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TheStreet Open House

Samsung Galaxy S5 Smartphone: Review

Stock quotes in this article: GOOG, NOK, AAPL, TMUS

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Before we get to the new Samsung flagship smartphone, we need to discuss Swiss Army knives. They started out life as simple devices that fit into a pocket. They contained very useful tools and they could be carried instead of having to lug around a separate tool box.

Over the years the knives began to morph into semi-portable hardware stores offering everything from rulers, a magnifying glass, flashlight and a flash drive for computer memory storage. Some of the new designs barely fit into a pocket or purse. The originally useful files, saws and screwdrivers are still buried inside the new designs. But by trying to be everything to everybody, Samsung has released a phone in which the sheer number of features begin to overshadow the really important ones.

Samsung's Galaxy S5 can be considered the Swiss Army knife of current smartphones. In this case, the hardware is terrific but the breadth and depth of the software inside is mind-numbing. For instance, do you really want or need a heart rate monitor or a pedometer in your cell phone? If you're really into the "healthier lifestyle," as Samsung suggests you might also want to stop walking/talking/texting on your smartphone and fully concentrate on your walking/running/cycling.

The Galaxy S5 is a Google (GOOG) Android smartphone which offers an amazing hardware package. There is a new, slightly larger 5.1-inch, 1080p, 2560 by 1440 (432 pixels/inch) Super AMOLED display, a fast 2.5 GHz, quad-core Qualcomm (QCOM) Snapdragon 801 processor (32-bit), 2 GB of RAM and a new 16 megapixel camera on the back.

On the outside, the new design is still plastic. Samsung is often criticized for sticking with a plastic outer shell to help minimize interference with all the two-way radio transmitters/receivers jammed inside (cellular, Wi-fi, Bluetooth, NFC, etc.). Plastic also keeps the overall weight down. On the other hand, the colorful plastic on Nokia (NOK) phones looks a lot better. The good looks of Apple's (AAPL) iPhone 5s and 5c and HTC's new One(M8) are in a totally different class.

Samsung's new phone, though, is dust and water resistant which the others can't yet match. There's even a metal flap over the new USB 2/3 charging port. Independent tests show the S5 to be pretty good at avoiding damage in an accidental, brief encounter with water. That same metal flap, however, does make it more difficult to plug in a charger.

Speaking of charging, I found the Galaxy S5's 2800 mAh battery pack was able to provide a full day's use on a nightly charge. But I was alarmed to see the battery gage draining more quickly than I would have liked while spending somewhat extended periods using the phone to talk, text or surf the Web.

Overall, the S5 is very fast. Web pages loaded quickly. The phone was able to play audio and video files without a glitch. The rear camera's auto focus feature was very fast and accurate. It took terrific photos and wonderful-looking videos. The S5 is capable of shooting Ultra HD, 4K (3840 by 2160 pixels) videos at 30 frames per second. The front-facing camera measures 2.1 megapixels.

Just below that rear lens is what looks like the camera flash. It is -- but it's also where you place your finger when using the heart rate monitor sensor. Follow the on-screen instructions and it works quite well. What doesn't work as well is Samsung's fingerprint security scanner system. The idea is to roll your finger over the hardware button on the front surface to unlock the phone. After a week of trying to get it to work I gave up. Apple's iPhone fingerprint system on the iPhone 5S works a whole lot better.

And then there's the software. The problem is not that the software is bad or malfunctions. It's just that there is so much of it that you begin to forget the important stuff.

Let's begin with Samsung's screen layout. It used to be called TouchWiz. Now it's unnamed. But it's still way too intrusive. Compared with how HTC has dialed back it's add-on interface, Samsung's is overpowering. It might want to change that in future models.

I think Samsung tries to make its Android phones "different" just for the sake of making them different. It doesn't always work. An example is something as simple as the "screen back" button. It has an arrow pointing left, symbolizing going back to the last page. Samsung puts that button on the right .

In another example, adding an additional home screen page is amazingly difficult on the S5. Instead of there being an easy-to-find button in the settings, you need to begin moving an on-screen icon before you can find the buried symbol for a new page. There's more to complain about but you get the idea. Lots of what Samsung offers is just not intuitive.

There are also the new fitness features and apps. The newly enhanced "S Health Tracker" software works with the phone -- in addition to Samsung's optional Galaxy Gear 2 and Gear Fit smartwatches -- to provide the user with all the health stuff the S5 can muster. I realize this will appeal to some buyers but question whether users will wear the wrist watch again to take full advantage of these healthy features. Maybe Apple smartwatches will do things differently.

To be fair, not all the software is awkward or unnecessary. There is the "Ultra Power Saving" Mode which, if switched-on, will begin a greyscale screen mode and offer the user only the most necessary apps until the battery can be recharged.

And there is something Samsung calls its "Download Booster" which allows you to combine the 4G/LTE and Wi-fi connections for super-fast downloads. Even without that boost, my Galaxy S5 sample was able to register downloads in the 40-to-45 Mbps range and uploads of more than 15 Mbps in various Manhattan locations using T-Mobile's (TMUS) LTE network. As a comparison, my Time Warner Cable connections hover in the neighborhood of 8 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up.

Overall, the Galaxy S5 is a wonderful smartphone. Hardware-wise it's a welcomed improvement over last year's Galaxy S4. As for the software, Samsung seems to think "more is more." I'm not sure that was the best choice.

In a perfect world, Samsung would begin slimming-down it's Touch Wiz interface, or get rid of it completely. The hardware is so good it would be great to try a S5 without the extra stuff. Hopefully we may not have to wait all that long. There's a rumored Galaxy S5 Google Play Edition in the works. Samsung hardware with stock Android software; the best of both worlds. It could turn out to be a killer combination.

-- Written by Gary Krakow in New York.

To submit a news tip, send an email to tips@thestreet.com.

Gary Krakow is TheStreet's Senior Technology Correspondent.

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