Samsung has just launched not one but two phablets, as it attempts to keep its large-screened smartphone crown.
But in its war with chief rival Apple, its home country competitor LG, and Chineseupstarts such as Xiaomi, Samsung has to get some critical things right, as the bar has been raised for quality, price and speed.
Simplified and bloat-free software
Samsung’s software is notorious. For years it applied heavy skins or modifications to the native Android experience provided by Google. Most manufacturers did, but Samsung’s was particularly garish, sluggish and bloat-ridden.
The company has made strides with recent smartphone releases, cutting back on superfluous features, making its designs more attractive, and making its apps, which often duplicated functionality with those built into Android, optional downloads.
The S6 Edge+ and the Note 5 are good opportunities to show that Samsung can create software that adds value, particularly for the curved edges and the stylus.
The curved screen of the smaller, 5.1in S6 Edge provided little in functionality, becoming an aesthetic choice rather than a functional one. On the smaller screen they did not detract from the experience, but on a larger device that is more difficult to hold, those touchscreen edges could be a hinderance.
Samsung has to make applications that add to the experience – and encourage others to follow suit. Likewise with the Note 5’s stylus, Samsung has to create a reason for a user to actually take it out and put tip to screen, rather that leave it buried within the device never to be touched.
The problem Samsung has to overcome is how to make these features worthwhile and not simply added bloat that slows down the device and its software updates, which are vital to keeping a device secure and current.
One thing Samsung achieved with the S6 was the smartphone’s raw speed. It is still the fastest smartphone I have used to date. Both the Note 5 and the S6+ must maintain that snappiness but they must also have decent battery life.
Battery life is a primary pain point for most of the smartphone-using community. A large smartphone that only lasts one day is not good enough anymore. Sony and others have devices that last in excess of two days with general usage.
Samsung’s response was to provide rapid charging via cable and wireless charging built into the S6, not longer battery life. Traditionally Samsung’s Note series has longer battery life, the S6 Plus and Note 5 must continue that trend.
Premium materials that can’t be bent
Samsung’s high-end devices command a significant premium over lower-cost Android rivals. The Korean company has bet on bleeding-edge technology to make the £600 investment in a smartphone worthwhile, but the majority of Samsung smartphones over the last five years have been made of plastic, rather than premium-feeling materials such as metals and glass.
Samsung’s Galaxy Alpha series was the first of its smartphones to have metal frames, followed by the Note 4, and later the S6, which also has a glass back. Samsung’s design must keep up with its technology to be able to compete in the high-end smartphone market.
Build quality is crucial as devices have shrunk in thickness while their screen sizes have continued to grow, leading to a decrease in rigidity. Apple’s 5.5iniPhone 6 Plus “bendgate” illustrated the problem, but was not alone. Samsung’s large but thin devices could also be bent within pockets.
Samsung claims its new aluminium frames are 1.7 times stronger than the Note 4, I suspect it won’t be long before someone puts that to the test.
The Galaxy S6 is arguably the best smartphone the Korean company has ever made, but even it has not sold in the numbers Samsung needed it to. Apple reportedly attracted more Android switchers than ever with its bigger iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, showing the latent demand for big smartphones.
Developed nations, including the UK and US, are near the smartphone saturation point, which means these two new phablets will be crucial for keeping Samsung on top. The company has to convince buyers they’re worth upgrading to. Whether they do remains to be seen.