unveil the long-awaited Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone.

The internet has been awash with rumours for the best part of six months as to what it would bring, so we got hands on with it at the show to see how many of them were realised.

Samsung Galaxy S5: design

If you thought this might be the year that Samsung goes metal, you're out of luck. The Samsung Galaxy S5 is still plastic and proud, with a soft-touch, almost rubbery feeling polycarbonate back panel, with a love-it-or-hate-it dimpled finish.

It feels nice to the touch, but we're not sure the overall look is one you'd expect on a high-end smartphone. We'll leave that down to you to decide.

From the front, there isn't a lot to set the S5 apart from the S4 - the screen is a tiny bit bigger at 5.1in, and despite a few centrimetres change in dimension, the overall device feels no bigger. It sits in the hand nicely and is generally usable with one hand, though we did find some tweaks in the menu that further improve one-handed usability.

In a shock move for an industry that is all about going slimmer and lighter - Samsung has actually made the S5 thicker and heavier than the S4.

MORE: Samsung Galaxy S4 review

That said, the thickness is negligable - 7.9mm in the S4 up to 8.1mm in the S5, and we'd imagine the 15g difference between them would only be noticable in an in-hand weigh-off too.

Samsung has taken a note out of Sony's book and made the Galaxy S5 the first smartphone in its Galaxy range to be waterproof and dustproof - features we'll always take in a device that comes everywhere with us.

The S5 will come in four colours at launch – black, white, blue and gold.

Samsung Galaxy S5: interface

Whether Samsung has really pushed forward and innovated with its hardware design might well be questionable, but in its quest to "get back to basics", it has instead turned its focus to the internal runnings of the S5. And to good results.

Samsung's Touchwiz UI skin, which sits over the top of Google's Android operating system, has, for a while, been a rather overbearing experience. Too many animations and flourishes made a rather simplistic operating system a slightly confusing experience, not to mention the fact its devices were also filled with bloatware up to the eyeballs.

And so to a new era. Take one look at the S5's stripped back Touchwiz and it's a refreshing experience – its new design feels much closer to that of vanilla Android. Samsung apps are still present, there are fewer and they're a lot less in your face. It's a welcome change, and makes Samsung's UI look fresh and exciting again.

Samsung Galaxy S5: screen

We've already mentioned the slight bump in screen – up from 5in to 5.1in – and elsewhere things stay largely the same as well. The screen resolution doesn't get that rumoured boost to 2K QHD screen, and instead stays the same at 1920 x 1080.

That's not a bad thing – the screen still looks beautifully crisp and is as bright and vibrant as we've come to expect from Samsung screens. But we always like to see screen tech get pushed forwards, and it was one of the rumours we were most excited about. Maybe in the Galaxy S6, eh?

Samsung Galaxy S5: performance and connectivity

The Galaxy S5 comes with a speedy 2.5GHz quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM at its heart, which made it smooth and lag free during our incessant swiping, tapping and opening in our short time with it.

An impressive boast from Samsung is the Galaxy S5's claimed battery life. With its 2800mAh battery, it says you'll get 12 hours of video playback or 10 hours of 4G/LTE browsing.

And for those times when things get really hairy, Samsung offers an ultra power saving mode that should keep you in juice for as long as 24 hours when you're at 10%. You'll have to kiss goodbye anything but essential services, and even your screen will go black and white, but it's a nice feature to have if you really need it.

Of course, with its swiftly becoming unique removeable back cover, power users can always carry a second battery for swapping in when juice gets low. It's under this cover you'll also find the microSD card slot for boosting the built-in storage.

Finally, another nice touch for power users is the Download Booster, which allows you to combine your 4G and wi-fi signals for quicker downloads. We didn't get to test it out, but Samsung claims you could download a 1GB file in as quick as 30 seconds. We'll let you know more in our full review.

Samsung Galaxy S5: features

Samsung has made the wise decision and pulled back on a lot of the gimmicky features that were loaded onto the S4. They might have looked impressive on paper, but they were largely pointless in day to day use, bar the odd few.

