I had a really hard time figuring out whether I wanted to post this article or not. With this site, I give my honest opinion and reviews on things, but I try to follow a general rule of ignoring things that I know for a fact that I’m going to hate, in order to prevent adding fuel to an already vitriolic fire within the internet. While I did only cover Windows-based MWC devices this year, this was not necessarily by design. I do pay attention to Android and iOS announcements and carefully consider whether or not I actually want to talk about these things. I’ve been debating writing an article on Samsung’s flagships, primarily because my reaction to these phones was so mixed. So, now that the buzz has died down a bit and MWC is long over, I’d like to have an honest discussion about what these phones do right and what these phones do horribly wrong.
The Good: Camera
I’m a big fan of great camera performance, which is clear, as I like to carry Lumia phones for that purpose. Great camera performance has always been the domain of the iPhone, and unfortunately no Android flagship has ever shipped a great camera. Last year’s Note 4 was probably the closest that we got, once Samsung finally figured out how to stick Optical Image Stabilization on a phone, and before that, the LG G3.
Well, this year’s Sammy flagship seems like it’ll have great hardware at least. While Samsung’s inclusion of a 16MP sensor is not all that interesting, the fact that they’ve increased the aperture to f/1.9 is really interesting. About damn time people figured out that bigger sensors are better. Only the Lumia 1020 has bested that sensor size, with an f/1.5 aperture. This means the sensor will pick up more light, which means clearer and crisper pictures. Win. Now combine that with the inclusion of Optical Image Stabilization, and you’ve also got a camera that should perform pretty well in low light, and can take 4K video without any stutters or lag. Win all around.
Now that said, that’s the hardware. The key to mobile phone hardware is in software optimization, as HTC is now finding out with its One M9. There haven’t been any official reviews of this phone yet, so It’s hard to tell how the camera is going to perform against the competition, but somehow GSM Arena has a photo comparison up, and so far it looks pretty good. So we’ll see when final hardware goes out to reviewers.
The Good: Death of TouchWiz
Samsung finally listened to its users and cleaned up its act. Literally. The software running on the Galaxy S6 is pretty darn close to stock Android. There’s still a bunch of Samsung junk apps on the phone, but not nearly as much as it used to be.
I feel like most of the tech outfits at MWC were going all Stockholm syndrome on the phone when they announced how clean it looked. I mean, it’s no Nexus. There’s still a bunch of crud on the phone, but it’s better. It doesn’t even look like they skinned the UI all that much. The fact that it runs well out of the box is surprisingly an improvement with Samsung, as the Note 3 had the tendency to run like crud out of the box until you cleaned it up a bit. However, I would like to praise Samsung for at least doing something on this front.
The Iffy: The Processor
For those who don’t know, Exynos is Samsung’s line of homebrewed chips, and they typically have been included in most global variants of their flagships, to the shagrin of most of the world. Because Exynos processors have classically sucked really bad. Like really bad. Despite consistently kicking everyone’s butt in benchmarks, the Exynos powered phones will run like crud and even have awful battery life to boot.
However, Samsung’s typically been smart enough to ship the much better Snapdragon processors in their flagships bound for America and a few other major markets. But not this time. Now they’re shipping the Exynos 7420 chip in all of their S6 variants. Once again, this chip is blowing away the 810 in benchmark tests, but can we trust this chip?
This chip is fairly similar in design to the Exynos 5433 that “graced” global variants of the Note 4. It has four low-power Cortex A53 cores and four higher performance Cortex A57 cores, and it even has the same ARM Mali T760 GPU chip. However, all aspects of the new Exynos 7420 chip have received slight spec boosts. The four Cortex A53’s have increased from 1.3Ghz to 1.5, while the A57 cores have gone from 1.9Ghz to 2.1 Ghz. Similarly, Samsung opted for the MP8 revision of the T760 GPU instead of the MP6 revision, which increases the GPU clock from 700 Mhz to 772 Mhz. As usual, they are also relying on their big.LITTLE architecture, which offloads background tasks to the lower power cores while using the four high performance cores for active processing.
