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Galaxy S6 deep-dive review: Samsung's shining star

Galaxy S6 deep-dive review: Samsung's shining star

With its new Galaxy S6, Samsung finally delivers a phone that's both powerful and premium.

I never thought I'd say this, but here we go: Samsung is about to release a beautifully designed phone.

It's true: The company long criticized for chintzy devices with cheap-looking plastics has finally upped its game. The Galaxy S6, launching on all the major U.S. carriers on April 10, is a phone that's as classy as it is capable. With glass-and-metal construction and plenty of horsepower to go with it, this latest flagship has the potential to reinvent Samsung as a serious player in the premium smartphone game.

The Galaxy S6 starts at $200 on contract or $600 to $685 outright, depending on where and how you buy it.

So what's the phone like to use in the real world -- and does it actually deliver when it comes to user experience? I've been living with the S6 for the past week to find out.

(For a hands-on evaluation of the S6's curved-screen sibling, click over to my separate Galaxy S6 Edge review.)

Body and display

As I noted in my first impressions, the Galaxy S6 still looks like a Samsung phone -- only better. On the front in particular, it retains the company's distinctive visual identity and bears a strong resemblance to past products in the Galaxy line.

When you pick the phone up, though, it immediately becomes clear just how much Samsung's approach to design has evolved. In place of the tacky faux-leather plastic of yesteryear is a smooth glass back -- and in place of the plastic posing as metal on the phone's perimeter is an actual aluminum frame. At last, Samsung's flagship phone feels like a high-end device.

In tech-familiar terms, the best way to describe the Galaxy S6 is as a mashup of the Galaxy S5 and the iPhone 4. It may not be the most original design, but it's a merging of classic styles that looks great and works well. In the U.S., the phone will be available in black, white or gold; the bolder green and blue hues shown off at Samsung's launch event are limited to international availability as of this writing.

At 5.6 x 2.8 x 0.27 in. and 4.87 oz., the Galaxy S6 is reasonably sized and comfortable to carry, with one caveat: The glass-centric design makes it somewhat slippery. I've had a few close calls when grabbing the phone out of my pocket over the past several days. The aluminum frame has a solid grip, though, so as long as you're careful to keep your fingers around the perimeter, the device isn't generally too hard to hang onto.

Of course, holding isn't the only consideration: When I placed the Galaxy S6 near the edge of a shiny coffee table one night, it shimmied along on its own and eventually slid off onto the (thankfully carpeted) floor. It gave me a flash back to other times I've used glass-backed phones and experienced similar challenges. And while I lucked out with this particular tumble, a glass back -- even one that uses strengthened material like Gorilla Glass 4, as this device does -- is inherently more prone to cracking and shattering than other materials. Like every glass phone before it, the Galaxy S6 has the potential to be somewhat fragile.

Decorative surfaces aside, the Galaxy S6's 5.1-in. Quad HD display is downright stunning. The 577ppi Super AMOLED screen is bright and crystal clear, with deep blacks, pure whites and brilliant colors that look fantastic without venturing into unrealistically oversaturated terrain. The display is easy to see even in direct sunlight. It's truly a treat for the eyes; smartphone screens don't get much better than this.

On a slightly less positive note, Samsung has stuck with its typical hybrid button configuration on the Galaxy S6 -- an Apple-reminiscent physical Home button flanked by old-school capacitive keys for Android's Overview (a.k.a. Recent Apps) and Back functions. While that setup will feel familiar to anyone accustomed to Samsung devices, it remains awkward and unnatural compared to the virtual on-screen buttons that have been standard on Android since 2011 (and are now used by nearly all other Android manufacturers). In terms of usability, it's probably the biggest remaining downside to a Samsung Android device.

One interesting element of the approach, however, is the fact that it's allowed Samsung to build a fingerprint scanner into the phone's Home button. And the Galaxy S6's scanner is light-years better than the one on last year's Galaxy S5: You can now simply touch and hold your finger to the surface to identify yourself instead of having to swipe along it, as you did with the S5 (usually numerous times before it'd work).

The S6's sensor was frustratingly finicky during my first few days with the phone, but ever since a pre-release software update was sent to the device on Saturday, it's worked impressively well. I'll occasionally have to touch my finger to the button twice before it'll recognize me -- and once in a great while, if my hand is damp or sweaty, I'll have to resort to using a backup password to get in -- but 90% of the time, my print is recognized almost instantly on the first try and I'm into the system within about a second.

