Samsung Galaxy S6 review: The first great smartphone of 2015

Meanwhile, the editing app tucked into the Gallery has its own hat full of tricks, like a collage tool that I like for its Instagram-friendly capabilities, and a portrait editor that will do things like slim your face or enlarge your eyes. This creeps me out, but a lot of people seem to like these nonsurgical adjustments.

Check out some of these tools in the separate camera video from Mobile World Congress:

Now playing: Watch this: Take a spin with Galaxy S6's 3D camera mode (and more)
1:55

Image quality

We created a separate photo shoot-out that pits the Galaxy S6 against the iPhone 6 and HTC One M9, where the S6 and iPhone trade off which one edges the other (there's no clear champ, though there are some differences in how each one handles color and exposure), and they both best the One M9. Be sure to check that out. In the meantime, here's how the S6 fared on its own, with a few sample shots below.

Taken with the Galaxy S6. Click to enlarge. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

As with most cameras, outdoor shots and those taken in ample lighting looked scads better than photos captured solely indoors under artificial lighting. People photographed inside often wind up looking like they're wearing weird plastic masks, though that's not an S6-only or even a Samsung-only trait.

These colorful coasters, taken outdoors, are detailed in full resolution. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Close-ups, meanwhile, looked great, showing off individual strands of fur on a worn tennis ball and throwing shadows in sharp, detailed relief.

The S6 also did a great job capturing this tennis ball, taken in automatic mode. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Selfies are meant to do one thing, and that's make you look good, or at least good enough to text out or post to a social network. This the S6 does admirably indoors and outside, whether the resulting skin tones are true-to-life or not.

Photos taken with the wide-angle 5-megapixel front-facing camera easily bests the S5's, which was near the top of its class last year. Images were detailed without making complexions grainy or unflattering, and colors were fairly on-point as well, with no grayed-out skin tones in sight.

Samsung cameras still struggle with night mode and low-light shots. While the quality continues to improve year after year, you still don't get uniformly awesome shots in these common lighting scenarios.

I wanted to test out Optical Image Stabilization, so I took this stalk of flowers blowing in the breeze. The S6 captured the background in one photo, but nailed it here. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
I zoomed in on these bay gulls to test out the S6's camera's zoom function. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
The sun was so bright, I couldn't see the screen, and was sure this shot could come out dark. Auto-HDR brightened the shadows. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
This shot turned out OK, but skin tones didn't look right through the view-finder. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Skin tones look a little unnatural and reds lack some richness. Lynn La/CNET

See how the S6 camera performs against the iPhone 6 and HTC One M9 in this camera shootout.

Video, too

Samsung gives your Galaxy S6 a 1080p HD filming resolution by default, though you can also trade up to a 60fps frame rate, a resolution of 2,560x1,440 pixels, and the ultra-HD resolution of 3,840x2,160 (listed as UHD). You can also drop down several resolution notches.

Video quality was excellent in initial testing, especially with sound pickup. It got the background TV noise, my own voice (without blaring too loudly) and a third person's voice from far away; though quieter, it was still discernable.

The image, meanwhile, recreated indoor colors with high fidelity, and quickly refocused when the scene switched among subjects near and far: people, moving people, a drinking glass, the action movie on TV.

Hardware performance

For the first time, Samsung has opted to use its own octa-core Exynos processor instead of Qualcomm's octa-core Snapdragon 810 chipset. In initial diagnostic tests, the S6's octa-core Exynos processor trails the One M9 and LG G Flex 2 in one and tops them in others. Companies -- including Samsung and HTC -- have been known to optimize for benchmark performance, so take these results with a grain of salt.

During my testing, the Edge's recent apps soft key stuck at times, making me think it didn't register my presses. I also noticed this once or twice on other button presses, though I didn't initially have the same issues on the S6. For the most part, tasks completed without incident.

