After sucky 2020, Samsung pitches a 'better normal' at CES 2021

With most of us still stuck at home, Samsung wants to make the space a better experience. But the total smart home remains elusive.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
7 min read

Samsung's JetBot 90 Plus smart vacuum cleaner can identify objects, empties itself and has a camera that lets it act as a home monitoring device.


Six years ago, the head of Samsung's electronics business stood on stage at CES in Las Vegas and vowed that all of his company's devices would connect to the internet by 2020. Four years ago, at its Galaxy S8 launch in March 2017, Samsung said its Bixby voice assistant would be the technology to make the bulk of those products smart by 2020. And three years ago, it said it would soon enter the competitive smart speaker market with a cauldron-shaped device powered by Bixby

This year, Samsung didn't say anything about those initiatives. In a virtual presentation Monday, the company introduced a new lineup of Bespoke refrigerators that come in customizable configurations and colors -- but they're not smart, nor are many of its other appliances . Bixby was nowhere to be found among Samsung's  CES  news (except for powering a fitness app), and Samsung instead touted the presence of Amazon's Alexa on its Family Hub refrigerator for the first time. And that long-delayed Galaxy Home speaker seems like a fever dream that most people have forgotten about. 

Instead, the company's message at its virtual CES 2021 press conference was more subtle: It has technology to make our lives easier during the novel coronavirus pandemic and beyond -- and it's working on new initiatives like robots that improve conditions even more. Samsung built on last year's proclamation that the next era of tech will involve technology that's more personalized and intelligent, something its co-CEO H.S. Kim dubbed the "Age of Experience."

Watch this: Samsung introduces really, really smart robovac at CES 2021

Rather than talk about its big promises of yesteryear, Samsung used CES 2021 to give us a vision of what it calls the "better normal." That included flashy new TVs and a linked fitness app, a new SmartThings Cooking service that pairs with Samsung's Family Hub refrigerators, and even eco-friendly packaging and solar-charging remotes. Samsung also showed off three new robots, with one -- a robot vacuum that moonlights as a home monitoring device -- going on sale in the US in the first half of the year. 

"Lots has changed since CES 2020," Sebastian Seung, head of Samsung Research, said during Monday's virtual CES press conference. "Our world looks different. And many of you have been faced with a new reality, one where, among other things, your home has taken on a greater significance."

Giving up on some of Samsung's earlier initiatives isn't necessarily a bad thing. Not all products need to have smarts and be connected to the internet. Bixby has faced tough competition in the voice assistant market against Google's Assistant and Alexa, and it has been viewed as less capable than its rivals. Over the past couple of years, most of Samsung's AI innovations have come in the background of products, like washing machines that optimize water usage and smartphone cameras that improve photos and videos. 

Ultimately, Samsung's shifting goals show the company's willingness to make its products truly useful for consumers -- like by offering Alexa on the Family Hub -- instead of defending a walled garden of its own products and services. 

But it also raises questions about Samsung's ability to control the smart home and everything that comes with it. The company is in a unique position to connect every aspect of our lives. It's the world's biggest vendor of TVs and phones. It makes tablets , earbuds, washing machines, vacuum robots, air purifiers and computer monitors, along with countless other electronics. It acquired smart-home tech startup SmartThings in 2014 and bought audio giant Harman two years later. It also boasts 14 R&D centers and seven AI-dedicated research offices around the globe. 

Despite having all of the pieces needed to make all of our devices work seamlessly together, Samsung can't seem to quite pull it off. Its broader smart home initiatives are finally getting to the point where they're useful, especially as we're all spending more time at home. But weaving them all together isn't quite yet within Samsung's reach. Samsung's home appliances may interact with each other and with its new services, but its home entertainment products and appliances are on islands by themselves. By contrast, Apple's devices and services work better if you own other Apple devices, and Amazon has built a huge ecosystem of smart, Alexa-compatible devices. 

"Samsung seems to keep on saying the same things year after year without actually delivering a richer experience," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. "Samsung kind of seems to be ticking the boxes of what people expect it to talk about, versus owning the home."

The company will expand its lineup further with its first Unpacked event of 2021 on Thursday, where it's expected to introduce its new Galaxy S21 lineup with improved cameras, as well as updated earbuds and Tile-like smart trackers. 

