Samsung Galaxy S6 review: The Next Big Thing finally lives up to the hype
About this time last year, I stood with hordes of other press in a packed Galaxy Studio in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, listening to Samsung tell us how its then-new Galaxy S5 would change everything. Over the piped-in orchestra music, we were promised “meaningful innovation.” Samsung had learned that its customers did not want “the most complex technology,” but rather “relevant improvements for day-to-day use.”
While a refreshing change from the bizarrely tone-deaf Galaxy S 4 launch event, the Galaxy S5 reveal still felt like a kind of middle ground – a layover for a company stuck in a transition state. Ditto for the smartphone the event unveiled: while the Galaxy S5 was a capable device, it only bore a hint of the greatness Samsung promised, and it ultimately left us cold. Its disappointing sales figures seem proof that we weren’t the only ones.
The Galaxy S6 is not the phone the Galaxy S5 should have been. That honor –and that headline– belongs instead to last year’s surprising Galaxy Alpha. Instead, the Galaxy S6 is exactly the smartphone that Samsung needs, exactly when it needs it. In between iPhone cycles, hot on the heels of a lukewarm HTC refresh and several weeks ahead of a leathery LG reboot, Samsung requires more than its legendary marketing muscle to move its newest flagship; it needs a bona fide hit.
And a hit is just what it’s got.
Samsung Galaxy S6 Review Video
Specs & Hardware
The broad strokes of Samsung’s design language remain unchanged for its latest flagship. In fact, given a cursory glance at its curved rectangular construction, it’s easy to confuse the S6 for one of its predecessors. At no point during our ten-day review period did anyone stop us on the street or tap us on the shoulder to ask us if the phone we were holding was “the new one” (as sometimes happens). It’s only once you pick it up that you grasp its significance – the reality that this is like no Samsung that’s come before.
The Galaxy S6 is a slim sandwich of glass and aluminum, 6.8mm thick and very lightweight at 138g (though it feels heavier). Samsung says the phone’s grade 6013 aluminum alloy is 1.5 times stronger than the 6063 grade used in the iPhone 6/6 Plus; while you probably still shouldn’t try bending it, the Galaxy S6 does feel reassuringly sturdy in the hand. In fact, there’s not a trace of compromise to be found in the fit and finish: everything from button travel and feedback to the SIM tray’s ejection mechanism is top-notch. While the material choice and hardware layout gives it the look of an Apple knockoff from some angles –the bottom edge is a dead ringer for the iPhone 6– there’s plenty of Samsung’s ID to set it apart. The translucent glass on front and back gives off a subtle three-dimensional vibe; it’s bonded to a reflective metallic panel underneath and is available in several colors depending on carrier and region. We tested both “White Pearl” and “Black Sapphire” in our nine-day review period. Don’t let the fancy phraseology fool you: this is not sapphire material but instead Gorilla Glass 4, which we first saw last fall on Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4. In any case, “Black Sapphire” is an apt designation: the darker of our two phones appears pitch black in shadow, but gleams a brilliant cobalt in direct sunlight. The glass is smooth, slick, and cool to the touch – and it’s usually got more fingerprints than a crime scene. It’s also very slippery and prone to sliding off cushions, laps, and crooked tabletops … which makes the protruding camera seem even more vulnerable. While it would be a shame to cover up the beautiful hardware, you may want to consider a protective case or skin if you’re a butterfingers.
While upping its game in industrial design, Samsung hasn’t forgotten to play to its main strength: the display. This year’s Super AMOLED panel is sharper than ever, boasting Quad HD resolution for 577 pixels every inch. If you ask us, that’s overkill for a screen measuring only 5.1 inches across, but it’s at least partially justified by the fact that the Galaxy S6 can transform into a VR headset given a couple extra Benjamins. Black levels and contrast are excellent, with saturation typically rich but adjustable based on your preferences. There’s good news for outdoorsy types too: like last year’s S5, the panel can overpower to almost 800 nits to make even the smallest text visible in bright sunlight. If instead you’re more of a bedtime reader, you can also crank the screen way down to almost nothing (about 2 nits) in a dark room to avoid waking your sleeping spouse. Annoyingly though, this dim setting is effectively sabotaged by the brilliant white capacitive keys flanking the home button: Samsung has removed their brightness controls on the S6, so now they light up every time you tap the screen, whether you’re using them or not.
