Tech, Autos, & Gear in Layman's Terms Since 2006

May 7, 2013 • Editorials

Will Samsung Suffer Due to the ‘Lackluster’ S4?

Samsung Galaxy S4 vs Galaxy S3

Samsung Galaxy S4 vs Galaxy S3

Samsung recently started delivering their new flagship, the Galaxy S4. The GS4 is the follow-up to the Galaxy S3, which is the best-selling Android phone ever made, and one of big reasons Samsung is now the largest smartphone maker in the world. The GS3 was itself the sequel to the earlier best-selling Galaxy phones – but with the GS3 Samsung went from being a ‘leader’ to becoming the de facto Android flagship and market leader. Early critical and user reviews for the new S4 have been generally solid but not exactly glowing – and with more and more issues cropping up as users get their hands on the device, I wonder if this ‘lackluster’ view of the GS4 will hurt Samsung going forward?

If you look at the image at the top, you will see the GS3 and GS4 next to each other. The two devices look very similar, with nearly identical dimensions and a very similar look & feel. This is clearly an incremental upgrade, with the screen size moving from 4.85″ to 5″, new processor options (1.9GHz quad core or 1.6GHz octa-core depending on region), 13MP main camera, and so on. In other words – this is a monster device.

But like any device made in the real world, the GS4 is not a perfect device. As noted, the reviews for the device are less than enthusiastic – none are negative, but neither are there any of the ‘BEST PHONE EVAR’ type of gushing reviews we saw for the GS3. Worse yet, there are some specific problems that many, many users are complaining about – some that seem like they can be solved with patches, others appear to be hardware related and might never go away.

What are the issues?

  • Battery Life: we all know the drill – smartphones become more powerful (and battery draining) as quickly as batteries become more powerful and efficient. But the GS4 has demonstrated the ability to drain the battery overnight in a number of settings. This might be related to the new Android OS Jelly Bean, in which case it can hopefully be patched out over time.
  • Screen: the big, beautiful 5″ 441dpi screen of the GS4 is not perfect, and in fact users have been complaining about an overly purple hue when looking at light items on dark backgrounds, and lag and ghosting when scrolling.
  • Storage Memory: this has gotten loads of press already, but here are the basics – when you get a 16GB GS4, you get ~8GB of available storage. Samsung has stated that this is actually more than the GS3 – but given that I just looked at mine and see ’12GB total space’, I dispute that claim. I have to confess liking the old PDA model where the OS was in separate storage that didn’t count towards your total space. (note: we now know that the 32GB version is due on May 10th from AT&T)
  • No apps on SD card: when confronted with a lack of space, the historical mantra has been ‘install to SD card’, with many utilities to help you do that. The problem? Samsung has things restricted so you cannot install apps on the SD card. Period. So you have limited internal storage space, and inability to install apps elsewhere.
  • Lack of Available Models: the NEXT obvious solution would be to ‘always buy the phone with the most storage you can afford. Samsung announced a 16, 32 and 64GB GS4 … but right now only the 16GB version is available, with no clue when the larger storage options will arrive.
  • Lag: one of the historical issues with Android was having interface lag and mysterious slowdowns – but I was happy that in 2012 with my Droid 4 and Galaxy S3 I never had any significant issues with lagginess. However, looking at Android forums and user reviews, I have read that even with these new monster processors – and especially with the 8-core processor – the GS4 is a laggy experience, even without anything else running. Hopefully this can be quickly patched out.

All of those are at least annoyances, but do you know what I consider the biggest impediments to success for the GS4? Lack of Compelling Features and the Galaxy S3. Let me explain.

If you watch the latest Samsung commercials, you will see a Samsung phone featured being used by all of the smart and young people … and iPhones used by old and dumb people (well, not even old, just … parents). But if you were asked to make the same commercials using the Galaxy S3 or the Galaxy Note 2 … it would not be a problem. NFC, remote control, image editing tools, and on and on – all are present across the older devices as well. In fact, in one of the commercials my initial thought was that I was seeing a Galaxy Note 2. In fact, all of the software updates for the Galaxy S4 are either already on the GS3 or are coming soon.

