With each year comes a new round of flagship devices, and before the announcement of these much anticipated devices, consumers start a wishlist of what he or she wants featured. For the most part, it has to do with displays or internal components. How big will the display be? How many pixels per inch? Then there is Megapixels in the camera, Gigabytes of RAM, and the latest processor. Most of these get answered because each year there is a ‘standard’ set of specs a high-end device should hit. However, there is something that varies between devices: How a phone feels or the quality of build.
This is something that can really make or break a device, but there is one manufacturer that hasn’t been hurt by it: Samsung. The Galaxy S III and Galaxy S 4 have amassed more than 90 million units in sales over the course of the last two years, making Samsung the only successful Android manufacturer to date. Since the Galaxy S series’ inception, plastic has been the material used. With the Galaxy S III, it was something that was a minor complaint since consumers felt it would be ditched by the next release, but the Galaxy S 4 also used plastic. It was an even bigger issue since HTC opted to feature an aluminum unibody with the One. Then all eyes pointed towards the Galaxy Note 3 for a little metal lovin’. Instead, Samsung introduced a faux leather back. I am convinced that if Samsung uses an identical faux leather back on the GS5, there could be some serious backlash from consumers. The Galaxy S series deserves much more respect than that.
So now, with the Galaxy S 5 likely being unveiled at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona on February 24, will Samsung finally give consumers a metal body? More importantly, do they need to?
Even Samsung has acknowledged that the Galaxy S 4 was too safe with its design coming from the Galaxy S III. The Galaxy S III was widely acclaimed largely due to its screen size. The 4.8-inch display was a big change and reassured the market that larger screen sizes were acceptable. But screen size increases have plateaued because the 4.7-inch to 5.2-inch range has become the new norm. Anything higher enters into phablet territory, and Samsung already has the Galaxy Note series for that. The Galaxy S series is begging for something new.
The mobile industry loves to see something fresh. Look at other popular smartphones. A new design typically earns praise because it improves upon what has been or never done before. An example of the former would be the HTC One. Its predecessors never had a trace of aluminum, and HTC went for something new with the One. While it did not do nearly as well as the Galaxy S 4 (a story for another day), it certainly did earn HTC a ton of praise. Another example of a completely new design would be the Moto X. Motorola utilized a polycarbonate back with a front glass panel that tapered off at the edges. Yet again, praise was given due to a fresh design and the ability to customize.
The difference between Samsung and HTC using metal is that Samsung is fully equipped with the capital to cover the manufacturing cost. HTC, on the other hand, had already been losing money, and adding metal to the One, only lowered their gross margin per phone since they weren’t able increase their selling price. Along with that, HTC lacked the same level of software features their rival was using, so it wasn’t enough to sway customers. The lack of extra sales killed them.
At this point in time, the smartphone market has been saturated, and Samsung has slashed their 2014 forecast by millions. All signs point to the company focusing on tablets and wearables this year. The cost of metal would without a doubt increase the device’s per unit cost, and Samsung cannot combat this by simply raising the price. Consumers would never accept a price hike, but by keeping the price the same and reinvigorating the device by introducing metal, it would almost certainly create the same buzz that the Galaxy S III received. After all, doesn’t Samsung want the same kind of change that the Galaxy S III brought?
So it’s a major conundrum for Samsung. On one hand, future sales appear to be flat and if they go “premium.” it will only lower their gross margins. Plus it has already been proven that “premium” doesn’t necessarily sell more phones. Unless Samsung felt they could lose a tremendous amount of market share if they don’t go “premium,” it really doesn’t make sense to do it. Consumers haven’t drifted up to this point, so why would they now? However, it looks like Samsung might have a trick up its sleeve to offer a premium smartphone and not lose any profits.
The rumor that Samsung is planning on introducing both a “Standard” Galaxy S 5 model as well as a separate “F Series” or “Prime” model makes the most sense. For the most part, specifications would be identical (other than possibly the display resolution), but the concept is that the “Prime” model would have metal, while the “Standard” would remain plastic. Now Samsung can get more money for the higher costs, and consumers would feel that they are paying extra for a sensible reason. Consumers will have a choice: Stay with the same old same old or get something with a little more “meat.”
A “Premium” version of the GS5 could yield huge returns for Samsung. Growth from innovation is something that Apple has long touted about itself. Like it or not Android faithful, the iPhone 4 was a stunning device due to its design. It was really the first smartphone to have a premium feel. If Samsung were to include metal, it would give them something it has never had before, which is praise. Samsung’s Galaxy S devices have been lacking a premium feel. They are glossy and attract smudges way too easily. I personally would not say they feel cheap, but devices like the HTC One, iPhone 5s, and Nokia Lumias all outmatch the Galaxy S 4.
Samsung can end much of their criticism by simply releasing a smartphone that has the premium design everyone has been waiting years for. As leaks suggest, they will be using a brand new interface that is clean and modern, so why not do the same with the hardware?. The stars are aligning perfectly to reintroduce a handset that screams premium. So on that Monday night in Barcelona, Samsung has the opportunity to etch its name on top of the mobile hierarchy, not because of their massive distribution, but because they have designed a phone to give an excellent experience from the inside as well as the outside.