Samsung’s July Unpacked event was a showcase of complacency

Samsung’s earlier-than-usual July Unpacked event was a showcase of new foldables, tablets, smartwatches and complacency.

The new trio of flagship tablets – the Tab S9, S9+ and S9 Ultra – have all been upgraded to OLED displays, Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy processors and are now all IP68 rated. Those are the only real differences, everything else about them remains virtually the same.

When it comes to the new smartwatches, the biggest news is that Samsung brought back the physical rotating bezel to the Galaxy Watch 6 Classic. The Watch 6 has a slightly larger display, is slightly slimmer, is supposedly better at monitoring your sleep and has watch bands that are “nearly identical to Apple’s nylon Sport Loop.”

Both the Watch 6 and 6 Classic also have marginally bigger batteries and both devices are the first watches to run WearOS 4.

If you were hoping that the two main stars of Unpacked would be more exciting then I’m sorry to burst your bubble but they weren’t. To quote The Verge: “The Galaxy Z Fold 5 is last year’s phone with a new hinge,” referencing the Galaxy Fold 4 which they called an “incremental innovation” in their review.

“Aside from the bigger cover screen on the Flip, flatter hinge, and marginally upgraded internals, you’d struggle to tell these products apart from their predecessors. It’s all very incremental and has been for years. You could go back two, perhaps even three generations, and still struggle to pick out a compelling reason to upgrade to the new model,” says Android Authority‘s Robert Triggs.

With the Fold, Samsung appears to be taking an “if it ain’t broke” approach which in this instance appears to be backfiring somewhat.

In terms of upgrades you’re getting a Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy processor, a redesigned hinge that finally allows the device to fold completely closed, and a redesigned S-Pen which fits into a slightly slimmer case than the previous generation. Other than that you’re getting the same cameras – including the same awful under-display camera on the inside of the device – the same battery, the same charging speed, the same display (including the same noticeable crease) and the same lack of accessories in the box.

For a device positioned as the most expensive, ultra-premium device in Samsung’s portfolio, the lack of innovation is surprising. Sure, the chipset should help with battery life and camera somewhat but you’d get a vastly superior camera and larger battery in the S23 Ultra which is powered by the same Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy processor and includes a built-in S-Pen, all for significantly less than the cost of the Fold 5.

While I wasn’t expecting Samsung to completely redesign the Fold, I was hoping for a camera upgrade. When you’re paying over R40 000 for a phone, R45 999 in the case of the Fold 5, you’d hope for a better camera experience than what the Fold has traditionally offered, and this is what you’ll most likely get as the Fold 5 is using the same camera hardware as it did in the Fold 4.

“Including the same exact camera hardware as last year, after doing nearly that the year before, you know it just smacks of the kind of complacency the competition will hopefully, finally, start to disrupt,” says Michael Fisher, the tech YouTuber more commonly known as MrMobile, in his first impressions/hands-on video of the Flip 5 and Fold 5.

According to the YouTuber, Samsung’s reasoning for not including better camera hardware on its ultra-premium handset is that it will drain the device’s battery, to which he responds by saying: “The battery life on the Fold 4, mine at least, is already atrocious. I mean, we might as well get a camera upgrade if we’re gonna live with the same middling battery capacity and slow charging as last year.”

UK-based tech YouTuber, Supersaf, said that when the Fold 4 was released he initially switched to it as his daily driver but then switched back to the S22 Ultra for reasons that still have not been addressed on the Fold 5 and therefore he will not be switching to the Fold 5 as his daily driver.

“In terms of the overall hardware, I think Samsung has started to fall behind some of the competition here,” says Supersaf in the same video.

When it comes to the Flip 5, the story is very similar. Other than the new 3.4-inch outer display which Samsung calls the Flex Window, the clamshell foldable is pretty much the same as the Flip 4. Like the Fold 5, it has a new hinge that allows it to close completely flat and it’s powered by the same Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy processor. It has the same cameras, the same inner display, the same battery and the same noticeable crease.

By no means are these awful devices, in fact, they’re arguably the best foldables you’ll get outside of China thanks to the work Samsung has put into both the hardware and software experience. Not only was Samsung the first to release a foldable to the Western market with an IPX8-rated folding phone they also have the best Android software support schedule in the industry.

Despite this, the company hasn’t done enough. Those, and other industry-leading, big leaps have been far between and Samsung, unlike Apple, operates in a market overflowing with competition and choice.

I’ve long said that the entire industry suffered and stagnated when Huawei was sanctioned and it’s more evident now than ever before.

In 2022, I said, “Samsung may own the foldable market but it’s only because they have no meaningful competition, and without competition they’re going to continue to push out minor incremental upgrades while still charging more for a device that isn’t as well rounded as the one already in your pocket.”

That’s proven to be exactly what’s happened. Until now Samsung has had no viable competition capable of tackling its dominance in the fledgling foldable market but that’s changing.

