What do you do when you produce the world’s most advanced gadgets in their class, but a distant rival knocks the spots off you in one category?
If you’re Apple, it can take a few years to admit the shortfall, because you have so much else going for you. If you’re Samsung, on the other hand, you incorporate those features as quickly as possible, and add enough others so that the gadget extends its cutting edge in as many other categories as possible.
The new Galaxy S9 and S9+, launched at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona on Sunday, have taken already superb camera functionality and made it the best in the world. To do this, however, they’ve had to catch up with the cutting edge delivered by Sony a year ago, at the 2017 edition of MWC.
The standout feature of the Sony Xperia XZ Premium – also subsequently built into the XZ1 and XZ Pro – is its ability to capture video in 960 frames per second. This means it can replay in slow-motion, and capture still images of micro-moments of an action video.
This week, Samsung announced 960 fps video on the S9 and S9+.
And then there was the XZ’s ability to create 3D images by panning the camera round a face, head or physical object. The S9 and S9+ introduce the ability to create animated avatars, using 3D face modeling and tracking.
So far so similar. On the surface.
Samsung made a dramatic departure, however, in the capabilities it adds to these features.
The most significant hardware improvement lurks in its rear-camera set-up. Until now, the widest aperture available on a phone camera was f1.6, first introduced in the LG V30+, followed by the Huawei mate 10 Pro. The Samsung S8 came in at f1.7, meaning it let in a little less light than the LG and Huawei devices, potentially giving the rivals an edge in low-light photography.
Now, the S9 and S9+ raise the light bar with a lens that takes this year’s line honours for aperture. In a bold move, the main lenses on the rear of both phones feature moving parts that make it the most complex phone camera yet. It allows for the aperture to adjust automatically, based on light conditions, starting at f2.4 for bright li. It adjusts all the way down to f1.5 as light fades, promising to take low-light photography on a phone to new depths of darkness.
The S9+ offers an even more moving experience, with a second rear lens that features 2X optical zoom and 8X digital zoom, matching the market-leading specifications of Samsung’s large-format Note 8.
The camera is central to another Samsung leap forward, although here it is software innovation that differentiates the phone. Where Apple’s iPhone X introduced the Animoji, an option to personalise one of a dozen animal emojis with one’s own expressions and sound, the S9 phones allow for users to turn their own faces and expressions into emojis.
Erin Willis, Samsung senior manager for channel marketing, put it neatly into perspective at the S9 launch on Sunday: “From emoticons to emojis, these are symbols and shortcuts that helped us to express a mood or emotion, but it didn’t help us express ourselves as individuals. Now you can map your facial expressions and emotions to make emojis that look like you.”
The function allows the user to take a selfie in augmented reality (AR) emoji mode, simulate the expression of the user, and adapt it into an avatar – a digital representation of the individual. As with Animojis, the user can add voice notes to the emoji. Unlike the Apple version, it can be shared with friends in messaging apps regardless of what smartphones they have. Up to 18 personalised emojis can be created in this way, along with a variety of characters that can have one’s own expressions added.
A partnership with the Walt Disney Company means that several Disney characters, including Mickey and Minnie Mouse and the Incredibles, can also be turned into AR emojis.
This is likely to prove an ingenious viral marketing vehicle, as users increasingly send what one could call selfie emojis to each other. The more people receive these compelling messaging objects, the more they are likely to want to send similar messages on to others. And this is probably just the beginning.
“What was announced in terms of Mickey and Minnie Mouse and the Incredibles has now created the association with Disney,” said Craige Fleischer, vice president of IT Mobile at Samsung Africa, at the launch. “We do believe that the relationship will expand to include other Disney properties in time.”
While Fleischer was not able to spell it out, this suggested that franchises like Star Wars would eventually enter the emoji world, providing Samsung with yet another opportunity to create viral marketing messages.
The handsets break ground in several other areas, including “intelligent biometrics”, a fusion of iris and facial recognition, allowing users to choose the log-in or authentication method that suits them best. It is likely, however, that many users will not discover a high proportion of the phone’s features.
That won’t be a bad thing in itself, as even what people don’t use will provide guidance in what should be added to devices in the future. As Samsung mobile head DJ Koh put it at the launch, “It’s only when technology is in people’s hands, that real magic happens and our lives are transformed.”