The S6 marks a long overdue move away from Samsung's shoddy back-of-phone speaker setup and instead has a single speaker on the device's bottom edge. Audio played from the device is loud and sounds reasonably good; it's somewhat hollow and nowhere near the level of quality you'll get from HTC's BoomSound setup or Motorola's dual front-facing speaker configuration, but it's quite serviceable and a massive leap forward from Samsung's previous efforts.

Performance, storage and connectivity

The Galaxy S6 uses Samsung's own Exynos 7420 octa-core processor along with 3GB of RAM. And while past Samsung flagships have suffered from lag and jerkiness despite their impressive-sounding internals, the Galaxy S6 is consistently smooth and snappy. From app-loading to Web browsing and multitasking, I've yet to encounter anything that hasn't felt fast and responsive.

Battery life on the S6, however, could be better: On most days, I've reached dangerously low levels of power before the end of the night, usually with around three hours of mixed-use screen-on time (news-reading, social media browsing and so forth -- nothing out of the ordinary or particularly resource-intensive). Some days, I managed to push it a bit higher than that, but not by much -- and other days, I didn't even make it to the three-hour mark before seeing the dreaded "low power" warning.

On the plus side, the Galaxy S6 does support wireless charging -- both the popular Qi standard and the less common PMA protocol -- so you can always plop the phone down on a charging pad or wireless battery pack to juice it up midday. The S6 also utilizes Fast Charging, which allows you to gain up to four hours of extra battery life with just 10 minutes on the charger. The phone ships with a Fast Charging wall adapter and is also compatible with any Quick Charge 2.0-compatible accessory.

It's worth noting that the Galaxy S6's battery is not removable -- a change from past Samsung devices. If you're among the power users who enjoy being able to carry spare batteries and swap them out on demand, you're out of luck with this year's flagship.

Another previously standard Samsung element absent this go-round is an SD card slot for expandable storage. The Galaxy S6 ships with a choice of 32GB, 64GB or 128GB of internal space; pricing varies from one carrier and payment plan to the next, but you're basically looking at about a hundred bucks extra for each step up from the base 32GB level. And remember, you'll end up with less usable storage than what those numbers suggest. On my 32GB review unit, about 24GB of space was actually available after factoring in the operating system and various preinstalled software.

The Galaxy S6 review unit I've been using is a T-Mobile model. Calls on the device have been A-OK for me; I've had no qualms about the unit's voice quality, and those with whom I've spoken have reported being able to hear me loud and clear as well. Data speeds over T-Mobile's LTE network have also been fine and in line with what I expect to see from that network in my area.

I have noticed something unusual with the phone's Wi-Fi connectivity, though: In short, the device seems to have trouble maintaining a strong Wi-Fi connection. Speeds periodically get slow -- even when connected to a reliably stable Wi-Fi network on which other devices, including Android phones, are simultaneously connected and having no problems.

The pokiness isn't limited to any one particular app or process; I'll see it on the Web, in social media apps and even in Google Now. Pulling up pages or articles is slow, images fail to load and refreshing content takes far too long. I've discovered that disabling Wi-Fi and then re-enabling it seems to fix things for a while, but the slowness eventually returns and the cycle repeats.

On top of that, the S6 has a feature called Smart Network Switch that's supposed to detect when a Wi-Fi connection is unstable and then automatically switch you to mobile data instead. The feature has frequently caused the system to disconnect from a reliable Wi-Fi network when the phone is idle, however, which in turn has prevented notifications like new emails from getting through.

I reached out to Samsung to inquire about these issues and a representative told me the company wasn't aware of any widespread occurrences of such problems. It's possible they could be fluke defects limited to my review unit or something specific to my situation.

Photography

We can keep this section simple: The Galaxy S6's camera is really, really good. With the aid of optical image stabilization, the phone's 16-megapixel shooter takes beautifully crisp photos with great detail and vibrant, true-to-life colors.

Indoors or out, close-ups or broad landscapes, I've yet to find many scenarios where Samsung's camera stumbles. Even in low-light environments, the Galaxy S6 manages to deliver surprisingly sharp and balanced images. If there's any limitation, it's with moving objects: The S6's camera does pick up a fair amount of motion blur if a subject is moving quickly. With a small amount of motion, though -- something like a child's swing moving back and forth -- it's able to capture a sharp-looking shot.

Equally important, Samsung has made huge strides in simplifying its camera software and making it easy to use. The once cluttered and overwhelming user interface is now pleasingly minimalist, with only the few basic controls most people will need on screen by default. And most features you'd want, like HDR mode or night mode, enable themselves automatically when the environment calls for it.

What's even more impressive is that Samsung manages to achieve that simplicity while still offering a slew of advanced photography options for users who want them. Change the camera's mode from Auto to Pro, and you'll gain controls for manually adjusting everything from ISO sensitivity to focal length and white balance. The phone also has tucked-away options for more ready-made effects, too, if you want to go beyond the basics with your images but aren't a full-fledged photography expert.

