We take a look back at the series that's dominated the Android smartphone world
As Samsung attempts to evolve its smartphone design language with the Galaxy Alpha and possibly the upcoming Galaxy Note 4, it's time to take a look back on the past five years of the company's Android flagships. Starting with the humble Galaxy S in 2010, through early successes with the Galaxy S2 and S3, Samsung has backed up solid high-end smartphones with ferocious marketing and an ever-expanding feature set. And though it's facing tougher competition than ever in 2014, there's no denying that Samsung is the Android phone maker to beat, particularly in western markets.
So it's time to remember the devices that made such an impact on the Android world. Join us after the break as we look back on the history of the Samsung Galaxy S family.
Samsung Galaxy S — Phil Nickinson
I remember being completely overwhelmed. Only about four months into a new job, sort of getting a feel for what I was doing — hey, I'd just survived my first CES and Mobile World Congress — and I was back in Vegas with Dieter Bohn and Kevin Michaluk for my first CTIA event. (You may recall this gem coming out of that show.)
I remember getting up for the morning keynote session, then mostly snoozing through the usual carrier-speak. Didn't even liveblog it.
But then, bloody hell, Samsung's JK Shin walks out on stage and announces the Samsung Galaxy S, and invites us to come take a better look at it on Samsung's stage in just a few minutes. (Which, being so green, I knew absolutely nothing about ahead of time.) I called the phone a "monster" at the time, with its 4-inch Super AMOLED screen — the display technology was announced just a month earlier at MWC.
"What a silly name," I remember thinking. "How will that ever take off?"
And I remember finding Samsung's area and settling in on the second row behind Engadget's Sean Cooper. (One of the coolest dudes you'll ever meet in this business.) So I'm starstruck, hurried and have no idea what was about to happen. Looking back, Samsung's first Galaxy S event actually was a lot like its more recent ones. Well-produced, informative, with a penchant for the theatric.
So we've got the phone. It's big, but thin and a little blocky — I was using the Nexus One at the time — but it looks and feels like it'll be a pretty big hit in Europe and Asia. And you have to remember that this was in the bad old days, when carriers still got to do pretty much whatever the hell they wanted with the flagship devices. And so that's how we ended up with the likes of the Fascinate on Verizon. And the Captivate on AT&T. And the Vibrant on T-Mobile. And the Epic 4G on Sprint. It was a branding (and SEO) nightmare. Different names. Different designs. And in Sprint's case, an entirely different form factor with a slide-out keyboard.
And Verizon is where things really got weird, with a number of Google services — including search — replaced with Microsoft's.
Between the early hardware and software — we were still on Android 2.1 Eclair in those days — well, we'll just call those the dark ages.
But the Galaxy S is the phone that really started it all. OK, the phone and Samsung's seemingly unlimited marketing budget. It also was the start of the Apple-Samsung patent wars. But more than that, it was the beginning of Samsung's veritable takeover in the Android space. Even today, ask folks what kind of phone they have, and they'll very likely say they have a "Galaxy."
I've been to every Samsung Galaxy phone event, from that morning in Las Vegas in 2010, to MWC in Barcelona in 2011, London in 2012, Radio City Music Hall in New York City in 2013, and back in Barcelona in 2014. The phones might or might not be your cup of tea, but this much is true: Samsung has left its mark on the mobile landscape.
Samsung Galaxy S2 — Jerry Hildenbrand
I don't particularly care about whatever dog and pony show a manufacturer puts on when it announces a new phone. Maybe it's because I don't go to them, or maybe it's my practical side, or maybe I'm just an uptight stuffy guy in a slacker's body, but I find most of them over-the-top and think they take focus away from the devices themselves.
I can barely even remember Samsung announcing the Galaxy S2 in Barcelona back in 2011. But I can remember the first thought that hit my head when I held one the first time.
My god, this thing is thin.
The original big Android phone, the HTC EVO 4G was big everywhere. It was thick and heavy and you knew you were holding a phone with an enormous 4.3-inch screen. The Galaxy S2 was the opposite, and with an even bigger 4.52-inch screen felt tiny compared to the EVO, simply because it was so thin and so light. It was amazing how far things had changed in six months. I'm sure I was a bit put off by some of the other things, and simply loved some things, but the thinness really bowled me over and is what I remember.
