Samsung smartens up its phones

People look at Samsung Galaxy S6 phones during a pre-launch event in Singapore April 10, 2015.

People look at Samsung Galaxy S6 phones during a pre-launch event in Singapore April 10, 2015.  (REUTERS/Edgar Su)

Even if you build the best smartphone in the world, will they come?

Samsung's latest Galaxy S6 (starting at $200) and Galaxy S6 Edge (starting $300), available today, represent the state of the art and unquestionably offer several improvements over previous Samsung models. They also offer a collection of features that technically surpass models such as Apple's iPhone 6. But do you really need more in a smartphone and is it enough to make anyone switch?

Available on all the major carriers with a variety of pricing plans, both Samsung models are svelte and sexy. The flimsy plastic designs of the past have been traded in for aluminum alloy edges that frame front and back Gorilla Glass 4 plates. The screens are big (5.1 inches versus the 4.7-inch iPhone 6) and sharper than anything else on the market with 2,560 by 1,440 pixels or 577 pixels per inch (ppi) — versus an iPhone 6 with just 326 ppi. Does it make a difference? Yes. Legibility is just that much better, which I appreciate since most of the time I'm surfing the Web rather than making phone calls.

The principal difference between the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge is that the latter has a screen that's tantalizingly curved along the vertical edges. It doesn't completely wrap around the side, but the extra edge does enable some display gymnastics like running a subtle night-time clock or a ticker tape of notifications along the side. From a pure design perspective, the curve is also categorically more attractive.

Both Samsung flagships use a new 8-core Exynos processor that competes well against other models (more cores mean that more tasks can be parsed up and run simultaneously). I loaded up a score of communications and data intensive apps I use constantly, and the Galaxy phones flipped through them with alacrity.

I also appreciated the phone's rear-mounted 16-megapixel camera. The camera includes optical image stabilization, which is better at steadying shots than digital stabilization. Automatic white balance also seems improved. And there's a nice convenience feature: Depress the home button twice, and up pops the camera even if the phone is locked. This makes it much more practical as a camera, in my opinion, especially when you're traipsing around on vacation.

On the video side, both models can shoot 4K or Ultra HD video (it's listed as UHD on the phone). As the television industry moves increasingly in this direction this year, shooting in Ultra HD is going to become the standard –parents take note, iPhones can't shoot in 4K.

There are countless other features--narcissistic photo manipulation software, for example, infrared remote control, and a heart rate sensor — but one that stood out for me was the improved biometric fingerprint reader. It's embedded in the home button and allows you to use a finger rather than a password to unlock the phone. It was quick and worked extremely well for me as long as I remembered which finger to use.

Many people will appreciate the fact that both Galaxy S6 models support wireless charging. Better yet, Samsung is supporting both Qi (WPC) and PMA standards, so it should work with wireless chargers in cars (usually Qi) and those in coffee shops (usually PMA). Unfortunately, the Galaxy S6's battery life isn't exceptional. Both models make it through a full day and evening of work, but beyond 12 hours, you're pushing your luck.

Are there compromises? You bet.

The Galaxy S5 was water resistant, the Galaxy S6s are not. I enjoyed carelessly leaving the old model on a kitchen counter to play music while I cooked. Also sacrificed on the altar of style was the removable battery. I suspect that only fastidious business travelers will care. Most of us who are worried about running out of power carry external battery packs anyway. The microSD slot for adding memory is also gone.

Much has been made of Apple Pay, Google Pay (supported on the Galaxy phones), and other wireless “smarty pants” ways of charging for things we can't afford using a phone. In terms of convenience, swiping a credit card is still faster than punching in a PIN code on your phone. Smart watches may make the ergonomics of it work, but I wouldn't pick a smartphone based on a mobile payments platform.

Samsung has done an excellent job upgrading the phones with enough design enhancements that I would encourage any Android user or anyone who liked the previous Samsung models to upgrade. Get the Edge if you can afford it. On the other hand, Samsung hasn't delivered a phone that will knock Apple fans out of their trees. To do that, one has to address ingrained digital habits and appeal to people on a deeper emotional level. Just building a better smartphone isn't enough.

John R. Quain is a personal tech columnist for Follow him on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at