Iterations: Samsung is a bit like Google
Five days ago, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy S5. As things usually are with Samsung, you’re helplessly drawn in to the action, like it or not. They’re the largest Android player in terms of sales and device portfolio and the only one that is right at the heels of Apple, warranting this kind of hype. However, a lot of people (myself included) feel that given Samsung’s execution of things in their flagships they are undeserving of this status. HTC or Motorola should be in that spot, representing the best of Android. But in a world where tech geeks are a smaller minority than most would like to admit, effective marketing is ultimately the only relevant factor, it seems. Influence from tech geeks takes quite a while to spread among the general population.
I try to be unbiased in judging new phones. I have to admit, though, on Monday while we awaited the next Samsung, Sony got me all excited about the XZ2 earlier in the day and I ended up mindlessly shunning the S5 as yet another gimmicky plastic Samsung with unpolished software.
Fast forward to Saturday morning, I found my self contemplating how similar Samsung is to Google. Now before anyone flips their tables let me just run you through my thought process.
What I noticed with the S5 hands-on videos was that the UI was very fluid. I had seen similar fluidity on the Note 3, but even there, I could pick out frame drops and stuttering at an unacceptable level. So here, I was glad to see that Samsung had finally learnt to optimise software for fluidity.
Now if you think back through the years, this is how Android itself had progressed. Minor iterations over time. It only really got reasonably fluid in 4.1 with Project Butter and even then had some way to to go. Heck, everything with Google works this way. They release seemingly unfinished services (Gmail, Hangouts, Photos, etc.) and improve by small increments over time till it turns out to be one of the best options among its competitors. It’s easier to do this with software, of course. A hardware manufacturer like Samsung can do this only once in 10-11 months and progress is understandably slower. You could say that TouchWiz just got its Project Butter.
And then I noticed how the interface was aesthetically a lot neater. No 3D effect gradients, a nicely laid out notification shade and a launcher that took a few cues from stock Android or Google Now Launcher (when you pinch, you get the same look as in GNL on a long press and the card-style page transitions on the home screen).
Android wasn’t the prettiest of things before 4.0 (or 3.0, if you like) but even then, it had a load of features over iOS that made it more functional (keyboards, launchers, sharing, side loading). Samsung also had a ton of things in their software form the S3 onwards. A lot of it not needed but still an attempt in making things, what must have seemed to them as, functional. Some actually were - Multi-view mode, S-Pen related software, notification toggles, WiFi timer, floating video player and apps to name a few on the software side and microSD, pressure sensors, hygrometers on the hardware side. Android got better in 4.0 and in the same way, TouchWiz is just about there. It certainly looks neater (I personally don’t approve of the green-blue combination so would like to see that change).
The Galaxy Gear is really just a market tester for Samsung. They’re waiting to see what sells, i.e. what consumers want. What better way to do that than to actually put the options in front of people and let them choose? Most of us just call it throwing shit at the wall till something sticks. Well, what’s wrong with that? It’s a strategy that got us the Note series, which by the way, drew a lot of scepticism at launch due to its size - most people didn’t think people would buy something that big at the time. I guess sometimes, showing people tangible options actually gets them a better idea of what people will choose. This is how I see things like the Mega, S4 Active and Zoom - market testers to see if people really care and are not just saying something ideal but impractical in some survey.
Google’s done this too. It took a few tries till Google+ turned out to be the right social network from Google, and there are things like Google Reader and Currents that were put out to see if they gain traction (like all the other services) but did not.
All this said, Samsung does not aspire to be like Google. They just happen to use a similar tactic for finding good products / features that consumers will want to use. They want to be Apple and this is most evident in the Gear line up, which is only compatible with Galaxy phones. They know they’re big enough to command an exclusivity like that. We can all agree that, provided Samsung puts the app on the Play Store, the gear will indeed work with any Android running 4.4 (mainly due to easier notification mirroring), and only the incoming call-response may not function but it’s a reasonable compromise.
Now all that aside, I find Samsung trying to improve in other areas.
I looked at the 2800 mAh battery. It’s not 3000+ mAh like its updated competitors. Does it make sense for Samsung, with all their engineering muscle, to do this? When you think about it, what we’re seeing here is a Samsung that, for once, isn’t about simply jacking up numbers. Emergency power saving mode shows that Samsung has tried to be thoughtful about this. My hunch is that Samsung has even managed to make the running of the phone more efficient - this could be at the software level, but that 2 GB RAM will also consume less power than a 3. And here’s another place where they didn’t simply increase numbers for the heck of it. With Project Svelte, 4.4 probably didn't require as much RAM as the note 3 did with 4.3. Increasing battery size also means longer charging times and finding a good balance here, is important. So this was good to see and I’m looking forward to battery tests.
Samsung listening and responding to feedback? I think so. If not, then maybe the Moto X’s awesome reception in the tech community has convinced them that we look deeper than just numbers and has decided to change its approach to provide a quality experience.
