Samsung today announced the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge, its flagship smartphones for 2015. I was able to use the two devices briefly in advance for a first look, and I was impressed. The new Galaxy S6 devices have a much nicer feel and more thoughtful design than last year's plasticky, boorish Galaxy S5.
Samsung is often accused of cloning whatever Apple does or is even rumored to be doing, and there's much truth to that claim. At first glance, each Galaxy S6 looks like a love child of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 5s, with its metal and glass case, understated design, and choice of interesting colors.
It's certainly fair to say the Galaxy S6 models were inspired by the iPhone 6 and 5s, but they're no mere copies. Samsung finally seems to have learned that a product's feel is important -- and to find its own way to deliver on it. After all, smartphones are often extensions of the people who use them, so they should be something you're proud to carry.
Based on my cursory usage, the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge should back up their aesthetics with strong performance and greater usage conveniences. I didn't get enough hands-on time to conduct in-depth performance testing, so my judgment could change based on extended experience with the devices.
Also, you won't find any breakthrough technologies in the Galaxy S6 or S6 Edge. Beyond the new processor and screen, most of the S6s' hardware enhancements debuted in the Galaxy Note 4 or Galaxy Note Edge.
Still, I'm optimistic about the new Galaxy S6 models because, for the first time in a while, Samsung is delivering a well-integrated experience.
The new Galaxy S6 models will ship in the United States in April on all the major carriers, Samsung says, though the specific launch dates, colors, and prices are up to the carriers to decide.
The Galaxy S6 Edge's edge is its curve
The new Samsung Galaxy comes in two models: the S6 and the S6 Edge. The Galaxy S6 Edge has curved glass edges that expose the left and right sides of the screen, similar to the Galaxy Note Edge. The regular Galaxy S6 has the standard flat screen, with an iPhone 5s-like bezel on all sides.
The curved edge displays are shallower than in the Note Edge, so there are no special status icons in the Galaxy S6 Edge. Instead, the edges help make some information more visible when the smartphone is resting on a table and you're viewing the screen at an angle.
The example Samsung showed me: When a favorite contact calls or texts you, a notifications bar appears at the edge with their photo, and you can see, without phone directly in hand, that a favorite person is trying to reach you.
That might be nice, but what I like most about the Galaxy S6 Edge is how it feels in my hand. Thanks to the curved edge, it's more comfortable to hold than the Galaxy S6. It's not that the S6 is uncomfortable, but the S6 Edge is more comfortable. It's the same experience for an iPhone 5s user moving to the more rounded iPhone 6.
The Galaxy S6 feels right
The Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge smartphones are narrower than the Galaxy S5 or S4, and with the reduced size, they're more comfortable to hold. More important, it also allows easier operation, as more of the screen falls within range of your thumb when using the smartphone in one-handed mode. Although they're slightly larger, thicker, and heavier than an iPhone 6, they have bigger screens, and they still beat the old Galaxy S5's dimensions.
The two Galaxy S6 models have a glass back -- which I missed terribly when Apple launched the metal-backed iPhone 5. Glass is warmer and softer to the touch, so it feels more luxurious. The S6's glass back has a feathered edge, which means there's a slight curve at the edges and it fits like a glove -- same as the iPhone 6's curved metal back.
There's something softer about the glass in the S6: It feels more like a high-quality resin, but without the risk of yellowing over time. Whatever Samsung did, it's a sensuous treat.
A breakthrough screen shines in its details
The Galaxy S6 models are not only a bit narrower, but also slightly thinner than the Galaxy S5. But you'd expect a new smartphone model to be thinner, right? More interesting is the S6s' screen, which seems to be more natural in its color tones than previous Galaxy models. Previous models often had a cartoonish set of overly vibrant colors.
The Galaxy S6 smartphones' 5.1-inch, quad-HD screen packs a ridiculous number of pixels, which I usually dismiss as a gimmick for the spec-obsessed. In this case, you can see the difference: The S6's screen provides very clear text and image detail. If you remember the wonder of the original Retina display in the iPhone 4, the Galaxy S6 makes a similar leap in image clarity and sharpness over the Galaxy S5 and the iPhone 6 in a cursory comparison.
The Galaxy Note 4 introduced the quad-HD screen to Samsung's lineup, but the Galaxy S6's version feels sharper, at least as a first impression. (I did not have a Note 4 with me to directly compare.) That extra sharpness and resulting clarity may be due to a new antireflective material used in the S6's screen and the brighter backlighting.
Beefed-up hardware all around: CPU, storage, speaker, camera, charging, and fingerprint reader
Samsung has also upgraded the heart of the Galaxy, by using a 64-bit Exynos processor of its own making as well as beefing up the internal memory's speed and the amount of internal storage (now starting at 32GB, with 64GB and 128GB options to be available). I didn't have enough use of the S6 or S6 Edge to do speed tests, but both devices certainly felt snappy even with all the extra pixels to push around.
Samsung says it has improved the S6's speakers. They certainly sounded louder, but also distorted at high volumes, as an overdriven speaker often does.
