Samsung got complacent. That's the best way to describe the company's performance in 2014.
As its competitors were releasing sleeker designs and more elegant software, it almost felt like ole Sammy was stuck in a rut, unsure of how to proceed. So it gave customers more—more features, more options, more everything. It was an approach that manifested in the Galaxy S5, which was a good device that was ultimately concealed by too many unrefined ideas.
That's when it all seemed to really go downhill. Slowly but surely, the company's untouchable Android dominance began to feel mortal, like its magical mobile powers were being stripped away.
And then, out of nowhere, as the new year arrived, Samsung seemingly had an epiphany: Maybe consumers didn't want redundant and bloated software, and maybe those same consumers actually cared about what a phone looked like, and how it felt.
That's where the Galaxy S6 comes in, a beautiful new device that signals a complete about-face. Now, instead of more, Samsung is going with less. Less bloat, less options, less everything. The result is two of the best phones Samsung has ever released, one of which is the Galaxy S6.
Check out our Galaxy S6 Edge review too.
Past Samsung designs have consistently been about as exciting as the color beige—an approach that boiled over with last year's "Band-aid" Galaxy S5. Not only was the design just not good, it mostly felt like a downgrade compared to the S4 that came before it. Ultimately, it seemed to us like Samsung designers were being lazy, happy to follow the same formula for a fifth year running.
But, my oh my, the company has finally turned over a new leaf, and, man, what a difference a little aluminum makes. We got glimpses of a new design philosophy beginning to take shape toward the end of 2014, but the Galaxy S6 represents a complete tidal shift. Whereas the Galaxy S5 was a perfectly boring Camry, Samsung's newest design is a high-end Mercedes. This is unquestionably the most beautiful phone the company has ever released.
Yes, there are similarities to devices from some of Samsung's closest rivals. Put it next to an iPhone 6, and, yeah, sure, there's a passing resemblance, like the two could be distant cousins. But let's not get carried away. Companies across the mobile industry borrow ideas from each other all the time, and this is just one of the more recent examples. What you get is a very beautiful, very elegant mobile device. One that, in some aspects, looks even better than the handsets it took inspiration from.
For one, the rounded edges are more subtle than what you'd find on the iPhone 6—even flattening out a bit on the sides—making the Galaxy S6 easier to grip one-handed; it's more akin to a device you'd find in Sony's mobile lineup. That just means the S6 isn't going to slip out of your hand like a slimy fish. The device is thinner and narrower compared to the S5, further giving it a pleasing comfortability. For me, the S6's size is right there in the middle of not too big and not too small.
The aluminum design is obviously the biggest change this year. Instead of chintzy plastic, Samsung has opted for metal, with two pieces of glass (Gorilla Glass 4) sandwiching the device together. Even compared to something like the Note 4, the difference in quality is immense. You feel like you're holding something very, very expensive; never has a Samsung device felt so elegant or premium. Before, you couldn't say that about a Samsung phone and keep a straight face.
The design progress is impressive, and confirms Samsung definitely has an eye for quality. Compared to other phones in the high-end market, I'd say it's a tossup for best in show. It may not look like a significant upgrade in pictures or video—it still looks like a Samsung phone—but you'll understand once you pick one up. Like the first time you held an iPhone 6 or HTC One M9, the Galaxy S6's craftsmanship will elicit plenty of Oohs and Ahhs.
But the makeover isn't a complete win for Samsung. The Galaxy S6 isn't water-resistant like its predecessors, and the back isn't removable, which means you can't replace the battery. Additionally, there's no microSD slot, so users will be stuck with the onboard storage they're given (32GB, 64GB or 128GB). These are the same features Samsung cheered about for years, so it's definitely a blow to see them gone.
Are these changes a major problem? No, not really.
I can see why not having either feature is a big deal. People like to carry around their files and media; and, in tight situations, people also like to have the option to quickly swap out their device's battery. I get it, I do. For me, it's a complete nonissue.
