Friday, 5 September 2014

Galaxy Note 4 Launch: Is Samsung Stumped for Innovation?

In the Samsung Unpacked 2014 event on Wednesday at IFA, Samsung announced its new flagship products that left many people unimpressed with the announcements. In fact, a number of the announcements from Samsung seem 'inspired' by the competition - and some, in fact, are made by a third party - which will give ammunition to people who see Samsung as lacking a unique vision of its own.
Going beyond the cringe inducing presentation that had overtones of misogyny casually thrown in, the actual product themselves were largely uninteresting. The creation of the Note family, and the subsequent rise of the phablet category is something that Samsung can genuinely take credit for - something that the company kept reminding us repeatedly during the event - but it's been a long time since the original Samsung Galaxy Note was launched.
With the Galaxy Note 4 and the Galaxy Note Edge, Samsung has ceded the chance to innovate and build something new that people would actually want to use - what we get instead is a change that serves to show off the technical prowess of the company, instead of looking at what users want or need.
In the past too, people have raised this point when talking about Samsung. The company has brought in so many "innovative" features in the past - remember the song and dance about Smart Scroll and Smart Pause at the Galaxy S4 launch? We don't hear much about them these days and we fear many of the features announced on Wednesday will experience the same fate.
The two new Notes are essentially the same phone, but the Edge includes a curve along the right edge, as a scrollable panel for information, notifications, and utilities. Samsung already explored curved screens with the Galaxy Round, which it had released last year. Reviews at the time pointed out that this innovation was hardly transformative of the way we use smartphones, and the fact that Samsung has released two variants of the Note suggests that the company also realises this fact.
Unfortunately, the other announcements from Samsung aren't exactly exciting either.
For one thing, in terms of design, the Note 4 has barely moved forward from the established style that Samsung has been using. This wouldn't be an issue if design wasn't one of the areas where Samsung has been hard pressed to stand out for a while now. The screen size remains the same as the Note 3, even though the display resolution has been bumped up significantly.
This increase in resolution will certainly help when the phone is used for VR, since each eye will see only around half the screen, but when it's taken as a whole, it seems like overkill - 5.7-inches is huge for a phone, but in absolute terms, that's still a pretty small display.
Then there's the question of "inspiration". Samsung has been accused of copying features from their competition in the past, and some of the things that were talked about on stage on Wednesday won't do much to dispel this belief.
Amongst the accessories shown at Unpacked, Samsung included something that the company is calling an LED cover - which shows information on the cover of the phone, letting you see things like the time, missed calls, incoming calls and some other notifications. That sounds really useful, and might be more familiar under the name HTC Dot View case.
Another thing that Samsung showed off was the panorama selfie mode, where you can stitch together multiple pictures from the front-facing camera to take group selfies. It's a really cool feature that will be fun to use - and Huawei got there first, when it launched theHuawei Ascend P7 earlier this year.
In fact, the coolest accessory shown on that stage was the one where Samsung's role was minimal - the Gear VR virtual reality headset. The Gear VR looks and works a lot like the Oculus Rift, but it uses an actual Galaxy Note 4 as the display, which also runs the games and other VR apps.
This is a genuinely cool idea, and one that Oculus and Samsung have been working together on for nearly 12 months now. The extremely high resolution of the Galaxy Note 4 makes perfect sense in this combination, as a 1440p screen basically means that each eye gets to see a HD image.
It uses the phone's processor and various sensors to carry out head tracking, though it can't be as accurate as the IR camera based approach being used in the Rift DK 2. What's really exciting about the Gear VR though is the software experience - it's our first look at what a polished Oculus interface could look like, and the results are exciting.
There's a VR store called Oculus Home, where you can discover, download and launch VR content. That means that users don't have to go back and forth between VR and a normal display to get to their content. Another really exciting feature is called Oculus Cinema, a virtual movie hall where you can play 2D or 3D movies, in a variety of theatre environments.
This is genuinely exciting stuff, and not just for gamers, but it just highlights the fact that the best part of Samsung's announcement was a product that was built in collaboration with another company. Whether the market rewards Samsung for its vision of going ahead with the partnership is another question altogether.
Yes, the Galaxy Note 4 itself comes with some interesting updates - the improvements to battery life and S-Pen the company talk about come to mind, even though they still need to be tested in the real world. The S-Pen is frankly the Note family's killer feature albeit one that is not well understood by its users. Most Note 3 users we polled informally admitted to rarely, if ever, using the stylus.
But what these improvements tell us is that Samsung is great at refining, and tweaking existing products. Coming up with something new, that people will be excited by and want to use, is a bigger challenge. The company is showing great technical prowess, but in an increasingly challenging landscape, is that enough to win the hearts and minds of consumers? Guess we'll find out when the new products hit the market.

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