It's been a tumultuous year for Samsung. Buoyant and complacent with being the world's most successful Android smartphone vendor for ages, the Korean giant was perhaps not prepared for its Galaxy S5 flagship last year to be so roundly criticised for not breaking any new ground. The heart rate sensor was pretty much mostly a gimmick, and the glossy plastic body did it no favours when seen next to its competition. Chinese brands have started having an impact on its low-end and mid-range sales, and Lollipop updates for older devices have been coming too slowly, if at all.
Samsung's image has lost a lot of its former sheen; even more so when it comes to the top-end Galaxy S range. Under more pressure than ever before, the company is betting on a major reinvention. Gone is the cheap plastic, in favour of slick aluminium. Gone is the heavy TouchWiz skin with dozens of settings and features that no one ever used - the software is more restrained than ever.
We first saw the new Samsung Galaxy S6 (and its eclectic curved-glass twin, the Galaxy S6 Edge) shortly after its launch at the 2015 Mobile World Congress show, but now we've had enough time to conduct a full, thorough review. The device is launching in India just over a month after its global debut, making it the first of this year's flagship models to make it here. Should you rush out and buy one?
Look and feel
Samsung has been experimenting with metal bodies up and down its product lineup, so it's no surprise that the new flagship model comes in full aluminium trim. Samsung's phones have been difficult to tell apart in the past because of the company's very set template, and the Galaxy S6 feels like something of a missed opportunity in terms of a breakout design. With new materials and new priorities, Samsung could have gone in exciting directions but the Galaxy S6 not only carries forward most of its predecessors' style, it somehow simultaneously manages to look like it has borrowed cues from Sony and Apple.
While the influence of the iPhone 6 (Review | Pictures) and its predecessors is apparent in details such as the machined speaker grille and chamfered rim edges, we find that the overall shape and style feel more derivative of the Sony Xperia Z3 (Review | Pictures). Other touches, such as the silver-rimmed physical Home button are pure Samsung.
The front and back are flat glass, and the metal rim has a slight curve that fits nicely in a hand. Thankfully, the Galaxy S5 (Review | Pictures) rim's ugly ridges were smoothened out. The power button and Nano-SIM tray are on the right, and two separate volume buttons are on the left. The only things on top are an IR emitter and secondary mic, while the speaker, Micro-USB port and headset socket are all on the bottom. Flaps over the ports and slots for waterproofing are conspicuously absent. The home button has an integrated fingerprint reader and there's also a heart rate sensor right beneath the flash on the rear.
Samsung has clearly shifted its priorities as far as design is concerned, and this is the first Galaxy S model not to have an accessible battery. Also as a consequence, there's no room for a microSD card slot - you'll have to choose a storage capacity at the time of purchase and then live with that much.
The biggest problem with the design is that this phone is extremely slippery. We often found ourselves uncertain of our grip on it; holding it extra tight to compensate. The camera module sticks out quite a bit from the rear - it's larger and more obtrusive than the infamous one on the iPhone 6, and the Galaxy S6 wobbles when you try to use it lying face up on a table.
The fact that Samsung has gone with its in-house Exynos processor for all global versions of the Galaxy S6 signals the company's growing confidence in its ability to compete with top-tier technology firms such as Qualcomm. The Exynos 7420 SoC has four 1.5GHz ARM Cortex A53 cores and four 2.1GHz Cortex A57 cores, allowing the phone to strike a balance between performance and power consumption for all kinds of tasks. There's 3GB of RAM, which is standard for top-end phones now.
With no microSD card slot, Samsung has made the Galaxy S6 available in multiple storage configurations. The strategy and pricing follow Apple's precedents, but the base model comes with 32GB rather than 16GB, which seems like a direct shot across the bow.
Predictably, the screen moves up to QHD resolution, which is 1440x2560 pixels. At 5.1 inches diagonally, it's a lot easier to handle than last year's QHD flagships. The screen is beautifully crisp and bright, and it's protected by Gorilla Glass 4.
Like last year's Galaxy S5, the physical Home button has an integrated fingerprint sensor, but now you don't have to swipe your finger across it - a simple touch will do. The heart rate sensor on the rear is also still around. We found the one on the Galaxy S5 gimmicky and ultimately forgettable. This one is positioned to one side of the camera hump, making less likely that regular usage will become a habit.
Samsung has famously reduced a lot of the software clutter that defined its Galaxy S4 and Galaxy S5 devices. TouchWiz has tried to mimic some of Google's Lollipop-era Material Design aesthetic and it is a marked improvement over previous Samsung attempts at UI design. Responsiveness isn't a problem, and we never got the feeling that any of the customisations were a step backwards from stock Android.
There are some things that you might never use, but are fairly unobtrusive and can be disabled, such as the Fliboard-style news reader to the left of the primary home screen, and the ability to run two apps simultaneously in a split-screen mode. The quick settings and notifications shade is handy - for example, grabbing the brightness slider makes all other controls temporarily disappear from the screen, letting you see how your adjustment will affect the underlying app or content.
