A Few Takeaways from Samsung Unpacked 2015: A Bit Light on Specifics

[EDIT: Samsung took their archived link private: Here’s an alternate link.]

Having never watched a Samsung keynote before, I figured now’s as a good a time as any – and thanks to the advance of technology, the archived stream from the Barcelona event was readily accessible via YouTube. It’s actually a pretty short event – 50 minutes or so.

Here’s my humble take on various aspects of the unveiling.

Design

Indeed…we’ve been down this road before. I’ll just leave it at that.

It’s nice that Samsung has a variety of color finishes, but that they went with an iPhone 4-style approach for the case back rather than extend the Samsung A5 “all metal” approach is interesting to say the least. It’d be fascinating to understand their thought process behind “outsourcing the structure” rather than attempt a metal backing in various colors. Granted, it may be easier and better from a color protection standpoint to take the iPhone 4 approach. And if you’ve ever held or used one, you know the iPhone 4 was never a phone that felt “bendy” – and it wasn’t even using Gorilla Glass 4, mind you. A big tradeoff is the fingerprint-smudge factor, though – which was quite evident at one point during the event ([EDIT: er, if you can still find a high-res YouTube version of the video anywhere – it was at the 15-16 minute mark]).

Your Five Favorite People on S6 Edge – AKA a Surprisingly Limited Feature for the Feature List

Using the S6 Edge display as a “face-down HUD” for notifications purposes, since there’s likely to be visible light for most surfaces? Clever, so long as “big boss” office meeting policy allows, no one gets too distracted by the light show, and you were smart/careful enough to pick a non-vibrate silent mode before hand. And hey, you can use the heart-rate sensor and send off a discreet message to the color-coded caller with just a tap, which sounds nifty. Just one thing…

Why on Earth is it only limited to FIVE PEOPLE? And why will the S6/Edge only allow you to insta-reply to five recent incoming notifications, with all the screen space and pixels to spare? Samsung should bump this number up to ten before launch.

Which brings me to another point. You can preconfigure your five color-coded contacts, and you can preconfigure ONE “can’t pick up the S6 Edge” message per contact at a time. For an exclusive feature, it’s just not very versatile. iPhone 6 Plus battery life, higher-res display, optical image stabilization for video, those are differentiators one remembers. But giving your five favorite people one message (call it a “friend-specific catchphrase”)? Look, the “fact” you replied is important, no doubt. (Even though a heart rate scanner isn’t an ID authenticator, not yet.) Overall, it’s just not that compelling in the year 2015, and looked much more like an attempt to “justify” the engineering achievement in practical use.

The S6/Edge SoC

64-bit, 14nm FinFET process, shipping in April, 20% boost in performance, 35% boost in energy efficiency from, say, October/November’s latest. Sounds impressive! Let’s just assume Samsung can ramp this up in iPhone 6-like volumes at launch – which would be both a huge achievement, and bode very well for the A9 ramp, at least as far as an as-small-as-14-nm fabrication process is concerned.

Oddly, the speaker (Justin Denison, VP, Product Strategy & Marketing Team, Samsung Electronics NA) decided to compare what I presume to be Samsung’s newest Exynos (unnamed, unspecified, no mention of cores, not even a mention of a GHz rating) to the…Note 4. Why not S5? It’d be a perfectly valid comparison, and more favorable to boot.

On a related note, you need to read between the lines (and actually care about 20nm/14nm lithography processes – which most people don’t) to get that Denison’s comparing the S6 probably-Exynos to the Exynos 5433, which as far as I know is based on the 64-bit ARM Cortex-A57 (big.LITTLE configuration). Which…may not actually have made use of its 64-bitness, but that may be even more nerd trivia than the lithography process.

What does Samsung have to say about the probably-Exynos in its US preview webpage? “Lightning fast”, “64 bit, Octa-core”. No, no transistor count (hey, if it beats iPhone, flaunt it, right?), no point of reference tracking CPU/GPU advances since the first Galaxy S, as Apple’s done with iPhone. Again, just oddly non-specific.

Pixel Overkill, Gear VR, Battery Life and “Fast Charging”

Samsung appears to be betting on 1440p, a boost from 1080p, stealing sales from the high-end, a principal denizen of which is iPhone 6. Will consumers care? Apple made a cold-blooded choice to remain at 326ppi for its entry-level iPhone 6, and for all my initial griping, I can see why 326ppi is really quite enough (for now) for most users.

Is strapping a smartphone to your face the next big thing? I’ll…have to get back to you on that one…and it’ll be a little jarring to say the least if any kind of notification, especially a phone call, interrupts the VR session.

1440p resolution costs, and all of Samsung’s technical wizardry still can’t keep a screen that resource-intensive from draining battery at a relatively normal pace. 12 hours of Wi-Fi, 11 hours of LTE and 13 hours of video playback (claimed) are one, one, and two hours better than iPhone 6 Regular, and probably doesn’t represent a real leap over the S5 (I can’t tell, because the S5 global site doesn’t actually say what the battery life ratings are).

