The world has proclaimed the Samsung Galaxy S6 to be a stylish leap forward for the range following the somewhat drab Samsung Galaxy S5. But now that the initial bloom of gadget lust has passed, is Samsung's latest flagship actually a better phone?
Samsung found itself in an unusual position following the launch of the Galaxy S5 in April 2014. For the first time in five generations the sales graphs flattened, as relative public indifference aligned with that of the critics.
The key issue with the Samsung Galaxy S5, so the commonly held view went, was that it was just more of the same. And the same meant a cheap-looking plastic design while all around were going metal. The Galaxy S5 looked staid and workmanlike next to sexier rivals like the HTC One M8.
For once, Samsung didn't need to do something more with its flagship range, it needed to do something DIFFERENT. What it needed, and what we got, was the Samsung Galaxy S6.
Following notable experimentations with a more premium design in the Samsung Galaxy Alpha and the Samsung Galaxy Note 4, Samsung launched the Galaxy S6 on April 10 2015. Most notable was its premium metal-and-glass design, as well as its beautiful QHD display and stellar camera.
But among all the hype piped a few dissenting voices, claiming that the Galaxy S6 was actually a step back in terms of the day-to-day practicality of owning and using a smartphone. With the Samsung Galaxy S5 now available for a temptingly low price, it's time to pitch it against its flashy successor and see if things really have improved as much as they seem to have.
The Samsung Galaxy S6's defining feature, particularly when compared to its predecessor, is its design. Samsung has belatedly acknowledged that its signature functional plastic look, which had evolved in the Galaxy S5 to include tacky faux metal and faux leather elements, could no longer cut it at the top end of the market.
This design overhaul has been a roaring success. In fact, holding the two phones in front of me now, it feels like there are several years of iterative design work between them rather than 12 months. They're clearly of the same family but, to stretch that analogy a little further, the S6 feels like the S5's great grandson rather than its son.
Of course, the old man is built of sterner stuff than its metrosexual offspring, which we'll discuss further in the next section.
Another key generational leap forward for the Samsung Galaxy S6 comes in the form of its screen. We thought that the Galaxy S5's display was one of the best on the market, and it remained as such for around a year.
However, the Galaxy S6's screen, while not representing the massive leap of its design, is a clear generational stride forward. It's sharper, yes, but more importantly it's richer, clearer, and its colours are more lifelike.
Again, we'll talk about this in more depth in the appropriate section, suffice to say that the Galaxy S6 display is arguably the best in the business.
The final key feature of the Galaxy S6, and one that Samsung went to great lengths to highlight during the phone's launch period, is its camera.
Last year the Samsung Galaxy S5 made great strides forward with its photographic abilities, leading many to comment that it was almost as good as an iPhone's. The Galaxy S6 goes one better – it's better than the iPhone 6's in many respects.
Like its display, the Galaxy S6 camera is a contender for best-in-class, though LG G4 fans might have something to say about that.
What can the Samsung Galaxy S5 offer that's unique against such an onslaught of excellence? A surprising amount, as it happens.The Samsung Galaxy S5 was arguably the toughest flagship phone around upon its release, and it certainly hasn't been usurped by this year's namby pamby efforts.
Whether or not IP ratings were a passing fad we're not sure, but the Samsung Galaxy S5's IP67 rating hasn't made its way to the S6. It means that the Galaxy S5 is alone in having the ability to survive full immersion in a body of water, while dust won't have any more luck getting into its ports and gaps.
Another key feature of the Galaxy S5, which was rare at the time of its release and seems even rarer now, is its removable rear cover. The chief function of this is to enable you to replace the battery, a feature much beloved of a small subset of power users and frequent travellers.
I have to admit to not appreciating the value of this in my own day to day usage, but then I spend most of my weekdays in front of a laptop within easy reach of a power point.
The other advantage to this removable back is that there's a discrete place to put a microSD slot. This too is a feature that seems to be disappearing from flagship phones, including with the Galaxy S6.
Again, there's a sizeable minority of Android fans who hate that the Galaxy S6 has dropped the microSD support. I prefer the convenience, speed, and simplicity of a decent amount of internal storage, but I could never deny the appeal of having the option to expand - particularly if you like to carry your entire MP3 collection around with you on your phone.
