The Samsung Galaxy — What?

March 5th, 2014

If a new iPhone was greeted with the same collective yawn as the latest and greatest Samsung flagship smartphone, the media would be ratcheting up their demands for the head of Tim Cook way beyond current levels. Despite some level of anticipation from the tech media, the Galaxy S5 does not at all seem to be more than a minor refresh. This week, the press is talking about Apple’s CarPlay.

The changes in the Galaxy S5 are typical. A speedier processor. Well, we assume it’s speedier, but it will require fair benchmarks, without Samsung’s usual cheating, to confirm. The camera has more megapixels, and the screen is a tenth of an inch larger. Why larger? Well, because it’s larger, I suppose. I hardly think it makes much of a difference in usability, but it may make the thing more difficult to put inside and remove from your pocket.

Sure, there is a fingerprint sensor, and some fitness-related stuff. But with Samsung, you never know how well a feature will actually work, or if it’ll work.

And it’s still plastic. Now Apple got dinged big-time for the plastic iPhone 5c, although it reportedly was more successful than the equivalent model in Apple’s lineup for the previous year. But compare Apple’s plastics to Samsung’s and you’ll see who has taste and who doesn’t.

From Samsung’s standpoint, you wonder how much confidence they have in the new model. It didn’t get much in the way of special treatment, such as that overdone presentation for the S4. Instead, it was introduced during an industry trade show, the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Now someone upgrading from a Galaxy S3 will probably find the changes worthwhile, particularly if they don’t want to consider jumping platforms.

Of course, there are the usual listicles attempting to compare the features of the Galaxy S5 to an iPhone 5s. Some look at the specs and suggest Apple is way behind, even though specs and real world performance do not always come into alignment. But since the Samsung isn’t actually on sale yet, that’s all they have to go by.

Here you’ll see the usual myths, that Apple needs to release a five-inch iPhone yesterday to succeed, and that they have to immediately kill off all existing iPhones as penance.

A bit exaggerated, but it’s based on the sort of absurd notion that continues to pervade tech commentary. First create a strawman argument, add two pinches of salt, and you have a claim that will exist with only slight alterations until the end of time regardless of the facts.

But if it’s not the larger screen, what about the pixel density, which exceeds the so-called Retina display threshold? Well, the difference is indistinguishable at any normal viewing distance. Don’t forget having a camera with more megapixels, and if that’s not enough, what about an eight-core processor? Eight cores! Doesn’t that make it four times faster than the iPhone 5s and its two cores?

Doesn’t it?

Now to be fair to Samsung, there’s one published report claiming that the silly trick to boost benchmarks is not carried over in the Galaxy S5, which uses the latest and greatest Android, as of last fall at any rate, version 4.4 KitKat. Of course that really remains to be seen. Again, this is all about a product that has yet to ship. Besides, it’s hard to say whether Android will actually benefit much from all those extra processor cores.

Consider the Mac Pro as an example of where multicore processing isn’t always the blessing you expect it to be. Only a few Mac apps benefit from all those extra cores. Most do not, and will perform as well or better on a well equipped — and far cheaper — iMac.

So, then, how many Android apps, aside from games (I suppose) actually exploit multicore processors?

The long and short of it is that Samsung has launched a mostly predictable Galaxy smartphone refresh. The spec enhancements are nothing to shout about, and there is no indication of how well the new features will fare, particularly the fingerprint sensor.

It’s well known that Touch ID, which employs technology acquired when Apple bought AuthenTec, works reasonably well but is not quite perfect. Samsung? I suppose we’ll see, or maybe some of the critics will pronounce it just as good or better than Apple’s solution without a thorough test, just as the useless features in the Galaxy S4 were not generally given critical treatment.

In all this, I am not suggesting the Galaxy S5 will fail. There is already a built-in audience of existing Samsung customers who might consider it seriously, particularly if their wireless contracts are up. As with prior models, it’ll work quite well in normal use and service. But it won’t be a trendsetter.

And here’s the question Samsung’s fans may not like to answer: If there was no iPhone from Apple, would would the 2014 flagship smartphone from Samsung be like? What would it offer in terms of cutting-edge features? What form factor would it have? If BlackBerry had remained in control of the market, you wouldn’t have to ask.

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