Is smartphone innovation slowing down? Paul Dempsey finds out with the latest from Samsung.
The Samsung Galaxy S5, the Korean giant's latest top-end phone, is a little like the USS Enterprise. On one level, it's tricked out with a wide range of functions and capabilities. It lives up to its 'superphone' branding. But perhaps more importantly, it is on a voyage of discovery.
The smartphone handset market is at something of a turning point right now. While it waits on its 'next big thing', it resembles the old PC market.
Industrial design is no longer as much of a competitive advantage as it was when the iPhone came to dominate the western market. There is a wide range of models and price points to suit most users. And the development of both iOS and Android has created a relatively open infrastructure into which software companies have poured innovative and – hello, Candy Crush Saga and Angry Birds – addictive apps.
So, like the beige boxes of old, performance and the capability of the hardware are dominating the top end of the spectrum. Even Apple is aggressively playing the 'clock speed' game. The A7 is an extremely well-engineered chip, but places far more emphasis on a technological cutting-edge than the company has been known for.
Samsung's response in the S5 has been to deploy the 2.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801, a quad-core design that compares against a 2.3GHz clock on the preceding generation (in some markets, an alternative Exynos processor may be used). It runs against 2GB of RAM packaged on top.
Then there are all those sensors. Like the iPhone 5S, there is a fingerprint device – albeit one that has been the source of some criticism over its performance. But the S5 also comes with a pulse sensor for e-health applications. There is then a barometric pressure sensor, as well as electronic compass and accelerometer/gryoscope.
We have seen a lot of this before in other devices, though perhaps not to quite the same degree of integration. Then, as noted by Andrew Rassweiler, senior director of Cost Benchmarking Services for teardown specialist IHS, much the same applies to the S5's core design.
"The S5 exemplifies a conservative evolutionary design approach," he says. "There are no revolutions or giant steps forward in this design. There's a lot of similarity and commonality between the S5 and other recent Samsung smartphones IHS has torn down, such as the Galaxy Round and the Note III. However, there are many small changes throughout the design."
IHS's counterparts at iFixit, specialists in enabling self-repair of devices, make a similar observation: "Once you get the device open, several components are modular and fairly easy to replace, such as the cameras, headphone jack, vibrator motor, and speakers."
Perhaps the most significant 'under the hood' and differentiating innovation in the S5 is a switch to multi-antennae reception for Wi-Fi 802.11ac. This use of MIMO technology will greatly improve performance. But again, as a selling point, it is one best appreciated by the tech savvy.
The keystone here is that Samsung – and its rivals – are now using their flagship handsets as much to probe what the market wants next as fashionable kit. Samsung acknowledged as much when it launched the separate Gear wrist phone peripheral alongside the Note 3 tablet.
Responding to criticisms of the original Gear design, Samsung quietly agreed that it was very much a pathfinder. The Gear has now moved into its second generation, effectively launched alongside the S5, but there can be little doubt that the discovery process continues both with that device and others.
Such discovery does come at a cost. IHS estimates the bill of materials (BOM) for the 32Gbyte S5 at an "astronomical" $251.52, against $207.00 for the iPhone 5S – and now as low as $35 for some entry-level Android smartphones.
This high BOM occurs in spite of significant cost reduction on the processor front. The Snapdragon processor does carry an initially striking $41 cost.
"This may seem elevated but represents the combined functionality of two formerly separate chips, the core applications processor and the wireless semiconductor," says IHS's Rassweiler. "In designs such as the Apple iPhones and other Samsung designs, these two roles may be filled by two separate chips. Implementing the Qualcomm MSM8974AC solution saves Samsung internal board space and reduces manufacturing cost by eliminating separate ICs on the board."
So once more, we come back to the initial proposition: 'chunkiness'. Apart from the sensors, enhanced Wi-Fi and apps processor, there are the 5.1in 1920x1080pi Super AMOLED display, a16MP rear camera with 4K video at 30 fps and enhanced auto focus, a 2MP front-facing camera with 1080p video and wide-angle lens, a radio package including LTE, NFC, and Bluetooth 4.0 BLE, and Micro-USB 3.0 connectivity.
Yes, it's bigger. It's better. And its Android KitKat build is genuinely impressive. But you cannot help but feel that an awful lot is being slung at the wall to see what will stick.