“A radical redesign” is the best way to describe the newly announced Samsung Galaxy S6, not just in comparison to last year’s underwhelming flagship, but to the entire Galaxy series as a whole. It’s a radically different device from the ones that made Samsung a giant of the smartphone world, but the good news is that most of its changes are for the better.
Finally, Samsung has a flagship phone that genuinely feels high-end in your hands, one that actually comes off as worthy of its price tag. Although it still features many of the familiar Galaxy design cues, the S6 marks a major leap for Samsung thanks to its entirely plastic-free body. There’s no glossy polycarbonate or fake leather to drag things down this time, only two sheets of Gorilla Glass 4 on the front and back, and smooth metal around the sides.
At its premier at Mobile World Congress, Samsung revealed other significant novelties for the new handset as well, including a Material design-like makeover for the TouchWiz UI skin, a QHD (2560 x 1440) display that brings an astonishing pixel density of 577 ppi on a 5.1-inch screen, and a lightning-fast chipset, based on Samsung’s own eight-core Exynos 7420. Based on our limited time with it, the S6 feels like the first Galaxy phone in some time that’s wants to emphasize the premium over the practical.
That sentiment applies to the phone’s display, for one. Outside of its ludicrously high pixel density, the Super AMOLED screen brings the kind of lush colors and deep blacks that we’ve come to expect from Galaxy panels. The pixel boost admittedly doesn’t add much to the naked eye, but hopefully putting a QHD screen on this device will lead Samsung to use 1080p panels on its future mid-range phones. This isn’t a massive upgrade over the Galaxy S5, but then again that display didn’t leave much room for corrections in the first place.
Likewise, Samsung’s decision to forgo Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chips in favor of its own Exynos chipset doesn’t reveal anything that dramatically changes the user experience at first blush. It performs superbly in benchmark testing, and it certainly blazed in our time with it, but we’re still at a point where any performance differences between top-level chips are going to be negligible to non-hardcore users.
However, one benefit may be in the Exynos’ 14-nm architecture, which Samsung claims will help the S6 be more merciful towards its battery. This is why the company feels confident enough to put a relatively average 2500 mAh pack inside a phone with a QHD resolution. That’ll make battery life an area to monitor here either way, but it also allows the phone to stay good and thin at just 6.8mm thick.
It all comes back to the new build, though. It’s not a stretch to say that this is the best phone Samsung’s ever created when held in the hand. (At a time where simple spec boosts aren’t enough to carry a new flagship, the plastic of previous Galaxy phones may end up being a blessing in disguise.) After several iterations, it’s the first Galaxy phone to have that elusive “wow” factor. Of course, that’s less true when the S6 is put up against its Galaxy S6 Edge companion, which is more immediately striking across the board.
To be blunt, it’s impossible to not notice the design similarities between this and the iPhone 6, but those aren’t totally bad things. Most of the parallels come down to the button arrangement: The power key is on the right edge, at thumb height, while the volume rocker is on the left side, the USB hub is at the center of the bottom, and the 3.5-mm audio jack is just to its left. The speaker grille is startlingly similar to that of Apple’s device too, but we wouldn’t consider that the end of the world.
Less forgivable is the fact that this is the first Galaxy S phone in years to omit an exchangeable battery or a microSD card slot. The 32 GB of minimum storage space here is fine enough, but the aforementioned battery concerns only become amplified when the pack can’t be removed. Still, it’s hard to really hold this against Samsung – Apple’s designs have proven successful for a reason, and the sacrifices here might be worth it if it enabled Samsung to craft such improved hardware.
The perception of “copying” the iPhone and the removal of certain practical features will undoubtedly anger some Galaxy loyalists, but the fact remains that Samsung has largely addressed one of its largest mobile bugbears with the Galaxy S6. It’s a promising step forward for the Galaxy line and — with HTC sticking to minor updates for its latest flagship — feels like the most exciting handset to come out of Barcelona this year.