I have been pretty hard on Samsung over the past few years, but let’s be honest: the company deserved it. Time and time again, we’ve seen Samsung launch fantastic flagship smartphones that are class leaders in almost every key area. Samsung’s mobile displays are the best in the world, many of its software additions have mass appeal, and its phones are always among the best available when it comes to performance.
But where design, build quality and materials are concerned, Samsung has always been at the bottom of the pile.
That changes in 2015, and the Galaxy S6 is our first look at the future of flagship Samsung phones. On the inside, the S6 is everything we have come to expect from the company’s premium smartphones. And on the outside, the Galaxy S6 is like nothing we have ever seen before from Samsung.
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It’s easy to forget just how brief Samsung’s time as a major player in the global smartphone market has been. The company rocketed to the top of the industry just a few short years after releasing its first smartphone.
Of course, Samsung’s meteoric rise and its time at the top have been tumultuous at best, thanks in no small part to its bipolar strategy; while Samsung was spending billions to bash Apple and the iPhone in advertisements, it was also carefully dissecting Apple’s work so it could copy the iPhone pixel by pixel in its own smartphones.
This didn’t go unnoticed, of course, and Apple filed lawsuits against Samsung all over the world as a result. While Samsung was indeed slapped with a billion-dollar fine in one of the biggest suits to date, that’s a small price to pay for the many billions of dollars in profit it has earned in the process.
Samsung eventually ended up trying to reinvent its high-end smartphones a bit, steering things away from the iPhone and trying to carve its own path. That hasn’t worked out terribly well for the company, unfortunately, and its smartphone profits have taken a beating over the past few quarters.
Trouble at the low end of the market remains a pressing issue for Samsung. The company’s low- and mid-range handset business is under attack from Chinese vendors selling more capable smartphones at much lower prices. It remains to be seen how well Samsung will respond to this new breed of competitors selling dirt-cheap smartphones, but we now see how the company will attempt to reinvent its high-end phones.
And we definitely like what we see.
Beginning on the outside, Samsung started from scratch when designing the Galaxy S6. The project’s design team members were told to go in any directions they desired, and they really took the ball and ran with it.
“We were given the freedom to design our dream product,” Samsung’s design lead said during a meeting back in February.
The end result clearly bears a resemblance to older Galaxy S models in some ways, but the total package is like nothing we have seen before from Samsung. Whereas earlier flagship handsets performed like high-end devices but looked and felt like low-end devices, the Galaxy S6 is premium from top to bottom, inside and out.
Samsung’s Galaxy S6 features a stunning design that manages to be sleek and elegant, yet modern.
From afar, the look of the phone is soft and subtle, with rounded edges and an oblong home button that compliments the device’s overall shape. But move in closer and you can see some fantastic detail that isn’t immediately apparent.
The aluminum surrounding the outer edge of the Galaxy S6 has some wonderfully intricate detail that shows the care Samsung designers took while developing this phone.
What appear to be smooth and soft curves from afar actually slope toward sharper lines as they meet the Gorilla Glass 4 on the front and back of the phone, forming polished, chamfered edges that harden and modernize the look.
The metal also isn’t actually perfectly rounded, as it appears to be at first glance. Instead, Samsung added some great subtle detail with a seam down the center of the curve, creating a faint line at the apex that runs across the top and bottom edges of the phone. That seam then feeds into a groove cut out on both sides of the Galaxy S6.
These are all terrific details that the discerning user will really appreciate. I know I do.
Of course, there are also a few areas where Samsung made some curious design choices, perhaps born of necessity since the Galaxy S6 is incredibly thin. Thankfully, they’re all very minor issues.
For example, the holes on the bottom of the phone above the new and improved speaker are not perfectly centered. Since there’s a seam that is exactly in the middle of the aluminum edge on the bottom of the S6, you can clearly see that the row of holes on the lower side of the phone is closer to the center than the topside holes.
The USB charging port and 1/8-inch headphone jack are also off-center.
As I mentioned, Samsung likely had no choice. The company packed a ridiculous amount of technology into a smartphone that’s just 6.8mm thick. Components had to be arranged very carefully and precisely for obvious reasons, and that apparently prevented things from being centered along the bottom of the phone.
Moving from the bottom to the sides of the Galaxy S6, you’ll find volume buttons on the left side and a power button on the right side along with a nano-SIM card tray. The top of the phone is home to an infrared blaster and a secondary microphone for noise cancellation.
The face of Samsung’s Galaxy S6 positions the ear speaker, sensors and a front-facing camera above a Samsung logo at the top of the device, and an oblong home button at the bottom that includes matching aluminum trim around its edges.
There is also a new touch fingerprint scanner in the home button.
The display on the Galaxy S6 is a 5.1-inch Super AMOLED panel with quad HD (1440 x 2560) resolution. In terms of pixel density, that works out to a ridiculous 577 pixels per inch.
