Around the time of the iPhone’s 2007 release, Intel convinced OEMs to try out a new 4- to 6-inch tablet form-factor called Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs). These Linux- and Windows CE-based devices never made it very far, and were almost unknown in the United States. One reason cited for their demise was the belief that Intel had chosen the wrong size. Indeed, in the first part of this decade, smartphones tended to range from 3.5 to 4.5 inches, while tablets went from 7 to 13 inches. The gap in between was considered a no-fly zone.
Yesterday, Samsung launched a 5.7-inch Galaxy Note5 and almost identical, stylus-free Galaxy S6 Edge+ phone, hoping to continue its success in the same no-fly zone. The Korean CE giant also formally announced its Samsung Pay mobile payment service and tipped a round-faced, Tizen-based Gear S2 smartwatch. Three weeks ago, amid rumors of a quad-core Samsung Z3 phone running Tizen 3.0, the company tipped a version of Tizen for the Internet of Things (see below).
In 2011, when Samsung had only recently emerged as the leading Android vendor with its Galaxy phones, it surprised the industry by unveiling the 5.3-inch Galaxy Note. Considered too large for a phone, the device also broke with the iPhone chic look by offering a stylus, a device thought to be extinct with the arrival of capacitive touchscreens.
After four popular Note offerings, the latest of which pushed the size to 5.7 inches, Samsung continues to lead the way in the hot 5- to 6-inch phablet market. Phablets — many of them with styluses — now dominate high-end smartphones.
“When we first came out with the Note, people called us crazy,” said Samsung CEO JK Shin’s at yesterday’s New York City launch of the Note5 and S6 Edge+. Justin Denison, VP and Head of Mobile Products at Samsung Electronics America, added: “To say there was doubt and market skepticism is a bit of an understatement. But what was once called a gimmick has now become the norm.”
Both new Galaxy phones stick with the Note4’s 5.7-inch dimensions. However, following the lead of the 5.1-inch Galaxy S6 Edge phone released earlier this year, the S6 Edge+ literally pushes the screen over the edge with a display that curves over the 6.9mm-wide sides of the device. The Note5 has no curved screen, but it feels more compact than its 5.7-inch specs would suggest due to its narrower metal bezel and curved back.
By contrast, the MIDs of last decade were thicker and bulkier, with screens framed by up to an inch of plastic on all sides. There’s a fine line between a 5- to 6-inch device that can fit in one hand and slide into your pocket and a 6- to 7-inch device that can’t.
64-Bit Octa-Core SoC and 4GB of DDR4
Reflecting the maturity of the smartphone market, there are few noteworthy hardware additions to the Note5 and S6 Edge+, which largely mimic the Note4 or S6 Edge. That’s not to say the specs aren’t impressive. They continue to offer Super AMOLED, 2560×1440 screens and Samsung’s much praised 16- and 5-megapixel cameras, which support 4K video capture.
Both phones run Android 5.1 on an octa-core Samsung Exynos 7420, the 64-bit system-on-chip that debuted in the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. Interestingly, Samsung made no mention of the processor at yesterday’s Samsung Unpacked event, despite the fact that the 14nm-fabricated, Cortex-A53 (1.5GHz) and Cortex-A57 (2.1GHz) octa-core would seem to be a fairly significant upgrade over the Note4’s octa-core Cortex-A15/A7-based Exynos 5433 (international) or Snapdragon 805 (North America). Samsung did, however, crow about the phones’ 4GB of DDR4 RAM, up from 3GB on the Note4 and S6 Edge. The company also touts the phones’ much faster wireless charging.
Samsung also added an unusual, $80 keyboard cover accessory that slides over the bottom part of the screen to provide a mini-QWERTY keyboard. When you’re not using it, you can store in on the back of the phone where it’s protected by an additional back cover. The keyboard cover works with both phones, as well as the earlier Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge.
