Samsung's phones last year weren't quite what you'd call earthshaking.
Its Galaxy S9, S9 Plus and Note 9 didn't have many noticeable changes from 2017's Galaxy S8, S8 Plus and Note 8. Sure, they had faster processors and other souped-up components. But they kept the same design, something that reportedly has hurt demand for the smartphones.
After all, why buy the new, pricier devices when the previous year's models are nearly as good? That's been the problem for Samsung and other handset makers, who tend to save major updates for every other year, if then. It's one reason Apple and Samsung handset sales are slowing and the global smartphone market is said to be in recession. We're all holding onto our phones longer than before, and it's tougher for smartphone makers to produce big, flashy innovations.
For Samsung in 2019, that's going to change.
New components from its own operations, Qualcomm and others will enable some of the biggest innovations in phones we'll have seen in years. That includes ultrafast 5G connectivity and truly flexible, foldable displays. No longer just a black, rectangular slab of glass, smartphones this year and next could be much different from anything we've used before. We may actually get excited about phones again.
"2019 is really going to be a breakout year for Samsung," Technalysis Research analyst Bob O'Donnell said. "It puts them in a very unique position as really being seen as the technology leader."
Samsung's big year starts next week at CES in Las Vegas.
The company isn't expected to have mobile news at the show but instead will focus on its TVs and home appliances. It's the following month that will likely mark the debut of Samsung's next flagship phone, the Galaxy S10. And coming later will be its foldable phone, dubbed the Galaxy X or Galaxy F.
Samsung declined to comment.
Next year's flagship phone from Samsung may not actually be its flashiest device (that's probably going to be the foldable gadget), but it's expected to offer plenty of big changes. That's important, since the Galaxy S10 is the phone most Android users ready to upgrade will consider.
First up for the Galaxy S10 is 5G, the new flavor of mobile tech that will significantly boost the speed, coverage and responsiveness of wireless networks. It promises to make phones upload and download data 10 to 100 times faster than with today's typical 4G LTE network. Movies could be downloaded in seconds, rather than minutes. 5G networks will roll out in the US and around the world in the coming months, starting with smaller cities before making their way to major metropolises and even rural areas.
Samsung has said it will introduce a 5G phone for Verizon, AT&T and other wireless providers in the first half of 2019. It's believed one version of the Galaxy S10 will come with 5G connectivity, though it's likely Samsung won't offer 5G on all its phones. 5G components are expensive and the service isn't yet in all markets. That means the 5G variant will likely be pricey.
Another likely major feature in the Galaxy S10 is an in-screen fingerprint reader. Samsung is expected to use the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 processor, the first chip that supports Qualcomm's 3D Sonic Sensor, an ultrasonic fingerprint reader that's embedded right into the display itself.
That means Samsung fingerprint readers could return to the front screen, instead of next to a phone's camera lenses on the back -- something consumers complained about. With that 3D Sonic Sensor, Samsung can still offer a display that stretches across the entire front. It's expected to be much more secure than Samsung's Face Unlock technology.
Those two features alone are likely enough to woo many smartphone buyers who've been waiting on the sidelines.
Consumers wanting the absolute latest and greatest in smartphone technology may findappealing. The company has been talking about the device for years and in November. It uses a new display technology called Infinity Flex Display that lets you repeatedly open and close the device without screen degradation.
The device will be a compact smartphone when closed and a more expansive tablet when fully opened. Apps will seamlessly transition between the display sizes, letting you pick up on the tablet where you left off on the smartphone. And you'll be able to use three active apps on the bigger display.
The first version of the Galaxy X/F will probably be sold in small quantities as Samsung perfects the user experience and app developers come on board. The device won't come cheap. Samsung may view foldables as the future of the mobile market, but it still has to give us a reason to view the device as more than a gimmick.
"Samsung has to make people understand, if you're buying that phone, you don't need a tablet," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. "Or you can hold onto your PC for an extra two years because the amount of time you're going to spend there is going to be minimum."
TVs, appliances and smart speakers
Just because Samsung has tons of mobile news this year doesn't mean it's forgetting about its other operations. CES will mark the introduction of the company's latest TVs and home appliances, as well as news from its Harman speaker and auto-tech businesses. Samsung reportedly may integrate the Google Assistant into new TVs, instead of focusing solely on its homegrown Bixby voice assistant.
Bixby, which launched in 2017 on the Galaxy S8, has been criticized as not being smart enough to be really useful. Only 4 percent of US adults accessing voice assistants on a smartphone use Bixby, according to a September survey by Voicebox.AI. That compares to 44 percent for Siri, 30 percent for Google Assistant and 17 percent for Alexa.
But Samsung's not giving up. Its developer conference in November centered on Bixby and AI, with the company saying it plans to integrate Bixby into more than just mobile devices, open the software to developers and make it work with five more languages. The aim is to change Bixby from a way to control phones to a platform that works across all Samsung products and various third-party apps.
Bixby already works on smartphones, TVs and refrigerators, and we could hear more about that at CES. And it'll soon come to even more devices, including tablets and Samsung's still-unreleased smart speaker, called the Galaxy Home. Unveiled in August, it combines Samsung's design and AI smarts with Harman's audio expertise, but the design has been likened to everything from cauldrons to fondue pots and grills.
Samsung hasn't yet provided a launch date or selling price for the Galaxy Home, but it's likely the speaker will hit the market this year.
In the meantime, we've got plenty of phones to think about.
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