Samsung Galaxy S6 review:

The first great smartphone of 2015

THE GOOD The upscale Samsung Galaxy S6’s smooth glass-and-matte-metal body, improved fingerprint reader, and convenient new camera shortcut key make the phone a stunner. Samsung’s decluttered take on Android 5.0 brings the beauty inside, too.

THE BAD Longtime fans will bristle at the Galaxy S6’s nonremovable battery and absent expandable storage. The phone has an intensely reflective backing and looks embarrassingly like the iPhone 6. Battery life, while good, falls short of last year’s Galaxy.

THE BOTTOM LINE Worldly looks and top-notch specs make the impressive, metal Samsung Galaxy S6 the Android phone to beat for 2015.

Gone is the utilitarian plastic build of every Galaxy S past. So long; bye-bye. In its place, the electronics giant paves both sides of its marquee phone in glass, and ties the package in an aluminum alloy bow. Samsung even tops itself with a double curve-screen variant, the Galaxy S6 Edge. Both flagship phones go on sale worldwide starting April 10.

The Galaxy S6 leaves much of its Galaxy S5 DNA behind. Perhaps even more shocking than this materials about-face are the decisions to seal in the battery and leave out a microSD card slot, both choices made in service to staying slim. These are commonplace omissions in the smartphone sphere, but Samsung has been a die-hard defendant of both the removable battery and the extra storage option, until now. It’s a move that makes a difference, too, at least on the power front. The S6’s ticker ran down faster than last year’s S5 did on a single charge.

In many ways, Samsung had no choice but to adopt this svelte, metal chassis and a pared-down, less “bloated” variation of Android 5.0 Lollipop. These moves silence customer complaints about the Galaxy S5’s (and S4 and S3’s) plasticky build, while also girding Samsung against staggering iPhone profits and an army of decent low-cost rivals from Lenovo, Xiaomi and Huawei.

Luckily for Samsung, the S6 is good enough to win back straying fans while also surpassing the all-metal HTC One M9 in extra features, battery life and camera quality.

On top of that, Samsung’s S6 follows Apple’s mobile payments lead with Samsung Pay, and takes a chance on its sturdy and home-made Exynos processor (versus the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 that will be found in most of its high-end Android rivals). The S6 also bakes in wireless charging support and compatibility with a new version of the Gear VR virtual reality accessory — two features you won’t find on any iPhone.

Does the new phone have enough in the way of looks and specs to reverse Samsung’s sagging smartphone sales? Without a doubt. Samsung continues to build on its camera strengths while also offering interesting extras its Android rivals don’t have. The only real danger is in longtime fans of microSD cards and removable batteries punishing Samsung by finding vendors that do. Samsung’s hardware has long stood up to the iPhone; at long last, its physical design does, too.

Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge: Two devices, one family

If straight-sided phones are too vanilla for your tastes,check out my review of Samsung’s Galaxy S6 Edge and its wraparound display. While the two share nearly identical specs, the Edge kicks the S6’s premium feel up a notch.

Design: Metal and glass; plastic be damned

With a matte aluminum alloy frame and Gorilla Glass 4 on the front and back, the S6 lives worlds apart from the plastic construction of five generations of Galaxy flagships. It’s obvious that this is a different beast, and one for which fans have been crying out for years.

Samsung didn’t get here overnight. It built on the metal-framed Note 4 and more midrange Galaxy Alpha, before experimenting with all-metal chassis in the youth-focused Galaxy A5 and A3.

So, let’s talk about this silhouette. The S6 has Samsung’s familiar pill shape, with rounded tops and bottoms and straighter sides. The power button and nano-SIM card slot sit on the right spine. A micro-USB charging port and headset jack live on the bottom, and the left spine houses separate up-and-down volume buttons, just like the iPhone 6.

A central, metal-ringed home button joins two capacitive keys for calling up recent apps and paging back. A terrific new feature lets you double-tap the home button to launch the camera at any time, even when the phone is locked (though that takes a little longer). Samsung has also improved the fingerprint scanner, which you can use to securely unlock the phone; instead of dragging your digit down across a sensor, you now just rest it on the home button. It’s fast and reliable on the whole.

On the back, you’ll find the 16-megapixel camera (same as the Note 4), and a sensor array that includes the camera’s LED flash and heart-rate monitor. Up top, the IR blaster beams out infrared for folks who want to use their phones as a TV remote.

A few niggly negatives: the camera protrudes a bit from the back, which some may not like, and the phone’s glass surfaces become a smudge gallery for your finest fingerprints. And unlike the S5, the S6 isn’t waterproof.

