Samsung flashes back to the past with expandable memory

The Galaxy S7 includes two beloved features from 2014's Galaxy S5 -- an expandable memory slot and water resistance.

Josh Miller

Samsung's new Galaxy S7 is water resistant and includes a microSD slot to add more flash storage to the smartphone.

Josh Miller/CNET

Samsung is taking us back to 2014 -- and that's a good thing.

The tech giant's newest flagship phone, the Galaxy S7, has brought back two things popular in 2014's Galaxy S5 but missing from last year's device: water resistance and expandable flash memory. That means your phone will still work if you drop it in a "puddle" (aka the toilet), and you'll be able to load up your GS7 with tons of videos without worrying about running out of storage space.

These may seem like minor additions to Samsung's all-important new phone, but surprisingly they're features that set the South Korean company apart from most of its big-name rivals. The latest flagship phones from Apple and LG, for instance, would likely be doomed if they got wet. The features are also things easy for consumers to understand and value. Who hasn't felt the panic of spilling something on a phone or faced the hassle of deleting photos or videos to add new ones?

"Things phone companies use as differentiation are very technical and totally meaningless to most purchasers," Lopez Research analyst Maribel Lopez said. "But everyone can understand and desire things like...phones that can live through a drop in a puddle."

That's what Samsung is counting on. The company remains the king of the mobile market, but it has seen its position waver over the past couple of years. About 23 percent of all smartphones shipped last year came from Samsung, but that's down from 25 percent in 2014 and 31 percent in 2013, according to Gartner. Consumers just aren't buying as many phones, and when they're upgrading, they're increasingly opting for cheaper devices from companies like Huawei and Xiaomi.

Samsung hoped a massive redesign of its phones last year would make its devices more popular with consumers. The company replaced the plastic casing with premium metal and glass. But ditching the expandable storage and removable battery to incorporate metal backfired.

One reader of CNET's GS6 review commented that he had always used Samsung phones because he liked being able to add an SD card for more storage or replace the battery when the old one died. "Now I might as well get an iPhone if I want to be restricted like that," he said. Another commenter said Samsung "ruined the phone by removing the SD card slot and the removable battery. Now the Samsung line of phones [is] just becoming crappy iPhones."

Samsung quickly realized it needed to bring back the popular features.

"It was a clear call from the consumers," Shoneel Kolhatkar, Samsung senior director of product marketing, told CNET. "We had to make a compromise in the GS6 as we went to new glass and premium materials. Now we have developed the technology where we can give you a gorgeous design but then make it [water resistant] as well."

The technology used to make devices water resistant also made them thicker, a no-no in an industry obsessed with releasing thinner and lighter smartphones. But Samsung said it has now sourced the right components to keep the device thin yet also make it water resistant. That even let Samsung ditch the little flap you had to seal on the charging port of the Galaxy S5 to prevent water damage.

The new components are also what let Samsung bring back the microSD card slot. The company has added a special SIM card slot, the part of the phone that holds a smart card with data about your device, that also works as a microSD holder. In some countries, it can function as a dual SIM slot (though you won't be able to have a microSD installed at the same time).

The beloved removable battery didn't make a comeback, but Samsung did boost the length of time the battery in the GS7 can hold a charge. That amount of time has grown by 18 percent, to 3,000 milliamp hours. It also added some new camera features and an always-on display that lets you see notifications without pressing a button.

Will these features be enough on their own to make Galaxy sales surge again? Probably not. The Galaxy S5 didn't sell as well as expected, and it even had a removable battery. But what they will do is give consumers enough reason to take a second look at Samsung's devices.

"The Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge are iterative devices, but that's not a bad thing," Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart said. "Samsung proved that it can profitably sell a lot of Galaxy S6's, and the S7 and S7 Edge are better in pretty much every way."

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