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Samsung melds function and form in its S6s
DESPITE making some of the world's most versatile and powerful smartphones over the years, Korean tech giant Samsung Electronics has always been given the short end of the stick by mobile phone reviewers and market experts on account of the look and feel of its phones.
To some extent, the criticism has been justified. A dispassionate observer doing a side-by-side inspection of the Samsung Galaxy S series of phones, starting with the first one launched in June 2010, would surely conclude that the flagship, premium-priced phones did not look or feel premium - especially when set next to the phones made by Samsung's biggest competitor, Apple.
And this is despite the fact that Samsung has been in the forefront of pushing the technological envelope.
This is essentially a perception problem, since most people would buy a smartphone to do tasks, not to admire its beauty - except that the lower sales have started to hit Samsung's bottomline.
So the tech giant went back to the drawing board and rebuilt its latest iteration of the Galaxy S, the S6; it also built a version of this with a screen curved on both edges, the S6 Edge.
In looks, the S6 and S6 Edge are as different from previous generations of the phone as chalk is from cheese. Samsung now has a phone that is just one of this year's most powerful and versatile smartphones, and it is also one of the most good-looking, with as much a premium feel as any other phone on the market.
To find out about the design choices taken by the company The Business Times spoke to Samsung's senior designer at its Mobile Communications Division, Hong Yeo.
The two phones represent the company's return to its fundamentals, in that they are designed to be intuitive and easy to understand, he said.
"It's the culmination of several years of hard work and product testing aligned with Samsung's broader design philosophy centred on innovation and user experience."
The goal was to ensure that Samsung was pushing the limits of technology and design while redefining the mobile experience for consumers. The result, he said, is a "harmonious mix of design elements that exhibits the perfect balance of beautiful form and materials alongside purposeful technological innovation". Every aspect of the design was considered from a new perspective that focused on premium-device aesthetics as well as usability and functionality. Samsung made two major departures from the previous iterations of the phone: the removable battery and expandable storage are gone.
These two features were what made Galaxy phones attractive to power users who love to tinker with their phones, but Samsung realised that these features do not really matter to most mainstream users - and these are phones meant for the mass market.
The uni-body glass-and-metal combination required considerable research and development to create a design that would make for a strong and durable phone, while featuring advanced technology, including a long-lasting and fast-charging battery, said Eugene Goh, Samsung Electronics Singapore's vice-president for IT & Mobile.
Samsung's engineers went big with wireless charging. They were able to dramatically shrink the size of the coil, which is the key component in wireless charging. The coil in the two newest models is only 0.27 mm thick, just a third of that in previous models.
Mr Goh said: "This improved technology frees users from having to carry bulky power cords everywhere they go. A fully-charged battery will last an entire day and fast-charging will allow up to four hours of usage after just a 10-minute charge."
Samsung also had a rethink about the external SD card slot. Its research among its customers and third-party analysts revealed that consumers are utilising cloud services rather than external storage or memory, said Mr Goh.
All models of the new phones now come with an additional 100GB of free cloud service with Microsoft One Drive, valid for two years.
"This gives consumers the flexibility to choose from a variety of internal storage options - 32GB, 64GB and 128GB, depending on their personal mobile usage - while having extra cloud storage space for any type of content," he added.
The Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge have also had their user interface (UI) tweaked.
Samsung's UI, called TouchWiz, sits on top of Google's Android operating system (OS); one long-standing complaint of users had been that it was too heavy and it slowed down the phone.
TouchWiz in the latest-generation phones has been meaningfully streamlined to create a far better user experience.
Mr Yeo said Samsung is giving consumers a simplified, lightweight TouchWiz which enhances the handling of the interface, making it more intuitive:
"Our intent is to maximise meaningful product features and powerful functionality for these smartphones. This approach means removing the complexities of preloaded apps and eliminating unused features and settings."
It is still early days, but indications are that Samsung has set the stage for a comeback. On Wednesday, the company announced that global demand for the S6 and S6 Edge was beyond what it had anticipated and that some "short-term" supply difficulties could crop up.
Several analysts are predicting that the two models are likely to be the company's best-selling to date. Nomura has estimated that Samsung sold 80 million S3s in three years from its 2012 launch, and 43 million S4s from the model's April 2013 launch till the end of that year. Samsung could ship 50 million or more S6 phones this year, other analysts said.
In Singapore, where the phones debuted a week ago, there has been brisk demand. StarHub said the demand for the phones has outstripped its initial stock; M1 also recorded strong demand for the phones.
Samsung itself estimates that its January-to-March operating profit would be its highest in three quarters, which analysts said was partly because Samsung put its own chips in the new phones.