We review Samsung’s Galaxy S6, its most exciting flagship phone in years, rocking an all-new design, updated fingerprint scanner, awesome camera tech and a lot more besides…
Samsung’s Galaxy S5 was a good phone, don’t get us wrong, but that didn’t keep it from being somewhat of a disappointment. The word ‘stale’ immediately springs to mind, from the dull plastic design to the Korean company’s insistence of shoehorning in every feature it could think up, whether it was actually useful or not.
But still we kept faith that Samsung would turn things around, especially after the brilliance of last year’s Galaxy Note 4. And spoiler alert: the Galaxy S6 is its best flagship for yonks, stretching achingly close to perfect.
Read next: Our full in-depth Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge review
Samsung has ripped apart the Galaxy S5 and pretty much started from scratch for the Galaxy S6, something we’re certainly not upset about. The weird crinkle-cut edging did nothing for the S5’s aesthetics and the plastic frame simply looked cheap in comparison with the all-metal HTC One M8 and the sexy glass Xperia Z2 and Xperia Z3.
And perhaps Samsung has taken inspiration from Sony’s latest flagship, as the Galaxy S6 shares a lot of common design decisions with the Xperia Z3. Its corners show off more curve and the camera juts out of the back, but you get the same silver trim around the edging and an all-glass rear, coming in a number of subtle shades.
However, while the Xperia Z3’s glossy surfaces scuff up a little with day-to-day use, the Galaxy S6 is a fingerprint demon. Just half a minute of handling is enough to turn a spotless S6 into a plague of smudges and greasy prints, which really detracts from the otherwise sexy design. In some light you won’t really notice the smudging, but I’d recommend carrying a cloth if you want to show off your expensive new gadget to your mates.
Scuffs aside, the Galaxy S6 is a definite improvement over prior Galaxies. It’s more or less the same size as the LG G3 (despite rocking a smaller screen) and sits comfortably enough in your palm. You’d need a massive mutant thumb to use it one-handed all of the time, but the same can be said of pretty much every phone these days. It’s also pleasingly light without feeling cheap.
Those sleek silver edges are gorgeous, complete with ultra-curvy corners. You’ll spot that the right edge now holds a SIM card drawer, which you pop out with a pin; that’s because the back no longer snaps off, like it did on the Galaxy S5. You’ll also notice that the USB port is no longer covered with a flappy thing and that’s because the Galaxy S6 sadly isn’t water resistant, unlike Sony’s Xperia Z3. It’s no biggie, but worth bearing in mind if you can’t even leave your phone alone while you jump in the bath.
Interface and features
Samsung’s latest version of TouchWiz doesn’t look or feel drastically different from earlier versions, with the same bright, bold desktops on offer. Flick right and you’ll uncover the Flipboard page, which thankfully now can be removed if you use an alternative news source. And jump into the notifications bar and you’ll see the standard shortcuts for activating/deactivating the likes of NFC and Wi-Fi.
However, this new iteration is also pleasingly clean, with desktops that aren’t cluttered with pointless Samsung widgets. You won’t be bombarded with non-stop features you’ll never use, but there’s still plenty of gesture controls and other under-the-surface tools that you can activate in the settings, if you wish. And once again you can multi-task by split-screening apps, which seems to work well with only the occasional little stutter.
Samsung’s well known for its solid mobile security and the S6 not only continues this trend but boosts it with a brand new fingerprint scanner. The scanner is one of the best upgrades over the old phones, as it’s now a lot more accurate and therefore a lot less frustrating. You no longer have to swipe your digit; just press your print against the narrow home button, like with Apple’s Touch ID sensor.
The difference is immediately obvious. Even after unlocking the Galaxy S6 dozens of times, clutching the phone in all manner of weird ways and stabbing down my thumb from all kinds of angles, I only saw it stumble a couple of times. And that’s only because I was really trying to get it to fail.
The scanner can once again be used to unlock the phone, as well as pay for stuff via PayPal without entering a password. And soon it will hopefully be used for Samsung’ Pay, to authorise real-life transactions – but don’t hold your breath as it’ll likely be a while coming to the UK.
Samsung has also added in a rather strange ‘Emergency Mode’, which appears to be a power-saving feature designed for elderly users or anyone stranded in the jungle. You have a torch and a rather obnoxious emergency alarm, as well as emergency contact methods that quickly share your location (as well as Facebook, so you can post an ‘oh god I’m lost in the Amazon and there are cannibals munching on my bits’ selfie).
However, I’m not really sure why elderly users or anyone trekking through harsh climates would rock the Galaxy S6 instead of a rugged handset, while the Ultra Power Saving Mode does a similar job of stretching out battery life.
Also worth a mention is the ever-present S Voice, which for the most part is a lump compared with Google Now but at least allows you to wake the phone with a personalised voice command – providing you don’t have any security set up. You can then order the phone to call contacts, handy if you’re in the car with a hands-free kit and don’t want to take your eyes off the road.
Screen and media
Another big upgrade over the S5 is the new Quad HD Super AMOLED screen. It’s the same size as last year’s model at 5.1-inches, which is perfectly spacious for enjoying a movie on the move, but the resolution has been bumped right up to 1440×2560 (giving an almighty 577 pixels-per-inch, which even knocks the LG G3 on its arse).
As a result, you obviously can’t spot any individual pixels with the naked eye and images are supremely crisp and realistic. Combine that sharpness with the panel’s pleasing vibrancy and incredibly wide viewing angles and you have one of the best mobile displays we’ve ever seen, period.
