Arguably, 2014 is the year when Samsung’s smartphones changed direction, with the Galaxy Note 4 pointing the way, though it’s the new Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge, the latter here in its black 64GB version, that really show where Samsung is heading. Into premium territory in terms of design and materials, taking understandable cues from Apple and the iPhone, but in the process missed a trick in terms of form factor here (I contend), plus it made a number of compromises that won’t please everyone.
One is the price obviously, with these new double-glass and metal Galaxy flagships coming in up to £100 over where their plastic-framed predecessors would have. Or make that £200 in the case of the curved-glass Edge edition here. Second is flexibility, with batteries being sealed, storage being absolute, with no microSD support, and third is durability. No waterproofing, no plastic rim and back to take the knocks, etc.
But I don’t want to be a curmudgeon. I’ve proved to myself on devices like the iPhone, like some of my Nokia Lumias, on the Nexus 6 and others, that ‘sealed everything’ isn’t a showstopper these days. And price is a moot point since almost every real world buyer of the S6 range will be getting the phone on a contract or upgrade, at which point the up front cost gets heavily disguised by the carriers.
However, I do have one thing against the S6 edge here – it’s the ultimate smartphone, alright, but it could have better – I think Samsung missed a trick. You see, the S6 edge feels imbalanced in the hand, in terms of front and back faces. You see, the front is drop dead gorgeous, and feels great too, with those curved screen edges that just fall away. Then there’s a thin metal rim and… nothing. The back is far less ambitious and essentially flat, leaving your fingers unimpressed.
What I’d have liked to have seen was a polycarbonate back, profiled like the front or a little shallower, but in reverse, if you see what I mean. Yes, the S6 edge would then have been around 2mm thicker, but it would have felt so much more comfortable in the hand, and there would have been room for a much bigger battery, something which is an issue here. And the camera glass wouldn’t have had to stick out so obviously. Copyright Litchfield Design Studios, obviously!
Android 5 and TouchWiz
Anyway… the S6 edge is what it is. An expensive Android flagship running 5.0, but with the usual Samsung TouchWiz skin, albeit tweaked and streamlined in this 2015 version. Less Samsung own-brand services, thankfully, a Flipboard variant off to the left of the home screens, by default (though you can uncheck this and never see it), and the usual TouchWiz tweaks for the app folder and notifications shade.
One surprise, to me at least, was that the usual ‘…’ menus had been replaced in most (but not all) cases by the plain English ‘MORE’, ‘EDIT’, and other appropriate words throughout the interface. This is my first experience of Samsung TouchWiz on Lollipop out of the box, and I’m guessing this is the new way of doing it. And it’s rather cute – and certainly easier for new users.
Slightly hidden away in Settings but making a huge difference in 2015 TouchWiz is a Themes system. These were a feature of both feature phones and Symbian smartphones a decade ago but do seem to be making a come back on Android. Pick a theme (most of which are in an online Samsung store and free) and bang, your icon set, wallpaper, UI elements and even sounds are all customised. And don’t worry, the ‘Default’ theme is only ever a tap away, so you can experiment to your heart’s desire.
Performance and screen matters
As you’d expect, an Octacore chipset and 3GB of RAM make short work of anything in the Android world and I didn’t see any hold-ups in the UI. There have been a few rumblings in the Android world about Samsung, Google, Lollipop and management of RAM and I did notice that, even with all updates applied, Android 5 kept closing running apps down in order to keep 1GB free. What is this nanny state attitude? Why can’t users use all the RAM supplied? Roll on Android 5.1.something, anyway.
The overall experience is pretty good, though the QHD screen is complete overkill on a 5.1” display, working out to over 575 pixels per inch, I challenge anyone to spot the difference at a typical 40cm handheld distance between this and the lower tech 1080p panel. Even allowing for Samsung compensating for their AMOLED screens being pentile, there is no need for QHD on a 5″ screen. As a data point, I recruited my 15 year old daughter, who has the eyes of an eagle. Holding out the app drawers of the old (5″) Galaxy S4 and the new (5.1″) S6 edge, at the same brightness and distance, I asked which screen was crisper. Without hesitation, she picked the…. two year old S4. Ahem.
All of which means that you’re paying more for those 4 million display pixels and using more processor power to drive them around, which in turn pulls in more battery, and so on. Now, QHD on the 6” screened Nexus 6 is another matter, most people can just about tell the difference from 1080p. But not on this, the S6 range. Sorry, Samsung, it’s engineering for engineering’s sake.
Happily, the same engineers also came up with a rather terrific camera unit for the S6, Samsung’s best ever. It’s a development of the superb camera in the Note 4, that I loved. With good OIS, a 1/2.6” sensor, f/1.9 optics, and phase detection auto-focus, allied to a very fast chipset (HDR is on by default, or at least set to activate if the software thinks the scene needs it) and top notch image processing and you have just about the best camera phone in the world. Almost.
See some of the samples below as proof, simply stunning photos in all light conditions. Well, except for my party tests, where there’s the usual blurry mess. Why can’t we have cameras this good and a proper flash, not a weedy single LED? Why, why, why? Samsung even proved it could do Xenon flash in its K Zoom last year!