SmartThings at the center

For about a decade, Samsung has been making a big push to provide the hardware, software and services designed to make our homes smarter. The so-called "internet of things" involves the notion that everything around you should communicate and work together. Proponents say this will make life easier, letting you do things like close your garage door while you're away or get a heads-up from your refrigerator when you're out of milk.

While Samsung has the ability to provide technology for all of those areas, it has struggled to truly tie them together. That could be a side effect of its corporate structure. It has three separate co-CEOs with three different mandates and priorities. And the company's true chief -- Chairman Kun-Hee Lee -- was in a coma for about six years before he died in October.

SmartThings has been positioned as the glue to link Samsung's devices. The other technology that was supposed to be central to Samsung's connected devices was Bixby, but Samsung hasn't said much about its digital assistant for the past couple of years. 

In its early days, SmartThings focused on building hardware hubs that could connect to a Wi-Fi router to control all of a home's smart appliances from one place on a mobile app. Smart sensors could be placed around a home to alert you if there's a water leak or if the temperature changes dramatically, and third-party products also worked with the hubs. 

SmartThings has become the central part of Samsung's IOT push, with the app being where users can control their internet-connected appliances. It's available on Samsung refrigerators and TVs , and the company in late October launched the SmartThings Find app on its Galaxy phones and tablets to make it easy for users to locate their other devices. 

On Monday, Samsung said users could use SmartThings to repurpose old Galaxy devices into products like baby monitors. The sensors would monitor audio around a baby and send alerts through SmartThings if it detects crying. Samsung Galaxy devices also can become long-distance remotes to turn on scenes and automations through SmartThings. And older Galaxy phones can become monitoring cams, pet cams, fitness cams, table clocks and music players, all integrated with SmartThings. 

Over the past couple of years, many of Samsung's AI innovations have come in the background of products, like washing machines that optimize water usage and smartphone cameras that improve photos and videos. 

But Samsung also has updated its vision for what future robots in the home could look like by showing off three new robots at its press conference Monday: the JetBot AI Plus robot vacuum, the Bot Care personal assistant robot and the Bot Handy robot that can clean up messes and move things around a house. The JetBot will be available in the US in the first half, while the other two Bots are more futuristic.

AI is "about being more personal and predictive," Seung said Monday. "It's about benefiting you every day by being a core part of the products and services you enjoy. AI is a transformational technology. When AI is involved, it creates something entirely new."


Sebastian Seung, Samsung's head of research, at CES touts the company's vision for 2021: A "better normal for all."


Smarter services

Two of those entirely new things are services from Samsung, one for cooking and one for fitness. The SmartThings Cooking service -- available in the SmartThings mobile app and found in Samsung's Family Hub refrigerators -- simplifies meal planning and cooking. It links kitchen appliances together with the service.  

"We're now bringing all of the great meal planning features that we've developed with partners and consumer insights over the last six years [through the Family Hub Fridge] to the SmartThings app," Claudia Santos, director of product marketing for connected home appliances at Samsung Electronics America, said during a briefing with reporters ahead of CES. "SmartThings Cooking is an integration of everything in the kitchen."

It gives personalized recipe recommendations based on a user's preferences and search history and helps with smart meal planning by generating a weekly plan. It also lets users add items to their Amazon Fresh and Instacart grocery shopping carts from recipes and meal plans with one click, and it provides users with step-by-step cooking instructions. It even sends cooking settings directly to a user's smart ovens, ranges, microwave and smart refrigerators, including the Family Hub. 

Move into the living room, and you'll find a new TV fitness app, Samsung Smart Trainer. The service, part of the Samsung Health app that debuted on the company's TVs last year, aims to whip users into shape as they work out more from home. If you attach an optional webcam to the TV, the app tracks your workout progress and gives coaching advice.And it also uses Bixby for voice interaction, the only mention of the digital assistant in Samsung's 2021 CES press release.

"Building a compelling smart home story … is taking a lot longer than people originally expected it to take," Technalysis analyst Bob O'Donnell said. "But when you look at things like the fridge and the [SmartThings Cooking] app, it feels like, 'Oh, I finally get why this is kind of interesting and meaningful.'"

While both apps may be perfect for the times, Samsung has missed an opportunity to link its new services together. Nutrition and exercise are key parts of fitness, but in the Samsung world, they appear to have nothing to do with each other -- much like other parts of Samsung's massive universe of products and services. (Samsung can't yet say if the new services have any link.)

But it's not hard to envision a world where they are actually linked. Maybe at next year's CES.