The Samsung Galaxy S6 and the S6 edge are here. Launched on April 10, right on time as promised. It’s the phone that could bring Samsung back to the top or it could accelerate Samsung’s decline. It has a lot of weight on its figurative shoulders, and is not afraid to proclaim itself as a flagship premium device. Can it succeed?
Only the 32GB versions of both phones are listed in stock at the moment, the 64GB versions are listed as coming soon, and there is no sign at all of the 128GB versions.
The official prices are INR 49,900, 55,900 for the GS6 and INR 58,900 and 64,900 for the GS6 edge. You can head over to Flipkart, Amazon, Snapdeal and actually buy the S6 or the S6 edge for yourself. But should you do so? It’s too early to make a conclusive answer, but in the mean time you should read on…
Background of the GS6 launch
Hence forward, I’ll refer to the Galaxy S6 and the S6 edge as the GS6 and the GS6 edge respectively. For many, the GS6 is the first mainstream legitimately impressive flagship smartphone from Samsung since… well, the Galaxy S3. It was well-known that the Galaxy S4 didn’t live up to expectations, and as for the Galaxy S5, the less said the better.
One might think that no matter the actual quality of the phones, it wouldn’t matter a whole lot to Samsung’s bottom line. But consumers made their choice known: and so it happened. Samsung’s shockingly high profits finally came to an end in late 2013, and 2014 was a year best forgotten for the global giant.
Quarter after quarter with sliding profits, sliding market share, heavy competition from other Android OEMs (particularly the low-cost Chinese ones) and from Apple. (Microsoft of course is absent from this discussion – which is no surprise at all).
How did this happen though? After the huge success that was the Galaxy S3 (which was a bestseller even in India in a market which still favours low-cost phones) how could Samsung have done so much wrong? They were the one with the most resources. They could beat all their competitors in technological advancements if they wanted to. Yet, year after year, device after device, iteration after iteration, they made the wrong choices to alienate their consumers.
Samsung in 2013: Galaxy S4 and Galaxy Note 3
Let’s backup. The year was 2013. Samsung was getting bigger so fast there was worry that they might one day break away from Android to declare independence from Google and go with their own Tizen OS. (All those articles from two years ago are so laughable to read now). No competitor ever got close to the success of the Galaxy S3, and all eyes were on the Galaxy S4.
For us, the launch of the Galaxy S4 was the turning point when Samsung became arrogant. They no longer cared about their core enthusiast customer base. They cared about features and not benefits. The phone, when it launched, was branched into two phones. The Snapdragon LTE version for the Western international version, and the Exynos 3G version for Third World countries that is places where there was no LTE including India. That was the first elementary mistake. But it only got worse.
The design for the GS4 was practically identical to that of the GS3 (all Samsung had done was to increase the screen size by 0.2-inch, reduce the bezels and call it a day). The back cover was still glossy plastic, and there was still that chrome fake metal finish which cheapened the phone.
The display, while sharp enough thanks to 1080p, still had the same disappointing AMOLED characteristics such as inaccurate colours, low brightness, bluish tint etc. The camera was an incremental update over the one on the GS3 – which is to say great daylight performance, but forgettable low-light performance.
The battery life was OK, but it was the software which left the most to be desired. Still conforming to a Gingerbread style at the time of the second iteration of Jelly Bean, it was overloaded with feature bloat and gimmicks that Samsung itself now admits were too much.
Were you ever going to use Air View, Smart Scroll and Direct Call? Most probably not. And then there was all the troubling lag, which hindered performance even on the top-notch (at the time) Snapdragon 600 version.
Even something like the dialer or gallery took a long time to load, and UI frame rates weren’t smooth enough. Because of S Voice, even pressing the home button would introduce lag unless you turned it off manually.
There was also way too less storage available on first boot – only 9GB. Of course, Samsung had announced the 32GB and 64GB versions, but had never bothered to launch them in India.
The most unforgivable flaw with the GS4 in India, though, was the fact that we got the Exynos 5410 version, which was broken. Samsung jumped on ARM’s big.LITTLE plan too early, at a time when the tech wasn’t ready yet. To control the power hungry Cortex-A15 cores, there were four Cortex-A7 cores for handling basic stuff, but there was no cache coherent interconnect (CCI) to properly handle power management.
The result was a disaster. On top of the already inferior GPU performance in the Exynos 5410, the A15 cores generated a lot of heat, resulting in overheating and the whole phone under-performed way too much even in simple tasks because the clusters couldn’t manage each other.
