And yet, chaebol — wealthy, family-controlled businesses that are long-time pillars of South Korea’s booming economy — like Samsung, continue to thrive.
The sheer breadth of Samsung’s portfolio and globe-spanning clout are not to be underestimated as the brand continues to reach deeper into our lives. South Koreans could live entirely on its products alone, from studying at the Samsung-affiliated Sungkyunkwan University, getting insured with Samsung Life to living in a Samsung-built luxury residential complex kitted out with the company’s appliances and electronics.
However, the brand’s true apotheosis of influence still lies in its smartphones — indispensable communicative tools that have contributed to the concomitant rise of social media. Some have called the innovation of handheld devices a mixed blessing but one cannot doubt the accessibility afforded by the myriad apps on our pocket-sized information bank. Machines were initially created to improve efficiency, communication and productivity but they eventually developed real meaning when they became unique outlets for our creative impulses. The newly released Samsung Galaxy Note10 is about to cultivate our curiosity and feed our imaginations even more.
The launch was held on Aug 7 in New York, epicentre of the US’ most diverse urban population and which has the largest concentration of Fortune 500 companies. The location was a fitting choice as Samsung Electronic Co’s story and unbridled ambition, built at the junction of talent and tech, mirrors the brisk rise and evolution of the city as a digital hub. After all, anyone writing codes, designing hardware or using a smartphone these days owes a debt to the raft of innovations created in metropolitan New York decades ago.
While the rest of the world waited for Samsung’s live stream in front of their computers with bated breath, we were in the thick of the action at Barclays Centre in Brooklyn. Home to the Brooklyn Nets of the National Basketball Association (NBA) and numerous concerts by big-name performers such as Beyoncé, The Rolling Stones and The Weeknd, the multi-purpose indoor arena was decked out with special lighting and design flourishes to convey Samsung’s upcoming vision.
The centre’s entrance was lined with mirrors that shifted from sheer white to iridescent as attendees made their way down the hall. Lights bounced off the shiny surface, creating a rainbow of prismatic colours reminiscent of Samsung’s latest flagships. The brand is not exactly a fan of grand gestures but that does not mean the theatrics were reined in. After the president of the Mobile Communication Business at Samsung Electronics Dong-Jin Koh introduced the “newest version of the ultimate power phone”, an upbeat video of the new Galaxy Note10 with its suite of cool features erupted on the floor-to-ceiling screen.
The Galaxy Note range stood out among its smartphone brethren when it was launched in 2011 because of two salient features: the stylus pen and a screen so large the phone was dubbed a “phablet”. Huge displays are no longer derided as comical (nobody wants to put a device that resembles a small TV to their skulls) as they have proved to yield better sales. Hence, with the singular goal of conquering our eyes, Samsung has launched a plus-sized version for the first time to satiate our inability to resist bigger screens.
Building on Note’s premium design heritage, the 6.3in Galaxy Note10 is 0.1in smaller than the Galaxy Note9 while the 6.8in Note10+ boasts the largest display the series has ever seen. Samsung has trimmed down the key components to ensure the aluminium-frame smartphones cut a slimmer profile, which measures just 196g and 7.9mm thick for the Note10+. Devout fans might lament the removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack — a tweak Apple Inc made to its smartphones three years ago — but the new smartphones now include support for both USB-C and wireless audio.
Unlike storage devices and portable music players that keep shrinking in size, jumbo screens are prized for a vivid and engaging digital experience. The new Notes, protected with scratch and impact-resistant Gorilla Glass 6 on the front and back, are more spacious thanks to a nearly bezel-less Cinematic Infinity Display and a camera cut-out that takes up as little room as possible. The camera’s central placement offers a more natural and symmetrical outcome when taking selfies or conducting video calls. Whether you are gaming, watching videos or editing photos for the ’Gram, the Dynamic AMOLED display enriches your experience by providing a peerless picture quality.
Speed might be the least flashy yet important change in a phone upgrade, and the Galaxy Note10+ equipped with the Super Fast Charging (up to 45W) does not lag behind. Perfect for gamers or even photographers on the go, the time-saving technology enables the device’s 4,300mAh battery to store a full day’s worth of charge in just 30 minutes.