Of course, the irony with the Galaxy S5's ability to swap its battery around is that it's already one of the longest lasting high-end phones on the market. 2800mAh is a good size for a phone of this type, and tied in with an efficient display and Samsung's battery-saving software, it can last through the best part of two days if you're careful.
As we'll discuss a little later, this key area is another way in which the Galaxy S6 has taken a backward step.
Both phones have fingerprint scanning technology to unlock the phone, but the Galaxy S6 implementation is much better. It's mounted in the home button again, like the Galaxy S5, but you no longer have to swipe up to the screen to use it - a technique that never works quite consistently enough.
Rather, Samsung has managed to install an iPhone-like press-to-activate system that works just as well as Apple's trailblazing Touch ID. It's a major improvement, and most importantly it makes the feature usable in everyday life rather than just another box checking gimmick.
Not that you'd say that if you only saw the two phones together head-on. The S6 has the same basic shape, the same lozenge-like physical home key, and the same speaker and logo placement.
The proportions are similar too, with the Galaxy S6 a millimetre or two wider than the Galaxy S5, but also a similar amount thinner and narrower.
From every angle other than the front, the difference is pronounced. While the removable back cover of the Galaxy S5 is made of cheap-looking dimpled plastic, with a grippy synthetic leather feel, the Galaxy S6 is covered by glass, which tapers off pleasingly at the edges. There's a beguiling glimmering effect to this that sees the true colour of whatever's underneath this glass revealing itself only from an angle.
Of course, the Galaxy S5's plastic rear serves to make the S5 more resistant to day-to-day wear than we fear the Galaxy S6 will be. The Galaxy S6 might have a Gorilla Glass 4 back panel, but it's still glass, and thus will inevitably shatter with a hefty enough drop.
When it comes to the sides, the Galaxy S6 steps up to a premium matte aluminium. It's easy to say that this is a rip off of the iPhone – and the placement of those drilled speaker holes on the bottom of the phone is certainly reminiscent – but in the flesh it simply doesn't feel that way.
Perhaps it's the subtle lip that Samsung has given this edge, or the way it flattens out along the sides where the volume and power buttons are found.
Whether you think it's derivative or not, it's a massive improvement over the Galaxy S5's edges, which are made of a kind of shiny plastic that makes a weak attempt to look like metal. While the Galaxy S5 is a more robust phone overall, our seasoned test model bears the the kind of collision-scars that make it look like it's been chewed by a dog.
The basic lesson here is that, when it comes to smartphone edges, go metal or go "unapologetically plastic," to borrow from the Jony Ive lexicon.
All of this combines to make the Galaxy S6 feel markedly nicer in the hand. It's actually seven grams lighter than the Galaxy S5, but it has a denseness and a heft that its predecessor lacks.
Its cold metal edges and cool glass back make it feel every inch the premium bit of kit, whereas the Galaxy S5 feels just the same as any low-end or medium-range handset.
However, for long term calls or media sessions, holding the Galaxy S5 is arguably more comfortable. Its grippy rear and thicker body means that it may not sit nicer in the hand, but it certainly sits better.
While you'll happy throw the Galaxy S5 down onto any surface, it's often a precarious thing to do so with the S6. Its smooth glass back creates a similar effect to the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact and the iPhone 4S, in that it will slide along most soft material surfaces with the slightest incline.
I experienced a number of bizarre self-propelled droppages off my seemingly flat couch arm, though fortunately the drop was always brief and onto soft carpet.
So while these two phones allegedly belong to the same family, their designs suggest that they're suited to different types of people. The Galaxy S5 is a no-nonsense phone that's grippy and rugged. It's built to be lugged around and used heavily, to survive in the real world without a case.
The Galaxy S6, on the other hand, has the combined feel of a piece of jewellery and a high-end camera. You want to handle it carefully, to keep it in a pocket all on its own, to clean its fingerprint-magnet surfaces, and even to invest in a case for it. It's for those who value classy design over practicality, and it's probably not for those who have particularly active jobs or hobbies.
Samsung has long been the master of AMOLED technology on mobile, and both of these phones showcase that expertise.
Both are the same 5.1-inch size, too, which nowadays is a nice balanced size for all-round usage. Though perhaps not quite suitable for comfortable one-handed operation for most people – you'll be wanting a 4.7-inch device like the iPhone 6 or Sony Xperia Z3 Compact for that – they're far from unwieldy. They're not phablets.
