The Galaxy S 5: more of the same
My good pal Michael Fisher and I like to disagree on things. And that’s perfectly okay. In fact, I prefer it that way. It’s what makes the entire team here at Pocketnow so diverse and the Pocketnow Weekly so fun and interesting. We help keep each other in check and provide different perspectives on varying products.
It’s a nice balance.
A perfect example of this is the Galaxy S 5, which was announced at Samsung’s Unpacked event yesterday.
Michael wrote a piece earlier today, giving five reasons the Galaxy S 5 is cool … for the layman: water resistance, better software, improved and refined camera, broad accessory offering and ecosystem, and additional (useful) features.
In his own right, Michael is absolutely correct. Average end users will eat the Galaxy S 5 up, just like they did with the Galaxy S 4, Galaxy S III, and both earlier Galaxy S models. And anyone happy with their current Galaxy S III or Galaxy S 4 will swoon over all the new features.
In the end, that’s all that really matters to Samsung, right?
Maybe for now, but it should be worried about the bigger picture. Samsung is comfortable, but it’s competition is gunning for its top spot. Things are heating up, and Samsung is kicked back in its office chair with its shoes off and its feet propped on a stack of innovations it chose not to act on. (A company that can churn out two Galaxy Gears and the Galaxy Fit in a matter of months has to have stacks of innovations it never uses, right?)
This is why the Galaxy S 5 is the most unmoving Galaxy S yet.
Marginal improvements, even slimmer gains
I will be the first to say small specification bumps and marginal improvements are not the end of the world. The Moto X shipped with reasonable specifications, not an excessively powerful SoC or 1080p display. Underpowered as it may be, the Moto X is still my daily driver, and I’m perfectly content with it.
The Galaxy S 5 is a different story for a couple reasons.
Samsung knew the expectations were high for its Galaxy S 4 successor. Rumors were out of control with talk of 2K displays and other over the top specs. Of course, very few of the rumors actually panned out, and that’s what’s fueling much of the disappointment around the phone.
I couldn’t care less about the specifications, though. If you can provide solid user experience, I’m happy. That’s where Samsung and Motorola differ. Motorola understands user experience. Samsung, on the other hand, understands dozens of marking-friendly features which often come at the expense of user experience.
But it runs deeper than that. Last year, the Galaxy S 4 may have only been a marginal improvement over the Galaxy S III, but Samsung’s competitors were still playing catch-up. The only true competitor the Galaxy S 4 had out of the gate was the HTC One. The LG G2 didn’t arrive until August, four months after the Galaxy S 4 launched, and the Xperia Z1 landed a month later, in September.
This year, we’re seeing a shifting of the tides. The LG G2 and Galaxy S 5 are, spec for spec, almost identical. The Xperia Z2 was announced alongside the S 5 and, on paper, it’s the better buy. And the All New HTC One will surely match, if not surpass, the hardware specifications of the Galaxy S 5.
Samsung, in terms of hardware and innovation, is no longer a frontrunner, and is quickly disappearing into the crowd of mundane smartphones.
Prettier bloat is still bloat
Michael calls the software shown on the Galaxy S 5 “better.” From what I’ve seen in the dozens of hands-on videos from yesterday, it at least looks a little better. And as Michael suggests, that’s certainly worth some sort of praise.
At the same time, while some pieces and bits of the software appear smoother, more flat, and prettier, I’m too cautious to call it better.
While TouchWiz was nothing special to look at, there was a lot more wrong Samsung’s software than its appearance. Performance woes on Samsung devices stretch far and wide. The physical size of the OS has been problematic, as well, shrinking user-available storage to nearly half the inbuilt storage capacity on more recent models. And most recently, usability has become a problem. The Settings app on Samsung devices is one of the most convoluted, over-developed pieces of Samsung software to date. This has been changed in the KitKat version of Samsung’s software, but not having used it, I can’t attest to its ease of use. I can, however, say it looks no more useful or simple.
The fact of the matter is: Samsung has clearly shown effort in cleaning up the Wild West that TouchWiz has become. But I’m not nearly sold on the new software yet. Prettier isn’t necessarily better, though I do look forward to getting my hands dirty in the software.
I harp on this too much. I’m fully aware. But I have a penchant for well-built phones and gorgeous design. Samsung has no trouble making great phones, but very rarely are they anything to gawk at. The Galaxy Note 3 was a small step in the right direction, but it’s still a far cry from the impeccable design and materials of the HTC One or Nokia’s creations.
When Vice President and Head of Design Strategy, Dong-hoon Chang, said Samsung had been considering a “new material” for the next Galaxy S model last month, I had high hopes. I never once thought Samsung would produce a phone with a metal casing. But I hoped it would get away from shiny, super slick, and slimy plastic.
It did. And … I’m speechless.
There has been some controversy around the hate the new Galaxy S 5 smartphone design has received. A lot of those who are not at all a fan were smitten with the similar backside of the original Nexus 7. Guilty. I loved the backside of the Nexus 7.
But, man, that was not what I was expecting. And let me be very clear. The backside of the Nexus 7 was very nice and looked and felt like a perforated leather glove. The Galaxy S 5 sort of does, but it’s exaggerated and something about it looks … off. Maybe it’s the additional texture or the colors. More likely is the fact that it’s paired with a visibly cheap plastic – it’s actually a mixture of polycarbonate and glass fiber.
I’m being completely subjective here, but the phone, at least from a distance and not in my hands, is hideous.
If you want to fail, get comfortable
Honestly, I could deal with all of the above if the phone weren’t entirely mundane. Samsung innovates, but in ways which only appeal to select people. I have no use for a heart rate monitor in my phone; until I can use a fingerprint scanner as authentication for Facebook, Twitter, and the dozens of other services I use, it’s useless to me; and 4K video recording on a smartphone sounds nice, but it’s not as impressive as it sounds.
It’s just incredibly difficult to get excited over tiny improvements which seemingly won’t matter to a lot of people when there are companies out there – in dire straights, no less – pushing boundaries and innovating truly helpful features and technologies. Nokia continues to impress me with PureView. HTC will be unveiling what we imagine is UltraPixel part deux very soon. Motorola has built truly useful software features I still use to this day.
And then you have the second-generation YotaPhone, which was also announced yesterday. It’s outside the norm, gorgeous, and has a practical use in the day to day – a secondary e-ink display which only sips at battery.
It’s just frustrating that Samsung can continue to produce mundane smartphones with countless features which sacrifice user experience and sell tenfold what its competitors move each quarter. The power of branding is incredible, folks.
I just can’t help but wonder how long Samsung can continue to ride this inflated wave before it truly has to innovate again. Here’s to hoping it takes note of the shifting tides before it pulls a Palm or BlackBerry.