Galaxy S6 first look: Inspired by the iPhone 6, but no mere clone

The new flagship Samsung Android smartphones are surprisingly elegant and thoughtfully designed

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I could not test the camera to see if it is as improved as Samsung says. But I was able to test two camera-related features. One is fast access to the camera, even when the S6 is asleep: Double-press the Home button to open the Camera app in less than a second. The other is the enhanced Camera app itself, which adds automatic HDR mode so the Galaxy S6 can decide when to take pictures in high-dynamic-range mode (after all, do you really know when to use it?).

Sure, the iPhone 6 has automatic HDR, but the iPhone 6 can't take HDR photos if the flash is used. The Galaxy S6 can.

The back of the S6 supports both competing induction charging standards (PMA Powermat and WPC Qi) -- used in the so-called wireless charging mats -- which is a breakthrough move users will very much appreciate.

Samsung claims the S6 has fast-charging circuitry, letting it charge to 50 percent capacity in 30 minutes when plugged into a power source. Samsung also claims that when using induction charging, the S6 can get to 20 percent charge in 30 minutes. I couldn't verify either claim in the brief time I had access to a device. 

One note about fast charging: The fuller the battery charge gets, the slower the charging rate. In other words, you might get to 50 percent in 30 minutes, then need a couple of hours to get to 100 percent. When I tested the Galaxy Note 4's fast charging last fall, I didn't notice an appreciable difference versus previous models' charging rates. But I'll take any speedup the fast-charging circuitry provides.

The two Galaxy S6 models have lower-capacity batteries than the Galaxy S5 sported: 9 percent less capacity in the S6, and 7 percent less in the S6 Edge. But Samsung says more efficient hardware and better battery management software will mean no loss in operating time. We'll see.

It's true that the hardware and software matter more than raw battery capacity to determine battery life, as iPhone users can attest: The iPhone 6 has 35 percent less battery capacity than the Samsung Galaxy S5, but the iPhone easily operates longer on a full charge.

Samsung said the Galaxy S6 uses a new touch-style fingerprint reader in the Home button, similar to Apple's Touch ID is on an iPhone. Unfortunately, I could not test the new S6 fingerprint reader to see if Samsung has improved it over the balky, difficult swipe reader used in the Galaxy S5 and Note 4 smartphones.

I hope Samsung's fingerprint reader works both smoothly and reliably; they're fundamental usability requirements, especially if Samsung expects anyone to use its forthcoming Samsung Pay system.

And I hope Samsung has fixed the bug in its Galaxy software that causes Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) to disable the fingerprint reader when security policies require device passwords. Almost any business will have that requirement, thus disabling the fingerprint reader for most business users. (By the way, those same EAS password policies do not disable the fingerprint reader on iPhones.)

Simplified software, at least for settings

The new Galaxy S6 devices don't seem to have much new in the way of software upgrades.

In my brief time with the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge prerelease units, I could see that the Settings app was simplified, with fewer levels of options to wade through. Thus, more options appear in the main Settings app window, but it's a better approach in this case because you have to hunt in fewer places to find the setting you want.

The Camera app also seemed smarter and easier to use, with clearer presentation of options and cool tracking features to keep the focus on people and other moving objects, such as pets.

I didn't have a chance to use in any depth the other standard apps on the device, such as those from Samsung and Google, to see if they've been enhanced by Samsung or were the standard Android 5 Lollipop versions.

Samsung says the decision as to what other apps are bundled with the S6 smartphones is largely up to the carriers. The prerelease S6 device I used had a folder containing three Microsoft apps -- OneNote, OneDrive, and Skype, not the rumored bundle of Microsoft Office for Android -- but a spokeswoman said the inclusion of the Microsoft apps in the demo unit didn't necessarily mean they'd be in the shipping devices. Stay tuned.

The new Galaxy S6 models will support Samsung's ill-starred Knox security technology. Samsung says the new Knox version for Android 5.0 Lollipop will be improved, but it has not yet said how. In the meantime, Google has released its own technology called Android for Work for most Android devices, whereas Knox works only with a handful of Samsung models.

The revamped Knox technology will help Samsung deliver its own mobile payment service, Samsung Pay, which the new Galaxy S6 models will support with a software upgrade due this summer.

Overall, it's clear that Samsung paid a lot more attention to the details -- and the customer -- in designing the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. If my first-look experience with the two smartphones bears out in the real world, Samsung may have the hit product it needs to reverse its mobile decline in 2014.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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