Samsung devices caught between Apple and Chinese smartphones

Devices coming Aug. 13 seen as 'incremental' upgrades, plus a Tizen watch that won't wow

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Samsung faces competition from Apple iPhones on the high end and Chinese smartphones on the low end.

The solution to the company's dilemma is complex. It isn't at all clear whether Samsung's next product announcement on Aug. 13 is going to help very much.

On that day, Samsung is expected to announce a new Galaxy Note 5 phablet and a larger Galaxy S6 Plus smartphone, according to reports and analysts. Also expected is a Tizen-based Gear A smartwatch with a round face, instead of the square or rectangular faces of its previous models.

While Samsung's dilemma is a real one, the South Korean company is still the largest smartphone maker in the world, by a big margin, with a 24% market share in the first quarter of 2015, according to Gartner.

At the same time, its smartphone shipments declined by more than 6% in the second quarter, compared to a year earlier, according to estimates from Juniper Research that were released Friday. (Gartner's second-quarter numbers will be released later this month.)

In essence, Samsung is getting squeezed at the high-end by the new Apple iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, and at the low-end, primarily, from a raft of Chinese smartphone makers, including Huawei and Xiaomi.

The Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, released for sale in April, haven't produced the sales that Samsung had hoped for, partly because of component delays for the Edge. The company plans to cut prices for the devices in advance of shipping new phone models, it said in announcing falling sales and profits for the second quarter on Thursday. Juniper originally expected Samsung to ship as many 70 million of both smartphones by the end of 2015.

"Samsung has lost their way and needs to focus on useful and exciting innovation and align all their marketing against that," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, in an email. "There is room for an alternative to Apple, but Samsung just isn't playing its A game."

Moorhead's comment was tempered some by Gartner analyst Tuong Nguyen.

"It's too early to start sounding the alarm bells for Samsung," said Nguyen, in an email. "It's natural to see some share erosion when you have such a significant chunk of the market."

Nguyen added, "Samsung is the largest phone maker [because] they have a comprehensive portfolio spanning low to high, but that's also why they're facing such competition."

Both new Galaxy phones try to compete with the new high-end iPhones, but it's extremely difficult for Samsung, or any other maker, to compete in the stratosphere with Apple, Nguyen said. "The high end is strongly about brand and prestige."

Meanwhile, the low end is where Chinese vendors are putting pressure on all phone makers, even Apple, to make lower-priced smartphones.

"This [low end] threatens Tier 1 vendors like Samsung because in the emerging markets, there's still a significant number of people using features phones," Nguyen said. "Having access to an unknown brand, low-end smartphone is preferable to owning a feature phone, especially if you can't afford a Tier 1, branded smartphone."

Moorhead added, "Both Apple and lower-end phones are big problems for Samsung and they haven't found an answer." In addition to Apple, he said LG is producing better phones, in some ways, than Samsung.

What's coming Aug. 13

Against such a competitive backdrop, Samsung is expected to launch at least three new devices on Aug. 13 in hopes of gaining momentum in the market.

Some experts wonder if the upgraded Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 Edge Plus will really offer buyers much more than incremental improvements to lure new buyers.

As reported, the specifications on both devices are "definitely incremental" improvements, Nguyen said. Samsung seems to be driven to produce such devices less out of consumer need than because of pressure from competitors, he said.

The expected arrival of a round smartwatch, the Samsung Gear A, might sound like a good response to the Android Wear-based Moto 360 from Motorola, but few analysts believe the Tizen OS running on the Gear A will appeal to many users at all.

"Samsung continues to invest time and money into the Tizen effort, yet they arguably have nothing to show for it," Nguyen said. "I challenge you to go ask any average person, not industry people, what Tizen is. Or maybe show the the word and ask them to pronounce it. I think the results will speak for themselves."

The Gear A and the other six smartwatches or smart bands that Samsung introduced "don't really have much of a chance versus the Apple Watch," Moorhead said. "To become successful in watches, Samsung needs to improve their design, user experience and offer a better software choice. Sound familiar? These are still Samsung's challenges against Apple on phones."

Gear A smartwatch

According to several reports, the Gear A will have a 1.56-in. round watch face and a 1.2 GHz Samsung Exynos 3472 2x processor running on the Tizen OS.

It will include a 3G cellular connection and Wi-Fi, as well as 768 MB of RAM, 4GB of storage and a 250 mAh battery.

Galaxy Note 5

The coming Galaxy Note 5 is expected to have a number of similarities with the Note 4, which was introduced last October.

Both the old and new Notes will have the same display size, at 5.7-in., same battery size at 3220 mAh, same rear camera at 16 megapixels and the same S Pen, a digital pen used to draw on the display and perform other high-level functions.

Improvements include a faster Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor with 4GB of RAM in the Note 5, up from the Note 4's Snapdragon 805 and 3GB of RAM. The Note 5 also gets an 8-megapixel front camera, up from the Note 4's 3-megapixel front camera. The Note 5 will probably have Android Lollipop (5.1), although the Note 4 was upgradeable to Lollipop from KitKat (4.4).

Some reports have speculated that the Note 5 will not have a microSD card slot for storage expansion. It also is expected to be sold in three versions, with 32 GB, 64 GB and 128 GB of data storage. The Note 4 has a microSD slot, expandable up to 128 GB, and ships with 32 GB internally.

Galaxy S6 Edge Plus

The upcoming Galaxy S6 Edge Plus will reportedly have a significantly larger display and battery than the original Edge with its signature curved styling. Many other features will remain the same.

The original Edge had a 5.1-in. display, while the Plus will be 5.7 inches. The new battery jumps to 3220 mAh, up from 2600 mAh. A slightly faster Exynos processor, the 7422, or the Snapdragon 808, will replace the Exynos 7420 of the older device.

Both the old and new phones have 3GB RAM, internal storage of 32 GB, 64 GB or 128 GB and no microSD card slot and no digital stylus. Both have the same cameras: 5 megapixels in front and 16 megapixels in the rear. Both run Lollipop (5.1).

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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