Put your thumb on the home button between those keys, and Samsung earns some points back. Gone is the cumbersome and awkward swipe sensor of yesteryear: the S6’s fingerprint reader is instead a simple press-and-hold affair. While Samsung has shamelessly lifted the user interface almost wholesale from iOS (seriously, training the Galaxy S6 to recognize a thumb is exactly the same as training an iPhone) the sensor works so well that it’s a forgivable offense. The Galaxy S6 unlocks on the first attempt nearly every time, putting it right up there with the iPhone 6 and Huawei Ascend Mate 7 in terms of how quickly it can get you to the other side of the lock screen.
The other side of the lock screen is where Samsung has fallen short for the past few years. The company is perhaps the most visible example of mobile feature creep, having spent several software generations clunking up Android with all manner of mostly useless features. Back when stock Android was less capable and less attractive, the window dressing of the Samsung interface formerly known as TouchWiz made much more sense – but that was a long time ago.
At first glance, the new software doesn’t seem all that different. The goofy icons and garish colors of past builds still shine brightly from the out-of-box software. But this year, shaking things up is just a long-press away. Like HTC, Samsung has introduced full theming capability with its latest flagship, allowing you to change the look and feel of everything on the screen with the swipe of a finger. This may conjure visions of gaudy custom themes and garish promo wraps –indeed, the Theme Store already boasts a few examples of each– but there are some nice minimalist options as well, ready to serve as a kind of TouchWiz alternative. For years, Galaxy owners have been confined to lurid palettes and nonsensical sound effects unless they wanted to install a custom launcher or an app like Themer. With the new baked-in theming engine, the Galaxy S6 makes it even easier to escape the bleeps and bloops of skins past. The Theme Store currently offers only about 25 different options, but that’s up from the 5 available when we checked yesterday – and we expect even faster growth once Samsung makes the relevant APIs available to developers.
Whether you decide to theme it up or stick with Samsung’s out-of-box default look, there’s a marked improvement in responsiveness in some areas, probably thanks to some judicious behind-the-scenes feature pruning. Most of the out-of-place elements from the old “Nature UX” have finally been excised (good riddance, water-droplet sound effects), and many other dubious “perks” like Air View and Toolbox are gone too. The interface is less reliant on pop-up dialog boxes, following the general trend of assigning incoming SMS and call notifications to temporary overlays that drop down from the top of the screen. It also seems smarter in a general sense: the phone no longer warns you, for example, that the “screen will be turned off when screen is locked.” The Material Design that we so appreciate in Android Lollipop is now allowed to shine through in more places than before, and Samsung’s new categorized accent colors fill in the gaps between.
The few new features that Samsung has snuck in are mostly welcome. You can now swipe a thumb on the stock keyboard for precision cursor placement, for example – something we’ve seen elsewhere. MultiWindow, one of the Galaxy line’s biggest standouts, is still here – and it’s still the best implementation of side-by-side multitasking on any smartphone. The company’s S Health fitness suite has gotten a cosmetic refresh and ditched the ass-kicking Cigna Coach in the process. Even the Flipboard-powered My Magazine news reader is snappier, anchored to its (removable) berth on the leftmost home screen. Samsung’s “high-quality” US English TTS voice still sounds like a lady with food poisoning suffering a rough ride on a bumpy road, but thankfully, the company’s lackluster S Voice assistant has been all but buried. In the process, it’s donated its shortcut trigger to a far more useful purpose: double-click the home button and you’ll be dumped into the camera viewfinder in less time than it took you to register this slick segue.
The improvements to the Samsung camera software closely match those we’ve just covered. Gone are the pop-up panels filled with pages of buttons; gone are the thumb carousels with oversized icons. In their place is a sleek, minimal viewfinder with drop-down quick toggles on the left and shutter/capture buttons on the right, anchored by a circular shortcut leading to a small hub of shooting modes. A handful are preloaded out of the box, and if you miss older Galaxy mainstays like Sports Mode or Sound & Shot, don’t fret – they’re easy to find and download. Of course Samsung couldn’t help but add something here, and fortunately it’s pretty cool: “Virtual Shot” lets you to combine multiple angles of a subject into a single faux-3D photo. You can then change the viewing angle either with a finger or by physically moving the device.
By default, the camera will shoot with automatic settings and decide for itself if night mode or additional stabilization is needed. HDR can also be set to auto-enable, for scenes with a wide gulf between light and dark areas. And there’s a Pro setting for manual adjustments, as well; confusingly, “Pro” mode also includes a number of Instagram-like filters, but these are easy to ignore in favor of the manual sliders (which also allow for manual focus, if desired).
