Samsung Galaxy S4: Smartphone evolution hits the Wall

Samsung Galaxy S4: Smartphone evolution hits the Wall

Summary: Samsung's launch of the Galaxy S4 appears to have received a very cool reception by initial reviewers. But does this indicate an overall trend acknowledging market saturation and the height of evolution for the basic functionality of the smartphone?

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The reviews from the mainstream digerati are in. Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal calls the Samsung Galaxy S4 "A good phone, but not a great one" citing minimal improvements over the previous model, the top selling Galaxy S3 and notes that Samsung's additions to basic Android are "Gimmicky". 

David Pogue of the New York Times was a little kinder. "It's basically an updated Galaxy S3" and "All told, nobody at the office will notice that you’ve bought the latest and greatest."

Ouch. Not exactly ringing endorsements from the two most influential computer and technology journalists in the mainstream.

Oh sure, us geeky technology writers can easily delve into the fact that the S4 is absolutely a spectactular technical achievement, we could micro-analyze every bit of minutiae about the product, and we'd be in remiss if we didn't acknowledge that it is clearly the top of the line (along with the HTC One) if you're going to consider a new Android smartphone.

But hey, I don't want to say I told you so, but, well... I told you so. I said that when the S4 was announced that it was just another Android phone and that when it came to the smartphone experience itself on Samsung devices, that the thrill was gone.

For all practical purposes the S4 was an exercise for Samsung to consolidate their supply chain and bring all of their manufacturing processes and components as well as much software as possible in-house. Important for Samsung, but for the end-user, not so much.

It would be simple to compartmentalize both Walt Mossberg and David Pogue as huge Apple fans that will easily dismiss anything that comes out of the Android camp.

One can certainly do that, and I think that based on their respective histories with being treated by Apple (and well, everyone else for that matter) with first nation status and their track record -- with few exceptions -- of stellar reviews of the company's products to date that such a viewpoint would be perfectly valid.

However, I feel that would be ignoring the fact that all of the manufacturers have reached a saturation point in terms of what you can really do with a smartphone outside of a continual hardware churn and revving the OS to current standards.

To give the guy credit, Pogue even thinks that Cupertino may be lagging in the innovation front as well. "Next time, it may be Apple’s turn to try harder" he concludes at the end of his S4 review, inferring that the next iPhone may not be a huge improvement over what exists today.

Rumors have circulated that the next device may be called the iPhone 5S, signalling the possibility of another evolutionary, but not revolutionary offering from Apple, not unlike the iPhone 4 to iPhone 4S transition in 2011.

The bottom line is that the buying public has certain basic expectations of what needs to be in smartphones, and that water mark is already pretty high, and may have been reached as much as two years ago.

So that we aren't treating the mainstream reviews as those that are anomalous, Mossberg and Pogue's S4 viewpoints and commentaries are consistent with reviews that have been published on numerous technology reporting sites and enthusiast blogs, ZDNet included. 

The smartphone device category is well-defined even within the sub-classifications such as phablets. You expect performance to be snappy regardless of how many cores are on the SoC that the phone uses, you expect the latest OS build.

You expect the rear-facing camera to take high-quality stills and video, you expect a front-facing HD camera for doing video chat, and you expect the device to have a high-resolution screen regardless of size that produces sharp, crisp video and has excellent color saturation and luminosity. And you expect the phone to be 4G LTE capable.

That's basic expectations, from any OEM, on any platform. 

The primary reason why people upgrade smartphones in the United States is they are on a 2-year cadence of re-upping contracts and wish to continue participating in a subsidized upgrade. Maybe their old device is acting flaky, maybe it's luster is lost on the end-user, or perhaps, as in many cases, the OS isn't updated to the latest version with the latest features.

But really, what was wrong with last year's Android smartphone? And for that matter, what was wrong with last year's iPhone? Or the one the year before that? 

And before you go there, yes, Windows Phone 8 is an interesting, different way of expressing the smartphone concept. I think Windows Phone is a great platform. I love my Nokia 920. But honestly, I know plenty of people that use Windows Phone 7 devices of various OEM and carrier origin and are perfectly happy running Windows Phone 7.5 on them.

