Feature Article

March 14, 2013

Samsung Puts on a Show - New Galaxy S4 Delivers Lots of New Apps and Fun Capabilities, No Real Innovation

Kantar Media recently noted that Samsung has hugely increased its ad spend - and that may be an understatement. Samsung had a $75 million ad spend in 2011. In 2012 that spend shot up to $400 million, surpassing Apple's 2012 ad spend by a whopping $65 million or so. Apple meanwhile spent $250 in 2011 and approximately $335 million in 2012. Clearly, as far as marketing went in 2012 Samsung’s decision to spend paid significant dividends in terms of capturing consumer mindshare and to some degree putting Apple on the defensive.

By that, however, we mean that a lot of tech and financial media has bought into the messaging those dollars bought rather than the reality. We continue to stick with our position that the best we are going to see from Samsung is incremental innovation of the “gee whiz” sort, but not of the genuine kind of innovation that changes the game in any significant way.

So then, with that introduction out of the way, what did the Samsung S4 launch at Radio City Music Hall actually bring us? Our first impression is that Samsung’s marketing budget has gone to its head.

It was an interesting event and we confess that at one point we almost became confused as to whether we were watching the Samsung event or a new version of Cirque du Soleil, which has been playing at Radio City for a long time. It was a “show” that demonstrated, for the most part a large collection of what we might refer to as “novelty” applications – like stopping at a magic shop and picking up a few new tricks. Not sure what we mean? Check out the images below, showing one of the stage sets, the full pit orchestra and the 9 year old tap dancing kid (yes, he did a tap dance).



Our second impression is that we’re absolutely right – Samsung did not introduce anything special – certainly nothing “magical” and we’re not sure there is much to distinguish the S4 for the S III – slightly better graphics, a better processor to do a few more things, some camera tricks that will easily be matched by others if they choose to match it, and…well, not much else. Let’s go to the specs first:

Not bad. As we expected the screen is 4.99 inches so it’s a large phone. Without a doubt. The event itself paid very little attention to the technical details. Less than 10 percent of the entire event was focused on the device itself. Rather Samsung chose to focus most of the event on its own collection of applications – all of them presented through a variety of well, high school quality skits! The device itself was completely lost and the apps themselves – a mélange of “S Stuff” as they are now labeling everything (S Health, S Translator, and on and on).

The one thing that does take a hardware step forward is a first implementation of eye tracking – if you are watching a video and you take your eyes off the screen the phone will pause the video until it detects that you have resumed viewing, in which case it will resume the video. We’re not at all sure if this will become a bother more than anything else when it’s turned on – that’s our guess. But the more capable eye tracking we’d heard rumored was nowhere to be seen.

The screen is a Super AMOLED display at 1920x1080 and 441 pixels per inch. The screen will no doubt find plenty of champions – it will be crisp and clean. Samsung took a cue from Nokia and briefly demonstrated that you can control the screen while wearing gloves. Samsung’s Adapt Display adjusts the display relative to the type of content being viewed as well – the idea being to deliver the best viewing experience between content and ambient lighting conditions.

But we’re not quite sure how well it does this based on the brief demonstration. Finally, Samsung has added the ability to hover over the screen without touching it and through “air” gestures achieve various swipe movements, such as turning pages. The same hover gesture will unlock the screen.

One of our pet dislikes of the Galaxy S III is its plastic body. With the S4 Samsung has opted to call the case a two piece polycarbonite case – which will be available in two colors, mist black and frost white. The two piece case hides a robust 2600 mAh battery that is replaceable – which can be important to some people. To us it’s still plastic but it certainly is sleek at 7.9 mm thick and 130 grams (4.6 oz) light. People will like it.

The S4 comes with the expected 2 GB of RAM, and 16/32/64 GB memory configurations, along with support for a microSD card – which we really like. There are also a number of new sensors on the S4, including temperature and humidity sensors. There is a Samsung health care app now – S Health - that uses some of those sensors.

The main camera is 13 megapixels, as expected. We did not hear about the photo software doing anything special with all those pixels, however there is a new dual camera (front + rear) capability that lets a user incorporate the front camera image into rear camera photos and videos. For example, using both cameras allows one to include placing the person taking the picture into the video or photo. It can of course be turned on or off, and also offers various camera lens effects (e.g. a fisheye effect). The camera can also take multiple shots that can be merged to include or remove unwanted elements. Other apps can do this but this is Samsung’s own app.

There is a new S Translator feature - speak in one language, translate to another bi-directionally. There is support for text to speech and speech to text, and a library of 3,000 globally usable sentences. They did mention KNOX at the event – the new enterprise software that will let users keep their work and consumer profiles separate. It was tossed in out of the blue and then the presenters were off to something else. There are plenty more apps, but we aren’t going to go through them all. Stop by the Samsung Web site and read up on them if you have a deep interest. Otherwise, they don’t really matter all that much.

In summary, Samsung certainly pulled the stops out the stops – but the event was not a quality presentation. It obscured what is otherwise a very nice new, large smartphone. Is it enough to move S III users over? We really doubt it. Is it something that is going to make iPhone users jump ship? Some of the apps and features – such as the dual camera capability may sway a few – but in the end Apple has nothing to worry about. Nothing Samsung demonstrated today is the sort of thing that can’t easily be duplicated. For us that means there is no real innovation here. It left us distinctly unsatisfied.

We’ll sum up this way. If you’ve ever seen one of those TV shows where they take an already expensive SUV and then proceed to really trick it out…in the end you have a lot of stuff that isn’t necessary and underneath it all it’s the same SUV you started with. The S4 is that sort of beast – lots of new apps that trick out what is otherwise a slightly larger and faster S III.

Good luck with that – but we’re not sure where Samsung is going to find 60 million new users for it, let along the 100 million it believes it will be able to sell. We’ll leave you with the image below. Note that it says “Episode 1.” What can that possibly mean?




Edited by Stefania Viscusi


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