Archives For Samsung

I love my Nexus 5, but I’m keeping my Moto X as my primary phone for now.  And I’m simply amazed at Samsung’s marketing genius… 

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Over the holidays, I had a chance to spend a fair bit of time with my new Nexus 5 and some Samsung S3s and S4s that belong to friends.  And of course, I still use my Moto X as my primary device (for some definition of primary device that involves having a cellular network enabled on it).  I had a chance to use various applications on all three of these devices and to debug some things I helped build as well.

After this round of experiments, I have a few salient observations:

  • The Nexus 5 is simply blazing.  It is the smoothest Android device I’ve ever laid hands on, no doubt – in fact, if you ignored a couple of minor things, it might even be the best device I’ve ever used, period (yes, yes, including that ‘i’ device!).
  • The Moto X is reasonably fast – not quite the same as the Nexus 5 – but, its contextual features still rock! Unlock near a trusted Bluetooth (while driving, for e.g.) and the active display notifications are still amazingly useful!
  • Samsung knows exactly what sells phones.

Perhaps that’s not a fair summary? Maybe. But, let’s take a closer look at what this all means.

Let’s first set some things straight.  What I did in no way constitutes an actual A/B test and should not be construed as such.  There are many such tests out there done by professional bloggers and testers – so, if you want the real nitty gritty of it, go read some of those.  What I did do, however, was a reasonable comparison of end user (plus some developer level) observations on these devices in as similar conditions as feasible (without going through Faraday cages and such!). These devices had fairly a similar number of apps downloaded on them, similar number running, similar settings enabled, on the same WiFi conditions and such.  The Nexus 5 and Moto X were on KitKat, while the Samsung devices were on JB.  Now, on to some key factors.

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Shown under mediocre network conditions, the Nexus 5 is > 3X better.. Even in great network conditions, it is consistently 1.5-2X better!

  • Responsiveness: The Nexus 5 blazes. The touch interface is a pleasure!  The Moto X is reasonable (unless you have a Nexus 5 next to you, you will likely not realize that it is not as fast as it should be!).  The Samsung – well, depends. A random S4 is reasonably good (read, comparable to the Moto X), while another random S4 is noticeably slow. When you go to the S3 – let’s not even go there, since the responsiveness (or lack thereof) will make you want to upgrade your phone immediately!
  • Speed: Even though related to responsiveness, specifically talking about WiFi speeds, the Nexus 5 blows everything out of the water.  We are talking about 2-3X higher download speeds and about 1.5-2X higher upload speeds, under exact same network conditions (measured to the same server while connected to the same access point, tested over multiple time periods).  Now, my Moto X starts looking like a last gen device :(! How much of this is Qualcomm vs Broadcom performance issues?  I can’t be certain, since the Nexus 5 and the S4 have Broadcom WiFi in them and have vastly different speeds.
  • Display: Give it to Samsung here – as any other Samsung high end phones, the S4 display is spectacular.  The Nexus 5 is fairly comparable – some say the Moto X has a better display, but I’d have to disagree with that.
  • Camera: The Nexus 5 pictures are good – really good HDR+ imagery, no doubt.  But, throw them all in low light conditions and you wish you had an iPhone!
  • Developer Issues: As a developer, the Samsung devices seem to be a nightmare. From not handling PNGs to having crashes at the kernel level, it is exhausting to deal with these devices. The Nexus 5 and the Moto X shine here – but I have to say that from an app developer’s perspective, testing on these devices is never going to be enough, as things may always break down on a Samsung device somewhere and that’s just the kind of thing that will need attention…

So, what did I dislike most about each of these devices?

