There were a number of big smartphone announcements today, but in the end, all eyes were on Samsung to see what it would do for the Galaxy S5, the latest in its incredibly popular line of phones. The device is bigger, faster, and more powerful than ever, but like usual, Samsung is hoping that some of its phones' more unique features — like a heart-rate monitor and fingerprint scanner — will help it to stand out. We're taking a look at the top smartphones around to see whether or not those features will be enough.
The Galaxy S5 stays neck-and-neck with Sony's Xperia Z2
First thing's first: the Galaxy S5 is plenty capable when it comes to speed. It has a (still-unnamed) 2.5GHz processor and 2GB of RAM to back it up. That's not necessarily a huge jump from the Galaxy S4, which had a 1.9GHz processor and 2GB of RAM, but it's enough to put the S5 on par with most of the latest flagship phones, including the Google's Nexus 5 and Nokia's Lumia Icon.
The S5's most interesting competitor on performance is Sony's Xperia Z2, which was announced just hours before it. The Z2 is using one of Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 801 processors running at 2.3GHz; it's hard to compare that precisely to the S5 without knowing the latter's exact model, but presumably Sony and Samsung have taken two slightly different means to the same end. Sony, however, has included 3GB of RAM, which certainly gives the Z2 an edge. (Update: Qualcomm has since announced that Samsung is using a Snapdragon 801 as well, likely in the primary model of the device. The slower speed on Sony's could indicate it's hoping to conserve battery life while Samsung is looking for a slight edge in performance, though it's a small difference in the end and only makes the Z2's extra RAM an even more notable distinction.)
Of course, once a smartphone can perform well enough, the next big differentiator is what's holding all of that power. For the Galaxy S5, it's all behind a 5.1-inch 1080p display (measuring a dense 432 pixels per inch) in a slightly larger body than last year's Galaxy S4. For better or worse, it's once again using a Super AMOLED display, and it doesn't look much different from the Galaxy S4's. You'll want to expect some bright and catchy colors — even when they shouldn't be there.
That puts the Galaxy S5 in an interesting position against its latest competitors. The Nexus 5 has a great 445PPI display, but it can look a little washed out. The Xperia Z2, on the other hand, is using a new IPS display that Sony says has the widest color gamut on the market — and our initial impressions were that it looked quite good. The Z2 also includes a 1080p resolution, though it's spread across 5.2 inches and offers a subtly larger option.
It's all about distinct features
The Galaxy S5's biggest differentiators may well be in its more uncommon features — though that shouldn't be a surprise. Samsung has never been unwilling to try out interesting ideas, and this time it's included some fairly practical new features: it's adding a fingerprint scanner for locking the device and making basic payments, and it's added a heart-rate monitor along with fitness apps to help improve your health.
The good news is that, in our first look at the device, we found the heart-rate sensor to work quite quickly, measuring a pulse in just a few seconds. Developers will be able to tap into the data it measures too, which could eventually open up a number of unique applications for the Galaxy S5 that we haven't seen on other smartphones yet. As for the bad news: the fingerprint sensor isn't quite as successful of a tool, at least at first glance. It requires a swiping motion that's harder to get right than the iPhone 5S' Touch ID, and that's likely to make it a lot less useful.
In the end, Samsung's phone is very much neck-and-neck with its newest companion on Android: the Xperia Z2. Both also include waterproofing and cameras that should be quite nice to shoot with if they're anything like their predecessors. And while the Z2 does have a more capacious battery than the S5, it's hard to say whether that'll actually amount to significantly better battery life without watching them run.
Even with a fingerprint sensor, it's far different from an iPhone
As for the other Android competition, it's fairly easy to size it up against some of the major names right now: the Nexus 5 offers a capable alternative at what one would assume is a far lower price (though Samsung and Sony haven't disclosed their new phone's actual prices just yet), but the Nexus 5 will likely also fall far short when it comes to camera quality and durability. And while HTC's One was among our top phones last year, it still hasn't been updated, which pretty much puts it out of the running in a competition of the top phones of the moment. Expect to see what's next for HTC in late March.
As for choosing between top phones on different operating systems, the devices are beginning to look increasingly different. Nokia's devices tend to differentiate themselves in a major way through their photographic ability (though its latest, the Icon, focuses a lot more on specs), while the iPhone is increasingly different in shape and build: it's far smaller, and it definitely can't handle being submerged in water for half an hour. If none of those hardware differences really catch your eye, you probably already know which of the three major operating systems you prefer by now anyway.
How well the Galaxy S5's new hardware features hold up will likely play a big role in the phone's ability to stands out when it hits stores. It'll be a capable smartphone no matter what, and there's no doubt it'll succeed on name alone. But whether it's really a better phone than Sony's Xperia Z2, or worth paying more for than a Nexus 5, or capable of trouncing whatever HTC unveils one month from now — that we'll have to see when Samsung finally gets the Galaxy S5 into our hands for more than a demo.