As I write this, it is mid-afternoon and Samsung has just completed a presentation from Berlin, where the IFA 2012 Consumer Electronics Conference is currently taking place. Lots of companies are making many announcements at the conference, of course, but we are particularly interested in what Samsung has to offer given its recent patent lawsuit loss to Apple.
We'll preface our rundown by noting that the company used the word "innovation" a great many times during its presentation, and in fact tossed in a few "magic" lines for good measure as well. How did the company do?
It isn't a surprise that Samsung introduced its new Galaxy Note II today - that was expected, but Samsung did not lead anyone to think there might be anything else going on beyond the Note II. There was.
The new Note II - slated for an October 2012 launch - certainly delivers a major update - both in features and in overall design. The Note II now looks remarkably like a Galaxy S III - no real surprise there, but as one can see from the accompanying image, it would be hard to tell one from the other in a photo without taking a very close look. The Note II is all of 9.4 mm thick, ever so slightly narrower than the original Note, and just a bit taller, with a brighter, slightly larger 5.5 inch super HD AMOLED screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio. The new Note offers a 1.6 GHz quad-core processor, 2 GB of RAM, LTE support, a robust 3100 mAh battery and Android's latest 4.1 version of Android (Jelly Bean).
The Note's claim to fame however, is its "S Pen" stylus, and Samsung looks to have dramatically improved the S Pen. The stylus is now slightly thicker, and is able to deliver 1,024 unique levels of pressure sensitivity, which Samsung claims gives the stylus a true "write on paper" feel. A variety of underlying software updates has also been added. For example, as soon as the stylus is removed from its pocket, the Note II can automatically pop up the suite of available S Pen tools. If a user is on a call and needs to make a note, the system will automatically pop up a note window.
The new S Pen is now also imbued with "hover" capability, which works in tandem with a number of software improvements Samsung collectively refers to as "Air View." For example, by hovering the S Pen over an e-mail list, a user can get pop ups that display the underlying information without having to actually open up any e-mails. The same is true for calendar events and contacts, and for moving through a movie timeline to select a certain place in a video. Hovering is shown immediately below.
All in all, Samsung has pulled together a very nice suite of features. But we wonder a great deal about the efficiency of the Note's general size. We've had an original Note in hand for some time, but after the initial deep dive that goes with learning a new device, we haven't exactly put it through any blisteringly detailed use. Our own biggest problem is that it typically falls short in terms of offering enough functionality to make it a device of choice. And it is simply too large to just carry around as a smartphone.
It will be interesting to see how - or if - sales for the Note II develop. We greatly applaud the "innovation" but we're not convinced the form factor is a winner.
The Galaxy Camera
Samsung next surprised us by debuting a new camera, and specifically an Android-driven camera. The idea of the camera is to marry both video and optical technology with some smartphone capabilities. To date, most smartphones from most vendors (with the possible exception of Nokia) have offered basic camera functionality along with some software capabilities for editing.
Samsung has opted to take a different approach here - start with a very high end camera concept and then add some mobile operating system capabilities to the mix, so that one ends up with a very sophisticated mobile camera. Hence the Samsung Galaxy camera, shown in the accompanying image.
In case anyone should think this is a nice looking little camera - it isn't. The Galaxy camera is meant to be a serious tool for anyone who might deem to classify him or herself as a semi-pro or otherwise serious amateur photographer. The image below puts its size into perspective.
The back of the camera sports a 4.8 inch screen that for all practical purposes looks exactly like a high end Android phone. It does support LTE and Wi-Fi for a variety of data connectivity options. A key feature of the camera, which sports a 16 megapixel sensor and optical image stabilization, is its 21x "optical" zoom - a far more powerful capability than your typical poor quality digital zoom. Users can edit photos directly on the large screen should they so desire, and can use other Samsung smartphones as remote controls to the camera.
Samsung isn't a mobile company of course - it offers electronics of every sort, and the company does have Wi-Fi camcorders. A Galaxy camera is not a major leap for the company. It is interesting to note that next week Nokia will be unveiling its own next-generation of smartphones - and we've noted in the past that we hugely hope to see a Windows Phone 8 device sporting some of Nokia's PureView 43 megapixel camera technology. That would make for a fine head to head battle - but one we think where Nokia might have an edge.
There's More - the Samsung ATIV S Windows Phone 8 Smartphone
The Galaxy camera was not the end of the show. Although we were not expecting it, the company decided to also use IFA to unveil its next-generation of Windows-based machines, which the company has dubbed the ATIV SmartPC series - consisting of a convertible laptop-tablet (it has a detachable keyboard) that comes in both consumer and professional models, and a pure tablet based on Windows 8 RT (and which includes Windows Office for RT). In short the company has more or less duplicated what Microsoft is offering with its Surface tablets.
To ensure that it offered a complete line, Samsung also introduced its latest Series 9 notebook (or ultrabook). The Series 9 offers a highly refined notebook design, and it was inevitable that Samsung would debut the next generation in the near future. Perhaps the company decided at the last moment, following last week's patent miscues that it needed to demonstrate to the world that it isn't only a smartphone company, and that it has plenty of original design and innovation chops.
We won't provide any details here on this collection of new Windows 8 hardware - there isn't much to note yet as the company made no mention of actual release dates or pricing.
The company did close its day by presenting the Samsung ATIV S Windows Phone 8 smartphone - which the company claims is now officially the very first Windows Phone 8 phone to be launched. The company simply refers to it as a "premium" smartphone at this point in time. As the image suggests, there are obviously Galaxy S III design features.
Whether this is a rushed prototype or a product that is close to becoming real is impossible to say. We're not sure that taking design elements from an Android phone for use in a Windows Phone 8 device is the right way to go - in fact we're sure it isn't. We will note however, that the 4.8 inch super AMOLED screen does a great job of presenting Windows Phone 8's tiles-based interface.
So, a pretty busy day for Samsung all in all. Did it deliver a strong message on innovation? Hard to say…we very much like a lot of what Samsung is doing, but we are also convinced that we have not yet seen the "statement" mobile device that will put Samsung on a rarified plateau yet.
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Edited by Jamie Epstein