I’ve never been a big fan of Samsung phones. They have always been packed with great technology — the best displays, cameras, and processors — but all of that was overshadowed by poor hardware design and software bloated with too many unnecessary features.
Samsung sold more phones than anyone else, but sales slowed and profits fell last year as other Android-phone manufacturers made similar devices at half the cost and Apple finally released two big-screen iPhone models.
So Samsung started from scratch with its newest phone, the Galaxy S6. It has a new design constructed out of metal and glass and is the first Samsung phone to rival the iPhone in build quality.
The Galaxy S6 goes on sale April 10, starting at about $US650. It will come in a version with a curved screen, called the Edge, that will cost about $US100 extra. All the major US carriers will offer various on-contract prices and payment plans.
The Galaxy S6 is the first Samsung phone I’ve enjoyed using, and it’s easily the best Android phone available today.
And I bet it will be the best smartphone, period, for a lot of people.
As pretty and solid as the Galaxy S6 is, I have one major gripe. It’s clear Samsung looked to the iPhone 6 for inspiration. From the front and back, the Galaxy S6 looks a lot like previous Galaxy phone models. But the rounded metal frame and punched-out speaker holes are remarkably similar to the iPhone 6.
The other day, my colleague had her white iPhone 6 on her desk next to my white Galaxy S6. From certain angles, it was tough to tell which phone I was looking at. I’m glad Samsung started taking design seriously, but it’s a shame it looked to the iPhone for inspiration, especially considering it has been accused of doing just that in the past.
Similarities aside, I really like the look and feel of the Galaxy S6. It always irked me that Samsung consistently had the best hardware but wrapped it all in kitschy faux leather or dimpled plastic that looks like a Band-Aid. The Galaxy S6 is built like the premium device it was meant to be, and it’s a refreshing new step for Samsung.
The Edge model, which is essentially the same phone except with a curved screen, is unique and much more beautiful than the regular Galaxy S6. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s worth the extra $US100 and the hit you take on battery life. Even Samsung admits it made the Edge just to look pretty. The curved screen serves very little purpose other than to draw attention.
The new design comes with some sacrifices. Samsung had to ditch a lot of features fans loved like a removeable battery, waterproofing, and a slot to add extra storage. There was a minor uproar in the Android community after Samsung announced the Galaxy S6 because of that, but I don’t think its a big deal. The entry-level Galaxy S6 comes with 32GB of storage, twice the storage of the iPhone. That should be plenty for most people. Apple, HTC, and Motorola have all proved unibody phones with built-in batteries have mass appeal and don’t hurt the user experience. If anything, Samsung is way behind the competition by offering that now.
The Galaxy S6’s camera is the best one I’ve ever used on a smartphone. Period. When I compared the iPhone 6 camera with the Galaxy S6 camera, I found that the Galaxy S6 took better pictures under most circumstances, especially in low light.
Here’s a photo I took with the Galaxy S6 camera:
Here’s the same shot with the iPhone 6 camera:
But the real key feature is how easy Samsung made it to use the camera. A double tap of the home button launches the camera app so you can start shooting right away. The camera sensor is always on too, so you don’t have to wait that extra beat for the image to appear on your screen. Even if the Galaxy S6 camera was slightly worse than the competition, the ability to take shots so quickly still gives it an edge.
Samsung also improved the fingerprint sensor embedded in the Galaxy S6’s home button. Last year’s model required you to swipe your finger across the button just right to unlock the device. And even then, it didn’t always work. The Galaxy S6’s fingerprint sensor is perfect. You just lightly rest your finger on the button and — poof! — the phone unlocks. It hasn’t failed on me once. (Eventually, the fingerprint sensor will be used with Samsung Pay, Samsung’s mobile payments system that will launch in the summer).
The screen is wonderful too. At 5.1 inches, it’s a little bigger and a lot sharper than the display on the iPhone. Samsung has always made the best displays, and this is no exception.
But the screen comes with a drawback. I noticed the battery life is a little worse on the Galaxy S6, likely because the screen is sucking a lot of power. I could make it through a full day on a charge, but just barely. You’ll likely find yourself charging your phone during the day just to be safe.
Good news, though: The Galaxy S6 comes with a special plug that charges it a lot faster than normal chargers, which is perfect if you’re in a jam but don’t have enough time to charge your phone all the way. It’s also one of the few major smartphones that support wireless charging right out of the box, a feature I can’t believe isn’t standard on all phones these days. (I’ve loved plopping my phone on Samsung’s wireless pad at the end of the day. There’s no need to worry about fiddling with a plug.)
Samsung is famous for bogging down its phones with apps and superfluous features. But with the Galaxy S6, a lot of that has been stripped out and cleaned up to the point where I don’t even feel like I’m using a clunky Samsung phone.
The standard apps for calendar, messages, and email are all designed well and dead simple to use. And instead of relying on its own services, Samsung has teamed up with Microsoft, so you get Skype, OneNote, and the online storage service OneDrive right of the box. (If you’re still a fan of Samsung’s apps, you can download them through Samsung’s app store.)
The user interface is better, too. Unlike years past, Samsung didn’t meddle too much with Android’s basic design, which is excellent on its own. Menus, notifications, and settings are much easier to manage now.
A few downsides
As great as the Galaxy S6 is, there are still a few things holding me back. And not all of them are Samsung’s fault.
Even though Android has all the top apps you’d want, developers still don’t take the platform as seriously as they take iOS. The result: Android apps are often uglier, buggier, and lack key features compared to their iOS counterparts. Plus, when a hot new app comes out, it almost always launches on iOS first. It can take weeks or months for the Android version to arrive.
Things have gotten better for Android, but iOS still has the superior app ecosystem, which is essential to any modern smartphone.
My only other problem is that Samsung doesn’t have a good track record updating the software on its phones. It can take months to get a new version of Android on your Samsung phone, and when Samsung adds new features or cleaner user interfaces, as it did with the Galaxy S6, the chances of getting that on an older Samsung phone are next to zero.
Those are the two things that hold me back from recommending the Galaxy S6 over the iPhone. As good as Android has gotten, and as good as Samsung’s hardware has gotten, the Android ecosystem still isn’t as strong as the iOS ecosystem.
From a hardware and design standpoint, the Galaxy S6 has matched or beaten the iPhone in nearly every category. It’s faster. It has a better camera. The screen is the best ever put on a phone. But until Samsung comes up with something killer on the software side of the equation, I can’t recommend the Galaxy S6 over the iPhone. An Android phone is still an Android phone. Samsung just happens to make the best Android phone of the bunch.