If you're in contract, why upgrade to something newer unless you absolutely need an app that only runs on Windows Phone 8?

I have a BlackBerry 10 device for testing purposes as well, and there are some neat things that it does in order to differentiate, but groundbreaking? Nah. The real-time OS is cool, I'll give you that, although I question the actual consumer value. The hardware is at best, cutting edge as of two years ago.

One could argue, however, that Android 4.2 isn't a huge improvement over Android 4.1 or Android 4.0. Sure, there were performance tweaks, and a lot of architectual improvements in the underpinnings that developers would care about. But end-users? Not so much.

Maybe ZDNet's vocal maxi-zoom-dweebie peanut gallery cares about such distinctions, but your average consumer? They probably can't tell the diffference between any of these versions at a fundamental level.

One could also argue that iOS 6 isn't a huge improvement over iOS 5 either, but at least Apple has a pretty good track record even keeping 3 year old devices up to date, for the most part.

The smartphone industry needs to come to the conclusion that MOTSS (More of the Same Stuff) no longer cuts it. Neither does the never-ending pursuit of thinner and lighter and throwing more testosterone at the SoCs and onboard memory and GPUs either. We want innovation. We expect innovation.

Otherwise, why not turn in the smartphone in for an upgrade when the carrier eventually offers it for free, or when it finally dies out of contract and the carrier insurance plan refuses to replace it with a refurb? Why pay more than the bare minimum, if virtually every smartphone on the market meets basic expectations? 

Has smartphone innovation hit an evolutionary wall? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Smartphones, Apple, Nokia, BlackBerry, Samsung

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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183 comments
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  • For once...

    I agree with you, totally.

    My other half has the my old iPhone 3GS, I have a Galaxy SIII (company phone) and a Sensation (private) and our eldest daughter just bought a Lunia 800 (WP7.5), because it was cheaper than the newer models and the newer ones don't do anything she needs. The youngest daughter bought the small Xperia last summer.

    None of them will be looking to replace those phones, until they stop working. On a 25 Euro a month flat rate contract (no call, SMS or data charges), it does everything they need.

    I like the look of the One and the S4, but there is nothing there that makes me want to chop in my existing phone and fork out several hundred Euros on a new phone which is "a bit better."
    wright_is
    • Don't listen to the fanboys

      Your 3GS is probably a little slow so upgrading would be positive, GIII there's a bigger screen. While there's more fun features in the newer phones there's really nothing you need that you don't already have.
      new gawker
    • These journalists are biased and ignorant

      what would Walt Mosberg know? he is the donkey that claimed Macs don't get viruses. He is an outright Apple shill and has no clue about technology.
      His influence is way more than he is worth.
      Jason Perlow, is on a similar path, and has been telling us about the demise of Android for years. Jason has never hit on a reasonable justification for all his talk. It's just hater talk.
      There are a lot of journalists who don't like Samsung getting up and have hidden agenda. If these journalists knew what they were talking about, they would actually be in the industry rather than commentating on it. Professional critics are rarely IT professionals.
      To describe the S4 as an incremental upgrade is very very ignorant.
      It's a pity the unwashed masses doesn't know enough to figure things out for themselves.
      If you ask me what the S4 represents, I would say it is the current epitomy of Samsung's process of taking user feedback and then accommodating as much of it as they possibly can. Those that are not familiar with the process, Samsung has a feedback group that actually listens and has over the years had reps follow xda and even head-fi forums and gather what the real experts are saying. They have been handing out their source code for modding groups like cyanogenmods and the other devs and then gathering what comes back and incorporating it in future releases. It's like open source but Samsung is driving it.
      They even let the mods find and fix bugs and then release the updates thru their own channels.
      I'm sorry if my rant sounds fanatical about Samsung but as someone who has been involved with portable devices at many levels for over 20 years. There is no company doing mobile devices better than Samsung currently. Daylight second.
      warboat
      • You are so funny

        Are you talking about the same Jason, who claims that Samsung has by far the best Android around? :)

        You both apparently agree on that aspect of Samsung.

