The Galaxy S6 smartphone may just be Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.'s most important product launch ever. Or launches, rather.
With profits at its mobile division falling off dramatically, the South Korean giant is betting that two phones – a traditionally flat Galaxy S6 and a new S6 Edge model with a curved screen – will reignite its fortunes.
The tactic worked wonders for Apple, which introduced not one but two new iPhones – the 6 and the 6 Plus – back in the fall. The phones, marked by their bigger screens, sold by the truckload and helped Apple along to its biggest quarterly profit in history.
Apple's bonanza turned out to be Samsung's sorrow, with operating profit in the most recent quarter at the Asian company's mobile division down 64 per cent year over year. The company is also being pinched on the lower end by the growth of Chinese manufacturers such as Xiaomi, who are selling comparable phones at cheaper prices.
But rather than simply launch two devices with different screen sizes, as Apple did, Samsung is hoping to stand out in the minds of consumers with the S6 Edge, a new flagship device that features a screen that curves inward along both of its vertical sides. The additional flat-screened model, meanwhile, is relegated to a supporting role.
Both devices are being unveiled officially at the annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on Sunday, but Samsung brought a small group of journalists to a hands-on preview in New York earlier this week. We had some time with the devices and were generally impressed with their features and improvements.
The most noticeable changes with both devices is the materials used in their construction. Both S6 models feature Gorilla Glass 4 front and back, with each encased in a metal frame. This gives them a heft and the premium feel that was missing in previous Galaxy phones.
Older devices indeed felt cheap and plasticky, which created opportunities for competing manufacturers such as HTC and Motorola to come along with metallic devices that felt more solid when held. By shifting away from plastic, Samsung will make a good case for closing that opening.
Samsung's strong point has always been its screens, and both S6 devices feature great-looking 5.1-inch Quad High-Resolution Super AMOLED displays. Resolution comes in at a whopping 577 pixels per inch, among the sharpest on the market.
It's tough to say how the curves on the S6 Edge affect the display without having longer to absorb them. In the short time we had with the phone, they did seem to enhance the visuals by picking up light and adding some gleam. But will they also attract more glare? We can't yet say.
It's also not yet clear whether the curves, first introduced last year on just one side of the Note Edge, are a useful innovation or a gimmick that simply adds to the cost of the phone.
With the Note Edge, Samsung introduced ticker-like apps – Twitter notifications, sports scores and the like – that ran along the slim curve. The company says those will be back with the S6 Edge.
One of the niftier uses of the curved edges involves colour-coding friends, loved ones and other contacts. If you leave your phone lying face down on the table while you're in a meeting, for example, and you get a call from one of those contacts, the phone will flash the associated colour through its edges.
The curves allow for a just a little bit of the coloured light to reflect off the table, which provides a subtle visual clue as to who's calling. From there, you can tap the heart-rate sensor on the back of the phone to send an automated text message back.
It's a somewhat convoluted way of dealing with interruptions, but it's clever nonetheless. Whether other app makers will put the effort into thinking up similar uses for the curves is another open question.
Samsung has also made improvements to the cameras on both S6 models. The main back cameras retain the same 16 megapixels of the S5, but the front-facing ones get a bump up to 5 MP from the previous 2 MP – a recognition of the growing importance of selfies.
Moreover, the lenses are faster with a new aperture of F1.9, which Samsung says will give the cameras better low-light capabilities. Unfortunately, the demo was in a brightly lit room and we weren't able to test this.
The phones also feature a new quick-launch capability, with the camera opening in about half a second when the main button is pressed twice. Samsung has also brought in fast-tracking auto focus from its NX1 mirrorless camera, which follows a subject as it moves.
The Galaxy line's camera has indeed been one of its weak spots so it's nice to see all these improvements. We're looking forward to testing them further.
The last of the major new features in both S6 phones is wireless charging. While some manufacturers offer optional charging cases that add this capability to devices, Samsung has instead opted to build it right in, with the phones accommodating both WPC and PMA standards. This is good news as food chains such as McDonald's and Starbucks add wireless charging mats to their restaurants.
Samsung has also made quick-charging a priority with the new devices, which can now get a 50-per-cent charge in 30 minutes. This is obviously another feature we weren't able to test, but it's a welcome one if it works, given how fast modern phones suck power.
The company had little to say about software, but both S6 models will come with Android 5.0.2 Lollipop. Samsung has also cut down the number of additional and often extraneous software features – also known as bloatware – packed in. Quickly browsing through the phones' screens proves this to be a nice change from some previous devices.
On the downside, the S6 phones won't be capable of mobile payments at launch even though they are equipped with NFC technology. "It's just not ready," a spokesperson said. Apple, on the other hand, is busily rolling out its own mobile payments system and is expected to soon expand it outside of the United States.
Samsung has also relocated the speakers to the bottom of the phones, from the rear, and will be offering the devices in 32, 64 and 128 gigabyte configurations. The S6 Edge will be available in black, white, gold or green, while the flat model will have a blue option instead of green. Only the black and white models will be available in Canada at launch, according to a spokesperson.
While both phones are expected to be widely available through most Canadian carriers, it's not clear what they're going to cost. Samsung isn't saying yet, but with the curved screen and wireless charging built-in, it's safe to assume the Edge at least will carry a hefty price tag.
The existing Note Edge, with only one curved side, currently sells for around $899 in Canada without a contract, or $399 on a two-year deal. According to reports, the 64GB version of the S6 Edge will cost European carriers a whopping $1,076 (U.S.), while the comparable flat version will cost $963.
At those sorts of prices, it looks like Samsung is going to push the envelope with how much it can charge for its flagship devices – a risky bet given the two-pronged pinch it's in.
There are also questions about whether the company will be able to produce enough of the S6 Edge to meet demand. Reports suggest there will only be a limited supply of the difficult-to-manufacture devices.
Samsung seems to confirm that. While the curved phone will be getting the marketing push, the flat-screened model is also being offered because it is easier to produce, a spokesperson at the New York briefing said.