There's no single way to make a great smartphone, and these two phones are a great example of that. One is small (at least by today's standards), with an equally small screen, a premium build, and hardware and software both made by the same company. The other is much bigger, with a spacious screen, plastic finish, and a boatload of eye-catching features.
So which do you go with? Well, I don't believe that there's going to be one universal answer for everyone, so let's take a closer look at what each phone brings to the table, and try to help you to find the phone that works better for you.
Pick each phone up, and you'll immediately see a difference. The Galaxy S5 is 15 percent longer, 24 percent wider, and 7 percent thicker than the iPhone 5s. What that translates to, at least in my hands, is a phone that slides right into the meat of the palm (iPhone) vs. one that I have to stretch my fingers a little to get a good grip around (Galaxy).
Apple is a design-driven company, and I think it shows in the iPhone 5s. Its appearance is starting to look pretty familiar these days (externally, it's almost identical to its predecessor, the iPhone 5). But I think it feels like a higher-end phone than the GS5. You can chalk a lot of that up to the Galaxy S5's faux leather (plastic) finish – with dimples. And the edge of the GS5, which has a metallic look? Well, it's actually made of plastic too.
There's nothing wrong with smartphone-makers slapping plastic chassis onto their devices. But if you're looking for the more premium feel, the iPhone wins this showdown hands-down. The iPhone looks like it was chiseled and crafted from a piece of aluminum, with chamfered edges and a jeweler's attention to detail. And, go figure, it was. The Galaxy S5, from a distance, looks like it might have been made of leather and stainless steel. But when you look closer, you realize that it's all just plastic.
If you can get past the whole looks like one thing, is actually another aspect to the Galaxy S5, then I think its pleather finish is actually pretty comfortable in hand. The slightly soft-touch finish helps to lessen the blow of having to hold such a huge device.
Big phones like the GS5 are now the de facto industry standard, but there's a place for smaller, more compact devices like the iPhone. For starters, it's extremely light (at 112 g, it's 23 percent lighter than the Galaxy). It's also a cinch to use with one hand, and you barely notice it when it's in your pocket.
If Apple's next flagship iPhone has a 4.7-in screen, as Apple's leaky supply chain is suggesting, then I hope the company also keeps a 4-in iPhone around. If Apple does go all-in on big iPhones, then the 5s might be the last terrific smartphone with a 4-in or smaller screen. It's no secret that the tech industry often leans towards "me-too" sameness, but why can't we have great smartphones in all sizes? I see the positives in 4-in phones, 5-in phones, and even larger phablets.
The biggest plus that large phones give you is, of course, plenty of screen real estate. The Galaxy S5's display is big and beautiful. Diagonally, it measures 5.1 inches, with 1,920 x 1,080 resolution. The iPhone's screen is 4 inches, with 1,136 x 640 resolution. To put that in perspective, the iPhone only gives you 62 percent as much screen as the GS5. It also only gives you 35 percent as many pixels (though I don't think that sharpness difference is nearly as noticeable as the size difference). If you're on a mission for maximum screen and maximum crispness, then your choice is clear.
Both phones have great cameras. The GS5 takes shots in a higher resolution (16 MP to the iPhone's 8 MP), which can help if you're blowing up shots to enormous proportions. But it also has one big Achilles' heel. When you fire up the Galaxy S5's camera from the lock screen, it takes a good five or six seconds before it's ready to snap a shot. On the iPhone, I can jump from lock screen to taking a picture in about 2.5 seconds. If you have to wait over twice as long as competing phones to use the Galaxy S5's camera, well, that's a big strike against it.
The iPhone's camera has a dual-LED flash. What this means is that your flash photography shots are going to look more colorful and balanced (less washed out). The Galaxy S5's camera doesn't have that feature, but I suspect that it's using some software-based processing to try to give its flash shots a similar result (though I still think the iPhone's flash photography looks superior).
You might have seen some Samsung commercials that advertise a blurred-background photography feature, where you can change your point of focus, on the Galaxy S5. The big drawback to the feature, though, is that your subject has to be very close to the camera. If you want a portrait of someone with a blurred background, then you'll have to hold your Galaxy S5 within 1.5 feet (0.46 m) of your subject's face – with the background at least 3x as far away. It's still a nice feature to have (and the iPhone doesn't have an equivalent shooting mode), but that distance requirement is the kind of detail that Samsung is going to gloss over in its ads.
If you asked me what the Galaxy S5's killer feature is, I'd go with its water resistance. In the last couple of years, several OEMs have made water-resistant phones (most notably, Sony), but we've never seen a phone as high-profile as the Galaxy S5 having the feature onboard. And it's a terrific feature to have.
The GS5 is rated IP67, which means it passed a test where it soaked in 1 meter (3.3 ft) of water for 30 minutes. So you can drop your phone in the sink or toilet, rinse it off when it's dirty, or even tweet from the bathtub. Just make sure its battery and charging covers are sealed shut, and you won't have anything to worry about. The iPhone 5s can't do that.
