Samsung and the Galaxy Note 9's quest for 'meaningful innovation'

Having largely retreated from the frivolous features that marked earlier flagships, Samsung has vowed to make changes where they count in the Note 9. But the smartphone's most meaningful improvements aren't the most innovative, and its most innovative changes aren't the most meaningful.

Pursuing a goal of "meaningful innovation" for its products would be dismissed as a self-evident platitude for most companies. But it does have some significance for Samsung, which grew to become the dominant giant in mobile it is today, despite including all kinds of gimmicky features into its flagships, particularly around the era of the third and fourth Galaxy S generations.

In the last few iterations of its smartphone lineup, though, Samsung has dropped most of the fluff and redundancy. Bixby, the personal agent that might have been at home in such an era (and was indeed preceded by Samsung's "S Voice") may stand out as an exception. For better or worse, though, that is becoming more of a Samsung product family feature than a smartphone or even mobile (smartphone/watch) feature. Indeed, at the Note 9 launch event, Bixby played more of a starring role in the company's forthcoming smart speaker than in its latest smartphone.

Also: I went to buy a Samsung Galaxy Note 9 and AT&T shrugged

Rather, the Note 9 sticks to advancing fundamental smartphone features -- resonating fodder for the quick cut take on an "infomercial fail" video played at its introduction. With Samsung already providing some of the best-in-class displays, and with its curved glass having evolved into a signature design feature, the company hasn't changed much there, holding out on the recent trend to "notchify" the top of its devices. On the other hand, camera upgrades have become an all-but-required upgrade associated with annual flagship revisions. Thus, there was little doubt that Samsung would make improvements there after doing so in the Galaxy S9, taking advantage of an opportunity to sprinkle in a bit of AI-assisted scene recognition.

The Note 9 is also the latest smartphone to get even louder audio out of its speakers, accommodating those rude folks oblivious to the idea that you do not wish to hear the soundtrack of the YouTube video they are watching or hear the details of their speakerphone or video chat conversation in a public place.

That the company has bumped up the flash memory configuration is mostly a function of that commodity continuing down the cost-per-gigabyte curve. On the other hand, Samsung's upgrading of the battery in the Note 9 comes as a something of a revelation, given how often consumers request such upgrades and how often they are ignored in favor of software tweaks extending battery life. The inclusion of a higher-capacity battery in the new Note -- combined with preservation of that beloved yet endangered species, the headphone jack -- challenges the idea that Samsung is constrained in the handset's internal wiggle room due to the relatively massive amounts of real estate occupied by the S Pen.

Also: Best Galaxy Note 9 tips and tricks you should know right now CNET

Indeed, in comparison to the Note 9's kind of fundamentals improvements that would be welcome in virtually any handset, the addition of Bluetooth to S Pen represents something unique to the handset. Samsung has nailed the execution here. While it has historically touted the S Pen's ability to operate without being charged -- something necessary for Bluetooth functionality -- it has provided about as seamless a way as possible to charge it automatically when it is inserted. But even better than that, the S Pen will continue to work as it always has, even if its battery is depleted.

That said, the marginal value of having added Bluetooth -- for such tricks as advancing a slide deck or taking the best selfie ever of you with your S Pen -- is unlikely to broaden the Note's appeal. More may come of it as the company expands access to its functionality to third-party developers. For now, though, the addition of Bluetooth seems more like a bit of added flair for those who already appreciate S Pen, but in a way that offers little benefit to the core applications of the Note's stylus.

This idea of nifty tricks enabled by an accessory continues with the new Samsung DeX docking cable, which enables the Note 9 to be more fully utilized than with its previous dock-based options when using its desktop environment. But while the new option is an easier carry, it's still a separate expense that still needs the not-so-convenient accessory of a separate monitor. And despite Samsung's recognition that the Note is the smartphone for its most power-hungry of power users, there is no timetable for it tapping into the timetable of Android Pie, which is sure to be featured in the latest generation of Google Pixel devices due imminently.

Also: Samsung Galaxy Note 9: A cheat sheet TechRepublic

The Note 9 doesn't need to go mainstream for Samsung to win. Samsung already has an excellent and immensely successful top-end phone for that as well as no shortage of models designed to attract less affluent consumers. Rather, the Note's relatively fringe appeal among advanced users is a significant part of its identity. Samsung rarely misses an opportunity to chide those who doubted that a phone with a stylus would have any appeal in an era of touchscreens. With the Note 9, it runs yet another victory lap. Its signature features keep users who appreciate the device in the fold with advances that expand capabilities, but within limited scenarios.

Beyond that core, Samsung is far from alone in struggling to keep consumers interested, as the smartphone market slows and contracts. The Note 9's big wins come with pedestrian updates, while the product's real differentiators refine ideas that Samsung introduced generations ago.

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