Samsung Galaxy S4: Smartphone evolution hits the Wall

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?
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

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.

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