We can review new devices when they’re first launched, and their performance can generally be predicted from their specs. But specs only tell part of the story.
Samsung’s latest flagship device, the Galaxy S6, has been out for about a month and a half, and it’s one of the most highly rated phones out there. Most consider it to be the best Android phone in the world.
Here’s what it’s actually like to use from a real life owner’s perspective.
Samsung has refreshed its design philosophy from tacky fake chrome edges and plastic/faux-leather textures on previous Galaxy phones to a more refined, sophisticated glass and metal build for the Galaxy S6. I got the white version, which looks and feels premium and does a much better job at justifying its $US650 price tag than the previous phones that felt like toys inside Kinder Eggs.
But now that the S6 has sleek, smooth aluminium edges, it feels like it wants to slip out of my hands on a one-way trip to a hard floor. So how do you remedy that? With a cheap plastic $US20 case that hides any indication that your S6 is made with premium materials, or that it’s an S6 at all since most Galaxy phones look pretty similar from the front.
Samsung packed some pretty powerful hardware into the S6, and it feels like it for the most part. Performance is largely quick and smooth, animations rarely stutter, and I can switch between apps and scroll down contact lists, and websites pretty smoothly.
Occasionally, however, I’ll wake my phone from sleep and it won’t be able to unlock for about four to five seconds because of some sort of bottleneck with the hardware. That might not sound like much, but it’s not something you’d expect from a brand new phone with some of the most powerful specs commercially available that’s just stripped you of $US650 or more.
It’s also not very good for super fast smartphone typists as the S6 lags behind what you’re typing, especially when auto-correcting or guessing what you’re typing, which it does terribly anyway. I would suggest immediately downloading an alternative, like the Google Keyboard.
The fingerprint sensor is excellent and you no longer have any excuse to leave your phone without some sort of security measure because entering the passcode was too cumbersome. It registers my thumb prints quickly and accurately and I can get to my apps just as easily as swiping the lock screen to unlock it. Eventually, I’ll be able to use the fingerprint sensor with Samsung Pay, Samsung’s answer to Apple Pay that launches this summer.
Think of Android as a basic salad and Samsung as a chef. TouchWiz is the extra software Samsung uses to “skin” the basic version of Android made by Google. In years past, TouchWiz was a heavy hodgepodge of toppings added by a Samsung chef that ruined a perfectly good Android salad into an unrecognizable, cluttered mess.
Samsung adds its TouchWiz skin over Android to differentiate itself from other Android phones, but it was too cartoony and cluttered in the past. For the S6, it’s dialed down its latest version of TouchWiz to look more sophisticated and less cluttered.
You’ll still find silly traces like “Wi-Fi Connected to Network XYZ” banner in the notification shade, which is completely unnecessary and will drive notification perfectionists mad because you can’t swipe it away like you do with other notifications. In typical TouchWiz fashion, there’s no way to remove it, either.
Most Samsung apps can be disabled, but some keep running alongside Android to run the TouchWiz interface, which uses up the phone’s resources and slows it down. Overall, it’s a step in the right direction, but I still prefer Google’s basic version of Android.
The S6 has the sharpest display there is on a smartphone at the moment, and it looks gorgeous. It’s pleasingly bright and one of the only TouchWiz features I like lets you change the colour scheme for a natural, warmer, cooler, or colourful display.
This one isn’t Samsung’s fault.
I experienced the same questionable battery life that many Galaxy S6 owners were reporting. Since I was getting only slightly better battery life than with my old Nexus 5, I was about to put the S6 back in its box and ship it back to wherever it came from.
Before I did that, I tried one last thing. I switched off Google Now, Google’s digital assistant, and my battery life skyrocketed to last me about 36 hours on a single charge with relatively decent usage, including music streaming. I charge it every night, but I usually have around 50% battery left before I go to bed.
Google Now used to periodically activate my GPS antenna to gather my location and it forced my phone to process the information for the Google Now updates. I somewhat miss Google Now, but not that much, and it’s a problem I’d likely experience with any smartphone.
The S6 takes fantastic pictures. The camera app can be pulled up quickly enough with a double tap of the home button and I’ve rarely missed a moment I wanted to capture. It offers myriad options like panorama, slow or fast motion, selective focus, and pro mode (for more DSLR-style control over your shots) in a convenient menu when you swipe right.
There’s a “Virtual shot” mode that takes multiple pictures around a still object to create a cool surrounding effect, but it’s mostly for novelty and has few uses because it’s difficult to take stable surround shots without some sort of camera tripod.
I wish I didn’t have to use a grippy plastic rubber case with the S6 because it mutes the newfound beauty of Galaxy smartphones, but I don’t want to drop it and potentially shatter the screen or dent the metal edges, either.
Samsung could have kept using plastic for its phones and still had a premium design. Take my old Nexus 5, for example, it wasn’t quite as “pretty” as the S6 since it was made of plastic, but it’s still one of the best looking and best feeling phones I’ve ever owned. And it absorbed drops like a tank.
Overall, the Galaxy S6 is a great phone despite Samsung’s insistence to keep its heavy TouchWiz layer that helps slows everything down. To be fair, it’s been dialed back enough that it’s not too offensive, and the slowdowns are quite rare. Either way, if you often use the camera on your phone because it’s convenient, the Galaxy S6 is for you as it has one of the best shooters available on an Android smartphone.