Samsung Galaxy S6

Display size/resolution 5.1-inch, 2,560x1,440 pixels
CPU 8-core, 2,100MHz, ARM Cortex-A57
Memory 3GB RAM
Storage 32GB/64GB/128GB
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Android (5.0) TouchWiz UI

3DMark Ice Storm -- Unlimited

HTC One M9
24,785
LG G Flex 2
22,819
Samsung Galaxy S6
20,778
Samsung Galaxy S5
18,246
Apple iPhone 6
17,182

Note:

longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench 3

Samsung Galaxy S6
1371
4608
HTC One M9
1273
4060
LG G Flex 2
1034
3393
Samsung Galaxy S5
948
2954
Apple iPhone 6
1628
2947

Legend:

(single-core)
(multi-core)

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance.

On to the games and apps. The Galaxy S6, iPhone 6 and Note 4 all handled Real Racing 3 well, but the iPhone 6 seemed the most fluid (by a slim margin), with the least amount of visible aliasing on its admittedly smaller screen.

The graphics-heavy Google Earth app came next. Of the three, Apple's iPhone 6 was a touch smoother to rotate and navigate around after a map of the CNET office, but really, we're talking about minuscule differences.

Battery life...and death

How about the S6's power quotient? The S6 has a 2,550mAh battery (the S6 Edge's is a tiny big larger, at 2,600mAh). Both of these are smaller than last year's 2,800mAh ticker.

In our standard video loop test, the battery took an average of 12.4 hours to run down. That's a few hours longer than the average HTC One M9 results, which have been hovering around just under 9 hours. Still, that puts the S6 at hours less than the S5's 15 hours, 18 minutes results.

Now playing: Watch this: Extend battery life on the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge
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Anecdotally, battery life lasted about a day doing all the things I do most: cruise the Web and Yelp, check my mail, upload photos to social networks and navigate using Google Maps. Note that batteries wear out over time, and the more you demand of your phone, the faster it will drain. Bottom line: this is not the phone that takes you all day and all night on a single charge with more juice to spare. (Note, again, that you can't swap in a new battery like you would with the S5; but you can buy a Mophie charging case later this year for $100 or so.)

Samsung's goal seems to be: if the battery doesn't last all day, let's at least make it easy to top up, through quick-charging and wireless charging. The former works as promised; I got 70 percent top-up in about an hour. The latter is compatible with any Qi wireless charger. I tested with a Nokia charging pad I had on-hand and also Samsung's after-market charger. Beyond that, there's power-saving mode and the even more spartan ultra-power saving mode.

LTE and Wi-Fi

speedtest-gs6.jpg
Diagnostic Speedtest.net test results. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

LTE is a given on the Galaxy S6, with support for Category 6 connections at a theoretical cap of 300Mbps down and 50Mbps up. Real world performance will vary based on individual network strength.

In San Francisco, on T-Mobile, my scores through the diagnostic Speedtest.net app ranged from results in the single digits up to 23Mbps down and 26Mbps up.

Real-world experience echoed that. In areas with low coverage, like San Francisco's further-flung Presidio neighborhood, progress meters swirled and photos refused to upload.

Most of the time, though, pages loaded and items streamed just fine.

If you don't live in an LTE area, the S6 also supports HSPA networks rated at 42.2Mbps down and 5.76Mbps up.

Built-in Wi-Fi supports the 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac protocol.

Call quality

As with LTE results, call quality depends strongly on your local network. Yes, there's a lot of engineering that goes into the phone itself, but the cackles and other audio inconsistencies you might hear on the line are generally network-related.

I can say that in my tests, the S6 sounded like a typical cell phone; it didn't stand out as being magnificently crystal clear or especially terrible. Speakerphone worked well enough that I'd use it if I needed to or wanted to.

One word of caution is that the Extra Volume on-screen control, while handy for boosting audio levels on a call, tend to amplify any imperfection.

Pricing and availability

The Galaxy S6 goes on sale globally starting April 10. Pricing will vary by region, but expect the S6 to cost about the same as the S5, and for the S6 Edge to cost...more.

US pricing varies wildly by service provider. It'll be available from all major UK networks and retailers, with the SIM-free 32GB model costing £600 directly from Samsung. In Australia the 32GB costs AU$999, with 64GB at AU$1,149 and 128GB setting you back AU$1,299. There are the usual plans from all the major network providers.

