Editor's Note: Our Android expert Ryan Whitwam gives his take on the new Galaxy S6 smartphone. This review complements my own thoughts and testing on the phone, and we'll have a full In-Depth video on Tested next week!
Samsung needed a change after the Galaxy S5's lackluster performance last year, and the Galaxy S6 is what the Korean company came up with. Many of the basic tenets of Android design from Samsung have been abandoned, and the build quality is worlds apart from the last five Galaxy flagships.
We're in a completely new and unexplored Galaxy, so here's what you need to know.
Samsung makes the nicest phones now
From this point forward, we can no longer say that Samsung is addicted to making plastic phones that feel cheap. They got the hint, and the Galaxy S6 is completely different. It's all metal and glass, but it still has that standard Samsung shape. An aluminum band wraps around the edge of the device. It's rounded at the corners and flattens out along the sides.
The front and back of the Galaxy S6 are Gorilla Glass 4, which does give it a very nice feel in the hand. It's virtually impossible to scratch this glass, but it can break if you drop the GS6 just right. It's also a bit of a magnet for fingerprints (maybe go with the white one if that bothers you). Samsung has taken heat in the past for having some loose manufacturing tolerances, leading to gaps and wobbly buttons. The Galaxy S6 is flawless in this respect. The bezel meets up with the metal rim perfectly with no gap at all, and the buttons are solid.
This phone feels like a ginel monolithic piece of technology resting in your hand. It's not exactly an ergonomic shape, but the Galaxy S6 is light and thin enough to be comfortable to hold. The only part of the design that feel poorly thought out is the camera hump, which rises several millimeters above the glass back. This was a necessary evil, as I'll explain later.
Before this phone came out, I would have told you that HTC made the nicest Android devices from a build quality perspective. Now I think it's clear Samsung has taken the crown. Almost everything about this phone feel luxurious and polished. The HTC One M9 isn't bad by any means, but Samsung edged HTC out on this one.
If you've been using Android phones for a while, you might remember what AMOLED used to look like -- it was kind of gross. The colors were off and way too warm. panels tended to be blotchy, and burn-in was an ever present danger. Well, now AMOLED puts LCD to shame. The battle is over. Winner: AMOLED.
The Galaxy S5's screen was great, as was the Note 4's. However, the screen on the Galaxy S6 is as close to perfect as any screen I've laid eyes on. This ia a 5.1-inch 2560x1440 screen with a density of 577 pixels per inch. That's great in raw numbers, but I'm still dubious if the 1440p resolution make much of a difference. All you need to know on this front is that images look extremely crisp, and it doesn't matter that the screen is PenTile.
In auto-brightness mode, the Galaxy S6's screen can get both very dim and extremely bright. I've also found that the auto setting is more accurate than other devices. I hardly ever turn it off. There's no problem with outdoor visibility (it can go higher than 600nits), and low-light is fantastic (goes as low as sub-10nits). That makes the GS6 a fine device to use in bed at night. And of course, being AMOLED it has perfect contrast ratios.
From a technical perspective, you should check out the DisplayMate writeup on the Galaxy S6's panel. It hits all the right values and produces colors that are perfectly in-line with standards.
This isn't just the best Android display, it's the best display on any smartphone.
Blazing fast (and a little warm)
Samsung made Qualcomm's face red when it announced the Galaxy S6 would use its own in-house Exynos 7420 octa-core ARM chip instead of the Snapdragon 810. These are both octa-core chips with the same core configuration -- four Cortex-A57 (big) cores and four Cortex-A53 (LITTLE) cores in a big.LITTLE setup. However, the Snapdragon 810 seems prone to heat issues.
It's been confirmed through retail device testing that Qualcomm's chip gets warmer than the Exynos and throttles more aggressively. It even shuts off the big cores sometimes under load and moves everything over to the LITTLE CPU island. That shouldn't happen. The Exynos chip performs much better, but it does still get warm. I've seen my Galaxy S6 peak at over 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Galaxy S6 also has 3GB of RAM, 32-128GB of built-in storage, and included wireless charging. Yes, Samsung killed the microSD card slot. That's going to upset some people, but there's no more 16GB SKU and the UFS 2.0 storage in this phone is amazing. It's almost twice as fast at reads and writes than other devices.
I can't really say much of anything negative about the performance. There's a touch of lag on the stock TouchWiz home screen, but it's otherwise incredibly fast.
Fingerprints that work
The Galaxy S5 and Note 4 had swipe-style fingerprint sensors, which were okay, but not really comfortable to use. The Galaxy S6 has a touch sensor under the home button that works like Touch ID on the iPhone. You can register up to four fingerprints, which does take a few minutes. the results are great, though.
It only takes a second for the phone to identify your prints, so you can basically wake the GS6 up by pressing the home button, and before you can even let go the phone recognized you and unlocked. Samsung finally nailed this.
Samsung has long been ope of the top OEMs for cameras on Android. The Galaxy S5 was great in almost all situations, with a small weakness when it came to dim lighting. The Galaxy S6 has a 16MP camera with optical image stabilization and a f/1.9 lens. That means it can take in more light and better compensate for hand shakes. The results are fantastic.
As with most cameras, the colors and sharpness in outdoor light are great. With 16MP to work with, you can crop a fair amount without losing detail too. In less than ideal lighting, the camera does very well and keeps noise to a minimum. The image below was taken in a very dimly lit bar, and it came out great.
Some OEMs tend to be a little heavy handed with over-sharpening in bright light and smoothing too much in low-light. Samsung seems to avoid both of these errors rather well. Shots look true to life, but if you want something a little hyperreal, the Galaxy S6's HDR mode is amazing. The dynamic range this sensor can pull in is amazing, and the software processes each shot almost immediately.
If you want the best camera Android has to offer, that's the Galaxy S6.
TouchWiz and battery life
With the Galaxy S6, Samsung is continuing the trend of slimming down its Android UI known as TouchWiz. The GS5 last year had fewer features crammed in, but this year it's even cleaner. Things like Air View and one-handed mode have been removed because they weren't very useful in the first place. A number of other features like download booster and smart stay are off by default. There are even fewer popup dialogs and tutorials floating around.
If you didn't care for the look of TouchWiz before, you probably still won't. The color scheme hasn't changed, but there are a number of areas (ex. the settings and notification toggles) that have been simplified this time.
Performance is great overall -- I have seen a few hitches on the home screen, mostly related to scrolling widgets. Presumably this is something that will be cleaned up with future updates. I'd also really like a way to disable the parallax wallpaper effect. Samsung still has the Briefing panel on the home screen too. This Flipboard-powered news reader is just awful, but luckily you can disable it.
In my time with the Galaxy S6 I have yet to run out of juice before the end of the day. The battery is sealed in, so that's an important metric. The 2550mAh cell is a little smaller than the one in the Galaxy S5, but the screen and CPU are more efficient to make up for it. I'm seeing 4-5 hours of screen-on time, which I'd say is slightly above average for Android devices. This is still a phone you need to charge every night, though.
Should you get it?
There are few deal breakers with the Galaxy S6. I'm sure some people will refuse to buy a phone that has a sealed in battery or no microSD card, but these options are becoming increasingly rare. If you can get over that, the Galaxy S6 is an amazing phone with great build quality, the best screen so far, and a camera that will be hard to beat.