Just to make things clear right from the start, this is a photography centric review of the Samsung Galaxy S5 Neo. I will only be discussing the smartphone’s photo taking capabilities. If you are looking for a more general review, there are many such reviews to be found on the web. But if you want to find out how it fares as a camera, then read on.
Build quality might not be particularly important when talking about a phone in the context of photography – it has no impact on results you are going to obtain with the device, after all. However, better build quality tends to inspire confidence and make you want to use the device more. Luckily Samsung Galaxy S5 Neo is a nicely built device. It’s not a flagship killer by any means, but the materials it’s made of look nice and feel good in the hand. They are perfectly adequate for a mid-range phone.
In addition there are no differing gaps between adjacent parts anywhere to be found – a testament to low production tolerances at Samsung’s factory.
Just like any other smartphone on the market, Samsung Galaxy S5 Neo has terrible ergonomics when used as a camera. If you’ve never used a real camera – one with a nice grip and thumb rest – you may not know how good a picture taking device can feel in your hands and you may believe that wrist and finger joint pain is a necessary part of photography. But if you are an experienced photographer, one who has used many different cameras, you will know that this is not how a camera is supposed to feel and you will hate handling the Samsung Galaxy S5 Neo.
That being said, this is not Samsung’s fault. Every smartphone I have ever laid my hands on is the same in this regard. Some phones, especially the ultra-thin ones, are even worse. I guess there is strong demand for ever thinner phones, otherwise manufacturers wouldn’t be making them thinner every year and sacrificing battery life and ergonomics in the process. Samsung may be a giant, but it also has to cater to the buyer.
AF and Performance
Some of the recently announced upper mid-range and high-end phones offer on-sensor phase-detection pixels and/or laser-assisted autofocus to speed up focus acquisition. According to the specs page on gsmarena.com the Galaxy S5 Neo offers none of those features. Nevertheless it is a very snappy phone in terms of AF. It may not have all those fancy features, but you can bet that it will outperform most compact cameras and mirrorless cameras from a couple of year ago. It’s probably even faster than many current low end models. Under daylight it acquires focus almost as fast as a Nikon 1 V1 or an Olympus OM-D E-M10. However, it tends to slow down a bit under low to very low light and when focusing on macro subjects. This is where the two mirrorless cameras pull ahead, sometimes even by a good margin, depending on light intensity and lenses used.
The issue with macro subjects is present even under intense sunlight. The AF goes past the subject and locks onto something in the background. I have observed this behavior while shooting with and without a clip-on macro lens (I have a TaoTronics Phone Camera Lens Clip Kit). I believe that this has to do with the size of the AF points. And just in case you are wondering: no, it’s not a matter of being closer than the close focusing distance.
Another very important performance aspect of a live view camera is the refresh rate of its live view feed. The less lag there is, the better. The S5 Neo has almost no lag under daylight. Combined with the snappy AF it makes for an enjoyable shooting experience. Low light is where things get worse, though. Under typical artificial lighting lag is very noticeable and by orders of magnitude more intense than with a Nikon 1 V1 or an Olympus OM-D E-M10. However, keeping in mind that this is a smartphone, I would argue that this is in line with what one can expect from a device like that. Even if there was no lag whatsoever there is no way to extract usable images from a 1/2.6” sensor at high ISO. There is a limit to how much you can push such a tinny sensor.
The last, but not the least important aspect of performance is burst mode and recovery after taking a shot. I haven’t really tested how many fps the S5 Neo can manage, but it is rather quick. The burst mode is not something you can enable in any shooting mode (as in Auto, Pro, HDR or Panorama), but rather a separate mode altogether. That means that you don’t have access to manual controls (that would be the “Pro” mode), while in burst mode. This is the reason why I haven’t used it at all, after fooling around with it initially. As for recovery after taking a shot, this phone is ready to shoot almost immediately, especially if you turn off “Review pictures” in the menu. This reminds me of how sad it is that the Nikon 1 V1 doesn’t give you the option to turn off image review, while even a phone does! As a result you can shoot more pictures in the single shot mode with the S5 Neo than with the otherwise speedier Nikon. Hats off to Samsung for having common sense!
