Samsung isn’t known for its restraint, but that’s what struck me most when spending time with the new Galaxy S5 smartphone and Gear Fit activity tracker.
Don’t get me wrong – the Galaxy S5 is still packed with more features than most smartphones and the Gear Fit shows more information onscreen than just about any other activity tracker. But there’s a bit more control here than Samsung has shown in the past, and it makes for devices that are relatively refined yet still exciting.
Let’s start with the Galaxy S5. There were leaks aplenty ahead of today’s announcement, and in a way, the GS5 fails to live up to some of the hype that surrounds it. I think that’s a good thing.
The display, for instance, measures 5.1 inches, a nearly imperceptible difference from the 5-inch Galaxy S4. And it features 1920 x 1080 resolution, the same as the GS4. That’s not what most of the rumors called for – I was expecting to see a “2K” display that measures at least 5.3 inches. But while that might sound more impressive, ultimately, I think what Samsung did is better for users.
5.1 inches means Samsung didn’t need to increase the size of the phone by much, so you can still handle it with one hand. If it had made the move to 5.3 inches or larger, Samsung would’ve created another “phablet” akin to the 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 3. And although the resolution hasn’t changed from the GS4, the Galaxy S5 features a custom image chip that automatically adjusts colors and contrast based on ambient lighting.
It did an excellent job showcasing the screen to its greatest advantage where I saw the phone: In a poorly lit demo room (it did such a good job, in fact, that I had to manually dial down the brightness on the phone because it kept on blowing out my camera pictures). And by not increasing the resolution, it also means the phone’s battery won’t suffer if the phone had to push more pixels.
Speaking of battery life, Samsung is using a 2,800mAh battery here, up from the 2,600mAh cell in the GS4. In addition to this, Samsung has implemented a battery sipping Ultra Power Saving mode, which will make the screen turn monochrome and double your remaining battery life when you battery level gets extremely low. Before that happens, though, Samsung says the phone can play back a whopping 12 hours of video or browse the Web for up to 10 hours over LTE on a single charge. That’s impressive.
I’m not a big fan of the phone’s overall look, but then again, I’ve never really been taken by the design of any Samsung handsets. Still, the all-plastic build is a bit disappointing, and there’s quite a bit of bezel action happening in all directions around the display. The perforated back pattern adds a little bit of visual interest, but the faux-chrome trim just looks cheesy. I got to check out the black version of the phone, but it comes in blue, white and gold variants as well.
The Galaxy S5 does possess one big design advantage over most other phones on the market: It’s rated IP 67 for dust and water resistance. That means you can submerge in up to 3 feet of water for 30 minutes without fear of moisture damage. There wasn’t a dunk tank on the premises to test this claim, so I’ll have to take Samsung’s word for it for now (though it should be noted that some of Samsung’s water-resistant Galaxy S4 Active smartphones had problems after being immersed in water).
The phone features an integrated fingerprint scanner in the home button, similar to Apple’s(s aapl) iPhone 5s. You can use this scanner to unlock the phone, or to authenticate purchases online. I didn’t get a chance to try the fingerprint scanner, but after seeing a demo of it at the press conference, I have to say, it looks a little complicated.
Unlike the iPhone’s scanner, which requires you to simply rest your finger on the home button, for the Galaxy S5 you must swipe your finger vertically over the sensor. Still, I’m intrigued by Samsung’s payment partnership to use the scanner with PayPal(s ebay), and I like using the feature to unlock my iPhone, so I hope Samsung’s sensor proves easier to use than it seems.
The Galaxy S5 is powered by a 2.5GHz Qualcomm(s qcom) MSM8974 processor, and everything about it feels fast. Screen transitions were smooth and apps opened instantaneously. I expected to see 3GB of RAM as opposed to just 2GB, but it doesn’t seem to have an effect on performance; I suspect the Galaxy S5 will be among the fastest phones available when it ships in April.
There’s also a 16-megapixel camera on the back of the phone. It can shoot 4K video and Samsung claims it has the world’s fastest autofocus. It was certainly quick to snap a photo, but I’m even more impressed with the way Samsung has simplified the camera interface.
Simplification is a big theme for the Galaxy S5’s software in general. The phone is running Android 4.4.2 KitKat, the latest version of Google’s mobile operating system. Samsung has cleaned up the interface considerably from its TouchWiz past. It still looks nothing like stock Android, but it also looks better than anything else I’ve seen from Samsung so far. I like Samsung’s new icons and its minimalist take on the Settings menu. There are still probably more settings to choose from here than you’ll find on any other smartphone, but the layout looks neat, clean and approachable.
There’s also a Kids Mode which restricts certain applications for children, and an Easy Mode which simplifies the phone for (presumably) adults. Samsung also includes its My Magazine UX here – it’s the Flipboard-like home screen Samsung introduced with the Galaxy Note 3.
Samsung is also looking to get into fitness tracking field with the Galaxy S5, with a heart rate monitor on the back of the phone that can read your pulse in five to ten seconds. I had no problem loading up S Health and tracking my pulse, which seemed relatively average amid the chaos of the demo room.
The phone also features an accelerometer, gyroscope, proximity sensor, compass and barometer. And it works with the Gear Fit to further help track your activity and bring phone notifications on your wrist.
A very attractive activity tracker
The Gear Fit is something of a cross between a smart watch and an activity tracker. Compared to an existing device, I’d say its closest relatively is the recently-recalled Fitbit Force.
The Gear Fit features a 1.84-inch curved display with 432 x 128 resolution. I wasn’t expecting much from the display, given most of the mediocre wearable screens currently on the market, but it actually looks pretty great. It packs in a sharp 244 pixels per inch, and the Super AMOLED display makes for really rich colors I had no trouble seeing from any angle.
Like the new Gear 2 smartwatch, the Gear Fit is powered by Tizen. You don’t need to have be familiar with Tizen to use it, though – all of the icons are clearly labeled and everything is easy to figure out. The rubber band makes the Fit comfortable to wear, though the large display does look a bit unwieldy — and I have a pretty big wrist.
There’s a heart rate monitor on the on the back of the device, which automatically tracks your heart rate as you wear it. It also features an accelerometer and gyroscope. Basically, it can track all of the same things as the Galaxy S5, but it does so automatically, and chances are you’ll be wearing the Gear Fit more often than you carry your phone, which makes the information it gathers more complete.
You can access some basic features on the Fit itself, like a timer and stopwatch. And you can jump into the settings menu to control things like brightness and background wallpaper. It also displays notifications from your phone, such as calls, emails and text messages, and you can use it to control music.
The Fit has a 210mAh battery, which is capable of up to 7 days of battery life, though Samsung says to expect closer to 3 to 4 days with regular usage. I think that the battery life might prove to be a little too short for some users, but I do think the Gear Fit is probably the most attractive fitness tracker I’ve seen so far.
I’ll be honest – during the announcement at Samsung’s press conference I found both of these devices to be pretty much as expected, and maybe even a little boring. But after getting a chance to check them spend some time with them I see it differently. These are still undoubtedly Samsung devices – just a little more grown up. And while they aren’t quite perfect, maturity definitely looks good on Samsung.