Boring is the new black: why 2014 is the year of small changes

Daniel Bader

February 25, 2014 8:57 pm

Yesterday, during Samsung’s first Unpacked 2014 press conference, JK Shin, the company’s head of mobile, said something that would have seemed out of place during the ostentatious, Broadway-scale Galaxy S4 unveiling a year earlier. He said, “Our consumers don’t want the most eye-popping technology, and they don’t want the most complex technology. Our consumers want durable design and performance. They want a simple yet powerful camera. Our consumers want faster and seamless connectivity.” In other words, less is more.

This messaging contradicts everything we’ve come to learn about Samsung’s mobile operations since the release of the Galaxy S3 in 2012. For a long time, “complex” was de rigeur for TouchWIZ, Samsung’s Android skin. It was packed with confusing, little-used affectations, like eye tracking and air gestures, many of which worked inconsistently, if at all.

Shin went on to say that Samsung is “extremely grateful” to the 200 million Galaxy customers that have brought the company to the fore of the Android world. But he realizes that with immense competition, his company can no longer take for granted that these customers will come back, year after year. This contrition was a welcome turn from a company typically unabashed about its dominance.

Screenshot 2014-02-24 17.53.39

The Galaxy S5 is the product of this newfound humbleness: it addresses nearly every pain point of its predecessor, especially the criticism aimed at the company’s low standards for build quality. The soft-touch dimpled backing may be marketed as “modern glam,” but it is the seemingly the best compromise between hard and hardy. And while the addition of a fingerprint sensor — or, in Samsung’s careful nomenclature, a “Finger Scanner” — and heart rate monitor might smack of gimmick, they address specific user needs.

While the announcement was not as slick as a typical iPhone introduction, what struck me about the Galaxy S5 press conference was its focus: five aspects of the phone — its design, camera, connectivity, fitness, and lifestyle — were emphasized and reinforced. There was nothing extraneous, no fluff.

The same is true of the Galaxy S5 itself. While we haven’t had a chance to look at it closely, the GS5 is clearly Samsung’s most polished mobile product to date. All improvements, hardware and software alike, are substantive and useful. Even something like Ultra Low Power Mode, which keeps a device with 10% battery alive for up to 24 hours, is a meaningful addition.

Immediately after the announcement, readers began to negatively compare the Galaxy S5 to its industry equivalents like the Sony Xperia Z2 and LG G2. Smaller screen, less memory, more limited battery capacity — all specs. But these specs are no longer the reason people buy phones, and Samsung knows that. And so do Sony, HTC and Apple. Last year, Samsung deemphasized hardware while dialling up the rhetoric on “lifestyle” features. This year, both were put aside in favour of obvious, solution-focused improvements: a backing that doesn’t slip; a camera with faster auto-focus; substantially better WiFi speeds; real-world fitness advantages; ease-of-security.

There are good reasons the Galaxy S5 lacks a curved or quad HD resolution display; there are obvious reasons Samsung did not implement an iris scanner or any number of other half-baked features propagated by rumour. These technologies are not ready and would negatively affect battery life, performance and user experience. Samsung played it safe with the Galaxy S5 because it must prove to customers that it can focus on making the core smartphone better for everyone, not just power users.

z2sli

If you think that Samsung is alone in this thinking, just look at the Sony Xperia Z2. A phone that’s all about small, iterative improvements that add up to a better user experience, the Z2 can be summed up in one word: display.

Sony knew its biggest pain point were the awful screens it tried to pass off as high-definition. Again and again, from the Xperia S to the Xperia T to the Z, ZL, Z1 and Z Ultra, Sony couldn’t manage to translate to its Android phones what customers had been enjoying for years on its Bravia TVs. With the Z2, not only is the screen slightly bigger, but it uses an IPS panel with much-improved viewing angles over the Z1. Everything else, from the 4K video shooting to the extra RAM and modest battery improvements, is bonus.

We can extrapolate the same outcome for the All New HTC One when it launches in March. What we’ve seen so far points to a phone that looks almost exactly the same as the One, with a minor screen size bump, faster processor and an improved camera experience.

We’ve reached peak compromise in the smartphone industry, where screen size, battery life and user experience meet comfortably in the middle. This product cycle aims to maximize all three, since changing one will inevitably affect the others.

