The GS4 and GS5 era were rocky from an aesthetic standpoint -- but at long last Sammy sates Android fans appetite for high-end design

If Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd. (KRX:005930) (KRX:005935) has never channeled its inner Apple, Inc. (AAPL) as much so as it did with the Galaxy S6, which launched on Monday at the 2015 Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona, Spain.

The GS6 is, in some regards, a Samsung fan's wet dream.  In others it's a betrayal of the swapability paradigms that most Android device makers have pushed for so long.  One thing's for sure, though: the GS6 recaptures the penchant for bold visions than once fueled Samsung's rampant rise to the top.

I. Samsung's Evolution Takes a Quantum Leap

From a design perspective, the Galaxy S6 elevates the smartphone to the status of an object of beauty and envy.  And under the hood, Samsung appears to be taking the right steps to ensure the phone's bark matches its visual bite.

Samsung Mobile CEO Shin
Samsung Mobile chief JK Shin shows off his company's prized new design at MWC 2015.
[Image Source:]

The GS6 packs an in-house-designed SoC with performance that claims to trump the competition in both pure processing power and power efficiency.  There's a beautiful ultra-high resolution screen and a lightning fast camera to dog with it.

Samsung GS6

At the same time it's bound to frustrate in some regards.  There's no microSD support.  There's no swapping the battery.  This is a device that carries Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Android OS, but otherwise makes the kind of design decisions we more normally see on the other side of the fence -- from Apple.  Valuing perfection of design and simplicity above flexibility and extensibility has been a winning strategy for Apple, but it may nonetheless feel like a betrayal to some Android smartphones to see one of their own adopt these strategies.

To understand why Samsung would put forth such a dizzying, ambitious, and controversial set of changes in its flagship model, you must cast a hard eye on the recent struggles of Samsung on the high end.

In 2013 Samsung released the Galaxy S4.  At the time the South Korean OEM was riding high, with surging profits, and soaring smartphone sales.  But the bizarre press event in New York City was about the only thing colorful thing about the GS4.  The device was overall a dull thud when it came to pushing the envelope.  Unsurpringly the underambitious upgrade saw slower sales growth than past models.  Samsung's bottom line subsequently suffered.
Samsung GS4
The Galaxy S4 started Samsung's dry spell.

Samsung didn't seem to recant from its strategy with the entrance of last year's flagship Galaxy S5.  While some Samsung fans came to love it in spite of its flaws, critics would say that the GS5 once more delivered a relatively uninspired leap forward in terms of spec and design.  That timidity ultimately cost Samsung, who saw sales of its high end device continue to slump, both in the U.S. and overseas.

GS5 -- electric blue

Samsung GS6
Last year's GS5 also was relatively risk-averse.

As the say goes, heavy is the head that wears the crown and heavy indeed was the weight of these struggles on Samsung's earnings over the last year.  For a company who billed its devices as "the next big thing", this was an existential crisis.  While Samsung remained the largest smartphone seller in 2015, suddenly it was being trounced by Apple in high-end unit sales.  

iPhone 6

Even scrappy rivals like HTC Corp. (TPE:2498) and China's Xiaomi were capitalizing on the collective malaise at the bording GS5.

The GS6 sends a defiant message to those who wrote off Samsung in the GS4 and GS5 era -- no more.

No more defiantly drab plastic bodies.  No more relying on third-party processors.  No more forgettable designs.

GS6 Ege -- in the shadows

The minor surprise of the launch wasn't so much this design makeover, but rather the new Galaxy S6 "Edge" variant, an intriguing doubly curved device in the vein of last year's overlooked Galaxy Note "Edge".  The new Edge packs a seemingly simple addition -- a second rounded edge to form a parallel set of curves.  While it seems a minor addition at first, this newfound symmetry yields a surprising aesthetic improvement over the quirky Note Edge.

GS6 Edge

GS6 Edge design

The Galaxy S6 and the lower-volume S6 Edge are what Samsung fans have hoped for since the Galaxy S3 -- or they appear to be, at least.  Among its highlights are: Here's some short videos from Samsung teasing at the new model.

The full livestream is also available for replay below.

Clearly there's a lot of ground to cover, so let's start by looking at Samsung's extreme design makeover.

II. Thin, Yet Rigid

The star of the show is the new body design.

The goal of any designer is to create objects of beauty.  In recent years the designs of Apple's Sir Jonathan Paul "Jony" Ive have been trumpeted as vital selling points, while Samsung fans have had to live with more drab and demure alternatives.  Ive not-so-subtly jabbed Samsung stating to the press in Mar. 2014 -- "We're surrounded by anonymous, poorly made objects."