The race is on for developers to produce cameras that empower users to best preserve their memories in pictures. The new Notes have a front-facing camera with a 10-megapixel sensor. The rear-facing Triple and Quad camera for the Note10 and Note10+ respectively place pro-grade video tools in users’ hands. Leveraging state-of-the-art AI technology, the camera also offers a Zoom-In-Mic function, which amplifies the sound of the subject’s voice in a video and minimises background noise.
The support for the Note series shows no sign of waning as Samsung continues to perform magic with its genre-defying wand: the S Pen. The latest iteration of the push-to-eject mechanism is now a low-energy Bluetooth-supported stylus that communicates gesture commands. Smartphones have become very good at simulating a sketchbook, especially if you do not have dexterous fingers.
Powered by the S Pen’s six-axis sensor, the S Pen Air Actions can switch camera modes, zoom in and out, as well as manage music and video controls with just a flick of the wrist. When used in conjunction with the Notes’ AR Doodle feature, users can wield their stylus as a mixed-reality paintbrush, adding animations and drawings to whatever scene the camera is pointed at.
The S Pen, which conveniently doubles as a remote control, would have been handy when we visited The Vessel, an imposing 15-storey sculpture designed by Thomas Heatherwick and built as part of the Hudson Yards Redevelopment Project in Manhattan. Taking a selfie that includes the elaborate honeycomb-like structure in the background was not possible without the embarrassing assistance of a selfie stick. With the new Note10, however, one could prop the phone on a higher vantage point and use the S Pen as a wireless shutter button to capture a wider panorama.
What makes Samsung truly unique is that it not only attempts to institutionalise design but also functionality. Adding a dimension to the Galaxy Note’s work productivity is the convenient and intuitive notetaking. Users can seamlessly digitise their handwritten notes and convert them into various formats, including Microsoft Word, for easy sharing. Business proposals or memos can be drafted, edited and signed almost immediately with the device’s deep-learning database and analysis technology.
Smartphones are known to be portable multitaskers but Samsung’s latest sprints ahead with refinements that include a newly enhanced Samsung DeX. Just by connecting your Note10 to a PC or a Mac with a USB cable, you can easily drag and drop files between your devices, and manage both computer and mobile apps side by side. In fact, Windows 10 users will soon be able to mirror their phone’s screen, view notifications, send and receive messages and sync recent photos directly from their computer.
That commitment to bridge the gap between Windows PCs and Android was reaffirmed by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who was greeted with tumultuous applause when he made a cameo at the Samsung Galaxy Note10 launch. Samsung has always been known for keeping surprises up its sleeve anyway — the phone maker also stunned the audience at its 2016 Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg snuck on stage for a virtual reality demonstration.
Smartphones started out like a companion, not a digital factotum or a repository of our behaviour and habits. In the early days, we were easily charmed by simpler pleasures: internet in our pocket, connectivity at all times, or the innocent thrill of impressing a date with a flip phone. But mobile innovation, which was progressing at the same breakneck pace as smartphone sales, is hitting a plateau as consumers have more technology on their hands than they can handle. In fact, smartphone improvements are so modest and incremental these days that users might not find a compelling reason to upgrade. Will the advent of 5G — the advanced wireless system and networking gear that transfer data speed in the gigabits per second range — be the ultimate game-changer, just like Samsung claimed in its product presentation?
“It depends on what you call 5G. My definition of 5G is I can get it whenever and wherever I want. And that is probably two or three years away from now because you need to install towers [so people can hop onto the WiFi frequencies]. There are already 5G cellphones but are they matured? They will come at a hefty price but yes, 5G will radically change our lives,” said Jack Gold, technology analyst and president at J. Gold Associates LLC, during our brief exchange at the Samsung Galaxy Note10 launch.
“At the end of the day, you want to deliver a product that promises good user experience. Personalisation is helping users to interact better with their devices. Samsung’s Note10 for example, is a separate class of device, not only because it has the S Pen, but the brand knows exactly who it is targeting — high-end users who want additional features.”
Every mobile maker aims to be the leader of the smartphone whiz-bang innovation, either by introducing cooler interfaces or a slew of impressive specialties that bend our reality. Samsung achieved the latter, literally, with the Samsung Galaxy Fold, which will be relaunched soon after a technical hiccup in April. Now, it is time for the chaebol to prove if its latest flagship is truly noteworthy.
This article first appeared on Aug 19, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.