Samsung is likely going to have an excellent 2018 — or so they say. That’s a sentiment I’ve seen echoed across all corners of the Android community, and it’s not an unjustified expectation. Some point to the fact that they outspend most other OEMs in advertising, that they are supported by their ever-improving chip and display divisions, that the typical Samsung user might be as sheepish as an iPhone user. They might even point to Huawei’s recent failure to challenge Samsung’s uncontested reign over the highly-profitable and influential US market. While none of these reasons are particularly wrong, and while they most definitely add to Samsung’s success, they don’t quite tell the whole picture.
Explosive Mistakes, Lessons Learned
Samsung came from a very good place in 2013, though just a year later the company’s phone division began momentarily falling behind. The hot Galaxy S4 was replaced by the oddly-designed and disappointingly behind-the-times Galaxy S5. While the S5 did have perks like a fantastic camera (for 2014) and IP67 water resistance (a mainstream abnormality), it also was ugly, plagued with issues. When pitted against devices like the excellent HTC One M8, it had clearly lost its edge and Samsung’s plummeting market share in 2014 reflected their relative and momentary decline. Still, Samsung pushed this phone hard, and they sold more units than other OEMs even with these flaws, but what Samsung was left with was a poor taste in the mouth of consumers. By the end of the summer of 2014 it would be obvious to the general consumer that Samsung was running behind and running out of ideas. Their software was a horrific mess, performance was at a near all-time low (again, taking into account that other OEMs had been greatly benefiting from the improvements of KitKat), and their flagship was quite ugly.
But then something rather unexpected came along, the Galaxy Note 4. If there were a list of the top 5 most important Android phones, this would likely be right near the top. The Note 4 is still praised by its present and past owners as a wonderful specimen. It featured one of Samsung’s most solid designs but with a metal frame and tougher support structure, a first for a mainstream Samsung phone. It was also powerful, featured a still-bloated but somewhat-less-offensive UX, and will likely go down as one of the most feature-packed phones ever, checking nearly all important boxes for most consumers.
Samsung then took two steps forward and one step back. They expanded on this metal design, which they had to do to stay relevant, but sandwiched it with glass. Gone was the removable battery, expandable storage, water resistance, and Qualcomm-powered option (due to the Snapdragon 810’s shortcomings), and in came a gorgeous but handicapped flagship; a beautiful disaster. They also took the time to revamp their UX and while anything was an improvement from Touchwiz in terms of aesthetics, it was still clunky, performed terribly, was rather plain in the new era of Material Design, and updates were non-existent. Some may point to the Note7 as Samsung’s worst period ever, but I would quickly point you to mid-2015 for a beautiful example of a revamp done wrong. Samsung continued this streak with the Note5 which is likely the single most forgettable Note in the history of the lineup, a crowning achievement considering its successor.
The rest is history, though, as Samsung seemingly took a step back to reevaluate things after the well-known Note7 disaster. While the Galaxy S8 was likely far into production before all of that occurred, Samsung came into last year visibly humbled by the experience, eager to earn the trust of its consumers back. They came back full force when launching the S8 with one of the most massive advertising campaigns and partner cooperation pushes I have ever seen. The cause was not hurt by the fact that the Galaxy S8 and Note8 are two of the most visually stunning pieces of mainstream tech to ever exist. Beyond the futuristic design they also featured impeccable hardware and a far more refined (though still imperfect) software experience. Despite all of this though, they would need more than advertising and charm to climb back into the minds and pockets of consumers, these phones would need to outmatch, outgun, and outclass every competitor it faced and while the Galaxy S8 and Note8 fall ever-so-shy of achieving this, 2018 might just be a different story.