Shooting modes and features
If you are serious about photography, you probably don’t like to relinquish control of shooting parameters. Should this be the case, the “Pro” mode is the closest you will get to having full control over the camera. You can set ISO, exposure compensation and white balance. In addition you can switch between metering modes, turn on/off flash and turn on/off self timer. What you can’t change is aperture (the value is fixed, like most phones) and shutter speed (there is no “M” or “S” mode). However, it is important to note that the lowest sensitivity level of ISO40 (which unsurprisingly produces the cleanest photos) can’t be set manually. It is only available when Auto ISO is enabled.
The modes Panorama, Continuous Shot and HDR (rich tone) are automatic modes. Out of the three I find HDR the most useful. In essence it combines several pictures (I believe 5) and produces a rather realistically looking HDR image. The image doesn’t look overly processed, like most HDR images do, which is a good thing in my book. This mode can even be used handheld, if you hold the phone steady enough. One interesting thing about the HDR mode is that pictures tend to look cleaner and sharper than in any other mode. I assume that the app tones down noise reduction, since only the optimally lit parts of several images are used for the final image. This makes heavy handed noise reduction unnecessary.
To be honest I’m unsure of how to rate the image quality of the Samsung Galaxy S5 Neo. It all depends on where you are coming from. If you are a very serious photographer, you will find it very bad. But if you are a smartphone only user looking to upgrade from an older or current entry level phone, you will most likely like the IQ very much. I’ve had experience with several such phones (Samsung Galaxy Trend GT-S7560, Samsung Galaxy Mega 6.3 I9200, ZTE Blade Q Mini, Microsoft Lumia 550, etc.) and none of them can even hope to come close to the S5 Neo IQ wise. In image quality terms the S5 Neo is more comparable to a solid compact camera than to an entry level phone.
The resolution in the center is quite good. The corners are not too shabby either. And as I’ve said things get even better in HDR mode, due to lower noise. Click on the crops to view them full size in a new browser tab!
100% crop of the lower left corner
100% crop of the lower left corner
Chromatic aberration is a non-issue.
I wasn’t able to observe vignetting either.
Of course the lack of any of these flaws is probably due to the JPEG engine, which corrects them. But even so, who cares as long as the end result is good?
All in all image quality is good, but could be made much better with a software update. Let’s see what needs improving, shall we?
The following is a list of features I think should be included preferably in a software update or at the very least in the next Neo model.
- RAW support
Being able to shoot RAW improves image quality as well as post processing headroom. There is no reason not to offer this feature, since every camera and smartphone has the ability to record RAW image data built into its hardware. It’s only a matter of software support. And memory cards being cheap as they are today, lack of storage is not a valid excuse. RAW would improve image quality and processing headroom in two ways: Firstly, it would allow photographers to choose less aggressive compression and noise reduction settings or deactivate NR completely. Secondly, some JPEG images can’t be salvaged in post, due to wrong white balance settings or overexposure. RAW files contain more highlight detail and are not prone to banding, if you undertake extreme white balance corrections.
- Live View Histogram
In my humble opinion this is a feature every camera with live view should have, especially those without an electronic viewfinder. S5 Neo’s display is bright, but it’s still no match for midday summer sun. You can use it to gauge composition, but determining exposure can be rather tricky. Live view histogram would eliminate this problem completely.
- Shutter speed indicator
S5 Neo’s Auto ISO is solid, but as with every other automatic feature, there are circumstances in which it fails completely. Knowing what shutter speed the phone has chosen is essential to determining when to manually up the ISO, in order to prevent camera shake. Instead of solid shots I have captured a blurry mess on a number of occasions, due to not knowing with what shutter speed I was taking the shot.
- Improved AF algorithm for close up focus acquisition
I don’t really know whether this can be fixed with a mere software update, but I certainly hope so.
To be perfectly frank, despite its shortcomings the Samsung S5 Neo is the first smartphone that I actually enjoyed taking photos with. It’s all too easy for us serious photographers to find faults in ergonomics, image quality, etc. But we shouldn’t forget that smartphones are first and foremost mini computers – a dozen devices in one, so to speak – that also happen to take photos. For what they are, they do a damn fine job of capturing images. And the S5 Neo is even better than the majority of smartphones out there. I just wish that it would offer some of the features I listed under “desirable improvements”. Then I could truly imagine taking a trip and leaving my “real” camera at home. At least for those trips that don’t fall into the “once in a lifetime” category. 😉
Here are some of the better shots I was able to capture with the Samsung Galaxy S5 Neo.
You can find more of my images taken with the S5 Neo in this Flickr set.
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