In and of themselves, these spec boosts would mean nothing. The Note 4 ran terribly with last year’s Exynos chip, and there’s no reason that a slight boost in clock speed would help matters. By the way, if you’re in America or one of the other few markets that received the Note 4 with a Snapdragon chip, your Note 4 probably ran just fine.
However, there are two things that could change things around for Samsung this time. The spec boosts are primarily motivated by switching from a 20nm process to a 14nm process. By making the process smaller, the foundry can fit more into a single chip, and yet that same chip will take less power to run. Now considering the rather mediocre changes to clock speed with such a huge process change, I would expect that battery life should improve quite dramatically with this revision of the chip. It also means that the chip will be running cooler, and therefore will be able to run at full tilt much longer, a problem that the previous Exynos chips actually tended to run into.
One last thing that could help out performance for this device is the inclusion of LPDDR4 memory running at a staggeringly quick 1552 MHz. For comparison, the Note 4 had LPDDR3 memory running at 825MHz. As Android can be a very memory intensive OS, this could be the best upgrade this phone could have received.
All of that tech speak means that there’s promise in this little chip, but only as long as the big.LITTLE architecture that Samsung’s trying to emphasize actually distributes processes and resources as it should. That said, I’m skeptical about the performance of an Exynos chip, as you should be as well. I would highly recommend waiting until reviews come out for this phone before you believe anything that Samsung claims about the performance of this phone.
The Bad: Design
Samsung’s tired of getting called ugly. I understand that. Last year’s Galaxy S5 was ugly as sin, with its weird bandaid back and painted metal edges. But at least it was functional. The S5 was grippy, meaning you would probably not drop it as often as an HTC One M8, and it was also water resistant. By the way, water resistance is something that should definitely be in every single flagship.
But not this year. Samsung decided to go for style over substance, which I would normally respect, but I’m not even sure they got the style part right. At first glance, this phone looks amazing, from the side and the back. Hey look, real aluminum edging. Super thin. A great looking glass back. I mean it looks awesome, at first.
And then you pick it up. Once. Twice. Maybe your hands are clammy and the glass does that weird thing where it sticks to your fingers and you feel gross. Then you turn your phone around and see:
Ah! Holy crud that’s a lot of fingerprints. Time to pull out the shammy. Oh and by the way, while I stole these images from a wonderful Pocketnow hands on that you should definitely check out, you should also know that in the same hands on, this Pocketnow editor also mentioned that Gorilla Glass 4 is definitely not scratch proof. So make sure to have those super smooth shammies on hand.
Oh and by the way, if metal edging and glass backs sound familiar, it’s because they are. Apple already did it. And left the terribly fragile design for an aluminum backed design with the iPhone 5 and 6. For good reason. Because this happened. A lot.
And yes, even if the phone doesn’t shatter into a million pieces, you can cut yourself on those cracks. So, when people find out these glass backed phones are super fragile, what are they going to do? The same thing they did with the iPhone 4 series. Put a friggin case on it. Which means your beautiful glass backed phone is going to go from pretty to ugly in five dollars.
Which completely defeats the purpose of the friggin design in the first place.
When I think of a better version of Samsung’s design (mind you I mean design, and not necessarily specs), I unsurprisingly consider my own Nokia designed smartphone the Lumia 925. Aluminum around the edges gives it a premium feel in the hand. A glass front with slightly curved edges that bleed into the aluminum edges makes it look beautiful. Finally, Nokia used a polycarbonate back plate for rigidity, but it feels smooth and premium, yet fingerprint resistant. It’s also lighter, as a result, and sturdier. Now, admittedly, this phone also does not have expandable storage or a removable battery, but it’s a far smarter design than a phone made of two glass slabs surrounded in metal.