Yes, it’s overkill. But it’s hard to argue with results, and the Galaxy S6 has the most impressive smartphone display the world has ever seen. It’s bright, vibrant, and the colors are full and vivid.
Once again, Samsung has raised the bar when it comes to smartphone screens, and I doubt any other smartphones will even approach the Galaxy S6 in 2015. At least, not until the Galaxy Note 5 is released this fall.
Around back you’ll find a second Samsung logo (were two logos really necessary, Samsung?) along with Galaxy S6 branding. At the top of the phone, there is a huge camera lens with a flash and heart rate monitor to its right. I found the heart rate monitor to be very accurate and quick to measure my pulse, but the camera sitting next to it definitely steals the show.
Samsung’s smartphone cameras have gotten more impressive with each passing year, but 2015 is the year when we shift from minor incremental updates to major performance improvements.
The Galaxy S6’s camera is phenomenal.
Samsung finally stopped obsessing about increasing its megapixel counts and instead focused on improving its optics, design and software performance. The result is a 16-megapixel camera that is in many ways the best smartphone camera in the world, outshining even the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus in some areas.
The unit’s f/1.9 aperture brings impressive performance in good lighting or in low-light conditions. There is also optical image stabilization (OIS), which helps a great deal in preventing motion blur. And for the more capable mobile photographers out there, Samsung included a “pro mode” in its camera software that gives the user complete control over things like focal length, white balance, ISO, exposure and more.
Also appreciated is a nifty tracking autofocus feature, which allows the user to tap on an object in a frame, and the camera will keep focus on that object as it moves. Tracking autofocus works in still image mode or even while recording a video.
Videos, by the way, come out as crisp and clean as still photos captured by the Galaxy S6.
Finally, in order to ensure that this fantastic camera is always ready to capture a moment, Samsung included a great shortcut. Double-tap the home button while on any screen, or even while the phone is asleep, and the Galaxy S6 will be ready to snap a photo in just 0.7 seconds.
Moving inside the Galaxy S6, the phone is powered by Samsung’s new octa-core Exynos 7420 processor. The 64-bit, 14nm chipset includes a quad-core 1.5 GHz Cortex-A53 chip and a quad-core 2.1 GHz Cortex-A57 chip.
The Galaxy S6’s 3GB of LPDDR4 RAM and its new UFS 2.0 flash memory chips also help speed things along, each bringing healthy performance improvements compared to earlier technology.
Also hidden beneath the Galaxy S6’s front and back Gorilla Glass 4 panels is a 2,550 mAh battery that may very well be the only area where the Galaxy S6 lags some rivals.
Android enthusiasts were not pleased when they learned that Samsung’s new flagship phones would no longer have removable batteries. And for very heavy users, it looks like this may indeed be an issue.
During my testing, I found that the Galaxy S6’s battery life to be about average. The phone managed to get me through a full day of normal usage, but the remaining change got dangerously low a few times by the late evening with heavy usage.
Of course, portable battery chargers are very affordable and carrying a small portable battery charger isn’t much different from carrying a second battery. In fact, the former is far easier to recharge.
Samsung also included wireless charging support in the Galaxy S6, as well as support for fast charging. A 10-minute charge using Samsung’s included fast-charging wall adapter adds hours of usage time to the S6, and I’ve never used a phone that charged from empty to full as quickly as this one.
When things get dicey, there are two different power saving modes to choose from. One is a standard mode that does things like limiting background data and dimming the screen, and the second is an “ultra power saving mode” that basically transforms the Galaxy S6 into a dumb phone, allowing it to last for hours with a charge of only a few percent.
In the end, I found the Galaxy S6’s battery performance to be about on par with Apple’s iPhone 6 and the new HTC One M9. It actually may outlast either phone with moderate use, but it probably falls a bit short of both rival phones with heavy use thanks in part to that big, bright quad HD display.
Where the Galaxy S6’s software is concerned, it’s just as new on the inside as it is on the outside.
Samsung seems to have spent just as much time refining the Galaxy S6’s software as it did rethinking the hardware design. The changes are immediately apparent on the outside, and they’re often no less apparent on the inside.
First and foremost, TouchWiz has been toned down significantly. The user experience is still unmistakably Samsung’s, but Android 5.0.2 shines through much more than Android has in earlier versions of TouchWiz.
Samsung also used Google’s Material Design guidelines across much of the interface, including menus and some of its own apps. Bright colors and flat visual elements are found throughout a number of key apps, and I particularly like what Samsung did with the notification shade
Then there are a few apps where Samsung didn’t quite follow the same theme, and instead left its interface bland and stark. Examples include the Calendar app and the Calculator app. The result is a bit of inconsistency that will hopefully be addressed as Samsung prepares future software updates.
Beyond the design, Samsung also included some great functionality in its custom version of Android.
