Hands on: Samsung Galaxy S6 review
Our Early Verdict
Question marks still remain on battery and TouchWiz still grates, but Samsung is back with a bang.
- Great design
- Super sharp screen
- Fast camera with good low light
- TouchWiz still too cartoony
- Likely to be expensive
- Battery smaller
How could a brand with so many hyper-intelligent researchers and well-paid designers make something so bland yet complex time and again? Both phones packed amazing power in a boring case, with each element somehow negating the other.
This year though, following a reshuffle, things have changed. The Samsung Galaxy S6 is a thing of beauty, a complete redesign that really works, but blended with large swathes of power once again.
The key thing here though is, it appears that power is not there for the sake of it – each element has a purpose, to ensure the Galaxy S6 works well under the finger while finally being a phone you’d consider alongside an HTC or iPhone.
Let’s not get too carried away though. TouchWiz is still on board, adding a cartoonish feel to things where other brands still feel more premium, but Samsung has refined this again (building on good work from the S5), removed a lot of the bloatware and cleaned up the icons.
It’s easy to see the S6 is a great phone, and one Samsung sorely needed – but coming from so far back (its flagship device was barely a top 10 phone last year) it wasn’t hard to improve dramatically.
Smartphones stopped needing more power a long, long time ago – arguably we could have called it quits with 2013’s specs and spent the following months optimising them to allow days-long battery.
So with that race already run it became a battle for the best design, which meant that HTC suddenly rose to prominence once more, with a good-enough spec list sitting inside one of the best phones I’ve ever held.
Apple managed the same thing with the new iPhone 6, focusing on a premium metallic shell while getting the battery life just about tolerable.
All the while Samsung toiled in the background, promising that we’d start loving plastic at some point, showing that it’s more robust and scuff-free and rugged… and it didn’t work.
So Project Zero was born, a plan within Samsung to completely redesign its S6 model from the ground up. Plastic was out, waterproofing gone, and in their place a fusion of glass and metal.
Put simply: it’s a much, much better phone, but again that’s not hard when you’ve got the Galaxy S5 to improve upon. But the S6 does feel very well packaged, the combination of metal and Gorilla Glass 4 giving no hint of creak or give when pressed.
It does sound a little hollow when tapped on the back though, which does diminish the effect somewhat – however, at only 6.8mm thick, that’s kind of understandable.
Samsung’s gone bold with this design in more than one way. It’s got rid of two of the staples that users have loved for years: the microSD slot has been removed and the battery is locked in.
The reasoning behind this is sound: Samsung tells me the former is to improve performance and speed (something the S5 struggled with terribly as it aged) and the latter is clearly to allow for a unibody design.
I’m behind the loss of the removable battery – after all, it’s easier to carry a battery pack than shell out for a replacement power unit – but the microSD card disappearance is a shame. I appreciate the quest for a better performance, and perhaps it will turn out to be up there with the iPhone when my full Galaxy S6 review comes out, but other Android phones seem to manage to tick along just fine with expandable storage.
Samsung is offering the S6 in 32GB, 64GB and 128GB flavours to compensate, but those latter options are likely to be pretty expensive.
I’m hugely impressed with the way Samsung has put this phone together though – it’s managed the incredible feat of bringing the best screen on the market (the brand’s words, although the combination of QHD resolution and a 5.1-inch display with Super AMOLED technology means I’m inclined to agree) in a package that’s barely larger than the iPhone 6.
That means Samsung can offer a phone with a huge, crisp display while still being small enough to be considered alongside Apple’s non-phablet and Sony’s Xperia Z3 Compact – both phones that I’ll point to when people ask ‘I want a phone, but not one that’s massive’.
Considering the options from Sony and Apple both have a 720p resolution, and Samsung’s packed in four times as many pixels in the same footprint, and you can see why I’m impressed by Samsung’s option.
Of course, this could all come at the expense of battery – after all, more pixels take more power, and the smaller package means there’s less space for a battery (a 2550mAh pack is smaller than the 2800mAh seen in the Galaxy S5, which is a bit of a worry) so I’m intrigued to see how Samsung has managed to solve that problem.
Samsung needed to sort out the build quality of the entire phone, but one of the big issues was with the home button, which was too soft to push.
The S6 has a really nice action now, with a lot of effort put into the satisfying click (useful for when you need to activate the camera, which I’ll come onto later).
The phone is going to be unveiled in four colours at launch too, with a pleasant jewel-like exterior that changes colour slightly as the light hits it. It’s got a nice translucent effect, which again adds to the more premium chassis.
The display on the Galaxy S6 warrants its own section, simply because it’s so crystal clear and sharp, while offering the high contrast ratio for brilliant whites and dark blacks.
It’s also the sharpest on the market at the moment, according to Samsung, with 577ppi and a super bright mode that fires when outside – and it’ll even do so automatically, rather than needing to be activated manually.
The QHD resolution is almost diminished by the size of the screen – at 5.1-inch, it’s going to be hard to see the greater amount of pixels compared to last year, but web browsing and video watching (especially those encoded at the right resolution) are a real joy to watch.
In terms of output, I suspect Samsung could have stuck with a 1080p screen on this phone and still have a brilliant display, but the brand knows what a baying mob the media and early adopters can be when the best spec isn’t present on a flagship phone, so decided to aim for the headlines,
That’s not to say this isn’t a brilliant screen – it’s better than the Note 4‘s, which was already industry leading – but that smaller battery pack is still worries me slightly, so here’s hoping the display isn’t going to harm that.
