Falling for Samsung’s…Stuff

April 19th, 2017

As tech companies go, Samsung hasn’t had it so good overall of late. Its CEO, Jay Y. Lee, was arrested in February as part of the scandal that led to the decision to impeach South Korean President Park Geun-hye. When a corporate executive does things that help bring down a government, that’s big news. Huge.

It certainly was a big story in Asia, and the departure of the President also had a fair amount of coverage throughout the rest of the world. But I doubt that many people outside of South Korea, even people who are fans of Samsung’s tech gear, know that its former leader was accused of being complicit in that scheme.

As far as most customers in other countries are concerned, however, Samsung’s corporate issues are unimportant. There is some disagreement on whether the Galaxy Note 7 debacle has seriously impacted potential sales of new gear, however. It certainly has to count to the millions of people who had to turn them back because they were prone to overheat or flame on. Samsung had the opportunity to provide the proper degree of spin control, but that didn’t come until weeks after the Note 7 was discontinued.

Supposedly it was all due to a battery design defect. Supposedly Samsung has learned its lessons and has improved quality control. Perhaps, but it is also true that they are evidently using the very same battery, from some of the same vendors, in the Galaxy S8. That’s based on an iFixit teardown of the device. iFixit also reports: “The design surrounding the battery — its installed position, spacing, and reinforcement — is very, very similar to the Note 7.”

That doesn’t mean the S8 is going to develop the same problems. “Similar” isn’t the same, and maybe Samsung made a few subtle tweaks in the design to avoid the issues that plagued the Note 7. For everyone’s sake, I hope so, but some of the early chatter about the S8 is already troubling.

So consider its fingerprint sensor. It’s placed at the rear, supposedly because Samsung couldn’t find a way to make it work on the front, embedded into the edge-to-edge AMOLED display. In addition to being an awkward reach, it’s placement means you might, by mistake, place your finger on the lens and smudge it. This is why Samsung advises users to clean the lens before taking snapshots.

At the same time, there have been unconfirmed rumors that Apple is running into the very same troubles in configuring the iPhone 8 — or is it iPhone Edition — and its edge-to-edge OLED display. Supposedly Apple may have to release it without a fingerprint sensor, or place it at the rear. Neither makes a lick of sense. Touch ID has been used on iPhones since the 5s came out in 2012. Only the 5c, a plastic-clad version of the iPhone 5, didn’t have one. Apple has continued to make it better on each iPhone revision, it’s integrated with the Apple Watch and macOS Sierra, and don’t forget the Touch ID feature to the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar.

In short, Touch ID is an extremely important security feature. You also need it to activate Apple Pay. To remove it is absurd. To stick it on the rear of the phone is equally absurd. This non-issue has been raised only in comparison to the Galaxy S8, which means that, if Samsung can’t do it, maybe Apple can’t either.

The other biometric features of the S8 are flawed in their own ways. Facial recognition can be readily fooled with a photograph, which means it’s useless. The iris sensor doesn’t work if you wear glasses, or when it’s nighttime. At least with the latter one expects that Samsung might have beamed a flash of light from the display to provide sufficient elimination to see your eyes. The glasses problem is not as readily solved, and this is a known limitation with this technology. Hard contact lenses may also be also troublesome, although soft contact lenses reportedly work.

But what this means is that the S8 has three flawed biometric features.

Early benchmarks show that it is mostly slower than last year’s iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus. Apps launch slower, apps switch slower, and boot times are longer. Canned benchmarks reportedly reveal that the iPhones are faster in single core tests, and trail somewhat in multicore tests, which are not terribly relevant to the sort of computing a smartphone does. Tests of the GPU also reveal that the iPhones are ahead.

And wait until the 2017 models arrive.

On paper, the iPhone 7’s A10 Fusion CPU should be slower than the multicore processors Samsung puts in the S8. A Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 is used for the U.S., and an Exynos 9 is used elsewhere. Either is crippled by having to cope with the high system requirements of Android. Despite promises by Google of improved performance, Apple’s ability to optimize iOS with the chips used on iPhones is unparalleled.

Despite its flaws — and there are others you’ll read about in the days ahead — reviewers have largely fallen in love with the Galaxy S8. I just hope they are taking its obvious flaws into consideration in making those judgements. And even if Samsung has done the right things, using the same battery design and layout scheme as the Note 7 smartphone is a troubling development. There may be nothing to worry about, but Samsung should explain to its customers why that decision was made and provide some assurance that the Note 7’s failures won’t impact the S8.

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