Samsung Galaxy S6 review: Superb screen and great camera make it the best Android yet

A little less bloat means a whole lot more fun when it comes to the Galaxy S6.

The smartphone market has settled into a predictable pattern: in the spring, around April, Samsung will launch its latest Galaxy S, then at some point in the autumn, around September, Apple will unveil a new iPhone.

Apple and Samsung each build on the successes of the other, advancing slowly toward the creation of some kind of ideal handset. You could see it as a game of chess, where each advances different technologies (a bigger screen here, support for NFC there) with the intention of securing victory over the other.

Many would argue that Apple's iPhone has recently gained the upper hand, especially after adopting the bigger screen that was the main advantage of Samsung's Galaxy S range. Samsung has also tended to shoehorn multiple technologies and options into its devices in the hope that something will grab consumer attention - only to increasingly annoy many of them instead.

But with the Galaxy S6 Samsung seems to have found its confidence again - cutting back on the unnecessary clutter to create an excellent user experience that showcases the best aspects of the hardware and software.

That's something of a surprise because, especially with the business user in mind, at first glance the S6 seems to have a number of limitations compared to last year's Galaxy S5: the battery is smaller (2,550mAh versus 2,800mAh) and can't be removed; it doesn't allow storage expansion via Micro-SD cards; and isn't waterproof. As such, for power users needing to make calls in the shower all day long, the S6 might be considered a backward step. But many others will be impressed.

The hardware

From the front the S6 doesn't look much different to the S5, but while the design hasn't changed the materials have gone upmarket. Switching to metal from plastic and introducing a glass back instead of the dimpled plastic of the S5 helps to give the new handset that proper flagship feel, although inevitably all that glass does make it something of a fingerprint magnet.

Still, there's no way of disguising the camera lens, which still pokes out the back of the chassis - although you'll likely be willing to forgive this considering the quality of the images it delivers (more on this later).

It's light in the hand at 138g but doesn't feel especially fragile or bendable. Even so, I've been very careful with my review model from EE and watching some of these S6 drop-test and walnut-smashing videos (yes, really) may well have you shelling out for a protective case pretty rapidly.

For me, the materials upgrade brings the S6 up to standard in terms of smartphone design, but doesn't put it ahead of the field (or the iPhone, which it resembles). And retaining that inherited Galaxy S look means that the S6 is a little dowdy sat alongside the S6 Edge, which is by far the more glamorous of the two handsets thanks to its curved screen. You can see both in the gallery above and compare for yourself (see also our Galaxy S6 Edge review).

In short, the S6 Edge is the model you'd like to buy for yourself, while the S6 is the one your boss will actually pay for.

Although impressive, the hardware is in many ways just a frame for the remarkable screen - a 5.1-inch Super AMOLED screen with a resolution of 2,560 by 1440 pixels, which means a stupendous 576 pixels per inch (ppi). In comparison, the iPhone 6 packs 1,334 by 750 pixels into a 4.7-inch screen for 326ppi. Specs aren't everything, of course, but this is a good indication of how serious Samsung is about taking a lead here. All in all, the S6 has probably the best screen I've seen on a smartphone.

Elsewhere, although the S6 is not the first Galaxy to have a fingerprint sensor, the implementation here is very solid. The sensor took perhaps 30 seconds to enrol each finger and has performed well, unlocking in the majority of cases on the first attempt regardless of some pretty haphazard finger and thumb placement on my part.

If you're switching from the iPhone, the capacitive buttons at the bottom of the screen (for recently used apps and a back button) will seem odd at first, but rapidly become very useful.

The 16-megapixel camera that juts out of the back of the handset is one of the S6's standout elements - something this high quality on a smartphone is just the latest headache for the standalone digital camera market.

The camera is fast to open (Samsung claims 0.7 seconds to launch) and delivers great images with a limited amount of fuss (see the sample images below). A neat touch: the heart rate sensor on the back doubles as button for taking selfies.

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A still life, taken by the Galaxy S6. Image: Steve Ranger/ZDNet

On the downside, battery life was merely adequate. It was certainly enough to get through the average day, but noticeably less than I expected, thanks to the smaller battery and that luscious display. Power users may find themselves anxiously inspecting the battery level towards the end of the day.