The biggest difference between these two displays on paper is resolution. The Galaxy S5 has a 1080p (1920 x 1080) screen, which was par for the course in a flagship Android phone release in mid 2014 (the LG G3 being an exception).
It's still a strikingly vibrant display today, with colours (particularly reds) that pop out of the screen. We also admire how Samsung lets you tone these colours down with a range of display settings.
Overall, the accuracy of the colours here is much better than rival AMOLED efforts like, say, the Moto X 2014.
The Samsung Galaxy S6 display is something else, though. It's a QHD display, which means a resolution of 2560 x 1440. That provides a pixel density of 577ppi versus the Galaxy S5's 432ppi.
To be perfectly honest, though, the difference in sharpness isn't readily apparent for most tasks. Not unless you get right up close, which is kind of silly. It's arguable that you need a 5.5-inch or even a 6-inch display to really start making the most of all those extra pixels.
Watch well-shot 2K or 4K videos on the two and you'll probably pick up the difference, but that's hardly a common occurrence. Not yet, anyway. Don't let that make you think that the Galaxy S6 display isn't a notable step forward, though. Samsung has improved the quality of its display in general terms, particularly by making it brighter. It's this that makes it look better than the Galaxy S5 when placed side-by-side rather than the difference in resolution.
Actually, the Samsung Galaxy S6 runs on the slightly more current Android 5.0.2, but it's the same basic OS, and the differences are barely perceptible. However, that's not to say that both handsets look and handle identically. They're very similar, but there are differences.
That's because they run subtly different versions of Samsung's custom TouchWiz UI, which sits atop the Android OS. The Galaxy S6 runs the newer version, as you might expect.
It's a shame the Galaxy S5 didn't get the exact same interface, but we suppose it comes down to Samsung wanting to differentiate its new phone. The Galaxy S6 interface is the more elegant and restrained of the two. Just as Samsung has smartened up its hardware act, so too it has applied a slightly more tasteful livery to the Android OS this time around.
The two UIs are functionally the same, but it's in the little touches that you see the differences: the default clock/weather widget that sits unassumingly at the top of the S6 home page rather than taking half the S5 screen up with a bright image. The slightly rounder, less fussy icon design. The simpler home screen transitions that scroll rather than appearing to come forward from the background.
The two phones have very similar drop-down notification menus, but the deeper settings screen is much better on the S6. On the S5 it's a sprawling mass of chunky icons, whereas Samsung has wisely pulled most of the options into an easier-to-navigate list format on the S6.
We'd still rather Samsung just dropped TouchWiz altogether and gave us a top notch phone with stock Android, but that's not going to happen any time soon. Comparing these two phones shows that Samsung is getting better every year. What's more, they're both pleasant, intuitive, modern systems that will be appreciated by hardcore and casual users alike.
All in all, the navigation experience is decent on both. Having said that, a combination of the slightly busier UI and inferior processing power means that the Galaxy S5 doesn't feel as smooth or snappy as the Galaxy S6.
The Galaxy S5 sports a Snapdragon 801 CPU backed by 2GB of RAM – a solidly capable off-the-shelf setup that's typical of a high-end phone of this vintage. However, Samsung bit the bullet and went with a much more interesting custom 64-bit Exynos 7420 CPU with 3GB of RAM for the S6.
It's a blazingly fast chip – perhaps the fastest around at the moment, at least in the world of Android. In our GeekBench 3 tests, the S6's average single-core result was 1495 compared to the Galaxy S5's 974 – a huge difference. That's echoed in the multi-core segment, where the S5's 3055 is soundly trounced by the S6's 5155.
Again, this is no disgrace for the older phone – the S6 is simply incredibly fast.
In real world terms, both phones can play modern high-end games just fine. You can discern the difference in performance in general navigation, as discussed, and you can also see it in the speed with which the Galaxy S6 camera boots up from the touchscreen.
With the newer phone, it's pretty much instantaneous. With the older phone, there's a noticeable black screen pause before the camera interface comes into view.
TechRadar's reviews of the Samsung Galaxy S6 and Samsung Galaxy S5 paint strikingly different pictures of battery life. While the Galaxy S5's is described as "excellent," the Galaxy S6 is labelled "not good enough."
How did Samsung get it so wrong, and how does that bear out in a real-world head-to-head comparison?
