This year will see the 10th version of Samsung's Galaxy S smartphone. And as the tech giant prepares for a Feb. 20 event where it's expected to unveil the latest edition of the mobile device, the stakes couldn't be higher.
The global smartphone market has cooled off considerably from a few years ago, when the latest models released by Samsung and Apple would slug it out for smartphone supremacy. These days, though, people are holding out longer between smartphone upgrades, and that's having an impact on sales.
"This hits Samsung twice," said Avi Greengart, research director for consumer devices at GlobalData. "It makes the most popular Android phones, and it builds smartphone components that it uses and it sells to its competitors. Samsung really needs to make a phone that entices consumers to upgrade."
That much became clear in the last week, when Samsung put out a warning that revenue and profits will be down for the holiday quarter due in part to "intensifying competition in the smartphone business." Translation: Samsung is selling fewer phones, with other Android device makers siphoning off the shoppers who are looking to upgrade.
It's not that last year's Galaxy S9 and S9+ were disappointing phones. They featured bright screens, improved cameras and solid performance powered by what was Qualcomm's best mobile processor at the time. But the phones didn't look any different from the Galaxy S8, and new features such as AR Emoji failed to excite.
Samsung will have to up its game if it's looking to reignite smartphone sales with the Galaxy S10. Here's how the company can make a bigger splash when the new phone makes its debut on Feb. 20.
Get a new look
Samsung's Infinity Displays helped usher in the current trend toward expansive smartphone screens with minimal bezels. There's no need to abandon that design, though a tweak here or there could freshen things up while also potentially squeezing in a little extra screen real estate.
Based on rumors surrounding the S10, Samsung may be planning on doing just that. The upcoming phone is expected to debut a punch-hole look for the front display with a small opening in the upper right corner of the phone's screen to house the front camera. That would let Samsung continue to offer expansive screens on its phones without having to use a notch like some phone makers have resorted to in order to accomodate a front camera.
"Design is definitely an area of focus," Greengart said. "Samsung was actually the first vendor with an edge-to-edge display, but now that's not enough."
Samsung could slip something else under the AMOLED display of its next phone — a fingerprint sensor. Reportedly, Samsung will follow the lead of other phone makers like Vivo and OnePlus and go with an in-display sensor capable of reading your fingerprint when you place your finger on the phone's display. For a company that's struggled with where to put the fingerprint reader on its phones — don't get us started on the Galaxy S8 and its camera-lens adjacent fingerprint reader — it'd be a welcome, forward-looking step.
Improve the cameras
By introducing a variable aperture with the Galaxy S9, Samsung dramatically improved the performance of its cameras, particularly in low light settings. But even then, when we compared the S9's picture-taking prowess that of the Pixel 2, we preferred the camera on Google's phone. And that was before Google further advanced the Pixel's camera with the AI-fueled software improvements introduced with last fall's Pixel 3.
It sounds like Samsung will fight Google's software advances with more hardware. Rumors suggest the S10 will feature three rear lens. Depending on the setup, three cameras would help the S10 capture more colorful photos with less noise in low-light settings. A third lens might also enhance portrait mode pictures. Up front, the S10 could take a page out of the Pixel's book by adding a second selfie-cam for wide angle shots. If you're scoring at home, that's at least five lenses on the S10 (and potentially six, if a separate report of a four-camera setup on the back of the S10 is accurate).
Samsung may also turn to software to improve the cameras on its upcoming phones. Some lines of code linked to the Galaxy S10 mention a feature called Bright Night, which seems to point to a software-powered way of enhancing photos shot in low light. Any improvements to cameras would help out the S10, especially given the importance of photo-taking to today's flagship phones.
Better AI, and not just Bixby
It's not unfair to say that Bixby, the digital assistant Samsung introduced two years ago, hasn't taken off the way Samsung might have hoped. The assistant still feels like a work in progress, even on the Galaxy S10.
We're likely to hear about improvements to Bixby when the S10 arrives, and Samsung was showing off a smarter version of its assistant at CES this past week (though those features were designed specifically for Samsung's appliances). But we hope Samsung's going to focus on improving the artificial intelligence on board its phone in another way.
Specifically, the Snapdragon 855 chipset that's all-but-certain to power the Galaxy S10 models that ship in the U.S. introduces a new fourth-generation AI engine. Improvements to the digital signal processor on the Snapdragon 855 as well as its CPU and GPU should help phones powered by Qualcomm's latest processor perform more calculations faster. And we're hoping the S10 can take advantage of that with a new set of AI-powered features.
5G, though maybe later
As phone makers and network carriers keep telling us, 2019 is going to be the year of 5G. And Samsung is already on the record as saying that it will make phones capable of working with 5G networks for both Verizon and AT&T.
Could that phone be the Galaxy S10? Possibly, though if the new phone arrives in March, it will be well before mobile 5G networks are available. A 5G-ready phone would still work on LTE networks just fine, though it's hard to get people excited about a feature they won't be able to take advantage of right away.
A more likely scenario — and one that's supported by assorted S10 rumors — is that a 5G version of the Galaxy S10 is one of several models Samsung comes out with. And that range-topping model could ship after the other S10 versions to time its release with wider availability for 5G.
Is the price right?
Now that we're in the era of $1,000 smartphones, it may be too much to ask for Samsung to go against the tide and roll back prices on its next smartphone. So it's a pretty safe bet that the S10 will cost about the same as the Galaxy S9 did when it debuted at prices ranging from $720 to $820.
However, Samsung might get creative on pricing by introducing an entry-level model of the S10 that scales back on some of the premium features found in other versions of the phone in the name of a lower price tag. By giving up the in-display fingerprint sensor and going with a flat display instead of a curved one, Samsung might be able to offer a version of the S10 that costs less than $700.
Apple tried that strategy last fall with the $749 iPhone XR, which doesn't feature an OLED screen or a second rear camera, and reportedly, sales haven't been robust. But maybe things will work out better for Samsung.
Samsung may have already tipped its hand about which features are coming to the Galaxy S10. Carolina Milanesi of Creative Strategies notes the phone maker already includes its Infinity O display and three-camera setup in other phones. Bringing both of those to the S10 would "add functionalities on the two biggest purchase drivers as well as making the phone look clearly different from the [S9]," she said.
"At the end of the day, we know many consumers want a different look as well as new features," Milanesi added. "For less tech-savvy buyers, the former matters more."
Whatever Samsung has up its sleeve on Feb. 20, don't expect the company to play it safe. Given the state of the smartphone market and the company's own balance sheet, it can't really afford to.
"There is a tricky balance that Samsung must hit," Greengart said. "It needs radical designs and bleeding edge technologies like folding displays and 5G that push the envelope for early adopters, but it also must make more traditional 4G phones exciting enough to entice mainstream consumers to upgrade as well."
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Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.