Korean tech giant Samsung has offered a first glimpse of the Galaxy S8 and made some handsets available to reviewers, as Huawei took a hit in its efforts to break into the Samsung-Apple handset wars, showing again just how rich and complex this game has become.

Huawei is reeling as a new tier of competitors in China surge with money and access to one of the last big growth markets in smartphones. Google also has thrown its hat into the ring, hiring Amazon’s Mr. Gadget to head its efforts.

Before I venture into the financial aspects of the business, let’s dip into what we have learned about the technology inside the S8.

For me, the big lesson of the S8 is how premium smartphones are woven from an interlocking fabric of dozens if not hundreds of design teams. A couple wrinkles can make or lose a fortune for the handful of companies rich enough to try building them—making it all the more amazing that a few new players are emerging.

Samsung’s prowess in 10nm microprocessors and finely crafted mobile displays are unfortunately table stakes for the S8. These days it’s as much about creative new features and services the components enable. Here it seems Samsung still needs to define and execute a consumer strategy starting with handsets but spreading out through its popular TVs and other smart home goods.

Samsung_S8_01 (cr) Figure 1: Samsung's S8 website shows a teaser picture of the handset's insides but not a full reveal. (Source: Samsung)

What we know about chips and displays

The S8 ships in late April, so it will be a month before we start seeing system and chip teardowns. Here’s what we know so far:

The handset comes in versions that use the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 and Samsung’s own Exynos 8895 SoCs. The Samsung 10nm process they are made in only results in 10% CPU and 21% GPU performance gains over the S7, Samsung said, a fraction of the gains the S7 had over the S6.

The modest CPU/GPU improvements point back, in part, to incremental advances in the process from 14nm. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to demonstrate annual performance gains at the processor level, something analysts noted at Intel’s 10nm disclosure this week.

Future chip teardowns should provide more details on the so far underwhelming 10nm node. Just as importantly, they may show whether Samsung is adopting any new wafer-level packaging techniques such as the TSMC InFO process Apple is expected to use for the SoC in the iPhone 8. Every chip vendor from Intel on down says chip stacks will take a growing role in providing component boosts.

As has been the case with many of the Galaxy phones, Samsung’s S8 and S8+ displays (below) provide a saving grace. Reviewers are already giving Samsung strong style points for the way the 5.8-inch display covers nearly the entire handset.

Samsung_S8_02 (cr) Figure 2: So far, the S8 and 8+ displays are winning most kudos for the handsets as style elements.

The S8 is supposedly the first smartphone certified for a new mobile high dynamic range standard. However, its 1440pi x 2960pi resolution is only slightly better and less dense in pixels-per-inch than the S7.

Interestingly, a Forbes review notes “out the box the Galaxy S8 runs at a lower 2220 x 1080 resolution. You can increase it manually, but the downgrade is designed to conserve battery life.”

The issue points back to the Galaxy Note 7 battery debacle. To play it safe, the S8 uses the same size battery as the S7 although it has broader support for fast and wireless charging modes.

Rival LG Electronics jumped the gun on bigger displays, rolling out its G6 at Mobile World Congress. LG touted its slightly smaller 5.7-inch display as supporting an 18:9 aspect ratio emerging as a new format among some content developers.

Like Samsung, LG showed how the big displays will drive new interfaces for the camera and new ways of navigating and multitasking through apps. As a user, I cringe when I have to learn a new user interface that’s only intuitive for the developer who created it.

No doubt, we will hear much more later this year from Apple about big displays and the cool new interfaces they enable. Its iPhone 8 likely sports a similar display from LG.

 
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