Samsung is said to have fixed part of the issue (which was software) in various software updates throughout 2013, but it couldn’t fix a missing CCI. The Indian GS4 was therefore one of the weaker phones when it came to real world device performance.
Conclusively, the GS4 was a marked regression from the GS3, and it was reflected in Samsung’s 2013 results in India, which showed that the older GS3 was still more popular than the newer GS4.
There was still the Galaxy Note 3, of course. But that was a phablet with a 5.7-inch display, and with a staggering high price (the first Android device at that time to launch at the INR 50,000 price point) and yet another 3G Exynos chipset for India (the Exynos 5420 was improved, but it still wasn’t good enough) it wasn’t as popular as it could have been.
It also shared many of the same weaknesses: low-light camera performance, software, and the all-plastic build (it had a leather finish, but Samsung overdid it with the fake stitching). The Note 3 was at least an improvement on the GS4, but that wasn’t saying a lot.
So, to put it mildly, Samsung didn’t live up to expectations in 2013 at a time when rivals competed with each other to lap Samsung’s offerings. Whether you talk about HTC with the innovative One M7, LG with the impressive G2 which had a balanced camera to boot and even Google with the value-for-money Nexus 5. These were all excellent smartphones, and Samsung was left behind.
2014: the Galaxy S5, Note 4
In many ways, 2014 was the year Samsung needed. It was something of a wake-up call, a response from the consumers that: no, they weren’t going to compromise on phone design any longer, they weren’t going to compromise on software and software performance, and they weren’t going to compromise on the camera.
There was a lot of talk in early 2014 that the Galaxy S5 would be a different Samsung device, made of different materials, and having completely different software. None of that happened.
The phone launched in MWC 2014, a quiet and subdued launch in comparison to the one of the GS4. But Samsung hadn’t done enough: although the display was much improved (in fact, it was the first AMOLED display from Samsung that was above average at colour accuracy), there were still other weaknesses.
The design of the phone was labelled by many to be a regression, with thicker bezels all around resulting in an unnecessary size increase. The back cover finish was changed to a soft cover feel, but people weren’t impressed with the look (including all the Band-Aid comparisons). Other long-standing weaknesses such as the fake metal chrome finish remained.
Samsung introduced a fingerprint scanner to compete with Apple’s Touch ID, but as it was based on a swipe-based implementation method, it was inferior and wasn’t liked. Same goes for the heart rate monitor, which was a gimmick.
When we come to the software, the GS5 was interesting but still ultimately poor. TouchWiz had been slimmed down somewhat, and the design brought forward to the Android 4.x era, but in the end it was still orders of magnitude inferior to stock Android.
Although software performance was improved, it still wasn’t good enough. Compared to stock Android on the Nexus 5 or Sense on the HTC One M8, the Galaxy S5 was always slower.
The last straw to break was actually the camera. It was yet another incremental update on the one of the Galaxy S4, improving further in daylight performance, but not doing enough in low-light performance. Compared to the iPhone 5s, the LG G2 and of course the Lumia 1020, the GS5 camera was poorer.
The storage and RAM were also unchanged and a downgrade from the Note 3: 16GB/2GB from 32GB/3GB.
So the Galaxy S5 was still a good phone, but it was released at a time when good wasn’t good enough. In the international market, there were competitors like the HTC One M8 and the Sony Xperia Z2, both of which were better phones overall.
Soon after, LG released the G3, Motorola released the Moto X 2014, Sony released the Xperia Z3, Google released the Nexus 6 and Apple released the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. To say the least, it was tough for the GS5, which couldn’t compete with many of these devices.
2014 was also the year when the Indian budget and mid-range smartphone market was transformed from “depressing” to “great.” Before you could get a cheap Android phone for INR 10,000 from Samsung, LG, Sony etc, but it would suck. Suck so much that you’d have to pay more for a better phone in the end.
That changed. Not gradually. Motorola re-entered the Indian market with a bang in February 2014, bringing the Moto X and more importantly the Moto G, which was truly revolutionary at the time. Not long after, the Moto E was also released, bringing a good enough experience at an even lower price.
If you could buy a good enough phone for INR 13,000, then why pay more than four times the price for a Galaxy S5?
And then Xiaomi arrived.
Using a penetration low pricing strategy with the Xiaomi Mi3, Redmi 1s and the Redmi Note, the company was off to a flying start, selling a million handsets by the end of the year. In particular, the Redmi 1s was a pioneer in much the same way as Motorola’s Moto G. It made Samsung’s budget phone efforts look laughable. After less than eight months, they had 4% market share of the smartphone market.
