In the space of a year, Samsung has changed its whole approach to smartphones.
It might be because the S5 performed disappointingly in sales. It might be because the company received near-constant ribbing from smartphone enthusiasts about the superior build and looks of rivals. It might be because we tired of gimmicks in place of meaningful innovation. It might just be a crazy whim that took JK Shin one day (no, it's probably not that).
In any case, Samsung has never made a more HTC One-like device than the Samsung Galaxy S6. And that’s why the ding-dong between the S6 and the brand new HTC One (M9), two gadgets launched on the very same day at MWC 2015 in Barcelona, will go down as one of history’s greats.
We’ve had hands-on time with each device, so it’s time for an early verdict. Seconds out, round one…
Design and build: Samsung's changed gear
Last year, we would have wasted few words explaining why the HTC One (M8) was the better device than the Samsung Galaxy S5 when it came to looks and build. But there has never been a more beautiful Samsung smartphone than the S6.
Gone is the flexy-backed polycarbonate of its predecessors, replaced with shiny Gorilla Glass 4 on the front and back, and a hardened aluminium bezel with a finely drilled speaker grille and beautifully machined buttons. It’s gorgeous, particularly in the white and charcoal versions.
Meanwhile, the HTC One (M9)’s design sits somewhere between that of the original One and last year’s (M8). It’s still a finely made aluminium unibody, but the front’s quite stark and industrial, and it steps out to a rear that's organic and sinuous. It’s a slightly confused object in its contrasting silver and gold livery (other colours are available), but it looks great, and the finishing process has resulted in a device that feels fantastic to hold and use.
However, while the HTC’s a chunky beast at 9.6mm - actually a little thicker than last year’s model - the Samsung is just 6.8mm thick (not included a millimetre of two for the prodruding lens). In fact, for a 5.1in device, the S6 is pretty svelte top to toe, while the HTC is quite substantial.
The upshot of this is that the Samsung takes an early lead in what is traditionally its weakest category. The HTC One (M9) is a lovely thing, but the Samsung is one of the finest-looking gadgets on the market.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy S6
The S6 is the first Samsung flagship to join the 2K club. (For the purposes of today, the Note 4 is not a flagship, OK?) That means it packs 2560x1440 pixels into its 5.1in diagonal expanse, which results in an amazing, no-you-can’t-see-the-pixel-grid-you’re-imagining-it resolution of 577ppi. It uses Super AMOLED tech, and it positively glows.
Meanwhile the HTC One (M9) sticks with a 5in, 1080p LCD with a decent xxxppi resolution. That might sound a bit 2014, but past HTC screens have been best in class in terms of their colour accuracy, and let’s face it - you still can’t really see the pixels.
Another benefit to the HTC’s lower resolution could be battery life - fewer pixels mean less power draw - but at this stage we don’t know what magic Samsung’s worked on the screen tech in the S6.
While there’s no doubt the Samsung has the HTC licked on paper in this category, we’re going to call it a draw until we’ve had a chance to do a proper comparison. Sound fair?
Ding, dong, UltraPixel’s not quite dead, but HTC’s definitely not pushing the 'big pixel' technology like it used to. The rear camera on the One (M9) is now uses a more traditional 20MP BSI sensor with a sapphire crystal lens cover, 4K video recording and an f/2.2 aperture. It’s capable of shooting rear-time HDR.
The 16MP, 4K-recording rear snapper on the S6 has a wider f/1.9 aperture and optical image stabilisation (OIS), which should in theory make for a smidge less detail than the HTC's but superior low light photos. It’s also capable of shooting real-time HDR. One thing we don't yet know is whether the protuderance that houses the camera is protected by sapphire glass as the HTC's is; given how prominent it is, we hope so, but it's a detail to consider.
The battle round the front is just as interesting. A 4MP f/2.0 UltraPixel number (see, it’s still alive) adorns the HTC, while a 5MP f/1.9 graces the Samsung’s face. Quick hands-on tests suggest these will both be superior selfie shooters.
So, each smartphone sounds etremely promising, although OIS could be a clincher for the Samsung if you’re into shooting people in the dark. For now, we have to call another draw.
