web analytics

Galaxy Note 8Last year’s Galaxy Note 7 looked like a winner. My review described it as the best Android phone. Then we learnt about battery explosions and burning phones.

Yesterday Samsung unveiled this year’s model. The company’s Auckland launch was a tired affair set in a grim industrial bunker.

After drinks the crowd was made to stand in the cold watching a dreary and blurry demonstration of, well, it’s not clear what Samsung intended to show us. Earlier in the week Oppo did a better launch job on a smaller budget.

A lot of people, including me, left at this point.

Solid, not remarkable

The event highlights the problem with the Note 8: it’s not that special, exciting or different. It doesn’t do anything significant that the Note 7 didn’t. You won’t be more productive or have more fun.

On the other hand, you won’t get burnt and you can travel on a plane without being a pariah.

Sure, Note 8 has a bigger screen than last year’s model. The front camera has more megapixels. There are dual lenses. Samsung uses a newer processor. Without hands-on testing it’s hard to tell if that means faster in practice.

Incremental

The key here is these are all incremental updates. It’s the Note 7 with a safer battery, nicer case and a few specification bumps.

That’s not to say the Note 8 is not a decent phone. It is. Battery issues aside the Note 7 was so far ahead of the curve, that an incremental update is all anyone could realistically expect.

And there are a lot of incremental updates. Together they add up to more than the sum of the parts.

Galaxy Note 8 comeback?

Samsung has a lot riding on the Galaxy Note 8. Almost every technology headline writer on the planet has referred to it as a comeback phone or used words to that effect.

In truth Samsung doesn’t need a comeback phone. The market has been generous to Samsung. If another Samsung phone has a melt-down the company will be in trouble, but its lead in the Android market remains strong. Huawei and Oppo are snapping at Samsung’s heels, but they were there last year too.

The Galaxy Note 8 poses two questions. First, is the latest Note sufficiently different from the Galaxy S8 Plus? As a casual observer at the launch function it felt like the two phones are converging, although I can’t put my finger on why that seems to be the case.

Samsung gave the Note a stylus. The Galaxy S8 doesn’t have one. Otherwise, there’s not much in it.

Stylus

There’s a sense that Samsung’s Galaxy Note stylus may have run its course. I notice many existing Note users don’t do much with their stylus. There aren’t lots of apps to make use of it, unlike the Apple Pencil.

Samsung’s stylus is like a technological security blanket. This may be different in Asia where people need to use more complex characters to write.

The second question posed by the Note 8 is about the competition from other Android brands. The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 will go on sale in New Zealand next month at $1600. That’s the same price as last year’s model. While it is cheaper than the Apple iPhone 7Plus, you can choose from a dozen or so cheaper Android alternatives including Samsung phones.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S3Whatever you think about iOS and Android phones, Apple’s tablets have always been streets ahead. Samsung wants to change that. Its Galaxy Tab S3 is anything but just-another-Android-tablet.

There’s nothing second-rate about this baby.

Samsung first showed the Galaxy Tab S3 in February. It went on sale in New Zealand last month. I’ve had my hands on a review model for the past two or three weeks. It is the only serious direct competitor to the iPad I’ve seen.

When the Galaxy Tab S3 first arrived, Apple was still selling last year’s 9.7-inch iPad Pro. That model was the tablet gold standard. Samsung’s tablet compares well with the 2016 iPad Pro.

Matches the 2016 9.7-inch iPad Pro

Feature-for-feature the Galaxy Tab S3 matches Apple’s hardware. With tablets the whole is greater than the sum of parts. Samsung’s glorious hardware is let down by the software, but when it comes to the stuff you can drop on your toes, the Galaxy Tab S3 was in reach of its rival.

Soon after I started this review, Apple released the next generation iPad Pro. The hardware has leapt ahead of Samsung. Apple also announced an iOS upgrade which, when it arrives, promises to widen the gap between the two.

Software is most important difference between the two tablets. Samsung’s tablet uses Google’s Android 7.0. It’s a smooth, slicker version of the operating system that works well on phones. It’s not so good on a tablet.

If you prefer Android or if use Android every day on your phone you might like the sound of Android 7.0 on a tablet. It could be fine, but Android doesn’t scale to fit larger screens as well as iOS.

