Samsung's B+ Mentality: Find a Successful Product, Copy It Adequately

Samsung's new Galaxy Tablet is the answer to Apple's iPad, but it's barely competent—which is precisely how Samsung rolls. A history of merely satisfactory products proves the point.

Samsung is one of our Most Innovative Companies for good reason—their microchip and memory business is one of the best in the world, and the company is definitely on the shortlist of most dominant consumer tech companies. They sell the most TVs, are second only to Nokia in worldwide cellphone sales, and fall in the top five in just about every other corner of the industry. Yet Samsung's consumer products consistently underwhelm.

Samsung is safe. They wait to see what works and release their own pretty good, decently performing version at a fair price. But that's not the stuff of greatness. Here's what we mean.

September 2010: Samsung Galaxy Tab

Answer to: Apple iPad

The Apple iPad was a was a new breed of tablet with a new philosophy: No longer would a tablet be a convertible laptop with a touchscreen. The iPad uses a mobile processor, mobile operating system, mobile wireless card, and forgoes a physical keyboard. Samsung's takeoff is a smaller device (7-inch screen, compared to 9.7-inch), but also packs a mobile processor, mobile OS, mobile wireless card, and a thick-bordered capacitive touchscreen.

Both devices offer stiff competition to ebook readers as well, with Apple launching iBooks and Samsung embracing Borders's Kobo software.

Is the Galaxy Tab an iPad competitor? Sure. It looks pretty good, and might even be better for reading than the iPad (mostly due to size and weight reductions). But nothing in particular sets it apart—it's not breaking new ground, it's merely what you thought it'd be. It's quintessentially Samsung: a B+.

August 2010: Samsung Epic 4G

Answer to: HTC Evo 4G

Samsung's Epic 4G, one of its "Galaxy S" Android smartphones (a different Galaxy S phone is headed to Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint—the Epic 4G is Sprint's), is probably the best smartphone available for Sprint right now. But it's still an example of Samsung's "good enough" mentality.

HTC's Evo 4G garnered tons of buzz and huge sales, despite the major handicap of subpar battery life that was mentioned ad nauseum in every review. The Evo 4G was the start of a new breed of phone: With a huge 4.3-inch touchscreen, advanced media capabilities, a great custom version of Android, and top-of-the-line guts (including Qualcomm's Snapdragon processor), the Evo 4G was bound to be a big seller. But it was also the very first 4G phone in America, taking advantage of speeds closer to broadband speeds at home than to the usual 3G.

Samsung's Epic 4G, which followed a few months later, was the second 4G phone in America. It too had top-of-the-line internals and a custom Android OS, and has also sold quite well. Its superior battery life and hardware keyboard make it arguably a better phone than the Evo 4G. But it's not a Big Deal. The Evo 4G was a Big Deal.

The Epic 4G doesn't go out on a limb, and doesn't inspire excitement. When we talk about the phones that have made Android the success it is today, we talk about the T-Mobile G1, the Motorola Droid, the HTC Droid Incredible, and the HTC Evo 4G—the phones that took Android a step further into the future. The Epic 4G will never be in that pantheon. It's a very well-made phone, but that's all it is.

June 2010: Samsung TL500

Answer to: Canon S90

The Canon S90 is a marvel of engineering, an endlessly surprising little wonder. It's Canon's line in the sand: This, says Canon, is the best point-and-shoot camera in the world, and we don't have to prove it with meaningless stats.

The S90 cost a whopping $430 upon release, offering only 10MP—a ballsy move, considering cameras like Kodak's C180 offer 10.2MP for only $80. But the S90 also packed the same high-end sensor as the larger, more expensive G11. It has been a big success. Canon took a risk and pulled it off. It abandoned the fruitless megapixel war—photogs and Canon know a 14MP camera is absolutely not guaranteed to take better photos than an 8MP camera. But the general public doesn't. Enter Samsung.

A few months after the S90, Samsung announcing the TL500. It too is an expensive ($450) point-and-shoot offering just 10MP. It's an extremely well-performing, thoughtfully-styled camera that will blow a 14MP Sony out of the water, with a few extras (like a swiveling AMOLED screen) thrown in for good measure. It's a very nice product, and it should sell quite well. But it will not be, nor was it ever intended to be, a smash hit, spoken about with awe amongst the tech nerds. The S90 already broke this ground—the TL500 simply follows along.

Fall 2009: Samsung Hummingbird Processor

Answer to: Qualcomm Snapdragon

Qualcomm's Snapdragon, a very low-energy 1GHz processor, is the muscle of choice for modern Android phones like the HTC Droid Incredible, Google Nexus One, Dell Streak, and Sony Xperia X10. It's also the mandatory minimum power behind Microsoft's upcoming Windows Phone 7 line.

