Remember the good old Samsung Galaxy S III? It was a fantastic little trooper, but we’ve come a long way since plastic phones were king. Today, the Galaxy S6 goes on sale—and it’s finally, finally catching up with the iPhone, Nexii, and other glass-and-metal devices that have been catching your eye for years. It’s stylish, it’s solid. It’s the whole package.
What Is It?
Samsung’s new non-giant flagship phone. A drastic glass and metal redesign of the plastic handset that became one of the most ubiquitous Android phones out there. A 5.1-inch stunner with a 577 PPI, 2560 x 1440 AMOLED screen, Samsung’s own Exynos 7420 processor, a great 16MP rear-facing camera, two forms of wireless charging, a non-removable 2550 mAh battery, and no microSD expansion. A smartphone that looks a whole lot, even suspiciously, like an iPhone—way more than the lineage of plastic phones that triggered an avalanche of lawsuits. It’s uncannily familiar. It’s also a pretty fantastic phone.
Oh, and it’s a phone that comes in two variants, one with a curved screen. Read more about its counterpart, the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge, right here.
Why Does It Matter?
Regardless of the Nexus phones and Moto X’s that nerds like me (and maybe you?) fawn over, Samsung is Android to lots of people. Next time you’re on a subway or a bus, just take a look around and you’ll see what I mean. Samsung reached this incredible ubiquity not (just) through snarky ads but by making cheap phones that weren’t total garbage. It’s a strategy that pretty much topped out with the band-aid-esque and pretty relatively underwhelming Galaxy S5. With the S6 though, Samsung’s offering something a bit more premium, and way more iPhoney.
If you’re a diehard Samsung fan, the Galaxy S6 might actually push you into the waiting arms of another brand. But if you’ve been waiting for Samsung to finally figure out how to build a premium smartphone, this could be the moment you hop aboard the TouchWiz train.
Beautiful and cohesive in a way a Samsung phone has never been before. No more fake leather, dimpled Band-Aid plastic or fake metal edges—the Galaxy S6 is all glass and aluminum. Previous Samsung phones tried to look premium, but there were always telltale signs that the Korean manufacturer had cheaped out in one way or another. The S6 nails it.
It looks great from all angles. The glass back feels and looks classy, the buttons feel great, the metal trim is lovely. On the one hand the Galaxy S6 design is not particularly unique or exciting, but on the other much more important hand, absolutely nothing about it sucks.
And yes, it looks like an iPhone. A lot like an iPhone! Enough so that my fiancée and I have confused my white S6 for her white iPhone at least a half-dozen times. It’s only ever for a split second—after all, the S6 has a smaller button and different front facing speakers and a SAMSUNG logo—but with the same color and shape, the similarity is the first thing you’ll notice.
But Samsung isn’t (just) aping the iPhone’s style here; there are some considered differences that make it better. Yes, the Galaxy S6 has a unibody aluminum frame which means no removable batteries, but the glass back gives it a sort of old-school premium feel like the Nexus 4 or iPhone 4 / 4S. It feels pretty fantastic.
Around the sides, the S6 has a rounded metal rim that’s a little like the iPhone, but not entirely. Instead of being fully rounded, it actually plateaus a bit, which does wonders to make this thing easy to hold and settle into your hand. The iPhone 6’s full rounded edges make it feel like it could pop out of your hand like a bar of soap if you really gave it a death grip. And the S6 doesn’t suffer from that.
Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t drop it. That glass back can be pretty slippery! The second you try to hold the S6 in any sort of open-handed way—which is to say just letting it lay on your hand without exerting pressure on the sides—it’ll slowly slip until you (hopefully!) catch it on the protruding camera. That’s not the end of the world, but it can be annoying!
But as for shatters and scratches, I’ve seen none of either yet. I’ve kept the S6 in the same pocket as my keys (heresy! I know!) but all i’ve managed is cosmetic scratches on the home button. When I got a little more, ahem, deliberate, the Gorilla Glass 4 back withstood considerable pressure from my keys and the tip of my pocket knife unscathed. As for drops, it’s survived a handful of three-foot falls from hand to hardwood and tile floor, and more aggressive tests suggest it can take much more.
