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Samsung Galaxy S6 review: the change we've been waiting for

Does the Galaxy S6 mark Samsung's return to dominance in the smartphone world? We find out, in our in-depth Samsung Galaxy S6 review!

Published onMarch 20, 2015

With much needed changes inside and out, Samsung finally brings to the table what you’d expect from a high-end flagship with the Galaxy S6.
Editor's Choice Update 2015
With the Galaxy S series losing steam ever since the Galaxy S4, Samsung needed a dramatic change in order to make a comeback in the flagship market, overrun by better looking, and sometimes even better performing devices. That drastic change came in the form of the Galaxy S6, with its beautiful metal and glass design, even while retaining what makes Samsung, Samsung.

Does Samsung’s latest flagship mark its return to dominance in the smartphone world? We find out in this in-depth Samsung Galaxy S6 review!

With every new addition to the S series, Samsung has always made promises of “revolutionary” design and build quality, only to leave consumers feeling disappointed with their somewhat cheap feeling plastic builds. That has all finally changed with the Galaxy S6. Boasting a classy metal and glass design, the Galaxy S6 offers the premium look and feel that is expected from a high-end smartphone from Samsung.

That said, there’s no mistaking the Galaxy S6 for anything other than a Samsung smartphone, with the general design language being quite similar to its predecessors. The device retains signature elements of Samsung smartphones, including the tactile home button up front, flanked by capacitive back and recent apps keys. The volume rocker and power button are also found at their usual positions to the left and right respectively, and have a reassuring click and press to them. Changes include the headphone jack and the speaker grill being moved to the bottom of the phone, flanking the microUSB port. Moving to the back, the camera and flash area have been redesigned and come with metallic accents to add to the premium look.

Coming to the new build materials, the metal frame is a very welcome change; the tapered rises on the top and bottom halves are reminiscent of the frame of the Galaxy Note 4. 2.5D glass adds a little dimension to the glass atop the display, and now the back of the phone itself is also made of glass.

There’s no denying that the change in build material and quality was a necessary move on Samsung’s part, but this decision wasn’t without compromises, with two staple Samsung features, expandable storage and a removable battery, now unavailable.

At just 6.8 mm thick, the Galaxy S6 is extremely sleek, but this thinness does result in the camera module protruding quite a bit, and while we have seen this with other smartphones, in this case, this proved to be a real world issue. When I tried to stand the phone up for a shot, a wayward gust of wind made the phone fall on its back. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem as it’s not even a real drop, but on picking up the phone, a crack in the glass that covers the camera optics could be seen. Thankfully, this was just a cosmetic issue and the camera experience was not affected. That said, it’s very unfortunate that it even happened, and though it might have been a singular situation, it still didn’t make me feel very secure about the crystal that was supposed to protect the camera.

Aside from the material change, and despite it, what is first noticed about the Galaxy S6 is the phone’s light weight, making for a device that is pretty easy to handle. With a display size of 5.1-inch, this smartphone should be pretty accessible for the vast majority of users. Though there was some slippage from time to time, it definitely doesn’t keep me from rating the Galaxy S6 as a very comfortable phone to use.

I can’t help but think that the very people who previously lamented the plastic builds of Galaxy phones will now be happy, while everyone else will now be upset. Those users who want and expect quite literally everything from their Samsung device just won’t be getting it here. The replaceable battery and expandable storage are the main holes here, and it’s up to the user to decide if they are dealbreakers. Nonetheless, this just might be one of the best looking phones that Samsung has ever made, and we’re quite happy with the step forward that Samsung has taken this long to finally take.

As mentioned, the Galaxy S6 comes with same 5.1-inch Super AMOLED display of its predecessor, but with a boost in the resolution department to Quad HD, resulting in an impressive pixel density of 577 ppi. Super AMOLED brings with it what many of its fans already enjoy, with its deep blacks and highly vivid colors that are Samsung’s signature. And if the saturation is too much, you are given full freedom to tone it down.

