Samsung will hold an Unpacked event on 11 February. Samsung announces its most important phones at these events, away from the competition for attention of a trade show.
This Unpacked is for the Samsung Galaxy S20 family, which may have three members. They are rumoured to be the Galaxy S20, Galaxy S20 Plus and Galaxy S20 Ultra.
The path for them is remarkably clear, too. Huawei has been pushed back to square one of the western markets game board. Cut off from Google services, it has no plans to return to them even if allowed. HTC, Sony and LG continue to sink into irrelevance. The poor battery life of the Pixel 4 phones left them with a muted critical reception unlikely to help the series’s historically uninspiring sales.
Success is Samsung’s for the taking, but pre-release reports, leaks and rumours suggest a strain of conservatism in the upcoming Galaxy S20 phones. Will there be much to excite?
Where is the evidence? All of the leaked images suggest the S20 phones will continue to use punch-hole front cameras rather than motorised ones that leave the screen free to be filled with video and apps.
The most dynamic camera hardware is likely reserved for the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra. This is 2020’s equivalent to the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, a phone we cannot ever recall seeing used out in the real world. Such no-compromise Samsungs are too rich for most, much like the Galaxy Fold. They are there to hold up Samsung’s position as a technology leader while the phones people actually buy quietly use fewer headline-worthy components.
Rumours suggest the Galaxy S20 and S20 Plus have a wide-angle camera, 3x zoom and familiar 12-megapixel main camera — nothing mind-blowing to see here.
But each generation of the Galaxy S series needs a clear indicator of progress. The S10 had the punch hole. The S9 introduced the variable aperture camera, the S8 was a huge leap in design dynamism that made Samsung the company to beat. And so on.
There are, no doubt, many improvements in S20 software we do not know about yet, and the phones will likely use the new Exynos 990 and Snapdragon 865 processors announced in 2019. But what will be the core of this generation’s progression, which unifies the range and does not rely on playing catch-up, as improvements to low-light photo performance might?
It’s 5G. The Samsung Galaxy S20 family is likely to be the first famous range of high-end phones to offer 5G mobile internet across the board.
The technology required is ready. A Galaxy S20 could use either a Snapdragon 865 CPU with an X55 5G modem or the Exynos 990 with the Exynos Modem 5123.
This is all part of the tech industry’s attempt to lend 5G adoption the pace of a competitive speed-eater sliding a water-dunked hot dog down their gullet. This is not the same effect seen a decade ago when 4G arrived.
“The market availability of 5G smartphones at this early stage of a new wireless technology transition has been unprecedented for the industry,” says IHS Market analyst Wayne Lam. “Unlike the previous 4G LTE evolution, more handset vendors are making new devices available on day-one to consumers.”
There are numerous problems to this approach. The Galaxy S20s will be, at most, second-wave 5G phones. We are still far from the point at which the R&D costs associated with 5G modem and antenna hardware stop jacking up component costs. Both the Exynos 5123 and X55 modems are separate chips, not the fully integrated kind we’ll see when 5G reaches mass adoption.
Using 5G hardware limits the quality of components Samsung can use elsewhere without making pricing uncompetitive. This pressure is only increased by the iPhone 11, a compelling alternative in the post-derangement world of phone pricing where a £700 mobile can be considered mid-range.
When hyper-aggressive Chinese manufacturers like Oppo, Xiaomi and OnePlus have already crept ahead with high-refresh-rate screens and motorised cameras, 5G is still the obvious area in which Samsung can stake a claim.
But if 5G is the bridge to the future, a sentiment you are more likely to hear from Westminster than a tech CEO, this bridge feels rickety in early 2020.
We have road-tested the consumer experience of 5G numerous times at this point. Coverage is relatively poor even in key deployment areas such as London. Even if you plan your route across town based on a network’s own 5G coverage maps, the speeds you end up paying perhaps £10 more per month for are ephemeral.
5G is a work in progress. Its purpose is about much more than just raw speed. And it is perhaps unfair to compare real-world speeds to 5G’s theoretical maximums when UK infrastructure does not even use the mmWave tech required to remotely reach them. However, you have to wonder if a more measured approach to “consumer” 5G would have been better.
This comes, as so many tech stories do at present, down to Huawei. The government has decided to restrict how much of the Chinese company’s tech can be used in the UK’s 5G infrastructure, owing to security concerns.
There are four 5G networks in the UK: Three, EE, O2 and Vodafone. All other 5G service providers use these carriers’ spectrum. And all of them bar O2 use Huawei equipment in their own infrastructure.
Three, which “owns” the largest chunk of 5G spectrum, didn’t so much jump in bed with Huawei as move into a country pile with them, adopting a couple of whippets along the way. The companies partnered to establish Three’s 5G network.
It is yet to be launched, and Three tech executive Phil Sheppard has resigned, perhaps in the realisation the rest of the UK now seems to think every brick of the house they’ve built is bugged by the Chinese government.
Vodafone has announced a €200 million project to remove existing Huawei hardware from its 5G network. EE parent BT says the restrictions will cost the company £500 million.
5G’s launch was a bit on an unholy mess for consumers before this political issue scooped it up and blitzed the lot in a food processor, sans lid. There’s 5G gunk all over the ceiling and we don’t have a mop.
The longer term solution is for these networks to use 5G hardware from Nokia and Ericsson. They are two other leading suppliers, not just ghosts from smartphone Christmases past.
However, this is where we reach the crux of why the Samsung Galaxy S20 resting on 5G is not all that appealing.
How much is this going to slow down progress? Standard 5G advice for non tech-heads was not to think about it too much until at least 2021. How much is that already slow (in the eyes of the average phone buyer, at least) progress to be slowed when the companies making it happen are hundreds of millions of pounds down? Not to mention at risk of further restrictions laid down by politicians who struggle to work out how to put their phones on ‘silent’.
The “move fast and break things” approach to 5G appears to mostly have resulted in broken limbs. And this is why we hope there’s a lot more to the camera tech of the Samsung Galaxy S20 and S20 Plus than some of the rumours suggest, because we’re not sure we’ll be able to afford the S20 Ultra.
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