Samsung is starting from scratch.
Over the last four years, its flagship Galaxy S phones have sported the best displays and most powerful chips in the industry, but all of that was wrapped in cheap-feeling plastic casings. Meanwhile, Apple, HTC, and Xiaomi have been pumping out gorgeous phones made out of premium materials.
That will change in April when Samsung launches the Galaxy S6, its new flagship phone announced at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. The Galaxy S6 is made entirely of metal and glass and will come in two variations: The “regular” Galaxy S6 and the Galaxy S6 edge, which has a curved screen.
Samsung started designing the Galaxy S6 from the ground up about a year ago under a program it called Project Zero. Whereas the last few Galaxy models were designed with the previous model in mind, the Galaxy S6 is entirely new. Samsung even abandoned some of its earlier principles in order to highlight the design of the Galaxy S6. It’s not waterproof. You can’t swap out the battery. And there’s no slot to insert extra memory.
Both models do all the same stuff, except the Galaxy S6 edge has a few extras. It lets you swipe over from the curved portion of the screen to view a list of your favourite contacts and get alerts when you have a missed call or text from one of them. Other than that, Samsung says the curved screen doesn’t serve any function other than to look good. (It will also be more expensive, but Samsung hasn’t said how much either phone will cost yet.)
The Galaxy S6 will come in a variety of shimmery colours — white, black, gold, blue, and dark green. Samsung used a special process to make the glass shift colours when viewed at different angles, and there’s an aluminium frame around the edge holding it all together.
Besides the physical design, Samsung has cleaned up its software too. The phone isn’t bogged down with a bunch of unnecessary features and extras. The new version of Samsung’s TouchWiz skin for Android is cleaner and easier to navigate. All the basic apps like email, calendar, and music have a new look. Plus, the phone will ship with some of Microsoft’s Android apps like OneNote, OneDrive, and Skype.
On the hardware site, Samsung improved the phone’s 16 MP camera with optical image stabilisation and some software features like one that lets you track a moving subject and remain focused on it. The phone also includes a special plug that lets you charge it faster than normal, up to 50% in 25 minutes. Samsung also included wireless charging for the first time. It works with standard wireless chargers, or you can buy Samsung’s own charger, which looks kind of cool:
Samsung also improved the fingerprint sensor embedded in the home button. Last year’s model required you to swipe your finger across the button just right in order to unlike the device. The Galaxy S6’s sensor is more like the Touch ID sensor on the iPhone, which means you can place your finger on the button in any orientation and it will register. In our tests, the Galaxy S6 fingerprint sensor worked just as well as the one on the iPhone.
The new fingerprint sensor also enables Samsung’s new mobile payments platform Samsung Pay, which will launch this summer. Visa and MasterCard have already signed up as partners, and Samsung says its in discussions with credit cards and banks like Bank of America and American Express to bring them on board in time for launch.
Samsung Pay will have one key advantage over Apple Pay though. It will work with regular magnetic credit card readers, which in theory means it will be compatible with far more retailers’ payment terminals. Apple Pay only works if the retailer has a special NFC payment pad. (Samsung Pay will also support NFC.)
The magnetic card reader technology is powered by LoopPay, a startup Samsung bought a few weeks ago. However, Samsung Pay is only for making purchases in physical stores, you can’t use it to make purchases online or through shopping apps like you can with Apple Pay.
Now comes the hard part. Samsung has been struggling to compete at the high-end of the smartphone market as new companies emerged that make phones that are just as good, but cost half as much. So far, Samsung phones haven’t been able to differentiate themselves enough to justify their extra cost. The hope this time seems to be a premium design will do the trick.
The Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge go on sale this April on all the major carriers. Pricing will vary by carrier.