OPPO’s first generation flip fold, the Find N2 Flip, was largely hailed as “serious competition” to the Flip 4 while devices such as Google’s Pixel Fold are proving to be worthy alternatives to Samsung’s Fold.

The larger outer display and nearly crease-free inner display on OPPO’s Find N2 Flip were industry-leading at the beginning of this year but the crown for the largest outer display now belongs to Motorola while virtually crease-clear foldables are becoming increasingly the norm with Chinese-made foldables.

These Chinese-made foldables are also usually thinner and lighter, with better cameras, better battery capacity, and faster charging than Samsung’s foldable lineup. Chinese manufacturers also include the fast charging brick and a case in the same box, something Samsung has done away with across its smartphone portfolio.

Samsung will continue to face increased pressure as smartphone manufacturers look to bring their foldables to South Africa and, in the case of HONOR, look to expand their foldable phone portfolios. These same Chinese OEMs already include fast-charging charging bricks and cases in the boxes for their foldables, many of which cost slightly less or the same as Samsung’s pricing for its devices.

In order to get the full experience that Samsung showcases with all the Fold 5 ads you’ll need to buy the S-Pen, a case and a charging brick seperately despite having to fork out nearly R50 000 for just the Fold, a charging cable, SIM ejector tool and some paperwork.

“This is what it looks like when Samsung settles,” says Marques Brownlee and I’m inclined to agree.

If OPPO is able to launch a first-gen flip fold with a larger outer display, bigger battery with faster charging, display with no visible crease and more versatile cameras in the form of the Find N2 Flip than Samsung has launched in four to five generations of flip foldables then something is wrong. Sure, OPPO has the advantage of having learned from Samsung’s missteps but surely Samsung themselves have had that same privilege as well as the privilege of time in a segment that they created and no-one else has entered into until recently?

An even bigger question is why, for such incremental updates, are you paying R8 000 more for either the Fold 5 or Flip than their predecessors cost? In the US, the price for both the Fold 5 and Flip 5 remained the same as the launch price for the Fold 4 and Flip 4. Are we in South Africa paying R8 000 more because of import costs? Is it the cost of the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 for Galaxy processor?

You also have to question why it’s taken Samsung five generations of foldables to include a hinge that allows the device to close flat? And why has it taken five generations to create an outer display as large as the one on the Flip 5 when Motorola was able to include a larger one on their third-generation Razr+ foldable, a device launched after the OPPO Find N2 Flip, a first-gen device which also had a larger cover display than four generations of Galaxy Z Flips.

Honor, now independent from Huawei, recently released the Magic V2 – its third foldable after the Magic V and Magic Vs – in China. Declared the world’s thinnest foldable at only 9.9mm when folded closed, the device doesn’t compromise on battery capacity, charging speed or camera quality and is expected to be launched in Western markets.

While these manufacturers may not have the lengthy software support and refinement that Samsung has, Samsung is not the one who controls Android. Google, the owner of Android, is now in the hardware game in a way it wasn’t before and it’s made a fairly successful first-gen foldable phone. While the Pixel Fold, and the Pixel line in general, may not be available in as many markets as Samsung is, Google’s foray into foldables shows how seriously it takes the category and that means that it could push the need for longer software across its own hardware line as well as those of its Android partners.

Ultimately, people are choosing to go with devices that are giving them the most comprehensive package for what they can afford. The R45 999 cost of the Z Fold 5 may be spread over 24 or 36 months, but it’s still R45 999. Why should someone spend that on a phone that looks nearly identical to last year’s phone when they could get a handset from another manufacturer for less that offers 95% of the same refinement and includes necessary accessories that Samsung is only too happy to charge you extra for under the guise of sustainability.

Samsung’s profits dropped by 95% in the second quarter of 2023 and its losing marketshare in the US and losing popularity amongst millennials and Gen Z in Korea.

While Samsung continues to dominate the global smartphone market it’s losing its global marketshare and is now only 1% ahead of Apple.

The Cupertino-based company also claims the top four spots for global smartphone shipments for high-end devices with even 2021’s iPhone 13 outselling Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra.

Samsung may get its wishes for a sales bump as a result of the Z Flip 5 and Z Fold 5 but the numbers clearly indicate that the brand has a growing Apple and perception problem.

The brand has grown too used to being the dominant, unchallenged, player in the Android market and it’s underestimating the growing onslaught of Chinese tech brands and the speed at which they’re catching up and surpassing the Korean giant.

Samsung can no longer resort to its usual tactics of criticising Apple for iterative updates, near identical design and lack of innovation because those are the very same things its been guilty of for the past few years.

To quote a Tom’s Guide article: “If the company continues to pump out a number of mediocre, iterative upgrades while acting as if the gimmick of a foldable screen is enough to drive sales, then it doesn’t deserve to be on top.”

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