Thursday, March 14, 2013

What the Galaxy S4 needs


What the Galaxy S4 needs

Samsung is planning a blockbuster event next week to release what is probably the much-anticipated Galaxy S4. The handset should be successful, but if it has these features, it will be even more so.
Samsung Galaxy S3
The Galaxy S3 was pretty awesome. The Galaxy S4 will need to be even more so.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
One week from today, Samsung is taking over New York's Radio City Music Hall to "unpack"its next Galaxy device. The invitation doesn't get more specific, but the wireless buzz, along with the size and prominence of the venue (even without the Rockettes), suggests that Samsung will unveil the long-awaited Galaxy S4 smartphone.
CNET's live coverage of Samsung's Galaxy S4 event
So for the second year in a row, Sammy is staging quite a coup and ripping a well-written page from Apple's playbook. Like it did with the Galaxy S3, it brushed off Mobile World Congress to stage its own show where it could drum up hype and get all the attention it wants (it's nice to have the spotlight only on you). Also, here again, very few hard facts about what we're going to see have leaked out of Samsung's gates. And in the absence of facts, we only can speculate about what's going to happen, and speculate we have.
What we're really hoping, though, is that there won't be much of a difference between what the device will have and what it should have (aka what we want). Android Atlas' Scott Webster compiled a very respectable list of the latter earlier this year. Judging from the latest rumors it looks like we're going to get a lot of what he wanted, and maybe even more.

Design

Samsung has to walk a delicate line with the Galaxy S4's design: it needs to push the envelope without screwing things up. Though the Galaxy S3 was a looker, its design continued, rather than broke away from, Samsung's long trend of thin smartphones with large displays and plastic bodies. As CNET's review said, "It won't wow you."
Some smartphone connoisseurs criticize this strategy as boiling things down to the lowest common denominator, and they're correct to a point. This time we'd like to see a more ambitious effort in terms of the display and the materials used for the handset's body. Despite rumors that the the GS4 could delivera bendable display, that's not on our list. The technology is very cool, but it's not expected to reach consumer devices until next year.
The Galaxy S3's was great, but it was dimmerthan we had hoped. So for the GS4's screen, Samsung really needs to up its game to compete with the likes of HTC, Sony, and Motorola. Many new handsets from these mobile players feature slick edge-to-edge displays with virtually no surrounding bezel. Additionally, to stand up against the tide of massive superphones with larger-than-life displays, the Samsung Galaxy S4 better come to the party packing a 5-inch 1080p screen. If it's OLED, all the better since that's a trick Samsung's rivals can't yet top. This post tells you the full story of smartphone display technology.
The prospect of a traditional Samsung plastic design is a bigger sore spot. And even though it appears that's exactly what we're going to get, we can't look past the fact that material has a cheaper feel than the metal and exotic polycarbonates used by other manufacturers. These include the gorgeous HTC One, which is crafted from aluminum finished with diamond tools; theLG Nexus 4 and Sony Xperia Z, which sport shiny all-glass backs; and the sturdy build of theMotorola Razr Maxx HD.
Samsung Galaxy S3
The HD Super AMOLED screen on the Galaxy S3 (center) was dimmer beside other top smartphones, the HTC One X (top) and iPhone 4S (bottom).
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

