Sometime within the last couple of years, smartphones hit a wall. Make no mistake, they're still improving. But manufacturers are having to try a lot harder to make their phones stand out from the crowd. Can the latest flagship from the world's biggest smartphone-maker rise above the rest? Let Gizmag try to answer, as we review the Samsung Galaxy S5.

Today's smartphones have a common theme. Pick one of them up, play with it, and you'll probably notice a few cool new features. New sensor here, slightly bigger display there, flatter software design everywhere. On the whole, though, the phone probably isn't going to feel a lot different from last year's model. It will probably give you just enough of an upgrade that you'd miss it if you went back to the last version. This is the story of the HTC One (M8), the iPhone 5s, and several other flagships. But is it also the story of the new Samsung Galaxy S5? Let's take a look.

Samsung has made one hell of a nice phone here. The Galaxy S5 has a lot in common with the Galaxy S4, but the GS4 was already a pretty damn good phone. And if I had put together a wish list of ways that Samsung could have improved the GS4, then the GS5's new features would have ticked quite a few of those boxes – and then some. Today, that's about all you can ask for.

The first improvement comes from the Galaxy S5's build. The standard plastic found on the Galaxy S4 (and most of Samsung's pre-2014 mobile devices) was light and durable, but it also felt pretty cheap and flimsy. Now Samsung has turned over a new leaf and replaced that standard plastic with ... a different kind of plastic. Pleather. With dimples.

Okay, so dimpled faux leather might sound chintzy. And maybe it is. But I think it is a step forward for the Galaxy S series. And what the pleather lacks in authenticity, it makes up for in comfort. Its slightly soft-touch finish feels great in hand. If you're going to make a big phone like the GS5 (it has about 40 percent more surface area than the iPhone 5s), then it's going to help if you can make it as comfortable as possible. Samsung hit the bullseye there. I think the GS5 feels much better in hand than its biggest rival on the Android side of the fence, the HTC One M8.

If I had to pick one killer feature for the Galaxy S5, I'd probably go with its water resistance. I wouldn't call it water-proof, but with a rating of IP67, it can sit in 1 meter (3.3 ft) of water for 30 minutes and keep on ticking. To help make this happen, Samsung put a cover over the phone's charging port (a quick flick with your fingernail will pop this open when you need to juice up).

Samsung is hardly the first phone-maker to do this (Sony launched a water-resistant flagship in early 2013 and Samsung's own Galaxy S4 Active had the same IP67 rating). But it's still a nice layer of protection to have in one of the most popular phones on the planet. You can now use your GS5 while you're in the shower or bath, or even poolside or in a hot tub, without any worries. Even those unfortunate toilet drops aren't quite as big of a concern anymore.

The Galaxy S5's home button doubles as a fingerprint scanner. If you decide to set up fingerprint security, a swipe down over the home button will unlock your (otherwise) password-protected device. It's a great blend of security and convenience.

The fingerprint scanner works well. Since you have to slide your finger over the home button, rather than just rest it there (like you do on the iPhone 5s), there is a little more of a learning curve. Now that I have the hang of it, I can almost always get it to register on the first try. But when I first started using the GS5, I would sometimes tilt my finger too far in one direction, slide too slowly, or slide off center, and it wouldn't take.

If it doesn't register, though, the GS5 pops up little messages that coach you into sliding it just right. So even if you have some trouble at first, it's easy to get better. Eventually the right kind of swipe becomes second-nature, and you don't even have to think about it.

There is also a little trick you can use to boost your odds. The GS5 lets you register three fingers, so I programmed the same finger (the one I use the most) twice. When I was "teaching" the GS5 to recognize it, I swiped from slightly different angles each time. At least in theory, this should double your odds of getting a successful swipe.

You can also use the fingerprint scanner to log into PayPal and authorize PayPal or Samsung Apps purchases. I tested both, and had no problems verifying those logins with my print. It's refreshing being able to buy an app or check on a PayPal transfer without having to enter a password or PIN. I look forward to the day when every password can be replaced with my unique-as-a-snowflake fingerprint.

I do think Apple's Touch ID fingerprint sensor works slightly better than the scanner in the GS5. On the iPhone 5s, you can just rest your finger on the button for a brief moment (usually less than a second) and – bam – you're in. On the GS5, the swiping, and the conscious learning process that goes along with swiping just the right way, drops that convenience factor down a notch. It isn't a dramatic difference, though, and even if it isn't quite Touch ID-level, I think the scanner is still a terrific option to have in the GS5.