The Snapdragon isn't the only game in town, of course—Texas Instruments has a competing 1GHz chip found in the Motorola Droid X and Droid 2, and Nvidia's Tegra, while underused, is often linked to upcoming tablets. But the Snapdragon powered the first 1GHz Android phone, the Google Nexus One, and is the undisputed champion of the Android world.

Samsung, being a chipmaker as well as a consumer gadget maker, has their own version—a 1GHz chip based, like the Snapdragon, on the ARM A8 core. Samsung's chip is called the Hummingbird, and was announced about six month after the first Snapdragon phone (though the first Hummingbird-powered device wouldn't come out for a few months after that). The Hummingbird is what powers the Galaxy S phones, as well as the Galaxy Tab tablet. What are people saying about it? That it's "just about as good as a Snapdragon."

April 2009: Samsung P3

Answer to: Apple iPod Touch

Apple's iPhone is like the friendliest virus you could imagine, wreaking delightful havoc through Apple's catalog. Apple's first tablet? A big iPhone. The newest iPod Nano? A teeny iPhone (sort of). The iPod Touch? A phone-less iPhone.

Giving customers the ability to get the groundbreaking iOS interface, along with all those great apps, without the expense or hassle of a monthly phone bill made the iPod Touch a huge success. And with one great success comes a Samsung product in its wake.

Samsung's portable media players were always pretty good—nice design, fairly priced, excellent sound quality—but never particularly innovative. Ditto the P3, Samsung's pretty-good PMP released in April 2009. With a super-thin brushed metal design, great sound quality, extensive format support, and big touchscreen, it looked like an iPod Touch killer.

Except it wasn't. With no Wi-Fi, the P3 couldn't download apps (thus restricted to a bunch of mostly-useless widgets that came pre-packaged) and its interface wasn't as smooth or stylish as Apple's. The P3 was a totally competent portable media player—certainly more capable than the iPod Nano, say—but its lack of ambition and willingness to be merely good doomed it to the "not an iPod" bin.

These are just a few examples, meant to show an overarching theme to Samsung's products. There are a few Samsung releases that don't follow the mold: Samsung's TVs are excellent, and the company (for better or for worse) is at the forefront of 3D technology—although to be fair, only minor spec details separate Samsung's offerings from those of Sony, Panasonic, LG, Vizio, and the rest. On the other hand, the Omnia II, a Windows Mobile smartphone, and the Behold II, an earlier Android smartphone, were both complete disasters.

But for the most part, Samsung seems content to sit back, only releasing a product if there's already been a similar one that's seen significant success. The company is generally reliable, releasing reasonably styled, reasonably priced, reasonably functional products. But in a world where companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, HTC, and even Amazon are willing to step up and release groundbreaking products they believe in even though they may not succeed, Samsung's reluctance to wow us just doesn't cut it.

Dan Nosowitz, the author of this post, can be followed on Twitter, corresponded with via email, and stalked in Brooklyn (no link for that one—you'll have to do the legwork yourself).

Add New Comment

11 Comments

  • Rahul Thappa

    Dan, that's First World mentality you displayed with your headline. So Apple invented the mp3 player? Apple invented the smart-phone? Apple invented the tablet? Apple invented the laptop?

    You choose to forget, very conveniently, that the iPhone was a rubbish phone to start with and in many respects, it still IS a rubbish phone. The iPad let's you mess around with this and that but is still not a 'productivity device' as it should be. All Apple computing devices let one do far less than a PC allows. They're a great company, no doubt, but they too subscribe to the "copycat philosophy" with great gusto - it's just that they do it rather well. Someone will catch up very soon. Meanwhile, we all admire their design 'smarts'.

  • Joe Frazier

    In the famous words of Rodney King, can't we all get along. Isn't the techno-ecosystem better off with Apples and Samsungs. If it were all Apple, it would be cool, well-designed and quite limited in access since they tend to high-end and, quite frankly, function. If it were all Samsung, we might still be doing flip-phones.
    I think the Epic is the best phone on the planet right now. Due to the push from Apple, HTC and others, its design is very nice - the slight curves appeal much more than the squares of the EVO or Droid X; it is stunningly light weight and thin for a phone with a keyboard. Yes it may not engender the press or it uses to cry out it's praises, but it is praiseworthy. Just look at the screen next to the Droid X or the EVO.

