Will the Samsung Note 9 suffer the same fate as the Galaxy S9?
The S9 didn't feature big enough changes to woo customers. We find out Thursday if the Note 9 has what it takes to wow buyers.
Shara TibkenFormer 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."
Update, Aug. 9: The Galaxy Note 9 is now official, and we've gone hands-on. Original story follows.
Get ready for Samsung's Galaxy Note 9. But if it's anything like the Galaxy S9, don't expect to be blown away.
On Thursday, Samsung will introduce the Galaxy Note 9, its premium large-screen smartphone sporting an S Pen stylus. The stylus could include improvements that help it move beyond writing, drawing and navigation, and the uber-popular Fortnite game could make its Android debut on the Note 9. But overall, the new model is expected to get tweaks instead of major changes, something that could push the Note to the same fate as the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus: sluggish sales.
Samsung's mainstream phones, which hit the market on March 16, added better cameras and improved audio, but they didn't quite fly off the shelves. In the second quarter -- the first full period of Galaxy S9 sales -- Samsung actually lost more market share than any other major handset maker and posted its worst performance since the second quarter of 2013. Its shipments tumbled 11 percent from the previous year to 70.8 million units, according to IHS Markit.
Watch this: Samsung, here's what the Note 9 needs
The results underscore the tenuous position that even Samsung, the reigning smartphone champ, sits in amid intensifying competition from Chinese manufacturers like Huawei, Xiaomi and OnePlus. They also come as Apple's iPhone X successfully woos buyers in places like the US, even though it's the most expensive iPhone ever sold.
"Samsung is struggling to fight off the competition with its Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus devices," IHS Markit said. "The company needs the next Galaxy Note to deliver in the latter part of the year."
A core dilemma lies in the few changes Samsung made to the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus, which focused on camera improvements but few physical changes. With the Note 9 expected to see limited changes as well, where's the draw?
The Note 9 launch comes about a month before Apple's next iPhones are expected and two weeks earlier than last year's Note 8 launch -- part of Samsung's effort to get a jump on Apple and revitalize its mobile business. In late July, during its quarterly earnings release, the company called the high-end smartphone market "stagnant" and characterized Galaxy S9 sales as "slow."
"Demand for smartphones and tablets is forecast to increase in the second half as the market enters a period of strong seasonality, but competition is seen intensifying as new smartphone models are released," Samsung said in its press release. "In response, Samsung will seek to expand sales by introducing a new Galaxy Note earlier than usual, which offers exceptional performance for a reasonable price."
Samsung didn't have further comment ahead of its event.
It's getting harder for phone makers to shake things up every year. Consumers are holding onto their devices for longer and are finding tweaks like better cameras aren't enough to tempt them to upgrade every year or two. Even Apple struggled when it didn't make make huge alterations to its iPhone lineup for three straight years. Last year's introduction of the iPhone X turned things around, though, and Apple last week became the first public US company to be worth $1 trillion.
The Note isn't Samsung's mainstream phone line, but it's still important. Samsung takes more risks with its bigger device, and it often tests new technology in the Note before rolling it out to its mainstream Galaxy S line. As CNET's Jessica Dolcourt wrote, the Note is usually Samsung's "'best for last' of the year."
In the past, those riskier innovations included the iris scanner, which first appeared in 2016's ill-fated Note 7, and dual camera lenses, which debuted in last year's Note 8. Both features made their way to the Galaxy S line.
Many hoped the Note 9 would include a virtual fingerprint reader under the front glass, but the latest rumors point to Samsung saving that for next year's Galaxy S10. That means Samsung may not take as many risks as usual with the Note lineup.
Money, money, money
A key factor in whether consumers will snub or scoop up the Note 9 is how much it costs.
Prices for the latest and greatest smartphones overall have been rising. Apple's $1,000 iPhone X is $200 more than the previous most expensive iPhone, the 7 Plus -- but that hasn't really stopped people from buying the device. Apple said it has been the best-selling iPhone since its launch in November, and that's helped boost the iPhone's average selling price to $724 in the June quarter from $606 a year earlier.
Prices for Samsung phones too have increased. The price of the Galaxy S9 varies depending on the carrier, but at Verizon, the phone costs $800, while the Galaxy S8 retailed for $720 when it debuted last year. If you buy the Galaxy S9 directly from Samsung, it also costs $720.
iPhone X vs. Galaxy S9 Plus: Photos from our comparison
That higher price from carriers is likely a factor for why the S9 and S9 Plus aren't selling as well as expected.
"Carriers thought they could get away with charging more, possibly due to the success of the iPhone X," GlobalData analyst Avi Greengart said. "But it turns out that, no, the iPhone X was an exception."
He added that he expects Samsung to either keep the Note 9 at the same price as the Note 8 -- it launched at $950 if bought directly from Samsung -- or even lower the price.
"They understand they cannot raise prices without introducing something radically new," Greengart said.
For Samsung, that "radially new something" may not happen until next year's expected foldable phone.
Until then, Samsung may try to blow you away with the Note 9's price, instead of new bells and whistles.
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