Samsung offered iPhone users a 30 day test drive of one of their high-end Galaxy phones for the low, low price of $1. I'm hopelessly curious about devices/apps/services outside of the ones I use, so this was a great opportunity to dive deep into Android once again after being away for almost a full year.
For those who aren't familiar with my work, I am indeed an Apple fan but I'm also very well versed in the world of Android. I have previously used the Samsung Galaxy S, Moto X, and HTC One M8 as my full time phones over the past 5 years. I have also owned a Nexus 7 which was my main tablet for a couple years, as well as a Moto E which I use as a media player in lieu of an iPod Touch. I've used every version of Android from 2.1-5.1 (or Eclair to Lollipop, if you prefer) and I keep coming back to the iPhone and iOS. I have ventured into the world of Android many times and have come back to iOS every time.
I know what I'm getting into with Android, and I already know that I prefer iOS. However, this review is not so much about Android vs. iOS, but about the specific features that Samsung put into this phone. My benchmark is last year's iPhone 6 Plus, which is my main phone. Samsung's entire pitch is that their Galaxy S6 Edge is a better phone than my miserable old iPhone. Let's see how it went.
Look and feel
Samsung really did a great job making this phone look beautiful. The metal edges feel great when you're holding the phone, and allow for a good amount of grip in the hand. The curved glass on the screen looks very striking and gives this phone a unique look in the crowded smartphone market. I also like the glass back, which reminds me of my iPhone 4.
Not all is perfect though. Those curved edges make the sides of the phone narrower, so the phone can be a little awkward to pick up from the flat surface. The giant camera bulge on the back also looks pretty cheap.
The worst thing about the appearance of the phone is that when you're in a very dark space and turn the screen on, light leaks into the body of the phone, making the whole thing illuminate. It doesn't illuminate evenly, so I don't think this is intentional. It's not something you're going to run into a lot, but it did cheapen the design in my eyes.
All in all, this phone feels decidedly like a premium device. And it should since it costs $680 off contract.
You can't do a review of this phone without mentioning the curved screen. This feature is interesting, and Samsung has gone ahead and added some software features to try and make this a useful addition. Unfortunately, this is a classic example of form over function. Not only do I not use basically none of the features Samsung has included, I actually find the curves to cause more problems than they solve. If I were in love with this phone and was going to buy one to keep, I would get the regular S6 in a heartbeat and not feel like I was missing anything.
My #1 problem with the curve is that it makes swipe gestures from the sides of the screen harder to accomplish. Since the screen goes about halfway down the side of the phone, you have to reach around the side of the device to begin your swipe. If you have an iPhone, imagine having to start all edge swipes from the power and volume buttons. I think Apple did a better job of softening the edges on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus by keeping the screen totally flat and having just a subtle curve in the glass as it tapers into the metal sides.
I also found frustration in viewing content when the edges sloped away form my field of view. This was most noticeable on videos were things get, to quote The Doctor), a little wibbly-wobbly. It's an odd effect, and one that I've heard some reviewers say is "immersive" but I found it distracting.
Finally, Samsung's custom software features for the edge are a joke. Swiping in from the side of the home screen to pull up my top 5 contacts is not useful. Doing that weird swipe on the edge while the screen is off to get a notification ticker is hard to do and is the slowest, worst way I have ever read my notifications...ever. The colored glow you get when one of your 5 favorites messages you only happens when the phone is upside down, and I can't even see it when I'm sitting at my desk looking slightly down at it. The only feature I like is the night stand mode, which I use to show me how charged up the phone is when plugged in.
Speaking of battery life, it's terrible. I've gotten past the first few days and have almost 2 weeks of data points, so I feel pretty good saying that this phone has the worst battery life I've ever had on a phone. In my first 10 days, I have not gotten through a single day without charging.
I usually wake up around 7AM and go to sleep around midnight during the week. My iPhone 6 Plus makes it through basically everyday without fail. I often plug it in at night with 30-40% battery remaining (this is with WiFi and Bluetooth on and connected to an Apple Watch all day as well.) . If I'm using the phone a lot, I will sometimes give it a little boost in the evening at some point just to make sure it doesn't get too close to death.
My phone died twice at work before I decided that I needed to bring a micro-USB cable with me to keep at my desk. If I don't use the phone much and don't charge it, it was dying around 5PM. I have taken to leaving it plugged in most of my work day, and even still I have to charge it sometime around 10PM to make it to midnight.
I have been told by a few people that I should really turn NFC, Bluetooth, and WiFI off when I'm not using them. While I think this is a ridiculous amount of work to do, I have actually taken to turning those features off out of desperation. My results have remained the same.
I know that I can flash a custom ROM that focuses on battery consumption, but out of the box, the Galaxy S6 Edge is a wimp when it comes to battery.
After a few days of frustration, I finally got good at using the fingerprint sensor on the phone and am using it as my lock screen security. While this feature does work, it falls short of Apple's Touch-ID.
First, I think the difference in sensor shape makes a big difference in how picky these readers are. The round sensor on the iPhone means I can put my finger at any angle and it will be able to sample the same amount of my fingerprint. Right side up, upside down, or sideways, it doesn't matter.
The Edge's oblong shape means that it's getting different parts of my finger depending on my angle. The design seems to be geared towards you holding the phone with one hand and placing the thumb on your other hand vertically on the sensor. In my use, this has been the most accurate method. My result have been much less successful when trying to use the thumb of the hand that is holding the device since it's touching the sensor from the side.
My first-attempt unlock success rate is likely around 70%. It works more often than it doesn't, but when I'm used to my success rate on the iPhone to be closer to 99%, it's still more frustrating than I would like.
