Samsung's Galaxy devices

Galaxy S6 deep-dive review: Samsung's shining star

With its Galaxy S6, Samsung finally delivers a phone that's both powerful and premium. Could it be the device for you?

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For example, Samsung continues to dump buckets of teal paint across the entire OS and is now replacing standard Android icons with plain text alternatives ("More," "Add" and so on). The latter introduces new inconsistencies between the S6's native apps and practically everything else you'll use on the device, including Google's apps and the vast majority of third-party Android programs. Ecosystem-wide design standards exist for a reason, and changing them in one small corner of that ecosystem does little more than introduce confusion.

Another problem is Samsung's continuing insistence on doubling up on native Android services by baking its own second-rate alternatives into the OS. The S6 ships with the company's subpar S Voice assistant, for instance, in addition to Google's excellent Android Voice Search utility. It has a lackluster Samsung app store in addition to the main Google Play Store. And it inexplicably uses a version of the very outdated (and no longer secure) old Android Browser by default while also providing Google's current Chrome browser. These sorts of redundancies harm the phone's overall user experience and serve no one -- other than maybe Samsung -- well.

04 galaxy s6 software

The TouchWiz blues: Samsung's software is less attractive than Google's core OS, and it pushes the company's subpar services alongside superior native Android alternatives.

But as I said, the OS on the whole shows a fair amount of maturation. The bleeps, bloops and whistles that have disturbed Galaxy users (and those around them) for years are now thankfully gone, and the comically overwhelming Settings menu design of yore has been replaced with a far more tasteful and manageable configuration.

Samsung has also provided some genuinely useful add-on features without veering too far into silly-gimmick territory. Some are carryovers from the past, like an Easy Mode for less advanced users and the ability to view multiple apps on screen at the same time, while others are new -- like the ability to customize the intensity and pattern of vibrations for incoming calls and notifications. There's a new theming feature, too, that lets you change the look of icons and other system-level elements, though the options are rather limited and underwhelming at launch (and you have to create a Samsung account just to browse through them).

Samsung has even improved upon a couple of weird elements of Lollipop -- including the software's lack of a traditional silent mode and the uncontrollably cluttered nature of its app-switching system. And the phone contains tools for controlling home entertainment components via an integrated IR blaster as well as for taking your heart rate via a sensor on the back of the device (something whose value is debatable -- and which could also be accomplished on any other Android phone -- but hey, it's there if you want it).

The Galaxy S6 does have oodles of third-party bloatware, some courtesy of Samsung and some from the U.S. carriers. Regardless of who's to blame, it's all baked into the operating system and not easily removed. You can, at least, disable most of the preinstalled apps so you don't have to see them, but they'll still take up space on your device.

Bottom line

For years, I've called upon Samsung to create a premium-caliber flagship phone that demonstrates focus, taste and restraint. With the Galaxy S6, the company has at long last delivered.

The S6 is by no means a perfect device -- it hangs onto Samsung's awkward button configuration, its battery life could be better and its UI still feels like a step down in design from Google's core Android OS -- but boy, does it have an awful lot of good things going for it. From its sleek and premium design to its outstanding display, exceptional camera and useful add-on features, the Galaxy S6 packs a powerful punch.

For the first time, I can recommend Samsung's flagship phone without all the usual asterisks that accompany such a statement. Samsung is finally growing up, and the resulting effort is going to make a lot of people happy.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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