Market Insight

Samsung launches premium Note flagships into difficult market

August 05, 2020

Gerrit Schneemann Gerrit Schneemann Principal Analyst, Smartphones

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At its Unpacked event, Samsung tried to weave its latest hardware, including smartphones, watches and tablets, into the fabric of our current time – emphasizing how its technology will help make the “new normal” work. By doing so, the company created an event which covered a lot of topics, but never went into depth on anything.

For handsets, Unpacked in August or September means a new generation of Galaxy Note devices. This year, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Note 20 and Note 20 Ultra. While the focus of the presentation was on the two 5G-enabled models, LTE-only models will also come to certain markets.

With the latest devices, Samsung is evolving the heritage of the Note series further. The latest Qualcomm Snapdragon is integrated, while an Exynos chip will be substituted in some markets. New gesture controls for the S-Pen, and lower latency, enhance the user experience of the Note’s signature hardware differentiator. All come together in premium handsets, which will cost buyers upwards of $999.

Split between versions

Samsung is launching two variants of the Note, in terms of hardware. Unlike the Galaxy S20 series, there is no Note 20 + version. Samsung is also not adding the 5G moniker to the device name – 5G comes standard, unless the buyer is in a market where LTE-only devices will be offered. The focus is clearly not on whether the phone is a 5G phone. The presumption indicated here is that a Samsung flagship smartphone in 2020 naturally supports the latest network generation.

The standard and Ultra versions of the Note 20, however, do vary in overall design and in the type of display each uses. In previous years design elements did not change between versions of the same generation, just the overall size. Now, the Note 20 Ultra features a 6.9-inch Quad HD+ AMOLED edge display, while the standard version has a 6.7-inch flat FHD+ display. The standard version Note 20 is losing one of the lines standout features: the curved screen.

Keeping in line with the Galaxy S20 Ultra, the Note 20 Ultra integrates a 108-megapixel wide-angle camera. On the standard version, the main lens is a 64-megapixel telephoto lens. Both devices feature a 12-megapixel ultra-wide-angle lens with 120o field of view. The third camera on the Note 20 Ultra is a 12-megapixel telephoto lens with 5x optical zoom and optical image stabilization. On the standard version, the third lens is a 12-megapixel wide-angle lens.

While the processor is the same across versions, Samsung is limiting memory options for the standard version to eight GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage, without the option to expand. On the Note 20 Ultra, 12GB of RAM can be paired with either 128GB or 512GB internal storage and the option to add more memory with a microSD card.

Lastly, the rear cover material differs between standard and Ultra versions. On the Ultra, the back cover is made up of Gorilla Glass 7, while on the standard version the back cover is plastic.

Galaxy Note model shipments under pressure

Diversifying the Note range in 2019 into four models helped Samsung grow shipments of the latest Note series from 6.5 million units in Q3 2018 to 7.5 million units in Q3 2019. However, in Q1 2020 shipments of the Note 10 series declined 25% compared to the shipments of Note 9 in Q1 2019. The staying power of the Note brand has decreased. Additionally, Samsung launched a Note 10 Lite version in Q1 of this year – it was the most shipped Note device in the quarter, with 1.5 million units. The Lite version is not a premium device and does not command the same premium price tag.

Samsung hopes that creating two versions with more pronounced physical differences will help revitalize shipments of the product line. Evolutionary devices, with fewer standout features, will have a hard time delivering, especially when launching into markets still impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pricing remains stable over Note generations

Even though design, materials and hardware features now differ between Note 20 versions, pricing remains stable over the last few generations. For example, Galaxy Note 20 with 128GB of storage launches at $999 – the same price as the Galaxy Note 9 with similar internal storage in 2018. Last year’s entry level Note 10 was slightly cheaper, at $949, but Samsung also introduced the Plus version into the line-up, which sat between the standard and Note + 5G version at $1049. This year, the Note 20 Ultra will cost $1449 on AT&T with 512GB of storage on board.

Samsung and carrier partners are aware of the economic challenges faced by buyers, leading to several promotions announced alongside the launch event. Not only is Samsung offering promotions to drive pre-orders, carrier partners are already rolling out buy-one-get-one offers to make the premium pricing more palatable. Offers, like Samsung’s buy back guarantee, will further aid in convincing users that upgrading to the latest Note.

Samsung ecosystem

However, Samsung did not give a lot of clear reasons why users should buy a new device – especially one that costs over $1000 in most markets. Instead, the company wanted to position the devices as part of an ecosystem of Samsung devices which helps users get things done and ease the movement between device form factors. Yet, features like the enhanced Samsung Notes application do not seem to require updated hardware. In fact, it would be harming to Samsung’s brand and the promise of the company’s ecosystem to not include existing devices in some of the upgrades.

One area where new hardware will be necessary is enhanced Xbox gaming. The integration of Samsung and Microsoft services continues in productivity apps, but now gaming is also part of the equation. With Xbox Game Pass, Note users will have access to Xbox games from the cloud with optimized Bluetooth audio. However, only Galaxy Note 20 Ultra has a high refresh rate display (120Hz) and 240Hz touch latency. On the Galaxy S20 series, all versions had high refresh rate displays. Including a high refresh rate display on both devices would have validated the flagship aspirations of the brand.

The inclusion of Ultra-Wide-Band on the Note 20 Ultra is a high-end feature, but one with limited uses cases and limited mainstream impact right now. The technology can be used with Google’s Nearby Share feature to make sharing content between devices in the same location easier. Other potential use cases include virtual keys for buildings or cars. Limited deployment makes it hard for users to see an immediate impact on usability.

One more thing: Second version of Fold coming – later

Samsung also previewed the next generation of its Fold device. The Z Fold 2 will be announced fully at the beginning of September, but Samsung showcased upgrades to the external display, which now covers the complete front, a narrower hinge allowing the phone to fold flatter and a punch hole in-display camera.

Without announcing detailed specifications or pricing, the new Fold looks like a significant evolution compared to original Fold. Samsung also teased Microsoft Office support for its multi-window tablet UI on the Fold.

OEMs are expected to ship around three million foldable smartphones this year and around nine million in 2021. With the availability, soon, of four foldable models Samsung is poised to retain its leadership position in this segment of the smartphone market for some time.

Arguably, the tease of the Z Fold 2 was the highlight and most exciting part of the presentation. Samsung is aware of the difficult medical and economic situation impacting potential buyers worldwide and tried to incorporate a device launch into a broader pitch for its device ecosystem. While doing so, the company missed the opportunity to clearly make the case as to why the new Note devices should be on the minds of potential buyers.

New air gestures for the S-Pen, large displays, fast processors and access to 5G make the latest Note devices worthy of the flagship status. They are significant upgrades for users with older Note devices. Samsung now must convince these buyers that there is enough hardware innovation to upgrade.

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