Samsung is a company that has done incredibly well in the United States. The company’s name is everywhere. On phones, tablets, watches, televisions, and home appliances. Here in the US, the Korean giant’s marketing budget has created a successful brand in all of these product ranges. It is through the marketing of its phones that has created a brand image specific to the company. Juxtaposed with the positioning of Apple as a phone brand, Samsung offered a device of choice and power to the limitations of the iPhone. The phone line that embodied this feeling more than any other, was the Galaxy Note.
Many have called the Galaxy Note the “kitchen sink” device. In other words, anything that Samsung is working on in their labs will be put into the Note. Where the Galaxy S seemed to be positioned more as a competitive blow to the iPhone, the Note for a while was regarded as the device for the Samsung fan. The phone that had all of the extra features, the bigger screen, the S-Pen, and the larger battery. And this formula was understood and accepted by Samsung fans. The S phone was the more mainstream fun phone that Samsung could tinker with to take market share away from the iPhone. But the Note was the phone for the Samsung diehards. Yet, it seems that this is no longer the case. With the Galaxy Note 20, Samsung has completely blurred the lines of all of its phones and in some ways devalued what it means to own a Samsung phone.
The S-Pen Revolution
Let’s take a short trip back to 2011 when the first Samsung Galaxy Note phone was announced and released. Think about some of the phones that were released that year. Samsung themselves had their Galaxy S2 and had made the Samsung Galaxy Nexus for Google, Apple had their iPhone 4S, Motorola had reintroduced their Razr brand as the Droid Razr, and Nokia had been resurrected into a Windows Phone manufacturer with the Nokia Lumia 800. All of these phones sported screens under 4.7 inches. HTC’s Titan Windows Phone had a 4.7-inch screen that many deemed to be “massive”. Then in October, Samsung launches the first Note with a 5.3-inch screen and built-in stylus.
In their review of the phone, the Verge mentioned the word “tablet” 19 times. A device of that size 9 years ago was looked at as a middle ground between a smartphone and a tablet. These days, a phone with a 5.3-inch display is considered a small device. But in the wild west days of the smartphone, a bigger smartphone screen was considered pushing the boundaries. This large display included a massive for its time 2,500 mAH battery. With the first Note, Samsung put out the biggest phone with the biggest battery and threw in a very competent stylus to boot. A Galaxy S phone this was not.
Many questioned if the Note was a niche device (Android Central’s Alex Dobie had those concerns in his review), but the device was quite successful. The next three years saw a new Note phone get released in the fall while the Galaxy S was released in the first quarter of the year. Note 3 and 4, in particular, have an almost mythical standing with Samsung fans. Most people that have owned either will often describe it as “the best phone I’ve ever owned”. The Samsung Galaxy Note 4 (released in 2013) still has a very active subreddit where users are still using the phone and swapping batteries to prolong the life of their devices.
Why does this phone have such a cult following? Well, you could argue that it was the last Note phone where Samsung did not make compromises to what their fans wanted. A phone with a high-resolution screen, metal frame with a still accessible battery door, the best camera on a Galaxy phone at the time, and performance that made it stand out from the pack that aged very well. This felt like a phone that Samsung threw everything that it had into a phone, compromises be damned.
Every Galaxy Note phone since then has had a feeling of a decision that was made. The decision to focus on design aesthetics at the cost of the options and flexibility that the Note line was known for. Since the Note 5 Samsung has taken away the removable backplate, swappable battery, headphone jack, and microSD storage (on the smaller Note 10 and Note 5). The same year that saw the release of the Note 4 also happened to be the same year that Apple released the iPhone 6, and more importantly the 6 Plus. As Samsung has zeroed in on Apple as its primary competitor it has taken a page out of its rival’s playbook by having their two lines mirror one another.
Galaxy S With a Pen
When Apple released the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, Android manufacturers were very concerned. In the 4 years since the first Galaxy Note debuted, there was a race to larger screens. The term “phablet” came to be a common word in the smartphone dictionary. Apple in all this time had sat on the sidelines with its phones never going above 4 inches. This led to people opting for Android phones solely for the fact that they sported large displays.
But the 6 series of iPhones changed this, as the number of people switching from Android to iOS increased every year since it was released. This was a big move by Apple, and Samsung needed to re-evaluate. It could no longer rely on the large screen of the Note and the iPhone 6 Plus had an all-aluminum design that was very thin and attractive. The Note had to change if it wanted to compete directly with Apple, as even back then Samsung fashioned itself a cut above the likes of LG, HTC, and Motorola.
Competing with the iPhone required a mainstream distillation of Samsung’s flagship phones. Starting with the releases of Note 5 and Galaxy S6, Samsung started to prioritize design. It was also at this time that there seemed to be less difference between the two lineups. Where this started to be almost painfully obvious was a few years ago when the Note 8 launched. The design of the Note 8 mirrored that of the Galaxy S8 series. The last remnants of differentiation were the S-Pen and the more box-like shape of the Note line.
