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Summary:

In a few days the Samsung Galaxy S5 arrives in stores and the hands of those who pre-ordered. Early reviews are generally positive but not everyone thinks this is a must-have upgrade.

Galaxy S5 lock screen

The Samsung Galaxy S5 is due to hit stores in the U.S. later this week, and the early reviews are in. As the fifth iteration of Samsung’s Galaxy flagship line, you might expect more evolutionary refinement; if so, it appears you’ll get exactly what you expected. That’s not necessarily a bad thing considering that Samsung’s prior Galaxy phones have become bestsellers for the company, which leads the pack of Android phones.

Galaxy S5 hands on

We’ve only had a short time with the Galaxy S5 ourselves — stay tuned for a full review soon — but already like the “less is more” approach Samsung took. Software on the Galaxy S4 was a little muddled because Samsung decided to cram features in like sardines in a tin. The large 5.1-inch screen impresses without making the phone any larger. The phone runs Android with nary a stutter. The camera is lightning quick to take a picture and often provides solid results. Is that enough to impress the first reviewers?

As expected, there’s a mix of opinions. Among several early takes I read, most don’t find this to be a big enough upgrade if you have the prior year’s model. A few think it’s the best Android phone yet from Samsung and some are less than impressed, suggesting an alternative purchase that’s more than six months old.

Galaxy S5 camera

Let’s start with the good reviews. Steve Kovach at Business Insider calls the Galaxy S5 “one of the best,” saying he likes everything about the handset save for the design. (I’d think that’s a pretty important attribute.)

“I still prefer metal phones or phones made out of a solid plastic unibody. It’s not awful, but it’s not ideal, either. But if you don’t mind plastic, you’re really going to like the Galaxy S5. That said, the Galaxy S5 is simpler, more refined and more enjoyable to use than any Samsung device I’ve tested so far. Between the camera, that brilliant 5.1-inch display, and the smoother software, the Galaxy S5 is one of the best phones you can buy. “

The Wall Street Journal’s Geoffrey Fowler takes the opposite stance, suggesting that aside from the new waterproof and dustproofing features, this phone is just a small refinement over last year’s model. He unsurprisingly suggests considering the HTC One M8 but throws a curve by adding the Moto X to the mix as well. That’s my daily driver for its size and unique features, so I’m actually in agreement here.

Even with the refinements, Fowler still sees room for opportunity:

“Samsung still needs to keep simplifying the interface. At the top edge of the screen, a dozen different blinking icons call attention to things you don’t always need to know about. And for many basic functions, such as Web browsing, viewing pictures, even taking voice commands, the Galaxy S5 comes preloaded with two different apps. Good grief, does anyone really need the built-in ‘gallery’ and ‘photo’ apps?”

Not everyone is disappointed, though. Time’s Harry McCracken appears to like the reduced number of Samsung apps and features in this model. Save for what he calls the “clunky fingerprint reader,” he provides a fairly positive review, as Samsung has dialed back on its software atop Android and added a way to measure your heart rate using the camera’s flash sensor.

“This time around, the company didn’t just avoid the temptation to add even more S apps. It also chopped out some of the existing ones, offering them instead as optional free downloads. They’re there if you want them, and out of your way if you don’t.

One Samsung app that did survive is S Health, a fitness assistant that lets you track your workouts, walks, calorie intake and the like. It’s still basic compared to the apps that come with wristbands such as Jawbone’s Up, but it does add the ability to read your heart rate, using a new hardware capability. You press your fingertip up against the camera flash for a few seconds to get a reading. As long as I kept my hand super-steady and there wasn’t too much in the way of background noise, it worked.”

Finally, the always must-read review from AnandTech’s Anand Lal Shimpi and Joshua Ho end this roundup on a very positive note. The team says yes, this is a worthy upgrade from last year’s Galaxy S4, with a faster processor, speedier wireless service, a much better camera sensor, improved display and cleaner software. Save for a metal body and a few minor tweaks, AnandTech would have named this phone “perfect” for anyone using Android.

“It’s not all hardware upgrades that makes the GS5 what it is. Samsung did an excellent job of cleaning up its UI from the crowded mess that we saw in GS4 to something much more polished. It’s not perfect, but a huge step in the right direction. While the GS4 felt more like feature creep for use in marketing materials, the GS5’s software is far better executed. “

Our own review will go live after we spend time using the phone on a full-time basis but in general, I like what Samsung has put together in the Galaxy S5 package. Aside from the anticipated hardware improvements — mainly “table stakes” with each new hardware cycle — it’s clear the company has listened to those who found the Galaxy S4 feature set and software a little too unwieldy for the masses.

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