When it comes to the competition, the S6 and Edge produce photos that were better exposed and more vivid than the ones I shot using the HTC One M9. I don't mean for this to turn into a Samsung/Apple slapfest, but the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus have always been my go-to mobile camera because they capture almost uniformly lovely shots with virtually no effort at all. That's always seemed like something Android devices have had trouble with and I'm happy to report the S6 and S6 Edge are -- finally -- definite exceptions to the rule. All the photos you'll see in the gallery above were shot with everything set to auto and with HDR off, and I've dumped them into this Flickr album
in case you want to take a closer look.
For the sake of speed, you can fire up the camera by swiping up on the home screen or by double-tapping the Home button at any time. Samsung says it only takes 0.7 second to jump into the camera proper, and while I haven't been sitting around with a stopwatch checking the claim, I've always been able to start snapping new shots in about one second. By default, the Samsung camera app is straightforward; the shutter button and mode selector live on one end, and a quick tap reveals controls for your flash, timer and HDR on the other. If you're anything like me, you'll be working with this default configuration most of the time and the results won't leave you complaining. You can, however, jump into a Pro mode where you can fiddle with your exposure, ISO and metering settings, and it's easy enough to save those changes as a preset to be fired up later.
Pro mode aside, you've got your usual slew of kooky features to play with, but the new ones are worth pointing out. Kicking the camera into background defocus mode is a nifty little attraction that lets you selectively blur parts of your shots, sort of like a Lytro, but all in software. Thing is, you can often coax that sort of bokeh from the lens and camera without software trickery at all so long as you stick the phone close to your subject. There's a Virtual shot mode that captures a 3D video of an object if you can move around it smoothly enough too, and it's cool enough until you realize you can't share it and still maintain the flashy effect. The ability to record 4K video is back as well, and with the same five-minute limitation Samsung aficionados will already be familiar with. Most of the video I shot between the two devices was on par with the still photos I took, and a new object-tracking autofocus (a feature I'm used to seeing more in DSLRs) usually works like a charm too. At the end of the day, I'd still give the photographic edge to the iPhones, but it's an awfully tight race and Android fans can buy an S6 or S6 Edge without fear of working at a disadvantage.
Performance and battery life
With each passing year we demand more and more from our tiny pocket-computers, especially when they're hyped up the way flagships are. The hype was especially boisterous this year: A crush of reports maintained that Samsung was originally on the Snapdragon train, before it ditched the 810 in favor of silicon of its own making. The end result: Top-tier devices from HTC and LG stuck with the 810 while the S6 and the S6 Edge sport a homebrew octa-core Exynos 7420 chipset, which pairs a quartet of 2.1GHz processor cores with another quartet of 1.5GHz cores and 3GB of RAM. When it comes to regular, day-to-day performance, the differences are slight. That's to be expected, really; we're inching toward an age so profuse with processing power, so rife with RAM that flicking through home screens and firing up apps on flagship phones is nearly seamless. Both the S6 and the Edge were incredibly snappy, with virtually zero lag during normal use. I could usually coax the phones to take a little longer than normal to figure out what to do next, but the keyword there is "coax" -- we're talking opening apps and leaping between them faster than anyone would ever need to just to be an ass. Whenever I used the phone as I normally would, both devices were basically butter.
Speaking of butter, it wouldn't surprise me if devices running the Snapdragon 810 occasionally ran warm enough to melt some. That was supposedly the reason Samsung ditched the chipset altogether, and if true, the folks in Korea made the right call. Graphics- and processor-intensive tasks usually push smartphones to their limits, so I spent about 45 minutes sifting through the auto-firing tedium that is Dead Trigger 2. The S6 and Edge scarcely warmed up at all. Ditto for the hours I spent drifting around Asphalt 8 with the visual quality cranked all the way up. The phones got a touch warmer while I was running some benchmark tests, but the heat buildup was nowhere near as noticeable as it was on the M9.
