Samsung found itself in sort of a bind last year: Its flagship Galaxy S5 wasn’t the blockbuster the company hoped it would be. That, coupled with the news that Samsung was going to focus on a smaller number of devices in 2015, signaled a pretty dramatic change for a brand that seemed like it was unstoppable. As if to silence the doubters, Samsung has not one, but two flagships on offer — the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge — and they’re surrounded by questions. Can they restore Samsung to its former glory? Has the company figured out how to build a truly interesting smartphone again? It’s too early to make a call on the former, but after a week of testing, the answer to the latter is a clear and definite “yes.”.
Before we go any further, know this: Aside from the obvious differences — the Edge has a wrap-around screen and a few software tricks that take advantage of it — the Galaxy S6 and the S6 Edge are basically identical. Same screen size, same 16-megapixel cameras, same octa-core Exynos 7420 brains, and so on. They’re two devices crafted with the same metal, glass and silicon, which makes the dramatic design differences between them all the more meaningful.
Looking at it dead on, though, the S6 is pretty plain. Your eyes will immediately get sucked into the 5.1-inch Quad HD Super AMOLED screen, but a 5-megapixel selfie camera sits above it while the Home button lies below, flanked by discrete Back and Recent Apps keys. High on the S6’s back is a squarish plateau that houses the 16-megapixel camera, and to the right lies a tiny black divot where the LED flash and heart rate sensor live. Unlike the crater that marked the Galaxy S5’s back, the assembly here is almost flush with the S6’s rear. It’s a small touch, but it makes taking heart rate and blood oxygen readings in S Health quite a bit easier.
Really, it’s details like these that speak most loudly to Samsung’s new design philosophy. Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that Samsung traded its trademark plastic bodies for sturdy metal frames and Gorilla Glass 4 panels lining the S6’s front and back. What’s more important — and consequently harder to express in words — are the little touches that tie everything together. The S6’s rounded sides are punctuated by a flat edge for your fingers to rest on. The gaps between the metal and Gorilla Glass are so fine as to be imperceptible. The sole speaker has been moved to the phone’s bottom so you’re not blasting tunes straight into your desk. I could go on, but the S6 just feels seamless in a way its predecessor never did.
And no, your eyes don’t deceive you: The Galaxy S6 looks (and feels) an awful lot like an iPhone. From those rounded sides to the chrome-rimmed, fingerprint-sensing Home button to placement of the volume buttons on the left edge and the power button on the right, there’s an odd air of familiarity surrounding the thing. (A brief aside: One of Samsung’s spokespeople picked up my iPhone 6 during our hands-on time in February and it seemed to take him a few moments to realize what he was actually holding.) Flame wars on the matter are already starting to brew, but I’m not too concerned; Samsung’s end result is lovely, and that’s all most people will care about.
Alas, though, streamlining the S6’s design meant taking an axe to some of the things that endeared the Galaxy line to persnickety nerds — namely, the removable battery and microSD card slot. My T-Mobile review unit came with 32GB of internal storage ($0 down with monthly payments on T-Mo, or $199 with a contract elsewhere), but you’ll soon be able to buy 64GB and 128GB models too. And the biggest heartbreak? The S6 breaks tradition by dying when you drop it in a pool. The news will be more tragic for some than others but not having to handle the S5 with kid gloves was a treat. Hopefully Samsung figures out a way to waterproof a design like this before next year rolls around.
Now, about the Edge ($299 with a contract). It’s equal parts gorgeous and gimmicky, but if money is no object, the former definitely outweighs the latter. Unlike the G Flex2, the Edge’s curved screen falls away from you at the sides instead of angling toward you from the top and bottom. The design does nothing to make the screen more immersive, but that doesn’t matter; the screen’s novelty and beauty still mean it’s hard to tear your eyes off it. The S6 Edge feels substantially thinner than its basic cousin because of how its sides taper to a super-slim edge. This trick is a familiar one — Motorola has done it with every Moto X to date — but it keeps getting recycled for a reason. The thing is, the Edge will probably never nestle comfortably into your hands as a result; if your fingers are like mine, they’ll forever arch over its back, which can sometimes feel a little precarious. In fact, at times I wished the curve were on the opposite side just so the rest of my hand had something to hang onto. On the plus side, that extra space along the Edge’s sides gives you room to swipe up, down, left and right without your thumb ever obscuring the action. Really, though, these navigational benefits feel like an afterthought, like happy little accidents that came about thanks to Samsung’s screen-shape decision. Make no mistake: The Edge’s main job is to look good.
Display and sound
If you wanted to skip this section outright, just know this before you go: The S6 and the S6 Edge have absolutely gorgeous screens. They’re both Quad HD panels (2,560 x 1,440, if you haven’t memorized it yet) akin to the one you’ll find in the Note 4, but they only measure at 5.1 inches diagonally. Yep, you guessed it: That means we’re looking at two of the most pixel-dense screens on the market today. As far as your eyes will be able to tell, individual pixels don’t even exist. Whether or not modern smartphone screens actually need to be this insanely crisp is a question that’s up for debate, but my stance is pretty simple: As long as battery life doesn’t tank as a result, bring ’em on.
As is usually the case with Samsung’s AMOLEDs, colors are incredibly vivid, while blacks are deep and sumptuous. A quick bit of screen nerdery for you: AMOLED panels typically skew a little more toward the blue end of the spectrum than LCDs do, which means it’s actually a pleasant surprise that whites appear more neutral here than they do on the new HTC One M9. Some of this is going to be subjective, of course. I’ll admit I like my screens a little punchy, and the S6’s color settings suited me just fine out of the box. If that’s not your taste, you can pop into the settings and swap screen modes to something more appropriate: the “AMOLED cinema” setting pumps up color saturation across the board, while “AMOLED photo” dials it down a bit from the default “Adaptive” setting. Then you’ve got the “Basic” setting, which just sucks the life out of everything. It’s arguably the most accurate mode of the four, but really, where’s the fun in that? Viewing angles on the S6 are great too — a lucky break for the poor soul whose in-flight entertainment system crapped out and has to watch your episodes of The Fall from the side.
So far I’ve been treating both screens as if they were the same, but that’s clearly not true. The Note Edge wanted to cram gobs of functionality into that spillover area. The G Flex and G Flex2 sought to draw you into media with a curved screen reminiscent of high-end TVs. The S6 Edge does none of those things. It just sort of… is. I’ll break down more what the screen’s edges actually can do down in the software section, but Samsung’s overriding concern here was making a screen that looks awesome, and on that front, it succeeded. At its most severe, the Edge’s screen curves away from you at about 35 degrees, as if the sides are retreating into your palms. Let’s put our nitpicker hats on for a second — that means that from some oblique angles, the stuff that flows into those subtle curves will appear much brighter than it does on the flat part of the screen. It’s the mildest of annoyances (I don’t remember ever being bothered by it), but it’ll definitely stand out at first.
So yes, the S6 and the S6 Edge look lovely. How do they sound? Both devices share the same single speaker nestled into the bottom-right corners of their frames, and it’s dramatically louder than the clunker we got in last year’s Galaxy S5. There’s no way it’ll ever hold a candle to the One M9 and its pair of BoomSound speakers, but the S6 duo’s driver brings enough oomph to the table that you can stick the phone into your car’s cupholder, crank up the volume and still hear plenty over the din of the road.