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Samsung Galaxy S4 looks a lot like the SIII
Samsung Galaxy S4 looks a lot like the SIII

Samsung’s Galaxy S4 launch highlights a phone industry problem.

After five years of stellar growth and stunning hardware improvements, phone makers are running out of headroom for innovation.

Samsung’s Galaxy SIII is the world’s top-selling smartphone for a good reason. It offers the mix of features customers want in the right package. The Galaxy S4 updates a winning formula. There were no serious shortcomings to fix.

Which means the Galaxy S4 is an incremental  upgrade. It looks a lot like the Galaxy SIII all the improvements are not immediately obvious. There’s a slightly bigger screen, more camera pixels and a faster processor.

All good stuff, but possibly not enough for existing SIII owners to feel a need to switch immediately to the new model.

The headline features outlined at today’s global launch function are powerful software applications – mainly adding functionality that could previously be purchased from app store vendors.

That’s a sensible move. Today’s best smartphones have similar hardware specifications, Samsung’s software gives the company an important point of difference.

However, if experience is anything to go by, much of the extra software packed in the S4 won’t get used by mainstream owners.

13 thoughts on “The problem phone makers face

  1. On the NZ Tech Podcast you guys talked about the pixels. Can you please explain why more pixels doesn’t mean better photos? Why is 13 Mega Pixels no better than say 8? I’ve also wondered how they can talk about that many pixels from such a small lens. Surely there is only so much light you can get in from a mobile camera. Seems misleading to me. If its all the same why do people buy $10,000 lenses (rhetorical question).

    • It’s the same kind of concept as a painting being done on a bigger canvas doesn’t mean it’s better. I could fingerpaint a stick figure on the A0 canvas and compare it to the Mona Lisa.

      What makes a better picture is a better CMOS sensor, not they size of the output picture. You need 4x the Megapixels to get a better picture out of the same quality CMOS.

  2. Big question. Short answer.

    Up to a point more pixels means bigger pictures, not necessarily better ones. Image quality is determined by other things including the lens but also the quality of the camera’s build, sensor size, the image processing technology it uses and the internal software.

    For example, Nokia’s Lumia has 8.7 megapixles but it also has image-stabilisation which means better pictures, especially in low-light conditions.

    In round numbers an 8 megapixel camera will take a decent A4 sized picture.

    With a non-phone digitial camera you can often get better-looking images by choosing a model with a better lens and sensor rather than worry about the number of pixels.

    • Thanks, so the next question, which I think was also mentioned on the podcast is about what your eyes can see. The resolution of the S4 if I’m correct is the highest yet for a mobile. Can someone with good eyesight appreciate this resolution? Is there a point where, like the frequencies we musos can hear after years of listening to loud music, where you can add more pixels but we wouldn’t be able to see them? Are we there yet? I guess I’m asking if we are being conned with the high specs of these new devices or whether the new specs really will add to our enjoyment.

      • There are other phones with the same resolution, and no, most people wouldn’t be able to tell much difference, not even geeks. The biggest notice would be small text, but even then, going froma great screen like on the S3 to S4 is diminishing returns.

      • Good question. I’m not an expert on this. There may be a benefit from smaller pixels just as inaudible frequencies can affect brain activity (see http://jn.physiology.org/content/83/6/3548.long).

        I suspect phone makers have nowhere else to go when it comes to increasing pixel density. Packing more in won’t sell any more phones. I’m not sure if there’s room for any measurable improvement with phone displays.

        This is part of the problem I’m talking about when I say phone makers are running out of headroom for innovation – at least within the current smartphone model.

  3. I don’t think we’ve hit a plateau with the hardware, but more of a slight slump before we get flexible/transparent/small-enough-to-wear. I am very glad the S4 is similar as it looks like Samsung has sharpened it’s engineering chops hopefully (looking at the uniform edge makes me think it’ll be a lot less squishy and more sturdy). I am a bit disappointed as I am waiting for a phone that looks awesome like some of the concepts and ‘leaks’ you see every now and then. Most of them are probably not practically possible, but a guy can dream.

  4. Those numbers are for Q3 2012, only. Makes sense. The iPhone 4S has sold, overall, substantially more AFAICT than the S3. And probably the S2 has sold more than the 4 S.

    • There is no question at all that Samsung sells far more phones overall (and more smartphones). No one disputes that. But the vast majority of those are crappy low end phones, sold to people “for free” who would have otherwise been happy with a “feature phone” and who continue to use their Android phone in the same way — according to the statistics they’re not browsing the web with them, they’re not buying or downloading apps.

      Samsung’s profit compared to Apple’s is pretty much in line with their proportion of S2/S3 sales compared to Apple’s sales. Samsung’s 150m (or whatever) sales of other phones are irrelevant from the point of view of shareholders, web developers, and app developers.

    • “Apple has *never* been the #1 smartphone maker by volume, but it has by profits, and still is, by a factor of two.”

      Of course that is the most important metric. I couldn’t agree more. It’s worth pointing out that Samsung is the only other seriously profitable smartphone maker.

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