One nice bonus with the fingerprint scanner is that the home button now feels more solid. The GS4's home button felt a little cheap and flimsy, but the GS5's button is firmer, with a snappier "click" to it.

The fingerprint scanner isn't the Galaxy S5's only biometric sensor. Samsung also threw in a heart rate sensor that sits on the device's back, just below its camera. Anytime you want to check your pulse, just fire up the S Health app (there's even a home screen widget that lets you jump straight to the heart rate portion of the app), hold your finger on the button for a few seconds, and get your reading.

The heart rate sensor works as advertised. It can sometimes take up to 10-15 seconds to read, and you'll also want to try to hold still and be quiet while it's measuring. But you can expect accurate readouts. It's great for exercising, people who are watching their stress levels, or even as a curiosity. If you buy any of Samsung's new wearables, though – the Gear 2, Gear 2 Neo, or Gear Fit – then the GS5's pulse monitor is going to be a little redundant, as they each have one too.

The GS5 has a terrific display. It's 4 percent bigger than the Galaxy S4's display, with the same razor-sharp 1080p resolution. The extra real estate is subtle, but also noticeable. The GS5's 5.1-in screen strikes a great balance between screen size and phone size. Any bigger, and it would be approaching Galaxy Note territory.

This is easily one of the best smartphone displays I've used. I've been saying that a lot lately, with the excellent screens on the HTC One M8, Nexus 5, and Galaxy Note 3 (among others) also giving you spacious and gorgeous 1080p screens.

Android has been moving in the direction of onscreen virtual navigation keys (home, back, and recent apps) for some time now. But I prefer Samsung's approach, with a physical home button and two capacitive keys all sitting below the screen.

That's because, even though Android's Immersive Mode does away with other phones' virtual buttons in the most important places (image galleries, videos, and, sometimes, e-books), the rest of their apps end up sacrificing some screen real estate. But thanks to Samsung's off-screen buttons, you'll always be able to use 100 percent of the screen in the Galaxy S5.

Samsung also changed one of those capacitive keys this time around. In just about every other Samsung device, you had a back key to the right of the home button, and a menu key on the left. But since Android developers now use on-screen menu buttons (those three vertical dots), Samsung changed the menu key to a recent apps key in the GS5. If you still insist on having a dedicated menu button, then a long-press on the recent apps key will do the trick.

That shift also opens the door to another subtle, but welcome, change. Since you no longer have to long-press on the home button to view your recent apps (like on the GS4), that long-press now fires up Google Now. None of these changes are life-altering, but they do make navigating around the GS5 just a bit smoother.

Samsung made a few changes to TouchWiz, the Samsung-made software skin that sits on top of Android 4.4 KitKat. It now has a "flatter" look, similar to what Apple did with iOS 7 (and, in fairness to Samsung, it's an overall industry trend, not just an Apple thing). Icon drop shadows, which simulate a sense of depth, are subtler or completely axed in different areas of the GS5.

The biggest software change Samsung made wasn't an addition, so much as a subtraction. Or, if you prefer, a reorganization. If you've ever used the Galaxy S4, then you know that the phone's settings menus were a mess.

Well, Samsung really cleaned things up in the GS5. There are still plenty of settings menus, but now it has a great search tool. Open settings, tap the magnifying glass, and instantly find whichever settings menu you're looking for. The company also took away a few features, like several of the more gimmicky camera effects, instead guiding you to download them from the Samsung Apps store if you still want to use them.

Speaking of the camera, the Galaxy S5 has a damn good one. When you take shots under crappy lighting, the GS5 doesn't make them look quite as bright or colorful as the HTC One M8's UltraPixel camera does. But that contest is closer than I would have expected. And of course the GS5's 16 MP sensor gives you lush and sharp shots when you have good lightning.

Even though Samsung saved some storage space by making some of those shooting modes downloadable, there are still lots of effects, filters, and modes waiting for you in the GS5. There's a good HDR feature, and you can do things like smooth the appearance of portraits, shoot panoramas, add Instagram-like vintage effects (either while shooting or while editing afterwards), or capture high shutter-speed stills of fast-moving objects. When you're editing a shot you've already taken, all the standard level adjustments are there, plus some portrait effects for shots where a face is detected.