Samsung knew exactly what it was doing when it announced the Galaxy S5, as did Sony with the Xperia Z2. This is no longer 2010, and we’re past the age of major spec jumps. While on paper it may seem boring, this trend points to a maturity of the industry as a whole, which means we as consumers can expect better smartphones, not better spec sheets.

  • morgan

    Innovation is key in today’s markets, but a new phone every six months isn’t attractive to normal everyday people

  • silver_arrow

    Frankly I am glad that Samsung is putting all these features in as it will make others do so too. But as you said the spec bump days are over so it is to the features now. I just want companies to focus on battery life and delivering the best experience possible for customers.

    This could mean large batteries, lots of internal (or external) storage, great cameras, amazing speakers or the “gimmick” features like a fingerprint scanner and heart rate monitor. Lets make these our true one device.

    • steven_bauman_7

      I agree, I’m really glad they focused on battery life aswell

    • TP

      I agree. To be honest, I don’t have any performance issue with my almost 1.5 year old Nexus 4. What I want in my next phone is not octacore, not higher clock, but better camera, better sound quality, and longer battery life.I don’t mind 1mm thicker if it gives me 10-20% more battery life.

    • Jonathan Schmitt

      I can agree to your comment for sure! My Nexus 4 runs very nicely stock. The camera could be much better on it, and although I do find the battery really good, its always nice to have longer battery life. I actually prefer thicker phones. If I could find a nice Treo 650 in great shape for a good price I would probably use it as my second phone :)

      I had the first and second generation Galaxy series and they did fell pretty amazing. They are very very light (or at least the versions I had were). But I think that they would be banned or Apple would try and ban the sales of the older designs since it ‘infringed’, or possibly did, on the original iPhone design. A bummer for sure.

  • FunkyMonkey

    the only thing they should try to do next time is to correlate the years of “small changes” to the years when Apple refreshes its phones, as opposed to introduces a new one (i.e. the iPhone 6)

  • bicecream

    This is an extremely well thought out and written article. Bravo Daniel Bader, bravo.

    • NotARogersEmployee

      I couldn’t agree more. Well put Daniel.

  • Jones

    Great article. One thing that Samsung missed though is storage. Only having 16gb (8gb after their rom) will affect the user’s experience. While some apps can be installed to memory card, there are some that cannot.

  • thedosbox

    ” But these specs are no longer the reason people buy phones”

    This was true last year too. I remember when the Moto X came out and all the spec junkies were complaining about the specs.

    • danbob999

      The problem of the Moto X wasn’t the specs. It was the price. I would have been a great $300 device.

    • Pasalacqua

      I too think that you would have been a great $300 device.

    • thedosbox

      LOL – I remember some people expected a faster, better-specced device than the Nexus 4, AND wanted to pay less for it.

      Talk about wishful thinking.

  • danbob999

    IP67 is the most important improvement this year. Having an extra 0.5 GHz won’t help you carry your phone at the swimming pool or on a boat.
    Larger battery is nice too.
    Extra CPU speed isn’t that much important but at least they continue to have the fastest phone chip available on earth.

  • Sunny Lee

    Phew, glad I don’t see any troll comments yet.
    I wholeheartedly agree with the article. The specs are, at this point in time, as good as any normal person needs it to be. 2K displays? On a 5 inch phone? Come on. What possible need do you have to have 2K resolution? The rumor-hype train is filled with impossible expectations that exceed what’s currently physically possible, and I’m surprised that so many people were disappointed with the obvious impossibilities that the rumors promised (seriously, unless some new revolutionary battery technology was invented, no phone in the world can run 2K displays while still being thin and light without huge compromises everywhere else). Has anyone ever actually seen an iris scanner? Clearly most people haven’t, since they actually expected one in a phone without it becoming 3 times bigger.

    I’m glad that Samsung finally ended the slippery plastic problem. I would use my S3 without a case if I could actually keep it in my hands without it feeling like it’ll slip out. Another site reported that bloatware will be minimized, and some can be removed altogether; again, a great step in the right direction. Water-resistance and fitness apps go hand in hand, useful for many people. Same with the ultra low power mode – there have been many times where my S3 was about to die, in situations where an emergency call may have been a real need. No more worrying about that.

    The Z2 is also a very attractive option. I’ll wait for the actual reviews of the phones, but from what’s been revealed, these seem like two amazing phones (and 2 great shower radios).

    • TP

      Sony Z have non-slippery rubber-like high quality plastic, which looks much more appealing and durable. S5 back belongs to budget devices like original Nexus 7.

