Monday, May 14, 2012

Samsung’s climb to the top of the Android pile and why the Galaxy S III feels like a miss

Over the last three years or so Samsung has become the dominant manufacturer in the Android ecosystem, so much so that they have surpassed Nokia as the largest mobile phone manufacturer in the world. Samsung’s initial offerings lacked the wow factor that HTC and Motorola brought to the table and were quickly forgotten, it wasn’t until Samsung created the Galaxy line of phones they really got their act together and started to dominate the smartphone market.

The original Galaxy S used very high end components matched to a Super AMOLED display that still has other manufacturers scrambling to replicate. Samsung also created a line of the original Galaxy S giving exclusive styling to each of the major phone companies in the US allowing for impressive marketing for each individual phone allowing them to sell over 10 million units worldwide. The devices received favorable reviews for styling and the screen however the GPS performance was substandard to say the least and reviewers bemoaned the plastic construction and low build quality of the devices (not a huge deal at the time as very few companies used anything other than plastic) as well as the inclusion of the proprietary ‘Touchwiz’ interface overtop of the Android OS.

 In addition to launching the successful Galaxy S line they received the honor of producing the second Nexus device directly from Google to show of the new Gingerbread software. The Nexus S was based on the Galaxy S hardware with a few tweaks such as an NFC chip and a slightly curved screen, a first of its kind. While not a leap ahead of the Galaxy S line the Nexus S solved many of the problems plaguing the Galaxy line such as the GPS and the Touchwiz interface and received high marks all around save for the build quality and lack of 720p recording. Samsung had a bona fide hit on its hands and in 2011 they had to try to create a product that could top its previous success.

Enter the Galaxy S II.

The announcement of the Galaxy S II was eagerly anticipated by the tech world and Samsung did not disappoint. The SII brought a dual core processor, 4.3 inch Super AMOLED Plus display, 8 MP camera with flash and 1080p recording all while decreasing the thickness to 8.49 mm. This was a game changer. A beautiful piece of hardware with the chops to handle anything you could throw at it, the Galaxy S II was quickly crowned the best Android device and between the variants has sold more than 20 million units, twice that of its predecessor. As great as the phone is they continued to overlay Touchwiz and the build quality of the phone was still not greatly improved over the previous generation, meanwhile the competition was moving to metals, ceramics and more durable plastics.

Google again called on Samsung to create the next iteration of its Nexus line and in late 2011 at a joint press conference they unveiled the next evolution of hardware and software the Galaxy Nexus. The main focus of the event was the all new overhauled Android OS Ice Cream Sandwich and it was a huge change from previous versions. The OS was the showpiece but Samsung delivered big time with the hardware to showcase Google’s crown jewel. With a monstrous 4.65 inch HD Super AMOLED curved glass display display and no capacitive buttons the OS was the focal point but in addition to this gorgeous display Samsung used a 1.2 Ghz dual core processor, 5MP rear camera which showcased zero shutter lag, and an underlying bracing system this phone was a beast. Reviews of the phone were inseparable from the OS reviews and almost universally this phone was praised on every level, the only major flaw was the 5MP camera which was stated to be used to keep the shutter speed low, it seemed as though Samsung had crippled the camera in the Google device to keep the Galaxy S II selling with its 8 MP shooter. The build quality was brought up again with this phone and while other companies had glass, metal and ceramic materials the Nexus maintained its plastic exterior however the build quality was significantly better than the previous generation due to an internal support system as well as a soft touch backing that allowed for better grip on the phone.

Then with no unveiling at CES or MWC and numerous possible leaks the anticipation for Samsung’s next blockbuster was reaching a fever pitch. Speculation ran wild on all the specs and possible styling ranging from a squared off SII to an all-out redesign. As the time came closer it was believe that the phone would be about 4.5 inch non-pentile display with a 12MP shooter, ceramic body, full day battery and at least a 1.5 Ghz processor possibly quad core with a less intrusive touchwiz.

On May 3 Samsung had the big reveal and people were very very disappointed. It was the same feeling of disappointment surrounding the iPhone 4S, after so much speculation the actual device did not live up to the dreams. So what did the device turn out to be? Well it still is a monumental device in my opinion (though the lack of a black option irritates me). The phone has a 4.8 inch HD Super AMOLED Display with Gorilla Glass 2 (still pentile reportedly for the ‘shelf life’ of the screen), an 8 MP camera with a 1.9 MP front facing camera, a 1.4 Ghz quad core processor and a 2100mAh battery. Those are pretty impressive specs, that phone will run anything you through at it as well as lasting all day, the screen though slightly low res compared to the Nexus and iPhone is still a beast and with the Gorilla Glass will likely not need a screen protector. The specs are about as high end as you can get and certainly competitive with HTC’s new offerings. The plastic case is back which is disappointing but it does not look like any other phone on the market with lots of curves and coming in blue or white right off the bat. It is a great phone on paper just nothing mind blowing. Touchwiz has undergone a massive redesign which is slightly less intrusive but still more than I would like to see especially overtop of ICS, but there are some very cool tweaks that Samsung has made that could be useful as long as they do not tax the system too much. Smart Stay keeps the screen on for you based on if you are looking at it or not which is pretty cool, S Voice is an obvious response to Siri, all kinds of great DLNA add-ons for media streaming and for some reason a picture in picture style pop up. In addition the phone supports wireless charging, S Pebble MP3 player, pen input and a variety of docks/chargers as well as 50 GB of Dropbox space, double that of HTC’s offering. Overall Samsung has created a very comprehensive package that could be very enticing to the end user. If this phone came from any other phone manufacturer it would have been deemed a success right off the bat but companies such as Samsung and HTC are held to a higher standard than most and people were expecting that little extra to push the phone past the competition instead of putting it at the same level. If you look at the phone without knowing the history behind it you can see that this phone is a spectacular device that will likely dominate the marketplace similar to the iPhone 4S scenario because really the only people that are disappointed are tech lovers that have been eagerly anticipating this release while the general public has no preconceived notions of this phone and will be excited by its looks and features.

I do believe that Samsung needs to take some strides to improve the materials used for its phones and take design to another level to continue to dominate the market in the future or its competitors will take over. Currently however I think Samsung will have another monster on its hands with the Galaxy S III with its fairly conservative styling (compare to Motorola) and mile long feature list this should be an easy sell for service providers that want to offer something other than the iPhone.
Note: In the interest of full disclosure I have owned the Galaxy S Captivate, Nexus S and currently use the Galaxy Nexus as my daily driver.