Review: Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge lead the Android pack

The new flagship Samsung Android smartphones are surprisingly elegant and thoughtfully designed, with better security capabilities

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A breakthrough screen shines in its details

You'd expect a new smartphone model to be thinner. More interesting is the S6 screen, which seems to offer more natural color tones than previous Galaxy models, whose display colors appeared overly vibrant.

The Galaxy S6 smartphones' 5.1-inch, quad-HD screen packs a ridiculous number of pixels, which I usually dismiss as a gimmick for the spec-obsessed. In this case, though, you can see the difference: The S6 screen provides very clear text and image detail.

If you remember the wonder of the original Retina display in the iPhone 4, the Galaxy S6 makes a similar leap in image clarity and sharpness over the Galaxy S5 and is even sharper than the iPhone 6 and Samsung's own Note 4, which introduced the quad-HD screen to Samsung's lineup.

That extra sharpness and resulting clarity may be due to a new antireflective material used in the S6 screen and to brighter backlighting.

Beefed-up hardware: CPU, storage, speaker, camera, charging

Samsung has also upgraded the heart of the Galaxy, by using a 64-bit Exynos processor of its own making, as well as beefing up the internal memory's speed and the amount of internal storage (now starting at 32GB, with 64GB and 128GB options to be available).

Samsung says it has improved the S6 speakers. They certainly sounded louder, but also distorted at high volumes, as overdriven smartphone speakers often do.

The S6 cameras have been beefed up, with an f1.9 lens on both the front and back cameras, versus the S5's f2.4 aperture. The wider aperture should yield improved image capture in low lighting.

There are also more pixels in the rear camera's CCD versus the Galaxy S5: now 16 megapixels versus 8. The increase in megapixels may or may not improve the images captured, because camera software has more to do with image quality than raw pixels at this point. But my informal testing showed the S6 camera is as detail-oriented and color-accurate as the iPhone 6's, which is a good standard.

I also tested 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 (a decision better left to the camera than you).

Sure, the iPhone 6 has automatic HDR, but the iPhone 6 can't take HDR photos if the flash is used. The Galaxy S6s 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 S6s have fast-charging circuitry, letting them charge to 50 percent capacity in 30 minutes when plugged into a power source. Samsung also claims that when using induction charging, the S6s can get to a 20 percent charge in 30 minutes. I couldn't verify the induction-charging claim, but I can confirm that the fast charging works as promised when connected to a wall charger. 

One note about fast charging: The fuller the battery charge, 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. But I'll take any speedup the fast-charging circuitry provides.

The two Galaxy S6 models have lower-capacity batteries than what 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 clear that the Galaxy S6s drain their batteries faster than an iPhone 6 does -- about 20 to 30 percent faster -- unless you enable the power-saving feature in the Galaxy S6s' Settings app.

It's a fact that the hardware and software matter more than raw battery capacity to determine battery life, as iPhone users can attest: The iPhone 6 has 30 percent less battery capacity than the Samsung Galaxy S6s, but the iPhone easily operates longer on a full charge.

What you no longer get: SD card and removable battery

The Galaxy 6 and S6 Edge are missing two hardware features, which may anger some Galaxy fans: There's no SD card slot to add storage capacity, and the battery is not removable.

The new S6s come with at least 32GB of storage and are available with as much as 128GB, so the lack of SD card is not an issue if you buy your capacity amount wisely upfront and/or move your files to the cloud periodically.

The Galaxy S6s have reasonable battery life, especially with the battery-saver option enabled in Settings. And these days, is a charger ever that far away? Still, Android battery life is inferior to that of the iPhone, so there could be days you're out of juice and don't have a power outlet for your MicroUSB charger.

That's a rare occurrence on my main smartphone, an iPhone 6, but even for that battery-sipping device I carry a portable battery-based charger just in case. You should too.

Finally, a usable fingerprint reader

The Galaxy S6s use a new touch-style fingerprint reader in the Home button, similar to Apple's Touch ID on an iPhone or iPad. It's much more accurate than the previous swipe-style fingerprint reader used in the Galaxy S5, Galaxy Tab S, and Galaxy Note 4 -- which was notoriously unreliable, to the point of being unusable.

But the new touch-style fingerprint reader in the Galaxy S6s is still not as accurate as the ones Apple supplies in its iPhones and iPads. It's particularly bad at detecting fingerprints if your finger is even slightly canted to one side, which Apple's reader easily accommodates.

As a result, you'll have to tap twice more than half the time on the Galaxy S6s to get your fingerprint recognized, versus maybe one time on Apple's devices. That's still way better than the previous Samsung fingerprint scanner, which got it right maybe one out of 10 times.

More good news: Samsung has fixed the bug in its Galaxy software that caused Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) to disable the fingerprint reader when security policies require device passwords. (By the way, those same EAS password policies do not disable the fingerprint reader on iPhones and iPads.)

Almost any business will have such a password requirement, so a fingerprint-reader feature that was incompatible with password requirements was a big barrier to Samsung's corporate acceptance. With this bug now gone, the S6s are much more viable as business smartphones.

A big step up in security

The usable fingerprint reader is not the only security advantage in the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. Several enhancements, some from Samsung and some from Google, are making Android a much more plausible standard in enterprises.

Courtesy of Google you get Android for Work, a container technology that creates a separate, secured workspace for business apps and data that a mobile management server handles. It also enabled per-app VPN management. Android for Work requires the use of a compatible mobile management server.