In-hand feel

The Galaxy S6 feels far more fluid and thin than it looks in photos, especially compared with the slightly chunkier Galaxy S5. Next to its designer cousin, it’s the S6 Edge that feels much slimmer than the S6, despite its being a hair thicker at its chubbiest point.

SAMSUNG GALAXY S6, S6 EDGE DIMENSIONS

Galaxy S6 Galaxy S6 Edge
Dimensions (inches) 5.6 x 2.8 x 0.27 5.6 x 2.8 x 0.28
Dimensions (millimeters) 143.4 x 70.5 x 6.8 142.1 x 70.1 x 7.0
Weight (ounces) 4.9 4.6
Weight (grams) 138 132

Because of its straight edges, the S6 isn’t as smooth or seamless as the iPhone 6 with its rounded sides, but without a case, the S6 is easier of the two to grip. Keep in mind that the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 is also smaller all-around than the 5.1-inch S6.

While we’re on the topic, the S6 looks too much like the iPhone 6 to ignore. Its footprint may be larger and it sides might be straighter, but the shape and placement of things like the headset jack, speaker grille and volume buttons are shockingly similar when you see two devices side by side. Even the color of the white phones is matchy-matchy, with nearly indistinguishable shades of matte silver trim.

Notably, the S6 packaging includes tear drop-shaped in-ear headphones that look like the next evolution in the iPhone’s Apple EarPods.

Some color, lots of flash

Although the colors are fairly staid — both models comes in platinum gold in addition to sapphire black and white pearl — Samsung injects shots of color into the lineup with topaz blue, which is really pretty if it catches the light, and just looks black or generically dark if it doesn’t. (The S6 Edge, meanwhile, tries on emerald green.)

The incredibly reflective rear surface flashes color and throws back light. Samsung says this is to add depth and warmth, but the skeptic in me notes that relentless reflectance gets annoying to look at. (The white version minimizes this effect, but it’s still apparent outdoors.)

Display so crisp it hurts

Even though Samsung hasn’t bumped up the screen’s 5.1-inch size, it has spiked the resolution of its AMOLED display to 2,560×1,440 pixels, a density of 577 pixels per inch (ppi), currently the best on the market. Now come the inevitable questions: can the human eye really appreciate detail that fine, and is the higher resolution worth the likely impact on battery life?

The answer — predictably, unsatisfyingly — is yes and no. I grabbed an extra pair of eyeballs and placed the S6 side-by-side with the iPhone 6 (326ppi), Note Edge (525ppi) and Sony Xperia Z3 (424ppi). After staring at streaming videos, zoomed-in text and HD wallpaper, the S6 edged the rest only when we squinted really, really, really hard.

The S6’s screen quality prowess was most apparent against the (poorer) Xperia Z3 in streaming video clarity and saturation, and less so against the iPhone 6. The Note Edge, which shares a 1440p resolution on a larger screen, came the closest to the S6 in terms of flawlessness.

Ironically, some of the revamped icons on the S6 home page look less focused, though every other graphic is razor-sharp.

If you plan on using the S6 in its Gear VR accessory — which turns it into an Oculus Rift-style virtual reality helmet — the extra resolution should really pay off because the S6 will be only a couple of inches from your eyes.

But in normal everyday use, the S6’s nosebleed-high screen pixel density is probably too exact for most eyes to notice; it’s an imposing feature on paper, but less critical in real life.

Softer software

For years, customers have bemoaned the thick, heavy TouchWiz interface that Samsung uses as its custom layer over Android. No longer. Samsung’s take on Android 5.0 Lollipop scales back its own additions and leans heavily on Google’s Material design. Samsung succeeds in embracing a simpler layout without shedding all the software it’s built over the years, though Android deserves much of that credit for providing the framework.

The setup process is a lot smoother, thanks to Lollipop, with tutorials to help you turn on features (like S Voice and fingerprint scanning) along the way.

I usually make new phones completely silent, since chirps and haptic vibrations annoy me, but Samsung toned both down to acceptable Windows Phone levels.

Samsung has also whittled down the menus. Multiwindow mode, for split-screen viewing, still lets you open two programs at once, but instead of toggling it on yourself and selecting from a pop-out menu, it’s always on and launchable from the Recents tray. You can still drag and resize these windows, even turning them into floating bubbles, like in the Note 4.

Other mainstays include private mode and call blocking, easy mode and Do Not Disturb, as well as popular gestures (like Direct Call) and Smart Stay. An area for installing themes has also materialized (there are three in my review unit so far). Kids Mode (and many, many others) hide out in the Galaxy Apps app, but other erstwhile tools, like the S5’s floating Toolbox of shortcuts, get the boot.