Good apps missing in action

There is a bigger problem with Android. It lacks first-rate tablet apps. Many of the tablet apps you’ll find in the Google Play store are identical to their phone versions. Load them on to the Galaxy Tab S3 and their phone layouts expand to fill the larger display.

This can look horrible. At times you get huge, chunky text or pixellated images. But that’s not the worst part of this. Android app user interfaces often don’t scale well. They can be hard to use.

It’s as if Android app developers deliberately don’t cater for tablet customers. They rarely make use of any extra features a tablet might have.

Many apps don’t even make a decent transition from portrait to landscape screens. Although this can be poor in the operating system as well.

As a user you get the uncomfortable feeling you’re neglected, even unwelcome.

Good for consuming content

Because of this software neglect, Android tablets end up used as video players or browsers. You might also get to work with email and messaging. They are good at all these tasks, but don’t do much more.

And that restrains the potential of an Android tablet. The hardware might be good enough to replace a laptop for many people, but the software need to make this work in practice is not up to scratch.

Yet the iPad isn’t restricted this way. Many iOS apps are either rewritten or designed from the outset to scale. There is just an occasional hint of a problem running some obscure apps on the large 12.7-inch iPad.

In practice this means you can use an iPad to do a lot more. It works as a plausible laptop replacement. I’ve taken my iPad Pro instead of my MacBook Air on a number of recent trips and expect to do so in future.

A business-class Android tablet

In hardware terms Samsung has upped the ante for Android tablets. That’s not hard, many are lacklustre. Even so, the Galaxy Tab S3 is the best Android tablet I’ve ever seen.

It’s the first Android tablet that could be a productive business tool given better software support. And it’s the first worthy of consideration alongside the iPad or Surface Pro.

While it is cheaper than a Microsoft Surface Pro, it is still expensive at NZ$1100. That buys a model with 32GB storage and Wi-Fi. It includes a stylus. The sim-card version costs $100 more.

This compares with NZ$1100 for this year’s 10.5-inch iPad Pro with 64GB of storage. Apple charges an extra $160 for its Pencil. Even though you get the Samsung stylus for no extra charge, Apple has the edge on price.

It’s impossible to write about the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 without referring to last year’s 9.7-inch iPad Pro. The two have so much in common. They have a similar look and the same high quality finish.

The two have else much in common. Both are slim and light. You’d be hard pressed to say which is smaller, thinner or lighter. In practice it doesn’t matter, both are near perfect in those departments.

Vibrant screen

Both have great 9.7-inch screens showing 2048 by 1536 pixels. Samsung’s Amoled screen shows more vibrant colour and better blacks than the iPad. The 120Hz refresh rate on the 2017 iPad Pro means you get smoother moving images. There are fingerprint scanners on both tablets. Both have magnetic connectors down the side to take detachable keyboards.

Samsung didn’t supply a keyboard with the review model, so I can’t comment on how well it works. I can tell you the Galaxy Tab S3 works fine with my array of Bluetooth keyboards.

Apple and Samsung use different tablet processors. The Samsung feels a little slower than the 2016 iPad Pro. But the lag is so slight you’d be hard-pressed to notice much difference. In practice both tablets are fast, I’ve never experienced any slowness.

As mentioned, Samsung’s tablet does a fine job as a media and internet consumption device. What about productivity? In practice it works fine with productivity apps like Microsoft Word and Excel. These come installed as standard on the Tab S3, a nice touch Samsung. Of course, the tablet works well with cloud-based apps like Xero or Google Docs.

Hook it up to a keyboard and you can word process or number crunch to your heart’s delight. My only gripe is that text is often smaller and harder to read on the Samsung tablet than on the Apple when using default settings.

Galaxy Tab S3 verdict

The price isn’t right. You could spend the same $1100 and get the more up-to-date, better equipped 2017 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

Prices for Windows 10 2-in-1 computers start at the same price as the $1200 cellular ready S3. Surface Pro prices start at about $1300, a little than the cost of a Galaxy Tab S3. All these devices will do more.

Even so, if you can’t buy Apple or have some objection to Apple, the Tab S3 is a fine alternative to the iPad Pro. It is the first great tablet that didn’t come from Apple or Microsoft.

Samsung Galaxy S8 Maple Gold

Samsung needs a hit phone after the Note 7 debacle. The Galaxy S8 Plus could fit the bill. It is an elegant, slim, feature-packed slab of glass and metal.

Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus at a glance

For:Looks great, feels great
Well made,
Feature packed.
Against:Fixed battery,
Fingerprint scanner position,
Android 7.0, not 7.1,
Single lens camera.
Maybe:Flashing notification led,
Bixby,
Sound.
Verdict:The best Android phone on the market
Price:$1500 (S8 also available at $1300)
Website:Samsung

For years premier phones have inched towards the ideal format. That is the largest possible screen on the smallest, thinnest case.

Samsung takes the biggest screen, smallest case idea further than anyone. The Galaxy S8 has a front that is almost all screen. That is handset screen nirvana.

The display’s glass curves to wrap around the sides of the phone. The top and bottom of the front have edges, phone geeks call them bezels, of about 10mm and 6mm1. This means the display takes up close to nine-tenths of the phone’s front.

The sound of one hand phoning

It is a beautiful display. No one makes screens better than Samsung. You won’t find a better phone display anywhere else2. At least for now.

The screen is long and narrow. Almost like the slot in a letter box. It is 5.8 inches and uses the QHD standard. Samsung calls it the infinity display.

Thanks to the Amoled panel, the screen is bright while colours are rich and vivid. Screen contrast is close to perfection. Again, it underlines the earlier point about this being the best phone display to date.

Narrow body

Samsung packs all this into a body that’s a shade under 70mm wide. That is a full 10mm narrower than the Apple iPhone 7 Plus.

What this means in practice is that it sits better in the hand. You need big hands to grasp and work the iPhone 7 Plus. Far more people will get to work that way with the S8.

With the Galaxy S8 Plus, Samsung pulled off a design feat putting a bigger screen on a phone that is still easy to hold in one hand. There’s no question this is the most comfortable phone to hold.

The Galaxy S8 design looks new and modern in a category where designs were starting to look much the same. Recent phones from Oppo and Huawei pay homage to Apple’s iPhone. Samsung has gone its own way. If you place it beside the iPhone 7, Apple’s design, so modern when it first appeared, now looks a little old.

 

Samsung Galaxy S8

Feelings

To make the infinity screen Samsung moved the fingerprint button to the rear of the phone. Reaching to that spot isn’t a problem in itself, but the button is only a few millimetres from the camera lens.

When reaching for the button, my finger often found the lens first. That’s a recipe for grubby smudges on the lens. It didn’t happen during the review, but it seems an accident waiting to happen.

The Galaxy S8 lens isn’t flush with the case, there’s a tiny ridge around it. But there is no disfiguring and sometimes uncomfortable bump like on the iPhone 7.

Instead of capacitive buttons, there are software buttons on the screen. It’s an elegant engineering solution, but in practice it doesn’t always work. I found myself pressing the keys expecting them to do their and then repressing. The home key is pressure sensitive. You have to give it a positive push.

Samsung’s earlier curved displays had problems with phantom key presses. I didn’t see this at all with the Galaxy S8, but I haven’t tried the pickier apps.

At times this is frustrating. Also frustrating is that the screen doesn’t always respond when you try to wake the phone.

Performance

It is hard to find a modern premium phone that isn’t snappy. They all seem to have more than enough power for everyday use.

The Galaxy S8 is no slouch in this department. More important than raw speed is that the phone doesn’t slurp battery power when pushed to the limits. At the same time, it doesn’t heat up.

Call quality is good on the Galaxy S8, but the sound is not as loud as on some other premium phones. The speaker is a little tinny compared to some rival devices. This notices most when you use the Galaxy S8 in loudspeaker mode, say, to share a call with others. This is a noticeable weak spot.

There’s a 3.5mm socket for the earphones. Again the earphone sound is not as impressive as on other recent premium phones. It seems Samsung pays less attention to how things sound than to how they look and feel.

Battery

For years the main shortcoming of premium phones has been battery life. A phone isn’t that useful if it can get you from one end to another of a busy working day without recharging.

Samsung has delivered on this with a vengeance. In practice I found it lasts for well over 24 hours of normal use. That’s without using any of the power saving software features. If you opt for more conservative settings and don’t overdo things, you can extend this to 36 hours.

There is wireless charging if you have the right charger. If you don’t the USB-C connector works fast enough. It is possible to give the phone a full charge in 90 minutes. Sure, there are faster charging phones out there, but this is good by any standard.

