Samsung’s busy 2021 starts with an early Unpacked … and new gadgets

Samsung could eliminate its Observe lineup because it expands its foldables in 2021. 

Angela Lang/CNET

An expanded foldables lineup. Extra 5G telephones. Smarter devices. Computer systems, TVs, dwelling home equipment and a number of different units. Possibly even decrease costs. After a loopy 2020, the approaching 12 months could possibly be one among Samsung’s busiest but. 

To benefit from the chance 2021 brings, the South Korean firm must be bolder to regain its standing as an innovation powerhouse, whereas additionally delivering on its guarantees to make shoppers’ lives simpler. 

Already, the corporate’s head of cellular has given a glimpse of what Samsung has in retailer. Tae-moon Roh, Samsung president and head of cellular communications, mentioned in a mid-December weblog submit that his firm will develop its foldables lineup and make the units extra “accessible,” doubtless a well mannered strategy to say cheaper. It additionally will put extra emphasis on digital camera and video capabilities, and convey options from its Galaxy Observe units, like S Pen help, to its upcoming Galaxy S21 telephones.

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“We have never believed in a one-size-fits-all mobile experience, and we never will,” Roh said in the blog post. He added that Samsung is working on “revolutionary advancements” in 5G, artificial intelligence and the internet of things to reset the boundaries of what mobile can do and to let consumers “tailor their mobile experiences to fit their lives — not the other way around.” 

If those topics sound familiar,  it’s because Samsung largely targeted the same areas in 2020. Samsung was one of the first companies to dive into 5G and foldables, though those bets haven’t yet paid off. There aren’t enough compelling reasons for consumers to need one of the 20 5G phones Samsung has introduced, and its foldables are too expensive to sell in high numbers. Despite the millions Samsung’s sunk into AI, its devices aren’t much better at talking to each other or interacting with their owners. And though the coronavirus pandemic created the opportunity to put the smart home at the center of everyone’s life, Samsung has been slower than Google and Amazon to make the internet of things a reality. Even with four Unpacked mobile events — Samsung’s flashy product showcases — the company wasn’t top of mind for most consumers in 2020. 

“Samsung was just forgotten for a lot of the time,” Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. “It lost a little bit of that cool factor it used to have.” 

In some ways, not being top of mind was good. Samsung didn’t have the problems of Huawei, which faces US sanctions and may soon run out of components for its phones, or the struggles of competing Chinese vendors, wich are dealing with the US trade war. Samsung was never called to testify before the US Congress, no phones exploded, it wasn’t the victim of a major hack and it wasn’t criticized for failing to contain the spread of misinformation.

Still, Samsung’s lineup hasn’t created the buzz that tech products like Apple’s new 5G-enabled iPhone 12 devices have managed to generate. In 2021, the company will have to find a way to capture attention in a world that won’t look like the one when 2020 began. Samsung may get its first chance with an earlier-than-normal Unpacked event that’s expected on Jan. 14, a month ahead of the usual schedule.

A whole new world

Like its competition, Samsung is grappling with the novel coronavirus pandemic and the impact that’s having on consumers. When COVID-19 first started spreading, worries about the illness caused a dramatic slowdown in phone purchases as people around the globe decided the device they had was good enough. Demand eventually recovered as new 5G phones began to hit the market, but not soon enough to boost Samsung’s Galaxy S21 sales. Computers and TVs have been hot items with people stuck at home, and appliances are purchases consumers can put off only so long. Samsung has benefited from surging demand for all of those products.

Samsung has shifted strategy in response to what’s happening. It sped up the development and release of its Galaxy S20 FE, which, at $700, is a cheaper addition to its flagship phone lineup. It also tweaked the sales strategy for devices like the Galaxy Note 20. And it’s benefited from its less expensive Galaxy A Series, which it’s likely to expand this coming year.

In 2021, Samsung plans to expand the lineup of devices crucial to its future, specifically foldables. It will possibly kill off those that don’t fit with its vision, like the Note family. The first glimpses of Samsung’s plans for mobile in 2021 will come at Unpacked.

Samsung is expected to launch three new Galaxy S devices in January. The new S21 models will likely be the 6.2-inch S21, the 6.7-inch S21 Plus and the 6.8-inch S21 Ultra. The devices are expected to look largely the same but have bigger camera modules, boosting their photo and video capabilities. Overall, those devices aren’t expected to be major overhauls from their predecessors.

Unpacked could also mark Samsung’s expansion into new areas, including Tile-like smart trackers. 

Samsung likely won’t shake up pricing for the Galaxy S lineup. But it could make bigger changes with its other devices, including its foldables. 

Hello foldables, goodbye Note?

Samsung, like most tech companies, has struggled to sell its pricey smartphones during the pandemic. While Samsung was one of the first companies to release a phone with 5G, Huawei quickly surpassed it in shipments. The Chinese handset maker became the biggest smartphone vendor in the world in the second quarter, the first time in nine years that Samsung or Apple hadn’t held the title. 

Samsung will try to claw back ground, and US sanctions against Huawei will help it do so. Samsung overall regained ground in the third quarter to again become the top smartphone vendor as Huawei struggled to survive.

