Someone dares to say it: Samsung’s IFA keynote was stunningly underwhelming

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Samsung has today officially revealed a bunch of new products – including the Galaxy Note 4, Note Edge, Gear VR and Gear S. Why did they fail to excite me?

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Perhaps it is a problem with how the tech industry functions, but was anyone truly surprised by what they saw today? Pretty much everything announced we had learned previously from leaks and rumours… so even something like the Gear VR seemed like we had seen it before. Perhaps the problem is Samsung’s product development cycle? Every time there is a new feature, or new idea, you can sure as hell bet Samsung will have wacked it inside a phone case and put out the “Galaxy Something-Else” before the end of the week.

Let’s take it product by product. So first we’ve got the Galaxy Note 4 – the latest incremental upgrade to the phablet line. All of the presenters on stage were incredibly excited to tell us about the phone that was a little bit faster, and a little bit better than last year’s model. There was some impressive slight of hand as 4 times 720p resolution became known as “Quad HD” – when you might expect a name like that to refer to 4 times 1080p (which we call 4K anyway). On the battery front, things were as depressing as ever – where a 7.5% improvement was deemed worthy of a metaphorical fanfare, and the phone charging slightly faster positioned as a major boon: Has Samsung given up on inventing phones that will go the day without needing power?

Not even the cameras have received a very substantive boost – with just some stabilisation and a wider angle lens promising better pictures. Meh.

After showing us the Note 4, the presenters moved on and said the next product is “a great example of how Samsung are moving from the Impossible to the Possible”. It’s a screen that slightly curves.

The Galaxy Edge is very much a case of a solution looking for a problem to solve. It is like Samsung had invented some pretty cool technology (curved screens) and then needed to quickly figure out how on earth to make a product out of it.

Forgetting the fact that it is absolutely hideous – it looks like one side of it has melted – what will the droop (sorry, edge) be used for? Samsung has said it is releasing an SDK for developers so they can make their own apps support the edge – but who is going to bother building apps for one specific, niche phone? The best feature even Samsung could come up with is a news ticker-style app which takes the news headlines from Yahoo. If that isn’t the definition of futility, I don’t know what is.

Later in the presentation, they showed us the Gear S – another smartwatch to add to the billion existing ones. The twist here is that it is essentially a fully featured phone, rather than something that needs to tether with your phone – and this makes it something of a first, once you ignore the various weird Chinese no-brand Android “smart watches” we’ve seen over the last few years. The benefit here is…. umm… you get to pay for a second mobile data contract? You get the, umm… joy of typing on a tiny screen?

More problematically, the Gear S runs Samsung’s own Tizen OS which means that app support is inevitably going to be thin on the ground, whilst Google’s Android Wear will inevitably boast much wider support from developers, due to the number of potential users.

Oh, and the Gear S is absolutely hideous too. Presenter Rachel Riley tried to put a brave face on it – remarking that the screen was the size of her arm. Perhaps I’ll look like a fool when we’re all wearing wrist-mounted devices like Leela from Futurama, but I can’t see it happening yet. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that the Gear S is going to be an absolute disaster, both in terms of critical reviews over usability (who wants to use a tiny screen?) and sales-wise.

Finally then, there’s the Gear VR – which despite the name isn’t a smartwatch but is an accessory for the Note 4 which you can mount your Note 4 into, and use as a display in a virtual reality headset. Whilst there’s undoubtedly a lot of cool things that can be done with the headset, it is inevitably not going to be a mainstream device. Yes, it looks futuristic but will your mum wear one? It looks like it will be an expensive toy – and whilst not a bad thing, isn’t a mainstream proposition.

Perhaps the problem isn’t Samsung, but it is that we’re currently in a period of technological stagnation: Though wearables and connected devices are undoubtedly the future, the truly great devices are still a few years away – so until then, because of the annualised release schedule from the major manufacturers we’re essentially road testing the prototypes for them?

James O’Malley