It’s not okay to make a cheap-looking phone anymore.
Now that Apple is finally making big phones, and even the cheapest Android phones feel nice, we all expect more from Samsung — and rightly so. A flagship phone has to be great or it’s going to get laughed out of the room. If the Galaxy S6 was another plasticky, boring phone like last year’s Galaxy S5 or if it merely introduced a few hardware tricks, it would have gotten laughed out of the entire neighborhood.
There is a version of the phone with a hardware trick, the Galaxy S6 Edge with a curved display. But that’s a distraction; the real story is that Samsung needed to learn that hardware prowess and software features are tools you use to build something great, not ends in themselves. Most Galaxy phones are uninspired compilations of spec lists. For the S6, Samsung to needed to find inspiration, and it did: in Apple.
The Galaxy S6 is what happens when Samsung doesn’t try to copy Apple’s phones, but instead finally tries to copy Apple’s product philosophy.
The first thing to know about the S6 is that it doesn’t feel much like other Samsung phones. Instead of a plastic or faux-leather back, it’s glass on the front and the back with metal around the rim. We’ve seen other phones do this, but none have done it so well. The Galaxy S6 looks great and feels even better.
The edges are subtly textured from flat to curved in all the right spots. The seams between the glass and the metal are nigh-microscopic, and the whole thing just feels fantastic. It weighs just a hair more than an iPhone 6, and it’s slightly bigger as well. But I actually find it easier to hold and to reach the far corners because the glass is less likely to slip than the iPhone’s metal finish. It glides into a pocket and stays in my hand.
If you wanted to go hunting for problems, you could find them. Maybe the Gorilla Glass 4 won’t hold up to drops or could be prone to scratching (neither has been the case for me so far). The camera bump on the back is an overly large wart. That’s about it, from a straight physical design perspective. And in both cases, I’m simply not worried about it.
Then there’s the elephant in the room: it really does remind you of the iPhone. This isn’t a straight rip, of course. From the front, it’s the spitting image of the Galaxy S5. The back is glass, and the curves fit Samsung’s traditional Galaxy shape instead of iPhone’s rounded rectangle. But take a look at the bottom of each phone: You’ll find the same perfectly machined holes and ports in basically identical spots. Samsung also dropped the removable battery, the microSD storage expansion, and even the waterproofing, all in the name of design.
The Galaxy S6 looks great and feels even better
This comparison is the makings of an epic argument between partisans of both companies (and I’m sure you will get a taste of that if you read the comments below). But I really don’t care if Samsung copied any particular iPhone design element or not. What I care about is that it really does seem like Samsung finally got around to copying the most important thing: a fully conceived, well-executed design.
It’s actually remarkable to see a Samsung device where design feels like it was a consideration from the start, not something applied only after the component list was compiled. Go ahead and have your battles about which is better, who copied who, and even whether it’s worth losing that traditional Samsung removable battery. While you’re doing that, I’ll be over here enjoying this elegant and refined device.
If there’s any single feature of the iPhone you could say Samsung copied, it’s the fingerprint sensor. And thank god it did, because it’s actually useful as an unlocking mechanism now. The interface for setting it up looks exactly like Apple’s, with a fingerprint that slowly gets colored in as it learns. But you can use it from any angle simply by resting your finger on the home button, and though it’s not quite as fast or as accurate as the iPhone, it’s very close.
But that’s where the comparisons stop, because the rest is all pure, unapologetically Samsung. The Galaxy S6 features a parade of specs, each one more audacious than the last. There’s the IR blaster, the heart rate monitor that doubles as a shutter button for selfies, the support for not one but two wireless charging standards, the insanely fast new processor, the 16-megapixel optically stabilized camera, and even a super loud speaker. But it all culminates in the display — and what a culmination it is.
The Galaxy S6 has one of the finest screens I have ever seen on a phone. It’s a 5.1-inch Super AMOLED display with a completely unnecessary number of pixels, 2560 x 1440. Forget any gripes you may have heard about AMOLED screens in the past; they don’t apply here. By simply throwing a pixel density of 577 PPI and the processing power necessary to move light through them, Samsung has overcome any complaints with brute force. And also with better color awareness: whites are whiter, blacks are blacker, colors are vibrant without being oversaturated.
At oblique angles, it’s not as accurate as the traditional LCD you’ll find on an iPhone, and it doesn’t sit quite as close to the surface of the glass. But when you’re looking straight on, everything is ridiculously sharp. There’s also a huge gamut of brightness, from eye-searing to safe to read in bed, and the auto-brightness is actually useful.
As long as I’m talking about the screen, let’s talk about the Galaxy S6 Edge, whose distinguishing feature is a screen that curves around two sides. We’re not reviewing it separately because it is, for nearly all intents and purposes, the exact same phone as the regular S6. In fact, the only intent and purpose that really matters for the Edge is marketing: it’s just an incredibly cool-looking phone that’s sure to draw people into the store. It’s an example of Samsung’s engineering abilities and the kind of thing that will wow your friends at the bar for a minute or two.
Unfortunately, it’s not much more than that.
The S6 Edge has the same size screen as the regular S6, just with that slight curve. The effect is trippy when you slide an icon across it, and in some cases it’s just really nice to glide your thumb over it. But the tradeoff is that the sides of the phone are thinner and feel sharper.