  • Daniel Moskal

    Great article Dan,

    I wanted to buy Galaxy S, however, as a graphic designer I hate Samsung's 'sit back' approach. Although I think it's a good smartphone there's nothing innovative in it. It's just an iPhone copy with more reasonable price.

    I expect huge companies, with human and financial potential, to come up with something revolutionary and creative at least once a year.

  • Kenny

    The word 'Samsung' means 'three stars' in Korean.
    Sam == Three
    Sung == Star

    B+ is too lenient grade for Samsung.

  • Conquistador

    Everyone has their hardware preferences - but it works for them (Samsung). 2009 Annual revenue - Apple: $43B......Samsung $116B

  • z32589

    Congratulations to Dan Nosowitz - you've done something that no other tech writer has had the guts to do: Call out Samsung on their dismally subpar products. Having followed the tech industry for many years, I can honestly say that Samsung is a perennial disappointment, not necessarily in regards to the build quality of their products but in their "conceptual approach" to the American consumer electronics industry. As Mr. Nosowitz's article points out - Samsung may rule in Korea and Asia, but in the Western Hemisphere they are always playing catchup. In reality, "catchup" is not just an effect of bad market research or lack of enthusiasm on the part of Samsung, it unfortunately seems to be the foundation for their business model. Their latest mobile phone release, the Galaxy S class of phones, highlights the company's failing paradigm. The Galaxy S phones' "Touchwiz 3" user interface is nothing more than a copy of Apple's iOS operating system. The consumer electronics industry (and in particular mobile phones in the United States) is driven by innovation and "wow-factor," not redundancy in providing consumers an "alternative." Quite frankly, Samsung does not understand what consumers in the United States want from their electronic devices and, because of this failed understanding, the company's products will always be, as Mr. Nosowitz comments, "B+" products.

    Samsung: "Wake-up." Seriously, you're a multi-million dollar company, but you just can't seem to figure out how to please American consumers. Early-adopters drive the tech industry, but if you fail to innovate you lose any potential confidence among "techies" who will spread enthusiasm. We know that your market researchers read these blogs - so take a hint and give us something that isn't a copycat-competitor remake of an Apple product (or a Canon product for that matter).

  • dhaoracle

    No people in America want simple entertainment and nothing more. Only business users want the same thing that people over in Europe and Asia want and that is Innovation and great processing. You look at the phone over there and they are much faster, with faster processors, and all have front facing cameras. People in America either don't want the best or just complain about it and don't want the best because everything over here is the new trend over here over seas it is what they want in a phone and they get it, Innovation. They could do way more with their phone than we ever could with the fart apps of iPhone 4. That is why Samsung Omnia and Omnia 2 sell better over seas than iPhone, Blackberry and Android and that is why they get the better quality and faster phones over there in Euroasia. So stop hating dude ask for what you want and expect the best because if you don't they will just keep fucking over you..

  • Bob Smith

    A few things I disagree with

    Epic 4G: S-amoled screens are a huge increase in screen contrast over LCDs making watching video and looking at photos a much better experience. Samsung Galaxy series phones are the only phones that use these.

    The Hummingbird processor has about twice the 3D processing power of the Snapdragon. This is huge. Imagine if AMD came out with a video card with twice the power of the top of the line Nvidia card.

  • micky

    your incompetency as a journalist baffles me. Dont you do any research at all.
    So whats your source of judgement about Hummingbird processor: 'The Hummingbird is what powers the Galaxy S phones, as well as the Galaxy Tab tablet. What are people saying about it? That it's "just about as good as a Snapdragon."'
    "People are saying"...Seriously? Did you try to run any benchmarks, do some real reading on the specs for both, do you even know that graphics subsystem of Hummingbird based around PowerVR SGX 540 core basically blows snapdragon out of the water.

    You know what I am tired of. I am tired of this pseudo journalistic baseless articles.

  • micky

    your incompetency as a journalist baffles me. Dont you do any research at all. Seriously stop writing if your intent is to write pointless babble unsupported by facts.
    So whats your source of judgement about Hummingbird processor: 'The Hummingbird is what powers the Galaxy S phones, as well as the Galaxy Tab tablet. What are people saying about it? That it's "just about as good as a Snapdragon."'
    "People are saying"...Seriously? Did you try to run any benchmarks, do some real reading on the specs for both, do you even know that graphics subsystem of Hummingbird based around PowerVR SGX 540 core basically blows snapdragon out of the water.

    I am tired of people like you writing absolute nonsense in the name of tech journalism. You know what I am tired of. I am tired of your pseudo journalistic baseless garbage.