The simplest point to make here is that Samsung dropped to a physically smaller battery with the Galaxy S6, clearly in the name of keeping that slinky new design. While the Galaxy S5 has a generous 2800mAh battery, the Galaxy S6 has a 2550mAh unit.
What's more, while the Galaxy S5's battery could be removed and replaced, the Galaxy S6 battery is fixed, so no carrying a spare around with you on a long haul flight.
Of course, few people actually do this anyway, and as mentioned, the Galaxy S6 is an easier phone to charge thanks to support for the two leading wireless charging standards. But the issue of that smaller battery remains, especially given the presence of a brighter, more pixel-packed screen, which is always the biggest power hog with any smartphone.
In practical terms, the Galaxy S6 isn't exactly bad. As we noted in the original review, you can get a full working day out of it, but you might have to hold off watching that HD video on the train home if you've been particularly active with it during the day. Now that's not uncommon in a modern smartphone, but when the Galaxy S5 can clear a whole day comfortably with room to spare, you see the issue.
Interestingly, in my own video tests, which involved playing a 90 minute 720p video with the screen brightness cranked right up, the two phones performed identically. Both ate up just 13 percent of a full charge on average.
This suggests that Samsung has worked wonders to make that brighter, sharper screen work more efficiently. It also shows how flexible and efficient that Exynos 7420 CPU is, and emphasises how well it's cut out for media playing.
Samsung's custom chip is built using a much smaller production method than the Galaxy S5's Snapdragon 801 – 14nm versus 28nm – which means that it generates less heat, and can do a lot more with the same power. It's also octa-core, so it divides tasks intelligently between two sets of four cores according to requirements.
In other situations, however, I found that the Galaxy S6 battery fell way behind. After an afternoon out spent snapping photos with both phones for this comparison piece – a four hour trip that involved travelling to some nice RHS gardens and taking around 20 identical pictures – I found that the Galaxy S6 had just 60 percent battery life left in the tank, while the Galaxy S5 had 79 percent.
You could argue that the Galaxy S6 has a much more advanced camera than the Galaxy S5, and that the viewfinder was rendering the live images with much more detail. But this explains why we're so irritated that the Galaxy S6 battery doesn't perform as well as its predecessor. Samsung has crammed some phenomenal components in, but it hasn't given them the power plant to fully match their capabilities.
It didn't need to be this way, if only Samsung had added a couple of millimetres onto the phone's waistline and gone with a slightly bigger battery.
Meanwhile, the continued strong performance of the Galaxy S5 – a well worn handset that's been in frequent use at TR towers over the past 12 months, let's not forget – shows that its robustness runs deeper than its rather functional shell.
Media and the essentials
Both phones are media heavyweights. Put that down to those 5.1-inch Super AMOLED displays, which render HD video content with deep blacks and vibrant colours.
Naturally with the Samsung Galaxy S6 you also get the ability to watch 2K content (there's a fair amount available on YouTube) at its native resolution. Such content (as well as 4K content) looks stunning here, and is by far the strongest case for the switch from 1080p.
One disappointment with both handsets is their weedy sound quality – at least in relation to rivals like the HTC One M9 and Sony Xperia Z3. Both have a single small speaker to output their sound. The Galaxy S5's is mounted on the back, while the Galaxy S6's is on the bottom.
In actual fact, while the Galaxy S6 speaker is positioned better for clarity, it's also prone to being covered by your hand, especially when playing games in landscape view.
Samsung has always boasted the best media support in the business, alongside Sony. File support is strong across both phones, with high-res audio also included.
Put simply, if I were to reach for one of these phones to watch a video or play a game on, I would instinctually go for the Galaxy S6 every time thanks to that brighter, sharper display and snappier performance. If I was loading one up with music to take away with me, I'd probably go with the Galaxy S5, thanks to that microSD slot.
Both of these phones work well as, well, phones. That sounds like a painfully meaningless thing to say, but many lesser manufacturers have been known to take their eye of the ball when it comes to everyday tasks like making calls and sending text messages.
Samsung phones always have great reception and call quality, particularly when it comes to its flagship Galaxy S series. It's no surprise that the Galaxy S5 is so strong here with its conservative all-plastic design and high-quality internal components.
However, we were interested to see if Samsung's radical shift in design and construction materials for the Galaxy S6 would interfere with this aspect at all. Say what you like about plastic, it's far more conducive to a strong mobile signal than metal. Remember the iPhone 4's death grip issue? That came as a result of Apple's shift to a metal and glass construction.
