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The Verge 2017 tech report card: Samsung

The Verge 2017 tech report card: Samsung

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Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Let’s start with the good news: no Samsung phones caught fire or exploded this year.

Samsung entered 2017 on its heels, coming off the embarrassing debacle of the Galaxy Note 7, a phone that was recalled not just once but twice in 2016, for having a propensity to spontaneously catch fire. And so, Samsung started off the year by apologizing for what happened and vowing that it would do things better in the future.

The mea culpa and apology certainly helped Samsung repair its reputation, but it’s what came after that truly turned things around for the company. Starting with the release of the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus in April, Samsung regained its status as a leading smartphone maker in 2017.

The Galaxy S8 quickly made everyone forget about what happened with the Note 7. Its design, performance, display, and reliably excellent camera quickly put it at the top of the pack among Android phones and kept it there all year. Other phones may beat the S8 (and by extension, the S8 Plus) in one specific area or another, but if you’re looking for the best overall Android phone, the S8 is the one.

Then, in August, Samsung released the ill-fated Note 7’s true successor, the Galaxy Note 8. Much like the Galaxy S8, the Note 8 proved to be an excellent device. Instead of attempting to cater to a general smartphone buyer, Samsung doubled down on what makes a Note a Note: it’s big, expensive, and unapologetic. The Note 8 also introduced Samsung’s take on a  dual-camera system, which lets it capture portrait-mode images like the larger iPhone models.

Bixby was by far Samsung’s biggest product blunder

Samsung’s biggest product blunder this year wasn’t related to hardware at all: it was the Bixby virtual assistant, which first debuted on the S8 and also was prominently featured on the Note 8. Samsung believed in Bixby so much that it put a dedicated button on the side of the phones that was reserved for only launching Bixby. Unfortunately, it turned out that Bixby was no more useful than the Google Assistant also found on Samsung’s phones (and in many ways, Bixby’s worse), and Samsung eventually added the ability to disable the button on the phones. But it’s still not possible to reprogram the button to do something else more useful, which is frustrating.

Outside of mobile, Samsung’s PC and TV efforts are less interesting — it’s still pushing its “QLED” technology, which is inferior (yet intentionally similarly named) to the OLED tech LG offers in its TVs.

Though Samsung had a strong product showing this year, its status as a company leaves a lot to be desired. The vice chairman of Samsung Electronics and effective head of the entire conglomerate, Jay Y. Lee, was embroiled in a corruption scandal that included illegal horse trading, cult practices, and eventually contributed to the impeachment of South Korea’s president.

Lee spent much of the year in custody, and was convicted of perjury, embezzlement, and bribery in August. He was sentenced to five years in prison for his crimes. Four other Samsung executives have been accused of offering bribes to deposed President Park Geun-hye and an associate of hers.

Despite his conviction, Lee plans to appeal, and history is on his side for a pardon: South Korea has a long legacy of pardoning chaebol chairmen, including Lee’s own father, who was pardoned not once, but twice, for tax evasion and bribery.

Corruption scandals did nothing to temper Samsung’s financials, however, as the company reported record profits in the July to September quarter. In addition, it has a new suite of leaders to carry the company into 2018: Kim Ki-nam (components), Kim Hyun-suk (HS Kim) (consumer electronics), and Koh Dong-jin (DJ Koh) (mobile and IT) are acting as CEOs of each of their divisions, replacing former Samsung Electronics CEO Kwon Oh-hyun.

And so, it’s onward and upward for Samsung moving past its scandals and mishaps. Rumors are already swirling that Samsung will release the Galaxy S9 in February of next year, so Samsung fans likely won’t have long to wait for something new from the company.

Final grade: B

B 2017 Grade

The Verge 2017 report card: Samsung

Gold Stars

  • Great products
  • Nothing caught fire or exploded

Needs Improvement

  • A corrupt corporate culture is never a good look
  • Bixby is terrible