Storage is easier to get around. With OneDrive on the S6 out of the box, you can quickly snag yourself 100GB of free storage, which I've already configured to automatically back up my photos. Problem solved. For music and video, I rely on streaming services, while anything else I need is pretty much done entirely on my computer. Samsung does offer a 128GB option if you absolutely need that much storage, but most users won't get near exceeding that.
As for the nonremovable battery, there's really no getting around it. If you're the heaviest of heavy power-users, the option will be sorely missed. Say goodbye. But I doubt most people will even notice.
Samsung has tried to lessen the blow by including support for two wireless charging standards, which is in addition to the device's fast AC charging. Basically all your bases are covered. Certainly not as convenient as doing a quick swap, but most people will move beyond the issue (if you can even call it that in the first place) and never look back.
I also have to call out the Galaxy S6's camera hump, which protrudes like an abnormal wart. If you thought the camera humps of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus were bad (they weren't), Samsung's S6 outdoes the competition, and then some. This isn't really new among Samsung devices, but it's certainly more pronounced now that the company has moved on to a more premium design.
One great feature that does make it over from the Galaxy S5 is the fingerprint scanner, only this time it uses a touch-based system, and not that finicky swipe-based implementation. It works much, much better—about 90-percent of the time—putting it on a par with Apple's TouchID, which essentially works the same way. We did have issues with it early on—it was so bad we just turned it off—but after a maintenance update, we've seen a lot of improvement.
Internally, the Galaxy S6 is powered by Samsung's zippy Exynos 7420 chip and 3GB of RAM, 16-megapixel camera with optical image stabilization (5-megapixel front), Android 5.0.2, 2550mAh battery and a remarkable, lovely, unbelievable 5.1-inch Quad HD display. Topping Samsung's colorful sundae, naturally, is TouchWiz, which has been slimmed down.
In the past, Samsung's software would be a major bog—even swiping through home screens would cause stutter. But that's no longer an issue. Whether that's through the brute force of the Exynos 7420 chip and 3GB RAM, or the dialed down TouchWiz, is unclear. It could be both. Whatever the case, you won't run into any software-side lag.
Of all the super phones currently on the market, the S6 is among the fastest. We'll have to see if performance holds up over a longer period of time. That same software update that fixed the fingerprint scanner seemed to further optimize the experience, so there is still work to be done.
But, by and large, I have no complaints about how the device performed. You'll be sending emails, browsing the Web, playing games, and doing whatever it is you do without any hiccups. Something—it bears repeating—that Samsung phones of yore struggled to do.
Like in our HTC One M9 review, we charged up the S6 to 100-percent, and then played continuous video until it was nearly dead. All told—with some Snapchatting in between—the S6 was brought down to about 15-percent after nearly 5 hours of YouTube with the screen at auto brightness. That's probably not something 99-percent of users will be doing, but just know that you can probably get in a good Netflix binge before your device conks out.
With more normal usage, battery life was just OK, maybe even a little poor. I don't use my device like a madman—occasionally checking email, browsing, using social media—but I still found the battery saving modes kicking in sooner than expected. With heavier usage, it would be even worse. You'll get through a full work day, but don't expect to go on a bender and come out with juice to spare.
That will definitely be an issue for folks who are pining for a removable battery, but for most people it's about what you can expect from the competition. It would have been great to see Samsung squeeze in a larger battery at the sacrifice of thinness, but that's just me. Folks looking for stellar battery life will probably have to wait for the next Note device later this year.
As I mentioned earlier, Samsung does make charging the S6's battery as easy as possible. I used a wireless charging cradle at my desk throughout the day, and if I was really desperate, I could get a lot of juice in just a few minutes thanks to its rapid charging capability. But if you're away from both and in a pinch, there might be times when you're rationing off your usage in order to get through a particularly heavy day of Snapchatting.