    • HatInTheRing

      Agreed! Looks like a great all around phone. My friends that own S4’s love them still, a year later. For them this phone isn’t enough of an upgrade to buy it, but Samsung took a winning phone and addressed it’s weaknesses. For people using an S3 or who have been watching Samsung from the sidelines, this phone will wow them. It should sell well.

      Bonus: The camera tech sounds amazing (focus in 0.3 seconds, isocell for improved low light shots, selective focus to blur backgrounds and 16mp). That’s a huge selling point. It should destroy every other phones pictures. Looking forward to seeing those come out.

  • Rawrrr

    Good read! Hardware race is done for the time being.. The companies need to focus on refinement and how to make the user experience even better.

  • Sonnislav

    Ha! Speak for yourself! Currently on a note 2 and will update to the latest and greatest. Sounds like they want to squeeze more money out of the consumer while keeping the costs low. If they are not putting the best tech into their phones, will the price reflect that? I doubt that! So same high price for less tech? Sounds like a Canadian strategy, something Rogers / Bell would do…

  • rgl168

    Great article. OTOH I think also that Samsung did not bring out the message well in yesterday’s keynote. They hardly demonstrated UI changes. They didn’t emphasize the benefits of Kitkat. There was hardly any mentioning of software, particularly how software would work together with hardware to enhance the experience of users. That’s the piece that was missing from yesterday that made people felt “underwhelmed”.

  • Vishal Gauba

    The article is right on point. I do like this strategy which Apple has maintained for years and other companies are starting to catch up, that before releasing a technology, hone it properly. Their advancements in iterations have always been subtle and consumer oriented..and features that DO work well. Their fingerprint scanner against htc’s ..or samsung’s gesture gimmicks on s3.

    But shouldnt companies be asking themselves before sitting on a drawing board, that why would the consumer want to upgrade? Are they offering enough for people to abolish previous contract, spend 600$ to buy s5 and throw their s4?
    And in India we don’t have carrier contracts and phones are always 100$ more priced than US versions. So everytime we wish to upgrade, they want us to shell 700$ every yr?

    Though this model definitely works for people using atleast 2 generation old device..like s2 or s3 or even phone owners of other brands/companies might get tempted, if willing to shell so much money.

    If really those people are their market then companies should maybe change their marketing/advertisement approach i think!
    Its no more about launching a flagship with jaw dropping features..save them for shareholder meetings or reveal like concept products as they do with concept cars..

    it is bad for us geeks though :P
    i love jaw dropping features! Haha..but we do have CES, google i/o and wwdc to satisfy with!

    • kkritsilas

      I have been using an S4 for a couple of months. It is a really good phone, but coming from an iP5, this phone does have some frustrations for me:

      1.Battery life is not great. I usually have to recharge at about 2-3 PM. IP5 lasted until I went to bed. This may be related to not being able to get the S4 to use only 4G data connections instead of LTE. On an iP5, you can turn off LTE, allowing the use of the less power hungry 4G technology. Another point is that the large (and much appreciated) screen of the S4 just consumes a lot of power, as probably does the quad core CPU.

      2. I find the user interface is a little bit more inconsistent than iOS7. Example is Gmail. Using the Gmail app, to move a mail item to a folder from the Inbox page, you hit the Menu button (the one on the bottom left) and select the folder to move it to. So far so good. However if you highlight the item (hold your finger on the colored tab on the left of the email item, you can”t use the menu key, you must use the extra items (3 vertical dots at the top right of the Gmail app). Why does this change?

      3. I find that sometimes, the S4 turns itself on while it is in my pocket. Only way for me to know this is by the phone heating up. I then have to pull it out and turn it off again. I have tried to turn off all of the sensors, but it still does this, making the battery life issue a problem (see point 1).

      I don’t know if this is just something that touchwiz does, or it is part of Android. They are points of frustration, though.

      Kostas

  • johentie

    Very good read.. I liked it… but even though I HATE apple. .. this might be the year they surpass samsung again… why? Exactly the reasons in the article.. While samsung and other manufacturers in the android world raced to get the specs up the the top with bigger screens and now are releasing minor updates… Apple was releasing minor updates for a long time with tiny tiny tiny screens and poor battery life with very minimal changes to their OS.. yes even iOS7 was minimal.. If they release the iPhone 6 with a 5 inch screen and a crazy fast processor the extra size will give for better battery… These jumps might just attract those that were on the fence or the spec junkies to get their hands on a completely redesigned iPhone.. those that think the S5 was mehh…. people will skip the S5 with more ease and just wait for the iPhone 6… but that’s just my opinion … like someone told me ..dunno if it’s true but … u don’t wanna buy stock when it’s going well… u wanna buy when it’s going bad… When it bad prices are cheap…. not that the S5 is bad but when everyone is making minor changes u make the big ones…

  • J-Ro

    I think the smartphone market is now seeing its peak. Now that they have done away with the gimmicks, lets get back to great phones. I miss having a phone that fit in hand and lasted as long as I did during the day.