GS6 -- Edge side view

Samsung Mobile CEO JK Shin seems to acknowledge his company's design struggles in the press release for the devices, writing that the company has learned from its "missteps":

With the all new Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge, Samsung is offering what’s next in mobility, along with a new standard to drive the global mobile agenda.  By listening to our customers, and learning from both our success and missteps, we continuously push forward new technologies and ideas. With a reimagined design, robust partner network and novel services, the Samsung Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge offer users the ultimate experience in smartphone options.

To end its second-class status, Samsung wisely turned to the tree of design which Apple had once plucked its design chief from decades back, London, UK's Tangerine.  Surveying the ranks at Tangerine, it took note of Lee Don-tae, a South Korean national who had risen to design prestige in the UK after humble beginnings in his homeland growing up in a rural home with no power.

Samsung and Apple -- design heritage
Samsung's global design chief Lee Don-tae (left) and Apple's lead designer "Jony" Ive (right) both hail from London design house Tangerine. [Image Source: EdenVapes/KoreaTimes/]

At Tangerine he enjoyed a fruitful career (pun not intended) winning prestigious awards for his role in major design projects.  And he wasn't shy about speaking his mind about the state of design in Korea.  His view?  Basically, it stunk.  He remarked last year to an audience in South Korea:

Companies should not only use their business partners as a means to making
profit.  Partners should respect each other and cooperate together. And if more Korean companies use design as means of creativity in their businesses, I think more of them will experience success.

Somewhere in the upper management at Samsung, that criticism surely resonated as soon thereafter the firm was wooing Don-tae away from Tangerine.

To be fair it's unclear how much of this radical design makeover is Don-tae's doing.  He's only been on the job officially since Jan. 2015.  Such scenarios are not uncommon in the business world.  While much of the groundwork may have been laid down by one's predecessors, history seldom looks at such finer distinctions.  Thus, for better or worse, credit for the new body will ultimately likely land in the lap of Don-tae.

While preferences vary wildly when it comes to design aesthetics, the GS6 will inarguably be considered an object of beauty to most of its fans and object of jealousy and resentment to Apple loyalists.  Its metal frame looks downright sexy.

Samsung GS6
A malleable metal frame is reinforced with a backplane of super-hardened glass.

The design ultimately comes down to a glass sandwich with a metal rim and internal frame.  It's a design that echoes the similar tempered glass designs of the iPhone 44Sand 5 [source].  With the iPhone 5S Apple had dropped the glass sandwich approach due to the increased tendency of the tempered glass pane to shatter when dropped.  While the design shift decreased drop damage, the 7.3 mm thick iPhone 6/6+ reminded us of what was lost when that design was abandoned -- rigidity.

Setting its sites on a razor thin 6.8 mm profile, Samsung wisely tapped the defunct glass sandwich.  And by now the industry had put forth the perfect solution to shatterability -- Corning's Gorilla Glass 4.

Gorilla Glass 4

While Corning's Gorilla Glass is virtually ubiquitous in the smartphone space, Samsung is among the first customers for the latest GG4.  Hardened via a molten alkali metal bath, and doped via aluminum ions, this glass has enhanced strength and crack-resistance.  Even if Gorilla Glass does crack, it has the highly desirable tendency to contain these flaws.

Announced back in Nov. 2014, the GG4 claims to allow phones to survive without cracks 80 percent of the time when dropping the device from a height of 1 meter (3.3 feet)

Using Gorilla Glass is old hat.  But using the latest and greatest Gorilla Glass in a two-pane sandwich design is nothing short of a small stroke of brilliance on Samsung's part.

The design has the added benefit of not only fighting deformation from drops, but also lending to device rigidity -- a crucial challenge in such a thin device.

iPhone 6 -- bend
An iPhone 6+ bends a bit too easily, as it lacks the strong rigidity of thicker metal frames.
[Image Source: YouTube]

Apple users experienced first hand the struggle to maintain rigidity in such a thin form factor when the metal frames of their iPhone 6/6+ experienced deformation in an embarassing episode that became best known by the name "bendgate".

III. Designing an Enviable Object 

Samsung describes the new design in glowing terms writing:

Carefully crafted from metal and glass, the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge blend purposeful design with powerful features.... This timeless design required first-of-its-kind glass crafting technology and unmatched quality control, setting the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge apart from every other mobile device on the market. The premium device aesthetics deliver true value and are complemented by a totally new and lighter interface that greatly enhances usability and functionality. A refined and fully optimized user experience simplifies applications and offers features and settings in a more intuitive way.

Samsung Galaxy S6 -- Edge

In its press release, it also makes it clear that the real design star is the doubly curved GS6 Edge.  It brags:

The Galaxy S6 edge, particularly, shows unique and outstanding beauty while also providing a solid grip and an immersive viewing experience with the world’s first curved display on both sides. Its glass body, made from the toughest glass to date, Corning® Gorilla Glass® 4, is available in an array of colorful jewel tones, including White Pearl, Black Sapphire, Gold Platinum, Blue Topaz and Green Emerald, which elicit a unique visual texture as it reflects natural light.