The S6's cameras have been beefed up, with an f1.9 lens on both the front and back cameras, versus the S5's f2.4 aperture. That wider aperture should allow more light in, for improved image capture in low lighting. (The Note 4 introduced to the Galaxy line the f1.9 lens on the rear camera, but it kept the Note III's f2.2 lens on the front. The S6 uses the f1.9 lens in both locations.)
There are also more pixels in the rear camera's CCD versus the Galaxy S5: now 16 megapixels versus 8. (The Note 4 also has a 16-megapixel rear camera.) The increase in megapixels may or may not improve the images captured, as the camera software has more to do with image quality than raw pixels at this point.
I could not test the camera to see if it is as improved as Samsung says. But I was able to test two camera-related features. One is fast access to the camera, even when the S6 is asleep: Double-press the Home button to open the Camera app in less than a second. The other is the enhanced Camera app itself, which adds automatic HDR mode so the Galaxy S6 can decide when to take pictures in high-dynamic-range mode (after all, do you really know when to use it?).
Sure, the iPhone 6 has automatic HDR, but the iPhone 6 can't take HDR photos if the flash is used. The Galaxy S6 can.
The back of the S6 supports both competing induction charging standards (PMA Powermat and WPC Qi) -- used in the so-called wireless charging mats -- which is a breakthrough move users will very much appreciate.
Samsung claims the S6 has fast-charging circuitry, letting it charge to 50 percent capacity in 30 minutes when plugged into a power source. Samsung also claims that when using induction charging, the S6 can get to 20 percent charge in 30 minutes. I couldn't verify either claim in the brief time I had access to a device.
One note about fast charging: The fuller the battery charge gets, the slower the charging rate. In other words, you might get to 50 percent in 30 minutes, then need a couple of hours to get to 100 percent. When I tested the Galaxy Note 4's fast charging last fall, I didn't notice an appreciable difference versus previous models' charging rates. But I'll take any speedup the fast-charging circuitry provides.
The two Galaxy S6 models have lower-capacity batteries than the Galaxy S5 sported: 9 percent less capacity in the S6, and 7 percent less in the S6 Edge. But Samsung says more efficient hardware and better battery management software will mean no loss in operating time. We'll see.
It's true that the hardware and software matter more than raw battery capacity to determine battery life, as iPhone users can attest: The iPhone 6 has 35 percent less battery capacity than the Samsung Galaxy S5, but the iPhone easily operates longer on a full charge.
Samsung said the Galaxy S6 uses a new touch-style fingerprint reader in the Home button, similar to Apple's Touch ID is on an iPhone. Unfortunately, I could not test the new S6 fingerprint reader to see if Samsung has improved it over the balky, difficult swipe reader used in the Galaxy S5 and Note 4 smartphones.
I hope Samsung's fingerprint reader works both smoothly and reliably; they're fundamental usability requirements, especially if Samsung expects anyone to use its forthcoming Samsung Pay system.
And I hope Samsung has fixed the bug in its Galaxy software that causes Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) to disable the fingerprint reader when security policies require device passwords. Almost any business will have that requirement, thus disabling the fingerprint reader for most business users. (By the way, those same EAS password policies do not disable the fingerprint reader on iPhones.)
Simplified software, at least for settings
The new Galaxy S6 devices don't seem to have much new in the way of software upgrades.
In my brief time with the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge prerelease units, I could see that the Settings app was simplified, with fewer levels of options to wade through. Thus, more options appear in the main Settings app window, but it's a better approach in this case because you have to hunt in fewer places to find the setting you want.
The Camera app also seemed smarter and easier to use, with clearer presentation of options and cool tracking features to keep the focus on people and other moving objects, such as pets.
I didn't have a chance to use in any depth the other standard apps on the device, such as those from Samsung and Google, to see if they've been enhanced by Samsung or were the standard Android 5 Lollipop versions.
Samsung says the decision as to what other apps are bundled with the S6 smartphones is largely up to the carriers. The prerelease S6 device I used had a folder containing three Microsoft apps -- OneNote, OneDrive, and Skype, not the rumored bundle of Microsoft Office for Android -- but a spokeswoman said the inclusion of the Microsoft apps in the demo unit didn't necessarily mean they'd be in the shipping devices. Stay tuned.
The new Galaxy S6 models will support Samsung's ill-starred Knox security technology. Samsung says the new Knox version for Android 5.0 Lollipop will be improved, but it has not yet said how. In the meantime, Google has released its own technology called Android for Work for most Android devices, whereas Knox works only with a handful of Samsung models.
The revamped Knox technology will help Samsung deliver its own mobile payment service, Samsung Pay, which the new Galaxy S6 models will support with a software upgrade due this summer.
Overall, it's clear that Samsung paid a lot more attention to the details -- and the customer -- in designing the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. If my first-look experience with the two smartphones bears out in the real world, Samsung may have the hit product it needs to reverse its mobile decline in 2014.