The best feature of the Galaxy S6’s camera, though, is this: even if you ignore every setting in the software, odds are you’ll still manage an excellent photo. The optically-stabilized 16MP sensor offers enough resolution for very crisp shots, but not so many pixels that file sizes get out of control. As usual, Samsung seems to have tuned the sensor for a little extra vibrance. Colors are slightly punched-up, and they tend to favor the warm side of the spectrum. That doesn’t mean blues and greens are lost, though; on the contrary, the S6 is just as happy to render (and saturate) cooler colors. The infusion of color may annoy purists, but it does make the photos “pop” on the phone’s AMOLED screen, and the manual controls are available to anyone who wants to take it down a notch.
Come sundown, you’d better take care with most other phones – but the Galaxy S6 will be feeling no pain. In all but the darkest environments, this camera’s f/1.9 aperture and optical stabilization combine to pull out a lot of light without the need for the harsh LED flash. Colors wander further into the yellow/green side of the spectrum the darker the scene gets, but this is still one of the best low-light performers we’ve seen on Android.
Combine that with the front-facing camera and its wide-angle lens, and the still side of the scene is pretty well-covered.
The Galaxy S6 brings a lot of capability to its camcorder mode, too. Video HDR, live video effects, digital stabilization, tracking autofocus, and in-video stills are all included in the software package, making the S6 one of the finest smartphone video cameras around. There’s an important caveat though: you’re confined to 1080p video at 30fps if you want to use those features. Rolling film at 4K or 60fps means you sacrifice all of the above.
Fortunately, Full HD is still more than enough for most folks – and even if you don’t make use of any of the fancy features, the video the Galaxy S6 puts out is mighty impressive.
While Samsung’s done a great job revamping its software’s appearance, it hasn’t been as successful in fixing its other historical shortcoming: software performance. App crashes were a fairly routine occurrence over the first week of our review period, and while a recent software update helped a bit, it hasn’t completely eliminated the problem. This isn’t necessarily a Samsung issue: as with the slight delay in calling up the multitasking screen and the occasional unaccountable lag, Android Lollipop is just funky sometimes, no matter what phone you’re using. For a good example, try streaming some audio through an app like Spotify or Stitcher, then take a quick video with the camera. You’d think a phone with 3GB of DDR4 RAM could manage to keep the audio app loaded in the background until you’re done with your video, but no: the system will force-close it and remove it from the task list, forcing you to restart the app before you can resume your song or podcast.
It’s frustrating when you try to activate the camera from the lock screen and nothing happens, the viewfinder having crashed on the launch attempt. It’s frustrating when you’re interrupted by a notification that an app you didn’t even want installed –and didn’t even know was running– has crashed in the background. And it’s frustrating when an unidentified app or system process suddenly starts up in the background and burns through 10% of your battery in a half hour. Uninstalling or disabling the carrier bloat helps with some of this –like all US carriers, T-Mobile loads its flagships with an unconscionable amount of crapware– but it doesn’t solve all the problems.
Elsewhere, Samsung’s in-house silicon seems to stack up. While the Exynos 7420 processor warms the phone’s backside with a quickness, it does a fine job rendering even heavy websites in either Chrome or the stock Internet browser … and it runs games like Asphalt 8 about as well as Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 does on competing devices. Just be careful not to grip the phone too tightly in stressful moments of gameplay; the capacitive keys at the bottom of the screen are super-sensitive and we’ve accidentally squeezed our way out of a race mid-lap more than once (PROTIP: we’ve been told that using Screen Pinning guards against this). Keep your fingers clear of the speakerphone port, too; when it’s wide open it’s a formidable little driver, loud enough to listen to a podcast even over nearby street noise, but its bottom-mounted position makes it easy to accidentally plug-up with a thumb.
What about the much-bemoaned lack of a memory card slot and removable battery? While these are each significant omissions given Samsung’s track record for extensibility, we only found ourselves really missing one of them. Over the past few years, expandable storage has been marginalized by other Android OEMs and by Google itself, and with the S6 available with up to 128GB of (admittedly pricey) onboard storage, it seems likely the only people who’ll really miss microSD are those with a lot of media and not a lot of access to, or trust in, cloud-based storage. That doesn’t make it any less difficult for them, but for the mainstream audience Samsung is going after with the S6, this omission will probably barely be noticed.