  • Quantos

    If anything, I think the past years’ evolution was indicative of a difference between the smartphone market and other high volume markets. The smartphone market is very young, so of course there was a big push of innovation. Compare this with, say, the car market. When a car is updated, it is common to see its design evolution be an evolution rather than a revolution. With every generation, the car gets updated with a few features here and there, but the concept of the car in itself hasn’t really changed for many years. Perhaps the smartphone market has arrived to this point. Nobody’s surprised when, say, the new Civic doesn’t have insane features that completely trump the competition. The current Civic has the same features than a Focus, or a Corolla, etc. Everyone shares the same basic concept, and adds similar, but slightly different features around this concept. At the end of the day, what matters isn’t who has the features, but who implements them the best.

  • d094

    There are a couple sammy features I really liked on my S4. I like the wave your hand over to automatically answer on speaker phone. And i like when it’s sitting on your desk and you get a call you don’t want you just turn it over. The eye tracking was a complete fail though, doesn’t work 98% of the time.

  • Max Fireman

    I guess people are expecting paper slim phones that can be embedded in the palm of our hands. Not yet folks, not yet.

  • Ali Eser

    They say the Snapdragon 800 is the best chip a few months ago, but now they released Snapdragon 801. Its better than the 800.

  • pngface

    Battery life most definitely does not meet anything comfortably in the middle. I don’t get why these companies insist on using larger batteries with each iteration, rather than spending some $$ on R&D to improve battery efficiency on the same footprint

  • namenamename

    Every comment I read about the Z1’s screen being “awful” makes me more confused than I was before. It reminds me of how a substantial amount of people can’t get over Windows 8’s start screen; the degree of awfulness people claim is highly exaggerated. A new feature on the device like the IR blasters Japan gets rather than a “better” screen with good viewing angles is more than welcome in my book. (Seriously, it’s a phone; who looks at their phone from the side?)

    I can’t say about the other companies, but on Sony’s side, the boring Z2 was unnecessary. Would’ve waited another year for a specsheet phone with a nicer screen as bonus.

  • kaostheory

    The only decent noise canceling ear buds that include a mic for phones are Bose quietcomfort 20 @ $300. I’m really curious about the reviews on the Z2 noise canceling feature. This is a huge new feature for me. Upgraded screen and stereo speakers make this the most complete phone to date.

  • krazyking

    I think you are missing the main reason most people are not impressed with the Galaxy S5. The design is just awful and presents little change from the S3. Samsung continues to use plastic which the majority of people don’t like. If Samsung would have come out with a totally new attractive design made of quality materials then I believe most of us spec junkies would have had no problem with the minor upgrades and even the 2 GB of RAM. The main problem is not the specs (although they are not the most impressive) it’s the ugly same design. The Z1 was already considered by most to be a beautiful premium feeling flagship. The minor changes made to the Z2 made it an even better and prettier phone. I was looking forward to the S5 but I won’t be getting it. My money will instead to spent on the Z2, HTC One 2 or LG G3. Hopefully when sales from the S5 decline even more Samsung will learn what consumers really want for the release of the Note 4 or S6.

  • Jared Bedi

    This one of the best articles I’ve read on the S5; more to the point this is exactly where the industry is going.I for one, am all for improving the gripes we’ve had on our phones instead of just throwing in the newest specs; and while this may not be my next phone, it will certainly be a great upgrade for my wife going from the S2 to this will be a huge step up.

  • phuzzykiller

    Although this does look like a fairly impressive phone, I’ve gotten tired of replacing Samsung’s godawful Touchwiz with Cyanogenmod every time I buy one of their phones. I wish that they would stop putting out garbage bloatware, and look at getting closer to stock android. I’m currently watching what Sony is doing with their phones (a Z2 mini would be awesome if they kept the specs the same), and fully expect to be getting something like the Z2 when my current contract runs out