Features

Fortunately, Samsung delivered a powerful and high-functioning device in the Galaxy S3. It mostly built off existing Android capabilities, as our CNET review said, but the handset rightly earned its place at the top of the Galaxy family tree. With the Galaxy S4, we don't doubt that Samsung will raise the bar again, but there are some things that the smartphone really needs to have.
Processor: At the time of its release, the 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor on the U.S. Galaxy S3 (the global version was quad-core, but lacked LTE) was Qualcomm's fastest to date. We were impressed when we first used it and even a year later the handset feels fast. Yet, a year might as well be a decade in the fast-paced mobile world. And with quad-core processors (this post takes a deeper dive on the chips) now the norm, the Galaxy S3 needs a quad-core CPU and LTE.
On the other hand, if Samsung really wants to generate palpable gadget excitement on launch day it should use an eight-core chipset instead. Some rumors have suggested an Exynos 5 Octa chip (which we saw last week at Mobile World Congress) so we think that we're on relatively solid ground here. Indeed, such a processor would move the Galaxy S4 far ahead of the pack, at least until the pack catches up (which wouldn't take long).
Samsung Galaxy S3
The Galaxy S3's 8-megapixel camera performed well, but we'd like more with the GS4.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
Camera: Though the Galaxy S3's camera delivered a few more features, it didn't have a higher resolution than the Galaxy S2's 8-megapixel shooter. This time we're hoping for a 13-megapixel shooter -- even if more megapixels isn't always better -- with more camera features and a superior sensor. The good news is that that feature is likely. Around front, we expect a 2-megapixel HD camera. And while we're at it, a flash on the front would be really cool.
Android OS: This is one area where we're bracing for no change, at least for now. With the next version of the Android operating system not expected until Google I/O opens on May 15, the Galaxy S4 must run on Jelly Bean 4.2. Anything less would be criminal. Also, throw us a bone, Samsung, and opt for a sleeker form of the TouchWiz UI. Please, please, please!
Battery: Last year's model was one of the few high-end handsets in 2012 that used a removable rather than an embedded battery as its power source. Hopefully, the Galaxy S4 will boost its battery capacity (Jessica Dolcourt has suggestions on how to do it) from the S3's 2,100mAh to at least 2,500mAh (of course, more is better).
Storage and RAM: The Galaxy S3 came in 16GB and 32GB versions. That was a healthy amount of storage plus the GS3's 2GB of RAM. But if Samsung wants to really wow its fans, it will put 4GB of RAM plus 64GB of preloaded internal storage in the new Galaxy S4. The device's microSD slot capacity can stay at 64GB, however.
Samsung Galaxy S3
S Beam on the Samsung Galaxy S3 was cool; S Voice not so much.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
S Voice and software: Samsung's S Voice personal assistant feature didn't live up to our expectations on the Galaxy S3. Mostly it didn't work well, and other times it didn't work at all. Samsung will need to improve the feature on the Galaxy S4 while keeping better options like S Beam and delivering new feature surprises like Visa's PayWave mobile payment applet andeye-tracking technology.
Carriers and availability: We'll keep this one short. Basically, Samsung needs to do three things: 1) Release the phone to as many carriers in as many countries as possible, 2) Release it to those carriers on the same day (not staggered availability), and 3) Release it as soon as possible after the event. Is that really too much to ask? No.

Samsung rising

The Samsung Galaxy franchise, especially its most recent incarnation, the Galaxy S3, is a terrible and beautiful smartphone enterprise depending on your perspective. Competitors feared the S3 for its cutting-edge mobile technology at insanely low prices, all shoehorned into a sleek and thin package. To users, however, it's a sleek, powerful device that can match any smartphone on the market.
The Galaxy S4 should continue that trend. Samsung is determined to outclass its competitors and own the wireless handset market, and we have every reason to believe that the GS4 will impress. No, its competitors won't simply lie in the road to be trampled, but Sammy has an important card to play. Like Apple, it has more than enough money to promote, advertise, and distribute its shiny device to the ends of the earth. That alone will carry the Galaxy GS4 far. And if the phone is awesome, even better.

Samsung's Galaxy S4 event: Join us March 14 (live blog)


Samsung's Galaxy S4 event: Join us March 14 (live blog)

Join CNET for live coverage from Samsung's big unveiling, which starts at 4 p.m. PT on Thursday, March 14. Our live blog will bring you news updates, photos, and running commentary.
Samsung is expected to put the Galaxy S4 rumors to bed on March 14.
(Credit: Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET)
Samsung Electronics is set to unveil its next big thing, the Galaxy S4, and you can get all the details right here.
The company is holding its launch event at Radio City Music Hall in midtown Manhattan, and the show kicks off at 4 p.m. PT. CNET's Jessica Dolcourt, Brian Bennett, Shara Tibken, Sarah Tew, and I will be bringing you all the live news, photos, and commentary.
You can tune in to the live blog here:
CNET's live coverage of Samsung's Galaxy S4 event
There's been a tremendous buildup of attention and hype for the Galaxy S4, the latest in Samsung's blockbuster Galaxy S franchise. In the Galaxy S, Samsung has a smartphone brand that rivals Apple's iPhone in popularity and demand.
Though the invitation doesn't specifically refer to the Galaxy S4, CNET confirmed that the event will feature the device.
The Galaxy S3, which Samsung managed to get on virtually every major wireless carrier in the world, was one of the few breakout hits of 2012, and CNET named it the product of the year, topping Apple's iPhone 5. Samsung has been on a strong run, powered by the success of the Galaxy S3, as well as its broader lineup of handsets.
The world is waiting to see what Samsung has in store. Already rumored is eye-tracking technology that will allow you to scroll through pages with your eye movements. The company has been known to add a few extra software bells and whistles as it looks to help its phone stand out from the pack.
CNET will use ScribbleLive to bring you live text and photos, blow by blow. Check back an hour before Samsung officially kicks off its event.