        But would you allow some of us to know things about Samsung you might not know and have an opinion on the matter that is perhaps different than yours?
        danbi
        • Huh?

          I think you are referring to James Kendrick who refers to it as Samdroid.
          Jason Perlow is the bus driver on the Android hate bus.
          warboat
          • I stand corrected.

            You are right. Mea culpa!

            But I don't think either of both is anyone's fan -- except fans of the mobile gadgets as such.

            The rest of my post however stands as it is.
            danbi
    • Why SIII cell service so cheap in London?

      My daughter got an SIII at the end of summer 2012 in London. She paid nothing for the phone, and pays 25 pounds a month, nothing else, and she gets unlimited data. Why the hell don't we have that in the States?
      bigsteve666
  • Battery Life

    The pursuit of thinner and lighter is getting ridiculous.

    I'd be perfectly happy with a Galaxy S4 that is the same thickness as my S3 and accommodates a much higher capacity battery. The S4's 2600mAh will struggle to last a day if 4G is active.

    A 3500mAh (or bigger) battery would be more useful.

    Even better, a smartphone that can last a week using new battery technology would be game changer. It will happen eventually.
    ITenquirer
    • While battery life is important

      Don't blame LTE (4G)... it's not the problem. In fact, in some cases, it's a marked improvement. At my old office, in a city, I had about 3/4 of a day's life with my old O.G. Droid. Switched it to a Galaxy Nexus, got a full day plus -- I didn't put it on a charger until I was done with it for the day. That's with the 2100mAh cell, and I was seeing a good 20Mb/s on LTE.

      Moved to a new office in the burbs. I'm on 3G all day, no 4G here. My phone is usually about out of juice by lunchtime. Why? It's not about the protocol as much as the power needed to reach that nearest cell. Yes, some of the very early 4G chips used more power than 3G for digital signal processing; they may still do this, in truth, but the overall power of current DSP in cellular modems has been reduced twice since I bought my Nexus in 2011.

      The thing you can never get away from is the radio power. In the city, most 3G was at 1900MHz, Sprint's 4G at the time at 2500MHz, and LTE was at 700MHz -- a distinct advantage in free air propagation, and an advantage in loss through buildings and foliage. Also, there's the notion of PAPR (peak to average power ratio); LTE's SC-FDMA has a much lower peak power for the same average, so it takes less power to transmit the same distance. In the current generation of phones, this is usually dominant over any loss due to additional DSP work.

      And with that said, LTE was using lower power per bit transferred than EvDO, anyway, from the get-go.

      If you want to find where most of the power goes, take a look at your phone. A good look. At the screen. These 720p and 1080p screens are taking lots of power... even the OLED on my Galaxy Nexus, usually kept at a moderate brightness. Go check your phone right now, see where the power's going. My phone's been off charge for about two hours, it's at 70% battery, and 43% of that has gone to power the screen.
      Hazydave
      • Power to the screen

        You leave your phone screen on all the time? That's something most people don't do, I would think.
        rphunter1242
    • Absolutely agree

      I can't fathom how these companies are producing "smartphones" that only increase in value and usefulness the more apps you install/use, but kill battery life so a smartphone can't last through the morning commute.

      I walk out of the house in the morning with my battery at 100%, have a half-hour train ride downtown during which I catch up on the news of the day, tweet as required, deal with email, LinkedIn group conversations/invites and such, followed by a 14-minute walk to the office listening to Metheny or Marsallis, Mozart or Metallica depending on my mood - I get to the office and battery is at 30% when I sit down at my desk. Ridiculous. If I did not have someplace to sit and charge my battery, the phone would cease to be of functional value except for the most spartan use, which defeats the entire purpose of loading up apps to do all the things a smartphone can do - might as well go back to the good ol' Nokia 3310.

      We've got every permutation of form factor from the S3/S4 to the Note 1 and 2, to the thing that's even bigger, then there's the iPad Mini, then iPad and other tablets...there's a size for all, wonderful.