The S6’s screen is eye-poppingly good, but at ludicrous 577 pixels per inch (the iPhone 6 has 401, and the Note 4 has 518) it’s reaching the point where it mostly doesn’t matter. Yes, the screen is crispy as hell, but not like it’s soul-rendingly better than other phones that creep up on the same ~500 territory. The only point at which this starts to matter is if you strap this thing to your face. Gear VR, Samsung’s phone-based virtual reality headset that’s soon to be revamped for use with the S6 and Galaxy Edge, actually makes use of that extra resolution.
With its 5.1-inch screen but smallish top and bottom bezels, the S6 is not that much bigger than the iPhone 6. It falls right into what I personally (admittedly with largish man-hands) consider to be the sweet-spot for non-gigantic phone-size. It’s right in there with the HTC One M9 and the Nexus 5 and the new Moto X. This is Android’s new “small” and it’s pretty much what you’re stuck with unless you’re willing to do something drastic, like buy an old 2013 Moto X or hunt down a Sony Z3 Compact.
The Galaxy S6 is blisteringly fast. Switching between apps, scrolling through the multitasking queue, pulling down the notification shade, opening the camera, running games, I never once saw the slightest hitch in performance. There’s nothing wildly throw-your-hair-back about the speed; it’s not unbelievable or anything like that. Other recent flagship phones feel fast, too. But the S6 does everything you’d want it to as quickly as you could ask. And it does it consistently.
The S6 runs an Exynos processor—one of Samsung’s home-grown chips—instead of the Qualcomm’s new flagship Snapdragon 810, but it doesn’t suffer for it in the slightest. Apps launch with a snap, and even with Samsung’s historically bloated TouchWiz interface sitting on top of Android, swiping through homescreens, pulling down notification shades, and opening app drawers is quick and fluid.
To push the processor a little further, I loaded up old faithful Dead Trigger 2, which ran fantastically on the auto-detected “low” settings, and barely any worse once I manually jacked up the settings all the way to max. Similarly, GTA: San Andreas runs smoooooooth as hell, although I did see some super weird graphical glitches. So far, though, it’s the only place I’ve seen anything like that.
But all of this performance talk comes with a big ol’ asterisk. It’s great for now. Samsung’s TouchWiz interface has been getting less and less obtrusive—the newest version that runs atop Android’s latest Lollipop update is the most scaled back it’s ever been—but Samsung phones can get bad quickly. The Galaxy S5 we have banging around the office (still waiting for its fabled Lollipop update) is a shadow of its former self performance-wise, staggering under the weight of Samsung’s software plus new versions of Android. It’s impossible to predict if the S6 awaits a similar fate.
For now, though, the S6 a pleasure to use and it’s worth expressing one more time how not-terrible Samsung’s proprietary UI has gotten. In a streak of good decisions, Samsung has culled most of the extra bullshit options out of things like the camera. Once cluttered with useless toggles, it now looks simple, clean, with just the buttons you want and need. It’s practically indistinguishable from stock Android when you boot it up.
The quick notification buttons, those ones you use to toggle things like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth from the notification shade? TouchWiz gives you options to customize the ones you want, without slapping you in the face with like 50 superfluous buttons for “Golf mode” or whatever insanely extraneous bullshit it used to. All that, plus the material design ethos in Android Lollipop has bled over into TouchWiz and made it less ugly than ever. Samsung has (mostly) learned how to keep its bullshit out of your way.
And when it isn’t getting out of your way, it’s actually doing a good job of adding value. The Galaxy S6 can run apps in windows, and even run two different ones side by side, just like the Note 4, though admittedly it’s not quite as useful on a smaller screen and without a stylus. What is useful though is that a double tap of the home button will immediately bring up and open Samsung’s quick and snappy camera app, which makes the Galaxy S6 maybe the best split-second shooter I’ve ever used.
If you’re looking for a real down-and-dirty look at how the Galaxy S6 shapes up shot-for-shot against its toughest competition, you can check out our camera comparison. But that’s almost beside the point. The point is that it’s fucking fast, and in the end that’s all that really matters. The app launches fast, it focuses fast, and shoots fast in a way that makes every other phone I’ve used feel like something from the civil war. When the camera is this fast, little differences in color quality hardly matter when you catch a photo that you would have missed entirely.