Unfortunately for Samsung, mainstream audiences do notice battery life. And retaining a swappable battery might have made the sting of the S6’s lukewarm endurance just a little less bitter. On a good day with moderate use, we can expect to hit around 14 hours off the charger before battery depletion – not too bad, until you consider that we only managed an average of 2.3 hours of screen-on time per cycle. That’s far short of the 5-hour screen-on time we coaxed from the Galaxy S5 during its review period. And this is on release software, by the way: our Galaxy S6 is a retail unit purchased from T-Mobile US, not a press preview sample. On a tip from our friend Dom Esposito, we did try disabling T-Mobile’s WiFi Calling feature. That helped the too-high “Cell Standby” figure fade from our battery reports, but it didn’t improve overall endurance much. We’re hopeful that some software streamlining will manage to squeeze more life out of the phone’s 2550 mAh battery, because relying on Samsung’s Ultra Power Saving mode just to make it home is no way to live. In the meantime, if you often find yourself without access to a power outlet but still want an S6, do yourself a favor and invest in a portable power pack of some kind.
Whether you can live with this piddling endurance will depend on how often you can top up. Fortunately, the S6 makes replenishment a lot of fun: it includes support for both PMA and Qi wireless charging standards, meaning it should work with most wireless chargers out there (including the ones at certain Starbucks). If you’re still living a cabled lifestyle, you’ll benefit from insane charging speeds: with the included Adaptive Quick Charger, the S6 goes from stone-cold dead to about 50% charge in under half an hour.
Finally: the Galaxy S6 is also, of course, a phone – and aside from its seams occasionally snagging the hair around our ears (something the iPhone 6 also does) it’s a very good one. Its antennas easily hang on to T-Mobile signal both above and below ground in Greater Boston, and its earpiece usually finds a nice balance between amplitude and clarity.
+ High-quality fit and finish
+ Powerful hardware
+ One of the best displays ever built into a smartphone
+ Outstanding camera
– Poor battery life
– Slippery construction
– Inconsistent software performance
Pricing and Availability
In the United States, the Galaxy S6 officially launches on all four national carriers on April 10. Depending on operator, the device’s full retail price ranges from $599 to $684.99 for the entry-level 32GB option, with the 64GB and 128GB trims available for approximately $100 or $200 more (respectively). All four carriers also offer financing options, and the Galaxy S6 will also be available at big-box stores and at online retailers like Amazon.
Those seeking a little more excitement in their hardware can also opt for the Galaxy S6 edge, which we previewed in Barcelona and will eventually review. The cost of a curved screen and some flashy features? Between $699 and $814 for the bottom-tier 32GB, with the prices again escalating from there. That pushes the most expensive option we could find (128 GB Galaxy S6 edge on AT&T) into truly astronomical territory: $1014.99 for all the trimmings.
Keep in mind that not all color options are available at every carrier. To see if your preferred shade is in stock with your operator, or to see what kind of monthly payment plan your particular credit score gets you, Samsung has a handy portal aggregating all US carrier and retailer options here.
Over the past year, we’ve seen Samsung go from conventional iteration with the Galaxy S5, to bold experimentation with the Galaxy Alpha, to bold iteration with the Galaxy Note 4. The Galaxy S6 is a distillation of all those lessons, tangible proof that Samsung has learned how to walk the line between changing things up and sticking with what works. It’s still recognizable as a “Galaxy,” but the new Galaxy S finally feels like the premium hardware Samsung always claimed it to be. Its software is just as accessible as before, but now it’s more customizable so people can more easily make the phone their own. And you just can’t find a better camera or a better display on Android.
Like any smartphone, the Galaxy S6 isn’t without compromise: its battery life is seriously disappointing, and it’s an open question how well the sometimes-shaky software will age over time. But the Galaxy S6 remains one of the best Android phones you can buy today … and with one possible exception, it’s probably the best Samsung smartphone in history. If ever you were tempted by a Samsung, now’s the time.
Scored For Me
Looking for something a little different to chase this monster review? Check out how HTC blew our minds with the HTC Re Vive, the only Virtual Reality headset ever to give Michael Fisher goosebumps! Then take yourself on a trip back in time with a throwback review of a Sony PDA from a decade ago, and round it all out with a jump into our post-smartphone future with the Runcible!
Pocketnow’s Adam Z. Lein contributed to this review.