Samsung has added a few software tricks to go along with the curved screen. You can set a row of colored, favorite contacts that you can swipe to see. When one of those contacts calls you and your phone is face-down, the table lights up with the appropriate color. There’s a night clock that’s inexplicably limited to working for 12 hours a day. Lastly, there’s the "Information stream," which will give you the time, notifications, weather, and a random Yahoo News headline. That last feature is super slow and buggy, and the gesture to bring it up is really hard to get right.
The S6 Edge is pretty, but not worth the extra $100
Basically, the extra $100 you have to spend to get the Edge buys you a cool-looking phone with some very forgettable software features. I think the regular S6 is handsome enough on its own and feels better in the hand to boot. Between the two, it’s the one to get.
Read more: Living life on the S6 Edge
There’s probably no greater source of complaints with Android phones than their cameras. Samsung has always managed to float above the sea of Android photographic disappointment, but never really soared. With the S6 and its optically stabilized, 16-megapixel sensor, it’s really starting to fly.
In bright light, I’m hard pressed to find anything major to complain about. In low light, pictures tend to come out a little more yellow than I’d like, and it can be pretty aggressive in lightening things up too much. Yes, you see artifacting when you zoom in on the results, but not enough to bother me. And in some cases, I actually preferred the lighter images that Samsung put out to what I got with the iPhone 6 Plus.
The truth, though, is that this is probably the closest any Android phone has ever come to the "just shoot" mentality I love about the iPhone. Especially with the real time HDR, I found myself trusting the Galaxy S6 to simply get it right instead of diving into the expert settings. I don’t know if I’ve ever just trusted an Android phone to get it right and been rewarded for it, but the S6 has been doing just that, consistently.
After a few first-day lags and error messages (which may have been cleared up by a software update), I never ran into any notable slowdowns. In fact, this is probably the fastest Android phone I’ve ever used. It should be, with a 64-bit Octa-core processor and 3GB of RAM. Like it did with the screen, I think Samsung solved any slowdowns you might experience in Android with brute force. So much so that I often found that both versions of the S6 get warm, especially when using processor- or graphics-intensive apps.
Those power-hungry apps also took a toll on battery life. In our web browsing battery test (which loops a web page once a minute), the Galaxy S6 held up well, achieving over nine hours of uptime. But in actual usage — especially when streaming YouTube or playing games — I got less than that, sometimes distressingly less. There were days that I made it to midnight and beyond before it conked out, and there were days where the battery saver mode kicked in as early as 6PM. That’s decidedly average at best, and worse than what I get with an iPhone 6.
The Galaxy S6 has a 2,550 mAh battery, and the S6 Edge, oddly, rates 2,600 mAh. That’s smaller than the S5’s battery, yet it needs to power many more pixels — so I suppose it’s a testament to both Lollipop and Samsung’s processor that it lasts as long as it does. It also helps that Samsung is supporting both major wireless charging standards in one body and rapid charging via USB. That’s all nice, I suppose, but it’s small consolation when you’re away from a plug and running out of juice.
On the software side, Samsung is continuing its long journey toward a genuinely clean and restrained design. But it’s doing so by taking all of the clutter and stuffing it into the closet. The crazy Samsung features are mostly still here, just buried and turned off by default. I’m fine with that: the result is a lot of nicer rooms to live in. Samsung has mostly deferred to Google’s Material Design sensibilities, which is a refreshing change of pace. I still wish that Samsung would use more restrained colors, though. There’s also a new theming option and store, but the stuff you’ll find there is the stuff of a bad LSD trip when it isn’t a blatant co-branding ploy with an action movie.
Unfortunately, there’s still carrier-incentivized crapware apps to contend with. My review units come from T-Mobile, which meant that Lookout Security and T-Mobile carrier junk took up half my notifications until I managed to turn them off.
Samsung's finally learning how to make better software
Samsung’s apps like S Health are surprisingly decent, though, and I actually found myself using S Finder in the notification shade to quickly jump to arcane settings I couldn’t otherwise have located. Samsung still wants you to believe that it’s a good idea to use two apps at once on the same screen or to put one app in a tiny pop-over window. It’s mostly wrong about both of those ideas, but I guess it’s impressive that a phone can even pull it off in the first place. Honestly, my favorite new feature is double-pressing the home button to launch the camera.
Sometime in the past year, the bar for what makes a good smartphone got raised. It has to look good, it has to have a great screen, it has to last all day, it has to have elegant software, and most of all it has to have a really good camera. Miss one of those marks, and you haven’t just failed, you’ve probably lost a customer for years. (Just ask HTC in six months.)
But you can’t treat that list of "has to's" as a checklist. Design isn’t a checkbox, and it’s more than how a phone looks or feels. It’s the whole thing, integrated, so you almost can’t imagine it any other way. We’ve heard Apple espouse these maxims so much that they’ve passed beyond the realm of cliche into proverb. You can’t help but feel like they're just empty words, a glossy sheen to distract you from the incredibly complex and multivarious innards of the modern smartphone.
Design isn’t a checkbox, and it’s more than how a phone looks or feels
But design at this deeper level matters. And it’s something Samsung has chosen — or been forced — to contend with. The Galaxy S6 is the first time I’ve felt like Samsung might finally be grappling with the idea of what a smartphone ought to be on an ontological level. No, the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge don’t fully tick off every single box in that checklist. But they’ve done something better: become phones that are more than the collection of their parts.
Samsung finally copied the right thing: caring about design.
Photography by Sean O'Kane. Shot on location at Urban Glass.