The Galaxy S5 is finished. Gone. Done in by peer pressure to adopt prevailing design trends.
Its twin, slim replacements, the Samsung Galaxy S6 and curved-screen Galaxy S6 Edge, finally ditch the utilitarian plastic build and removable battery of previous Samsung flagship phones. They arrive at the smartphone party dressed in sharp metal lines and plenty of glass.
The two new phones are nearly identical — both run Android 5.0 Lollipop with 5.1-inch high-resolution displays. But the Galaxy S6 Edge competes for the spotlight with two curved-glass edges, each wrapping the long side of the phone with a smooth, readable display.
Samsung unveiled the fraternal twins during its press conference at Mobile World Congress, the annual trade show here in Spain that has become arguably the most important global smartphone showcase. And while the phones won’t be available worldwide until the second quarter (Samsung hasn’t announced prices for either), the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge must succeed, and quickly.
The phones were forged in the crucible of Samsung’s financial struggles as the company fights over phone profits with Apple’s latest megasuccessful iPhone models and an army of “good enough,” low-cost rivals from China-based manufacturers such as Lenovo, Xiaomi and Huawei.
Some of the new S6 features — upscale metal design, updated fingerprint scanner — play catch-up with the iPhone 6, which, last year, pursued Samsung’s pioneering large-screen phones. Samsung even used today’s press conference to announce an Apple Pay competitor that will debut on the S6 phones called — wait for it — Samsung Pay.
Other upgrades force uncomfortable tradeoffs. The S6 and S6 Edge lack a removable battery and a microSD card slot, not to mention the Galaxy S5’s waterproofing. Meanwhile, the curved strips of screen that make up the Edge’s borders do so little compared to the Note Edge’s screen that it’s hard to justify their existence. And Samsung’s own untested Exynos processor (versus the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 that will be found in most of its high-end Android rivals) is a performance wild card. (We’ll test it when we write our future full review.)
That said, the new Galaxy S6 models set some of their own Android trends. Both deliver built-in wireless charging support and compatibility with a new version of the Gear VR virtual reality accessory — two features you won’t find on the iPhone. And with the S6 phones’ new designs, Samsung has addressed the predominant critiques of 2014’s Galaxy S5, viewed by many as an uninspired doppelganger of the 2013 Galaxy S4.
The new phone pair has the looks and the specs of a flagship phone worth its salt, but it’s too early to know if that’s enough to reverse Samsung’s sagging smartphone sales — or dent the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus’ staggering revenue.
Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge: Two devices, one family
First things first. Samsung has built two marquee phones: the straight-sided, predictably rectangular Galaxy S6, and the Galaxy S6 Edge, which has slightly rounded right and left edges. The pairing is modeled after the Galaxy Note 4 and Note Edge phones.
For the most part, the two share the exact same specs, with only a few minor differences in dimension and battery life. I’ll point out any differences; otherwise, these impressions apply to both models.
Metal and glass; plastic be damned
With a matte aluminum alloy frame and Gorilla Glass 4 on the front and back, the S6 and S6 Edge live worlds apart from the plastic construction of five generations of Galaxy flagship. It’s obvious that this is a different beast, and one that fans have been crying out for, for years.
Samsung didn’t get here overnight. The Note 4 and more midrange Galaxy Alpha featured metal frames and the youth-focused Galaxy A5 and A3 have all-metal chassis.
Let’s talk about the shape. Both S6 phones have Samsung’s pill shape, with rounded tops and bottoms and straighter sides. The power button sits on the right spine; on the S6, that side also comes with a nano-SIM card slot that shows up on the top for the S6 Edge. Both phones house a micro-USB charging port and headset jack down below, and separated volume buttons on the left spine.
A central, metal-ringed home button joins two capacitive buttons for calling up recents and going back. Up top, the IR blaster beams out light for folks who want to use their phones as a TV remote.
On the backs, you’ll find the 16-megapixel camera (same as the Note 4), and an LED flash that doubles as a sensor to monitor your heart rate.
Now for the hand test. The Edge feels slimmer than the S6 at its thinnest point, even though the specs stipulate that it’s a hair thicker at its chubbiest.