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London's iconic Shard building in the sun, as seen by the S6. Image: Steve Ranger/ZDNet

On the upside, the S6 can recharge fast - Samsung claims up to 1.5 times faster than previous models. I found that I could get from below 10 percent charge to almost full in just over an hour. So while you might be reaching for the charger a little sooner, you'll also be unplugging it again quicker. Samsung claims four hours of use from a 10-minute charge. Wireless charging is also supported, which should give you another convenient option to keep that smaller battery topped up.

The software

The S6 runs on Android 5.0 (Lollipop). Much has been made of Samsung's embrace of Google's 'Material Design' philosophy and the strategy seems to be to minimise the bloat, allowing the genuinely interesting features to shine through a little more. It's relatively easy to minimise the apps or features that you don't want to use (even if you can't necessarily delete them from the system entirely).

One relatively trivial irritation is that a left swipe on the home screen will pull up Flipboard, which I found less than helpful. And Android can still come across as very needy compared to iOS: so many apps bleating about trivial notifications can quickly become wearing, although they are easily silenced. Business users may welcome the inclusion of Microsoft's OneDrive and OneNote, plus the standard array of Google apps (Gmail/Drive/Maps and more).

The Multi Window option is handy if you're trying to juggle apps - finding some information online and sending an email, for example, as it allows you to have two apps open on-screen at the same time. And Samsung's 14nm, 64-bit Exynos octa-core SoC keeps everything zipping along very smoothly indeed.

You might find Samsung Pay intriguing, but unless you are in Korea or the US you won't be able to whip out your phone to pay for anything just yet.

One potentially handy local addition - in the UK on the EE network (others are likely to follow) - is the S6's ability to automatically switch to making calls over wi-fi in the absence of a cellular signal. This could prove useful if you're on a train with wi-fi, or in an office that usually has a poor mobile signal. I've tested this and it works well, even on an underground train (so long as you're on the platform and not in a tunnel).

As far as input methods are concerned, I'm a fan of the Swype keyboard, which (with a bit of practice) I find to be about the quickest (and funnest) way to write - vastly superior to a physical keyboard, for example.

But if you like talking to your phone, Samsung's S Voice suffers badly in comparison to Google Now, which is also onboard as standard. I found S Voice much harder to wake up and much slower to respond than Google Now. It worked relatively well in a quiet room, but when there was more background noise I found it much harder to rouse the handset using voice commands.

My colleague Matthew Miller has done a deeper analysis on this with the S6 Edge and I have to agree with his assessment. Perhaps, like the fingerprint scanner, the next generation of voice control will be better. Still, for most people it's likely to remain a novelty rather than a standard input method.

Alternatives

Apple's iPhone 6 is the Galaxy S6's obvious rival and the two handsets are closely matched. HTC's One M9 is another contender, while LG's G4, expected later this month, is eagerly awaited. As a wildcard, if productivity is your focus, the BlackBerry Passport would be a completely different take on a flagship business handset.

Conclusions

For the S6, less is absolutely more. Upgrading to metal and glass, pairing a great screen with an excellent camera while streamlining the look and feel of the software means that Samsung has come up with the best Android smartphone of the year to date. Those in need of extra cool may wish to pay out for the S6 Edge, but for many the S6 will be more than smart enough. For an alternative view check out CNET's review here.


Samsung Galaxy S6: specs

Dimensions 143.4mm x 70.5mm x 6.8mm

Weight 138g

Colours white pearl, black sapphire, gold platinum, blue topaz

Storage 32/64/128GB

Display 5.1-inch Quad HD display; 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution at 577ppi. Super AMOLED

Operating system Android 5.0 Lollipop

Rear camera 16 megapixels

Front camera 5 megapixels

Processor Quad 2.1GHz + Quad 1.5GHz Exynos octa-core application processor

Sensors accelerometer, light, gyroscope, proximity, compass, barometer, fingerprint, hall, HRM

Connectivity 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac wi-fi (2.4/5GHz), Wi-Fi Direct, mobile hotspot, Bluetooth 4.1, USB 2.0, NFC

Battery 2,550mAh, with fast wired charging, providing four hours of usage after 10 minutes of charging

Wireless Charging WPC1.1(4.6W Output) & PMA 1.0(4.2W) compatible

Additional Features Samsung Pay, Microsoft Apps (OneDrive 115GB for two years, OneNote), Google Mobile Services

Samsung Galaxy S6: price

£599.99 (inc. VAT; £499.99 ex. VAT) with 32GB of storage