With the high resolution and pixel density, just about everything on this device looks absolutely gorgeous. Text is incredibly sharp, videos are a blast to watch even when the full 2K resolution isn’t really being taken advantage of, and playing games is a very enjoyable experience. Viewing the phone in broad daylight is not difficult at all, though some issues with glare are to be expected. At full brightness, I had no issue getting things done out in a very open and sunny area.

With such a high density, the display is also a little sensitive. Swiping down the notification dropdown requires just the right kind of flick, and even a small touch from the skin on the sides of the device when playing games can mean the difference between virtual life and death. These aren’t necessarily issues per se, but things that I simply noticed on the Galaxy S6. Perhaps they are testaments to how advanced this screen is, apart from being one of the best viewing experiences available now.

While previous Samsung flagships featured two iterations, one with a Qualcomm processor and another with an Exynos chip, Samsung is not looking to Qualcomm for their chipsets this time around, favoring its in-house octa-core Exynos 7420 processor, clocked at 2.1 GHz, and backed by the Mali-T760 GPU and 3 GB of RAM.

It certainly makes sense that Samsung would optimize their software experience for their own processing packages, and the combination seems to have paid off. As expected from a high-end device of this caliber, the performance is fantastic. Swiping and scrolling through the various elements of the UI, opening, closing, and switching between apps, other transitions, and general tasks are all extremely smooth. The performance of the Galaxy S6 is perhaps most easily demonstrated by the camera shortcut. Simply double tap the home button, and the camera application will slide up from the bottom in under a second, doing so without a hitch almost every single time.

The Mali graphics also do well to produce a good gaming experience, and the only noticeable slowdown was when there were too many things happening on screen, like explosions in Sky Force. Even then, the stutter was cosmetic and the game speed itself didn’t let up. The phone does get hot under heavy gaming load, sometimes to the point where I had to put the phone down because of how uncomfortably hot it had become. That said, nothing shut down, and the games that caused this never closed or slowed down in any way.

Where you might have previously always noticed and got angered by the stutters and slowdowns of Touchwiz, we now have the smoothest iteration of Samsung’s UI yet, and it only further justifies Samsung’s move to stick with the processors they’ve made in-house.

The Galaxy S6 comes with 32/64/128 GB storage options, but the latter two options may be the better choice for power users, given the lack of expandable storage. A full suite of connectivity options and sensors are available, but Samsung always adds something extra when it comes to their flagships. In this case, these are both features inherited from the Galaxy S5.

Starting with the fingerprint scanner, the sensor has been updated to a touch-based variety, which is a far better implementation when compared to the swipe type of its predecessor. To begin with, you now have the option to set up the scanner with your finger placed in a position that is the most comfortable to you, and it doesn’t require the rigid movements needed with a swipe type variety. This implementation also makes it very quick and easy to unlock the device, as you only need to press and hold the home button to get into the main screen. The scanner can also be used with Samsung Pay, whenever it’s released in the later part of the year.

Also making its way over from the previous generation is the heart rate monitor, also found on the back, and it works a little better because of its placement vertically on the side of the camera, instead of below it. Even if you don’t use it very often with the updated S Health application, the ability to use the sensor as a trigger for self portraits make it quite useful.

When it comes to speakers, moving away from the back of the phone is always a good move, and the Galaxy S6 is probably the best speaker experience Samsung has ever put out on a flagship. The bottom located speaker is bringing some very loud audio, enjoyable even in noisy environments, and while it still isn’t as good as front facing speakers, it’s vastly superior to any rear mounted units Samsung has used in the past.

Connectivity was no issue, with the phone easily connecting to LTE networks and the call quality proving to be as good as ever.

Finally when it comes to the battery, the Galaxy S6 packs a relatively small 2,550 mAh battery, and, on top of the fact that the battery is now not replaceable, it’s quite easy to dismiss the battery life as subpar. What I haven’t mentioned in the performance section is the processor being fabricated with a 14 nm process. Moving down to 14 nm basically means that data is transmitted across a smaller distance, which should lead to better power consumption. With this said, I found that battery life remains in line with the Galaxy S5, rather than get better than before.

