Monday, July 21, 2014

Tech Review: Samsung Galaxy S5

So I went to the Verizon Store for my biannual rogering.

You may remember my review of the Droid X2.  The X2 didn’t age well.  The WiFi would usually need to be restarted before it would communicate with my home network, but because it connected it would turn off my 3G coverage.  The GPS likewise would need reinitializing before it would work.  The camera app would often lock up the phone, and the phone itself had a bad habit of rebooting right when I picked it up to do something.  But worst of all, actual phone calls were being delayed.  As in, I could dial the number and press “send”, but nothing would happen for a full minute.  I had mitigated these problems temporarily by performing a factory reset, but who wants to have to do that?

Say what you will about iTunes (indeed, I’ve said most of it myself) but the OS on my 2nd gen iPod Touch is still as crisp as it ever was (although at v4.2 it is no longer compatible with any apps now being released).

Anyway, about the rogering.

I compared phones on the website and had pretty much decided on the LG G2, but when I arrived at the store I was disappointed to learn that, like the iPhone, the battery was not removable.  Since I have frequently resorted to removing the battery as a last-ditch method of rebooting my previous smartphones, this put me off.  The salesman recommended the Samsung Galaxy S2.  I had to think about it for a week, since this would be the first time I had actually paid money for my phone since my Motorola Razr in 2006.  But with my wife’s blessing (possibly motivated by her own interest in upgrading from the iPhone 4S to the 5c) I bit the $99 bullet.

Except . . . it turns out that every new phone Verizon sells or gives away comes with an unadvertised and previously unheard-of $30 “upgrade fee”.  WTW?  This is different from the “activation fee” for a new line.  Every phone is in fact $30 more expensive than they advertise.

Verizon.  Come for the phone.  Stay for the rogering.

I lost the unlimited data plan I received with the Palm Pre Plus and kept “grandfathered” with the X2.  As a consolation, I received a 6GB limit instead of the usual 2GB.  I still have to pay an extra $20 for tethering, and with which I receive an extra 2GB.  The good news is that all 8GB becomes available for both tethering and phone usage, whereas before only 2GB were available for tethering.  That’s very advantageous; I seldom use more that a couple of hundred MB in a given month, unless I’m traveling, in which case I will also be tethering extensively.

The first thing to say about the S5 is that it is big:  16 square inches of surface area, compared to 12 for the X2 and 9 for the pre.  It seems like the revolution in miniaturization is reversing itself.  Granted, phones are thinner now, but I wonder if future generations will mock today’s phones as we mock the bricks of the 80s.

The second thing to say is I had grave difficulty connecting the phone to my Dell E6420 laptop via the USB cable, and no amount of tech support from both Verizon and Samsung could fix the problem.  The S5 connected to other computers without hesitation, and all my other phones connected to E6420.  I was resigned to the necessity of reinstalling the Dell’s operating system, but then I came across this article that mentioned Kaspersky anti-virus.  I had used Kaspersky on the Dell the first year I owned it and uninstalled it when the update subscription expired.  (Now I use Security Essentials.)  Even though the problem it described was different from mine, I gave its registry edit a shot.  It worked.

Much of the increased computing power of the S5 seems to go into the user interface, which is a good deal more . . . lively than my previous smartphones.  I’m not exactly sure what having the picture of the sun on my weather app spin, but it sure looks cool.

Some improvements:  my (a.k.a. contacts will now accept entries from my phone.  It took me a long time to learn that when I tried to create a contact entry on the X2, it wouldn’t actually save to my account.  Sometimes it would save to my Google account, but usually . . . pfffft, into the ether, never to be seen again.  It was one of the first things I tested on the S5.

Parenthetically, I’m frustrated that “linking” my Google and Live accounts don’t actually keep the contacts on one updated on the other.  Really, it only just copies the contacts once.  This is not the fault of the S5, however.

The copy and paste functions are now more intuitive.  I never did figure out how they worked on the X2, but now when I highlight text, I get a popup menu asking what I want to do.

The phone has a front-facing camera.  No surprise there, but what’s new is that the camera detects your eyes looking at it (usually, if your face is well lit and if you aren’t wearing glasses), and keeps the screen on as long as that’s true.  Which means that . . . the phone is always watching.

It’s also always listening.  Both “Google Now” and Samsung’s “S-Voice” listen for their respective start commands all the time.  For instance, I say, “OK Google”, and the phone chirps and waits for a command like “Call Mrs. Phi” or “Navigate to Lily-white Phi-ville” or “Play ‘Ride of the Valkyries’” and the phone will execute it.  Similarly with S-Voice, although I haven’t actually got it to work yet.  With S-Voice, I can double-press the “home” key and it waits for a command.

More mundane perhaps, but it’s predictive word recommendations, supposedly trained by analyzing past keyboard entry, is already pretty good.  Sometimes I can go for a good bit of a sentence by doing nothing but selecting each recommended word in sequence.

I hope it never learns to read lips.

The phone comes with a program called Google Play Music, which is the default player when music is requested with Google Now.  If I understand correctly, Google Play Music is a fee-based service, but it only plays music already on the phone.  Obviously, I won’t be using it once the trial ends.

One feature too many is a windowing option:  keeping two applications on the screen at one time.  But this is probably more than I can keep up with.  One of the virtual buttons, always available along the bottom of the screen, allows the user to switch between recently-used applications, much like the iPad allows by double-pressing its home key.

