IT’S BEEN AN eventful 18 months for Samsung. After seeing its profits drop in 2014 and 2015 because of an oversaturated smartphone market, it decided to go for broke, cut the fat from its range and address the problems facing its flagship products.
Fast forward to now and it is preparing to release the latest version of its Galaxy range – the S7 and S7 Edge – in Ireland this Friday.
While they build upon the success of last year’s S6 range, and previews have been particularly positive so far, the real selling point isn’t a feature on either phone.
Instead it is Gear VR, the company’s mobile virtual reality headset, that’s the jewel of its crown. It’s been working on it since 2014 and with it being the first significant non-tethered headset to be released, it has a significant advantage over its competitors.
And if last night’s preview is anything to go by, it has good reason to be confident.
You’re not expecting the same high definition experiences as say Oculus Rift or HTC Vive (that would be unreasonable for a number of reasons) but it gets everything essential right. The tracking is smooth, the screen quality is good, and most importantly, it makes you feel like you’re in a different place.
But the most significance difference between now and previous years with Samsung is not in the products they’re launching but the bravado it’s showing. The current range of smartphones is the result of listening to critics for the S6 and fans for the S7, but with VR, it knows it’s onto something big, and it’s taking full advantage of the first-mover status.
Yet this isn’t solely down to hype or the technology itself, the interest appears to be matching its ambition. While the head of Samsung UK and Ireland Conor Pierce wouldn’t confirm exact figures, he described the response to both the S7 and the Gear VR as “incredible”.
“In the UK and Ireland, over two times more S7s have been sold in pre-orders, compared to the S6, so it’s really strong,” he said. “A lot of that is not just the device … VR is really taking the market by storm. There’s such excitement about it.
There’s a lot of confidence from our channel but our responsibility now is to bring the experience to people, so when they walk into a store, they really get a good experience of VR. It’s an opportunity because our competition isn’t even close.
And there is some truth to that. This year’s Mobile World Congress saw a number of companies including LG announce its own VR and AR (augmented reality) headsets, but Samsung has a few advantages.
As well as being first, it has the backing of Oculus VR, the company that both figuratively and literally kickstarted VR’s revival. It also has a competitive price at €99 for the headset which you can slot your S6 or S7 phone into, making it a no-brainer for those who are buying the S7.
There is a caveat to all of this. You need an S7 or similar Samsung smartphone to run it (it slots into the headset) but since Oculus Rift and HTC Vive cost between €700 and €900 and you need a €1,000 to €1,500 PC to run effectively, suddenly it becomes more attractive.
On top of promotional events and partnerships, one which includes viewing homes through the headset with Sherry Fitzgerald, what Samsung is hoping for is these first buyers to spread the word by using it and then letting their friends and family try it out.
After that, Samsung Ireland’s director Gary Twohig sees the next logical step after that and, it involves the Gear 360 camera.
“Once people experience VR … the next thing they will want to do is create their own content,” he said. “That’s the next natural step”.
The general mood is they’re onto something big here, and if the confidence highlights anything, it’s that destiny is very much in its own hands. It’s a race for it to lose, and if it does falters, it only has itself to blame. So it’s understandable why Pierce says it’s “going all out” this time, especially since its closest rivals have yet to build a platform or product.
“We have an enviable opportunity to build a category, and our aim is to build VR and make it accessible and meaningful to people,” he stated. “Of course, one day our competitors will eventually catch up and so be it, but at that stage, all they’ll do is to improve awareness and accessibility. We’ll be so far advanced and entrenched; we’ll be the de facto channel when it comes to VR.
That’s where the opportunity lies … [consumers] won’t see Samsung doing beautiful devices, they’ll see Samsung as doing something very interesting. We’re driving a whole new experience with VR. That’s a whole new opportunity.
Refinement over revolution
If last year’s Galaxy S6 represented a change that addressed the elements (or lack of elements) holding it back, then the S7 is a refinement with fans in mind.
As mentioned before, it’s brought back the micro-SD slot for expandable storage and waterproofing – it now has IP68 water and dust resistance – but from first impressions, both the S7 and the slightly larger S7 Edge are focusing more on functionality.
Accompanying both smartphones’ metal and glass design is a subtly curved glass backing which is surprisingly comfortable in your hand. The interface seems to continue the S6′s work in cutting down on the needless extras that plagued previous versions and it really feels like Samsung has doubled down on its ‘less is more’ mantra from the S6.
Features and improvements to the camera and interface aren’t there not because they’re trying to stumble upon the right solution but because it has a clear purpose.
The tagline that’s been repeated by many is 2016 will be the year of VR, but going by first impressions, it could be the year that Samsung becomes the top dog in an area we’ll treat the same way as smartphones in a few years time.
Time will tell whether this will be the case – we’ll have a review of both the S7 and Gear VR coming up – but put it this way, a bullish Samsung is an interesting Samsung and whatever direction it goes, the next few months are going to be fun.
The S7 goes on sale this Friday 11 March and starts from €119 on billpay among retailers. The Gear VR will cost €99 and is sold separately while no price or release date has been provided for the Gear 360.