I am currently in Seoul, Korea, attending Samsung’s annual Unpacked event that kicked off tonight. Before the event, I spent the first few days meeting with senior executives like Dr. TM Roh, Wonjin Lee, KS Choi, Drew Blackard, and Kevin Kim. The company announced its fifth-generation Z series of foldable smartphones, two new smartwatches and its new Galaxy Tab S9 series with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 mobile platform. All three product categories—foldable smartphones, smartwatches and tablets—build on Samsung’s distinctive and innovative ecosystem.
For years, Samsung hasn’t had many contenders trying to match up against its pioneering foldable smartphones. Similarly, Samsung has been a leader in smartwatch and tablet innovation as one of the few companies keeping both product categories alive for WearOS and Android. Part of Samsung’s success comes from its ability to create innovative products year in and year out. It has also improved its cross-device and appliance experience between phones, watches, tablets, PCs, and home appliances. Even as we see other exciting foldable, wearable and tablet devices saturate these markets, I believe Samsung remains at the forefront of innovation in many categories.
I was fortunate enough to attend this event in person in Korea. Samsung always knows how to create an exhilarating event, and this time was no different. Let’s dive into what Samsung announced at Unpacked 2023.
Refining the fold
Before the Samsung event, I talked with Wonjin Lee, President of Samsung Electronics. I asked him how Samsung measures the success of its experience. Lee said consumer adoption and the health of the ecosystem are key metrics that measure the success of Samsung’s device experience. I appreciated his answer and that customer adoption is not a successful metric alone. A healthy ecosystem means customer adoption is sticky for the ecosystem and users come into the ecosystem and stay.
It was exciting to hear Samsung report that annual foldable smartphone sales had grown by 2,000% in the smartphone market as a whole. I believe a huge reason for this growth in sales had to do with Samsung’s positioning of the Z Flip in the $999 range last year. That was a sweet spot for the Z Flip because it put the foldable in a more affordable position where it could compete with popular premium devices like the iPhone. Although we are about half a decade into having foldable smartphones, these devices are still an eye-catcher.
Samsung has kept the $999 starting price point for the Z Flip and upgraded base storage for the Galaxy Z Flip5 to 256GB. I believe this is a big play for Samsung as it positions the Z Fold5 in an even better spot to compete with traditional smartphones. The iPhone 14 Pro costs $999 for 128GB of storage and doesn’t even fold. Samsung continues to increase its value proposition for the Galaxy Z Flip5, taking away any concern about durability while pricing it right where it can hurt Apple.
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Meanwhile, Samsung kept the $1,799 starting price for the Z Fold5, and while this price is too high for most consumers, I believe it is still reasonable. The Z Fold5 is both a smartphone and a small tablet with the same specs as other premium smartphones in the price range just above $999.
The biggest change to the Galaxy Z Fold and Z Flip is Samsung’s decision to alter the inner display so the device folds flush rather than having a gap between its two halves. Samsung is calling this new design its Flex Hinge. Two benefits immediately jump out to me for the Flex Hinge. The first, which is the most obvious one, is that it makes the device thinner when closed. It’s no surprise that thickness is a big deal for foldables because they are twice the thickness of a regular smartphone when folded. For the Z Fold, which is a larger device, I believe thinness is going to have a much bigger and more favorable impact.
The second benefit is that the Flex Hinge has fewer moving parts. The more moving parts in the hinge, the more susceptible it is to break down over time. Similarly, since the two sides do not meet only at the edge the integrity of the fold is much more distributed across the device when closed.
One of the downsides to this new hinge design is that if any small particles get on the display when the user goes to close the device, it has a higher chance of puncturing the display because there is not any space for the particles to fall out. I will have to do my own testing on the integrity of the display, but maybe it will not matter because of Samsung’s special ultra-thin glass (UTG) technology.