      Now develop some battery life for practical use in the real world.
      Non-techie Talk
      • The problem with battery technology is that

        you are up against the laws of physics. Chemical batteries, because of the fundamental nature of electrochemistry simply cannot provide large amounts of power or energy. That's what happens when you are only shifting around single electrons, as opposed to chemical reactions, where you are mucking around with the entire outer shell.
        baggins_z
        • Why a battery in the first place? Why not a capacitor?

          A capacitor is more quickly charged, requiring only enough resistance/impedance in line to control current flow. As such, it could charge in as little as 5 minutes to well past the statistical 'full charge'. On discharge it can be handled the same as any other electrical storage device and current flow is likely to run far, far below the charge rate.

          The advantage would be that you simply don't have to worry about it getting a 'memory', as all rechargeable batteries are so well noted for doing and you don't have to worry about what happens if you take it to a complete 'empty' state as there is no chemical bonding destroyed by that state.

          Keep in mind, a battery is supposed to be capable of 'generating' its own energy over time; the chemical process creates the electron charge that becomes current when a flow path is closed.
          Keep in mind also that many of your desktop computers once used "gold capacitors" instead of a battery to maintain that bios charge keeping your machine from losing its settings when turned off or unplugged. You never had to replace that device because it never 'died'.
          Vulpinemac
        • Known laws of physics!

          In terms of our universe we are babes in the woods! Hopefully we will learn and find a better smarter way forward! 8-)
          martin_js
    • This Battery Does Exist

      I've found a battery that lasts for 6-7 days (yes, days!) for my S3. It is available on Amazon, and the detail about it is below. I got it about a week and a half ago, and have charged it twice (when new and when depleted once). On the 2nd charge, I am on day 6 with 23% left! It is a big battery and adds depth to the phone, but I don't care about a thin phone- I want battery life!

      Here's the info from Amazon (look at the reviews too):
      ZeroLemon Samsung Galaxy S III 7000mAh Extended Battery + Free Black Extended TPU Full Edge Protection Case(Compatible with Samsung Galaxy S III GT-i9300, AT&T Samsung Galaxy S3 Samsung i747, Verizon Samsung Galaxy S3 Samsung i535, T-mobile Samsung Galaxy S3 Samsung T999, U.S. Cellular Samsung Galaxy S3 R530, and Sprint Samsung Galaxy S3 Samsung L710) ***NFC for S Beam and Google Wallet***-WORLD'S HIGHEST S3 Battery Capacity -Black
      dtani
    • Agreed on battery life

      I wouldn't blame 4G for it though, but keeping WI-FI on and blutooth when not in use is a huge drain. I've got a 6Gig per month plan so I don't try to connect to WI-FI everywhere I go.

      But the software too has a lot of the blame for battery life. I just got an HTC 8X Windows Phone 8 before Christmas and battery life was horrible, I barely lasted a day without doing much. But since the Portico update and a second update following it (which didn't change the OS version, maybe it was related to specificity of my carrier) I can do two complete days on one charge with the same usage I was doing in the early days. Microsoft went a long way in improving battery life by tweaking the OS and not performance loss.

      I really wouldn't mind if my phone were a little bit thicker but had much more battery life. The race for the thinner phone is getting crazy. If they get thinner I'll be scared to break them just by touching them!
      lepoete73
    • Last a week?

      Why? Are you a camper, hiker, or do you live where electric power isn't available? I can plug my phone into the charger at home, or in the car, and I have one I take along on vacation, to recharge my phone overnight, just as I do at home. My phone routinely has 70-75% charge left when I plug it in at night. That means I should be able to go 3, or 4 days without recharging. Not bad for a phone with the smallest battery among top tier smartphones, with 4G LTE.
      rphunter1242
    • All accounts

      this supposed to have excellent battery life.
      jonandkelly
    • removable battery

      what you do is get a spare and put it in your wallet.
      I haven't had to use the spare battery for more than 2 months, but when I need to, it's the best feature in the world.
      Samsung thought about copying Apple with batteries, but there is a large vocal group of users that told them non-removable battery would be a deal breaker. Likewise for memory slots and micro-sd port.
      They listen, they delivered.
      warboat
      • damm edit

        micro-sd was meant to be micro USB.
        warboat