Samsung swings big with overhauled Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge

The consumer electronics titan shows an aggressive streak -- and makes a few cracks at Apple's expense -- as it seeks to regain its dominance in the smartphone industry.

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Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
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5 min read

The Galaxy S6 comes with some big changes. Josh Miller/CNET

BARCELONA -- Samsung is on a mission to regain its swagger.

The South Korean electronics conglomerate wasn't afraid to shake up this year's Galaxy S6 and the Galaxy S6 Edge, which features a screen that curves around the side of the device. Both flagship devices use metal instead of plastic, include wireless charging and advanced camera technology, and feature Samsung's new mobile payment feature. Altogether, the changes represent a major redesign from the company's earlier devices.

Samsung also didn't hesitate to mix it up with Apple. At one point in the presentation, it put up a side-by-side comparisons photo and video shot by an iPhone 6 Plus next to the Galaxy S6 at night, with the Samsung version of the photos winning out. Directly addressing a competitor in such a public venue is typically a move an underdog would pull to gain attention, underscoring that Samsung is feeling the heat of late.

Fully metal Samsung Galaxy S6 looks sharp (pictures)

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Samsung's Galaxy S line is critical to the company's overall success because so much of its reputation is tied into its flagship product. The Galaxy S6 is particularly important this time around because the company is in need of some excitement. Last year's Galaxy S5 garnered a ho-hum response because the improvements over the previous year's model were seen as incremental, setting the stage for the downturn it experienced over the last year. As a result, it had to step things up.

"Design matters, and Samsung addressed the shortcomings of the previous Galaxy S models," said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC. "It puts Samsung a bit more solidly into the high-end category, which is good considering the pressure that Apple and HTC bring to the table."

After leading the smartphone market for the past four years, Samsung saw its profit slide as customers defected to rival Xiaomi in China, Micromax in India and Apple nearly everywhere else. In the global smartphone market, Samsung merely tied with Apple as the No. 1 vendor in the fourth quarter of 2014 -- after crushing the iPhone-maker in just the previous year.

Samsung posted a comparison shot between the iPhone 6 Plus and Galaxy S6. Screenshot by Kent German/CNET

Samsung, by incorporating new materials and removing some of its software features, known in the industry as bloatware, showed it's willing to do whatever is necessary to attract buyers -- and that it will make those changes quickly.

"By listening to our customers, and learning from both our success and missteps, we continuously push forward new technologies and ideas," JK Shin, Samsung co-CEO and head of the company's mobile business, said in a press release.

Edge: Gimmick or cool feature?

While the Galaxy S6 looks like a conventional upgrade with a metal frame, it's the S6 Edge that looks materially different than previous smartphones. Samsung introduced this concept in September with the Galaxy Note Edge, but the display only curved around the right side of the handset, and it actually wrapped around to the edge.

The Edge features a screen that wraps around each side of the smartphone. Josh Miller/CNET

The GS6 Edge wraps around both sides, but the curve is subtler than first expected, not curving down all the way to the edge.

While the GS6 Edge brings a unique look to the device, the roll out of two flagship devices suggests it still doesn't quite know what consumers want. The Galaxy S6 Edge is a flashier device than its Galaxy S6 sibling, but the screens that curve around the sides are more for show than actual substance. The curved element on the Note Edge allowed users to access apps and see things like their Twitter feed, but even with that extra functionality, it's unclear how well that device has sold compared to its fellow phablet, the Galaxy Note 4 .

The Galaxy S6 Edge offers a little less functionality. There are three functions: A night mode to display the clock, notifications to display missed text messages, calls and e-mails (but not Facebook and Twitter) and a mode that flashes a different color depending on which of five pre-selected contacts call you.

Double-edged sword: Samsung's curved Galaxy S6 Edge (pictures)

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The Galaxy S6 Edge will likely be more expensive than its non-curved sibling, and its talk of a difficult manufacturing process suggests supply may be limited relative to the Galaxy S6.

"The Galaxy S6 Edge does look very nice and while the edge itself is a bit of a gimmick, it does make video quite immersive -- it is like an infinity pool effect," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Kantar World Panel. "The issue will be price and supply."

The company hasn't yet revealed the price of either device.

Samsung's 'new era of design'

While the Edge may be gimmicky, the use of metal in both smartphones answers the common complaint that Samsung devices often feel cheap.

"The Galaxy S6 represents a new era of design for us," Hong Yeo, the senior designer in charge of Samsung's new devices, said in an interview. "We took a step back [to] reevaluate what we wanted to communicate about our design values and design philosophy."

Fully metal Samsung Galaxy S6 looks sharp (pictures)

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By doing so, Samsung made drastic changes to its mobile identity. The company long has shunned premium materials like metal, preferring instead to make its devices from plastic. Doing so made the devices more durable, Samsung said, and it also allowed the company to use a removable back on the phone so people can replace their batteries or add more flash storage. Using plastic also kept costs lower and made it easier for Samsung to quickly manufacture the product.

The rest of the market moved away from plastic, though, preferring instead to use premium materials such as aluminum, stainless steel and glass. Apple's move to incorporating bigger displays in its 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus (which employ aluminum bodies) helped the Cupertino, Calif., company deliver the highest quarterly profit of any company -- ever -- in the calendar fourth quarter.

Watch this: Samsung Galaxy S6, S6 Edge conquer metal and glass

But as HTC has shown, simply having premium materials isn't enough to generate huge sales. While HTC's profit and revenue have shown slight improvement, deeper pocketed competitors continue to out-muscle the smaller company.

Samsung gets a chance to pair its marketing might with a more premium design.

"There's no question this is a move [Samsung] needs to make," Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart said. "But that's a starting point. They need to offer unique integrated experiences, both hardware and software, that consumers find compelling enough to pay for."

Samsung even used its move into metal as a chance to take another shot at Apple. Younghee Lee, a marketing executive for the company's mobile division, touted the aluminum alloy that it employs for the new smartphones as 50 percent stronger than the competition.

"This stuff will not bend," she said to laughter and applause.

The sharp jokes came easy Sunday night. But Samsung knows that in the coming weeks, ensuring the Galaxy S6 is a blockbuster that lives up to its franchise name will be serious business.

CNET's Jessica Dolcourt contributed to this report.