The Galaxy Z Fold5 and Z Flip5 both have Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 with 8GB or 12GB of memory in the Z Flip5 and 12GB of memory in the Z Fold5. I am looking forward to using these devices with these new SoCs. I am interested to see how Samsung implements AI capabilities into these new devices, given that the Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 is more than capable of running on-device and hybrid AI applications.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 has Qualcomm’s fastest AI engines with an upgraded Hexagon processor that enables micro tile inferencing. This new processor should help accelerate complex on-device AI models. It also features Qualcomm’s newest Snapdragon Sight for real-time semantic segmentation. This new Cognitive ISP should improve low-light video capture and multi-frame noise reduction. Samsung equipped the Z series with the most powerful SoC on the market and I believe Samsung and Qualcomm’s close partnership is why the Z Fold 5 and Z Flip5 are the most powerful foldable smartphones on the market.
I was given the opportunity to talk with TM Roh, President and Head of Mobile Experience Business at Samsung. I asked him how Samsung Mobile aims to leverage generative AI (GAI) in its smartphones. Samsung’s mobile devices are already packed with AI at every turn, from the camera to the processing of the device. They are instrumental to the performance and useability of these devices. While many of these AI technologies are behind the scenes, GAI is forward facing. Roh said, “Samsung is continuing to develop its own in-house GAI solution as well as working in open collaboration with the AI companies and developers to leverage and utilize their technologies.” I appreciate this two-pronged approach to developing GAI for Samsung mobile devices. The more GAI technologies on the platform, the more competition and availability of AI technologies. Competition drives innovation, and Samsung loves innovating. Although we have not seen GAI from Samsung, its approach to GAI is promising.
Roh also mentioned other AI technologies that he cannot disclose at this time but said, “These AI technologies are not exclusive to Samsung Mobile but expand across Samsung Electronics as a whole.” I think of other technologies in Samsung’s arsenal that it uses as critical technologies for Samsung mobile devices and ecosystem-defining technologies like Samsung Knox. AI, specifically GAI are complex technology with tremendous potential across robust ecosystems like Samsung’s. But these AI technologies are also easy to get wrong, and I think Samsung is in a great position to get on-device and hybrid AI technologies right. When I look at pan-Samsung across all devices and appliances, it’s hard to imagine any CE company with a bigger opportunity.
Another big change that Samsung made for the Galaxy Z Flip5 is that it has increased the outside display, now called the Flex Window, to be three times larger than the outside display of the Z Flip4. The Flex Window opens up the front display, including larger widgets and more functionality than past generations’ outside displays. I think Samsung is giving users a reason to use it more by adding functionality and keeping the device closed for a more distraction-free experience.
A growing trend with foldable devices is the desire to have the thinnest foldable on the market. However, I think the focus for foldable smartphones should be durability and weight balance. As mentioned above, the more durable the hinge and folding display, the better. Weight balance is also a significant challenge because it is tricky to get the balance right for the smartphone both when it is closed and when it is open. I believe Samsung has done a great job with this in the past. Weight balance is probably a significant reason it has opted for a taller design for the Z Fold than other devices like the Pixel Fold. The Z Fold5 is Samsung’s thinnest and lightest device, and I am excited to feel the difference between it and the Z Fold4.
Samsung has also improved the software of the Z Fold5 with a more straightforward multi-window setup and better drag-and-drop capabilities for multitasking. I believe software makes or breaks these foldable experiences, and Samsung is usually very good at enabling a productive multitasking experience with customizable options for the taskbar and windowed apps.
A smartwatch focus on health and wellness
Samsung focuses on health and wellness tracking for its new Galaxy Watch6 and Watch6 Classic. This is the right path. Tracking and sensors on smartwatches can sometimes be hard to get right. While the accuracy of the photoplethysmography (PPG) sensor is improving through better algorithms and AI, it is still challenging to get accurate measurements considering that people’s wrists come in different sizes and shapes. With these differences considered, the accuracy of Samsung’s watches, from my experience, has been on par with other premium smartwatches.
Overall, I think health trackers have a long way to go regarding accuracy and the types of data captured. Who’s ready to see PPG sensors that reliably track blood pressure or sensors that measure the wearer’s glucose levels? I don’t know when we can expect these sensors to hit the market, but considering Samsung’s emphasis on health and wellness for its smartwatches, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re one of the first manufacturers to have them.