Until you call it out, the Edge display retreats from view. Josh Miller/CNET

Versus the HTC One M9, iPhone 6, S6 Edge, S5

HTC One M9: While the S6's newfound metal frame looks smashing, the M9's design (essentially a redux of last year's M8) is more eye-catching yet, and its Sense operating system keeps its elegant cool. But the S6's extra features, battery life and camera image quality top the M9. The S6 is the easy winner here, unless you really adore the One's design or the Sense user interface.

iPhone 6: When it comes down to it, the S6 is like the Android version of the iPhone 6; they're pretty much neck-and-neck in all the design and performance details that matter. The iPhone 6 and Galaxy S6 look similar and have a lot of feature parity, especially with Samsung Pay around the corner. Each is backed by Google's or Apple's powerhouse online services (like Google Drive and Continuity/Handoff, respectively). Choosing between them will come down more to operating system preference than anything else.

Galaxy S6 Edge: There's no competition here; the S6 Edge is the better phone, hands-down. It builds off the S6's overall excellence with those side humps and Edge display software. In other words, it's all win on top of win. You just need to decide if the designer shape and software are worth the extra cost. If not, I think you'll be just as happy with the S6's runway-ready looks and internal performance.

Galaxy S5: There are enough differences and improvements that I'd at least consider upgrading from the S5, especially if you're at all interested in Samsung Pay (this applies to US and South Korean customers first) or in the Edge. Unless, of course, that swappable battery and expandable storage on the S5 is your must-have feature, in which case you should stay put -- or consider going the phablet route with the Note 4.

Final thoughts: This is the Android phone to beat

The Galaxy S6 is the most competitive Android phone right now, capped only by the S6 Edge. Its Exynos processor seems to be at least comparable to Qualcomm's Snapdragon 810 chip performance in top-notch phones, with the S6 faring well (but not dominating) diagnostic performance tests and battery life doing at least as well as contemporary competitors (but not as good as last year's model.)

Image quality also looks great on both S6 and S6 Edge cameras, though once again outdoor shots are better than indoor photos. Selfie quality keeps improving, making those shots look more natural and less scary-detailed.

With flashing color and metal, Samsung's S6 phones leap sartorially beyond last year's S5. Josh Miller/CNET

Like its forebears, the S6 brims with high-performance hardware, but it does so with a newfound style that also corrects buyers' most glaring complaints about plastic build materials, a bum fingerprint reader and too many preloaded apps and confusing software features. While the Edge brings some nice extra credit, the S6 is the more approachable, "everyman" phone to get.

True, the S6 does introduce new raised fists over the embedded battery and sealed-up storage slot, but for me, the benefits outweigh the faults, with features like Samsung Pay and the camera shortcut launch earning extra credit. Attention LG, Sony, Xiaomi: The gauntlet has been thrown. It's your turn now.

Developing News: Samsung Galaxy S6

The first great smartphone of 2015 continues to generate headlines. As the competitive landscape shifts throughout the year, we'll use the space below to keep you posted on new developments with the Samsung Galaxy S6.

Samsung Galaxy S5 Neo rumored with mid-range specs

A variant on last year's flagship model could still arrive, amidst global S6 sales.

Samsung's 5.5-inch Galaxy S6 Plus rumored to be coming soon

Outfitted with a larger screen, the Plus version of Samsung's Galaxy S6 may debut in the coming weeks, an Italian blog site claims.

Samsung armors up with limited-edition 'Iron Man' S6 Edge

Iron Man fans rejoice -- Samsung has teamed up with Marvel to produce a limited-edition Galaxy S6 Edge suited up just like your favorite superhero.

Samsung's new phones are off to a strong start, says report

A month after launch, shipments of the company's Galaxy S6 series of smartphones have topped 10 million, says a Korean publication.

Alleged Samsung Galaxy S6 Active specs and images surface

The rugged variant of the flagship smartphone may be exclusive to AT&T in the United States.