Thankfully, Samsung hasn't made the same mistakes with its own conversion. The Galaxy S6 has four sensibly placed antennae situated near the corners on the top and bottom edges.
There's no conceivable situation where you'll cover more than one of these at a time with your finger, and signal quality was strong throughout my time with the phone.
Other everyday tasks like messaging and typing are identical on the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S5, for better and for worse, as they employ the same default messaging and keyboard apps.
Samsung's Messages app is very functional, with more than a hint of Google's Material Design to it. You get a familiar floating New Message prompt in the bottom right-hand corner, bold block-coloured headers, and handy swipe-based shortcuts on the messages themselves.
In fact, the ability to call the other party in a text exchange simply by swiping the message to the right is a handy one, and a feature that's not present in Google's own similar-looking Messages app (which has to be downloaded if you want to use it).
Samsung's own keyboard hasn't quite been modernised in the same way. It still looks like it belongs to a previous version of Android. It's perfectly usable, though, and I particularly like that there are separate numerical keys to save hitting an additional key. It also has a perfectly decent word suggestion system that can save a lot of typing if utilised.
Having said all that, I still found myself downloading and switching to Google's own keyboard pretty swiftly. It actually feels better suited to the latest Lollipop-inflected TouchWiz UI (on both phones), and it has the benefit of a fully integrated swipe-to-type system. You have to go into the settings menu and toggle that on with Samsung's effort.
Web browsing is similarly strong on both phones, too. As with so many Android phones, both come with two browsers, and it's annoying that the bog-standard Internet browser is pushed to the fore when Chrome is the superior option.
Once this has been rescued from the dedicated Google apps folder, however, the experience is slick across the board.
The general browsing experience is very fast on both the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S5, with the S6 only having a slight edge when it comes to loading speeds and displaying high resolution images. Put that down to the combo of fast processor and QHD display.
Price and verdict
The Samsung Galaxy S6 is not a cheap phone. With prices starting from £559.99 / $750 / AU$999 / for the 32GB model SIM-free, there's a premium price to pay for that leap in design. It's possible to get the phone for around £500 / $650 if if you shop around online, but it's still far from a bargain.
While it might be a more advanced phone in most key respects, that price might just be a little tough to swallow when you see how cheap the Samsung Galaxy S5 is going for nowadays.
At the time of writing you can pick up a 16GB SIM-free model for £285 / $386 from Amazon. We love the Galaxy S6 and the classy new course it signifies for Samsung. But is it twice the phone the Galaxy S5 is? Probably not.
When it comes to contract prices, here in the UK you generally need to pay around £40 per month as a minimum, with various initial fees getting you a range of data allowances. For the Samsung Galaxy S5, you can pay less than £30 per month for similar deals.
Samsung has undoubtedly taken massive strides forward with the Samsung Galaxy S6 this year, but its superiority over the Samsung Galaxy S5 isn't absolute. For some people, the Galaxy S5 will remain the better choice.
The biggest difference here is in the design of the two phones, and the Galaxy S6 feels like it's in an entirely different league to its immediate predecessor. The Galaxy S5 looked and felt dated 12 months ago, and time hasn't done anything to change those first impressions.
However, the Galaxy S5 is much more suited to those with an active lifestyle, its rugged plastic body and IP67 rating ensuring it can take the knocks and splashes that the Galaxy S6 simply cannot. Indeed, the Galaxy S5's superior battery life and replacable power unit make it the more practical choice for those who aren't frequently within reach of a wall socket, too.
The S6's QHD display isn't quite the huge difference maker you might expect it to be either. However, its greater brightness and more accurate colours make it the better choice as a media player, as well as for heavy web usage.
If mobile photography is your thing, the Galaxy S5 holds its own in the wider smartphone market. But the Galaxy S6 camera is arguably the best there is, whether you like to compose your own shots or just fire and forget.
Of course, all of this means nothing if you're on any kind of a budget. The Galaxy S6 is undoubtedly expensive, whereas the Galaxy S5 can be picked up for not far off half the price.
For those who want a well-priced, highly capable and robust phone, and who remain unmoved by the prevailing metal and glass design trends of the current high-end crowd, the Galaxy S5 remains a fine choice. But if money is no object, the Galaxy S6 is the clear – if not entirely uncontested – winner.