As such, the Galaxy S6 battery performs just about how you would expect. A bit over a full day of work for the typical user, with the power user probably having to rely on the power saving modes and the occasional connection to a fast charger. To say that it’s a bummer the Galaxy S6 isn’t an overachiever in the battery life department is unfortunate, but the fact that it is an average performer at best is something we, quite frankly, expected.

Wireless charging is also available with the Galaxy S6 now, and the best part being is that the S6 is compatible with the two major wireless charging standards currently available.

Hardware is rounded out by the camera package, which brings some of the best specifications we’ve seen from a Galaxy device. The Galaxy S6 features a 16 MP rear facing unit and a 5 MP unit in the front, with both shooters sporting f/1.9 aperture for better low light shots, and auto-HDR modes to easily make your photos pop.

It’s easy to see in the camera app that things have been dialed back a bit, with UI elements relegated to the sides of the viewfinder, at least until you hit the Pro mode, which is a very welcome addition. While Pro modes are certainly not new, what I personally enjoy most about the Galaxy S6 Pro mode is the ability to manually adjust the focus. This is a far better way to take advantage of the depth of field an f/1.9 aperture provides, though if you prefer to change the focus after the shot, the Selective Focus mode is still available.

Panorama and virtual shot modes are available too, if you want to get fancy, and the panoramic capture does well to keep stitching to a minimum, unless your subjects are moving way too much. Video can be captured in slow motion or in 4K, though both of these modes will not have the benefit of HDR and various other enhancements that are available with 1080p video capture. The front facing camera, though not an overachiever, is more than enough for self portraits in just about any situation, and having HDR available means you can get a somewhat better shot if you need exposure compensation.

Though the viewfinder might not always show how good the photo will turn out in live view, the pictures I got in situations where I expected lackluster quality frequently turned out better. Having HDR on auto takes the guesswork out of double exposure situations, but the effect is sometimes too light, and enhancing the photo in the photo editor may be necessary.

In good lighting, the camera gets highly detailed, very vivid photos, that are worthy of everything from social media to capturing key moments of your life, and rarely did I get a dull photo. Autofocus tracking proved useful for moving subjects, as the camera typically managed to keep focus steady. That’s certainly a better implementation than having to feverishly tap the screen yourself. In lower light situations, the f/1.9 aperture definitely helped, though there is a law of diminishing returns as the light gets dimmer.

For shots in the dead of night outside, I was still quite impressed with what came out, and I was even more impressed when I zoomed in. Normally, on most smartphone cameras, zooming into the darker parts of a photo reveals smudges and fuzzy interpretations of the captured light. After all, it’s not necessarily how much the camera is able to capture, but what is done to the data after the photo is taken. In the case of the Galaxy S6, the noise is largely left alone, so the portrayal of the scene remains accurate. After having to suffer through many cases of shoddy post-processing, this is a much better way to handle low light situations.

I recently revisited the Galaxy Note 4 for its great camera experience to re-familiarize myself with the Samsung way of taking pictures, and it proved itself to be a great camera companion. The Galaxy S6 proves to be just as good, if not slightly better, than the Note 4, and Samsung continues to provide one of the best camera experiences in the smartphone world.

Finally, we come to Touchwiz, which has gone through a number of changes, and one of the first things we noticed was its silence, literally. When navigating around the user interface, those water drop noises and all those other annoying Samsung sounds are absent, which should be a plus for most users.

This story of trimming down continues when you get to the settings screen. Many of the features that oversaturated previous Galaxy S devices are nowhere to be found, like the air gestures or the Toolbox, and even the setting screen itself is not an incredible mess of dozens and dozens of circle icons. This time, it’s a simple list with an easily editable quick settings area up top.