Anyway, a couple of samples at web resolution here, one from burst mode:
…and one showing off the ‘bokeh’ possible with the large f/1.9 aperture:
Ultimately we need to look closer, of course. These are 16MP photos and we can’t get an idea of quality from a 600 pixel wide downsampling!
So, let’s go to the pixel level. Each photo example below is represented as an overview of the shot, scaled for this web page, plus a 1:1 crop from a central part of the full resolution JPG. See what you think!
In sunny conditions, detail is splendid, even down at 1:1 on the sensor here:
A tricky shot here, towards the sun, and I don’t think the ‘HDR Auto’ kicked in, for some reason – the shot’s fine and colourful, but you can see blown out portions at the 1:1 level:
Low light here, in a church, and detail’s just starting to go, down at the pixel level, despite the f/1.9 aperture:
One of my test shots in very low artificial light, the S6 edge actually did very well, with minimal noise and accurate colours:
In very low light, at dusk, the S6 edge did very well again, with noise reduction working wonders:
Helpfully, Samsung has tied a double-press of the home button to launch the camera – this is as fast as long pressing a dedicated shutter button on another device (e.g. the Sony Xperias or Nokia Lumias) and uses the same principle, in that it works even with the screen locked. Very fast and convenient when in a hurry!
Video is likewise excellent, with superb use of OIS, though, like LG with the G4, Samsung hasn’t included a facility to grab 8MP stills from 4K video, rather foiling one of the core points about shooting in 4K in the first place. Maybe the frame-grab function, which does exist on the Note 4, simply hasn’t been adapted yet and will come in an update?
Media playback is also great, as you’d expect, with the single iPhone-esque bottom-mounted speaker grille pumping out a decent volume though not with any tone or finesse, a little disappointing given the premium components elsewhere here.
Battery life, power saving
OK, so there’s no replaceable battery here, and 2600mAh (a full 200mAh smaller than the S5’s) is barely sufficient if you use the S6 and S6 edge a lot during the day without any top-ups – as with the G4 recently reviewed, brightness has to be kept under control if you want to make it to bedtime. Or – and this is Samsung’s argument, use the built-in Qi and PMA wireless charging to top it up regularly on your desk or use the supplied high current charger to give it more dramatic top-ups when convenient.
I’ll give Samsung a pass for another reason too – the usual power saving modes, right down to ‘Ultra Power Saving’, taking the interface down to dark monochrome with minimal apps and functions. As an example, with 25% battery left, ultra power saving mode kept the S6 edge going, for basic mail and telephony, for another two full 24 hour days. So these phones will get you home – somehow!
There are some hardware innovations, at least in Samsung’s world,for the S6 range. After the usability disaster that was the S5’s ‘swipe’ fingerprint-sensing home button, the S6 copies the recent iPhones in having a static sensor. And it definitely works better. Mind you, I still had to give up and enter my backup password a couple of times a day, for no apparent reason. And yes, I tried re-training the sensor. So a big step forward but still needs tweaking. And it’s worth noting that you still can’t use it to authorise purchases in the Google Play Store, iPhone-style.
Plus, having not mentioned the screen edges much so far, there are some nice little extras. Or novelties, depending on your point of view. The much publicised ‘glow’ per contact when someone calls and your S6 edge is face down? It’s there, and it works, but who on earth keeps their phone face down on any surface? Yes, there’s Gorilla Glass 4, but who likes taking unnecessary risks?
More useful is a night and evening implementation of an always on Glance screen. I can’t really see why this couldn’t take over the whole screen and be standard on all Samsung AMOLED-screened phones, but still…. You get a small clock and date up on your chosen edge, permanently on, even if not plugged into mains power. Potentially useful at night, and you can configure which hours it operates (though not the full 24, annoyingly).
By swiping backwards and forwards on this edge (at any time), a configurable set of tickers can be swiped up, including trending tweets, Yahoo! news updates, and your latest Android notification. I suppose it’s an innovation, but it’s not very practical – if you wanted any of the above information then you’d unlock the S6 edge and use the full screen and interface – and would get what you needed ten times faster. Plus, as shown below, the accelerometers often get confused and the S6 edge presents the information tickers ‘upside down’. Surely this has to be a bug? Why on earth would anyone want text that way up on that edge?
Add it all up and you’ve got a premium smartphone which could have been insane. Imagine a symmetrically curved polycarbonate or even leather effect back, housing a 3500mAh battery, for example. It would have felt so much better in the hand, day to day. As it is, you’ve spent, say, £750 on a SIM free 4GB Galaxy S6 edge, and then you have to pay another £30 to get the official shell case that provides protection for the rear glass that you’ve just paid for and extra thickness for a more comfortable grip. Madness, I tell you, and I can suggest plenty of other options for that £780. Not least buying a leather backed LG G4, which has an even better camera, is far more flexible in terms of battery and storage, and which saves you well over £200.
If this all sounds a little negative then I apologise. This is still, quite possibly (with its regular S6 sister device), the second best all round smartphone in the Android world right now – and it’s definitely the most beautiful.
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PS. A big thanks to Clove for the loan of the review Galaxy S6 edge.