The Galaxy S6 follows the lead of other devices in offering a system-wide "quick launch" shortcut to open the Camera app on demand, anytime, whether your screen is on or off: You just double-tap the phone's Home key, and -- literally in about a second -- you're looking through the viewfinder and ready to snap away. As anyone who's watched a photogenic moment fly by knows, the value of that can't be overstated.

The S6's shutter speed is fast, meanwhile, if not instantaneous -- and if you really want to play paparazzi, you can hold the shutter button down to take several rapid-fire photos with almost no delay between them. Factor in video recording options going all the way from 1080p (the default) to Ultra HD, and there's little more you could want from a smartphone camera.

For the selfie-takers and video-chatters among us, the Galaxy S6 has a 5-megapixel front-facing camera that can capture 1080p or QHD video and features gesture-based commands for starting a shutter countdown.

The software

The Galaxy S6 runs Samsung's custom TouchWiz software atop Google's Android 5.0.2 Lollipop operating system. I've been tough on TouchWiz in the past, but with its latest incarnation, Samsung has really evolved its software to a very usable state. It's much, much better than it used to be -- but it still needs work to go from being "pretty decent" to "great."

Part of that is strictly a visual issue: From a design standpoint, TouchWiz is kind of like a less polished and attractive version of Lollipop. It retains much of Google's visual language, like the card-based Overview configuration for switching among recently used apps, but then arbitrarily changes things here and there that I found less pleasant to use.

For example, Samsung continues to dump buckets of teal paint across the entire OS and is now replacing standard Android icons with plain text alternatives ("More," "Add" and so on). The latter introduces new inconsistencies between the S6's native apps and practically everything else you'll use on the device, including Google's apps and the vast majority of third-party Android programs. Ecosystem-wide design standards exist for a reason, and changing them in one small corner of that ecosystem does little more than introduce confusion.

Another problem is Samsung's continuing insistence on doubling up on native Android services by baking its own second-rate alternatives into the OS. The S6 ships with the company's subpar S Voice assistant, for instance, in addition to Google's excellent Android Voice Search utility. It has a lackluster Samsung app store in addition to the main Google Play Store. And it inexplicably uses a version of the very outdated (and no longer secure) old Android Browser by default while also providing Google's current Chrome browser. These sorts of redundancies harm the phone's overall user experience and serve no one -- other than maybe Samsung -- well.

But as I said, the OS on the whole shows a fair amount of maturation. The bleeps, bloops and whistles that have disturbed Galaxy users (and those around them) for years are now thankfully gone, and the comically overwhelming Settings menu design of yore has been replaced with a far more tasteful and manageable configuration.

Samsung has also provided some genuinely useful add-on features without veering too far into silly-gimmick territory. Some are carryovers from the past, like an Easy Mode for less advanced users and the ability to view multiple apps on screen at the same time, while others are new -- like the ability to customize the intensity and pattern of vibrations for incoming calls and notifications. There's a new theming feature, too, that lets you change the look of icons and other system-level elements, though the options are rather limited and underwhelming at launch (and you have to create a Samsung account just to browse through them).

Samsung has even improved upon a couple of weird elements of Lollipop -- including the software's lack of a traditional silent mode and the uncontrollably cluttered nature of its app-switching system. And the phone contains tools for controlling home entertainment components via an integrated IR blaster as well as for taking your heart rate via a sensor on the back of the device (something whose value is debatable -- and which could also be accomplished on any other Android phone -- but hey, it's there if you want it).

The Galaxy S6 does have oodles of third-party bloatware, some courtesy of Samsung and some from the U.S. carriers. Regardless of who's to blame, it's all baked into the operating system and not easily removed. You can, at least, disable most of the preinstalled apps so you don't have to see them, but they'll still take up space on your device.

Bottom line

For years, I've called upon Samsung to create a premium-caliber flagship phone that demonstrates focus, taste and restraint. With the Galaxy S6, the company has at long last delivered.

The S6 is by no means a perfect device -- it hangs onto Samsung's awkward button configuration, its battery life could be better and its UI still feels like a step down in design from Google's core Android OS -- but boy, does it have an awful lot of good things going for it. From its sleek and premium design to its outstanding display, exceptional camera and useful add-on features, the Galaxy S6 packs a powerful punch.

For the first time, I can recommend Samsung's flagship phone without all the usual asterisks that accompany such a statement. Samsung is finally growing up, and the resulting effort is going to make a lot of people happy.

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