NEW YORK — The monumental success that Apple has had with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus squarely put the pressure on Samsung to step up its game with its new flagship phones.
Judging by my first look at the handsome Galaxy S6 and the curved S6 Edge handsets that were unveiled Sunday in Barcelona at Mobile World Congress, Samsung has met that challenge.
Of course, I say that with a major disclaimer: I haven’t had a chance to test the latest phones out in the wild yet and only briefly gotten to hold them. I have seen them long enough to admire their colorful new designs, beautiful Gorilla Glass-protected 5.1-inch Quad HD displays and high-grade aluminum construction — yes, no more dimpled plastic as on prior devices. You see subtle color changes on the body of the phone depending upon how you hold it up to natural light.
But we still don’t know what the phones will cost. Or whether the fingerprint sensor that Samsung says has been greatly improved will live up to that claim.
Speaking of which, you’ll be able to use the fingerprint sensor to authenticate everyday purchases at retail outlets and turn the phones into a digital wallet, just as Apple has done on the 6 and 6 Plus with Apple Pay. But while the new phones themselves are expected to arrive with full carrier support in April, the Samsung Pay feature won’t launch until summer.
Along those lines, the phones will be compatible with the contactless point-of-sale terminals that work with the NFC (near field communication) technology built into the phones. But Samsung Pay will also work at more traditional “magstripe” terminals at retail that have been in place for years, due in large part to Samsung’s recent acquisition of the start-up LoopPay.
In theory, it means Samsung Pay has the potential to be accepted at a lot more places than Apple Pay, at least for now. Overall, Samsung says Samsung Pay will work in about 90% of the retail terminals in the U.S.
But an open question is how seamless the process will be, or how it will compare to Apple Pay. Once you’ve added your credit cards into the phone, you swipe up from the bezel to invoke the Samsung Pay app.
“I think (Samsung) is making every effort to facilitate a good, easy and not confusing consumer experience,” says Sherri Haymond, senior vice president of channel management of MasterCard, which is teaming up with Samsung on Samsung Pay. The companies will be using a “tokenized” credential process to ensure security, along with Samsung’s Knox mobile security platform. Samsung is also partnering with Visa and other financial institutions.
Samsung has beefed up the cameras on the latest hardware, improving the pictures you shoot in a low-light environment. One new camera feature lets you maintain focus on a moving subject, providing a benefit to parents who are trying get good pictures of the kid who can’t stand still.
You can fire up the camera in as fast as 0.7 seconds, Samsung says, by double-clicking the home button, something I did get to try. On the specs side, the rear-facing camera is 16-megapixels; the front, 5-megapixels.
Also coming to the new devices is wireless charging. If you come across a wireless charging pad at a coffeehouse, for example, you’ll be able to plunk the phone down on that pad to charge it without plugging in. The phones support common wireless charging standards, and Samsung will be selling its own wireless charging pad accessories.
If you do use a cable to charge the phones, you can get up to about four hours of usage in only about 10 minutes of charging, Samsung says. Rival phones have this fast-charging feature as well, but its arrival on the new Samsung models is welcome just the same.
If there’s a trade-off on the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, it’s that you cannot remove the battery as on prior Galaxy phones.
Samsung has been making a big push lately into virtual reality what with its Oculus-powered Gear VR headgear that I recently reviewed. The first Gear VR goggles were compatible only with a single Samsung phone, the Note 4 phablet. Now with the S6 and S6 Edge, Samsung is developing a Gear VR that will work with these latest phones. No specifics yet on timing, but it will be 15% smaller and have redesigned straps.
The S6 and S6 Edge will come in 32GB, 64GB or 128GB storage configurations. And although Samsung hasn’t announced pricing, it has said the edge device will carry a premium. S6 Edge is modeled after the Note Edge, with a narrow curved extension of the screen able to display a clock and other additional content. Further content details are forthcoming.
So, too, will be a full review of the new phones once Samsung makes evaluation units available. But by incorporating mobile payments, wireless charging and much more attractive designs, Samsung appears more than ready to compete