How Samsung might actually get featuritis under control

Can you have too many capabilities in your TV or washing machine or smartphone? Samsung's guilty of cramming, but it's also seriously trying to simplify -- consider its new interface for smart TVs or its notification system on the Galaxy S4.

JK Shin, head of Samsung's mobile business and the company's newly appointed co-CEO, unveils the Galaxy S4 during an event in New York City. Sarah Tew/CNET
Editor's note: This article was originally published January 9 during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It was updated March 15 with information about the Galaxy S4.

Samsung has a serious case of featuritis, but it's trying to get better.

The Korean electronics giant has long been known for its push to include more and more features in its products, whether it's new capabilities like NFC in smartphones or software like smart TV apps. Samsung uses such features as a way to differentiate its new gadgets from those of rivals and from its older products, and consumers typically like those add-ons because they're getting more for the same price. Win-win, right?

The problem is that more isn't always better when it comes to device features. Rather, cramming unnecessary capabilities into products can make them confusing and difficult to use. Critics say this lack of focus sometimes distracts Samsung from investing in more vital items like TV picture quality. And when the features don't work well (as seems to be the case fairly often), it can reflect poorly on Samsung.

"It's an ongoing challenge for us," Kevin Packingham, chief product officer of Samsung's U.S. mobile business, told CNET in January at the Consumer Electronics Show. "You have hundreds of capabilities in the device that sometimes the user never becomes aware of even though they buy the product. We have so much innovation and technology built into devices that it can be overwhelming."

But Packingham and many other Samsung executives have told CNET that simplifying the user experience is one of Samsung's biggest focuses for 2013. That sentiment echoed throughout the company's press events and meetings at CES. Samsung designers even made the point during a press panel at CES that the company's new design strategy is "make it meaningful."

Still, Samsung introduced many new features for the Galaxy S4 smartphone yesterday that could seem gimmicky. As CNET noted, "very few of the extensive list of enhancements stood out as a killer, must-have, cannot-possibly-live-without feature." Along with improved hardware and camera features, the Galaxy S4 also included a translation tool, eye-tracking and gesture capabilities, a voice-command navigation system, and a chat app that adds three-way video calling and screen sharing.

One feature, a beefier notifications tray, actually tries to simplify the user experience by offering a lot more toggling options to identify features and quickly turn settings on and off.

Tim Baxter, president of Samsung Electronics America, talks about the company's TV features during the company's press conference at CES. James Martin/CNET
Of course, Samsung isn't the only company with featuritis. For electronics makers, there's a fine line between including too many features and not enough. While people may only access Netflix on their smart TVs, it's unlikely they'd purchase a product that didn't include a few more options. And while Apple's streamlined interface is often held up as a model for other operating systems, Android device users would howl if they lost the ability to customize their gadgets.

In addition, one of those seemingly unnecessary features could turn out to be the item that makes a device a must-have gadget.

"They've got to keep throwing features at the wall and hope something gets people going 'ooh and ahh' and reaching for their wallet," IHS iSuppli analyst Jordan Selburn said.

CNET's reviews team has panned some of Samsung's features in the past, saying for instance that the voice and gesture control on TVs is unnecessary and "half-baked" and that its Smart TV suite in general is "cluttered" with too many apps and poor, overwhelming design. In mobile, CNET has criticized some Galaxy S3 programs like AllShare Play and GroupCast for being "unnecessarily complicated to set up and use."

However, Samsung during its CES press conference in January highlighted several steps it's taking to make its products easier to use. That includes a revamped smart TV user interface, improved voice interaction for its televisions , and the integration of NFC technology into speakers to make it simpler to pair a mobile device with the system.

A new feature in the Galaxy S4 allows users to record a soundbite to go along with a photo. Sarah Tew/CNET
In addition, the Smart Hub application has been enhanced with more content -- movies, videos, and music -- and a new TV program guide. This augments Samsung's new S-Recommendation engine, which lists suggested content in thumbnails at the bottom of the screen. And it also has a new video discovery tool for its TVs and mobile devices that allows users to search for content in cable listings and streaming services.

Samsung also has ramped up its advertising that shows ways device owners can use its products, such as this spot on sharing a video via NFC by tapping two Galaxy S3s together . NFC, or near-field communications, is technology for wireless transmission of data and is a contender for, among other things, allowing digital payments from a smartphone.

"They don't even use the word NFC in these ads," Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart said. "That's a huge improvement for Samsung where in the past they might have simply put NFC in a device and said it had NFC."

Meanwhile, TJ Kang, senior vice president of Samsung's media solution center, told CNET at CES that Samsung is expanding its team that focuses on the user experience. Kang noted that his business unit, which develops the apps and services that come preloaded on Samsung devices, is one of the fastest-growing operations in the company.

Boo-Keun Yoon, president of Samsung Electronics, kicks off the company's press conference at 2013 CES. James Martin/CNET
Samsung has been hiring many people with expertise in creating a better user experience, he said, even luring away employees from rivals in Silicon Valley.

"These people are helping the existing teams come up to speed on creating the experience users really will enjoy," Kang said. "You'll begin to see that as part of this new video discovery service and many new apps and services we'll be launching this year."

While Samsung is taking many steps to ease its featuritis, it still has quite a ways to go. The company may have gone a bit overboard with features for its 2013 TVs unveiled at CES, and the Galaxy S4 has oodles of capabilities that users may not even know exist.

But what it ultimately comes down to is how well those features actually work and whether consumers seek out Samsung products to get those features.

"The era of pure technology push is long over," David Steel, Samsung executive vice president of corporate strategy, told CNET at CES. "It's now less about smart and becoming more and more about the relevance of smart, the human touch of smart."

 

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