Samsung Electronics unveiled its Galaxy S8 smartphone Wednesday as it battles to regain the market leadership it lost to Apple after the embarrassing withdrawal of the fire-prone Note 7s.
Boasting some of the largest wraparound screens ever made, the S8 is the South Korean tech giant’s first new premium phone since the Note 7 debacle in October, which wiped out $5.48 billion US of profit and helped Apple overtake Samsung as the world’s top smartphone maker in the fourth quarter.
Two versions of the Galaxy S8, code-named Dream internally, were launched at a media event in New York on Wednesday, with 6.2-inch (15.75 cm) and 5.8-inch (14.75 cm) curved screens –— the largest to date for Samsung’s premium smartphones.
The phones, which will go on sale on April 21, are slightly longer but comparable in width to their predecessors as Samsung has eliminated nearly all of the bezel borders around the face to maximize the screen surface area.
The S8 features Samsung’s new artificial intelligence service, Bixby, with functions including a voice-commanded assistant system similar to Apple’s Siri. There is also a new facial recognition application that lets users unlock their phones by looking at them.
Samsung is hoping the design update and the new features will be enough to revive sales in a year Apple is expected to introduce major changes to its iPhones for their 10th anniversary, including the very curved screens that have become staples of the Galaxy brand.
The S8 is also crucial for Samsung’s image as a maker of reliable mobile devices. The self-combusting Galaxy Note 7s had to be scrapped in October just two months after their launch, and a failed attempt to recall the Note 7s in September was particularly damaging, investors and analysts say, leading to questions about the firm’s credibility.
Samsung responded by implementing new battery safety measures after an internal investigation identified battery problems from two different suppliers as the cause of the Note 7’s problems.
Still, some analysts say consumers may be wary of potential safety problems with the S8.
“Initial sales of the S8 may appear slow compared to what was typical for previous model releases,” said Lux Research analyst Christopher Robinson. “In other words, smaller initial sales spike.”
Samsung’s early marketing of the S8 has eschewed the safety issue, which brand experts say is an attempt to avoid reminding consumers of the images of burnt Note 7s that spread around the world late last year.
8-point safety check
In the immediate run-up to the launch, Samsung made little mention of safety.
But in January the company announced a comprehensive safety plan after concluding that faulty batteries from two suppliers caused some Note 7s to catch fire.
It now has an eight-point safety check protocol that includes x-raying the batteries. And, at the design level, phones have more room to properly house the battery. Such steps have been reflected in the S8’s development, the company said.
Executives have said there will be no repeat of the Note 7 debacle, and one person familiar with the matter told Reuters the S8 launch was pushed back to ensure it is safe to use.
“The additional measures Samsung has taken should certainly improve battery safety and durability,” said Lewis Larsen, president of Chicago-based battery technology consultancy Lattice Energy. “These are most definitely not just cosmetic steps ‘for show.'”
The company has also this month put a long-time mobile executive in charge of a new product quality improvement office, and affiliate Samsung SDI has invested 150 billion won (around $180 million Cdn) on improving battery safety.
Note 7 returns, too
Samsung recalled the Note 7 last September to replace faulty Samsung SDI batteries, but replacement batteries from Amperex Technology Ltd. also proved faulty due to different problems — an embarrassment for a company that prides itself on product quality, analysts say. The Note 7 was eventually pulled from the market in October.
The company said earlier this week it plans to sell refurbished versions of the Note 7 smartphones, equipped with new batteries that have gone through the new safety measures.
And safety is still on the minds of potential buyers of the new phone.
In one poll asking people what features they were looking forward to most in the S8, one Twitter user quipped: “A non exploding phone.”
And at last week’s annual shareholder meeting, one young boy stood up and asked Samsung to double down on safety. “In future, even if it takes time, I hope there will be no incidents like the Galaxy Note 7 explosions,” he said.
Some analysts expect the S8 to outsell the Galaxy S7, which was Samsung’s best seller in its first year from launch.
Others, though, say consumers may prefer to wait a few months before buying, just to be sure the new phones are safe.