Which is why I say that the Galaxy S3 is one of the biggest problems for the GS4. Samsung has a history of hot selling cheap plastic phones, and I wasn’t all that enamored with the Galaxy S2 – or at least the one of 17 designs I got to use. The Galaxy S3, in spite of the plastic, is the first ‘great’ smartphone from Samsung, in my opinion. Everyone in the world got the same look and feel, and it was distinct and attractive and loaded with features.

So what does the Galaxy S4 bring? A bigger screen with higher resolution and a slightly better processor and a case that fits the bigger screen in a slimmer but otherwise nearly identical case. And also pretty much the same software except for some extremely limited gimmick features.

The new commercials are great fun, but the reality is that half the features are turned off by default due to battery concerns, others require detailed setup before use, and most only work in Samsung-specific apps, not even in the Android-generic apps.

But Will It Matter?

In a word … no.

If you ask Dan or Mitchell, they will sing the praises of the HTC One in terms of design and build quality in particular, and also the feature set and user experience. [Mitchell’s full review on the Samsung S 4 will be coming soon – Judie]

But when it comes to competition, there is the HTC One, the Google Nexus 4 … and really nothing else. The Nexus 4 is a solid device that has sold well and gotten good reviews, but hasn’t even remotely dented the Galaxy S3 juggernaut in spite of equal or lower price and better specs.

And HTC has been bleeding money and market share lately; they have adopted confusing naming policies, they’ve regularly abandoned current users and been less than truthful about updates, and so on. In other words, they have done little to engender brand loyalty.

Samsung has been quick with updates, and by moving to a unified design/dual processor model, they have allowed accessory makers to push out cases and other add-ons; they have also made it easier for uses to keep up with Android updates. The GS4 launches with the latest Android OS, whereas the HTC One is already a couple of steps back.

The reality is that the quality and popularity of the Galaxy S3 will very likely cut into the adoption of the GS4 in ways Samsung hasn’t seen – but in ways that Apple HAS seen with the iPhone 4 and 4S sales levels remaining high. Carriers will be able to offer the GS3 for cheap on contract or full retail, and for those looking for the ‘best new Android phone’, Samsung has become THE Android flagship. So the question for most won’t be ‘which Android phone’, but rather ‘which Samsung phone’.

And I don’t see these shortcomings, issues, or a general sense of ‘minor incremental update’ doing anything to change that.

9 Responses to " Will Samsung Suffer Due to the ‘Lackluster’ S4? "

  1. gorkon says:

    This is Samsung doing exactly what Apple has done. They hit a home run with the S3 to the point that they didn’t want to mess it up with the S4 so little changed. The same thing with the Note Series. Most other new Android phones seem to be aiming for the low end which is fine! Some people just need that low end device and nothing more. I am still very happy with my Galaxy Nexus especially since the last firmware update. 4G has been rock solid since the update to 4.1 and now it’s on 4.2 it’s really good. The biggest issue with my Galaxy Nexus is not the phone itself but the carrier and that’s the story with most Verizon phones.

    Looking forward to what comes out after Google I/O. I am hoping for a Nexus style Moto device as I have always had good luck with the Motorola radios….just the software was lousy and now that Google owns them I am looking or that to be completely fixed with the first phone that wasn’t in the pipeline when Google bought them. Then again, if Samsung brings the Note 3 or Galaxy Mega or whatever it’s called I may switch to a phablet.

  2. Doug Miller says:

    I think the GS4 will sell just fine. I may get one, as I am upgrade eligible later this summer. Remember that the vast majority of smartphone users do not read tech reviews; remember that the vast majority of users do not upgrade for almost 2 years. So, GS3 users will keep their GS3 phones, and will upgrade to the *next* Galaxy (or maybe Note). The GS4 is for people who bought GS2s, Droid X2s, Bionics, etc., two years ago.