Interestingly, there's now a Themes app and an associated online store from which you can download packs that give your Galaxy S6 UI a complete visual overhaul. We noticed a few branded options, so presumably Samsung is open to licensing deals. We hope to see more variety in the store soon.
There are still significant amounts of Samsung-branded bloat, such as the Galaxy Essentials and Galaxy Gifts apps and widget. It looks like a bunch of apps such as Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp and Instagram are preloaded, but these icons take you do download pages which means they aren't taking up as much space by default. You also get the Peel Smart Remote app with which to use the IR blaster.
Of course one of the biggest stories here is the default inclusion of Microsoft apps and services, right in Google's stronghold. Skype, OneDrive and OneNote are preloaded, though not the Microsoft Office apps which would compete directly with Google's offerings. OneNote is fantastically useful and any use of OneDrive is a toe-hold for the company. Any more than this and users would have been faced with confusing choices.
S-Health is still around, tied in to the heart rate monitor on the rear but more realistically useful if you have a smartwatch or dedicated monitoring device. The app lists compatible accessories including of course the Samsung Gear range, plus devices from Garmin, Adidas and others. We didn't wind up getting much use out of S-Health during our review period, but it will probably be useful over time to those who make it part of their daily routine.
Flagship phones today are distinguished by their cameras, and the Samsung Galaxy S6 does very well indeed in this department. We were constantly amazed by the quality of photos we were able to take, and the accuracy of subtle little details. Daylight shots were extraordinarily impressive, especially when we were able to frame shots to get some depth of field. Close-ups revealed that the camera can reproduce fine textures and really make colours pop.
We were satisfied with the compression and noise levels too, even in low light. While ambient lighting made a huge difference to the colour accuracy of shots and the autofocus was often unreliable at night, we were more than impressed with the results we were able to capture. We have only seen better low-light results from the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.
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4K video came out well, though we still feel that there aren't many occasions on which 4K makes more sense than regular 1080p - especially if you go for the lowest-priced 32GB model. A 30-second 4K clip came to around 170MB, while an equivalent 1080p clip took up just 60MB. The phone warns you that some features, such as continuous autofocus and still grabs aren't possible while recording in 4K, and we also found this to be the only time when the phone really got hot in our hands.
Samsung's camera app has also undergone a significant makeover. The massive grid of settings has been distilled into a few options on screen, with a deeper menu for things that spill over. A manual mode lets you drag sliders to adjust the focus and exposure compensation, which is really neat.
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There's a modular approach to features - a "Camera Mode store" lets you add things that aren't already there, such as a mode for sports or fast-moving objects, one for food, a face beautifier, dual-cam PIP, and many more fringe use cases. It's a lot better than having a thousand options by default, and we wonder if paid camera software enhancements are on the way.
Samsung clearly believes its Exynos processors are mature enough to bet the entire flagship Galaxy S line on, and we found that its confidence is not misplaced. The Galaxy S6 will go up against multiple devices powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 810, but for now it can enjoy the first mover's advantage as we can't compare the two processors yet.
Benchmark scores were some of the highest we've ever seen - the AnTuTu score of 67,975 was significantly higher than our previous record, 52,686 set by the Motorola Moto Turbo. Quadrant returned 34,417 points overall. Both scores are significantly better than the Galaxy S5 managed to achieve.
Even more interestingly, GFXBench ran at 39fps and 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited test achieved 21,878 points. That means despite the pixel-dense screen, there's more than enough graphics horsepower to let you run today's most demanding games at adequate frame rates. Video playback performance is just fine, and even the speaker is crisp and clear despite being shoved into such a slim body.
The battery lasted 13 hours, 8 minutes in our standard video loop test. This should easily translate to a full day of heavy usage, including cellular data and games. The phone also charges very quickly, which is a feature everyone can appreciate.
We mostly approve of Samsung's new direction. The company has clearly identified why the Galaxy S5 didn't look so great against its competitors, and has taken steps to rectify every problem. The Galaxy S6 is perfectly in line with what we expect a 2015 flagship phone to be. It isn't perfect, but there's seemingly a workaround for every problem: a 128GB version for those who need storage space; downloadable components for features that were dropped; slick features that don't make the software feel excessive.
The Galaxy S6 is still a little bland in terms of style, but at least it doesn't feel like an ugly toy. Only the camera bulge is a real problem, though for the quality we're getting, we can live with it. You'll want a protective case anyway, which will somewhat tone down the bulge.
If you're in the market for a top-end Android phone with a reasonably sized screen and cost is not a limiting factor, there's really nothing to beat the Galaxy S6 at this moment. If you can hold on for a little while, we'd suggest waiting till HTC, LG and possibly Sony launch their own competitors. If style is more important than anything else, the Galaxy S6 Edge has all the same features and advantages.
Also worth noting, the Galaxy S5 has dropped to nearly half of its launch price and is just a year old. Flagships don't age in terms of specifications and capabilities, and so the S5 is a viable alternative. If you want an Android experience that's closer to stock, you could also consider the Motorola Moto Turbo (Review | Pictures).
Samsung Galaxy S6 in pictures