Samsung also includes its own container technology, Knox 2.4, which has undergone a big upgrade in tandem with the Galaxy S6s' launch. Knox 2.4's advantages over Android for Work include the ability to use Active Directory credentials to access the container and a tool to enroll new devices into your management server.

To use Knox's managed security capabilities, you need a compatible mobile management server, and you'll typically pay an additional fee to use Knox. Plus, right now, the new Knox is available only for the Galaxy S6s, so at this point it makes sense only for companies that issue their own devices and are willing to standardize on these two models.

Even without a Knox-compatible mobile management server, Samsung ups the game for Android security, including support for S/MIME email and hardware-based integrity checks of the core file system and kernel at startup. 

Where Samsung has dropped the ball is in encryption. The Galaxy S6s are not encrypted out of the box, so users will have to enable encryption manually. That's a 20-minute operation, but it requires the battery be at least 80 percent charged and the device plugged into a wall outlet. Be sure your email policies require encryption to be enabled, so users can't access your corporate resources unless their Galaxy S6s are encrypted.

Google promised that all new Android Lollipop devices would have encryption enabled out of the box, but in reality very few Android vendors have done so. Google has done nothing to enforce that promise.

I suspect the reason is that encryption on Android slows device startup to a crawl -- even on the Galaxy S6s' fast hardware it takes a good 10 seconds to get past the decryption phase and into the Android boot phase. That's nuts; by comparison, there's maybe a second of overhead on an iPhone when it starts up and decrypts the device's storage. Users of Google's Nexus 6 report painfully slow operating times when encryption is on, partly because that cheaper device has no dedicated encryption chip as the Galaxy S6 has. Android encryption comes at a demonstrable performance cost.

Android remains susceptible to malware from the official Google Play Store, though Google has upped its screening efforts recently. That affects all Android devices, not only the Samsung Galaxy S6s. The use of a secured container can at least create a barrier between your business-provided apps and personal apps that are more likely to contain malware.

Simplified and smarter software

The new Galaxy S6 devices don't have much new in the way of software upgrades. The Settings app is simplified, with no more tabs to navigate through. Thus, a ton of options appear in the main Settings app window, but it's a better approach in this case -- you have to hunt in fewer places to find the setting you want. Plus, the added Search feature in Settings lets you find any that you seek.

The Camera app is also 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.

The Email app has a welcome new Priority Sender feature, a copy of iOS's VIP feature, that highlights emails from the people you specify. Even more welcome is the new ability to filter for spam email, which I wish iOS would do. The updated Email app has also a better-designed user interface for folder management.

More bloatware, better presented

Samsung has significantly increased the bloatware on the Galaxy S6s. On the main App screen, you'll see Amazon, Chrome, Facebook, Galaxy Apps, Lookout, Music, S Health, S Voice, Smart Manager, Video, and YouTube, in addition to the core Google apps (Calculator, Calendar, Camera, Clock, Contacts, Email, Gallery, Internet, Maps, Messages, Phone, Play Store, and Settings.)

Yet there are more preinstalled apps overall. Samsung obscures that fact by putting all the Google apps (Drive, Gmail, Google, Google Settings, Google+, Hangouts, Play Books, Play Games, Play Movies & TV, Play Music, Play Newsstand, Photos, and Voice Search) and all the Samsung apps (Hanscom Office 2014, Memo, Milk, Milk Video, My Files, Smart Remote, and Voice Recorder) in folders, so they don't clutter your main screen. There are also new folders for apps from Microsoft (OneDrive, OneNote, and Skype), for additional social media apps (Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp), and for your carrier's apps.

Even with all the bloatware, Samsung has jettisoned much of its previous TouchWiz UI to better use and embrace the Android Lollipop UI.

Drivers and apps may have a problem

[Updated 4/2/15]My tests of both the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge revealed what seemed to be a possible bug in the devices' Bluetooth. Neither device could maintain a connection to the Bluetooth-tethered Samsung Gear Live smartwatch, which had no trouble working with a Samsung Note 4. 

But a slew of software updates in very late arch and early April has corrected the smartwatch connection issues the Galaxy S6 had had; it works normally now.

I my original testing, Samsung's free Smart Switcher app didn't work on the Galaxy S6s. The utility lets you transfer your date and settings from an Android or iOS device to your new Galaxy. Unfortunately, it did not work for me, either in manual nor automatic mode, because devices could not maintain a connection once transfer began. Smart Switcher uses Bluetooth to transfer data between your devices. 

Samsung updated the Smart Switcher app on March 26, and the updated version fixed the Smart Switcher connection issue. 

Another bug likely due to outdated software on the devices sent to the press is that the Samsung-specific client for Cisco's AnyConnect VPN software does not work, returning an obscure error message. But the standard AnyConnect client works just fine, so use that one.

The Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge lead the Android pack

Overall, even with some of the issues in the new devices, it's clear that Samsung paid a lot more attention to the details -- and the customer -- in designing the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. 

The result is a set of two very nice smartphones that offer the same sophistication and much of the business-level security as the iPhone 6 while being true Android devices.

The Galaxy S6 should be a big hit among business users and quality-oriented individuals. The Galaxy S6 Edge feels more gimmicky than useful, so it may remain a niche product for those who want something that looks and feels a little different from the rest. The Galaxy S6 is a winner.

At a Glance

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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