Software

Samsung’s earlier Galaxy S phones had a software overlay that subtracted from Android. Over the years the company has learned to dial back on irritating gimmicks. Today’s TouchWiz is a huge improvement. It’s still annoying at times, but it’s no longer a reason not to choose a Galaxy S phone.

As you’d expect it is customisable. There’s so much opportunity to change things that a geek could tinker for weeks before doing real work. Some see that as Android’s big advantage. Each to his or her own.

One issue the brand new phone is that it doesn’t have the latest version of Android. Samsung delivered the Galaxy S8 with Android 7.0. Given Samsung’s historic tardiness with Android upgrades, this could be a problem.

Bixby smixby

Bixby, Samsung’s answer to Siri, is disappointing. Like all software, there is an opportunity to upgrade it. Before you get excited, remember Samsung is slow at delivering software updates.

There’s a dedicated button on the left of the phone under the volume controls which switches Bixby on. This is faster than, say, the long press on the home button needed to get Siri moving. And it’s more reliable than “hey Siri” or “OK Google”.

However, there’s a negative here. On a minimal phone design an extra button is a big deal. Because Bixby is flawed and only marginally usable, it turns out the button is something of a white elephant. At least for now.

It doesn’t help that you can reprogram the Bixby button to do something else. No doubt hacks or apps will appear soon to do just this.

Google Assistant, only nothing like as good

When you hit the Bixby button, the screen then displays something that looks a lot like Google Now. You get cards showing information from a handful of your phone widgets. The most useful is the weather card. Most of the others are annoying, a form of advertising or a waste of time.

At the product launch Samsung showed Bixby responding to voice input. That’s not ready yet. It promises the US voice assistant later this year. Those of us who have been around technology a long time know not to buy hardware on the promise of a later software update.

A lot of the information provided by Bixby is wrong. OK, not wrong; inappropriate. As I write the news widget shows only US news, sport and business information. That’s despite setting the phone for New Zealand. This is typical of the unfinished nature of Samsung software.

My Bixby display also shows what it calls “Nearby Places”. But it does this without any intelligence. So, I get what looks like a promotion for the Hobsonville Farmer’s Market. As the crow flies it is only a kilometre or so from where I am sitting. Yet, it is the other side of the harbour, maybe a 40 minute drive by car if traffic is light.

Samsung hasn’t replaced Google Assistant. It is still there if you long-press the home button. Keeping it may be a contractual obligation between Samsung and Google. If not, leaving it in the phone could prove a strategic mistake.

That’s because Google Assistant is better than today’s version Bixby. This wouldn’t matter if Samsung didn’t much such a fuss about its software. But every time you hit one of the two buttons you are reminded that Samsung has yet to deliver.

Camera

Samsung is the only premium phone maker in the last year not to make a huge song and dance about its camera. That’s not because it is bad or unremarkable. A possible reason is the camera on the Galaxy S8 is a much the same as the one on the Galaxy Note 7.

Could it be Samsung doesn’t want to remind us of that phone?

Another possibility is that Samsung has fallen behind the market in this department. Many other premium phones now come with dual lens cameras. This delivers great results that are harder to get from the Galaxy S8 Plus. Dual lens means better depth of field, more zoom options and different focal lengths.

The back camera is as good as any you’ll find on a premium phone. It has a fast f/1.7 lens and optical image stabilisation. It lets in a lot of light. A 12-megapixel sensor may not sound impressive by 2017 standards, but it’s all anyone needs on a phone. In practice it does a good job and shines in low light conditions.

Front-facing cameras have had more attention from phone makers this year. Samsung’s main update here is to add autofocus to the front camera. It’s a feature I’ve not seen anywhere else.

One area where Samsung got the phone software right is the camera app. There are plenty of controls and it is easy enough to use when you are racing about.

Other points

  • The virtual home button is not as easy to use as you’d hope. It sometimes doesn’t register. I found I gave myself a mild new variety of repetitive strain injury pushing it too hard too often
  • While the design looks beautiful, the phone feels fragile. You wouldn’t want to drop $1500 in the street, but that’s what could happen if the phone slips out of your hand. This might be deceptive. There haven’t been widespread reports of breakages yet.
  • There’s a lot to be said for the narrow screen format when watching high quality video. It’s not always the best shape for viewing photos. Moreover, I find it easier to use apps like Microsoft Word on the squarer displays. Maybe that will change with familiarity and practice.
  • On the other hand, this format is better for working with a split screen. Although split-screen work on a phone is not the best way to squeeze productivity from a handheld.
  • DeX is an intriguing idea. In theory it is a NZ$250 docking station that turns the Galaxy S8 into a desktop computer. It wasn’t possible to test this at the time of the review.
  • The problem with DeX is that you’re stuck with Android. It’s not the best operating system for this kind of work.