The Bad: Not Expandable or Expendable
So, remember when Samsung commercials called iPhone users “wall huggers” because they couldn’t pop in another battery? You know how Samsung was one of the last stalwart defenders of the removable back cover and expandable storage? Well, prepare to eat your words, Samsung. The S6 is designed with a unibody-style construction, and so now, you can’t pop off that back panel. No replaceable battery. No expandable storage. You’re stuck with what you got, Samsung fans. And with a 2550 mAh battery, you’re not really stuck with all that much. That said, I would agree with Samsung that this will probably not be as big of a deal for the average user. With a 14nm process, a 2550 mAh battery will go a bit farther than it would have otherwise. So hopefully the battery will last a full day. It’s going to suck after 12-18 months, when the battery begins noticeably degrading, but the vast majority of smartphone owners seem to have dealt with the transition with no problem. However, I take exception to the idea that we don’t need expandable storage because everything lives on the cloud. With most smartphone users getting forced onto a cap by greedy cell service companies, it’s actually quite nice to be able to download music, podcasts, movies, or your entire document cache onto your phone so you don’t have to waste precious data accessing the same files over and over. Not to mention that as mobile app technology improves, so too will the size of apps increase, resulting in the annoying storage check and uninstall binge that nobody likes dealing with. While I appreciate that Samsung at least increased their storage tiers from 16/32/64GB to 32/64/128GB, that still means that you’re going to be paying what will probably be a $100 premium to get a little extra storage. I won’t make a big deal of the pricing, as I do understand that the Galaxy S6 is a flagship and absolutely should command a flagship price, but it’s kind of uncomfortable to swallow paying the rumored $699 off-contract starting price for a phone which is stuck at 32GB. By the way, that’s $50 more expensive than the 16GB iPhone, and $50 cheaper than the 64GB iPhone. So if you want more storage, expect the Apple model of paying $100 more for 64GB and a grand total of $400 on contract for a 128GB version. Gah, that’s potentially $900 off-contract for a 128GB model. Oh, and if you want a Galaxy S6 Edge, expect to pay an extra $150 off contract for the same model, or probably an extra $100 for the on contract version. That means $500 on contract or $1,050 off contract just for the privilege of having 128GB of storage on your phone, when you could have paid, what, $80 for a 128GB micro SD card? Which you can then slip into your next phone and not have to worry about transferring stuff? I harped on Nokia and Apple for this crud, Samsung, and now I’m going to harp on you about it too.
The Bad: No More Water Resistance
My final gripe on this phone is going to be the thing that made the S5 so awesome last year. It was the only flagship ever to be water resistant. If you want water resistant, you typically had to buy an Active phone or something wrapped in rubber. But finally, someone brought out a slim phone with good performance specs that could actually work in water and survive a drop in the toilet. Alas, Samsung’s sales dropped last year. So, apparently Samsung decided to ditch everything it was known for before and completely copy the iPhone. Or at least the 4th version. It’s kind of weird, because the metal edging looks like an iPhone 6, but the glass back echoes the iPhone 4. It’s like they realized that they can’t design good looking phones and instead just copied the good looking parts of Apple’s phones. But by doing so, Samsung’s losing everything that gave them a distinct name in the smartphone industry. They were never the prettiest phones in the world, but they were the Swiss Army Knife of smartphones.
My Philosophical Conclusion
Once again, it took me a while to figure out my thoughts on this phone. I love that Samsung is trying new things, and I agree that they initially look quite beautiful. But through writing the majority of this article, I finally figured out what bothers me about this phone and about Samsung in general. I don’t feel that Samsung has ever tried to build a phone that’s good. They’ve only tried to build a phone that sells.
Which I guess is all that matters, but I’m not exactly comfortable with a marketing group designing a phone. I’d like a phone to be built well for the sake of the user, not for metrics. Through every iteration of the Galaxy series, they’ve lumped on more and more gimmicky features that sound good in a press event, but end up doing nothing but clogging up your phone. Now they’re finally removing that crud, but it seems like the only reason they did, is because they can now sell the phone based on looks. And those looks are comprised of the best parts of two well praised Apple phones, with a little splash of color. But they didn’t do it because it makes sense, they did it because it will look good on a showroom floor, and it will flashy a customer into submission. T
he fact is that these phones will be easily breakable, easily scratched, smudged up and ugly from normal use, non-expandable, and lose legitimately good features all for the sake of a design that not even theirs. As someone who is typically critical of Samsung anyway, it shouldn’t surprise you that I won’t be buying this phone, but I’d ask you to question if even you want to buy the phone. Even if HTC’s entry is boring, at least its beautiful design is practical. Aluminum is way better than glass. Heck, I’d even go for the understated and boring, but perfectly okay design of the polycarbonate LG G series than one of these silly monstrosities.
But I do like that it comes in a nice dark green.