The phones feel thin and fluid in the hand. The S6 Edge tapers on its right and left edges, where the curved portion of the screens arc to meet the back. As with the Note Edge, the S6 Edge manages balance despite its sharper shape.
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. The straight-sided S6 also gets topaz blue, while the S6 Edge harnesses emerald green. The incredibly reflective rear surface flashes color and lights. Samsung says this is to add depth and warmth, but the skeptic in me thinks this relentless reflecting could become visually annoying.
Screen size stasis
The S6 and S6 Edge hold steady with last year’s size, 5.1 inches. This is a good call, since a larger phone would encroach on phablet territory — and Samsung already offers that option in the excellent Galaxy Note 4, with its 5.7-inch screen.
Even though Samsung hasn’t bumped up the size, it has spiked the resolution of its AMOLED display to 2,560×1,440 pixels, a density of 577 ppi, currently the best on the market. Now comes the inevitable questions: can the human eye really appreciate detail that fine, and is the higher resolution worth the likely impact on battery life? We’ll test both out when we have more time with the phone.
Hardware triumphs and upsets
Samsung rocked the boat with these dramatically different additions and omissions.
Exynos over Qualcomm:
Why did Samsung chose its own chipset (Samsung won’t share which one) over the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810, especially after years of partnership between the two companies? Samsung won’t say, but it’s a fair guess that keeping things in-house also translates into a more reliable manufacturing pipeline and better margins on its own 64-bit octa-core chip. Seeing how the Exynos model performs compared to Snapdragon — the latter is basically the new standard for non-Apple superphones — is something we’re anxious to test.
The S6 devices are totally sealed, so you won’t be able to swap out the battery. The trade-off is a potentially larger (and longer-lived) battery for the phones’ size.
No microSD card:
Samsung omitted this staple feature to maximize slimness. However it’s also increased default internal storage to 32GB, with 64GB and 128GB models also available. Samsung will also throw in 115GB free Microsoft OneDrive storage for two years, stating that people increasingly use cloud storage these days.
Camera quick launch:
This is a great one. Double click the home button to launch the camera app in just under a second, and from any screen. This worked flawlessly during my demo period.
Smarter fingerprint scanning:
The same home button is now equipped to read your fingerprint when you rest it on the button. Before, you had to slide it, which often didn’t produce an accurate reading. I wasn’t able to test this yet.
The S6 and S6 Edge have wireless charging built in, using WPC and PMA standards (that includes Qi). Samsung will sell its own charging pads, but the S6 phones will be compatible with some other chargers as well. You should be able to top up 20 percent of your battery in about a half hour.
Support for this fast-charging feature comes with the Exynos chip, which Samsung says should give you a 30 percent charge in about 30 minutes. In addition, the phones will work with a Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0 charger (like the Note 4’s charger).
Unlike the Galaxy S5, neither S6 is rated IP67 for water resistance. Samsung’s response: waterproofing isn’t part of the S6 “story.” It’s a good guess that we’ll get a waterproof “Galaxy S6 Active” or some other tough variant later this year, like the Galaxy S5 Active and S5 Sport.
A 16-megapixel camera juts out slightly from the phones’ back, sporting the same resolution we see on the Note 4. Since these phones do use a different chip, it’ll be interesting to see if the internals make a mark on image quality. The lens itself gets an upgrade over the S5, to f/1.9, from the S5’s f/2.2 rear camera.
The S6 and S6 Edge become the second phones to include optical image stabilization (after the Note 4 and Note Edge). A new auto-HDR feature means you won’t have to stop to improve certain scenes, like landscapes. Similarly, 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 turn on a shooting mode that’ll take a self-portrait from the phone’s rear camera.
We’ll test out image quality when we get more time with the devices, but the self-shots we took indoors during our briefing seemed promising.
Android 5.0 Lollipop, the latest Google phone operating system, ships with the S6 and S6 Edge, with a refreshed version of Samsung’s TouchWiz interface on top and far fewer preloaded apps. Samsung is trying to embrace a simpler role without shedding everything it’s built over the years.
You’ll see an adjusted look and feel and folders pregrouped by vendor, like a bucket of Google apps and services, and one for new partner Microsoft (this one has Skype and OneDrive, for instance).