Here’s another axed power-user feature: a fuller list of quick-access controls and settings that you see when pulling down the notifications shade with two fingers. Doing this brings down the same shade as swiping down with a single digit.

Preloaded apps

A few folders prepopulated by vendor apps buttresses the simplified look. There’s a bucket of Google apps and services, and one for new partner Microsoft (this folder has Skype and OneDrive, for instance). Bonus: you can edit the folder color.

As for preloaded apps, a few Samsung programs remain, like Milk music and video and S Health, which are Samsung’s answers to the iTunes Store and Apple Health, respectively. S Voice is another constant. To get more Samsung apps and partner apps, you’ll need to open a shortcut and select them from the buckets marked Galaxy Essentials and Galaxy Gifts. One such Gift is Fleksy, a keyboard alternative that will come free with all S6 phones.

Extras: Fingernail sensitivity, parallax built-in

Samsung doesn’t crow about it, but it looks like high screen sensitivity, an option on previous Galaxies, is built into the S6’s display. Although the option has disappeared from the Settings menu, I was able to navigate the screen (but not the soft keys) using only my nail. Not so for my fuzzy chenille glove, though it should work with a more fitted leather variety.

Some of the preloaded S6 wallpaper gives you a small parallax effect when you rotate the screen from side to side; the background shifts slightly while icons remain in place. I noticed the effect on two wallpapers. It offers a tiny bit of extra dimension. You can obtain the same visuals with wallpapers on other phones.

Mobile payments up ahead

That improved fingerprint reader we talked about above isn’t only for unlocking the phone. It also sets the S6 up for making mobile payments using Samsung Pay, which launches this summer in the US and South Korea. Although we’re not sure which markets it’ll work in next, we do know how it’ll work — here’s our hands-on with Samsung Pay.

In the meantime, you can use Google Pay (with the S6’s built-in NFC, or near-field communication, technology), or a variety of other payment apps. (Install Google Wallet, turn on NFC, and presto: Google Wallet appears in the NFC and Payment submenu under “Tap and Pay.”)

Camera action

A 16-megapixel camera juts out slightly from the phones’ back, sporting the same resolution we see on its big brother, 2014’s Galaxy Note 4. The lens itself gets an upgrade over the Galaxy S5, to f/1.9, from the S5’s f/2.2 rear camera.

The S6 and S6 Edge become the second wave of Samsung phones to include optical image stabilization (after the Note 4 and Note Edge), which should help smooth out shaky hand shots. A new auto-HDR (high dynamic range) feature means you won’t have to stop to improve certain scenes, like landscapes. It’ll automatically adjust white balance, too.

On the front, Samsung installs a 5-megapixel shooter for wide-angle selfies, promising improved low-light photos. As with the Note 4, you can shoot a selfie by tapping the sensor on the back of the phone, and you can download a separate Samsung shooting mode that’ll take a self-portrait from the phone’s rear camera.

Lay of the land, extra modes

The native camera app looks clean and simple (and similar to that of the HTC One M9, probably because of the common Android 5.0 denominator).

On-screen controls on the left and right edges include effects and the timer, plus settings that dig deep into options like tracking auto-focus and voice control. Meanwhile, the Mode button on the right pulls up six alterna-modes for effects like panorama and slow-motion (hilarious on a 2-year-old!). Pro mode lets you more granularly adjust settings for macro and white balance, and Virtual Shot gives you a sort of weird GIF effect that I’m not sure anyone really needs.

Meanwhile, the editing app tucked into the Gallery has its own hat full of tricks, like a collage tool that I like for its Instagram-friendly capabilities, and a portrait editor that will do things like slim your face or enlarge your eyes. This creeps me out, but a lot of people seem to like these nonsurgical adjustments.

Image quality

We created a separate photo shoot-out that pits the Galaxy S6 against the iPhone 6 and HTC One M9, where the S6 and iPhone trade off which one edges the other (there’s no clear champ, though there are some differences in how each one handles color and exposure), and they both best the One M9. Be sure to check that out. In the meantime, here’s how the S6 fared on its own, with a few sample shots below.

As with most cameras, outdoor shots and those taken in ample lighting looked scads better than photos captured solely indoors under artificial lighting. People photographed inside often wind up looking like they’re wearing weird plastic masks, though that’s not an S6-only or even a Samsung-only trait.

Close-ups, meanwhile, looked great, showing off individual strands of fur on a worn tennis ball and throwing shadows in sharp, detailed relief.

Selfies are meant to do one thing, and that’s make you look good, or at least good enough to text out or post to a social network. This the S6 does admirably indoors and outside, whether the resulting skin tones are true-to-life or not.

