Testing: Samsung Galaxy S6 Smartphone

By Norman Chan

Initial thoughts after a weekend of testing: this phone is awesome.

The new Samsung Galaxy S6 released last Friday sure looks more like an iPhone than any of Samsung's Galaxy phones before it. Unibody aluminum construction, glass front and back, and nary a screw or chunky piece of plastic in sight. Is the design an egregious rip-off? That's for lawyers to argue. But it is absolutely a concession by Samsung that the design ethos we've seen from Apple since the iPhone 4 has merit: a beautiful unibody phone is worth the omission of "power-user" features like a user-replaceable battery and memory card slot. And in this case, I think the tradeoffs may be worth it. There's so much to like in the new GS6.

I picked up my Galaxy S6 from Best Buy when it was released and have been using it for the past three days. That's not enough time for a thorough evaluation of its technical performance and nuances of long-term use, but enough to share some impressions of the attributes that stand out. Let's run through those, starting with the design.

The GS6's Design is Beautiful

Regardless of how Samsung came to the design of the Galaxy S6, they ended up with one of the best-looking and feeling Android phones I've used. It looks especially fetching in white, where the illuminated menu and back buttons fade into the glass of the front face. But it's less about the glass on the front and back of the phone than it is about the aluminum band wrapped around the phone. Yes, from the bottom, it looks very much like an iPhone 6, speaker grille, headphone jack, and all. But the aluminum on the long sides of the phone is a flat edge, making it much easier to grip than the fully-curved sides of the latest iPhones. The GS6 is light, thin, and doesn't make me worry that it'll slip out of my hands when typing single-handed.

Using glass for the phone's back may be the most questionable design decision for this phone. Glass may be prettier than aluminum, but this is a phone that will shatter if you drop it on concrete. I'm not going to get a case for it, but I am definitely treating it more carefully than the OnePlus One and Moto X I was using before. And no, I'm not going to try to bend it to the point of breaking.

The Best Android Phone Screen I've Seen

Like the Note 4, the Galaxy S6 has a 2560x1440 Super AMOLED display. But this is a 5.1-inch screen phone, so the pixel density is even higher (577PPI). Like with the Note 4, I'm not sure there's a need for a screen this dense on a 5-inch class phone, and I wasn't able to distinguish between a photo scaled to 1920x1080 and the same image at native res on this phone in a single-blind test. I was skeptical of the jump from 720/768p photos to 1080p phones back in 2013 as well, but was sold on 1080p phones after a year of use. That resolution still feels like the sweet spot for clarity and battery life, but we'll see if I change my mind again and warm up to the benefits of 1440p after living with the GS6 this year.

Still, the screen on the GS6 is the best I've seen on an Android phone. It's incredibly vibrant at its brightest (600nits), displays beautiful colors without looking saturated, and shows an image that looks like it's bonded right to the glass. Color temperature is cooler than the OLED screen in the Moto X, and less saturated than the screen on the HTC One M8.

I was able to use it for reading outdoors over the weekend without any problems, though not in direct sunlight. And since it's OLED, I did notice the rainbow shimmer effect outdoors and in certain off-axis angles. It's not as bad as the Moto X, though.

At this pixel density, one advantage is that I honestly can't spot the individual pixels, let alone pentile-subpixel arrangement, with the naked eye, though it does show up under magnified optics (eg. putting it up to the Gear VR's lenses). Another advantage is that you can reduce the Android font rendering size for smaller text, which allow you fit more information on screen in widgets like Gmail and Calendar. I have the phone's text DPI at the "extra small" setting.

All-Day Battery

As mentioned earlier, a downside to such a high-resolution screen is the potential battery life drain. We saw this on the Note 4, which couldn't match an iPhone 6 Plus' battery life even though it's such a big phone. The OnePlus One is still my standard for two-day battery life. That's not matched here, as the GS6 has a smaller capacity battery than the GS5 and a higher-res screen.

But so far, the battery has lasted me full days with pretty heavy use as I tinkered with the phone. On my heaviest day of use, I was able to keep it running past 11pm with only one brief stint of charging. And speaking of charging, the GS6 is equipped for quick charging with both Qualcomm and Samsung's fast-charge technologies, granted you have a compatible charger (like the one included). Testing the rate of a quick charge vs a standard connection will be interesting. GS6 also supports wireless charging, with both the Qi and PMA standards, meaning it'll work with a ton of existing inductive charging pads and even the PowerMat pads at Starbucks. That's awesome.

Of course, all of this is to counteract the fact that the battery isn't removable--a feature that Samsung Galaxy fans have held above iPhone users for a long time. But I think that Samsung realizes that the majority of its users don't carry around spare batteries--USB battery packs do the job just fine, and are more versatile. An informal poll I conducted on Twitter this morning confirmed this. A removable battery's advantage isn't primarily in day-to-day use, but in the ability of the user to manually replace and the battery with a new one after a year to refresh their phone. The limited charge cycles of Lithium Ion batteries (and how you treat your device) put a ticking clock on every unibody smartphone, and we'll have to wait and see if the Galaxy S6's battery can stay healthy for a reasonable lifespan.

As a related issue, the performance of Samsung's Exynos 7420 SoC will also have a direct affect on battery life. It's again too soon to talk about processor performance over the long term, but Exynos feels fast in everything I threw at it over the weekend--video streaming, games, browsing, multi-tasking, etc. At load, the phone definitely heats up a bit on the top right, close to the power/sleep button.

