Galaxy S6 review: Samsung raises the smartphone bar
For the last few years, Samsung has been steadily improving the Galaxy S series. But one thing always stayed the same: plastic. So what happens when Samsung switches to premium materials and takes big steps forward in other areas? Well, you get what's probably the best smartphone to date, the outstanding Samsung Galaxy S6.
The Galaxy S6 doesn't just leap far ahead of older Samsung flagships; it raises the bar for all smartphones. This is what happens when the company stops experimenting with niche features like water resistance (while adding more and more wacky software features), and simply puts all its chips into the "quality" pot.
It starts with its build. Gone is that plastic from years past, replaced now with this smooth glass back with aluminum edges. This is a level of design and craftsmanship that, in the mobile world, you'll only find on Apple and HTC devices (and HTC's status in that group is sketchy, after repeating the same fundamental design for three straight years).
The Gorilla Glass 4 back feels oh-so smooth in hand – but also not overly slippery. It's also in the little details like the home button's click emitting a more satisfying "chunk" this time (it's like the difference between closing the door of a Mercedes vs. that of a budget car). Haptic feedback (the vibrations you feel when you type or press something like the back key) even somehow feel higher-end, though that could just be because the vibrations are now traveling through a thin sandwich of metal and glass, rather than cheap plastic.
The Galaxy S6's (US$100 more expensive) sibling, the Galaxy S6 edge, is even better looking – with a display that curves off on either side. You can hit up our GS6 edge review for a quick look at the cosmetic (and minor functional) differences with the Edge.
The one part of the Galaxy S6's build that raises our eyebrows a bit (in not such a good way) is its top and bottom edges. They look a lot like the edges of the iPhone 6 – to the degree that it's hard to describe it as anything but a blatant copy. In the shot above, that's the Galaxy S6 on the left, with the iPhone on the right. Even when Samsung soars to the highest of heights, as it does here, it can't seem to completely shake that old reputation as an Apple copycat. These edges are beautiful, mind you, as is the entire phone – but we're disappointed that Samsung didn't go with something more original-looking on those edges.
In terms of lightness and thinness, those money-making gods that Apple has sworn its allegiance to, the Galaxy S6 doesn't hit any new extremes that we've never seen before, but it is on par with the best. Relative to its size, the GS6 feels just as light in hand as the iPhone 6 does (it's 7 percent heavier, but it also has a 10 percent bigger face). It's also just a hair thinner than the iPhone.
As far as size, we think the Galaxy S6 is sitting at a very sweet balance point. It isn't big enough to be a phablet, so those intimidated by hulking monster-phones have nothing to worry about here. It doesn't feel enormous in your hand or like it's bursting the seams of your pocket the way something like the Nexus 6 does. But it still gives you a pretty generous display size, with 18 percent more screen than the iPhone 6.
We usually jump into our camera impressions closer to the end of our reviews, but we want to make this as clear as possible: the Galaxy S6's rear camera is awesome. It takes great shots (for a phone, that is), but that's only half of the equation. Its most unique feature is that it fires up faster than any smartphone camera we've used – jumping from sleeping phone to snapped picture in as little as two seconds.
Part of that is because the phone itself is crazy fast (more on that in a second), but it also helps that you can jump to the camera app anytime by just double-tapping the phone's home button. This is a great shortcut, making much better use of that double-tap gesture than the S Voice app (Samsung's Siri rival) that used to occupy it.
The previous best we'd seen in this camera launch time test were the iPhones 5s and 6, which were around 3.5 seconds (about 75 percent slower than the GS6). With the Galaxy S6, the buffer between seeing a moment happen and capturing it forever is shorter than ever before. You're going to miss fewer of those moments – and that alone is a great reason to buy this phone.
Like other smartphone cameras, the GS6 isn't great at catching fast-moving subjects like over-excited pets or running children (there will be blurs). There is a "sports mode" that Samsung lets you download, which does a little better in those situations, but even with that, the phone's shutter speed – not to be confused with overall camera speed – can only be so fast. You still need a DSLR to really get down to business in those situations.
In low-light settings, the Galaxy S6's camera is good – roughly in the same ballpark as the iPhone 6 (stay tuned for a more in-depth comparison between these two, including side-by-side camera samples).
Display quality is another area where the Galaxy S6 shines – and is probably the best right now. Its screen is as sharp as it gets at the moment (577 pixels per inch) and has outstanding white balance and brightness, along with dense – but not overly saturated – colors. It's the most delicious eye candy a mobile display can give you here in early 2015.
