The next big mark on the smartphone calendar is August 7, the date of Samsung’s next Unpacked event in New York, where it will announce the Galaxy Note 10. It's set to be the latest in Samsung’s stylus series, the "oversized phone with a pen” line. And after the Galaxy Fold debacle, the Note 10 launch needs to pass with the mannered precision of an animatronic ice skater to avoid us looking back on 2019 as a year to rival 2016 as an embarrassing pile-up of Samsung blunders.
2016 was the year of the Galaxy Note 7, a phone that seemed superb on paper before it was revealed to be too dangerous to be allowed onto planes. It had an unfortunate habit of catching fire and/or exploding.
Those looking for smartphone catastrophe this year will have had their head turned recently by Huawei. It was “blacklisted” by the US government, and consequently by key American partners including Google, Intel and Qualcomm. This is a Huawei problem, but it affects Samsung too. The ban, and subsequent "chip downturn", has been blamed for a huge 56 per cent dip in Samsung’s Q2 profits. In the phone components space Samsung is best-known for its OLED screens. Huawei reportedly no longer uses them (much), having largely switched to Chinese manufacturer BOE. But Samsung is still a primary provider of the RAM and storage memory chips used in phones, including Huawei’s.
Perhaps Samsung should be grateful for Huawei’s problems, though. They're likely to boost its smartphone sales in most countries, and pulled focus from the disaster it created with the Galaxy Fold, its first folding phone.
Now redesigned and back on track to launch – at an unconfirmed date – the Galaxy Fold ran into problems with its screen and hinge in the lead up to its original planned release in April. Firstly, it has a plastic screen and, as Apple realised just before it launched the first iPhone, plastic display layers are not a good fit for expensive phones. Within days reviewers found the Galaxy Fold’s screen became creased and if what appeared to be a screen protector was removed, the phone stopped functioning. Samsung claims to have redesigned the £1,800 phone, but this is the stuff of nightmares.
But will the Galaxy Note 10 be affected by the same lack of rigour that allowed this to happen in the first place? “It was embarrassing. I pushed it through before it was ready,” Samsung co-CEO DJ Koh told reporters recently. Rushing a school project or job interview prep can result in embarrassment. But designing a £2,000 phone that has fundamental flaws so glaring they are exposed within days? That’s something else.
There’s an obvious defence. The Samsung Galaxy Fold is part of a bold new category that poses extremely difficult design challenges. Flexible substrates and electronics are, clearly, not there yet with Koh remarking, "give us a bit more time". And the Note 10 appears to be a much more conventional phone. It likely has a mostly flat screen.
But there are signs Samsung plays things too fast and loose with its most familiar and bestselling models too. The company is being sued in Australia by the Competition and Consumer Commission. It suggests that Samsung adverts effectively implied the Galaxy S10 could be used in swimming pools and the sea and that an asterisked disclaimer on its website saying it could not be used in salt or chlorinated water is not good enough. (Our advice on this specific point: do not deliberately submerge any gadget with water resistance below 5ATM.) The ACCC seems to suggest Samsung takes a sloppy approach to the promises it makes.
You could argue sloppiness caused the Galaxy Fold’s immediate plunge into engineering Hades. You could also argue sloppiness was behind the Note 7’s self-short-circuiting battery. What can go possibly wrong with the Note 10?
So far we have seen a few leaked photos of the phone, some renders and an invite featuring a stylus and camera lens sitting on a white background. The most obvious tyre-shredding pothole is a feature we think belongs in the “not gonna happen” pile. A few commentators believe Samsung may put a camera inside the Galaxy Note 10’s stylus. This has the potential to be completely creepy and a good reason for Samsung not to try to introduce such a feature.
Samsung did make the S-Pen a fully wireless Bluetooth accessory with 2018’s Galaxy Note 9, and did so with all the careful attention to detail it passed over in the Galaxy Fold. But there’s no obvious use for a stylus camera that would overcome problematic optics.
The camera lens of the Note 10’s invite more likely refers to the “Infinity-O” punch hole on the phone’s front. These are used in Galaxy S10 and S10+, as a way to fit in a selfie camera without a notch or a motorised pop-up camera. The OnePlus 7 Pro, Oppo Reno 10x Zoom and Asus ZenFone 6 use the latter. And given how easily such new mechanical designs could go wrong, it’s somewhat surprising no major stories have emerged about any problems yet. But the Note 10 side-steps that possibility.
The Galaxy S10’s punch hole is crammed in the corner, where it can just about get out of the way of anamorphic aspect ratio content. Samsung is expected to move the punch hole from the side of the display to the centre in the Note 10. That’s a better position for taking selfies, but a worse one for watching video. This produces a phone-wide shuffle. The Galaxy Note 10’s rear cameras move to the side, instead of sitting in the middle like the S10's. You can think of internal phone design as a Tetris-like game of packing the car for a camping holiday, only if you get it wrong, the car might catch fire.
So why is Samsung focusing on the front camera? Oppo and Vivo have already teased (almost) invisible under-screen front cameras, and a standard punch hole now seems quite conservative. Punch holes are already boring. However, this may be an unusually high-end camera. Leaked images suggest it won’t have to contend with the S-Pen or the rear cameras for space inside the shell, leaving more room for a higher-quality lens and sensor. There seems to be only one front camera whereas the Galaxy S10+ has two.
Leaks suggest the Note 10 will have four rear cameras, though, matching the 5G version of the Galaxy S10. We’re likely to see zoom, ultra-wide and standard-view cameras, as well as a ToF (time of flight) depth-mapping camera. The Oppo RX17 Pro was the first phone to arrive in the UK with one of these, in January 2019, and while this hardware is still almost completely useless, it may one day be indispensable for AR.
But will all Note 10s have these features? There will, for the first time since 2014, reportedly be more than one core version of the Note, including a higher-end “Pro” model. “Given the economies of scale Samsung can reach, adding a model offers the ability to widen the addressable market with not much added costs,” says Carolina Milanesi at Creative Strategies.
The differences may well mirror those we saw in the S10 family, the Pro version adding 5G support and the ToF camera. 5G has gone public in a big way. Vodafone and EE have launched their 5G services, and Three will do soon, but adding it to a phone still comes with significant added cost. Is the Qualcomm Snapdragon X50 5G modem really that expensive? No doubt the early adopter tax is alive and well. Other features to expect on the upcoming Galaxy Note 10 include at least 128GB storage, the same Snapdragon and Exynos CPUs as the S10+ and a complete absence of headphone jacks and expendable storage.
When it arrives, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 is likely to be one of the best phones of the year, and among the best-selling. It seems there is plenty of appetite for the brand’s top phones too.
Despite recent stories of diminished Samsung profits and a contraction of the phone market in general, the Galaxy S10 family’s sales have in fact outpaced the Galaxy S9 generation’s. And the top-end Galaxy S10+ is the most popular of the lot. An even higher-price Note 10 Pro or “+” variant will once again test how much Samsung fans are willing to pay, though, and potentially the appetite for 5G at a time when coverage is limited. The Samsung Galaxy Note 10 will almost certainly be launched on August 7, hopefully without spy camera pen and without incident.
Words: Andrew Williams