The HTC One (M9) has a 64-bit, 8-core Qualcomm 810 (4 x 2GHz, 4 x 1.5GHz) running the show, supplemented by 3GB of RAM. The S6 has a 64-bit, 8-core Exynos chip (4 x 2.1GHz, 4 x 1.5GHz) at its heart, supplemented by 3GB of swanky new DDR4 RAM. In theory the S6 has the edge performance-wise, but it’s going to be impossible to know which is more beastly without some heavy benchmarking. Neither will be a slouch.
Because of Samsung’s newfound appreciation of posh design, the S6’s back isn’t removable, and there’s no space for a memory card. That means you’re limited to the 32GB, 64GB or 128GB your phone is born with, while the HTC’s 32GB can be supplemented with up to 128GB of sweet, sweet microSD memory. The latter sounds appealing, but opt for the 64GB or 128GB Samsung and you should have space to spare anyway.
So, shall we call it a draw until we’ve benchmarked? Let’s.
No-one trumps Samsung for features, and though many things about the S are stripped back, it still has toys. A fingerprint scanner, for example, and a heart-rate sensor on its back.
The new tech on the block is improved wireless charging technology. This supports the Qi (PMA) and PowerMat (WPC) standards so it’ll work wherever you’re lucky enough to find a charging pad.
Better still is a new payment technology courtesy of recent Samsung acquisition LoopPay. In combination with the S6’s new Samsung Pay app, this allows it to make purchases using just about any card machine by magnetically spoofing your card details. It’s unique, and in theory it’s more versatile than the NFC-only Apple Pay.
HTC’s keeping things relatively stripped back, although the (M9) has some neat features, including Dolby audio, a 24-bit, hi-res audio-capable DAC and BoomSound front-facing speakers. We’ve little doubt that BoomSound will beat the S6’s built-in speakers (past form would certainly suggest it will), but we have to hand the features battle to Samsung - this time, the innovations sound truly considered and worthwhile.
Winner: Samsung Galaxy S6
It’s a battle between the Samsung Galaxy S6’s 2550mAh and the HTC’s 2840mAh. Other things being equal the latter should in theory last longer, but Samsung’s fast-charge tech will reportedly furnish you with up to four hours’ use from a 10-minute wall charge.
Still, we’d say capacity is the safer bet, and for the first time in a Galaxy S model, the Samsung’s battery isn’t replaceable - so it can’t rely on that trick any more.
Winner: HTC One (M9)
Both the HTC One (M9) and Samsung Galaxy S6 offer customised versions of Android 5.0 (Lollipop), and while HTC’s Sense interface looked more refined and less gaudy than Samsung’s TouchWiz in the past, the balance has now shifted.
Samsung’s put a great deal of effort into taking the unnecessary detail and skeuomorphism out of its OS skin, and it’s resulted in something that’s easier to navigate and slicker in use. The bloatware’s tucked away, but there’s still some neat inclusions, such as 115GB of free cloud storage from Microsoft OneDrive (an app for which it has preloaded). Our previews of the device have given us the impression that it’ll be very easy to live with.
Meanwhile, the HTC’s Sense interface still looks cool, and still packs in handy features. Sense Home offers contextually useful information (a bit like Google Now), so if you cycled to work, it’ll warn you an hour before sunset in case you need to charge your lights. The Themes app also allows you to easily customise the look of every aspect of the UX.
Again, we couldn’t possibly call this without living with both experiences for a few days, so for now, you guessed it.
Tally up the totals and initial observations suggest the Samsung is the winner by a whisker. There’s little doubt that the S6 is the better-adorned device when it comes to features - Samsung Pay sounds transformative - but the real surprise is that its other win comes in the design and build category. It’s slim, sleek and leaps and bounds ahead of the S5 in terms of the materials it's made of and how it feels in your hand. So much so, it’s really giving the HTC One (M9) a run for its money.
That said, we haven’t had time to compare the two phones to any great depth; indeed, we haven’t even used them in the same room. And we’ve no doubt that the (M9) is every bit as cracking a device as its predecessors. It’s just clear that Samsung’s raised its game - and then some. Make sure to come back to Stuff for in-depth tests of both these impressive devices within the next month.
Winner (for now): Samsung Galaxy S6