An Impressive Camera So Far

Galaxy S6 has a 16MP camera sensor, which actually is a Sony part instead of Samsung's own ISOCELL that was used in the Galaxy S5. The new sensor (Sony also makes Apple's iPhone camera), coupled with an f/1.9 aperture, has thus far produced some great looking photos in normal daylight conditions. I'll run a full image quality analysis when we do the full review, but the photos I've shot so far look great--even as they approach 8MB each.

Optical image stabilization and the wider 28mm equivalent lens (31mm on last year's model) causes the camera module to stick out from the back a bit. The phone actually rests on a shiny metal chamfer when lying flat on a table--we'll see if that scratches up over time. OIS for video is only enabled when you shoot at 1080p 30fps, though you can shoot video up to 4K (losing real-time autofocus and OIS).

Samsung's camera software is also fast and robust. Getting to the camera from the lock screen is quick, and launching camera with two clicks of the home button is even quicker. It's not instantaneous, though, so there's definitely some room for improvement. I like the manual photo controls like ISO, white balance, and exposure, and the HDR photos don't flatten out face tones too much like I've seen on other phones. Samsung is also launching a camera mode store so you can download Samsung and third-party shoot modes to use in the default camera app, but these are uninspiring thus far. Animated GIF, and Surround shot as the most useful ones in the store now, and the "beauty face" and "food" modes are laughable. It feels more like a way for Samsung to get you to buy apps while bypassing Google's Play store.

Let's Talk about Software

Oh boy, does the Galaxy S6 come with a bunch of bloatware. This is a Samsung phone, after all. At its core, the GS6 is running Android 5.0 Lollipop, so at least it didn't launch with KitKat. And to be fair, TouchWiz is the least offensive I've seen in a long time. The TouchWiz home screen has features like built-in Flipboard (swiping to the left, a la Google Now), and custom themes, as well as the ability to scale the home screen grid to fit more icons and widgets. But I still dumped it for the Google Now launcher first thing.

The things I do like about Samsung's version of Android are a mix of old and new. Samsung's customizable drop-down notifications shade remains extremely useful, and I like its keyboard and learning dictionary. Useful new features include the multi-window mode (activated from the multi-tasking carousel) and app pinning feature (which locks an app to full-screen when you want to let someone else use your phone).

S-Voice--Samsung's alternative to Siri and Google Now--is less obnoxious in that it doesn't take up the full screen, but it's still painfully slow. Galaxy S6 owners have recommended that you disable S-Voice (as well as a bunch of Samsung's bundled apps) for Google Now, but it's unfortunately the only way to give the phone voice commands while the phone's screen is off. You can't say "OK, Google" in standby as you can on the Moto X. So for my GS6, I've configured the S-Voice command to "OK, Google" to spite the system.

The bigger problem with bundled apps is that it's also carrier dependent. Not only do Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint each include their own proprietary bloatware, most of those apps can't be removed--only disabled and hidden. And worse yet, each carrier has a separate policy about which of Samsung's bundled apps and key features are included, to the detriment of the user. For example, on the AT&T version of the GS6, Microsoft's OneDrive isn't bundled (omitting the free 100GB of cloud storage) and the touted Download Booster feature is missing. Such BS.

Your best way of getting around this is buying an unlocked version of the GS6, but those are scarce and upwards of $1000 right now on Amazon and the grey market.

Other Considerations

Unlike the Note 4, the fingerprint sensor on the Galaxy S6's home button actually works, and works well. Even though the home button is pill-shaped, unlocking GS6 with a finger works when the finger is rotated and off-center. You can store up to four fingerprints to the phone, and registering each takes a minute, and patience through repeated trials. Fingerprints can be used to unlock the phone, but I don't like that you still have to swipe the screen after unlocking to get from the lock screen to the home screen. It should be like on the iPhone--take me to the home screen after you've verified my identity. Also, fingerprints can only be used in place of passwords with Samsung's app store and on the default Internet browser.

The vibration motor on the GS6 is much better than the one on the Note 4, which I thought was too strong. I have mine tuned down to a low rumble.

Samsung Pay--the wireless company's payment scheme that uses electromagnetic fields to simulate the swipe of a credit card--hasn't launched yet, but will be unlocked on the phone.

I chose the 32GB model because it was the cheapest, as well as the non-Edge version of the phone. Android and Samsung's apps take up 7GB, so I hope that the remaining space will be enough for all my apps and media. The GS6 goes up to 128GB.

This will be the second phone to have an Oculus/Gear VR accessory option, and I'm very excited to try that. VR is where the higher pixel density can really make a difference, as long as the optics properly compensate for the 5.1-inch screen size (ie. doesn't reduce field of view). The lack of a microSD card slot means you'll have to download Oculus apps directly to the phone (Gear VR for Note 4 included a 16GB card with VR apps). No word on when that hardware is going to be released, and for how much, but users should consider that it's still going to be the Innovator's edition and not the final "consumer" Gear VR.

It's only been three days, but I really like the Galaxy S6 so far. I haven't felt this positive about an Android phone since the first HTC One--the phone that got me to convert to Android in the first place. You can be disappointed in Samsung that it's choosing a design direction that's a departure from the past, but I won't take points away for it resembling the iPhone. The similarities are really only superficial; this is still very much an Android phone--one that does a beautiful job showcasing the best the OS has to offer, with minor software meddling from Samsung that ends up net-positive.

I'll be continuing my testing of the Galaxy S6, and we'll have an in-depth video review on the site after I've had enough time to live with it. If you picked up the phone as well, let me know what you think in the comments below!