Menus are also whittled down. Multi-window 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, a la Note 4.
There also appears to be no view when you pull down the notifications shade with two fingers, a previous shortcut for getting to more quick-access controls.
A few Samsung apps are still in place, like Milk music and video and S Health, which are basically Samsung’s answer to 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, the world-record holding keyboard app, which will be free with the S6 phones.
Mobile payments up ahead
Samsung’s improved fingerprint reader sets it up for making mobile payments using its newly acquired LoopPay technology. Samsung won’t roll out Samsung Pay, as it will be known, until this summer and it isn’t clear which markets it’ll tackle beyond the US.
The Galaxy S6 battery is rated at 2,550mAh, with the S6 Edge getting a tad more capacity at 2,600mAh. On paper, that’s less than the 2,800mAh found on 2014’s Galaxy S5, but we’ll need to see if the new CPU (and Android 5.0 Lollipop) offer any efficiencies.
If you head can hold a few more hardware details, the S6 phones will have 3GB RAM, but there’s no word on the GPU spec.
There’s NFC connectivity and Bluetooth 4.1 with support for low energy, which means the new Galaxy phones will work with all manner of contactless payments, streaming audio, touch-to-pair, and all of the other standard features you expect in a mainstream Android phone. (As a reminder, the iPhone 6/6 Plus NFC feature is still limited to Apple Pay compatibility, and nothing else.)
S6 Edge brings a little, not a lot
The S6 Edge adds a few extra features, and showcases Samsung’s achievement in creating a touchscreen display that’s rounded on both sides. However, its features are scaled far back from the Note Edge’s specialized display (which was rounded on just the right side), to the point where they don’t do much at all except give you something to look at on the rounded portion of your screen. Note that the slopes are much softer than the single right ramp of September’s Note Edge.
Even that isn’t limited anymore. The double curves on this S6 Edge mean that southpaws can call up the Edge display on the left, too.
So what do you get? Night mode, which I like, and which softly beams out the clock during the darker hours. Email, text and phone call notifications, which can be nice because you can see more of the message along the phone’s length. Then there’s this all-new concept: five contacts whose names correspond to a color. When they call or text (and the phone is turned on its belly), the edge will faintly glow its corresponding color.
Assuming this happens often, you can cover up the phone’s sensor (next to the camera flash) to send a canned message that you’ll call or text your contact back.
Despite Samsung’s promise to innovate “meaningfully”, these are innocuous additions that could be fun, but are hardly essential — especially since you can’t choose to get Edge screen notifications from any app you want.
Without additional developer support, the rounded sides of the S6 Edge feel very similar to the curved screens on Samsung’s TVs: a design treatment that offers an interesting aesthetic, but little to no functional improvement.
Pricing and availability
Look for the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge to hit some territories starting April 10. Pricing is still TBD.
Samsung’s US PR team shared that it’ll sell with major US carriers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon) as well as Cricket and US Cellular. UK networks are yet to be announced and the only Australian network to confirm availability is Virgin Mobile.
Outlook: Mostly sunny, with some clouds
Samsung doesn’t make bad flagship phones. They aren’t perfect, and not everyone likes them, but they’re typically reliable and brimming with high-performance hardware. From what I’ve seen so far, the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge do Samsung proud, especially since they correct buyers’ most glaring complaints about plastic build materials and too many Samsung apps and software features.
I suspect that fans of removable batteries and microSD card slots will throw up their arms in revolt over the embedded battery and absent expandable memory…and then I suspect that they’ll get over it. Those physical traits are now more the rule than the exception these days, and those meatier storage options will certainly calm the sting.
My only real question marks hang over the processor and the battery life. The former is an issue because details of the new Exynos chip’s capabilities are slim and because we haven’t tested it side by side with the Snapdragon 810, the premium chipset we’ll mostly see in high-flying phones. And battery life remains the holy grail of smartphones, even though most of them seem to barely get through a day before redlining.
We’ll keep you posted with even more hands-on impressions as Mobile World Congress continues. In the meantime, what do you think of the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge so far? Let me know in the comments.
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