The iPhone 5s' killer feature is its Touch ID fingerprint sensor. Biometric sensors are all the rage these days, and I'd say Apple's Touch ID is the best you'll find in a smartphone. The GS5 actually has a fingerprint sensor in its home button as well, but it's a swipe-based scanner. On the iPhone, you merely rest your finger on the home button for a very brief moment.
Both sensors are good, but I find the iPhone's to be quicker and easier to use. You can also scan your print from any angle on the iPhone, while you'll need to swipe your finger from the same general direction every time you use it on the GS5.
So what do you do with a fingerprint sensor? Well, the biggest thing right now is using it as a passcode. Set up fingerprint security, choose a secure passcode, and you'll be able to skip the code and unlock the phone with your finger. Anyone else will be shut out.
The iPhone's Touch ID also lets you use your print to authorize iTunes and App Store purchases. Samsung's has a few extra tricks up its sleeve: you can swipe your print to login to PayPal, and it's also integrated with a few third-party apps (most notably, the LastPass password manager).
Samsung likes to throw lots and lots of features into its products. Why throw one biometric sensor into your new flagship when you can throw in two (gasp)? Ergo, the GS5 has not just a fingerprint scanner, but also a heart rate monitor. It lives on the phone's backside, just below its camera. Fire up the S Health app, hold your finger over the sensor (usually for 5-15 seconds) and it will give you a pulse reading. It could be a handy feature for workout enthusiasts or anyone watching stress levels.
But here's a little secret that Samsung's advertising agency doesn't want you to know. There are actually heart rate monitor apps for the iPhone too. The iPhone doesn't have a pulse sensor, so these apps use the camera and flash. Hold your finger over the camera lens, watch in amazement as the flash makes your finger glows red, and watch in equal amazement as a phone without a heart rate sensor reads your pulse. The moral of the story: I wouldn't recommend choosing the GS5 just for its heart monitor.
Like the Galaxy S4, the GS5 also has built-in infrared capabilities. This lets you use your Galaxy as a remote control for your TV and cable or satellite box. The iPhone doesn't do that.
Another unique iPhone feature is its M7 motion co-processor. It's a separate processor that lives inside the iPhone, with the sole duty of tracking motion. What this means for you is that apps that have been designed to use the M7 can track your steps throughout the day without draining your iPhone's battery. It can have your iPhone potentially replacing a dedicated fitness tracker, such as the Fitbit Flex, Jawbone Up, or Samsung Gear Fit.
Battery life is good for both phones, but the Galaxy S5 comes out ahead in that department. We like to do a test where we stream video on a device, with brightness set at 75 percent. In this test, the GS5 logged an impressive 9 hours and 27 minutes. The iPhone lasted 6 hours, 15 minutes. In regular experience, I don't think the iPhone's uptimes are any cause for concern, but the GS5 is typically going to be the longer-lasting phone.
When it comes to battery life, the Galaxy S5 also has an ace up its sleeve. Have you ever had a phone completely conk out, leaving you without even the most basic of functions, like emergency calls or text messages? Well, the GS5's Ultra Power Saving Mode is a clever solution. Turn the feature on, and the phone's screen will shift to black & white, and you'll be greeted by a new home screen with just the basics (phone, text messages, browser, etc). In this mode, Samsung says 10 percent of battery can last up to 24 hours.
Assuming it hasn't previously appeared on some phone I'm not familiar with, Ultra Power Saving Mode is the first breakthrough software feature I've seen from Samsung. As many gimmicky, space-wasting turds as Samsung phones have laid through the years, it's refreshing to see a new feature that a) is completely new, and b) can genuinely help out in a pinch (this time for actual human beings, not just the actors performing scenes in Samsung's cleverly-written commercials).
Any time you're comparing an iPhone with an Android phone, platform preference is going to come into play. If you're already heavily invested in either iOS or Android, then there will probably be nothing we can say to change your mind – and there shouldn't be.
For the as-yet undecided, though, my take is that today's iOS and Android are both terrific and mature platforms. My biggest beef with the iPhone's iOS is its lack of a Swype-like trace keyboard. My biggest beef with Android is the crapware (promotional apps you'll probably never use) that OEMs and carriers are allowed to pre-install on phones like the GS5. Samsung's TouchWiz UI (its own custom Android skin with unique software features) can also, in places, come off as a little crowded, unfocused, and chintzy.
If you're leaning towards the iPhone – or if you just wish you could have the GS5's big screen on an iPhone – then you might want to keep an eye on Apple's release timeline. Leaks are pointing to a 4.7-in iPhone 6 launching within the next three to five months. Another 5.5-in Apple phablet is rumored to land at some point after that. I wouldn't take any one leak too seriously, but the scuttlebutt has been pretty consistent on this one. If an iPhone with a bigger screen is what you really want, then you might regret throwing down for one of these two just a few months earlier.
As we said at the top, though, we don't pretend to have a one-size-fits-all answer for you. People have different tastes, which is part of what makes the world so interesting. What I do hope is that the key differences we've zeroed in on here help you to get a better sense of which phone will work better for you.
Still stumped? Then you can always hit up Gizmag's full reviews of the iPhone 5s and Galaxy S5 for more detail on each phone. And if these screens just aren't big enough for you, maybe our Phablet Comparison Guide will help you find what you're looking for.