    I’d love to try a Note, but I understand that has more battery problems than the GS4, and it will not be on the largest US carrier (so, not for me.) The same goes for the Nexus 4, which, by the way, has a more mediocre camera and, again, is not available on Verizon Wireless.

    • Bryan Eley says:

      I’m inclined to agree, Doug. I think a lot of users ready or simply wanting to upgrade will think “Hey, S4 means a new model, so it must be better” and go ahead and buy when the get a chance to upgrade. If Samsung can emulate Apple’s more consistent form factor design schema, they might be able to get an even better market lock by enabling more 3rd party peripheral support.

      I do think Mike’s storage capacity point is a salient one, though probably will be more noticeable to those tech geeks like us who actually read reviews and do our homework before buying. I certainly hope the lag issue bedeviling certain Android flavors will be stamped out soon.

      • GREAT comments – and that was my point, there is so much hand-wringing I wanted to get the conversation going.

        I totally agree … and one thing I was trying to press was the angle Joel stated “Samsung doing exactly what Apple has done”. And as Doug noted, most S3 users are not up for upgrades yet, and will be fine giving it a pass.

        But specific to the Apple angle, I see many who are unsure about Nexus 4 or HTC One instead sticking with the S3 … and while Samsung might not make the same margin, their margins have been improving considerably over the last two years, so they can deal with a couple %.

  3. I was in AT&T today trying to get the BlackBerry Z10 I’m reviewing to recognize a SIM card. Urgh.

    Anyway … long story short: I asked the woman helping me how the HTC ONE was doing. She said they had sold a few. I asked her which she liked better … the ONE or the S4, and she said the iPhone 5.

    That was worth a good laugh by both of us.

    I asked her of the two — Samsung S4 or HTC One — which she would choose if she *had* to go Android, and she said the S4. I asked her why, and she said because it was a Samsung.

    I said, “it doesn’t bother you that you can’t put apps on the memory card?” and she looked at me like I was insane. “You can still put music and movies on the card, why would you need to put apps on there?”, she said.

    And I said, “right, but you can’t free up memory by moving larger apps to the card.” Her reply: “Why would I need that many apps? The S4 already comes with plenty of them — everything you need and then some.”

    So there you have it. Repeat after me … “I may be a consumer, but I am not the typical consumer.” 😉

    • Mitchell Oke says:

      Completely agree that your average consumer is unlikely to be worrying about the ability to move apps to the SD card. Heck, I’ve got plenty of apps installed on my S4 and plenty of music, and have no issue with storage.

      I’ve got a 16GB card in the slot for video (64GB to arrive soon), and it works great.

      I picked up a Nexus 4 a couple of months ago to dip my toe in modern Android (and was convinced), and managed to make it’s sub-16GB free space work too.

    • Bryan Eley says:

      THAT is funny. Or sad. Or both. I think reps need to keep in mind to never respond to customers with the “Why would you want to do that” mindset and come across as adversarial, but work with them and be their advocate and see their perspective. If you can’t understand what a customer wants, you certainly can’t meet their needs. Imagine where technology would be if everyone throughout history responded with “Why would you want to do that?”

      BTW, have you ever been mistaken for a store rep while out in a tech store? It’s occasionally funny, though not as funny as being mistaken for a doctor at a hospital. 🙂

    • cgavula says:

      All you need is one good on-board nav app and the whole “consumers don’t need that” argument falls flat on it’s face.

      • haesslich says:

        Of course, the question then is how many “regular” consumers use offline GPS apps these days, when carriers are pushing the ones which need a data connection, and Google Maps offers limited caching.

        On top of that, there’s also official support for SD cards in Sygic’s GPS Navigator (see their help site), or unofficial support for those people who would be savvy enough to buy the 16gb AND the offline map app to save on data. Or else those people will buy the 32gb version of the S3/S4.

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