Brief Thoughts and Observations on Samsung’s Unpacked Event

Samsung introduced five new phones today at a big show at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco: the gimmicky Galaxy Fold, the Galaxy S10 (6.1"), S10 Plus (6.4"), S10E (5.8"), and S10 5G (a whopping 6.7"). Some quick thoughts:

  • The Galaxy Fold looks like a prototype, not a shipping product. I think flexible, foldable displays have a good future, but this isn’t it.

  • The S10 5G, likewise, seems not ready for prime time. Which makes sense, because 5G networks aren’t really a thing yet. I know I’m less enamored with big-ass phones than many people, but a 6.7-inch display just seems ridiculous. What’s the pitch here? Get yourself a too-big phone for a network that doesn’t yet exist?

  • I know a lot of people who wish Apple would make a smaller flagship than the 5.8-inch iPhone XS, but at least the XS is a full-fledged peer spec-wise to the larger XS Max. Samsung’s 5.8-inch S10E is more like the iPhone XR, with a starting price of $750 and quite a few technical compromises: fewer cameras and a fingerprint sensor in the side button rather than embedded in the display like on the bigger S10 and S10 Plus.

  • Speaking of that fingerprint sensor, Samsung is sticking to its guns on a couple of fronts: fingerprints instead of facial recognition, and good old-fashioned headphone jacks on every model. And while they didn’t spend much time showing the system software, it looked to me like their interaction model is still home button-based, rather than gesture-based. (Apparently Samsung’s new One UI allows you to replace the standard navigation buttons with gestures as an option.) There’s a definite philosophical split from Apple here. I think Apple made the right decision by making a clean break with the iPhone X experience, but I remain convinced that at least some segment of the iPhone user base is reluctant to upgrade into the new no-home-button / no-headphone-jack / Face-ID-instead-of-Touch-ID world of the iPhone X-class phones. Familiarity has a strong appeal, but stick with it too long and you risk stagnation.

    (I also think part of this is technical, not philosophical. A big reason why Samsung is sticking with fingerprints rather than facial recognition is that I don’t think they have the software chops to do facial recognition well — reliable, quickly, securely. If they could do a Face ID copycat I think they would. Also: patents.)

  • The hole-punch design for the front-facing cameras looks better than a notch. But part of what makes this possible is that the S10 phones only have cameras on the front — the iPhone X/XS/XR notch houses an entire sensor array that makes Face ID possible.

  • Samsung is sticking with the dedicated hardware button for Bixby. This is one of the dumbest ideas in the industry — although with the S10 you can finally reassign the button to launch something else, like, say, the Camera app.

  • The S10 sides are made from aluminum, but they’re all highly polished, so in marketing photos at least, they look a lot like the stainless steel of the iPhone XS and XS Max.

  • I’m not sure about the S10E, but the bigger S10 models not only support wireless charging for input, but they also can serve as charging pads for other devices, like wireless headphones, a Samsung watch, or even another phone. That sounds crazy at first, but it fits with my theory that phones are the primary computing devices for a growing number of people. Used to be you’d plan on charging your phone from your laptop midday; today it makes sense in the same way to be able to charge your headphone case or watch from your phone.

  • Samsung’s $130 wireless earbuds don’t look anything at all like AirPods. The case is smaller but pretty AirPod-like, and the pairing experience is pretty much the same: open the case next to the device and you get a little window picturing the earbuds and case and their respective battery levels. The biggest difference from AirPods: pre-order an S10 or S10 Plus before March 7 and Samsung will give you a pair for free.

  • Samsung introduced two new watches: a big clunky round one called the Galaxy Watch Active and a Fitbit-esque bracelet-y looking watch called the Galaxy Fit (not to be confused with this crappy old phone they also call the Galaxy Fit). I can’t say I care about either of these at all. The new S10 phones seem like interesting competition to Apple, but these watches don’t.

  • They have a new tablet — the Galaxy S5e — that looks shamelessly like an iPad Pro. Not sure anyone cares about it, though, including Samsung — it didn’t even get any stage time.

  • Why the hell does Samsung brand all these things “Galaxy” anyway? Why not just the Samsung S10, Samsung Watch Active, Samsung Fit, Samsung Buds, etc? I guess I can see why they stick with “Galaxy” for the phones, but when introducing new products like wireless earbuds, why?

  • The event itself featured some interesting staging. The display wrapped around to include the ceiling and the floor of the stage itself. I think you have to watch a bit of the video of the event to get it. Technically impressive, and very flashy in a way that feels appropriate for Samsung.

  • Two interesting partnerships on software. First, they’re partnering with Adobe for a bespoke “Galaxy” edition of Premiere Rush, Adobe’s new prosumer video editing app. It’s coming “later this year”, so who knows when it’ll actually ship. I assumed at first it was going to be free for S10 users, but now that I’ve watched the video again they don’t say that. (Premiere Rush is normally $10/month, and today the only mobile version is for iOS.) I don’t know how many serious content creators want to or need to edit video directly on their phones, but I’m sure that number is growing. I repeat myself, I know, but phones are taking over more and more tasks that used to require laptops. Having just one pocket-sized device that serves as both your 4K camera and your editing workstation is just amazing. Ten years ago, the then-current iPhone 3G didn’t even shoot video.

    Second, Samsung has built Instagram into the system Camera app as its own shooting mode. This seems inexplicable to me. The world is growing ever more wary of the privacy invasiveness of Facebook, and Samsung decides 2019 is the right time to bake Facebook’s Instagram right into the system Camera app? Who thinks using the Instagram app is inconvenient? At best this needlessly complicates the Camera app.