For better or worse, the Note line has become a Galaxy S with a pen. And while that pen is one of the best innovations in smartphones in the last decade, it is not enough differentiation. With the introduction of the Galaxy S plus models, the redundancy of the Note becomes more and more evident. There is an overload of similar products within Samsung’s portfolio not only on the flagship side of things but also into the mid-range segment as well.
Consider the Samsung flagship line currently. On its website, Samsung offers the Galaxy S10, S10+, S10e, Note 10, Note 10+, S20, S20+, and S20 Ultra. The range of pricing goes from $600-$1400. Add into these the midrange offering of the A51 and A71 that are $400 and $600 respectively. There are choices that the consumer has to make at virtually every price point.
At $600, a choice between the wider camera array and larger screen of the A71 or the smaller screen and better chipset of the S10e. At $1000, the choice between the Stylus capability of the Galaxy Note 10 or the enhanced camera capability of the Galaxy S20. At $1400, the supersized camera capability of the S20 Ultra or maxed-out versions of the S10+ or Note 10+. There is no real indication over what is in what class and a plethora of flagship offerings.
Compare this to Samsung’s main competition: Apple. The mid-range device is the SE at $400, then a step up with the XR at $599. The upper mid-range of iPhone 11 at $699, followed by the flagship 11 Pro starting at $999. There is a clarity here by Apple that is not seen by their Korean rivals. There are potentially 5 ways to spend $1000 on a phone with Samsung, whereas with Apple there are 2, just pick the size of the 11 Pro.
Where this has been damaging for Samsung is that while so many of the same aesthetics are present across the range, there is confusion over what is a premium device and what is not. So much so that because it has the same aesthetics as a more expensive device, the Galaxy A71 may be miscategorized by many as competition to the ultra-high-end phones from other companies. Some of the features of this phone such as a very bright OLED panel, multiple camera array, and 5G connectivity scream flagship when the reality is that this is merely a very good midrange phone. How does Samsung fix this problem?
The 4 Pronged Solution
At this point, Samsung’s entire smartphone portfolio can be distilled into 4 lines. The A series for its entry-level and mid-range devices, the S series for mainstream flagships, the Note series for productivity flagships, and the Z series for its foldable devices. There are too many uses of the term “flagship” in that separation. Perhaps then, it is time to revise these lineups for clarity.
Starting with the Galaxy A series, this should be the companies entry-level and lower mid-range devices. These will be phones designed for basic communication needs and web browsing. The price range for these devices should range between $100-$500. The focus of these devices should be around a social media optimized camera, excellent battery life, and class-leading displays. It is these three features that will make these devices stand out from the iPhone SE and LG Stylo’s of the world.
Next will be the Galaxy S line. The traditional flagship series has lost some luster in recent years. Samsung has fashioned the S as an answer to Apple’s 11 Pro but in reality, it should be an answer to the iPhone 11. A well designed affordable flagship with a good enough camera and similar performance as a higher-end option. Having the S series slotted in the $600–800 price range would make for a compelling alternative to the iPhone 11 and OnePlus 8. By taking the S series a step-down, confusion subsides and establishes the Galaxy S as the default Galaxy option that will be offered at carrier stores.
This would leave the Galaxy Note as Samsung’s true flagship option. Leaning into the S-Pen functionality and using the larger canvas of the Note’s frame to include larger batteries and more features that Samsung is experimenting with. By differentiating the Note as the true flagship and the S phone as the more default choice, Samsung directly addresses Apple’s lineup. Samsung has shown that they view Apple as its only true competition despite the plethora of Android competition. Making this distinction between the S and Note lines serves this viewpoint.
The last line for Samsung should be the Z line or the foldable section of the product lineup. These devices will be the company’s most aspirational devices. The future of mobility as Samsung sees it. Devices like the Z Flip and Fold will be almost like Samsung lab devices. Devices to give the enthusiast a taste of the bleeding edge of smartphones, and as such these devices will be priced well north of $1200 to show enthusiasts what is possible.
Samsung is by no means struggling with their phones, especially here in the United States. However, there has become a sort of watering down of the Galaxy name with the overlap of the look and feel of all of its devices. By drawing a line in the sand of what is the potential and limits of the four different device ranges, Samsung would regain some of the focus that it seems to have lost. A situation where a customer settles for a Galaxy A51 instead of the Galaxy S20 that they want because of the $1000 price tag needs to be addressed. Samsung needs to rekindle the greatness where the Note was the phone that pushed the boundaries of what we thought was possible. The Galaxy S has cannibalized this vision, and it now time more than ever to recategorize the Galaxy lineup for the sake of differentiation.
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