The whole package was different from anything else out there. Thin. Flat. Bright. Those are the words to best describe the Galaxy S2. Yeah, it was still a rectangular slab covered in glass but back then it seemed that nobody bothered to actually design a phone this way. It's not that the materials or even the quality of the construction were top-notch — mine creaked like the dickens and the battery door never seemed to line up perfectly. It was all about the design, and that awesome (for the time) 480 x 800 SAMOLED+ screen.
The Galaxy S2 was no slouch when it came to horsepower, either. Multi-core processors and a full GB of RAM ran Gingerbread in a way we had never seen, and even with TouchWiz UI's "built-in" lag it made phones like the Nexus S seem a little pathetic when you compared them. They were the new Quadrant King, and fans weren't afraid to show it off.
Do I have complaints about the Galaxy S2? Of course. Samsung took forever to push out critical updates and because it was so popular there were plenty of exploits available. That's not the phone's fault, but it does say Samsung on the back. Part of the problem is the very different software on the different carrier models, which is something Samsung has moved away from. I like to think the Galaxy S2 was a learning experience for Samsung, as well as a conduit to their total domination of all things mobile. In fact, I think it's the best phone (considering when it was released) that Samsung has ever made.
We like to mention the Nexus One and the iPhone when we talk about phones that really changed the mobile landscape, but I think the Galaxy S2 needs to be mentioned as well. It seemed that everyone around the globe loved it, and loved the way Samsung took a chance with a phone unlike any other phone out there. In fact, the Galaxy S2 very much looks and feels like the father of the Galaxy Note line, which has a huge appeal despite all the reasons why it shouldn't. People like big phones as long as they have a reason to be big and are done well.
- Read our Samsung Galaxy SII review
The Samsung Galaxy S3 — Alex Dobie
The Galaxy S3 arrived at a time when Samsung's dominance of the Android landscape was just starting to become apparent. The Galaxy S2 — the first really good Samsung smartphone — was a huge global hit, and phone buyers were hungry for a new Galaxy S phone for 2012. Due in no small part to the success of predecessor, the launch was preceded by an intense campaign of rumors, leaks and hype, underscoring public demand for what Samsung called "the next big thing."
For the Galaxy S3's main launch event, Samsung took over the enormous Earls Court exhibition center in London, where the phone would arrive a month later ahead of a massive marketing campaign to coincide with the Olympic Games. The GS3 was the start of Samsung doing everything big, and as such it was the first Galaxy S to get a truly global launch. In addition to Europe and Asia, the GS3 found its way to American shores intact — no carrier meddling, just one device across the big four.
Samsung's third Galaxy also introduced new hardware and software design languages. With a rounded, shiny plastic design and an interface which was "inspired by nature" and "designed for humans" (whatever that was supposed to mean), the GS3 was big on rounded corners, with wallpapers and sound effects intended to mirror the natural world. (I still remember Samsung reps hurrying over to turn up the volume on our demo units in London, so the assembled journalists could hear the sounds of the "real water drops.") More than two years on, for better or worse, the bleeps and bloops of Samsung's TouchWiz UI are ubiquitous across the entire Galaxy line. The more overtly nature-inspired stuff has since been retired.
In terms of material and build, the Galaxy S3 kicked off the era of shiny plastic, a design trait that would characterize Samsung phones for the next couple of years. (The official name for this finish was "hyperglaze," which to me sounded more like a futuristic cleaning product.) And while the GS3, in its "marble white" and "pebble blue" colors, looked impressive under sparkly show lights, it was a different story when you actually picked one up. This was a very plasticky plastic phone, and with it kind of a fingerprint magnet.
Despite this, the Galaxy S3 was a solid high-end smartphone for the time. Cutting-edge internals were paired with one of the first 720p SuperAMOLED panels in a mainstream smartphone (though this was outshone by LCD-based competitors like the HTC One X), and the camera was a great performer all-round. Later in 2012 we even named it as the best Android phone overall.
The Samsung Galaxy S3 wasn't a revolutionary phone, but it laid the foundations for Samsung's successes in the smartphone space in 2013, and to this day it's the face of Android with which people are most familiar.
