By Michael Fisher | May 15, 2012 3:12 PM
When Samsung announced the Galaxy S III, the hype had already built to an unsustainable level. The buzz was pushing fans to expect incredible new hardware, artificial intelligence and a phone with a clean, crisp taste that won’t fill you up and never lets you down. So when the device Samsung unveiled on May 3rd turned out to be little more than an iteration of the Galaxy S II with a pebble-inspired casing and a bevy of dubiously useful software features, some were disappointed.
For the record, I’d like to say that I wasn’t one of them. Though Samsung’s presentation was fragmented and bizarre, and the new features lack a cohesive unifying theme (“designed for humans” notwithstanding), I see a lot of potential in features like S Voice and Smart Stay. Whether that potential will be realized won’t be known for a while yet, but we can’t dismiss them out of hand just because Samsung’s new offering is visually underwhelming.
Regardless, Samsung didn’t turn the industry on its head with any part of the announcement, and that creates an opportunity for competitors. Especially a competitor on a different release cycle, heavily invested in its own take on the Android experience. A competitor with a respected, established brand and a humble-but-catchy tagline.
That’s the one.
After cooling off on HTC for the better part of 2011, during its “variations on dullness” design phase, I absolutely fell in love with its resurrected self when it burst onto the scene with the One series earlier this year. As I mentioned in my review of AT&T’s One X, that device is the most beautiful Android handset I’ve ever encountered. In addition to HTC’s reinvigorated design chops, the company has learned from its mistake of releasing too many SKUs; it’s limited its focus to a handful of devices and focused on making them the best products they can make.
They’re not out of the woods by any means; HTC’s financials aren’t in great shape and it recently installed a new CFO. The wireless frontier is a vicious and unforgiving one. And make no mistake: Samsung is going to sell untold millions of Galaxy S IIIs, unfulfilled expectations or no. But the one saving grace to competing in wireless is that the consumers don’t have much brand loyalty (fanboys excepted). They’re a fickle, restless group, and showing them a feature list more robust than the other guy’s can often seal the deal, if the marketing message is compelling enough.
Read: not this.
So how can HTC steal Samsung’s thunder with its “Two” series, or whatever it decides to call its next flagship line? Well … how’bout a good old-fashioned spec war?
I’m not talking about “specs” in the usual sense that we find in the tech space; as I’ve often said, I’m not interested in core-count comparisons or other meaningless geek battles, and neither are most consumers. I’m talking about features that matter to people. Here’s what I’d like to see in the “HTC Two.”
The One series has already brought us much more convenience and whiz-bang stock features than most smartphones. For the next round, HTC will need to bring the heat in specs as well as performance. Senseless as it is, the megapixel war hasn’t fully played itself out yet, so HTC would do well to incorporate a 16MP sensor like the one found in its Titan II, but hopefully one that delivers better results. A solid 16MP shooter with burst mode, unified viewfinder, and 1080p video recording out of the box constitutes the bare minimum for a headline-snagging device released in early 2013. HTC would also be wise to incorporate additional features, like the separate LED video light and xenon flash pictured in this piece’s title image, as well as the 60fps recording mode already found on some of the One-series devices. In a future landscape dotted with Nokia PureView Windows Phones, smartphone cameras will need all the help they can get to stand out.
One of the things I’ve learned from spending a few weeks each with the Nokia Lumia 900 and the HTC One X(L) is this: 16GB of internal storage just isn’t enough. As usual, this won’t bother cloud-services evangelists or superfans, but many people -subway riders in particular- still need access to their media and documents while outside of a cellular coverage area. The Galaxy S III is launching with options for both 16GB and 32GB, with a 64GB version planned later. HTC’s magic futurephone absolutely requires at least an option for 32GB, and ideally 64GB as well. Since the Galaxy S III incorporates a MicroSD slot capable of hosting up to an additional 64GB of memory, HTC could even offer a 128GB version of the “Two” for future-proofing, though it’s anyone’s guess how well such a device would sell, given its necessarily prohibitive cost.
HTC and Samsung both apply deep customization to the Android experience in the form of skins. But where HTC has recently scaled back on the intrusiveness of its skin -called Sense- Samsung has continued aggressively pushing its own TouchWiz experience. The latest version, called “Nature UX,” tries to compliment the supposedly pebble-esque, river-stone design of the Galaxy S III hardware with “natural” sounds and ripple effects. It’s bound to be a polarizing feature.
There’s a reason for this, and it’s of course rooted in differentiation. The typical stance of OEMs is that they’re selling their own branded experience, so “it’s a TouchWiz phone, not an Android phone” is a part of what Samsung is trying to convey. The skin is therefore crucial to manufacturers’ positioning and value proposition, and that’s why we users almost never see the option to disable or remove it.
As noted above, HTC has already scaled Sense way back on its One series. Our title-image render shows the hypothetical “Two” running stock Android, which a lot of people would appreciate. Others, though, would miss the added functionality that Sense brings to the experience, some of which is quite useful.
The solution: give users the choice. HTC could offer a simple toggle that would enable or disable the Sense skin at will. Even if it required a dual-boot implementation, it would be better than the current state of no options. But what about the desired user investment? Would the feeling that “I have an HTC phone, not just an Android phone” survive the lack of Sense?
Absolutely. Because of HTC’s awesome hardware.
Considering the almost universal acclaim HTC’s designs for the One series garnered, it’s tempting to say they don’t need to do anything on the casing design front, especially considering Samsung’s weak showing with the Galaxy S III. But alongside functionality, a critical component of hardware design is a sense of style, which has its roots in the world of fashion. The only thing I know about that world (aside from the awareness that the clothes I’m wearing at any given time are a decade out of vogue) is that it moves even faster than mobile technology. So the same design that today makes us fall over ourselves will in a year seem stale and out of touch.
That said, it’s possible the One design can survive a run of several years with minor iterations, like the iPhone 4 baseline design has done since the summer of 2010. If HTC opts for this approach, though, the masses will call for some tweaks. Like further bezel reduction to get closer to an edge-to-edge display (though the One X is already plenty close). Also, exotic new construction materials have earned HTC a lot of press this year, so further experiments with ceramics, polycarbonate, and other materials (bamboo?) may yield even more buzzworthy results.
Chips and Things
Finally, there’s appeasing the geek squad. We’re going to be firmly ensconced in the world of quad-core processors by the time HTC has time to release their next superphone, and hopefully by that time we’ll see quad-core chipsets that are LTE compatible. Given my experience with the dual-core One X versus Brandon Miniman’s international version, I tend to think “quad-core” is more buzzword than tangible improvement at the moment, but as Android evolves to leverage this new hardware, I concede that quad-core CPUs will become important at some point. We may also see a bump to 2GB of RAM like the LTE-sporting LG Eclipse we caught wind of a few days back; Android can always use more RAM.
There’s also the question of battery life, with early reviews of the Galaxy S III’s endurance indicating that it may well do better than past Samsung devices. HTC has already significantly stepped up its game in this area, but it will need to avoid the urge to rest on its laurels in order to avoid a repeat of 2011.
Really, that’s a fair way to wrap this up. HTC has earned some breathing room with its latest efforts, and Samsung’s given it even more by creating a Galaxy S III that doesn’t fly users to space on the back of a unicorn. But that window of opportunity to one-up the South Korean giant won’t stay open long, and HTC will only be able to exploit it by continuing the bold moves that catapulted it back to relevance in the first place … not by resting on those that are already, in this crazy industry, old news.