Day 1: In the smartphone world, it’s long been iPhone versus the world, and Samsung’s Galaxy line has consistently distinguished itself, with attractive features even Apple’s vaunted flagship still lacks, namely: expandable memory, swappable batteries, and, more recently, waterproofing. But every one of those punch-list items has been unceremoniously dumped for the S6.
However, it’s clear whatever resources previously dedicated to those features were instead allocated to materials and design, and the payoff is obvious: The S6 edge is gorgeous to look at and hold, and feels dramatically more stable and solid than any of the more plasticky previous Galaxy S models. Its display is curved at the sides where it meets a smooth aluminum housing, and all of the physical buttons are metal as well. Those dramatic curves end up being more than just an aesthetic flourish. Shortly after signing in — if you’ve ever used an Android device or Google’s software suite, you’ll feel right at home — you’re prompted to select a short list of VIP contacts that get priority treatment. After then, a quick swipe near the part of the screen pops up color-coded avatars or icons for each of those contacts in a column running vertically down the curved edge of the screen (you designate which side of the screen you prefer).
The idea is that instead of having to go to an app, select a new message, scroll to find a contact and so on, you have instant access to your most frequent recipients with a swipe and tap. And the extra cool part: When sent a message by one of them, the rim of the screen flashes their corresponding color. It’s not a perfect system yet — by default it only works if you use Samsung’s Messages app instead of the more popular Google Hangouts one, for instance — but it’s a smart feature we haven’t seen elsewhere.
Day 2: Samsung has clearly listened to its customers and tidied up some of the loose ends in its software and hardware that have marred previous models. For instance, the company’s custom skin of Android, dubbed Touchwiz, has been stripped down and made far more efficient and user-friendly. That means streamlined menus (especially with the built-in camera app), better use of visual space in many apps, and an overall cleaner, more refined experience.
In terms of hardware, the S5 was notorious for issues with its fingerprint reader. Samsung completely revamped its hardware for the S6, and the result is (largely) hiccup-free and extremely speedy. (We had one incident of the reader being unable to remember a finger, but overall it works fast and well.) Another missed opportunity had been Samsung’s implementation of wireless charging. With the S5, you needed to have a special case or adapter to wirelessly charge, and Samsung had adopted the arguably less popular of two competing charging standards (PMA versus the more widely used Qi). For the S6, Samsung not only embraced both standards, but baked them both right in, meaning you’re able to use most standard wireless chargers right out of the gate — a huge improvement.
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Day 3: A high-performance camera is undoubtedly near the top of the features list for consumers. And the S6 definitely doesn’t disappoint, with camera performance that’s among the best we’ve ever tested on a smartphone. As we noted, Samsung cleaned up the menu system, and selecting among modes and settings is now straightforward and fast. We’d also be remiss not to mention the S6’s incredible display, which currently boasts the highest resolution around at 577 pixels per inch. To our eye, it’s a little oversaturated and green by default, but we’ve never seen such eye-popping clarity on a screen, much less one so small.
The S6 captures 16 megapixel images and doesn’t suffer noticeable shutter lag or low-light issues, both of which are common sore spots for many smartphone cameras. The shooting modes allow even inexperienced photographers to up their game instantly, with options such as selective focus that results in a gorgeous shallow depth of field that can even be tweaked after you shoot with a few button presses.
Video may be the S6’s killer app, though, as it’s able to shoot true 4K UHD resolution movies — that’s four times 1080p quality — that are just breathtakingly crisp. As with photos, low light and movement aren’t an issue, thanks to optical image stabilization and a burly octo-core processor that easily handles processing and editing, so you can point and shoot even at the highest resolution, in slo-mo or fast motion, without getting bottlenecked. Granted, unless you’ve upgraded your TV or have a high-end PC, you won’t be able to watch your videos in 4K anywhere except on your smartphone for now — a great reason to start TV shopping.
[Prices vary; samsung.com]