If you only remember three things about the Samsung Z, make them these: 1) it's the company's first phone to run Samsung's home brew Tizen operating system; 2) it launches first in Russia in the third quarter of this year; and 3) it looks a lot more like the Android-based Samsung Galaxy S5 flagship phone than you might expect.
Tizen on the Samsung Z
The most important thing about the Samsung phone demoed at the Tizen Developer Conference in San Francisco is the Z's OS and interface. As with its version of Android, you get multiple home screens, an app tray, a notifications tab, and widgets. It all just looks a little different.
Samsung has employed a kind of split-screen mode that lets you swipe among widget-festooned home screens on the top portion of the screen, while a block of circular icons sits along the bottom. You can tap these shortcuts -- for the dialer, messenger, and browser, for instance -- or slide them up to reach the app tray.
Also like Android (and others), you'll slide down a shade at the top of the screen to access notifications and system settings like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and power-saving mode. You can hold down the physical home button too, to view tabs of your recent apps and slide them away. Also familiar? A long press on the home screen (or tap of the menu button) calls up options to change the wallpaper and add widgets, which Samsung calls "Dynamic Boxes" in Tizen.
The Z's lock screen layout is the spitting image of its Android frenemy the Galaxy S5, with the look and placement of its camera icon, the nearly-identical Settings menu, and the camera module. The latter is complete with filters like Beauty Face, Dual Shot using the front and rear cameras, HDR, and panorama. Neither the settings menu or camera app has every one of the Galaxy S5's options, but the main functionality and feel is there in spades.
Apps and features
Samsung carries over a tremendous amount of functionality that we saw built on top of the S5's Android OS to the new Tizen-based Z. Safety assistance, the ultra power-saving mode, and the fingerprint scanner are all present. There's Private Mode, a simple start screen mode, blocking mode, the download booster that utilizes both Wi-Fi and the data network, and split-screen multitasking.
You'll also find Samsung's regular bevy of apps, like the new S Health, S Voice, S Translator, and the WatchOn remote for controlling your TV. Color themes is a new addition that adds a little more visual pep -- I wouldn't be surprised if it cropped up in the Galaxy line as well.
Although the Google Search app, Twitter, and these aforementioned Samsung apps nestle into the Samsung Z, those were just about the only titles I recognized on this Russia-bound model. The Tizen store has lists of paid and free apps, but none of the top titles are mainstream names, at least not yet.
That Samsung has modeled Tizen after Android rather than Windows Phone or iOS tells us two things. First, that Samsung's attempts to make its TouchWiz interface a key part of its brand seem to be working, and second, that the identity of the OS may matter less than fans may think.
Edgy look meets midrange specs
When we first met the modern Tizen OS at Mobile World Congress in 2013, it was aimed at lower-end phones. That's why it's surprising -- pleasantly so -- that the Z is as eye-catching as it is.
Made in black and gold (Samsung only showed it in black), the Z borrows the Galaxy S5's heart-rate monitoring module, and a version of the Galaxy Note 3's faux stitched-leather backing. It's more angular than either device, with a squarer profile and flat top and bottom. A silvery trim accents the sides and the home button.
The Z's specs are upper midrange, with a 4.8-inch 720p HD AMOLED display (that's a density of 306 pixels per inch -- a little less than an iPhone) and 8-megapixel camera on one hand, and an upscale 2.3GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor on the other. Samsung cameras typically perform well, so I have high hopes for the camera's image quality.
There's 16GB storage, a 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera, and a large 2,600mAh battery too. There is a microSD card slot, but you'll have to remover the battery to get to it.
Can it compete?
Samsung took its time making the Z its first Tizen phone; in fact, it arrives a year later than we were promised. Still, the wait paid off with a handset that has a physical design and interface that actually seem stylish enough to compete with Android phones. The fact that Samsung's name carries clout won't hurt with gaining customer trust and distribution deals, either.
Despite the design appeal, Tizen will have to stare down many of the same obstacles as other fledgling operating systems, namely getting the apps that people want most and offering something above and beyond what other OSes already do.
Moreover, getting enough cloud support services is a tremendous challenge to alternative OSes. Although Samsung has S Voice, it doesn't have a predictive mechanism like Google Now, and it will have to work hard to make the device software compatible with even more Google tools as well as Mac software, which today hits notorious snags.
If Samsung has its way, however, the ecosystem you can't live without ultimately isn't the cloud, it's Samsung's other devices. And that could work out to the company's advantage when its mainstream TVs, watches, tablets, cameras, refrigerators, and washing machines all speak the same OS language as its phones.