Published: 4 May, 2012
A Samsung launch still can't attract the near-hysteria of an iPhone debut, but the Korean firm is getting far better at creating buzz around its events - though admittedly a lot of the conversation is actually about the challenge to the iPhone rather than the merits of the latest device, in this case the Galaxy S III, itself.
Like the typical iPhone announcement, the S III came with no huge surprises but several unexpected tweaks, and was certainly a device which looked capable of retaining Samsung's current title of 'most likely to succeed Apple'. The company did, indeed, grab Apple's lead in the smartphone market in the first quarter, one in which neither firm had a new model in their flagship range, though Samsung benefited from the unexpected popularity of its Galaxy Note. But in the overall rankings, Samsung, of course, has many products competing with just the iPhone, while the real market interest lies in whether its key offering, S III, can take on the Apple product in one-to-one combat.
It's a shame, from the market watcher's point of view, that the two do not hit the market in the same timeframe. The S III will certainly have to wait for the 'iPhone 5', and possibly the 'iPhone 6', to meet an Apple rival which matches it in hardware terms - but of course, that is only half the story, and Samsung has yet to come close to its competitor in terms of brand or software experience. So the impressiveness of the S III's feature set and marketing campaign are still tempered by nagging doubts over whether Samsung can deliver the content platform and the integration with its other screens, such as TV, which will put the Galaxy at the heart of a broader platform, less subject to consumer fickleness.
Stephen Taylor, head of corporate branding for Samsung Europe, said in an interview: "It's not just about hardware moving forward, it's about the software products that interact with customers."
On the hardware side, most of the new elements are incremental not revolutionary, but they are heavy hitting and draw on the resources of Samsung's sister company, notably in the move to a quad-core processor, chasing HTC's headline grabbing One X, and the display. The latter is a highlight, as usual with Samsung, sporting a huge 4.8-inch Super AMOLED display with 1280 x 720 resolution (compared to 960 x 640 for the current iPhone, whose screen is 3.5-inches).
The handset also includes two cameras, the rear one at 8-megapixels - Samsung used to push the envelope in cameras pre-Galaxy but now swims in the mainstream, leaving advanced photography to Nokia and HTC. However, the camera offers a 20- image burst mode and can be unlocked through facial recognition on the front camera, while pictures of friends can be recognized and automatically send to them.
An interesting innovation is that the front camera tracks eye movement and keeps the display backlit automatically when the user is looking at the phone.
The initial models have storage capacity of 16Gbytes and 32Gbytes with a 64Gbytes version to come and expansion via microSD cards. The handset is powered by the new Samsung 1.4GHz quad-core Exynos processor paired with 1Gbyte of memory, and there are various combinations of LTE and HSPA+ connectivity for different markets - the handset will roll out in 145 countries over the coming weeks. It also supports Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi (with dual-channel bonding for faster speeds), GPS and NFC.
Samsung, whose early Galaxy models struggled with appalling battery life, said the S III's 2100 mAh battery, with a wireless charger option, should last "longer than the average smartphone". Several DLNA sharing options have been enhanced, allowing, for example, the sharing of media from one phone to a group, and the new processor/screen combination allows new usage tricks like watching HD video in one part of the display while multitasking on the rest.
A high profile London launch, an array of hardware and user interface enhancements, and a massive roll-out and advertising campaign to come through May and June, should ensure strong sales for the S III, though it will be fighting other hefty recent launches like the HTC One models from the reviving Taiwanese vendor - and of course, the almost unshakeable loyalty of many iPhone users, combined with the rising intolerance of carriers for customers switching to new phones before the end of their contract terms. This will be a particular factor in the US, and a reason why the S III and iPhone 5 will never really compete head-to-head. The new Galaxy will ship first in the UK and Europe and will be priced "at a premium to its predecessor".
Western analysts, even some iPhone diehards, were generally gushing about the device, though detailed reviews will follow, but Samsung's home market, blasť about advanced gadgetry, is the hardest to please - and will also get an early S III. "In terms of hardware specifications, the new model meets expectations," Kim Hyung Sik, a Seoul-based analyst at Taurus Investment Securities, told Bloomberg with the kind of 'it's only a phone' understatement more Apple watchers should employ.
The new device will be chasing the record performance of its predecessor, the S II, which achieved 20m sales in its first 10 months.