One feature to few is tracking mobile hotspot usage by device.  I had turned on this feature for a couple of cross-country automobile trips.  Typical usage:  2GB in a single day!  Fortunately, these trips fell on different days, but what I really want is to be able to identify which of the connected devices (our old phones now in use by our kids) is sucking down the data, and perhaps figure out which applications are offending.  Unfortunately, I have been unable to find a single app that breaks down hotspot usage at the device level.  Any thoughts?

The S5’s pride-and-joy is its video camera, which can now record in Ultra-HD.  Of course, this isn’t really much use unless you have an Ultra-HD monitor or TV (I don’t), and I have my suspicions that the F-stop of the optics won’t really support that level of resolution anyway.  But I will say that video recorded at 60 fps (an option Samsung calls “smooth motion video”) looks really . . . smooth.  The still camera offers high-dynamic range photography, which is basically offering different quantization for differently illuminated segments of the image, but the effect doesn’t seem as dramatic as when I use the feature on my Nikon.

But mostly, I’m just happy to have a phone that doesn’t crash or lock up all the time.


heresolong said...

My HTC Thunderbolt just bricked so I am using an old Blackberry Tour that I had lying around. I am looking for a new phone but...

I don't want to lose my unlimited data and pay an extra $5 per month for 6G. That doesn't seem like a good deal to me.

I don't want a phone that is bigger since I usually keep it in my pocket.

I don't need all those features since what I really want to do is keep track of my business calendar, have good phone reception, listen to podcasts, use Google Maps when I am lost, make easy to enter and easy to read notes when I have to remember something.

The good thing is that the Tour is working fine for now even though it only does three of the five things (that I can figure out).

Anonymous said...

You should read Hit Coffee more often. I complained about the fee a while back. Verizon didn't even pretend it was about anything other than "it's another way to get money" with the semi-justification that other companies do it.

I hope it wasn't rooting the device that bricked your old one. I can report that Towelroot works on a Samsung Galaxy S5 because that's what I have. (It will void the warranty, though.)

There are a lot of good music players out there, if you're interested. I did a roundup of GPS apps this week. If time permits, next week I'll do music players. The ones I will recommend are MortPlayer and Rocketplayer (Note: I tend to organize my music files into folders rather than through libraries, so if you're a library guy that might not work for you.)

Spotify is a good free player for streamed content, and Pandora makes decent make-shift radio stations.

You can turn off S Voice.

I'm a bit surprised that tethering wasn't included on your new plan. I thought that by decree all new Verizon plans were supposed to include it. We actually ungrandfathered ourselves out of our old plan so that we could have it.

Anonymous said...

Interesting about teh S voice. That means total strangers can activate your phone and make it do silly things just by being close enough to talk to you.

Dr. Φ said...

@Trumwill: I should read HC more often! I'm behind on my blog reading across the board.

I'm bothered by these random brickings. I thought that any phone could be "factory reset" and made to work again no matter what. What causes them? Can they not be repaired?

I hadn't rooted the phone. I remember, now that you bring it up, that we had corresponded about it, but I forgot what the advantages were. But the warranty would have expired by now in any case.

I tend to save my music in directories by artist, then by album if known or applicable. I also try to set the meta data (using the files "Properties" settings) to include song title and artist, which in all the music players I've used so far is required for organizing the music, irrespective of how its actually stored on the device. Is that what you mean by "libraries"? I'll try some of the other apps.

Too late I realized that I could have kept my unlimited data by only upgrading my wife's phone and then using her old one -- an Apple 4s, still performing well. I should have mentioned that Verizon offered us $150 for the 4S (but only $5 for the X2) but she had already mentally committed to giving it to our daughter.

Anonymous said...

I have found that Verizon itself doesn't seem to know when you can keep your contract. I was kicked off my old grandfather contract and then later told (by Verizon) that I shouldn't have been but then was later told (by Verizon) that I should have been.

The big advantages to rooting are fixing the SD card limitation, installing an app that removes ads, and the ability to map keys and uninstall bloatware (though I haven't dared try the last two yet).

I honestly did it almost solely for the SD card thing, though I did take advantage of adfree. What Google did was make it so that third-party apps cannot write to SD cards. Which means that the app I was using to copy files onto the phone through WiFi could no longer function. (There will be a post about this. Meanwhile, I tracked down the post where I was whining about the fee)

You handle music the same way I do, through folder organization. Library organization is when the system organizes the songs for you based on ID3 tags. Since you use folders like I do, I'll double down on my recommendation that you check out MortPlayer or Rocket Player.

Bricked phones do happen. It depends on what level the fault is occurring. The factory reset will usually fix it, but it sounds like with your phone the communication drivers got corrupted (if I had to guess) and the factory reset often won't touch that. (Or alternately, that there is a hardware malfunction that the software is trying and failing to compensate for.)

When my job was testing pre-release smartphones ('08-09) it was a pretty big issue because each of those phones cost something on the order of $2000 a piece. The worst day on my job was when I had to explain that an upgrade process caused. (As it turned out, I was able to recover most of them, but that was mostly shooting in the dark with a lot of base-level company equipment. I didn't know what I was doing would work, but I figured dead prototypes couldn't be made more dead if I was wrong.)