The Galaxy phones’ latest software improvements, meanwhile, include a Live Broadcast app that live streams video direct to YouTube. Because it’s built into the native camera app, Live Broadcast is said to be more convenient than third-party apps (such as Periscope).
The S6 Edge+ adds an Apps Edge feature, which expands upon the earlier People Edge feature to let you swipe from the screen’s side to bring up quick-launch apps. The Note5 has its own new trick: A more accurate version of the S Pen stylus lets you write and capture notes even when the screen is turned off.
Both phones will ship August 21. Pre-orders are said to be available now.
Another interesting addition is a Magnetic Secure Transmission (MST) device compatible with MST readers found in Point of Sale equipment. The feature is designed to work with the newly announced Samsung Pay, which debuts September 28 in the United States. Thanks to MST, Samsung Pay will work with many more retailers than Apple Pay or Android Pay, claims Samsung.
Samsung Pay is also claimed to be more secure, as it’s built on the latest version of Samsung’s Knox security solution, which includes fingerprint scanning. Both the payment service and the Galaxy phones also support the NFC technology used by the Apple and Google services.
Round Tizen Watch Tipped Amid Z3 Phone Rumors
The only appearance of Samsung’s other Linux-based operating system came at the end of the Unpacked event. Samsung flashed an image of a round-faced watch with a tip for a September 3 unveiling. The displayed interface, as well as the lack of “Galaxy” in the name, reinforces the earlier rumor that the watch is Tizen-based, the heir to the Gear S.
Until recently, the prospects of smartphone success for the Linux Foundation hosted Tizen OS seemed to have faded, even while it was invading Samsung Smart TVs and watches. Yet, on June 29, Samsung announced that it had sold more than one million units of its flagship Z1 phone in India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.
In late July, SamMobile reported on an upcoming, Tizen-powered Z3 phone that it says will launch later this year in in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The 5-inch phone will offer a faster quad-core Spreadtrum SoC compared to the dual-core Z1, and offer higher-end features including Tizen 3.0, 1.5GB of RAM, 8GB of storage, and 8- and 5-megapixel cameras, said the story. We may find out more at the September 3 Gear S2 event in Berlin at IFA.
It’s unclear when Samsung might expand its Tizen phone efforts beyond South Asia. More than a quarter of all Tizen app developers live in India, and Samsung will no doubt want to build upon its success. Samsung benefits from the fact that no company has yet dominated the fledgling, although potentially huge, Indian smartphone market.
Google’s Android One project, which launched almost a year ago in India, has underperformed, according to the Financial Times. Google is said to be working with OEM partners like Micromax to launch Android One phones that cost a half to a third the price of the current $70 to $100 models.
Still, the previously announced figure of 700,000 units sold during the first 100 days suggests Android One is doing better than Tizen’s Z1. Google’s competition here isn’t so much Tizen or Firefox OS, whose partners’ single-core, Spreadtrum-based “$25 phones” have been withdrawn from the market. Instead, Indian phone vendors are increasingly loading up CyanogenMod’s Android builds or are rebadging low-cost Android clones from China.
Tizen for IoT
On July 30 at the Tizen Development Summit in Bangalore, India, Samsung announced the release of Tizen SDK 2.3.1 for wearables. For the first time, the SDK enables the development of native apps, as well as HTML5-based web apps. The SDK also supports rumored Gear S2 features like a circular display and bezel interface.
Samsung also released a Tizen SDK 2.4 beta, which covers phones and TVs as well as wearables. Version 2.4 is said to offer a richer GUI, more contextual triggering support based on user behavior, and a new 3D engine named DALi (Dynamic Animation Library). There’s also a “Cloudbox” cloud feature.
Additionally, Samsung said it will invest $100 million to create an IoT version of Tizen that will run on all of its household appliances by 2020. There were few details and no indication of how this might intersect with Samsung’s acquisition of home automation company SmartThings or work with its IoT-focused, Yocto Linux-ready Artik modules.