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Samsung Galaxy S5 finds success in simplicity

With the Galaxy S5, Samsung proves that less can be more.

A year ago, Samsung tried to blow away consumers -- along with its chief rival, the Apple iPhone -- by packing seemingly every feature known to man into one device. The Galaxy S4 was a success, but consumers struggled to grasp the full capabilities of the device.

To improve user experience, Samsung has gone the opposite way with the GS5. It consolidated many features into more understandable groups and eliminated other features altogether. The deleted features are still available to users through downloads. Customers can add features one by one, introducing themselves to each element over time.

This makes the GS5 a device that is a lot easier to get to know than its predecessor. Rather than trying to explain hundreds of features, Samsung instead focused on a few that make this device stand out from its peers. The phone has a top-notch screen, great durability, an improved camera, a long-lasting battery and useful health tracking capabilities. 

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We start with the GS5's 5.1-inch full 1080p HD screen. As always, Samsung knocks it out of the park in screen quality, delivering a display with sharp colors perfect for viewing videos and photographs.

The GS5's screen is slightly larger than the GS4's 5-inch screen, so the phone is a little longer. But it's easier to hold thanks to a grippable back cover.

Like many of Samsung's other recent products, the back cover is stylized with faux leather, which improves its appearance. But when it comes to design, Samsung is still outflanked by Apple and HTC, which just released the highly stylish One (M8). If looks are important, buy an attractive case or pick another device.

What the GS5 lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for in durability.

The phone is now rated for Ingress Protection 67, which means it is dust and water proof. Samsung says the phone can be kept under water for 30 minutes in as much as three feet of water. In reality, IP 67 ensures that the phone won't be damaged by rain or if it's dropped in a toilet.

I tested the feature by rinsing it under a sink and dipping it in a glass of water. It kept working just fine.

In terms of hardware, Samsung also improved the flagship phone's camera, upping the rear lens from 13 to 16 megapixels. The device takes some of the best photos of any camera phone, delivering images with vibrant colors.

Software has also helped improve the camera. Phase Detection Autofocus technology enables the camera to focus three times faster than other smartphones, according to Samsung. I'm not sure if it lives up to those stats, but the GS5 did focus pretty quickly.

The phone can now also shoot photos in burst mode using high-dynamic range, or HDR, imaging, which combines multiple images into one with high-quality lighting throughout. Previously, users could shoot photos in HDR mode, but not in rapid sequence. When users switch HDR on, they can preview the image before they shoot. Before, users had to snap the picture first before seeing what it would look like using HDR. And finally, HDR mode is available for video recordings, which was not previously possible.

The camera also includes a new Shot & More mode, which takes a flurry of photos and enables users to apply one of five nifty effects. On the GS4, users had to pick one effect before taking a photo. The process is now reversed, enabling users to shoot first and pick the effect later.

The battery on the GS5 is also improved.

In addition to a more capable battery, a new Ultra Power Saving Mode helps extend the life. That feature shuts off nearly everything on the phone except messages, calls and the ability to surf the Web. The display conserves energy with a black-and-white mode that uses only some pixels on the screen. This feature enables user to get about 24 hours of battery life even after the phone has fallen to the last 10% of its charge.

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Additionally, Samsung has placed a focus on fitness in the GS5. Like the GS4, the phone includes a pedometer and the S Health fitness app, which enables users to input what they eat. The GS5 also includes a heart-rate monitor that enables users to check their heart rate by launching the app and placing their index finger on the monitor.

Another notable feature enables users to unlock their device by scanning their fingerprints on the home button. Apple introduced a similar feature late last year on the iPhone 5s, and it's no secret that Samsung is playing catch-up. The fingerprint scanner accurately read my fingerprint and added an extra layer of security, which is always appreciated.

The GS5 is available now from the four major U.S. carriers.

Sprint and AT&T customers can buy one for $199.99 with a two-year contract, while Verizon customers can pick up the phone for $249.99 with a two-year contract. Verizon is also offering a $50 mail-in rebate, and customers can get a second GS5 free if they activate an additional two-year contract.

T-Mobile customers can buy the phone for $0 down followed by 24 monthly payments of $27.50 each, for a total of $660.

The GS5 is Samsung's best phone yet, and its simplicity will make the device attractive to more customers than its predecessor. I recommend the GS5 for anyone looking for an elite smartphone. GS4 users are OK holding off, but owners of the GS3 should seriously consider upgrading.

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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