The Galaxy S6's fingerprint sensor is another huge step forward. We thought it was a nice bonus to have a sensor period in last year's Samsung devices, but those swipe-based sensors (which had you swiping your finger from one angle) lagged far behind Apple's touch-based sensors. Well, this is the year that Samsung catches up, as the GS6's sensor works at least as quickly and accurately as Touch ID does. Just rest your finger on it for a brief moment and it registers.
One area where the Galaxy's sensor still trails behind Apple's is in app integration. With iOS 8, the iPhone's Touch ID can be used for a variety of third-party apps – places like 1Password, Dropbox and Evernote – and, maybe more importantly, with browser extensions. But right now the Galaxy S6's sensor, as good as it is, is mostly there for unlocking your phone (you can use it to sign into web pages, but only through a built-in feature in Samsung's browser).
Later this year, though, you'll be able to use that sensor with Samsung Pay, which will let you pay with your phone at not just NFC terminals, but also swipe-based credit card machines – making it nearly universally accepted from Day One. Unfortunately the service isn't launching until mid-2015 (likely this Northern summer), so we can't test it just yet.
Overall performance is awesome, with ultra-quick and responsive UI navigation. Similar to firing up the camera, things like opening apps and multitasking are as snappy as we've seen. In benchmark app Geekbench 3, the GS6 scored 1,456 in single core and 4,521 in multi-core: the highest scores we've seen from any smartphone (by a healthy margin). Its multi-core score, incidentally, is almost identical to those of the iPad Air 2 and 2014 11-in MacBook Air. That's a good thing.
You'll always want to take benchmarks with a few grains of salt, but those scores line up perfectly with our experience. In a world of suitably fast smartphones, the Galaxy S6 stands out as being unusually fast.
We also haven't felt any significant amounts of heat coming from the phone, like we did with the HTC One M9. Perhaps Samsung was wise to switch from Qualcomm's Snapdragons to its own Exynos processors.
Battery life doesn't push the envelope forward, but it is still hovering around the marks of the best we've seen from recent flagships. In our stress test (streaming video over Wi-Fi with brightness at 75 percent), it only dropped 11 percent per hour. For reference's sake, the iPhone 6 dropped 14 percent per hour and the HTC One M9 lost 18 percent per hour.
That holds up well with our experience too. Unless you're a heavy mobile gamer, watch multiple movies per day or set your brightness to 100 percent all the time, you shouldn't have any trouble at all getting through the day (and then some) with the Galaxy S6.
When you do need to charge it, you can use a wireless charging pad. The GS6 worked perfectly with the Qi chargers we had lying around, and it also supports the PMA standard. Pick up one of these charging pads, drop your phone on it and watch it juice up.
Wireless charging is a funny technology. It's based on the logic that something as simple as plugging a cable into your device is an inconvenience (talk about first-world problems). But we do find that we charge our devices more often when it's as easy as resting them on a pad. There's something about fiddling with cords that's just annoying enough to make you only bother when you really have to.
Last September, when Apple launched the iPhones 6 and 6 Plus, they more or less took away one of Samsung's most obvious advantages – screen size. But with the GS6, Samsung is returning the favor by taking away many of the advantages that the iPhone historically had.
Premium build? For the first time, Samsung is right up there with Apple. Silky-smooth UI navigation? The GS6 is as good as it gets right now. A top-notch camera? Check. Its TouchWiz UI is even more scaled back, with a lot less bloat and feature creep. The software hits a nice balance point: keeping the Samsung visual look, a big part of the brand, without adding too much to the the rock-solid Android Lollipop that sits at its core.
When you add bonuses like wireless charging, the upcoming Samsung Pay and the best display you're going to find on any smartphone right now, you have an all-around beast of a device that – at this moment – can't be beat. No matter which other phone you were thinking about buying, we'd recommend at least trying out the Galaxy S6 in a store before you make your decision. I can say that, after using the GS6 as my daily driver, I find other phones that I used to consider to be the best in the business – the iPhone 6, Nexus 6, Note 4 – to now feel just a little bit lacking.
It pushes the barrier of smartphone quality forward just enough that yesterday's best now seem like second-best.
The Samsung Galaxy S6 officially launches on April 10, retailing for around $650 full retail (though that varies from carrier to carrier) and $200 on-contract. Many carriers also offer 24-month installment plans starting at $0 down.
Product page: Samsung