Samsung (and Facebook) raise the mobile game

Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge revealed

The smartphone market continues to rapidly evolve. Who thinks about a smartphone these days as simply a device to make phone calls and send text messages? I don’t – a smartphone is a powerful computer that also makes phone calls and sends text messages.

That thought came to me more than once or twice while I watched and listened to Samsung’s press event via live video stream from the Mobile World Congress 2016 in Barcelona on Sunday evening. The company announced their next smartphones in the Galaxy model line – the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge – held aloft by DJ Koh, President of Mobile Communications Business, Samsung Electronics, in the photo above.

While both devices look pretty similar to the current Galaxy S6 equivalents, there’s no doubt that the S7 takes things up a few levels in many areas. Obvious things you’d perhaps expect – more RAM, richer graphics display, better cameras, more potent battery, always-on display, water-proofing – along with some very welcome features like much better wireless charging capability, beefed up graphics capabilities for mobile gaming,  and the return of a slot for microSD cards up to 256Gb which disappeared from the Galaxy with the S6 release last year.

Possibly the most dramatic part of the proceedings came with a special surprise guest speaker – Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder, Chairman and CEO of Facebook.

The Verge captured the segment well:

The setup was great: journalists were invited to watch a virtual reality demo using Samsung’s Gear VR headsets, and when the time came to remove them, there was Mark Zuckerberg standing in the middle of the stage, wearing his familiar gray T-shirt. Cue a moment of confused gasps of excitement, followed by an escalating stampede of journalists and photographers toward the stage. Zuckerberg was there to talk up Facebook and Samsung’s VR partnership, but his words went mostly unheard as everyone was too busy trying to capture an image of him. It was the tech celebrity equivalent of Bieber mania. And it was a little bit scary. Or maybe a lot, since Zuckerberg walked off the stage with sweat patches under his arms. In any case, the desired outcome of drumming up hype was achieved.

The most memorable bit for me was Zuckerberg’s repeated phrase “VR is the next platform” as he talked up how many virtual reality apps there are already on Facebook (over 200) and how many hours of video are being watched on Samsung’s $99 Gear VR device (over 100 million).

I bought a Google Cardboard-like VR headset from Clas Ohlson last autumn, a most unlikely-seeming outlet for such things (but they also sell 3D printers). My occasional use of it in the past few months, but with new apps all the time, makes me think that consumer VR will indeed be a big deal in the coming year. A platform, if Mark Zuckerberg has anything to do with it.

Samsung also announced a couple of other very interesting developments:

  • Gear 360, a 360-degree camera that lets people easily create, view and share their favourite experiences through video and still image content via select Galaxy devices including S7 as well as virtual reality content to enjoy through Gear VR.
  • Samsung Connect Auto, a dongle that plugs directly into the OBD II port underneath the steering wheel on most cars made since about 2002. It uses real-time alerts to help users improve their driving behaviour, including increased fuel efficiency, while offering a wifi connection to keep passengers online while on-the-go. Available in the US only to start with from Q2 this year.
  • The Samsung Pay mobile payment service that launched in the USA and South Korea in 2015 will start global expansion beginning with China in March, followed by Australia, Brazil, Singapore, Spain and the UK later in 2016.

So, should you get a Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge? It depends.

As a Galaxy S6 owner, with a 64Gb model, there’s little here frankly that would compel me to buy an S7 and ditch the S6. And there’s perhaps the dilemma for Samsung and the mobile carriers who’d like to sell you a nice 24-month contract on a new S7. I would guess there’s leeway for lots of deals that might prove tempting enough, especially if the USP for the S7 compared to the S6 focuses not so much on the hardware and software of the device itself but rather on cool things like VR, 360 video and mobile gaming.

Maybe Samsung’s offer of a free Gear VR headset for every S7 pre-order might be persuasive.

The picture’s much clearer if you currently have an S5 or S4 – I’d say it’s definitely worth upgrading from those models.

Samsung say the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge will be on the market from mid March. You can pre-order from February 23 (February 22 in the UK).