This is one area where I have no qualms with the phone. The 5.1 inch screen is spectacular and bests the iPhone 6 Plus in every way. Colors pop and everything from tiny text to screen-filling images are crisp.
The screen has is 1440x2560 resolution which works out to 577 pixels per inch. Compared to the 401ppi screen on the iPhone 6 Plus, I really can't tell a difference unless I put my face right up against the glass. And even then, it's hard to say.
On paper the Edge is 2-3x the iPhone in many respects (4 CPU cores vs. 2, 3GB RAM vs. 1GB, etc.), but in day-to-day performance I find the iPhone to edge out the Edge in most tasks. Scrolling is where you notice the difference the most (and it's not even close), but performance gaps abound all over the experience.
Apps shockingly don't stay in memory any better than they do on my iPhone despite having 3x the RAM. I did multiple tests to make sure this was accurate and not just my imagination and it checked out. Launching the exact same apps on each phone in succession like Twitter, Instagram, and Pac Man 256 found that on average the iPhone was able to open 1-3 more apps at a time than the Edge before having to relaunch apps. And here I am complaining that the iPhone is suffering from too little RAM...
App launch times is also slower. The phone was very fast an responsive straight out of the box, but after a few short days, the phone feels constantly bogged down and actions that used to take one second now take three. This was my experience on the HTC One and Moto X last year as well.
This is not to say the phone is slow, because it's certainly fast enough. I'm simply comparing it to the iPhone, which just feels way faster in normal use.
I did a brief comparison of the cameras last weekend and found them to take scarily identical photos. Yes, the Edge has a 16MP sensor which should capture more detail than the "puny" 8MP sensor on the iPhone, but it doesn't. I was able to get one image that might have been better, but they are effectively just as crisp.
Of course that is a roundabout way of saying the camera on the Edge is awesome! It launches almost exactly as fast as the iPhone's camera and even bested it sometimes.
Once cool thing Samsung has done is enabling you to launch the camera from anywhere on the phone by double-tapping the home button. You can even do this if the screen is off. It's definitely quicker and easier to go from "phone in my pocket" to "taking a picture" on the Edge than the iPhone. This is right up there with the Moto X's shake gesture as my favorite way to get into the camera.
There is a bad side to this though. Since you can activate the camera even if the screen is off, I found it getting triggered relatively frequently in my pocket. I would notice that my pocket was suddenly really hot and come to find that my camera had been activated and had been on in my pocket for god knows how long.
Still, overall the camera is very good, which is not something I have written in any of my Android reviews EVER.
A Moment on Capacitive Buttons
While the standard Android behavior is to have on-screen buttons for Home, Back, and Multitasking, Samsung is sticking with the more traditional on-device buttons. The home button is exactly like the iPhone's, but the back and multitasking buttons are capacitive, which makes this phone almost impossible when the screen is on and it's resting on a table.
Combine these buttons with the curved screen, and there's almost nowhere safe to grab this phone when you're picking it up. It's absolutely maddening!
Samsung's Theme Store
Raise your hand if you love the TouchWiz theme Samsung put on its phones? Nobody? Me neither. Thankfully, Samsung has made their new phones themeable and they have their own mini-store where you can download and buy themes. I spent $2 on a Material Design theme and my phone looks very close to a Nexus phone at this point, which makes me very happy.
This could easily be its own article, but I'll keep it brief. Suffice it to say, my preference of iOS over Android is just as secure as ever. That said, there are some things I will miss when I go back to using my iPhone full time in a couple weeks.
The number one thing I will miss are the custom launchers. Samsung's launcher is pretty terrible, but Google's launcher is really solid. But my preference is Action Launcher 3, which takes the best things about the Google launcher and adds clever features such as Covers, which lets you create folders that look like single app icons (tap to launch the app, swipe up to open the folder).
I also love having a Google search bar on the home page. I can start typing a name, location, website, or app an the phone will know what I;m trying to accomplish. I know iOS has Spotlight which behaves similarly, but I find Google's implementation to be a little better.
My last point on home screens, I love being able to arrange my app icons wherever I want on screen. I have all my icons at the bottom of the page where my thumbs can reach them.
Beyond the launcher, my favorite thing is being able to set default apps. Not only can you set Firefox as your browser and Outlook as your email app, but you can tell all Reddit links to open in your favorite Reddit app. iOS 9 is getting better in this regard, but it still lags behind Android.
Finally, I think that Material Design is a great guideline for designers and some apps look really great. Google's Play Store is a great implementation, and Pocket Casts and Action Launcher are really good as well. I believe iOS is still more useable than Android, but Android certainly looks as good, if not better in many cases.
Wrap it Up
So where do we stand? I have this loaner phone from Samsung for another 2 weeks, and I'm going to keep using it as my daily driver for that time. Android Pay is rumored to launch in a week, and I really want to try that out (if my bank is supported, at least). I also want to mess around with some of the more bizarre launchers out there to see what unique experiences Android has to offer.
But I long for my iPhone. I want to get back to complaining about esoteric iOS issues and not going down an extremely long laundry list of things I can't stand about Android. I'm glad Samsung made this opportunity available, but they didn't win me over.
Outside of the few Android features I enjoyed, there's really nothing here that makes me want to keep this phone and hock my iPhone on eBay tomorrow. And even if Apple did something terrible and I simply couldn't support them anymore, there are plenty of other Android phones out there, like the Moto X and Oneplus Two, that are much less expensive (half or less the cost) and offer basically the same things.
Samsung has made their first truly beautiful smartphone, but I found that beauty to be just skin deep. It's a phone I like to look at sitting on my desk, but when it comes time to actually use it, I'd rather reach for my iPhone.