Samsung has consistently offered some of the best smartphone displays on the market, and the Galaxy S6's 5.1-inch Quad HD (577 ppi) AMOLED screen is undoubtedly the best you'll find right now.
It's absolutely mind-blowing how Samsung has stuffed so many pixels into such a small space. I don't typically fawn over smartphone screens—I'm perfectly content with the iPhone 6's meager 4.7-inch 720p display. But it's impossible not to love the S6's grand 2560 x 1440 resolution. I can't get enough. I often found myself just staring at it, contemplating a life without such a heaven to gaze upon.
Not only does it perform beautifully, but it produces exceptional color accuracy, too; it almost doesn't look real. Actually, I'm pretty sure it isn't. I cycled through several different wallpapers during my time with the device, and every time I came away completely dazzled by how wonderful the screen looked.
One of the best parts about the S6's OLED display is a Color Management option, which allows users to choose between several different screen modes. In total, there are four different modes to choose from: Adaptive display (dynamically optimize color range, saturation and sharpness); AMOLED Cinema; AMOLED Photo (calibration to the Adobe RGB standard); and Basic.
I kept it on Adaptive (it's the default) for the duration of my review, only switching between the other choices intermittently. The mode has a tendency to oversaturate color, but I didn't mind it one bit, and actually found myself preferring it; when I did switch display modes, I typically found that the other options were a little too warm for my taste.
Anything you throw at it will look amazingly sharp and vibrant. I watched several videos on the device just because—all I wanted to do was stare at the screen in awe, thankful that such beauty exists in this cruel, cruel world.
You'll still struggle to see the display out in bright sunlight, but it's not terrible. The Galaxy S6's maximum brightness can get very bright—blindingly so if you're in a dark room—making it easier to see outdoors; it also handles reflections quite well, so you should be able to read when high ambient light is present.
Samsung software has never been good. In fact, it has consistently been one of the worst skins out there, taking on a more grotesque appearance as the years have gone on. Even the most die-hard Samsung fans can agree that TouchWiz is bloated, ugly and slow. While the Galaxy S6 doesn't introduce a complete software overhaul, it's a much more enjoyable experience as a whole.
Unfortunately, despite what you may have read or heard, there's still as much bloatware as ever. At first glance, the S6 doesn't quite appear as bad—you're not bombarded by tutorials or features you'd just ignore. But jump into the app drawer, and you'll find that there are an inordinate amount of apps preinstalled—nearly 60 in total. Some of them are truly useful additions, like OneDrive, but I'd wager most of them won't ever be touched.
On our unit from T-Mobile, there is far too much carrier bloat, too, and that's never a win for anyone. The best thing you can do is "disable" these apps, which essentially means hiding them from the app drawer. But, beyond that, you're pretty much stuck with what Samsung gives you, like it or not.
What you'll notice about the software, however, is that it's much more dialed down. For once, TouchWiz doesn't hinder the experience, and that in and of itself is a miracle. Compared to previous models, Samsung says 40-percent of the features and steps have been deleted, which is a significant chunk. That ultimately makes for a much more user-friendly experience. And—thank goodness—the annoying bleeps and bloops are no longer around.
That's not to say Samsung's new TouchWiz is perfect. It's not nearly as pretty as stock Android 5.0 Lollipop, or even HTC's Sense UI, for that matter. And it still tries to throw some odd features at users, like using two apps on the same screen. I'd still give the award to Motorola for smartest Android tweaks, but at least Samsung recognized the old TouchWiz needed to be changed, and that has to count for something, right?
To be honest, I didn't really give Samsung's stock apps the time of day, instead opting for some of Google's solutions or other alternatives in Google Play. And, after a few days, I ditched TouchWiz altogether and threw on a launcher (Nova Launcher Prime), along with the Moonshine icon pack, tweaking the experience exactly to my liking. With the HTC One M9, I was content to stick with Sense, which should say a lot about the state of TouchWiz: better, but not nearly good enough.