Just as impressive is the powerful solo speaker, mounted at the bottom of the phone. Audio quality is as strong as it gets on a mobile, whether you’re playing an adrenaline-fuelled game or just enjoying some YouTube action, and there’s more than enough power to annoy every last person in a decent-sized train carriage.
Of course, there is only one speaker and it’s side-mounted when holding the phone in landscape, so not only do you miss out on glorious at-your-face audio (something HTC’s BoomSound speakers have nailed), but it’s also easy to accidentally muffle the thing with your fingers when shifting your grip.
Samsung has stripped the memory card slot from the Galaxy S6, making this one of the only flagships that doesn’t have expandable storage. Instead, if you want to carry a massive media collection around with you, you’ll have to fork out for a more expensive model with more built-in storage. At least the Galaxy S6 goes up to 128GB like Apple’s iPhone 6, which is more than enough for a fortnight’s worth of movies, music and games.
Performance and battery life
The Galaxy S6 rocks Samsung’s own Exynos chipset, an octa-core processor comprised of two quad-core chips running at 1.5GHz and 2.1GHz. For everyday use, this provides solid all-round performance. I saw only the occasional tiny judder when multi-tasking with apps, while the latest games ran perfectly and HD movies streamed without stutter. The phone also admirably handles some intense camera use, including Full HD at 60fps and 4K video recording.
A quick go on Antutu showed that the S6 ranks above every other known handset right now, including the Galaxy Note 4.
The Galaxy S6 (and the Edge) does get a little toasty at times, if you’re doing a lot of downloading or shooting video. However, it never reaches alarming or uncomfortable levels and I never saw any adverse effects like the phone shutting down or spurting errors.
Battery life is actually pretty good too, considering that bright, super-crisp power-sucking screen. If you mess around shooting high-def video and generally thrashing the Galaxy S6, it won’t last anywhere near a full day. However, if you’re more conservative and limit yourself to occasional web browsing, email checks and piddling around with apps, you should easily make it to bed before the S6 dies.
And even if you do decide to stream video non-stop, you’ll still manage a solid seven hours of entertainment before the battery runs dry. That’s well above average for a flagship phone.
The good news is, even if your Galaxy S6 dies before the end of the day, the new Quick Charging ability means you can have it back on its feet in just a few minutes. Samsung reckons that ten minutes of fast charge will get you four hours of use, and in our tests the Galaxy S6 charged to around 16% in those ten minutes, which is at least enough to get you to work. With the phone turned on and updating/chugging away in the background, it’ll still fully charge from the mains in around an hour and a half, which is perfectly good.
Samsung has also added built-in wireless charging support, if you’d rather slap your phone down on a slab to power it up instead of plugging in a cable. If you choose to wirelessly charge, you’ll find your Galaxy S6 charges a lot slower, but at least it doesn’t have to be positioned in a super-precise manner for the battery to start sucking up juice.
Samsung has nailed the camera tech on the Galaxy S6, which on full auto mode can capture everyday life without stress.
For a start, you can quickly call up the camera even when the phone is hibernating with a quick double-tap of the home button, to avoid missing any hilarious spontaneous shindiggery – although you’ll need to unlock the phone to change the camera settings and so on. The camera interface is a little cluttered, especially after slick, clean efforts like the LG G3’s, but anyone who likes fiddling with manual controls will enjoy.
I found that the Galaxy S6’s lens focused in double-quick time on anything I aimed it at and took photos almost the instant I tapped the shutter button, recovering quickly enough to take dozens of shots in just a couple of seconds with multiple taps (or you can also hold down the shutter button for some burst shot action).
The 16 megapixels are put to good use, packing tons of details into every shot. Up-close macro shots are especially gorgeous, especially with a tasty bit of boche. And the new f/1.9 aperture lens makes low-light photography much easier than with the Galaxy S5, so you won’t need to make use of the LED flash unless you’re in a pitch black nightclub. It’s even better at picking up detail in a dark room than the iPhone 6 and LG G3.
Swap to the 5-megapixel front-facing snapper and you’ll be able to take some beautifully sharp selfie shots. The selfie lens actually packs HDR and a low-light aperture just like the rear-facing camera, so you can snap yourself and your buddies in a basement bar and you’ll look only a little grainy. There’s even a ‘wide selfie’ mode, which does a good job of stitching together a number of shots taken in quick succession, to get your whole crew involved.
You can shoot video in Full HD at either 30 or 60 frames per second, or crank things up to 2k or 4k for super high-def shenanigans. Video is crisp and incredibly smooth on the 60fps mode, with the shutter adjusting well to changes in lighting and focus. There’s a five-minute time limit on the 2k and 4k video modes, to save your phone’s storage and prevent overheating, but I can’t see that ever being an actual problem.
Samsung’s Galaxy S6 is its most desirable phone since the Galaxy SII, sporting an all-new look and feel and a ton of beautifully implemented features. If you want entertainment, the crisp and colourful screen is one of the best around. Mobile photographers will cream themselves at the awesome camera tech and business users have the usual tight security features, with the much-improved fingerprint scanner also appealing to everyday consumers.
In fact, aside from the smudgey glass surfaces and the lack of expandable storage, it’s hard to fault the Galaxy S6 at all. It’s almost the very definition of an all-round masterpiece.
Check out our full in-depth Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge review.