Specifications

Screen:6.2 in quad HD Amoled
Processor:octa-core Samsung Exynos 8895 or octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835
Ram:4GB
Storage:64GB with slot for microSD card
Software:Android 7.0,
Samsung TouchWiz
Camera:12 megapixel rear with optical image stabilisation,
8 megapixel front camera
Size:150 x 70 x 8mm
Weight:155g

Samsung Galaxy S8 verdict

Samsung’s Galaxy S8 is a fine phone. Unless some hitherto unseen Achilles Heel emerges, it repairs Samsung’s reputation. It also regain’s the best Android phone crown for Samsung3.

On the outside it looks and feels close to perfect. It also feels more modern than other premium phones. That’s an achievement given how much their designs are converging.

Away from the external features, the Galaxy S8 is noticeably better than rival Android phones, but it isn’t in a higher league. By the end of the year one or two of the other phone makers will have either caught up or headed off in a different direction.

Would you want to upgrade from a Galaxy S7? There’s no question the newer phone is better. But then you’d expect that. Apart from looks, most of the improvements over the S8 are incremental. Spending $1500 won’t make you work faster or better. You won’t get much more enjoyment or entertainment.


  1. The curve makes accurate measurement hard. ↩︎
  2. This is something I’ve written a few times. It was true then and is today. Phone makers in general and Samsung in particular continue to refine screen technology. They get better and better. ↩︎
  3. I plan to write a separate post comparing the Galaxy S8 with the iPhone 7. ↩︎

Huawei p10

Phone designers are running out of options. This year’s phones show less innovation than in years past.  

Samsung’s Galaxy S8 goes on sale this week. The early 2017 phone picture is now complete. We now know what the mainstream phone market will look like until Apple reveals its iPhone plans.

Here are ten things we’ve learnt about the state of the phone market:

1. Samsung fans are forgiving, maybe too forgiving

You couldn’t step on a plane at the end of last year with cabin crew reminding you of problems with the Samsung Note 7. Every safety announcement told passengers it was dangerous.

The Note 7’s exploding battery was news for weeks. The tech business has rarely seen such damaging publicity. It seems Samsung raced the product out before completing testing.

According to Ben Bajarin at techpinions that bad publicity is not enough to stop today’s Samsung owners from considering the Galaxy S8.

2. S8 ain’t done until Bixby runs

Bixby is Samsung’s voice-controlled virtual assistant. If it works it will rival Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa.

Samsung says Bixby is different because it strings tasks together. It then manages complex tasks the others can’t. Among other things, Bixby can wrap-up and send your most recently taken photo to, say, your partner. It promises to hunt down, then stream a specific video to a Samsung TV set.

Soon after announcing the S8 Samsung said Bixby features will not all be available on day one.

Unfinished software is not on a par with unfinished and unsafe battery designs. Yet it seems Samsung hasn’t learned all the important lessons from the Note 7.

If the signature feature of a new phone isn’t ready by launch, you might wonder if Samsung still cuts corners. Will anything else emerge, Note 7-like, after the launch?

3. The case of the disappearing bezel

Bezel is the name given to the rim around a phone’s screen. All phone makers have reduced the size of their bezels in recent models. Huawei and Oppo’s 2017 phones have tiny bezels.

Samsung has taken this almost to the logical extreme. There is almost no bezel on the Galaxy S8. The front is almost all glass.

In practice this means two things. First, you get more screen in a smaller package. The display on the Galaxy S8 is larger than the display on the Apple iPhone 7 Plus. Yet the S8 is roughly the same size as the non-Plus iPhone 7.

4. Much ado about fingerprint scanner placement

Put Note 7 fires and Bixby to one side for a moment. What is the main aspect of the Galaxy S8 that every phone reviewer wants to discuss? Is it the camera technology, the processor speed or large 5.8-inch screen?