Samsung does try and mitigate the cartoony feel of TouchWiz by offering theming options, but I didn't find them as elegant or pretty as what I found in HTC's camp. You're better off just installing a launcher and going that route. In the end, if you didn't like TouchWiz before, you're not really going to love it now, though you might start to tolerate it.
So you know how Samsung devices have typically been above-average in the Android market? And how the Note 4 was probably the company's best shooter? The Galaxy S6 builds on that, and moves Samsung into a completely different league—one occupied by companies like Apple and Nokia.
After using the S6 to take hundreds of pictures, it's clear the new 16-megapixel sensor with f/1.9 aperture is one of the best on the market—if not the best. Outdoor pictures came out crisp and detailed, with even colors and proper white balance. Indoors, it performs about as well as you'd hope, which is to say, Just OK; we found that the shutter wasn't quite quick enough to pick up fast-moving action, which means dog and cat pictures will come out looking a little blurry.
In most cases, however, the Galaxy S6 was pretty damn impressive, producing some truly excellent results. On some rare occasions shots came out a little underexposed, but with future software tweaking, that can be fixed. The main thing is that images come out detailed, with little noise and great color accuracy. We mostly stuck to auto mode, if that helps.
If you're a selfie-holic, the S6's 5-megapixel front-facing camera returned some pleasant results as well, so it's perfectly fine for posting images all over social media.
Samsung's software offers plenty of different shooting modes if that's your thing, and you can tweak settings to your liking, too. In addition to the modes (Selective Focus, Pro, Slow Motion, etc.) that come preinstalled, you can also download some new ones, too, and further expand the S6's capabilities. There's also a great feature that allows you to double press the home button to quickly launch the camera, which is probably Samsung's best software invention ever.
Beyond still images, the S6 is also a good companion for shooting video thanks to the inclusion of optical image stabilization. It can output 4K, or you can just do Full HD at 60 fps. There's also a slow motion option, allowing users to record video at 240 fps.
And those autofocus issues I complained about? Still there. Ugh. For the most part, the S6's autofocus is quick and silky smooth, picking up the subjects I aimed at with no problems—and the tracking autofocus is just divine. But there were times when I'd take the device out, aim at a subject, and the camera would refuse to focus. I ran into the issue in more controlled, casual testing environments. But imagine if that happened while trying to snap an important picture of a family member? Hopefully more tweaks are on the way.
I wouldn't say it happened enough for me to take points off the S6's overall score, though it's definitely something worth mentioning. Otherwise, the camera is right on the heels of Samsung's closest competitors, and in some cases cruising on by. Software is smooth and easy to use, while images are simply delightful.
Samsung is making a big statement with the Galaxy S6.
Samsung is making a big statement with the Galaxy S6. Yeah, sure, the new design is great, and the camera is among the best out there. But, more importantly, the more thoughtful approach signals an exciting new direction for Samsung. One that, as the S6 proves, re-establishes the company as a force to be reckoned with.
Let's be honest: 2014 was a forgettable year for Samsung, reflected by dipping revenues and falling market share. It's still far too early to tell if the company will endure a similar fate over the next several months, but based off the Galaxy S6, I'm confident Samsung can regain the form that put it at the top of the mobile pedestal. The S6 is a big and wildly impressive first step.
To be clear, this isn't a complete home run for Samsung. It's disappointing that Samsung Pay isn't available to use just yet, and I know there are plenty of people who will find the lack of expandable storage and a removable battery to be a deal breaker. But sacrifices had to be made for that sleek new design, and I think the S6 is ultimately better off.
What this device ultimately shows is that Samsung is preparing for a fight. It got knocked down last year, but it has picked itself back up, dusted itself off, and come back stronger and sharper than ever before.
It's crazy what Samsung can do when it actually puts highly focused thought into it.
Brandon used the Galaxy S6 for 6 days before writing his review.
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