How Samsung broke away from the Android pack


How Samsung broke away from the Android pack

The fourth version of the hit Galaxy S smartphone will debut this week at Radio City Music Hall with fanfare usually reserved for the iPhone. What a difference three years makes.
The Samsung Galaxy S3 launch was held in London last year. This year, it's in New York.
(Credit: Jason Jenkins/ CNET)
As successful as Samsung's Galaxy S franchise is now, it's easy to forget the Korean consumer electronics giant's first attempt at the American smartphone market was met with an apathetic shrug.
The U.S. launch of the first Galaxy S smartphone took place at a gallery on the west side of Manhattan more than two years ago. When it came time for J.K. Shin, head of Samsung's mobile business, to formally announce the Galaxy S flagship smartphone, a black cloth cover was pulled back to unveil not one, but four different devices with the forgettable names Captivate, Vibrant, Fascinate, and Epic 4G. Samsung had been forced to split its new phone into four distinct lines in order to placate the top four American wireless carriers.
Nonetheless, Shin stayed on message and said, "In the race to redefine the smartphone, the starting gun has just been fired, and the Samsung Galaxy S is already standing at the finishing line."
Given Samsung's weak position at the time, his claim sounded more like marketing hot air than a smart prediction. The company had big plans for its smartphones in the U.S., but it was saddled with mediocre products, a muddled message, and four brand names seemingly plucked from the perfume counter.
Fast-forward nearly three years, and Samsung is on top of the cell phone industry. Nearly one out of every three smartphones shipped is made by Samsung, and its Galaxy S3 smartphone has become a true rival to Apple's iPhone. It was the Galaxy S3, and not the iPhone 5, that wasnamed the product of the year in 2012 by CNET. Long seen as an imitator, some believe it has wrestled the innovator mantle away from Apple.
(Credit: Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET)
In two days, Samsung will unveil the fourth iteration of its Galaxy S franchise at glitzy Radio City Music Hall in an event that's received the mainstream attention usually reserved for a new iPhone.
Through savvy advertising, the continuous improvement of its smartphones, and a steady march to expand distribution and strengthen the Galaxy S name, Samsung has broken from the pack of me-too Android manufacturers. The company has flourished even as others have struggled, now controlling more than a third of the smartphone industry's profits. (Apple accounts for most of the rest.)
Samsung shipped 63.7 million smartphones in 2012's fourth quarter, a 76 percent increase over the year-earlier period, according to IDC. Second-place Apple saw a 29 percent increase after shipping 47.8 million smartphones in the same period.
 Samsung's Galaxy S4 event: Join us March 14 (live blog)
"The near-term trajectory looks all Samsung," said Rajeev Chand, an analyst at Rutberg.
That Samsung has pulled this off in so little time and with such an unimpressive start is remarkable. Let's put it this way: Does anyone remember the Samsung Behold 2?
A modest start 
Two and a half years ago, Samsung lacked the clout to insist upon a single smartphone sold broadly across all the U.S. carriers. But it also didn't want to follow a route similar to one taken by Motorola and tie its fortunes to a single carrier in exchange for marketing and sales support.
As a compromise, Samsung created four variations of its Galaxy S phone. Each would have the same internal guts and similar software, but would have superficial changes and different names. The Galaxy S brand was found on the back of each device.
Samsung's J.K. Shin unveils the Galaxy S series at an event New York.
Samsung's J.K. Shin unveils the Galaxy S series more than two years ago.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
In return, Samsung received moderate support from the four major national carriers, and managed to get all of them to show up to the event, which is something like getting the owners of the Yankees and the Red Sox in the same room, times two.
"In the race to redefine the smartphone, the starting gun has just been fired, and the Samsung Galaxy S is already standing at the finishing line."
--Samsung's J.K. Shin
While the variations of the Galaxy S phone received decent reviews (read CNET's reviews of the CaptivateVibrant, Fascinate, and Epic 4G), they weren't exactly remarkable. The standout feature was a colorful and bright display, which used a then relatively new technology called Amoled, which stands for active-matrix organic light-emitting diode. They also packed a 1-gigahertz processor, considered top-of-the-line horsepower at the time.
While Samsung's Shin emphasized three S's for the Galaxy S -- screen, speed, and software -- the company fell short when it came to the software. Every manufacturer added their own custom touches to Android, such as new backgrounds, different menus, and animations. While some, such as HTC, provided more screens and offered a clearer user interface with better navigation, Samsung's own TouchWiz interface at times felt like an unnecessary addition, burdening the phone with unwanted complexity in the navigation and adding unremovable apps.