One of the most interesting (and, well, bizarre) new shooting modes is Virtual Tour, a realtor's dream come true. In this mode, the camera tells you to swivel the camera and then walk in different directions. The resulting video looks like one of those guided tours you'd see on a realty or rental agency website – think moving Google Street View, only set inside a house. All it's missing is the cheesy, copyright-free elevator music grooving in the background.

One minor nitpick I have with the GS5's camera is that it takes a while to fire it up from the lock screen. As fast, smooth, and lag-free as this phone's performance is, I'm surprised the camera doesn't start up quicker. After sliding the camera icon on the lock screen, you have to wait about five or six seconds before it's ready to take a picture. That part could definitely be a little zippier.

I could go on longer about the Galaxy S5's camera – and I probably will in future posts. But the bottom line is that this is easily one of the better cameras you'll find on a smartphone. It has loads of features, but it's also easy to just pick up, shoot, and come out with a pretty darn good shot (even if that takes a little longer than I'd like to get there).

The GS5 has great battery life. I've been using it pretty heavily every day since I got my hands on it, and it's always still lasted from morning to night (though sometimes only by a hair). In our standard test, where we stream video with brightness set at 75 percent, it lasted a terrific 9 hours and 27 minutes. That's 7 minutes longer than the HTC One M8 lasted in the same test. Both are terrific results, and much longer than any other phones we've put through that test.

If you do happen to have a day where you push the battery to its limits, you'll want to check out a new feature called Ultra Power Saving Mode. Turn it on, and the GS5's display shifts to black & white. You then have a new home screen with just the basics: phone, text messages, and web browser. You can also add a few other simple apps, like a calculator, Google+, or Samsung's chat app. All other unnecessary background processes are killed.

After switching into Ultra Power Saving Mode, you can take the tiniest smidge of battery life and turn it into hours (Samsung says 10 percent juice will stretch out to 24 hours). It makes sense, since your GS5, at that point, basically becomes a glorified feature phone. UPS Mode is perfect for those times when your battery is almost out of juice but you don't want to completely drop off the grid. It gives you just enough functionality to communicate with the world, but not enough to kill your battery.

Ultra Power Saving Mode is the kind of genius feature that's so simple it makes you wonder why nobody else thought of it before. I think it might also be the best evidence yet that Samsung can be an innovative company. As far as I know, this kind of feature wasn't on any phones before Samsung put it in the GS5. HTC is now adding the same kind of feature to the One M8, but since Samsung's version was announced a month earlier – and it wasn't ready for the One M8 when it launched – I can only speculate that HTC copied Samsung here.

One advantage that HTC's version has over Samsung's is that you can set HTC's to automatically kick in when you hit a certain battery level. You have to start Samsung's Ultra Power Saving Mode manually. This isn't a huge deal to me, but it would be nice to have the option to start it automatically on the GS5.

I don't think there's any question that the Galaxy S5 is one of the best smartphones you can buy today. In fact, if I had to pick the two best phones out there, I'd think for about a half a second before choosing the GS5 and HTC One M8. Lots of people would throw the iPhone 5s into that conversation too, and I can certainly see that point of view. But I personally think its 38 percent smaller screen rules it out.

It's getting harder and harder to make an innovative smartphone. And though the GS5 has some innovative features, it isn't a radical change from last year's Galaxy S4. But I also think it's a bigger upgrade than some have been making it out to be.

Some have even compared the Galaxy S5 to an iPhone S-series (iPhones 5s, 4s, 3GS) update. But those S-year iPhones always have screens and exteriors that are identical to their predecessors'. If you compare the GS5 to its predecessor, you'll see that it has a bigger screen, new build materials, two new biometric sensors, and some pretty terrific water resistance. I think that's a much bigger upgrade than a phone that looks exactly like the one it's replacing.

But this isn't about the iPhone, and it certainly isn't a pissing contest between two great smartphones. I only bring up the comparison because I think Samsung deserves more credit for the improvements in the Galaxy S5. If you're a Galaxy S4 owner, then upgrading might not be a no-brainer. But I also don't think it's a no-brainer not to upgrade. The Galaxy S5 is a significant update – at least as far as 2014 updates go. Definitely worth checking out, no matter what phone you're coming from.

The Samsung Galaxy S5 is available now, with the base 16 GB model typically selling for US$650 off-contract, or $200 with a new two-year blood oath if you live in the US.

If you're considering the GS5 and are also thinking about throwing in one of Samsung's new wearables, then you can check out our reviews of the Gear 2 smartwatch and Gear Fit fitness band/smartwatch hybrid.

Product page: Samsung

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