The cumulative effect of Motorola’s re-entry and the entry of the Chinese OEMs (Xiaomi, Lenovo and Huawei) was that the GS5 was considered as a flop in India. The 3G Exynos version – the Exynos 5422 – was once again the choice Samsung made in India. And the backlash was huge, because big.LITTLE still wasn’t ready and the Snapdragon version was superior. The price? INR 50,000, nearly 10,000 more than the price its predecessor launched at.
Of course, the consumers made their choice with their wallets, and the Galaxy S5’s price fell incredibly fast to INR 35,000, at which point it stabilised till its price was cut by Samsung.
With the budget phone sector and the mid-range sector not doing well, with the Galaxy S5 not being a success, with fierce competition from even Indian brands such as Micromax, with the stunning rise of Xiaomi – Samsung lost market share in India.
Now, the battle for first in India’s overall phone market is a lot closer than it was a couple of years ago.
Samsung’s answer to all this? Start again. Project Zero. Of course, they had to release a couple of prototype devices for the finished result first. To that end they launched the Galaxy Alpha, the first Galaxy device with a metal frame (although it still came with a glossy plastic back cover).
The Alpha was actually a forgettable device without that metal frame: a poor display and a poor battery, altogether mid-range specifications. It was more of a parallel device rather than a Galaxy S5 competitor, and with limited availability, it didn’t sell all that well.
The last major Samsung device in 2014 was the Galaxy Note 4. It too came with a metal frame and a leather finish on its plastic back cover, although this time the stitching was removed. In fact, it was the device the Galaxy S5 should have been.
The best smartphone display (with near perfect colour calibration and QHD resolution), one of the best smartphone cameras (competitive in low-light with the iPhones and nearly unmatched in daylight) and much improved software performance: all this made the Note 4 competitive in a way the Galaxy S5 never was.
Samsung finally launched the Snapdragon 805 version in India after 1.5 years of waiting for a powered by Snapdragon flagship, although the Exynos version launched in other 3G markets wasn’t bad too (in fact it was much better in CPU performance this time around, go figure Samsung).
But for all that, they had to ruin the device by launching it at a staggering INR 58,000 price point, more expensive than the cheapest iPhone 6 (although it was still cheaper than a 6 Plus). The coverage of the phone was also overshadowed by Apple’s entry in phablets by launch of the iPhone 6 Plus (which to be sure, is the most overpriced device we’ve ever seen).
For 2015, Samsung was predicting more declined profits. The situation was bad. So…
2015: A changed Samsung
For all the talk about a removed microSD card slot (a decision we also don’t like) and a removable battery, the Galaxy S6 is what Samsung needed. And it may be just enough to fend off the competition.
With a metal and glass sandwich design, 5.1-inch best-in-class QHD Super AMOLED display, an improved 16MP camera with f/1.9 aperture for better low-light photos, and a brand new 14nm Exynos 7420 octa-core big.LITTLE SoC, the outlook for the device looks positive. Storage and RAM are also upgraded from the S5 to 32GB and 3GB respectively.
The early reviews look good too, although some major reviews haven’t been published yet, and you should wait for our reviews analysis.
For now, it seems the major weak points for this phone are: weak battery life (2550mAh doesn’t cut it anymore, and what’s more shocking is that battery size is actually a downgrade from 2800mAh on the GS5), and for all the slimmed down software, stutters are still present and TouchWiz is still TouchWiz.
That is to say, in comparison to Google’s stock Material Design in 5.x Lollipop, TouchWiz is outdated. Even after 40% reduction in features (a claim which is not impressive, since those features shouldn’t have existed in the first place) it seems like a lot of work is still left.
Pricing analysis: Let’s say it: the Galaxy S6 edge prices break new ground for Samsung in overpricing a product. The Note 4 was and is still overpriced, but the GS6 edge is even more so. For the regular GS6, though, the prices are regrettably on par with a flagship smartphone launch price in 2015. Still, we are hoping that a substantial price drop is in order before six months.
In comparison with the US, the Indian prices are higher, while they’re lower in comparison to the UK. Which is nothing new, but still highly disappointing.
So should you buy the GS6 or the GS6 edge? I would advise waiting for a variety of reasons, but if you want a revamped best Android smartphone right now, well, it’s available for purchase.
The Galaxy S6 saga though, has just started. There is plenty left to cover. Stay tuned for Part II of our Galaxy S6 analysis…