And in the U.S., Samsung was saddled with those four silly names.
Universal appeal 
Samsung's smartphone strategy started to coalesce with the arrival of Galaxy S2. First announced at Mobile World Congress in February 2011, it reached carrier stores in the U.S. that fall.
With the Galaxy S2, Samsung gained more control of branding. While AT&T and T-Mobile retained the name, Sprint insisted on initially calling it the Galaxy S2 Epic 4G Touch, a burdensome name that was eventually shortened to Galaxy S2 4G. Verizon had passed on the phone, instead focusing on its Droid brand and partnership with Motorola.
At the same time, the Galaxy S2 greatly improved upon the original, adding a larger, crisper display into a thinner body, toned down its TouchWiz user interface, and added hubs for music and games.
Samsung Jeremy ad
Samsung will hold a press event called "Unpacked" on Thursday in NYC.
(Credit: Samsung/Screenshot by CNET)
But it wasn't until the Galaxy S3 launched last May that Samsung truly broke through. The company was confident enough in the GS3's appeal to hold its own event in London, days before a major wireless trade show. With the GS3, Samsung received treatment normally reserved for Apple: Every major carrier sold the Galaxy S3 without any changes to its design, software, hardware, or branding.
Samsung was also the beneficiary of good timing. With Motorola agreeing to be acquired by Google, and HTC struggling with brand recognition and its ability to fulfill large orders, the carriers turned to Samsung as the most viable iPhone competitor.
"The carriers threw in heavily with Samsung, much more than any other player," said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research. "They became the de-facto 'other' player."
Samsung had, in effect, copied Apple's product launch playbook in ensuring that consumers get a consistent product in the Galaxy S3. And it had one brand to push with its considerable marketing muscle.
Hitting the right chord 
Samsung was always willing to spend big to promote the Galaxy S. At the original Galaxy S launch event, Samsung told The Wall Street Journal that it would spend as much on advertising as a carrier would to promote a flagship device. At the time, Verizon Wireless and Motorola were believed to have spent $100 million the year before promoting the original Droid.
While Samsung won't comment on how much it spends on marketing, the company reportedly spent a jaw-dropping $11 billion on marketing activities last year, according to the Korea Times.
Samsung's early attempts to break into the U.S. market fell flat, with commercials that talked about how great Samsung and the Galaxy S2 were without really explaining why. The ads were, awkwardly, a bit too Apple-like.
But when Samsung started to take the fight directly to Apple, things got interesting. In late 2011, Samsung released a series of commercials mocking Apple fans waiting in line for the latest iPhone. And when the iPhone 5 came out, they went straight for Apple's "cool" factor.
One spot featured a Galaxy S3 owner saving a spot in line for an iPhone for his unhip mom and dad.
The campaign's tagline, "The next big thing is already here," implied that the iPhone wasn't it.
Samsung paired the campaign with commercials that highlighted the Galaxy S3's own features, most notably the S-Beam capability that allowed users to transfer files and data between Galaxy S3s by tapping them together. Some of these features were found in other phones, but no one could beat Samsung in terms of marketing heft.
Samsung's marketing campaign was successful enough that the company has been able to create a new market for phablets -- or mobile devices that look like an oversize smartphone or tiny tablet -- in the Galaxy Note. Initially mocked, Samsung has sold 5 million Galaxy Note 2 units in the first two months since its release, and companies such as LG and ZTE have created their own oversize mobile devices.
Now Samsung is targeting business customers with a series of commercials following a startup's attempt to create fictional mobile game Unicorn Apocalypse (now actually a real, but terrible game) mocking the lone fuddy duddy with a BlackBerry. Peppered in between discussions over whether unicorns triggered an apocalypse and Swedish energy drinks were not-so-subtle messages about the security and productivity benefits of Samsung's smartphones.
The difference between how Samsung and HTC performed last year best illustrates the power of Samsung's marketing. HTC had an attractive and critically praised product in the One X, but was completely outgunned in promotion and carrier support. As a result, its phone was largely ignored as Android fans snapped up the Galaxy S3. As Samsung's profits surged last year, HTC struggled with shrinking sales, with revenue in February falling to its lowest level in three years.
Indeed, Samsung can now claim that Apple is its only real equal in consumer electronics. And with the Galaxy S4 ready to hit stores, Apple should no doubt prepare for the next barbs from the new cool kids of smartphones.