  • Nexus 5: Nothing significant, but I thought the face unlock was lame. It takes as long as typing a PIN (and longer when it fails and you have to type the PIN anyway).  But, more than anything, I wish it had the little contextual enhancements that the Moto X has!
  • Moto X: The camera – every time I take a picture, I wish it were better! The speed can be better (now that I’ve used the Nexus 5, I can see the difference) – otherwise, it performs acceptably.
  • Samsung S4: Almost everything. The unintuitive UI (have you experienced the ‘Remove’ option on the Samsung UI when you try to remove an app?), the terrible memory management, the innumerable inconsistent code paths that seem to cause crashes where other devices do fine, the Samsung bloatware that cannot be removed… you get it.

Clearly, I’m not buying a Samsung device.  But then, the Samsung Galaxy S4 is the most popular Android phone on the market. One thing that became quite clear to me is this – Samsung knows what it takes to sell a device.  Vibrant displays, top of the line processor speeds, cameras with big numbers of Megapixels and overall feature-packed software puts them at the top of the charts.  A truly amazing performance? Well, who cares really! The marketing prowess is surely something to be admired.

For me personally, the Moto X still does it.  I’ll continue to use the Nexus 5 quite a bit over WiFi – but to switch out of Verizon and actually make it my primary device, it’s gonna take a bit more!

The Galaxy S series of devices are not cheap.  They are cheaper to the consumer than the iPhones, but, if you take a look at the Bill of Materials (commonly called BoM), the Galaxy S3 actually has a greater BoM than the iPhone already, with the S4 costing even more.  This sparks the curiosity of whether Samsung is hurting its profit margins by selling this device (at least the S3, as we don’t know the pricing of S4 yet) for less than the iPhone, but that is not what I’m going to explore here.

So many articles have been written about the differences between the Galaxy S* devices and the iPhone.  At the end of the day, it comes out as a draw or sometimes even as the Galaxy S3 or S4 being more feature packed.  All true, if we take the totality of features into account.  But, it is useful to look at this more closely, especially to answer the question “if price was not a factor, would the Galaxy S4 still win”?  Because, if Samsung’s goal is to become known for making the best smartphone that exists, period, it has to win out on the features beyond the price.  Here are a couple of examples where Samsung (and in some cases, Android) needs to think harder about bridging the gap.

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  • Camera – Photo Quality
    Moving to a 13MP camera is not what is really needed here – great marketing stuff, but what about photo quality?  So many studies have been done on how the camera does in the two devices and some end up concluding they have comparable quality, but my own experience has been that the sharpness of the image and colors is simply better on the iPhone.  I frequently find myself asking my friends with iPhones to take the same pictures I’m taking and send it to me (that’s embarrassing, but true!).  Data gets sliced in different ways, but photography remains one of the top uses of the smartphone for users – even if it doesn’t top the list in terms of time spent.
    So, Samsung, I hope you are paying attention and really trying to up the bar on image quality with the next device!
  • Call (And Voice) Quality
    This has never been Samsung’s strong area – in the past, I’ve refused to own a Samsung phone because I didn’t tolerate its poor voice quality.  Granted it has improved a lot and I currently use phones made by Samsung (and would even think about the S4!), the voice quality is still a bit frustrating.  This study seems to claim that the iPhone call quality is good – perhaps Apple got its act together with iPhone 5 (I will admit that I haven’t used it all that much, other than times when I’ve borrowed it from a friend), but, I remember a time when the iPhone sucked in call quality (note though, that call quality and voice quality are not necessarily the same thing!).
    Even though phone calls are not the coolest thing these days, when we have to make a call, it is critical.  We cannot ignore call and voice quality just yet!
  • Battery Life
    I wrote about how the biggest fear of a smartphone user these days is running out of juice.  It is true.  Smartphone is undoubtedly my primary device at the moment.  I don’t want to have to set up smart power management apps.  I don’t want to have to moderate my use.  Admittedly, I’m a power user and I know it will take a while before I can stop worrying about my phone’s battery life.  But, my HTC Incredible II had a much better battery life than any of my Samsung phones.  And 4G is just one of the reasons.  Further, I don’t care that 4G is a reason – it is not my problem as the consumer!

There may be more to this list, but these three aspects will remain critical to making the best smartphone on the planet!