For example, a feature called smart network switch automatically disconnects from a Wi-Fi network and switches to cellular data when Wi-Fi becomes unstable. As a Time Warner Cable customer, I deeply appreciate this feature; I can’t tell you how often I stare at my iPhone waiting for an app to refresh, only to eventually have to manually disable Wi-Fi in order to get things moving again.
Other cool additions include Samsung’s gesture support. You can configure the phone to vibrate briefly when you pick it up and there are missed notifications, mute incoming calls by flipping the phone over, or return a missed call simply by lifting the phone to your ear.
Samsung’s “Find My Mobile” lost device recovery solution is also enhanced on the Galaxy S6. Among the additions is a brilliant new feature that allows users to enable ultra power saving mode remotely, so the phone’s battery won’t die while the owner is attempts to retrieve it.
Interestingly, and in spite of the many unique and original software additions Samsung introduced, the company still managed to ape a few features and design elements from Apple’s iOS software in the Galaxy S6.
The look and feel of the fingerprint scanner setup is embarrassingly similar to the interface in iOS, for example, and the home screen now has an iOS-like parallax effect. Samsung’s version of this effect is dumbed down though, since only the wallpaper moves around while the icons, lettering and shadows remain stationary. This completely ruins the effect, making the shifting wallpaper a useless oddity.
Those issues are minor, but I did finally find a few more serious things to complain about on the Galaxy S6.
While Samsung’s new software design looks fantastic for the most part, optimization is another issue entirely. I have found that there is a troubling amount of lag when navigating some areas of the interface. Opening the app drawer from the home screen is a perfect example: The animation is far too slow and it hinders the user experience.
Now, the good news is that this is most certainly a software issue and not a hardware issue. The Galaxy S6 packs a huge amount of power, and you can feel it while using apps and during multitasking.
I would hope — nay, expect — that Samsung addresses the laggy areas of the interface in its first big software update.
Another issue I’ve had pertains to the fingerprint scanner.
Compared to Samsung’s earlier sensors, the fingerprint reader on the Galaxy S6 seems to be a significant improvement… when it works.
I had no issues when I first configured the device and my print worked fine for more than a day. Then, the phone inexplicably stopped recognizing my print.
A reboot did nothing to improve the situation. Instead, to make matters worse, the Galaxy S6 wouldn’t recognize the backup password I configured either. I had no choice but to log in using my Google account, but I had problems there as well since I have two-step authentication enabled.
So I finally had to create an app-specific password just for the Galaxy S6 and use that to log in. Needless to say, I deleted my print and disabled fingerprint authentication soon after.
Hopefully any issues here are ironed out before Samsung Pay launches later this year, since the new mobile payment service will rely on fingerprint authentication just like Apple Pay.
The Galaxy S6 is exciting for a number of reasons.
Samsung’s new hardware and updated design identity change the user experience completely, but the phone still manages to deliver the class-leading performance we’ve come to expect from a flagship Samsung smartphone. There are a few software issues to overcome, but they’re hardly deal-breakers.
The Galaxy S6 truly is an accomplishment for Samsung. It shows that the company has the talent and the resources to deliver a product that fires on all cylinders. And my sincere hope is that the Galaxy S6 is just the beginning.
What is perhaps most impressive about the Galaxy S6 is the fact that it is a class leader both inside and out.
Samsung’s bold and sleek new design would have been more than enough to turn heads and pique interest, but Samsung didn’t stop there. It took this fantastic phone and stuffed it with more technological advancements than we’ve seen in one smartphone in a long time.
The in-house octa-core chipset with 64-bit architecture and 14nm FinFET logic process technology; 3GB of cutting-edge LPDDR4 RAM; and new, faster UFS 2.0 flash storage chips make the Galaxy S6 just as impressive on the inside as its exquisite new design is on the outside.
Would a removable battery have been nice for some users? Of course. Would Android enthusiasts have appreciated a microSD card slot? Certainly. Would waterproofing and dust-proofing have been nice additions? Indeed. But compromises would have to be made in each of these cases, and they were compromises that Samsung didn’t want to make.
Finally, Samsung refused to compromise.
Will this be a problem for Samsung? I have no doubt that some shoppers will refuse to buy a Galaxy S6 due to one or even all of these issues. I also have no doubt that these consumers will represent a comically small minority.
The absence of a removable battery, a memory card slot and waterproofing certainly doesn’t seem to be slowing Apple’s iPhone lineup down.
The beauty of the Android smartphone market is that there is something for everyone. If the absence of any of the aforementioned features is a deal-breaker for a shopper, he or she has plenty more phones to choose from.
But there is one thing I can guarantee: Whichever Android phone one might choose over the Galaxy S6, it won’t be as powerful, the display won’t be as stunning, and the design won’t be as sleek.
Samsung’s Galaxy S6 is now available for preorder and it will be released by all major carriers on April 10th.