It’s none of these. Almost every review mention Samsung’s decision to move the fingerprint scanner. A smaller bezel on the phone’s front means there’s no room for a fingerprint scanner. Samsung moved it to the rear of the phone.

Using the S8 fingerprint scanner is now a little more uncomfortable and a touch more awkward.

Both points are true. It says a lot about phone innovation that reviewers focus on fingerprint scanner placement.

5. Cameras, cameras, cameras

Every phone maker at every launch says their latest model has the best camera on the market. I’ve been to five launches in the six months or so and have heard five different phone makers make that claim. They can’t all be right.

For what it’s worth, all premium phones have great cameras. They can all take excellent pictures in the right circumstances. Exactly what makes up the right circumstances varies a little from brand to brand.

To a degree the camera innovation battle has moved on from hardware to software. At least four of the five big phone brands now offer some form of software-generated bokeh effect. 1

6. Enough with the fashion parades

So far this year Samsung, Huawei and Oppo have all had big splashy phone launches with a fashion theme. Each launch included beautiful people from the fashion world.

Oppo took this furthest with a Sydney Harbour boat cruise. It featured lurid coloured cocktails, a DJ and fashion models cat posing with phones.

A fashion-industry big wig made a speech. She told boat passengers to throw their iPhones overboard and replace it with an Oppo.

It’s worth pointing out that fashion-themed phone launches are not new. LG held a similar event in Auckland 10 years ago.

The message, in case you didn’t get it, is that premium smart phones are fashion items.

7. Hardware innovation slows in 2017 phones

Related to the fashion metaphor is the fetish with phone colours. There are different shades of black, metallic blues, greens and reds and so on. Again, we’ve been here before with premium phones.

In a sense modern phones have reached the point American cars got to in the 1960s. Then Detroit covered cars in chrome and added tail fins. They did this to create the impression of innovation where, in fact, there was little new.

Innovation isn’t quite dead in the phone business, but it has slowed to a crawl. The fact that people fuss over the fingerprint scanner tells you that.

Almost every hardware improvement in the last year has been incremental, cosmetic or unimportant. Screen resolution passed the point where the human eye could notice a different a few years ago. It’s been even longer since a phone processor wasn’t fast enough for all everyday tasks.

8. The price isn’t right

Premium phone price have climbed faster than inflation. This isn’t because of currency effects, phone prices are going up everywhere.

In part this is because phone makers did not make much profit in the past. Although Apple has always enjoyed a good margin. Even Samsung struggled at times to earn a decent amount from selling hardware.

In 2013 the Samsung Galaxy S4 cost NZ$1150 and the 16GB iPhone 5S was $1050. Today the cheapest iPhone 7 is $1430 and the bottom of the range Galaxy S8 is $1300. You can go all the way to $1830 with Apple or $1500 with Samsung.

You can argue that you get more phone, or at least more memory and more screen. But that’s not the point, it now costs Apple fans over 30 percent more to buy the least expensive iPhone. Samsung customers pay around 20 percent more.

Huawei has pushed its prices up even faster. Four years ago it made bargain basement phones, today the P10 is NZ$1000 and the Mate 9 is $1100.

Bucking the trend Oppo’s $700 R9s has most of the features found in a Samsung phone for almost half the price. There’s a huge opportunity for a brand selling good phone hardware at that price.

9. Everyone has a phone

Almost every person in the rich world who wants a modern mobile phone now has one. This means phone sales have slowed to a crawl compared with the past decade.

It also means phone makers rely on shortening the upgrade cycle to turn over more product. That keeps the money rolling in. There is one big problem with that…

10. There are few compelling reasons to upgrade

Today’s premium phones are good. When it comes to practical functionality they are not much better than the handsets on offer two years ago. Most of the changes in that time have made little difference to an owner’s everyday life.

There are always going to be performance obsessed geeks who argue for some esoteric reason they need an even faster processor. But in reality, it’s been a long time since phones were slow in everyday use. Likewise, any new hardware feature, is often only of interest to a minority.

Few people will hold onto phones for, say, 10 years, as they do with PCs. Apart from anything else, they take a physical beating day-in, day-out and get dropped or otherwise worn out after a few years. Most users who are not on plans have already moved away from annual or bi-annual phone upgrades. In the future more of us are likely to hang-on to devices for even longer.