“Fast Charging” – 10 minutes gets “four hours of everyday use”. Charging from empty to full twice as fast as iPhone 6 (and given the battery size,  more than twice the charge rate). That’s a nice “double win” that will get repetition from news outlets, tech sites and blogs that won’t verify those claims just yet – and I hope some eventually do. A savvy media strategy – but again, why so non-specific?

10 minutes of charging can only deliver so much juice – it depends on the battery state of charge, and, no small detail, the amperage being delivered from the given adapter (you guessed it – presently unknown, though I’ll assume 2.4A or more). Let’s see if anyone figures out what indicated % the S6/Edge can charge in 10 minutes from, say, a 1-10% low-battery state. Maybe even 10-20% low-battery state. And test from there. That’s a bit more measurable than whatever “everyday use” means.

iPhone 6-thumping charge time. Look, I have no doubt Samsung’s battery tech allows it to beat iPhone 6 in any condition, but are we comparing apples to apples, or default chargers? Sure, it’s Apple’s loss/margin avarice to continue shipping iPhone 6 with a paltry 1A adapter (personally, only 2.1A or preferably 2.4A will do), but what’s Samsung packing, and how would it do against an iPhone 6 charging from a 2.1A power source (which can include many recent MacBook USB ports)? Well, as with the 32GB of flash storage or the 3GB of RAM, those are all things Apple can address with iPhone 6S and even 6C if it feels the need.

Samsung Pay

Congratulations on integrating with Loop Pay.

Now I sure hope you improve on that 2-to-3-step payment process before Samsung Pay launches sometime in the second half of 2015.

As demonstrated (about 36 or so minutes in), you do three steps:

(1) “swipe up from the [lower] bezel”

(2) Authenticate

(3) Tap/hold near card-swipe area, or NFC terminal. (Only MST for existing swipe readers was shown.)

Clearly, Samsung is unable to replicate what makes Apple Pay far superior to all previous NFC smartphone payment modalities. There’s no automatically invoked pay layer (MST and “pingback” properties of NFC vs. a typical passive mag-stripe reader may have something to do with that), and there’s no “one-motion/zero-thought” place-thumb-on-sensor-and-hold-device-near-terminal which turns out to be much more natural/intuitive than it sounds. Step One may turn out to be fairly easy and repeatable from screen-off, but how about screen-in-use scenarios?

Acceptance is all well and good, but Samsung Pay, as of now, is only slated to work in the US and Korea at launch, and with AmEx, Bank of America, Chase, Citi and US Bank. Those banks are a great place to start, but they pale in comparison with Apple’s current list – which gets closer to including international banks with each passing day. But the bigger question is the EMV liability shift. In time, and increasingly as October draws near, more and more merchants will get rid of the swipe option entirely, since chip-and-dip is the minimum required technology to avoid merchant liability for fraudulent charges. Which networks and banks will be on board with MST then? Will MST even work in the chip-and-dip context, and in a sanctioned way? How about “defaulting” to good old NFC if it’s available? Does it work with the same three steps? Only time will tell, I guess.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the other mobile payments – Samsung Pay for apps. Which…went entirely unmentioned. Very likely because having a given developer support Samsung Pay PLUS Google Wallet isn’t as easy to do as having a developer support Apple Pay on iOS.

Samsung Biometrics

Another odd case of non-specifics. Sure, after the show we learn the sensor’s improved to the point of scanning vs. swiping to authenticate. Nice – now why can’t we learn this from the event (aside from the indirect mention during the Samsung Pay demo video, in which the user barely even touches the edge of the scanner button) or the S6 preview page? How exactly has the scanner improved, whether in usability or at the API level, from this? Just from the preview page, you wouldn’t even know Samsung had a fingerprint scanner on either S6.

“Next is Now”

All in all, “Next is Now” sounds like a good way to evolve “The Next Big Thing is Here”. Considering how 2014 went for the company, though? It’d be helpful for Samsung if the future delivered today wasn’t so…lacking in details.

 

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2 thoughts on “A Few Takeaways from Samsung Unpacked 2015: A Bit Light on Specifics

  1. I flat out do not believe Samsung’s battery life numbers. Let’s wait for the reviews by sites like Anandtech.

    We also need to wait for real life reviews of the fingerprint sensor and the payment interface. I very much doubt either will work as well as Apple’s versions. That fingerprint sensor looked way too fast. I suspect it either won’t work like that in real life OR it’ll work for any finger. Of course this is before we see how easy Pay will work with Watch.

    I thought someone tweeted questions about how the non-NFC part of the payments worked. There’s a possibility it transmits the credit card numbers rather than a token?

    S6 sales might be slightly better than the S5’s, but iPhone 6 series unit sales are going to leave it even farther behind. The question is whether they attract more users of other Android brands than they lose because of the loss of the fan-favorite replaceable battery & SD card slot. There’s an outside chance LG & HTC can regain some share in the high-end Android segment.

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