It has stuck with the fitness theme we saw blossom on the Galaxy S3, and the S5 now comes with its own built-in heart rate monitor, which sits just below the camera on the back of the phone. Load up the S Health 3.0 app, rest your finger on the monitor for 10 seconds or so and it'll measure your heart rate, and save it so you can see how it changes over time.

This app also offers things we've seen before, like a pedometer and activity tracker, plus a whole food library so you're able to track calories eaten and calories burned for those on a health kick.

The other big new headline feature is the fingerprint scanner, which takes a leaf from Apple's book and sits inside the S5's home button. It allows you to unlock your phone and works with a number of other privacy features, but best is Samsung's deal with Paypal, meaning you can pay for online purchases using nothing but your chosen digit.

Registering a fingerprint is easy, and just requires you to swipe your fingerprint eight times for it to be registered and stored. We tried it out and it recognised our fingerprint every time – the only difference to Apple's is that it's a downwards swipe over the button rather than just a tap.

As for music, there are no particular improvements in that sector on the S5. No sign of high-res audio like LG is championing or the noise-cancelling features that Sony has introduced. All the same, we'll be testing its musical capabilities in our full review.

Samsung Galaxy S5: camera

Smartphone cameras are becoming big business, with companies focusing on improving everything, from sensors to low light photography.

Samsung has packed a 16MP into the Galaxy S5, with a few interesting new features of note, which stand out from the already packed features and modes found in Samsung's camera app.

First up is the new real-time HDR mode. HDR is something you'll find on many other phones, but you'll have to wait until after the photo is taken to see the results. With the Galaxy S5, you can hold the phone up with this mode switched on and see immediately how the HDR will improve your photo, usually used in instances of bright sunlight to ensure your subject doesn't come out looking dark.

The other interesting effect is the selective focus mode, which allows you to shoot something in the foreground (no more than 70cm away), and after the photo is taken, you can adjust to refocus on the subject, the background or on both – a bit like Lytro cameras allow you to do.

It takes a few seconds to process the photo and you'll have to keep still while it does as it takes a couple of photos and merges them into one in order to work. But we did find it worked effectively, with the ability to flick between the focuses easy. The photos it produced looked lovely too - the question as to how often you'd use it is always one to consider. It's certainly a 'nice extra' rather than a serious USP.

When in auto mode, the camera is seriously fast. Though we couldn't time Samsung's claim of a 0.3 second auto-focus exactly, it certainly snapped our pictures without delay. We have to say too, the photos we took in our conference hall surroundings came out looking really nice, with colours both well balanced and well judged and outline sharp. More extensive testing in instances of low light and outdoor photography will be something for the full review.

Like the Sony Xperia Z2, there's also 4K filming at 30fps on board, though of course you'll need a 4K TV to be able to watch the footage back in all its 3840 x 2160 glory.

Samsung Galaxy S5: first impressions

The Samsung Galaxy S5 is a bit of a mixed bag in terms of innovation – there's been some great moves forward for Samsung in terms of its user experience and some superb features, that might actually prove useful unlike in previous iterations. There's also a great camera, 4K filming and a processor that shouldn't leave anyone wanting.

But for some, the plastic, largely unchanged design will be a big put-off for those in search of a premium device, plus the unfulfilled rumours of such great screen innovation may make its S4-matching full HD screen somehow seem a little disappointing.

We can't knock Samsung for the direction it's going though, and we like overiding message of the S5 much more than we did the S4. It already leaves us wondering whether the S6 will be the Galaxy device we've been waiting for.

Of course, the public will be the true test when the phone goes on sale on April 11th, and while the internet may be in backlash mode right now, we'd suspect that Samsung may well have another bestseller on its hands before you know it.

MORE: Sony Xperia Z2 hands on review

MORE: MWC 2014 latest news, phones and tablets

By Verity Burns

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Verity Burns

Verity is a freelance technology journalist and former Multimedia Editor at What Hi-Fi?. 

Having chalked up more than 15 years in the industry, she has covered the highs and lows across the breadth of consumer tech, sometimes travelling to the other side of the world to do so. With a specialism in audio and TV, however, it means she's managed to spend a lot of time watching films and listening to music in the name of "work".

You'll occasionally catch her on BBC Radio commenting on the latest tech news stories, and always find her in the living room, tweaking terrible TV settings at parties.