  1. I can’t remember if Sony or Oppo mentioned anything about blurred image backgrounds. Apple, Samsung and Huawei all did. ↩︎

Samsung Galaxy S8 Midnight Black

Samsung introduced the Galaxy S8 phone overnight. It’s the first major phone release from Samsung since the ill-fated Galaxy Note 7 which the company discontinued last year after some phones caught fire.

The Galaxy S8 has a large screen, even by modern phone standards. Yet it doesn’t need a large case.

That’s because Samsung’s 5.8 display takes up almost the entire front of the phone case. There is far less bezel, that’s the space around the side of the screen. To save even more room Samsung removed the physical home button, it’s now a virtual button and part of the display.

Bixby takes on Siri

Samsung introduced Bixby, a virtual assistant that rivals Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. Like its competitors Bixby responds to the phone owner’s voice commands.

There’s also a docking station that Samsung says turns the Galaxy S8 into a desktop computer. It’s debatable whether there’s any demand for a desktop computer based on the Android operating system and Samsung’s software overlays. The idea has already been used by HP with a Windows-based device.

Beyond those features there’s not much to excite non-geek phone users. The overnight news was predictable, most of it flagged well in advance. It seems phone technology is, for now at least, at an evolutionary dead-end. The logical conclusion being a near featureless glass slab.

Galaxy S8 more expensive than iPhone

For the first time Samsung is asking a higher price than Apple for the new phones. The Galaxy 8 is NZ$1300 while the Galaxy 8 Plus with a 6.2 inch screen sells here for NZ$1500. Apple’s iPhone 7 starts at NZ$1200 and the iPhone 7 Plus is $1430.

The question posed by the Galaxy S8 is whether it can restore confidence to Samsung’s phone brand. Last year’s Galaxy Note 7 debacle began when some phones spontaneously caught fire. Samsung recalled and replaced phones, but the fires continued.

In the end Samsung dropped the Galaxy Note 7 losing billions and ceding market share to rival brands.

If the Galaxy S8 proves to be reliable and safe it will go a long way towards Samsung’s rehabilitation. The company continues to sell more phones than any rival and has a loyal following.

Mobile phone handset

Apple sold more phones than any other company including Samsung in the last quarter of 2016.

IDC says it is the first time Apple was New Zealand’s top selling phone brand since early 2012.

During the quarter phone sales hit a record high. Some 672,000 phones shipped1 between October and December 2016. That’s up from 614,000 a year earlier.

Apple shipped 221,000 phones. Samsung shipped 176,000. Third-place Huawei closed the gap on its rivals shipping 143,000 phones.

The three brands accounted for almost 80 percent of total phone sales.

Apple beat Samsung in Q4

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 recall after dozens of fires and explosions only goes part of the way to explaining Apple’s success.

IDC New Zealand client device analyst Chayse Gorton says:

“…even with some consumers expected to be holding off upgrading their smartphone until the release of the 10th anniversary edition iPhone, forecasted in late 2017, the demand for iPhone 7 has been stronger than anticipated”.

Gorton says the iPhone 7’s updated specifications were enough to entice Apple users.

He says: “It’s hard to say with confidence that a single feature drove customers to upgrade, such as increased durability. It is likely a combination of improvements leading to consumers perceiving the iPhone 7 models as superior”.

Samsung loyalty

That explains why Apple users upgraded, not why customers of other phone brands switched to Apple. Gorton says the Note 7 problems meant some consumers questioned their loyalty.

It looks as if Apple’s surge is greater than upgrades and Samsung refugees alone might suggest.

Also interesting is Huawei’s rapid growth. Until late 2016 Huawei phones offered similar features and style to Samsung models at a sharp discount.

Samsung faced a battle on three fronts:

  • self-inflicted wounds,
  • Apple at the high end and
  • Huawei cutting the price ground from under Samsung’s feet.

Despite all this Samsung stayed in the top spot for the year. IDC New Zealand puts its market share at 32 percent, while Apple and Huawei were at 27 percent and 14 percent.

This year will see added competition from Oppo. At the same time, Huawei is moving upmarket into Samsung territory with the NZ$1400 Mate 9 Pro.


Vodafone phones

IDC’s chart shows Vodafone has an 11 percent market share with its own branded phones. Some of these are excellent value, in extreme cases they have much of the function of phones costing eight or ten times as much.


  1. IDC counts phone shipments, a measure of how many phones leave warehouses. That’s not quite the same as sales. ↩︎