The Korean company’s 2021 phone lineup may offer more price points, including more affordable foldables. Roh said the company is “expanding [its] portfolio of foldables, so this groundbreaking class is extra accessible to everybody.” That is virtually assuredly code for decrease costs, which may assist lure shoppers to what are at present budget-busting units. The Galaxy Z Fold 2 retails for $2,000, whereas the Galaxy Z Flip with 5G prices $1,450. 

Samsung may maintain the older generations of its foldables round at decrease costs, in addition to introduce new and cheaper designs because it tries to assist the units escape of their tiny area of interest. Nonetheless, its rivals, like LG, will transfer past simply foldable shows in 2021. LG is predicted to indicate off a telephone with a rollable show, just like its rollable TVs

Samsung should be sure it would not overwhelm consumers with too many decisions. A technique it may possibly do that’s by trimming its telephone lineup. Because it expands foldable choices, Samsung may additionally kill off the Galaxy Observe. 

“It is exhausting for Samsung to justify the Galaxy S21 and a Observe 21 once they outwardly look very comparable,” Technique Analytics analyst Ken Hyers mentioned. “If the marketplace for ulta-premium [phones] is restricted and you do not need to crowd it with too many of those merchandise, the Observe collection appears to be the one which made essentially the most sense to chop.”

Samsung’s Observe has struggled to face out for the previous a number of years. When the big-screen units debuted in 2011, they created a brand new class of units that straddled the road between tablets and smartphones. So-called phablets had been first mocked, then copied. Now the phablet class not exists, and it is almost unimaginable to purchase a telephone that comes with a small display. Apple’s iPhone SE is one notable exception. 

Together with packing within the largest show potential, Samsung’s Observe had two different promoting factors: it got here with an S Pen stylus, and it featured the highest-end specs potential. When Samsung’s first foldable, the Galaxy Fold, debuted in 2019, the Observe lineup not had the flashiest parts or largest display. The Observe’s most important differentiator from Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S lineup and its Galaxy Z foldables grew to become the stylus. 

In his weblog submit, Roh famous that Samsung is “excited so as to add a few of [the Note’s] most well-loved options to different units in our lineup.” That could possibly be a touch the stylus is coming to the Galaxy S21, eradicating the final differentiator for the Observe. 

Smarter devices?

In earlier years, Samsung has had one of many largest cubicles — and flashiest press conferences — at CES. In 2020, the buzziest information of the present was a secretive synthetic intelligence firm created by a Samsung govt, and its Neon “synthetic people” emerged from Samsung Expertise and Superior Analysis Labs (STAR Labs) earlier than Neon grew to become its personal firm. Although the know-how wasn’t included in any Samsung merchandise, Neon made a splash. 

Samsung additionally had a cute robotic, referred to as Ballie, on the present. The concept was for the robotic, which seems like a giant tennis ball, to function a companion that follows its proprietor round and responds to instructions. At CES 2019, Samsung confirmed off 4 several types of robots for shoppers.


HS Kim, the pinnacle of Samsung’s electronics enterprise, reveals off the Ballie robotic at CES 2020. 

James Martin/CNET

Like almost all main know-how firms, Samsung is making a giant push in synthetic intelligence. The know-how, which supplies units some capacity to behave on their very own, is seen as the subsequent huge wave of computing — the way in which we’ll work together with our devices sooner or later. As an alternative of swiping on our telephone screens, we’ll speak to our units or to ever-listening microphones round our houses and places of work. The final word promise for the AI is to foretell what you need earlier than you ask.

Samsung’s main push with AI in its units has revolved round its Bixby voice assistant, which first arrived in 2017’s Galaxy S8. The digital assistant has since made its strategy to good TVs, fridges, washers, air conditioners, audio system and extra. Samsung beforehand aimed to place Bixby voice controls into each gadget it sells by 2020. However the firm hasn’t talked a lot about Bixby over the previous 12 months, and the tech is considered as lagging behind Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant and Apple’s Siri. The Galaxy Residence good speaker Samsung began speaking about three years in the past hasn’t materialized as an precise product. 

As an alternative, Samsung seems to have put its AI efforts into options that work behind the scenes, like improved digital camera know-how, or into robots that wow audiences however little else. Ballie was presumably the cutest instance of Samsung’s AI push, however the firm hasn’t mentioned something extra concerning the robotic. (Equally, Neon may have proved widespread as individuals stayed at dwelling through the pandemic but it surely is not out there for shoppers.) Samsung may use its CES 2021 press convention to indicate off extra robots although it will be higher served specializing in how its units work nicely collectively. 

Roh, in his mid-December weblog submit, mentioned Samsung may have extra forward in synthetic intelligence for cellular in 2021. The corporate has been “working exhausting to develop extremely superior on-device AI capabilities throughout the Galaxy household, enabling our units to repeatedly be taught from every day actions and routines to take higher photos and movies, maximize battery life and space for storing, optimize shows and far more,” Roh wrote. “We’re planning to develop these customized capabilities to each aspect of Galaxy’s product portfolio to empower individuals to be productive and do all of the issues they get pleasure from.”

Now Samsung has to make its new providing stay as much as that promise.