That the S6 and Edge would be super-snappy was sort of a given, but the bigger question is how long they'll last before they need a trip to the power outlet. Before we tackle that, it's worth noting that the two S6s aren't identical in this regard: The basic S6 has a 2,550mAh battery while the Edge has a slightly bigger 2,600mAh one. Oh, and don't forget that both batteries are sealed too; the age of swapping spare cells into your new Galaxy S is finally over, I'm afraid. Samsung says its new line of 14nm Exynos processors are designed to deliver more horsepower at greater efficiency, which leads to both versions of the phone sticking around for between 11 and 12 hours of continuous workday use (which in my case consists of horsing around on social networks, firing off emails in CloudMagic, taking a smattering of calls and the occasional prolonged bathroom break playing games).
That's not shabby, but it does lag slightly behind the 13 hours I regularly squeezed out of the One M9 and my old Galaxy S5. Neither device really dazzled in our standard Engadget rundown test, either. With a 720p video set to loop with the cellular and WiFi radios on and the screen brightness set to 50 percent, the S6 only lasted eight hours and 49 minutes. Meanwhile, the Edge and its very slightly bigger battery hung in there for nine hours and two minutes before finally giving up the ghost. In case you're wondering, both died about an hour before last year's Galaxy S5 did, although they beat out the HTC One M9 by about 40 minutes. Thankfully, all of this is offset a bit by the fact that both devices recharge quickly; think: bone-dry to 50 percent in 30 minutes.
This is shaping up to be an awesome time to buy a smartphone, as some of the biggest players have already revealed their flagships for the year. First up: the HTC One M9. It made its US debut at nearly the same time as the S6 and the S6 Edge, and with it comes a very familiar set of design genes, Qualcomm's shiny new Snapdragon 810 chipset and a mostly great set of speakers. If anything, its tragic flaw is the 20-megapixel camera sitting high on its back. During my weeks of testing, I couldn't reliably get photos that were better than what last year's M8 was capable of. Honestly, the average consumer probably won't be able to tell, but the issue is made doubly troubling by the fact that the S6 duo's cameras are among the best I've ever seen in a smartphone. If you're not one of the diehards that love HTC's design DNA, this could be a tough choice (especially since the most basic versions of both devices start at $199 with a contract).
LG's G Flex2 ($199 on contract) also rocks a Snapdragon 810 chip, and is currently the fastest thing Samsung's Korean rival has on offer... for now. While the left and right of the S6 Edge's screen curve away from you, the Flex2's top and bottom curve toward you -- the idea is your media will suck you in when you turn the thing on its side. Does it work? Not as much as I'd like. Alas, LG's usually light touches with its Android overlays were just weighty enough to slow down day-to-day usage. Meanwhile, Samsung has dialed down TouchWiz's odiousness to the point where I prefer it over LG's interface anyway. And pardon me for getting a little meta, but the S6 Edge's biggest competitor is none other than the regular S6. Both phones are absolutely identical where it matters, and the Edge's subtly curving screen is pure gimmick; none of the Edge's software tricks come close to justifying a $100 price difference on contract. Unless you absolutely love (and I mean love) the curved look, you can safely buy an S6 and know that you're not missing out on anything of crucial importance.
Then, of course, there's the iPhone. Say what you will about Samsung taking design cues from Cupertino -- if you're not sure whether to go iOS or Android, your decision just got a lot tougher. Apple's ecosystem usually gets buzzy new apps before Android does, and I'd say the cameras on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus (more the latter, really) are just a hair better. Still, the combination of some top-notch hardware and a version of TouchWiz that's mostly a pleasure to use means I'm considering dropping my iPhone 6 in favor of an S6 Edge as my full-time daily driver. Now, if only my friends would all use something other than iMessage.
I've never been a huge fan of Samsung phones. For years, the software felt too kludgy, the designs chintzy and scattershot. Not so this time. Samsung has in the S6 a flagship that feels well thought-out and complete in a way I wasn't sure the company was capable of anymore. Calling it "perfect" would be irresponsible and inaccurate, but the S6 is the closest Samsung has come in a long time.
Then there's the Edge. If it hasn't become abundantly clear already, let me belabor the point one last time: There is no functional benefit to owning this thing. It does everything the regular S6 does, and what few edge-friendly tricks it packs aren't even all that useful. The only real reason to buy it is because you like the way it looks -- and I do. I really, really do. Together, they're the brightest stars in Samsung's galaxy, and the S6 in particular will rightfully wind up in a lot of people's pockets. If you've got cash to burn, though, or if you're a real sucker for the new and beautiful, the S6 Edge might just be what you've been searching for.