- Read our Samsung Galaxy S3 review
The Samsung Galaxy S4 — Andrew Martonik
Building on the stratospheric success of the previous two Galaxy S devices, Samsung did things big with a huge Broadway show production to unveil the S4 and all of its merits. Whereas Samsung used the Galaxy S3 to show off a truckload of new features and weird "inspired by nature" design in both hardware and software, in many ways the Galaxy S4 was used to simply refine of those past ideas. The jokes of the Galaxy S4 simply being a "Galaxy S3s" started swirling right away, and honestly they weren't far off.
The Galaxy S4 offered seriously improved hardware, with a brand new 1920x1080 SuperAMOLED display, Snapdragon 600 processor, 2GB of RAM and improved 13MP camera. But it only iterated slightly on the Galaxy S3's exterior design, keeping the same big clicky home button, slick plastic build and an almost identical footprint.
The crazy S [insert catchy app name here] lineup of software features from the Galaxy S3 were carried over and even added to, but thankfully TouchWiz took a step towards cohesiveness and showed some sort of unified design across the phone. The bloops and drips were still there, but Samsung was no longer pushing the "this is basically an organic device that grew in a field somewhere" as much as it pushed its new motto — the Samsung Galaxy S4 was supposed to be your "life companion." There's nothing the Galaxy S4 can't do, they claimed.
Well, sort of.
It could sure do a lot of individual things, but what it couldn't do is provide a complete experience in the way that we had seen from the HTC One (M7) and other devices at the time. It was a situation of the phone being less than the sum of its parts, and while the Galaxy S4 didn't particularly do anything wrong, it didn't do a whole lot to give people the feeling they were using a phone that was truly unique and great.
Despite less-than-hot initial reviews and a few software instability issues that made the launch miss a beat, Samsung went on to boast record sales of the Galaxy S4, proving the draw of the Galaxy brand and Samsung's immense marketing budget.
The Samsung Galaxy S5 — Richard Devine
I'll readily admit that I'd never been a huge personal fan of Samsung's Galaxy S line. It's easy to appreciate them for what they are and what they did for the Android landscape, but the first 4 did nothing for me from a consumer perspective. The Galaxy S5 changed all that.
We left CES and began the approach to Mobile World Congress 2014, expecting that we'd be seeing an Unpacked event at some point in the first few months of the year. The previous two years Galaxy S events being separated from any major trade shows meant that it still caught us all a little off guard when an invite dropped into the inbox for Barcelona.
The event was much more refined, more to the point than the previous year's efforts in New York. It was huge, but strangely after the Unpacked event the Galaxy S5 remained hidden from public view on the main floor of Mobile World Congress. Press and partners were allowed in to see it, but that was it. Not the eager public clamoring for a chance to look at one of the years biggest smartphone releases.
Whether it's the actual best Android phone on sale today is irrelevant. (And it's it is up there.) It's the latest name in the biggest line of phones outside the iPhone. Galaxy is still talked about in average consumer conversations before Android.
And the Galaxy S5 is arguably the best of the line so far. Not just because it's the newest, either. The glossy, fingerprint attracting plastic hell of previous years has gone, replaced by a dimpled, matte effect or soft touch finish on the back. The display is up there with the best of any Android phone to date and Touchwiz has been refined, toned back. Sure, there's still the sentiment of machine gunning features at the phone that may largely be ignored – that heart rate sensor still feels too gimmicky – but there's also a ton of good, useable stuff in there.
Some may take a downer on Samsung for not "revolutionizing" or "innovating" enough. But the same sort of people would probably say the same about the iPhone. What Samsung did was take it's most successful smartphone ever and make it a little bit better in just about every way. For folks upgrading from the Galaxy S3 after their 2 year cycle, the Galaxy S5 is a substantial leap forward. It isn't without fault, but it's probably the best attempt yet from Samsung.
- Read our Samsung Galaxy S5 review
- Visit our Galaxy S5 forums
- Check out the top Galaxy S5 accessories
How many Samsung phones have you used? Are you a Galaxy S fan, or has another manufacturer earned your loyalty? Share your experiences down in the comments!