Here’s a sampling of street photos from the Galaxy S6 (click the magnifying glass to enlarge):
Another special S6 feature that’s not in stock Android, the fingerprint scanner, is pretty good! Really! Samsung’s early fingerprint scanners were trash. The one in the Note 4 actually requires you to run your finger across the button like a laptop from 2008. This one is way better though. It’s a lot like Apple’s Touch ID—you just have to set your finger down, and there’s a fair bit of leeway as to the angle. It’s not quite as good as Apple’s, but it’s close! I’d say it works like a charm 9 out of 10 times, which is nothing to sneeze at.
Obviously, it works for unlocking your phone, but you can also use it to enter account passwords in your browser if you store the credentials ahead of time. It can be used to verify anything connected to your Samsung account—but only your Samsung account. That means you can your thumb to confirm purchases in the Samsung app store, but not the Google Play Store where you’ll actually be getting your apps. And while Samsung hasn’t spilled the deets on exactly how Samsung Pay will work just yet, you can bet it’ll also make use of that fingerprint-Samsung account tie-in.
Now I know you nerdy, replaceable-battery devotees out there are worried about the battery life since you can’t carry a spare for a Samsung phone anymore. Yes, the S6’s battery is built-in. Well, battery life is…fine. It’s fine! It could be better but it’s fine. In my use so far, With light to moderate use, I’ve been able to cruise into the witching hour (after taking the phone off the charger at 7am) with something like 15 to 20 percent battery left. Under more strenuous use—like the day I spent an hour making actual calls—it’s iffier; I hit the 20 percent mark around 10pm and had to carefully coast to the finish line.
But! There are a few mitigating factors here. The S6 has a quick charge feature—as most phones do these days—and with it I was able to boost myself up from zero to a sold 52 percent battery in 30 minutes. In addition to that, the S6 also supports wireless charging in a BIG way. As you may or may not know, there’s kind of a standards war going down with wireless charging, and there are currently two big flavors that most phones only support one of. But the S6 has both!
The camera! God, is that super-fast camera great. The “double-click to open” shortcut on the home button is gonna get me a really god damn cute cat picture I just know it. It’s maybe the best feature on this whole phone.
The fingerprint scanner is damn good Not perfect, but best I’ve ever used on an Android phone, easy. Between this and the camera shortcut, Samsung’s doing a way better job justifying the existence of a physical button than Apple.
I haven’t mentioned it much here because I haven’t tried it for the S6, but Gear VR! Samsung’s Gear VR for the Note 4 is badass (if a little expensive) and Gear VR for the S6 is bound to be even better since it has a screen with a higher pixel density. Gear VR is only just getting off the ground, but it’s still the coolest phone accessory you could hope to buy.
Speaking of stuff that isn’t here yet, Samsung Pay—build on legitimately cool technology from a company called Loop—sounds cool. It doesn’t launch until the summer, but it seems like something that could be a decent Apple Pay analogue.
The glass back is slick but it’s also, well, slick. The way it can just sliiiiiiide down your hand is an ultra drag. (Except it doesn’t drag. Because it’s slick. I digress.) But, unlike my glass-backed Nexus 4 that I swear had an actual death wish, the Galaxy S6 has yet to take a header off of any tables or bathroom sinks of its own accord yet.
TouchWiz and all the other stuff that comes built into Samsung’s phones is still there. The modifications Samsung makes to the skeleton of Android is less heinous than ever but the stable of included and uninstallable apps is still enormous.
The battery life could be better. It’s adequate, but for every phone that’s all “oh wow, thin!” or “big battery but check out this pointlessly nuts screen!” I yearn for a phone that’s still nice-looking but packs some much needed battery-junk in its trunk.
Should You Buy It?
Yes. The Galaxy S6 is fantastic. With great performance, premium design (finally!), and a camera that just screams, it’s one of the best Android phones out there. It’s a solid buy for anyone looking for a premium, solid, not-ginormous Android device. And if you like the iPhone but for some reason cannot bring yourself to buy an iPhone, Samsung’s mostly got you covered.
But just because it’s fantastic doesn’t necessarily make it exciting. Unless you plan buy a Gear VR to go with it—or pretend you’ve got an iPhone for the LOLs—there’s nothing reatolly new or special here to show off to your friends. Honestly, I find it a little boring. It’s just a great phone, a phone with no huge downsides, which is pretty damn rare in the Android world. So yeah, the Samsung Galaxy S6 isn’t the Next Big Thing. It’s just the next phone you’ll wind up buying.