Samsung says it has improved the health and wellness functionality of the Galaxy Watch6 and Watch6 Classic with improved sleep tools, FDA-certified heart rate technology, personalized heart rate zones and a temperature sensor for tracking women’s cycles. I have used the Galaxy Watch for sleep tracking, and I am glad that Samsung is adding additional tools like sleep coaching and sleep patterns to better grasp the user’s sleeping data. Sleep, exercise and diet are three pillars of good health, and understanding how sleep impacts a person’s health is important.
FDA approval for the Galaxy Watch6 and Watch 6 Classic’s heart rate technology informs me that Samsung is working to improve the accuracy and reliability of its health data measurements. The personalized heart rate zones and the temperature tracking for women’s cycles should also be welcomed by Galaxy Watch users.
Samsung has also increased the screen sizes of these watches by 20% and created new watch faces to accommodate larger displays. The display on the Watch6 Classic also slims the rotating bezel and makes it look really sleek. The larger display on the Watch6 also looks super nice in person, and I can definitely tell the difference from the Watch5. That’s not to say that the Watch5 had a huge bezel, only to emphasize how sleek the Watch6 looks.
Galaxy Tab S9 series
Samsung upgraded the Tab S9 series tablet with Dynamic AMOLED 2X displays with Vision Booster. Vision Booster optimizes the display’s screen setting depending on the room’s light levels. These are the same display features in the Galaxy S23 Ultra phone, and I am excited to see them coming to the Tab S9.
One of the cool use cases Samsung showed off at the event was drawing on the tablet while using the Galaxy S23 Ultra as a color wheel. Since both devices have the same AMOLED display, the color was accurate from one display to the other.
Samsung also improved the durability of the Tab S9 series with IP68 water and dust resistance and Samsung’s Armor Aluminum. The S Pen now also has an IP68 dust and water resistance rating.
Samsung also improved the S Pen with support for writing in search addresses and text fields with handwriting to text. I believe the overall feature and functionality of the S Pen is a huge selling point for Samsung, and the company should continue to lean into the S Pen as a differentiator for the Galaxy Tab S9 series.
I will point out that Samsung raised the price of the Tab S9 series by $100; however, the company also said that it is now including the S Pen in the box. Even with the included S Pen and its improved features, I believe this price increase was unnecessary. The S Pen is a significant value proposition for the Tab S9 series, and it is nice that Samsung improved the attachment of it on the back of the device.
I love that Samsung continues to remove objection after objection to not getting a foldable phone. Dr. TM Roh, in our discussion, said that he expects that foldables could soon eclipse a 100Mu market, and as I look at the improved utility and pricing, I have to agree. We’re getting so close to high volume liftoff. I would expect Samsung to get a lot of those 100Mu.
Samsung improved the design of the Galaxy Z Fold5 and Flip5 with a closed-gap design, making it smaller when closed. It also improved the software performance with the latest Qualcomm processors, introduced a larger and more functional outside display on the Flip5, and made the S Pen features on the Fold5 more seamless. The Fold5 felt much lighter than I expected, as indicated on the paper. Samsung is on its 5th generation of foldable design before Apple has even entered the playing field, an impressive feat.
The right direction is better health and wellness functionality for the Galaxy Watch6 and Watch6 Classic with tools like more heart rate zones and women’s cycle tracking. In the future, the next, most significant breakthrough will be accurate blood pressure and calorie count, but focusing on sleep and exercise is what Samsung needs to differentiate on right now. Switching those off of an Apple Watch in North America with this lineup will be challenging, but that’s OK, as the Android market to attach the Watch6 to is so much larger long-term.
Samsung also upgraded the Tab S9 series, especially with the AMOLED display and better S Pen support. These improvements come after years of persistent innovation from Samsung within its ecosystem, and the sustained, smart work is really showing. It has been a while since I got excited about a larger Android tablet, and I am excited about the TabS9.
I was fortunate to receive this invitation to its corporate HQ in Seoul, Korea, for an insider’s view of how Samsung keeps spinning the innovation wheel so quickly and at such high volumes and quality. Seeing R&D employees plugging away was a real treat. I believe this increased openness, if it continues, will pay off for the company as openness elicits more trust, an attribute that younger generations of buyers see as more important than prior generations. And industry analysts. Trust is crucial in the pioneering days of generative AI, something I look forward to Samsung disclosing details on in the future.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy co-op Jacob Freyman contribute