The GS6 and GS6 Edge will come in four "jewel tones".  These colorful metal tints are admittedly a bit gawdy.  But given the popularity of similar shading in HTC and Apple product, they should do well.

GS6 -- Emerald

Tints for the baseline GS6 include:
  • White Pearl
  • Black Sapphire
  • Gold Platinum
  • Blue Topaz (exclusive)
These varieties are seen here in press renders.
Samsung press renders
The Samsung GS6 Edge comes in...
  • White Pearl
  • Black Sapphire
  • Gold Platinum
  • Emerald Green (exclusive)
Which are seen here in yet another press teaser.

GS6 Edge teaser
Here's a look at the baseline GS6 in various colors ( click any image to enlarge):

Gold Platinum

Samsung GS6 Gold Platinum
Samsung GS6

White Pearl

Samsung GS6

Samsung GS6 -- Pearl White

Sapphire Black

Samsung GS6 -- Sapphire Black

Topaz Blue

Samsung GS6 -- Topaz Blue

Samsung GS6 -- Topaz Blue

Lastly here's some views of the GS6 Edge in its exclusive tint.

Emerald Green

GS6 Edge -- emerald

GS6 Edge -- Emerald

The GS6 Edge is a hair thinner (or less than a hair, literally speaking) than the baseline model.  Yet it still manages to beat out the iPhone 6/6+ narrowly, with a 7.0 mm thick body.  That's pretty incredible.

IV. Too iPhone 6-Like?

The design clearly cribs some aspects of the Apple design, such as matte wraparound stripe highlights.  Overall it looks something like the possible love child of an iPhone 5 and HTC One M8.  But that's not a bad thing.  The One's biggest selling point was its design.  And design is near the top of the iPhone's selling points as well.

It takes a side-by-side comparison to see how similar the iPhone 6 and GS6 designs are, but once you've seen it, it can't be unseen.

iPhone 6 vs GS6
iPhone 6 vs GS6
Once you've seen the design similarities between the Galaxy S6 and Apple iPhone 6, it's hard to unsee them. [Image Source: MobiFlip (top); WSJ (bottom)]

That's arguably a flattering comparison.  However, it could also spell trouble given that Apple previously asserted a pair of iPhone design patents against earlier Galaxy S series devices, winning nearly $1B USD in damages in a 2012 jury trial verdict.  It will be interesting to watch and see whether Apple takes any legal action against Samsung for its similar design language.

A more recent second jury trial last year wrapped up in essentially a stalemate, with both parties found guilty of infringement.  As a result, Samsung and Apple appear to be winding down their legal war.  This design could cast a bit of fuel on the fire in the pair's patent spat.

jury trial
Apple successfully won a design case against Samsung in 2012. [Image Source: Reuters]

If the design does get scrutinized by the courts it could something as simple as that matte stripe that sways thing's Apple's way.  That said, Samsung can at least claim that its flattened sides are a unique touch Appple doesn't have, even if its overall finish and ports placement seems to mirror Apple's. 

If it does wind up in legal trouble, Samsung may benefit from the presence of the Galaxy S6 Edge, which could stand in for the base model, should it be temporarily scuttled in certain markets.  The Edge likely could escape design infringement claims thanks to the curved screen adding another design touch to help it overcome the critical barrier of "different enough" versus Apple.
GS6 Edge

Similarities and IP concerns, aside, it's hard to argue with results.  With the GS6 Samsung finally has joined the ranks of design leadership with a metal frame device of its own.  The design is a quantum leap over last year's GS5.

Evidence of its progress can be witnessed in commentary from more open-minded Apple fans.  CNN Money editor Hope King, for example, enthuses:

First things first. I'm an iPhone user. I've been an iPhone user since Apple first introduced it in 2007. Thus, my knowledge of Samsung phones and the Android platform is slim. I've only ever interacted with them when strangers stop me on the street and ask for a picture because they don't have a selfie stick. In addition, during the preview event, I only played with these phones for a few minutes.... That said, the new Galaxy S6 phones are impressive and fairly sleek.

Overall the reaction from the Apple camp appears to be mixture of begrudging respect and consternation at the "similarities."  This bodes very well for Samsung as it suggests that it may be able to accomplish with these new devices something that it had little hope of doing with the GS4 or GS5 -- convince iPhone "design snobs" to switch camps.

This is the first article in a two part series. In the followup we will conclude by looking at the GS6's spec sheet.

Sources: Samsung Mobile [press release], Samsung Mobile on YouTube [1], [2], [3]

"There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere." -- Isaac Asimov

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