TouchWiz, Samsung’s Android overlay, was never going to go anywhere, but at least it’s been cleaned up a little bit. It’s still got the same cartoony look about it, with the colours garish and the amount of options slightly complicated, but it’s a far cry from that seen on the Samsung Galaxy S4.
The main changes are to the menus: Samsung tells me that the extra dialogue boxes it deemed unnecessary are gone, so if you activate flight mode then you’ll get just that – no double checking from the phone.
Other apps have been polished as well. As you can see the Contacts screen has been scrubbed of options and tabs, instead offering you the chance to just interact with the people you want to. I think this means that it’s been uncoupled from the phone dialler, which is annoying as having the two apps together made sense to me, but at least things are simpler.
The icons have been flattened as well, with Google’s Material design from Lollipop stretching further through the phone – it’s certainly more attractive, if not quite all the way there.
But one of the big pats on the back has to be for the loss of S Voice from the home button. Instead you’ll be taken to the camera in, according to Samsung, 0.7 seconds.
Given this is a brand that takes a few seconds to open up the ‘Running Tasks’ pane after pressing, I’m not convinced this will remain so speedy, but I’ll reserve judgement until I check out what Samsung’s done with the upgraded memory and RAM.
The specs on the Samsung Galaxy S6 are out of this world, with very little left to want for. I’ve already covered the QHD screen and improved design, but that’s joined by a 64-bit octacore processor (clearly Samsung’s own Exynos offering as it declined to name the chipset) 3GB of RAM and upgraded storage of between 32GB and 128GB.
The RAM and storage used has also been improved, which Samsung reckons is worth at least 40% performance improvement in some areas.
Given this was one of the poorest parts of the Samsung Galaxy S5, it’s a bold claim. In my early tests, it held up really well despite constantly opening and shutting of apps. This bodes well for something that’s probably early build software, so should only get better.
I didn’t get a chance to check out the keyboard, but I hope that’s been given a lick of paint as the inbuilt version on the S5 was truly awful.
The fingerprint sensor is present as well, and it’s (likely – Samsung wanted to confirm this before launch) a touch option, in the same vein as the iPhone 5S and iPhone 6. This is great news as the swipe was just too inaccurate, so hopefully this new technology will allow you to be more accurate and stay secure as well.
Payment options have been increased massive to include magnetic strip payment (somehow, the phone will mimic the stripe on your credit card, but the Galaxy S6 isn’t THAT thin) and NFC payment too – with barcodes chucked into the mix as well for good measure it seems.
Overall, this is a very, very well specified phone, and one that even the most hardy of Android fans won’t be able to resist at least looking at, despite their attitude towards Samsung.
The loss of microSD and removable battery will sting a little, but the reasoning over their removal at least makes sense.
The camera on the Samsung Galaxy S6 is a 16MP affair with f1.9 aperture, up 34% in terms of low light ability from the S5.
It’s still got all the tricks of the Samsung Galaxy S5, including Auto HDR mode and optical image stabilisation, as well as an automatic tracking mode which can follow faces, pets and other moving objects without needing to refocus.
The front sensor is also improved, up to 5MP with the same impressive low-light performance and faster shutter speed. It also packs the same automatic HDR mode, which will show you just how much the high dynamic range will improve your pictures.
Of course, if you’re taking selfies, then this is going to be the sort of thing you worry about… or you could just, you know, not.
And in another moment of ‘isn’t that what another brand is doing?’ Samsung has chucked on fast and slow motion to the video app, so you can do cool timelapse shots or slow things down to 240fps to get a really smooth slo-mo movie.
The extra trick is here is the ability of the Galaxy S6 to choose the speed with which the slowdown happens, meaning you can go really, really slow if you want to properly show your mate getting hit in the nuts with a hamburger in minute detail.
OK, this is the big one, the sticking point that could prevent Samsung from making an industry-leading phone. But let’s get the positives on the table first.
The Galaxy S6 has a custom processor, which means it’ll be more efficient at processing and won’t need to do a lot of pointless work to complete whatever you’re asking the phone to do. That same chipset is also smaller, which adds to the efficiency.
Samsung’s being very upfront on how much battery life is left too, with an app letting you know how long you could get if you enable power saving or ultra power saving modes, so you’ll at least be in control of what’s there.
However, let’s get down to it. The battery in the Galaxy S6 is 2550mAh, which is less than the 2800mAh option on last year’s phone. That’s also smaller than the one found on HTC’s One M9 this year, which is something of a worry.
HTC has always, historically, had the worst battery life of the top smartphone vendors, so if it can combine good efficiency from the Snapdragon 810 chipset with a lower-res screen, it could well leapfrog Samsung this year.
Also there’s that QHD screen to think about – all those pixels in such a tight space is going to take its toll on the battery life, and the packaging of the phone overall is such that it’s going to get pretty toasty in there.
Samsung thinks it’s got the problem covered, with better battery life than ever – plus it’s stuck double wireless charging in there too. The Galaxy S6 will be able to wirelessly grab power from either of the standards (Qi or PMA) without having to mess around with an accessory if you’ve wandered into a coffee house with the ‘wrong’ technology built in.
This is the best phone Samsung as ever made, which isn’t a very difficult thing to say given the efforts in the last two years. But it’s managed to make a huge leap forward, offering something that’s the equal of the best in the market and set a very high bar to reach.
It’s still got a couple of niggles: I’d have loved to see a completely redefined TouchWiz, and I’m not convinced the battery life is going to be stellar.
But this phone is simplicity redefined for the South Korean brand. No betting on stupid hand waving gimmicks, no skimping on design to just make it waterproof… this is a premium phone as it should be. Samsung is back.