The notification dropdown still clearly bears Samsung’s signature, but it’s made a little easier on the eyes with the Lollipop aesthetic put in. Speaking of Lollipop, the recent apps screen has the card layout, but it is also the place where Mulitwindow can be activated, either by holding down the recent apps button to be guided into creating your dual panel, or by pressing the icon found on any of the cards compatible with this feature.

The next thing we noticed in this Touchwiz was the lack of incessant tutorial popups. Rather than throwing all of its capabilities in the user’s face, the Galaxy S6 seems content to be used based on the user’s own sensibilities. If you want the extra Samsung capabilities, they’re available if you know how to trigger them. The Multiwindow is the main example of this, but there is also the small window capability from the Galaxy Note 4, which I actually accidentally discovered on my own when swiping down from the top. Sure enough, this feature is still available by swiping from any top corner to create a smaller version of the screen, and nowhere in this situation was I interrupted with an annoying tutorial screen.

While many of the questionable features of Touchwiz were removed, that’s only part of the trimming done here, as several less important Samsung applications are no longer pre-installed. I do tip my hat to the new look of S Health though, which is a bit more attractive to look at as I check my heart rate from time to time.

This dialing back of the software is a refreshing change of pace, even if Touchwiz still looks a little too bubbly and too colorful, just like before. But there is a solution even for that, as the Galaxy S6 introduces a theme store, where you can find and install a whole new look for the interface. It’s not the most customizable version of themes we’ve seen, but it’s a big step in the right direction.

Like we’ve already said, the Galaxy S6 flies through all of these interface elements, even the Multi and S Window portions, and that is perhaps the biggest takeaway here. Users who just want a phone to work based on the typical Android multitasking and navigation experience will have no trouble with the Galaxy S6, and that’s quite a feat. If they do want a bit extra, they can dig deeper, without Touchwiz parading itself in their faces. This is definitely one of the smoothest and easiest software experiences Samsung has ever put out, and it stands out as one of the best in this current crop of flagship devices.

Display5.1-inch Super AMOLED
2560 x 1440 resolution, 577 ppi
Exynos 7420
3 GB
32/64/128 GB
16 MP rear camera with OIS
5 MP front-facing camera with 90 degree wide angle lens
WiFi a/b/g/n/ac
Bluetooth 4.1, NFC, GPS + GLONASS
LTE cat 6 300/50
2,550 mAh
Fast charging
WPC and PMA-compatible wireless charging
Android 5.0 Lollipop
143.4 x 70.5 x 6.8 mm
138 grams
Black, white, gold, blue

We don’t quite know what the price will be on carriers in the US, but the Galaxy S6 should come at the typical prices on contracts, with the equally typical price of around $700 unlocked. For an even more premium price, the Galaxy S6 Edge is a choice that brings a unique take on the Galaxy S experience, though our review will soon give the verdict on whether the edges are worth it. Of course, other flagships will compete with the Galaxy S6, like the HTCOne M9, which is arriving soon, and the usual arch-rival, the iPhone 6.

So there you have it – a detailed look at the Samsung Galaxy S6! Sometimes, a company needs a different perspective to gain all of its attention back and, with the Galaxy S6, Samsung has definitely brought back quite a bit of the buzz it lost with its predecessors. A pretty drastic change in the design philosophy brings the best looking and best handling device the Galaxy S line has ever had, but sacrifices some key elements that Samsung fans may pine over.

For all that has changed on the outside, what has changed on the inside might even out the negatives, though. Touchwiz is better than ever, which is something I never thought I would say. The camera experience continues to improve and keeps Samsung among the top Android shooters, and a powerful screen and processor make the Galaxy S6 an easily recommended daily driver for many users. Whether forward or backward, Samsung has finally shifted in a number of key areas, and the Galaxy S6 is the change we’ve been waiting for. The end result is one of the best devices Samsung has ever put out, and one that won’t fade into obscurity as easily as its predecessor.

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