With the display, we see that they focused on improving brightness of AMOLED (500 nits) instead of adding more pixels which would have taxed the graphics and battery.
Camera. Notice the viewfinder isn’t overflowing with menus and options this time around? Again, thoughtful design to make things simple and less intimidating to the user. Their new sensor has phase detect auto focus. For the uninitiated, phase detect is the standard AF system in DSLRs and tends to be accurate and fast. I am quite frankly ecstatic about this in a phone and initial hands-on videos have shown that focusing is indeed quite impressive.
Galaxy S5 (GS5) Phase-Detection Autofocus Demonstrated (via ubergizmodotcom)
Biometrics. So the heart rate monitor may be a gimmick to a lot of people (I feel it is, too). But when I saw it alongside their Gear line up, I thought that this was actually a good way of bringing the tech from the watch to the phones so it isn't necessary to buy a fitness band (Gear or not). Yeah, why would Samsung not want you to buy the Gear… So while it is a gimmick as a show of what they are capable of, it kind of has that side-effect as well, of making the phone independent of the watch if you don’t want one. The sensor is also fitted in quite neatly and in a logical place.
Speaking of logical places, I’m am seriously glad that they put the fingerprint reader in the home button. Why? Because it’s not going to work as well as TouchID and would have been an ugly design feature somewhere else on the phone that served no purpose once everyone turned it off. The swipe gesture is no where near as convenient as simply pressing the home button and keeping your finger there (you barely need to. TouchID is so fast that it unlocks the phone even before the screen is done fading in). Patents stopping them? Probably, but they did try to sweeten the deal a bit with PayPal integration and proving an API for devs, which could prove useful. Time will tell.
So on that note, I would also like to go over some other things that need improvement.
The speaker is (apparently louder but) pointed in the wrong direction. I find this odd because I once had a Symbian Samsung phone that had a front facing speaker on the top (Samsung Soul if you’re wondering. Slider phone). That isn't saying much, though. Obviously, Samsung is capable of doing this but doesn't feel the need to at this point.
Optical Image stabilisation is still missing in the camera. This will ruin the quality of those pixel-rich 4K videos, which is rather sad. Considering the Z2 can stabilise 4K video digitally, I hope Samsung can add this with a software update.
AMOLED screens have uneven degradation. Samsung has been great at pushing AMOLED tech to bring it up to IPS LCD levels since 2009 and I commend them for the perseverance. But the uneven degradation of blue pixels is still an issue that has to be solved. Another issue I have with them and even Sony with their TriLuminous tech, is that they calibrate their displays for a wider colour gamut than sRGB for marketing (and everyone falls for it). It should be calibrated within sRGB since all the content we ever consume on our phones will be in sRGB. Sure, if technology has allowed us to produce large gamut displays in phones, that’s great. But in this case, you give the user an option in settings to pick 100% sRGB or full gamut of the display at will, not oversaturate sRGB content. Samsung had included an Adobe RGB colour space mode in their S4 and I hope that they have something similar for sRGB.
Honestly, what I really wish is that the world would just move on from sRGB.
Aesthetics. The design is way too specific for a mass market phone. That back would work nicely as an accessory for the ramp, I guess, but it would have been more sensible to have a plain back as standard and this dimpled back as an optional alternative. That matte-metallic look would have actually looked nice without the dimples. Also, the S4 Active had a rather nice design as well, as far as plastic phones go. I would have liked to see a little influence form there. The front is mess of misaligned circles on the top and then there’s the odd increase in bezels, which is just… odd. Something about the front just makes it look cheap to me, but that’s subjective.
Finally, updates. Let’s clear things up here. Google has a lot of time test Android updates. They’re first in line. Then they show the OEMs the update so that they can put their skin on it. Given Samsung’s TouchWiz is almost another OS on top of Android, the development time being equivalent to Google’s time with an Android update is understandable. TouchWiz runs on an update cycle that seems to make it its own OS separate from Android. I do feel that that Samsung should just switch to stock Android and only put its features in, keeping the look of Android stock. That would save on time when they have to skin the next version of Android. But they’ve built a brand around this and I don’t blame them for sticking to it for consistency when their users upgrade. But still…
Clearly, Samsung isn’t yet perfect. But they are trying to improve, it seems, and this may be a result of the amount of love its competitors like HTC, Sony and Motorola get for doing things right. Samsung is quite business-mined and would not want to lose its market share by ignoring how tech geeks respond to other flagships, because these tech geeks can be the ones who gradually convince their friends that Samsung isn’t worth it.
TL;DR: Samsung, like Google, pus out half baked stuff to gauge response and then iteratively improves them if they work. While they use this strategy from Google, they ultimately want to have a closed ecosystem like Apple, from the looks of things with the Gear line up. Also, the business-minded Samsung may have also noticed the positive response from the tech community towards phones from Motorola, HTC and Sony, prompting them to change their approach in some areas because tech geeks, even though we make up a small minority, will eventually get the message out that Samsung’s not worth as much.