Photos taken with the wide-angle 5-megapixel front-facing camera easily bests the S5’s, which was near the top of its class last year. Images were detailed without making complexions grainy or unflattering, and colors were fairly on-point as well, with no grayed-out skin tones in sight.

Samsung cameras still struggle with night mode and low-light shots. While the quality continues to improve year after year, you still don’t get uniformly awesome shots in these common lighting scenarios.

I wanted to test out Optical Image Stabilization, so I took this stalk of flowers blowing in the breeze. The S6 captured the background in one photo, but nailed it here.
I zoomed in on these bay gulls to test out the S6’s camera’s zoom function.
The sun was so bright, I couldn’t see the screen, and was sure this shot could come out dark. Auto-HDR brightened the shadows.

The image, meanwhile, recreated indoor colors with high fidelity, and quickly refocused when the scene switched among subjects near and far: people, moving people, a drinking glass, the action movie on TV.

Hardware performance

For the first time, Samsung has opted to use its own octa-core Exynos processor instead of Qualcomm’s octa-core Snapdragon 810 chipset. In initial diagnostic tests, the S6’s octa-core Exynos processor trails the One M9 and LG G Flex 2 in one and tops them in others. Companies — including Samsung and HTC— have been known to optimize for benchmark performance, so take these results with a grain of salt.

During my testing, the Edge’s recent apps soft key stuck at times, making me think it didn’t register my presses. I also noticed this once or twice on other button presses, though I didn’t initially have the same issues on the S6. For the most part, tasks completed without incident.

SAMSUNG GALAXY S6

Display size/resolution 5.1-inch, 2,560×1,440 pixels
CPU 8-core, 2,100MHz, ARM Cortex-A57
Memory 3GB RAM
Storage 32GB/64GB/128GB
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Android (5.0) TouchWiz UI

On to the games and apps. The Galaxy S6, iPhone 6 and Note 4 all handled Real Racing 3 well, but the iPhone 6 seemed the most fluid (by a slim margin), with the least amount of visible aliasing on its admittedly smaller screen.

The graphics-heavy Google Earth app came next. Of the three, Apple’s iPhone 6 was a touch smoother to rotate and navigate around after a map of the CNET office, but really, we’re talking about minuscule differences.

Battery life…and death

How about the S6’s power quotient? The S6 has a 2,550mAh battery (the S6 Edge’s is a tiny big larger, at 2,600mAh). Both of these are smaller than last year’s 2,800mAh ticker.

In our standard video loop test, the battery took an average of 12.4 hours to run down. That’s a few hours longer than the average HTC One M9 results, which have been hovering around just under 9 hours. Still, that puts the S6 at hours less than the S5’s 15 hours, 18 minutes results.

Anecdotally, battery life lasted about a day doing all the things I do most: cruise the Web and Yelp, check my mail, upload photos to social networks and navigate using Google Maps. Note that batteries wear out over time, and the more you demand of your phone, the faster it will drain. Bottom line: this is not the phone that takes you all day and all night on a single charge with more juice to spare. (Note, again, that you can’t swap in a new battery like you would with the S5; but you can buy a Mophie charging case later this year for $100 or so.)

Samsung’s goal seems to be: if the battery doesn’t last all day, let’s at least make it easy to top up, through quick-charging and wireless charging. The former works as promised; I got 70 percent top-up in about an hour. The latter is compatible with any Qi wireless charger. I tested with a Nokia charging pad I had on-hand and also Samsung’s after-market charger. Beyond that, there’s power-saving mode and the even more spartan ultra-power saving mode.

LTE and Wi-Fi

speedtest-gs6.jpg
Diagnostic Speedtest.net test results.

LTE is a given on the Galaxy S6, with support for Category 6 connections at a theoretical cap of 300Mbps down and 50Mbps up. Real world performance will vary based on individual network strength.

In San Francisco, on T-Mobile, my scores through the diagnostic Speedtest.net app ranged from results in the single digits up to 23Mbps down and 26Mbps up.

Real-world experience echoed that. In areas with low coverage, like San Francisco’s further-flung Presidio neighborhood, progress meters swirled and photos refused to upload.

Most of the time, though, pages loaded and items streamed just fine.

If you don’t live in an LTE area, the S6 also supports HSPA networks rated at 42.2Mbps down and 5.76Mbps up.

Built-in Wi-Fi supports the 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac protocol.

Call quality

As with LTE results, call quality depends strongly on your local network. Yes, there’s a lot of engineering that goes into the phone itself, but the cackles and other audio inconsistencies you might hear on the line are generally network-related.

