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First Look: Samsung gets a lot right with new S6 phones

First Published      Last Updated Mar 16 2015 06:50 pm

Samsung's new Galaxy smartphones improve in two major areas: design and picture quality.

Samsung ramped up its camera technology in last fall's Galaxy Note 4, and the camera is even better in the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge announced Sunday. More importantly, the new phones have a more stylish design.

I had less than 90 minutes to try out the new phones in controlled settings, so it's too early for a definitive assessment. But I'm impressed with what I've seen so far. The phones will start selling in April, at prices not yet determined.

DESIGN

For years, Samsung phones have had removable backs made of plastic. That allowed for battery replacement, but made the phones look cheap. I'm glad to see the metal frame and glass back in the new phones. The phones are lighter than before, even with metal.



The main S6 model feels boxy in my hands. More recent iPhones have smoother, curved edges. The S6 Edge curves on the left and right sides to create side displays, so it feels better. But boxy or not, I prefer Samsung's new design over its old models.

CAMERA

The Note 4 camera was excellent for producing images rich in color. However, the colors sometimes felt unnatural, especially with indoor shots. The S6 phones seek to fix that by using their infrared sensors (normally used for heart rate tracking) to better detect and adjust for specific lighting conditions. This sounds promising.

The S6 phones also sport better focus, borrowing technology from Samsung's stand-alone NX1 camera. You already can focus on a person by touching that part of the screen. But if the person walks away, the focus is off. With the new technology, the focal point moves with the person. It worked in my limited tests, though the subjects were still blurry because of poor lighting conditions. I may get better results outdoors.

One handy feature: Double tap the home button anytime to open the camera app quickly, so you don't miss shots.

BATTERY

You can no longer replace the battery with a spare, but there's fast-charging technology to get you from zero to 50 percent in a half-hour. Although I didn't get to test this with the S6 phones, a similar feature worked well on the Note 4.

With wireless charging, you can place the phone on a special mat to charge it. No cords needed. This will be handy when coffee shops and restaurants start making these mats available. Until then, I don't mind the cord, especially as wireless charging is slower.

SIDE DISPLAYS

The S6 Edge model has curved sides, similar to last fall's Note Edge phone. The S6 Edge improves on the Note by having the display curve over both the left and right sides. The Note Edge's side display was on the right only, making some features awkward for lefties.

With the S6 Edge, you can assign colors to important contacts — such as red for your spouse. With the phone face down, the side will flash red when a call from your spouse comes in. You can decide without rudely lifting the phone whether you really need to take that call.

MOBILE PAY

When it launches this summer in the U.S. and South Korea, Samsung Pay will let people pay with a tap at retail stores. The service promises to work at more places than Apple Pay because it has backup technology that replicates the magnetic-strip signals on plastic cards. However, based on Samsung's descriptions, Samsung Pay will require a few more steps than Apple Pay at checkout.

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AT A GLANCE

Q&A on Samsung’s new mobile pay: Here’s what’s we know

Last fall, Apple launched Apple Pay, bringing mobile-payment technology to the iPhone. Samsung now wants to get that on Android phones — at least the ones it makes.

The Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge phones recently announced will come with mobile-pay capabilities. Samsung’s payment service won’t come until this summer, and will launch only in the U.S. and South Korea at first. Here’s what’s known about Samsung Pay and how it compares with Apple Pay and Google’s own efforts for Android.

How does Samsung Pay work?

As with Apple Pay, customers will simply tap their phone on a retail store’s payment machine. Apple and Samsung phones use a wireless technology known as near-field communication, or NFC. The payment machine also needs NFC, something many merchants won’t have until this fall.

Samsung is supplementing NFC with a technology from LoopPay, a startup it’s buying. LoopPay replicates the magnetic-strip signals on plastic cards, so it works with more merchants. While NFC transactions can be authorized through the phones’ fingerprint sensors, LoopPay transactions might still require a physical signature.

If there’s LoopPay, why bother with NFC and the equipment that entails?

As a retrofit for older, magnetic technology, LoopPay has its limitations. Some parking meters and transit-fare machines require you to insert a card into a slot. You can’t just stick a phone with LoopPay into that slot. At some stores, the place for swiping the card is behind the counter — out of the customer’s reach.

LoopPay is meant as a transition. Bill Gajda, a senior vice president at Visa, says LoopPay will help get customers more comfortable with mobile payments, as more merchants will accept them. As merchants see customers make such payments, they would be more likely to upgrade equipment to NFC.

How secure is Samsung Pay?

Samsung Pay, like Apple Pay, promises to be more secure than plastic. With both services, the merchant gets a substitute 16-digit card number stored on the device. A verification code is created for each transaction, based in part on unique keys on the phone. Even if hackers get that substitute number, they need the actual phone for the verification code.

That said, LoopPay’s stand-alone technology uses the regular card number, and magnetic signals are easy to detect and replicate. Samsung is working with both Visa and MasterCard to make substitute numbers available with LoopPay on the phones to boost security. James Anderson, a senior vice president for mobile at MasterCard, says the bank issuing the card needs to participate. If they don’t, some card holders might not be able to make mobile payments, even with the right phone. Samsung says participating banks will include American Express, Bank of America, Citi, JPMorgan Chase, and U.S. Bank.

Will merchants be able to block Samsung Pay as CVS, 7-Eleven and a few others have done with Apple Pay?

Yes, but not easily. With NFC transactions, it was a matter of turning off the NFC chip. Samsung Pay has the magnetic backup, so it will be tough to turn that off without rejecting plastic cards, too. Merchants could potentially work with their payment processors to deny ranges of card numbers assigned as substitute account numbers, Gajda says. That’s unlikely, but not impossible.

What about Google’s own payment service?

Google recently teamed up with Verizon Wireless, AT&T and T-Mobile to have its Google Wallet payment service built into Android phones sold by those carriers. Google also is buying some technology from Softcard, a payment venture owned by the three wireless carriers. Both Google Wallet and Softcard use NFC.

Unlike Samsung Pay, Google Wallet will work on Android phones sold by other manufacturers. Samsung phones sold by those three carriers will have both services. Customers must pick one to use — so that they won’t end up paying for everything twice.

So far, Google Wallet uses regular card numbers, without the added security from substitute numbers used by Apple Pay or planned with Samsung Pay.

Will Samsung Pay work with other phones?

Future phones will likely get it, too. Older models likely won’t work, though. Although they have NFC, they don’t have LoopPay.


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