Samsung has grown to be such a household name that we rarely stop to think about exactly how freaking massive the company has become. Other Asian conglomerates can have their snowmobiles, trains and heavy industrial equipment, Samsung plays it straight up the consumer-electronics path. In fact, we defy you to name a CE category Samsung doesn't have at least some piece of. In order to judge ol' Sammy's performance this year, we have to look into a lot of key areas.
Mobile Phones & Devices: A+
This year, Samsung socked it to Moto and took second place behind the Big N in worldwide phone marketshare. The BlackJack II smartphone met with sound critical acceptance in a tricky field, handsets such as the Armani phone gave Samsung some needed style cred, and mobile boundaries were stretched (as well they should) with devices like the Q1 Ultra. There were some beefs, like the fact that the original BlackJack hasn't yet seen an official Windows Mobile 6 update, and let-downs, like the 5-megapixel G800 "photographer's choice," but overall, Samsung is winning the device game.
What impresses us most though is Samsung's aggressive pursuit of openness and network agnosticism. It's a founding member of Google's Open Handset Alliance, and has been the first company to openly promote "femtocell" devices to enhance cellular reception in your own home via a network-connected cellular access point. In Korea, Samsung is showing off its second-generation of WiMax phones, which will someday run on Sprint's Xohm network. Meanwhile, it just joined Nokia's 3GPP group to roll out the LTE protocol for super crazy fast wireless from a GSM-based network, one that both Verizon and AT&T plan to adopt.
Cameras and Camcorders: C
Samsung has been left totally in the dust in the camera business, and it's mainly because the camera division operates independently from both the mobile and consumer electronics businesses. I've played around with a few, but I have no interest because the traditional camera makers Nikon and Canon, along with the photo-savvier CE companies Sony and Panasonic, keep me plenty busy with the highest-quality shooters.
Camcorders are a different thing, because they are part of Samsung Electronics. The trouble is, while Samsung is doing a decent job of developing cool-looking lower-priced cameras that use flash memory and get clips online in a hurry, the real video business has vanished into point-and-shoot cameras, which will all soon be HD capable. Samsung's real mistake is in not reorganizing its camera division closer to its other electronics.
Storage of All Shapes and Sizes: A+
There's no way to make this business sexier than Samsung has this year, with the introduction of 2.5" 64GB flash SSDs to take your laptop to lightspeed, as well as super-small 1.3" HDDs that are on the horizon which may answer my personal yearning for an iPod touch with decent capacity.
In addition to flash and HDDs, Samsung introduced a long overdue innovation in optical disc technology this year, a slot-loading drive that handles both full-size and 8cm discs. This is most helpful for people who use those little DVD camcorders, but with HD DVD and Blu-ray still on the rise, there's no telling how popular 8cm discs will be in the future, so it's wise of Sammy to plan ahead.
MP3 Players: B
Samsung is in the media player business mostly because it can be. As the supplier of a vast quantity of the world's flash memory, it can get the chips presumably at cost, while easily integrating developments for its booming cellphone business (OLEDs; touchscreens; Bluetooth chips) as well. The thing is, it feels like Samsung isn't aggressive in this business, because it makes money whether it sells a YP player or Apple sells an iPod. Samsung competitor SanDisk has been far more aggressive, forging partnerships with Real and Yahoo, and spinning its successful music-player business into an increasingly diverse portfolio of media players with content deals to back them up.
Samsung's latest product, the P2 touchscreen music and video player was a good example of the deflated enthusiasm. One key selling point was that it had Bluetooth, so you could use it as a music-playing speakerphone for your cellphone. But when it launched, the software wasn't ready. In other words, reviewers couldn't test the single most unique attribute, so it fell back into a crowd of non-nanos.
Blu-ray and HD DVD: B+
Promised software updates seemed to be a trend this year for Samsung. On one hand, this promotes the future-looking technology on hand, gadgets that can be upgraded after purchase. But it also allows Samsung to be slow with certain things.
The P2's delayed Bluetooth update is not nearly as significant as the hotly anticipated and positively reviewed BD-UP5000 combo Blu-ray and HD DVD player. We've been stoked since the early buzz, but there's this nagging sensation that it's too good to be true. After all, its promised December arrival has been postponed to January, and even then, it will require an online update to be ready to play the "final standard" or "profile 1.1" Blu-ray discs slated to arrive starting in early 2008. That said, when the update does come, the BD-UP5000 will be one of only four players on the market to be able to read these discs. Sony's PlayStation 3 will probably get an update in the next few days, but neither Sony's electronics division and Blu-ray champion Pioneer will have such a compatible player.
It's funny that Samsung is both exploring the world outside of Blu-ray while being a stalwart supporter of that format as well, with not only one of the first 1.1 players, but also in easing its BD-P1400 down in price to where a confused consumer base might actually buy a free-standing Blu-ray player, that is, down to the $299 level.
[I just want to say that this letter grade, for the Blu-ray and HD DVD section, was written in pencil: as soon as the BD-UP5000 ships and gets updated to full Blu-ray 1.1 capability, I will happily change this to an A. Ditto if the BD-P1400 starts selling openly for under $200!]
This year, Samsung saw its market share slip a little in the LCD business, as Sony took back some ground and smaller Chinese brands such as Vizio moved cheap product up into pole position. But what it lost in quantity, it's made up for in quality. Samsung LCDs are consistently the best-reviewed products around, especially the 81 series characterized by LED backlighting and 120Hz motion-blur reduction. In its first technical review, HDGuru Gary Merson said it had very high motion resolution, better than most 120Hz LCDs and even some plasmas.
Samsung is pushing hard in all areas of TV technology. Its experiments in high-def wireless video streaming have led me to believe that we might actually take the concept of wireless TV seriously next year.
It's also doing its best to play in the OLED sandbox: word on the street is that come CES, Samsung will show off a 40-inch OLED TV. It's a crazy technical feat, and one that other electronics makers seem to think is impossible. In a little over two weeks, we'll know for sure.
Extra Credit: Keeping It Green
Samsung deserves bonus points this year for coming out on top of Greenpeace's Guide to Greener Electronics, neck and neck with Sony Ericsson. That's not to say it's Kermit-green, by hippy standards, but it is to say that, among the titans, it is the most granola.
Overall Grade: A