Several years ago, Samsung began working on something called Project Zero. The goal was to rebuild a signature product from the ground up, incorporating customer feedback and a new approach to design that would span across all aspects of the device — from engineering to user experience to packaging.
The result? The new Samsung Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge.
Unveiled in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress, the company’s new flagship smartphones bring something customers have long been asking for: A design that doesn’t feel so cheap, and a simplified user experience. The company also made improvements to the camera and added support for wireless charging and a new mobile payments technology.
But is it all too little, too late for a company that has seen its profits and marketshare slide? Let’s look at what the smartphones have to offer first:
Both smartphones now feature designs that use high-quality materials rather than plastic and fake leather. Specifically, the Galaxy S6 models have a glass body and metal frame. It’s hard to notice a difference between the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S 5 at a glance. But you definitely feel the difference once you hold the phone in your hand. It finally has a premium design befitting of its flagship status and price tag.
The screen size hasn’t changed from last year’s model at 5.1 inches, but it does get a bump in resolution from 1,920 by 1,080 pixels to 2,560 by 1,440 pixels. According to Samsung, it’s 25 percent brighter than the Galaxy S 5’s display, and offers better outdoor visibility.
The biggest difference between the Galaxy S6 and the Galaxy S6 Edge is that the latter’s display curves and wraps around the left and right sides of the phone. This isn’t just for looks. The curved portion acts as a secondary display where you can view notifications and launch applications with one hand.
It’s similar to the Galaxy Note Edge, which I reviewed a few months ago. But now, lefties no longer have to rotate the phone 180 degrees to use the curved display. Also, there’s a new feature that lets you add your favorite contacts to the secondary display for quick access.
To match the physical design, Samsung also worked to simplify the user interface. The Galaxy S6 models still run Samsung’s TouchWiz user interface over Google’s Android 5.0 Lollipop operating system, but the company said it streamlined the features by 40 percent over previous models.
Both phones have a 16-megapixel rear camera and a front-facing five megapixel camera, with a new f1.9 lens that promises better low-light performance. There are also some enhancements to the camera app. A new auto real-HDR feature will automatically turn on HDR when necessary. In addition, Samsung brought over the smart optical image stabilization system it introduced on the Galaxy Note 4. This should help reduce any blurriness caused by a shaky hand, and it’s also designed to help capture clearer shots of moving subjects.
Finally, you can now double tap the Home button to launch the camera from any screen, even when the phone is turned off.
Last month, Samsung acquired a U.S.-based startup called LoopPay to launch a new mobile payments solution to compete with the likes of Apple Pay. The Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge will be the first devices to incorporate that technology, though the feature won’t be available right at launch.
Called Samsung Pay, the technology is based on something called Magnetic Secure Transmission. MST wirelessly transmits the same information stored on your credit card’s magnetic stripe to a store’s pay terminal with a simple tap of your phone. None of your credit card information is stored. Instead, the system uses a tokenization system and requires a fingerprint scan (a fingerprint scanner is built into the Galaxy’s home button) to complete the secure transaction.
Samsung’s sales pitch for using its mobile payment solution is that because the technology is already available on many pay terminals (up to 90 percent in the U.S. market), it can be used in far more stores than Apple Pay or Google Wallet, which use a less prevalent technology called NFC.
As I noted, Samsung Pay won’t be available when the phones launch this spring. Instead, Samsung will release a software update this summer to enable the feature. Also, the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge will support mobile payments both via MST and NFC.
Other hardware changes
As expected, the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S Edge use Samsung’s new 14-nanometer mobile processor. Without getting technical, the promise of the new chipset is faster performance and lower power consumption.
Like the Galaxy Note 4, both phones also have Adaptive Fast Charging technology, which helps speed up the charging process. Samsung says using the included quick charge adapter you can get about a 50 percent charge in half an hour, which is 30 percent faster than the Galaxy S 5. They also have built-in support for both the WPC and PMA wireless charging standards.
Some hardware changes that users aren’t going to love? There’s no microSD expansion slot, and the phones are no longer waterproof. Also, the battery is no longer user replaceable.
Availability and pricing
The Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge will be available in the U.S. this April. AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon Wireless will offer both phones, while smaller regional carriers like Boost Mobile and MetroPCS will carry the Galaxy S6. The phones will come in white, black and gold. In addition, the Galaxy S6 will come in a blue topaz color, while there will be an emerald green option for the Galaxy S6 Edge.
Pricing was not announced at this time.
The Samsung Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge are nice — really nice. They’re what the Galaxy S series should have been all along.
The new premium design makes a world of difference, though I couldn’t help but notice how similar it looked to the iPhone. At one point, I looked over at the table and saw just the bottom of a phone. I thought it was my iPhone. But when I looked closer, it was the Galaxy S6. It’ll be interesting to see if Apple has anything to say about it.
Oh, also the same as the iPhone now? You can just hold your finger over the Home button to use the built-in fingerprint scanner. You no longer have to swipe your finger.
The user interface looked cleaner and some of the settings menus looked simpler. But I didn’t really get a chance to dive deep into the software to see if there’s any bloatware buried within the phone. That’s something we’ll look into when we get the phones in for a full review, along with performance testing. The phone felt fast and fluid, though.
I was also impressed with the camera. I snapped a few quick shots inside a poorly lit hotel conference room, and the pictures came out sharp and bright. The quick-launch camera function is quite handy, too.
I think Galaxy users and Android fans will find a lot to like in the Galaxy S6 to make it more of a worthy upgrade than the Galaxy S 5.
But increasingly, flagship phones like these have to compete not only with their predecessors and high-end rivals, but also with an array of phones that offer many of the same features at far, far lower cost. China’s Xiaomi and many other regional powerhouses are touting devices that cost half or even a quarter as much as the Galaxy S line with a lot — if not all — of the bells and whistles.
Samsung, of course, has plenty of its own lower-cost options too, but it makes a lot of its profit from the high-end models. To keep that market healthy Samsung will have to not only keep advancing the state of the art, but do so in a way that customers find valuable.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.