Samsung launches a 5G phone and a tablet you can fold in half

With the launch of its first 5G smartphone as well as its first foldable screen Samsung has grabbed the pre-MWC headlines but what is the point of either device?

As is so often the way with new convergent product categories, this first attempt to make something that is both a phone and a tablet seems to have resulted in something that isn’t much good at being either. Essentially it’s a small tablet that can fold in half to make a very chunky phone, with a hefty price tag to match.

But we mustn’t be too negative. Samsung has been teasing the bendy screen for years and actually putting one into a commercial device is an impressive achievement. Its first effort was always going to be more of a public prototype than anything a normal person would consider buying, but it is as a commercial offering that it should be judged.

The Galaxy Fold uses a new display technology Samsung is calling ‘Infinity Flex’, which is an AMOLED screen that can be folded in half. Hence you have a 7.3-inch tablet that, when folded, becomes a 4.6-inch phone. Thus you have all the portability of a phone combined with the viewing experience of a tablet, or so Samsung would have us believe.

“Today, Samsung is writing the next chapter in mobile innovation history by changing what’s possible in a smartphone,” said DJ Koh, Samsung’s head of mobile. “Galaxy Fold introduces a completely new category that unlocks new capabilities never seen before with our Infinity Flex Display. We created Galaxy Fold for those that want to experience what a premium foldable device can do, beyond the limitations of a traditional smartphone.”

We note with dismay that Samsung has adopted Apple’s irritating habit of dropping the definite article when referring to its products, as if they’re a person rather than a thing. But that’s not enough to distract us from the fact that 7.3-inches is very small for a tablet market in which ten inches has become the norm and that, when folded, the phone is inevitably much fatter than we’ve become accustomed to with regular smartphones. Oh yes, and it costs two grand (dollars).

We spoke to Neil Mawston of Strategy Analytics to get his take on it. “Samsung Fold is the world’s most important smartphone launch since Apple iPhone in 2007,” he said. “Samsung’s Fold is a very good first-generation device. The Fold is relatively expensive, bulky and heavy, but the foldable industry has to start somewhere and this is a pretty good beginning.

“We forecast global foldable smartphone revenues to rise from zero in 2018 to US$2 billion in 2019. Foldable designs will account for 1% of all smartphones shipped worldwide in 2019. The first buds of the foldable smartphone era are starting to sprout.

“Foldable smartphones are a luxury gadget today, a premium product in a year or two, and a midrange device in five or so years. Think of foldable smartphones at the moment as a Rolex watch or Ferrari supercar, a show-off product for status-seekers with deep pockets.”

One last question mark comes courtesy of our eagle-eyed video producer and resident gadget geek Pierre. He noticed in the unveiling video that the opened-up screen doesn’t seem to be perfectly flat. As you can see in the screenshot below, only one half of the screen is reflecting the spotlight, which strongly implies it doesn’t open up to the full 180 degrees. Hmmm.

Galaxy Fold screenshot

Somewhat overshadowed by all this foldy fun was the launch of Samsung’s latest flagship smartphone family, the Galaxy S10, S10+ and S10e. So we now have the ‘e’ variant as the lowest-priced version ($750) and then the option of two increases in size, spec and price ($900 and $1,000). The infographic at the bottom shows how the biggest one has been upgraded from last year.

The most interesting part of that launch, however, was the promise of a 5G version hitting the shelves of US operator Verizon in Q2 of this year. The Galaxy S10 5G will be even bigger than the S10+, with its 6.7-inch screen barely smaller than the foldy one, which once more begs the question of what the point of the latter is.

Other than that, details are a bit thin on the ground, including price, although we can safely assume it will cost a fair bit more than the S10+. We do know the 5G modem is the Snapdragon X50, however, with Qualcomm wasting little time in crowing about that. It also flagged up the first commercial use of its 3D Sonic Sensor, which allows fingerprints to be scanned through the screen.

“Samsung S10 is relatively well priced for its premium features, and Samsung seems to have learnt from the S9 overpricing debacle last year,” said Mawston. “Samsung’s S10 range carries some rare or near-unique features, such as 5G and Wireless Power Share for phone-to-phone recharging. Of course, Samsung’s rivals are not standing still. For example, Huawei is pumping out plenty of premium smartphones with standout features, such as the Mate 20 X with a huge 7.2-inch screen.”

Samsung announced a bunch of European 5G operator partnerships that will support the launch of the S10 5G across Europe in the middle of this year. The following operators served up canned quotes from their CEOs saying how excited they are, which we will spare you: DT, EE, Orange, Sunrise, Swisscom, TIM, Telefonica and Vodafone.

In summary this was an impressive array of launches from Samsung, presumably timed to steal the thunder away from other launches that typically take place on the Sunday before MWC starts. The foldy phone as it is now just seems to be an expensive gimmick, but we may eventually view it as the start of an era. The same goes for the S10 5G, which will initially have very little 5G network to work with, but is nonetheless a milestone in the evolution of the smartphone industry.


Galaxy S10+ infographic

Google adds some Pixels

Internet giant Google ramped up its involvement in the consumer hardware space with the launch of new Pixel branded smartphones and tablets as well as a home hub.