I can say that in my tests, the S6 sounded like a typical cell phone; it didn’t stand out as being magnificently crystal clear or especially terrible. Speakerphone worked well enough that I’d use it if I needed to or wanted to.

One word of caution is that the Extra Volume on-screen control, while handy for boosting audio levels on a call, tend to amplify any imperfection.

Pricing and availability

The Galaxy S6 goes on sale globally starting April 10. Pricing will vary by region, but expect the S6 to cost about the same as the S5, and for the S6 Edge to cost…more.

US pricing varies wildly by service provider. It’ll be available from all major UK networks and retailers, with the SIM-free 32GB model costing £600 directly from Samsung. In Australia the 32GB costs AU$999, with 64GB at AU$1,149 and 128GB setting you back AU$1,299. There are the usual plans from all the major network providers.

Versus the HTC One M9, iPhone 6, S6 Edge, S5

HTC One M9: While the S6’s newfound metal frame looks smashing, the M9’s design (essentially a redux of last year’s M8) is more eye-catching yet, and its Sense operating system keeps its elegant cool. But the S6’s extra features, battery life and camera image quality top the M9. The S6 is the easy winner here, unless you really adore the One’s design or the Sense user interface.

iPhone 6: When it comes down to it, the S6 is like the Android version of the iPhone 6; they’re pretty much neck-and-neck in all the design and performance details that matter. The iPhone 6 and Galaxy S6 look similar and have a lot of feature parity, especially with Samsung Pay around the corner. Each is backed by Google’s or Apple’s powerhouse online services (like Google Drive and Continuity/Handoff, respectively). Choosing between them will come down more to operating system preference than anything else.

Galaxy S6 Edge: There’s no competition here; the S6 Edge is the better phone, hands-down. It builds off the S6’s overall excellence with those side humps and Edge display software. In other words, it’s all win on top of win. You just need to decide if the designer shape and software are worth the extra cost. If not, I think you’ll be just as happy with the S6’s runway-ready looks and internal performance.

Galaxy S5: There are enough differences and improvements that I’d at least consider upgrading from the S5, especially if you’re at all interested in Samsung Pay (this applies to US and South Korean customers first) or in the Edge. Unless, of course, that swappable battery and expandable storage on the S5 is your must-have feature, in which case you should stay put — or consider going the phablet route with the Note 4.

Final thoughts: This is the Android phone to beat

The Galaxy S6 is the most competitive Android phone right now, capped only by the S6 Edge. Its Exynos processor seems to be at least comparable to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 chip performance in top-notch phones, with the S6 faring well (but not dominating) diagnostic performance tests and battery life doing at least as well as contemporary competitors (but not as good as last year’s model.)

Image quality also looks great on both S6 and S6 Edge cameras, though once again outdoor shots are better than indoor photos. Selfie quality keeps improving, making those shots look more natural and less scary-detailed.

Like its forebears, the S6 brims with high-performance hardware, but it does so with a newfound style that also corrects buyers’ most glaring complaints about plastic build materials, a bum fingerprint reader and too many preloaded apps and confusing software features. While the Edge brings some nice extra credit, the S6 is the more approachable, “everyman” phone to get.

True, the S6 does introduce new raised fists over the embedded battery and sealed-up storage slot, but for me, the benefits outweigh the faults, with features like Samsung Pay and the camera shortcut launch earning extra credit. Attention LG, Sony, Xiaomi: The gauntlet has been thrown. It’s your turn now.

Developing News: Samsung Galaxy S6

The first great smartphone of 2015 continues to generate headlines. As the competitive landscape shifts throughout the year, we’ll use the space below to keep you posted on new developments with the Samsung Galaxy S6.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Neo rumored with mid-range specs

A variant on last year’s flagship model could still arrive, amidst global S6 sales.

Samsung’s 5.5-inch Galaxy S6 Plus rumored to be coming soon

Outfitted with a larger screen, the Plus version of Samsung’s Galaxy S6 may debut in the coming weeks, an Italian blog site claims.

Samsung armors up with limited-edition ‘Iron Man’ S6 Edge

Iron Man fans rejoice — Samsung has teamed up with Marvel to produce a limited-edition Galaxy S6 Edge suited up just like your favorite superhero.

Samsung’s new phones are off to a strong start, says report

A month after launch, shipments of the company’s Galaxy S6 series of smartphones have topped 10 million, says a Korean publication.

Alleged Samsung Galaxy S6 Active specs and images surface

The rugged variant of the flagship smartphone may be exclusive to AT&T in the United States.

WHAT YOU’LL FINALLY PAY

AVERAGE PRICE:$427.74

TechDomes2015

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