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Samsung Galaxy S6 Review: Can it save the Galaxy?

After the disappointing S5, will the full-metal S6 be the smash hit Samsung are hoping for?

Samsung Galaxy S6

Samsung have delivered success upon success with (or perhaps despite?) their approach to the Galaxy S range of flagship devices. But with the release of the S5, however, things started to change. Although packing the latest and greatest internals (including removable batteries, microSD expansion, TouchWiz ‘enhancements’ on stock Android) and an ever increasing number of functions, sales of the device stalled, leading to speculation that Samsung’s meteoric rise to Android dominance might be coming to an end. Here, we have the Galaxy S6, undeniably Samsung, but with a slightly different approach aimed at wooing buyers who might be considering defecting to another Android device or, more significantly, about to make the jump to the iPhone 6.

Premium design – but at what cost?

At first glance, the Galaxy S6 looks like classic Samsung, pure and simple. Presented in white (although also available in black, gold and – if you can track one down – blue), the signature Samsung features are there. A big central home button. Capacitive keys each side of the home button. Silver speaker grille with a ‘dot’ pattern. Power button on the right. Pick up the phone though, and straight away you’ll notice significant differences from it’s predecessors. The edge of the device isn’t plastic, it’s metal. The back of the device isn’t plastic or fake leather with fake stitching… it’s glass. It feels well made in your hand, cool, solid and expensive – Samsung have finally awoken to the importance of premium materials. The buttons click with a satisfying action. The bevel on the metal edge looks gorgeous. The antenna separators around the edge and the speaker grille on the bottom might look very similar to those of a certain Apple device, but they work well here too.

As well as giving the device a far more premium feel, the materials dictate a significant change for the S6. The back is not removable, meaning the battery is fixed. The right-hand side of the device is home to the pop-out SIM tray, but there is no microSD expansion on the phone. Both of these features were much loved by many Samsung fans of old, and we think it’s a worthwhile trade-off for the much improved build quality, but you may not agree. The S6 is offered in 32GB, 64GB and 128GB versions, so if you are willing to fork out the (considerable) additional cost for extra storage, the loss of microSD expansion at least shouldn’t be a show-stopper.

Should you go for the curved Edge screen version?

 Samsung devices have long had market leading Super AMOLED screens and in this regard, the S6 certainly doesn’t disappoint. While some manufacturers have opted to stick with 1920×1080 FHD screens, the S6 (and the S6 edge) make the jump to QHD, with the 2560×1440 resolution on the 5.1-inch screen delivering a frankly ridiculous 577PPI.

Two versions of the S6 are available – the classic style with a conventional screen and the Edge version with a panel that curves over the left and right of the screen. That aside, the two phones are virtually identical and although the Edge is certainly the more innovative of the two devices, the curve adds very little in utility, distorts on screen images and makes the device less comfortable to hold. We think the normal S6 is the device to have (and as an added bonus it’s considerably cheaper than the Edge).

Brightness on the S6 screen is incredible and as with all Super AMOLED screens, colours really pop, even if some images can appear over-saturated. A number of different screen colour modes are available, enabling a certain degree of tailoring to suit your preferences. Inclusion of a QHD screen on a device with a display of this size, is frequently debated, generally in the context of whether there is a visible improvement over FHD, performance and to a lesser extent, battery life. All you need to know is that the S6 screen looks noticeably better than that of its predecessor.

Galaxy S6_Combination_Blue Topaz

 Performance and battery – Enter the Exynos

 The Galaxy S6 doesn’t use a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. This is big news. For a number of device iterations now, Samsung have had two variants of their devices available – one (for large key 4G markets such as Europe) with a Snapdragon processor and a second version using an Exynos processor from Samsung themselves. The S6 is the first device to dispense with the Qualcomm version altogether, and it looks like it could be a master stroke.

The Qualcomm chip that Samsung would likely have used, the Snapdragon 810, looks like a bit of a rare low-point. It’s not as well performing as expected and it seems to have heat and power consumption issues. The octa-core Exynos 7420 in the S6, however, utilises a new 14nm manufacturing process that brings heat and battery benefits, as well as support for DDR4 memory and UFS storage technology, which promises to bring faster than ever data transfer. Looking good on paper is very different to performing well in real life but Samsung do seem to have cracked it. They promise a ‘lag free’ experience on the S6 and while that isn’t 100 per cent the case, the phone offers what is the fastest and smoothest Android experience we’ve seen to date.

Backed up by a generous 3GB of RAM, the S6 simply flies, wholeheartedly vindicating Samsung’s decision to go with their own processor solution this time round. The Galaxy S6’s non-removable battery is a 2600mAh capacity item, which is not a big battery for today’s devices. The device does feature quick-charging support (with a fast charger in box) together with built-in dual standard (Qi and PMA) wireless charging, but while it’s not going to set any records for longevity, stamina isn’t as bad as you might expect. If you are anything but the lightest of users, however, you might need to consider changing your charging habits to include a midday top-up.

Slimmed down software – goodbye, S Apps?

 Lots of aspects of Samsung devices fall in the ‘love it or hate it’ category but Samsung’s own take on Android, with its TouchWiz skin, is almost universally disliked. Excessive blips and bloops, insane feature bloat, confusing UI and seriously old fashioned icons all combined to offer an experience very, very far from the stock Android experience that Google intended. Make no mistake, the Galaxy S6 still includes TouchWiz and it is still guilty of some of the above, but to a much lesser intent.

The system sounds have been toned down, many of the useless features have been culled, app icons have been updated and confusing pictorial icons have been replaced with more descriptive text versions. Calendar is still S-Planner, third party apps are still prevalent (for example, the pre-installed Microsoft suite of apps) and it still doesn’t feel closely related to stock Lollipop, but Samsung should be commended for a marked improvement in their software.

In some regards, the improvements have come courtesy of a hardware upgrade. One example is the fingerprint sensor. A terrible, frustrating swipe-based experience on the S5, it’s now genuinely useful and almost infallible thanks to it’s iPhone like touch sensor. Going back to unlocking a device with a PIN or pattern feels like a step back to the past.

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Flashy front and rear cameras

As Android fans and Android owners, we’ve waited a long, long time for a camera to rival that of the iPhone and it’s finally here. The Galaxy S5 actually had a very good camera, provided you were taking a shot in good light. The Galaxy S6 takes great pictures, all the time. With a 16 megapixel sensor, f/1.9 aperture, optical image stabilisation and real time HDR, the S6 actually packs double the resolution of the iPhone for greater detail but can focus and take pictures just as fast, with just as good results.

The front camera, a 5 megapixel unit which also has a f/1.9 aperture, also takes great snaps. Again, the Samsung software simplification is evident, with a much less cluttered camera interface that also includes manual controls. Full Lollipop Camera2 API support is built in, which means third party manual camera apps from the Play store (for example, with full RAW support) work well.

The S6 uses a single LED flash while many of its peers use a dual-tone flash. In practice, using the flash on phones is generally a bad idea, but the Samsung produces surprisingly good results, again cementing its place as unquestionably the Android phone to have for the mobile photographer.

Verdict

 The Galaxy S6 is an incredibly interesting device. It represents Samsung being ‘less Samsung’. In stepping back from cramming as many features and gadgets into the phone, they’ve achieved what many doubted they could – a really excellent phone that thoroughly deserves to get them back on track. The only downsides of the device are the relatively low capacity battery and incredibly reflective and fingerprint prone finishes on the non-white devices, but if you can get by with plugging your phone in every now and again, the S6 will reward you with class leading experiences across the board.

What do you think of the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge? Let us know in the comments!

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