The Pixel 3 and its XL variant offer both an industrial design and spec upgrade on their predecessors. Initial impressions indicate the redesign is well received and the spec upgrades are significant. There also seems to be more AI stuff going on, including a call screening functions that taps into Duplex technology to save you having to interact with a caller if you’re not sure about them.

Google debuted a new device category in the form of the Pixel Slate – a tablet running Chrome OS that seems to be positioned as a direct competitor to Microsoft’s Surface product range, with an emphasis on hybrid laptop functionality. Once more initial takes seem positive, especially about its attempt to be the best of both worlds, although the full range of requisite peripherals and accessories does make it an expensive proposition.

Lastly we have the Home Hub, which is an AI-driven smart speaker with a 7-inch screen that will compete with equivalent products from Amazon and Facebook. One big difference is that Google is making a virtue of it not having a camera installed in an apparent bid for people to take it into the bedroom or even the bog. There’s also a physical mute switch to prevent the device listening to you, which seems like a good say to allay fears about being spied on by Google, but does call into question what the point of the device is.

“Our goal with these new products, as always, is to create something that serves a purpose in people’s lives – products that are so useful they make people wonder how they ever lived without them,” said Rick Osterloh, VP of Hardware at Google. “The simple yet beautiful design of these new devices continue to bring the smarts of the technology to the forefront, while providing users with a bold piece of hardware.”

The Pixel 3 starts at £739, with the XL coming in at £869. The Slate starts at £549 without peripherals, while the Home Hub will set you back £139. Google has managed to throw down the gauntlet to the majority of the consumer tech world with one set of launches, which is fun, but time will tell whether any of them are able to claim significant market share. Here’s a vid.

 

Apple sold 16 million iPhone X in Q1 – far more than any other smartphone model

Research firm Strategy Analytics reckons Apple managed to shift 16 million units of its flagship smartphone last quarter, defying pessimistic reports.

At the start of this week we reported on a rumour that Apple had significantly cut order for the X with its manufacturers because it was struggling to shift what it already had. That rumour turned out to be pretty much rubbish when Apple announced solid numbers a couple of days later and SA’s estimate serve to reinforce that impression.

“We estimate the Apple iPhone X shipped 16.0 million units and captured 5 percent market share worldwide in Q1 2018,” said Juha Winter of SA. “For the second quarter running, the iPhone X remains the world’s most popular smartphone model overall, due to a blend of good design, sophisticated camera, extensive apps, and widespread retail presence for the device.

“Apple has now shifted almost 50 million iPhone X units worldwide since commercial launch in November 2017. The Apple iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus shipped 12.5 and 8.3 million units, respectively, for second and third place. The previous-generation iPhone 7 shipped a respectable 5.6 million units for fourth place. Combined together, Apple today accounts for four of the world’s six most popular smartphone models.”

You might expect the rest of the list to be occupied by the Samsung but you would be sorely mistaken. The fifth best-selling smartphone model globally was the Xiaomi Redmi 5A, which is not a bad effort considering that’s mainly direct (as opposed to operator-subsidised) sales. Let’s see if Xiaomi’s strategic alliance with Hutchison helps it climb the table further. Then, finally, comes the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus which, to be fair, hasn’t been shipping for long.

Linda Sui, Director at Strategy Analytics, added, “Xiaomi has become wildly popular across India and China,” Said SA’s Linda Sui. “Xiaomi is selling a huge volume of smartphones through online channels, with key retail partners including Flipkart and JD.”

“Samsung’s new flagships, Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus, only started shipping toward the end of the first quarter, but shipments are already off to a very good start,” said SA’s Woody Oh. “We expect the S9 Plus to become the best-selling Android smartphone globally in the second quarter of 2018.”

Global Smartphone Shipments by Model (Millions of Units) Q1 ’17 Q1 ’18
1.  Apple iPhone X 0.0 16.0
2.  Apple iPhone 8 0.0 12.5
3.  Apple iPhone 8 Plus 0.0 8.3
4.  Apple iPhone 7 21.5 5.6
5.  Xiaomi Redmi 5A 0.0 5.4
6.  Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus 0.0 5.3
Rest of Total Market 332.3 292.3
Total 353.8 345.4
Global Smartphone Marketshare by Model (% of Total) Q1 ’17 Q1 ’18
1.  Apple iPhone X 0.0% 4.6%
2.  Apple iPhone 8 0.0% 3.6%
3.  Apple iPhone 8 Plus 0.0% 2.4%
4.  Apple iPhone 7 6.1% 1.6%
5.  Xiaomi Redmi 5A 0.0% 1.6%
6.  Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus 0.0% 1.5%
Rest of Total Market 93.9% 84.6%
Total 100.0% 100.0%
Total Growth YoY (%) 6.2% -2.4%
Source: Strategy Analytics

 

SA is having a busy week, having published its Q1 2018 tablet shipment numbers too. Apple is doing nicely in that area too, shifting almost twice as many units as second-placed Samsung in a declining market.

“Leading vendors are bouncing back with new hardware and value-added features such as improved stylus capabilities, AR, and digital assistants to support new use cases and double down on their appeal consumer and enterprise markets,” said SA’s Chirag Upadhyay. “Our interactions with computing devices are rapidly changing and companies like Apple, Amazon, and Huawei are staying ahead of the curve with targeted product improvements.”

SA tablets Q1 2018