The Samsung Galaxy Unpacked part one, back in February, was the last live event I attended. Hence, as we approached this week’s Unpacked, I was as curious about the products to be announced as I was to see how Samsung would pull off their first digital launch.
Overall, I thought Samsung did a good job mixing content videos, technical and informational videos and time on the virtual stage. Personally, I was not a fan of the virtual audience, but I think it did fit the feeling that the live venues over the past couple of times created, with the big floor to ceiling screens that displayed both content and the audience in the room.
I appreciated having the opportunity to see new faces from the engineering and design teams. I suppose it is the silver lining of having a digital event and recording in Korea. This setup also brought more women on stage, which is always a good thing!
There was a lot to cover product-wise, but Samsung kept a fast pace and, for the first time, brought all the products together, demonstrating the value of having more than one Samsung product. Samsung has been trying to paint that “better together” picture, but what was missing was the software portion that would bring the products together. This time, both thanks to Samsung’s software and a renewed partnership with Microsoft, that the dotted line between products was much more obvious and natural.
Products that Do More At a Time When We All Do More
With August-Unpacked being the Galaxy Note reveal show, we have been accustomed to focusing on the latest and greatest tech and so the very high-end of the Samsung portfolio. Over the past year, there have been some questions on whether the Note line continued to fulfill the initial promise of being the best of what Samsung has to offer in mobile, especially as the market moves into Foldables. I think the Galaxy Note20 Ultra took care of those concerns by embracing quite a few technology firsts from the 5G Snapdragon 865+ chipset to Gorilla Glass Victus and UWB.
What was interesting this year is that Samsung announced a whole portfolio of high-end devices around the Galaxy Note line. Galaxy Z Fold 2 teaser aside, we saw the Galaxy TabS7, the Galaxy Watch 3 and the Galaxy Buds Live. While it might seem strange to bring to market high-end products in the current economic environment, we need to consider that this is not Samsung’s only offering. Earlier in the summer, Samsung launched a whole range of mid-tier phones that added to its Galaxy S line to give smartphone buyers an ample choice of features, designs and price points.
Together with a lot of economic uncertainty, the pandemic also brought a stronger need for technology and reliable devices, whether it is for working from home, distance learning, keeping healthy, or just trying to stay sane. While being stuck at home might have increased the time we spend on larger screens, it has not taken away how much we rely on our phones. Phones also remain the tech device that you can more easily plan for financially thanks to installment plans that limit the impact that a one-off purchase would have.
Samsung’s strong carrier channel and 5G integration might also make the Galaxy TabS7 line to be as easy to purchase as a phone at a time when many consumers are re-evaluating their computing needs as well as their broadband constraints!
The one product that I find harder to justify, although it fits into the portfolio, is the Galaxy Watch 3, where the price point reflects more design choices than technology ones. I would have liked Samsung to double down on its Galaxy Watch Active line maybe with a new color variant to fit with the new Galaxy Buds Live. The good news is that many of the features and capabilities announced for the Watch 3 are software-driven, which might mean we will see them trickle down to the Watch Active line at some point.
The Galaxy Buds Live is possible the product with the smallest footprint and the biggest opportunity across everything that Samsung announced on stage. Having used them for a few days, I am convinced they will become the default for Android users and possibly win over some iOS users too because of their price point and fit. They are by far the most comfortable earbuds I have ever used with good sound and ok active noise canceling.
Samsung and Microsoft Better Together
Microsoft has been focusing on improving how users can move seamlessly from their Android phones to their PCs for quite some time. In the process, the relationship between Samsung and Microsoft got tighter to the advantage of both companies. For Microsoft, Samsung offers a fleet of mobile phones for their apps and services, especially in the enterprise. For Samsung, Microsoft offers apps and services that help them lessen their dependence on Google and offer differentiation within the Android ecosystem.
This week the relationship between the two companies deepened on the productivity side and expanded into the entertainment side.
On productivity, Microsoft’s Your Phone app and Link to Windows will allow Galaxy Note20 users to access and interact with their Android apps. Samsung updated its Samsung Notes app, which soon will be able to automatically synch with OneNote feed in Outlook on the web or OneNote as an image. Inking support for the Note20 was also extended to photos and Outlook brings the Play My Emails feature to Android.
On entertainment, Xbox Chief, Phil Spencer, announced that from September 15, Galaxy users would be able to download the Xbox Game Pass app from the Samsung Galaxy Store. This version will allow Xbox players to redeem tokens and make in-app purchases like buying skins or DLC items in the Xbox Store. The Xbox Game Pass on the Google Play Store will not offer these types of in-app purchases. Customers pre-ordering the Galaxy Note20 can select the Gaming Bundle at purchase and get three months of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate and PowerA’s MOGA XP5-X Plus, the controller used with xCloud. For xCloud to be successful, Microsoft must reach beyond console and PC gamers and rely on the army of Android users out there. Working with Samsung offers a way to bypass the Google Play Store for some offers as well as leverage Samsung’s market share in TVs, the next logical step where xCloud gaming has a natural fit. For Samsung, who stated two years ago at their developer conference, that it wanted its devices to the best gaming experience in the Android ecosystem, xCloud offers an alternative to Stadia and with it another differentiator against competitors.
A Peak at the Galaxy Z Fold 2
Understandably the Galaxy Z Fold 2 only appeared briefly on stage, most likely not to steal the moment that belongs to the Galaxy Note20. The time on stage, albeit limited, was very focused. True to its customer-focused nature, Samsung started the segment with an acknowledgment that the launch of the original Fold did not unfold as planned, sorry I could not resist the pun! From acknowledging we issue, Samsung moved on to show what has changed with the Galaxy Z Fold 2 from a design perspective to improve usability and increase confidence in durability. We saw the larger 6.2” external display, the front camera system that went down to a punch-hole from the previous design that took up a larger corner of the screen, creating a lopsided forehead. We were also shown a pretty detailed video on the new “sweeper” technology that Samsung created to limit the amount of debris that can affect the now even thinner gap along the hinge. Technology that apparently was inspired by the bristles used on vacuum cleaners.
We will have to wait till September 1 to know more about the Galaxy Z Fold 2, but from what we heard today, it is clear that there has been quite a bit of refinement from version one.
The Big Picture
For the first time at an Unpacked event, we had a Q&A where Samsung Mobile’s President and Head of Communications Business, TM Roh, shared his view on the business direction saying 5G and Foldables will be the cornerstones of Samsung’s future. He also shared that he understands the responsibility Samsung has to make a better world safeguarding privacy and security as well as the environment. While not quite the off the cuff conversation I would have liked, it seems that TM Roh wants to make more of an attempt at storytelling (see his blog Steering the Mobile Industry through the next normal), a skill that is certainly growing in importance among tech leaders.
Leading up to Unpacked, there were rumors that Samsung was in discussion with Google to embrace more of their services, but we heard nothing about that on stage. This is not surprising as Unpacked was really centered on the relationship between Samsung and Microsoft. Something we also did not hear much about, however, was Bixby, which to me, is where Samsung might move into more with Google and decide just to embrace Google Assistant. The currently added friction of using Google Assistant on Samsung’s devices is a limitation that will become more and more noticeable as users’ reliance on digital assistant grows and as Google Assistant is embedded in more services and applications and becomes a value add in the experience that products like the Galaxy Buds Live can deliver. The relationship with Google might be more center stage on September 1 when Samsung will provide more details on the Galaxy Z Fold 2, let’s see!