Eye-tracking tech in the Samsung Galaxy S4? Say what?


Eye-tracking tech in the Samsung Galaxy S4? Say what?

Navigating the phone with your eyes is one of the Samsung Galaxy S4's rumored features. Reports conflict, but we take a look at how it all could work if the technology does indeed appear in the gadget.
Samsung Galaxy S3
If you believe the rumors, the successor to the Samsung Galaxy S3 (pictured) could scroll up and down based on your eye movements.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)
If the Samsung Galaxy S4 rumors pan out, Samsung's newest smartphone may let people interact with the screen using just their eyes.
 Join CNET on Thursday, March 14 at 3 p.m. PT / 6 p.m. ET for live coverage of the Samsung Galaxy S4 event
Eye-tracking uses the camera to lock onto the motion of a user's peepers, following wherever they move. With it, the phone can perceive where the user is looking, and can respond to a set of behaviors, let's say a very intentional movement to scroll a Web page up and down, or a long, purposeful blink to click.
If your eyes have reached the bottom of a page, eye-tracking software could automatically scroll you down the following paragraphs of text.
This type of technology -- which had been researched for desktop computing long before it was conceived of for the smaller smartphone screen -- has been demoed for a variety of actions: zooming in or out, pausing a video by looking away from a screen, and playing games.
One company, Umoove, has already posted a demo video on how different eye-tracking navigation could work (below).
This isn't to say that this is the exact implementation that Samsung would use, if it were to integrate eye-tracking software at all, but it does help us visualize the pros, cons, and use cases of "perceptual computing" with this type of gesture-based software.
Software that's hard to perfect
We'll be the first to admit that weaving and bobbing your head to interact with the screen looks a little silly, but there are a few practical use cases, particularly if you're the type of person who's often busy with your hands. It's also a potentially useful accessibility feature.

However, there are also plenty of possible cons. Since the technology is still in its early days, commanding the screen with a come-hither look won't always be accurate. Just think of the issues users have had with Apple's Siri and Samsung's S Voice assistants.From a business perspective, eye-tracking software also has interesting ramifications for advertising, potentially allowing companies to tailor ads based on the parts of a story or screen where people actually look.
Movements could look awkward in public, and distractions could easily keep your orbs darting this way and that, interfering with the tracking software's behavior. Battery life is also an issue, since the phone would have to be awake to keep an eye on you.
Just how likely is this?
We don't have any insider information on this, but eye-tracking is just the kind of feature Samsung would include in its handset.
Why not? The Galaxy S3 has SmartStay, which, if you enable, keeps the screen from dimming if you look at it. An Android phone, the Galaxy S3 also includes rudimentary facial recognition to unlock the screen.
All that's in addition to a long list of optional physical gestures that use sensors like the accelerometer to pan and zoom when you move the phone, and mute a call or song when you flip the device over.
For Samsung, a company all about staying ahead of the pack, being one of the first to use a feature like eye-tracking would be a big win -- whether anyone really uses it or not.
"Innovation is quite difficult to achieve in these devices when you're effectively using the same software platform as everyone else and the same underlying hardware," Ovum analyst Tony Cripps said. "These investments are perceived as important in that they provide some kind of differentiation from rival devices in the market."
A recent Bloomberg article reports that eye-scrolling (one of eye-tracking's behavioral expressions) won't make it into the Galaxy S4, but there's a strong chance that future devices could feature it.
As more and more handset-makers look for ways to innovate, expect to see more visual gestures creep into a smartphone's bag of tricks.