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Samsung’s new creations are all about the screen

The new Samsung Galaxy S10.

Phone maker Samsung plans an April debut for its much-anticipated Galaxy Fold smartphone that will sport a foldable screen and an eye-watering price tag at nearly $3,000. Plus, a look at the new S10 range.

The Fold, unveiled last week in San Francisco will have a 4.6-inch exterior screen that folds out to a 7.3-inch display on the inside. That extra screen real estate will allow up to three apps to be displayed simultaneously with the likes of Facebook and Google readying their software to debut on the new screen format. No New Zealand availability for the Fold has yet been announced.

NOTED will be reporting from the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, so check back for all the latest news in smartphones, 5G and mobile computing.

But it signals the first commercial release of a mass market foldable phone, which represents the culmination of years of research and development across the phone industry to come up with a flexible screen without a visible join.

As such, it has the potential to serve as a true phone-cum-tablet, potentially more ergonomic than larger phones such as Samsung’s own Note 9. Samsung’s usual design flourish will be brought to the Fold, which will also boast six cameras: three on the rear (wide angle, wide and telephoto), two under the screen and one on the front, and an impressive 12GB (gigabytes) of memory to drive those newly formatted applications.

The Fold’s so-called Infinity Flex Display looks to be a design triumph for Samsung, which faced with stiff competition from a slew of innovative Chinese phone makers, needs a hit this year to revive flagging smartphone sales.

Read more: Best smartphones on the NZ market: What to look for and what to avoid

Where’s the software?

But the Fold’s price of US$1,980 (NZ$2,884), puts it up there with high-end laptops. The question now is where the Fold will find a market, given the setbacks Apple has faced as its own smaller fold-less phones have crept towards the $2,000 mark.

The Fold’s success will likely come down to how cleverly software can be re-engineered to take advantage of that bigger screen and how well apps cope with the constant resizing and re-formatting required as the phone is flipped open dozens of times a day.

But on that front, it is unclear to what extent software makers are eager to come into the Fold. News aggregator app Flipboard showed off its new Fold-ready version of the app at the launch event, but other big names and novel new uses of the screen were thin on the ground.

There’s potential in the Fold as a device for workers on the move, a more compact alternative to Microsoft’s Surface Pro or full-sized Apple tablets. But the reality is that the Fold will still require a separate keyboard to be added to make it suitable for productivity apps, the powerhouse of the mobile worker’s tool set.

That price tag will likely see the Fold sell in small numbers in the premium market, mainly in Asia, Europe and the US, at least until Samsung’s competitors catch up and push down the price with their own models, many of which are reported to be in the pipeline.

New galaxies

The Fold’s arrival threatens to overshadow the debut of the new Galaxy phones that will be the real money earner for Samsung this year – the Galaxy 10 devices. They mark a decade of Galaxy releases and Samsung just launched not one but four new devices, three of which will go on sale in New Zealand on March 8, priced at $1,299 for Galaxy S10e, $1,499 for Galaxy S10 and $1,699 for the Galaxy S10+.

It’s pleasing to see Galaxy has kept pricing largely in line with last year’s devices, while packing a lot of new technology into the new higher-end Galaxy models.

The new Galaxy S10 devices include what Samsung calls the world’s first “Dynamic AMOLED display”, presumably an advance on the AMOLED displays Samsung has been using in its phones since 2010. The Korean company filed a patent for Dynamic AMOLED late last year. Samsung claims the screen offers a “wider range of colour for a brilliant, realistic picture,” and the “industry’s best contrast ratio on a mobile device for even deeper blacks and brighter whites”.

Punching through

Those are welcome improvements, though the most noticeable aspect of the new Galaxy is the lack of a forward facing camera and bezel to accommodate it at the top of the phone. Samsung has instead included a “hole punch” in the top right hand corner, placing the camera (or the two in the S10+) under the screen itself, allowing for more screen space overall. Expect to see more hole punch cameras appear in phones this year as the effect is far better than the black line or ‘notch’ we’ve previously lived with.

The other screen innovation is the fingerprint scanner Samsung has placed under the screen, moving it from a dedicated pad on the back of the phone. This follows Huawei’s use of the under screen fingerprint scanner in last year’s Mate 20 Pro, but Samsung is using a different technology here.

An ultrasonic scanner, it doesn’t just take a picture of your fingerprint, but identifies the 3D contours of your fingerprint ridges, supposedly allowing for greater accuracy and security. With the Mate 20 Pro’s fingerprint scanner proving hit and miss for me, a method to more quickly and reliably get into your phone is to be welcomed.

A new addition, Wireless Powershare, includes the ability to use the Galaxy to wirelessly charge other devices that support the Qi wireless charging standard, including iPhones, another feature of the Mate 20 Pro I’ve used occasionally. Samsung’s Bixby digital assistant is still in the devices, but it has failed to gain traction against Google Assistant and Siri, so I don’t expect it to add much to the new line-up. More promising are the upgraded artificial intelligence features that will learn from your behaviour to open your favourite apps automatically and alert you to security risks when attempting to log onto a dodgy Wi-Fi network.

As usual, Samsung has put a lot of effort into upgrading the cameras in the Galaxy line, with three rear-facing cameras built into the S10 and S10+, including an ultra-wide lens that looks to offer an impressive field of view of 123 degrees.

No 5G for us

A fourth phone in the Galaxy line-up will go on sale at a later date and offer the higher data speeds offered using 5G or fifth generation mobile networks. With New Zealand’s mobile operators still at least 18 months away from introducing 5G, this is a redundant feature, but one that could allow 5G users overseas to get better performance from video streaming services and gaming services.

Overall, the new Galaxy line-up seems to add enough to keep Samsung in its leadership position, without trying to claw more money from consumers with price increases. The intriguing addition is the Galaxy 10e, with a smaller screen and less sophisticated camera set-up. It is obviously positioned as a rival to Apple’s iPhone XR and could appeal to those resisting the move to a larger camera and happy to stay at the low-end of the premium market.

The Fold adds a touch of futuristic wonder that represents the only significant format change we’ve seen in phones since the iPhone’s debut in 2007.

The Galaxy phones are available now for pre-order.

Samsung’s new Galaxy line-up

Galaxy S10e

The entry level Galaxy with a 5.8-inch screen, a fingerprint scanner built into the phone’s right side rather than under the screen and two rear-facing camera. It lacks the subtle curved screen edges of its more expensive siblings, but with a FHD+ Super AMOLED display is no slouch on screen quality. Will appeal to those looking to spend less and who aren’t as fussy about the camera features, which are still very good. $1,299

Galaxy S10

The 6.1-inch screen is ideal for all-purpose use, from web-surfing, to photography to watching the odd video. There are three rear-facing cameras that pack some serious shooting potential and AI-powered features to aid with night shooting etc. It has a higher resolution QHD+ Super AMOLED display, curved at the edges, which is a beautiful effect. There’s a slightly larger 3,400mAh battery. $1,499

Galaxy S10+

The biggest in the range with a 6.4-inch screen, this is one for the power users. All of the features of the S10 are included, though the S10+ adds a second front-facing 8MP (megapixel) camera in the hole punch under the screen for capturing depth information for live focus and portrait photos. A big 4,100mAh battery for intensive, all-day use. $1,699

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