Samsung’s Present and Future
Samsung software has never been a point of much praise or admiration. It has a lineage of poor UX decisions, abandoned features, messy design, and essentially popularized the word “jank” when talking about software performance. This coupled with a poor update experience left a very poor taste in the mouths of many current owners, and those in line for an upgrade. It would be one thing if general consumers didn’t notice this, but in speaking with anyone with even a recent Samsung handset, their user experience has not aged gracefully with time, Samsung’s software issues were not one that just enthusiasts were noticing and this was a problem for Samsung. At XDA, we’ve routinely documented how even when there were hints of improvements in Samsung’s software, they’ve always been behind the curve. I had a lot of hope for the S8, for example; the Note7 before it offered a measurably terrible software experience in terms of performance, and while indications are that they were working on it, those improvements apparently never made it to the Nougat base for the S8. However, Samsung’s Note8 software and further, the Oreo update, are very, very different.
Suggested Reading: Here’s What’s New in Samsung Experience 9.0 Android Oreo Beta
While my software experience was never terrible on the Note8, the objective eye I need to look at it through acknowledges that it was never quite as smooth or responsive as a Pixel device. It was most certainly serviceable. but it’s only improved with the most recent Oreo leaks for the Note8. While it is too early to definitively say that Samsung has fixed their jank and lag issues in the short term, I can wholeheartedly say the jump to Oreo in Samsung devices is eye-opening and teases what might finally be a Pixel-level performer once the Galaxy S9 launches late next month (especially since there’ll be a baseline hardware improvement with a new SoC). It goes beyond software performance though, as Samsung seems to have finally nailed down their excellent-looking and high-functioning user experience as well. While everyone’s preferences will be different, Samsung’s UI is as unoffensive as it has ever been, and through its solid theming engine it can be made to look like your favorite Google produced phone. They have been trimming the fat, as it were, by killing off third party solutions to many Google preferred services. Sure, Bixby is still around and will likely hog a dedicated button for the time being, but Samsung has made the option to completely disable Bixby and Bixby Voice in recent updates. In return you get Samsung-specific enhancements like better color controls, dual bluetooth modes, the edge panel, a superior multi-window solution, and some of their software like the excellent Calendar and S-Note applications. There’s also audio options to take advantage of the 3.5mm headphone jack others increasingly forego.
It doesn’t take much tuning, nor root, to make TouchWiz look Stock-ish
Then there is the hardware. Love it or hate it, the S8 and Note8 were some of the best designed phones of 2017 and their hardware was at least competitive or better on almost every playing field leading to what is easily the most comprehensive hardware package you can buy. Sure, the Pixel might outperform the Note8 in real-world performance and even camera quality, but dollar for dollar you are getting far more bang and bang for your buck from Samsung than anything else on the market. These more recent achievements do not absolve Samsung of valid criticism though. The fingerprint sensor is in a terrible location, the single firing speaker is still poorly placed, and the battery should still be a little bit bigger. Refinements, though, are what has made Samsung the nearly undisputed king of Android it is today and if sketchy rumors are to be believed, they are finely tuning their 2019 offerings in all the right places. The fingerprint sensor will finally move to the middle, we might see dual front-facing speakers (and might have seen hints of that), and battery capacity could easily receive a bump.
Yes, Samsung is still one of the leading and largest phone manufacturers in the world and is certainly the most influential Android OEM, but they didn’t get to this position is by happenstance or a lack of competition. The fight has been hard-fought and while other OEMs have been taking their chances on whimsical dreams like modularity or other niche features, Samsung has been finely tuning every aspect of their experience to appeal to the most people. They have vastly streamlined their software experience so that updates and feature enhancements can be pushed out quicker (compared to others, at least) and nitpicks and failings of prior devices are being slowly phased out and fixed. As the company minimized the intrusiveness of what most considered bloatware, and “cleaned” their kitchen sink approach to features, they arrived at a complete Android package that no longer gives its users headaches. The Galaxy S9 and Note9 are not going to be perfect devices, but Samsung is making the entire experience more appealing for nearly everyone, in turn making their devices easier to recommend over other great phones with narrower targets.
Rojenx is a leading concept artist who work appears in games and publications
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