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December 4, 2017

From the Editor’s Desk: Galaxy S9 at CES, and other surprising things

by John_A

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It makes sense for Samsung to tease its next major phone announcement in January, but don’t expect any big reveals until a few months into 2018.

Every year, like clockwork, there are rumors that the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S flagship might be making an early appearance, at the CES show in Las Vegas in January. Up to now, that has never happened, for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, January just isn’t a great time to announce a smartphone. (With the exception of the original iPhone back in 2007, I guess.) And it also comes at an awkward time in terms of the technology — for the past several years, Qualcomm’s new silicon has landed in early spring. (We’ve seen nothing so far to suggest the upcoming Snapdragon 845 will be any different.) So there’s little to be gained by going early with your announcement, only to have a multi-month run up to real, actual availability.

Normally I’d just laugh at reports that yet again, we might hear about the Samsung Galaxy S9 in Vegas in January, but this year’s rumors have more credibility. VentureBeat’s Evan Blass reports that the Galaxy S9 and S9+ will make a “first public appearance” at the show, while noting that a separate launch event is planned for sometime in March.

Blass has a solid, reliable track record that elevates his report above the usual supply chain soothsaying, and the nuance of what he’s claiming may happen actually does make a lot of sense.

The final release timing of the Galaxy S9 might not be all that different to previous release cycles — early spring for most of us — but there are benefits to Samsung kicking off the hype cycle a little earlier in the year. The immediate post-holiday period surely isn’t a huge sales month for Galaxy phones, with the initial glut of Note 8 sales having already taken place, and informed buyers already anticipating next-gen Galaxy S models. What’s more, the momentum is with Apple right now, on the back of a successful iPhone X launch.

By giving a surprising, early (though likely very fleeting) glimpse of the Galaxy S9 in January, Samsung will be hoping to reclaim some of that momentum from its main rival. That kind of mini-reveal at that point in the year gets people talking about Samsung again, with minimal impact on sales of existing models.

Samsung has a long track record of teasing upcoming launch events at other, smaller events. (The Galaxy S8 and Gear S2 are a couple of recent announcements.) Other phone makers like Huawei have also gotten in on the pre-announcement trend of late, taking to the stage at IFA 2017 in September to pre-announce the Mate 10 series, a month and a half ahead of the phones’ proper launch event.

At a minimum, Samsung will set the ball rolling and make sure we all know the S9 is coming in a couple of months. At most, it might take the unprecedented step of showing an outline or silhouette of the S9 series, perhaps giving away one or two features.

But don’t expect much substance. Samsung will be saving the good stuff for the real launch event a couple months later. (After all, Samsung can’t start actually shipping phones until major components, like Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 platform, are ready to go.)

A brief, tantalizing glimpse of the S9 could be accompanied by a more thorough reveal of the foldable Galaxy X.

This kind of pre-announcement announcement works best as part of a one-two punch, which leads me to the other thing I expect to see out of Samsung at CES — the long-awaited, heavily rumoured Galaxy X “foldable” phone. The most recent info we have on this unicorn of a phone points to something along the lines of the Axon M. (Only hopefully less terrible.) So this won’t be a true foldable OLED panel, but instead a combination of two bezelless screens in a clamshell device.

Even if, as reports suggest, the Galaxy X is a one-off concept device a la Galaxy Round, it’d work as part of a strategy that focuses the conversation on smartphone innovation on Samsung in the two months preceding its biggest product launch of the year. That’s particularly important given that we’re expecting this to be a “tock” year for the Galaxy S line, with largely iterative improvements on the S8.

An earlier-than-expected teaser for the next big phone you’ll actually be able to buy, combined with an on-stage reveal for a long-awaited concept device, absolutely makes sense for Samsung at CES. Given that the show has been hit and miss for big phone news in recent years, Samsung also won’t have to work too hard for media and public attention.

Who knows whether any of that will actually happen — but I think there’s at least a plausible chance. We’ll find out for sure in just over a month.

Other odds and ends as we move into the home stretch of the year:

  • I’ve been using the HTC U11 Plus in Taiwan for the past couple of weeks. (The phone remains elusive in Europe, but should be going on sale there sometime in December.) Our full review should be going live any day now, but you can get a feel for what I think in our review. The short version is that this is the phone HTC should’ve released six months ago.
  • I’ve said before that I expect 2018 to be a make-or-break year for HTC — a year in which we’ll learn whether the company still wants to try and carve out a niche for its own-branded smartphones, or whether the future of the firm is as a glorified ODM. The quality of the U11+ gives me hope, but HTC still faces challenges in terms of scale, visibility and marketing.
  • We’ll be in London for the global launch of the Honor 7X — and, if the rumors are to be believed, possibly the Honor V10 as well. The 7X looks like a solid phone, and the trade-offs in this year’s model — no NFC, microSD — aren’t major deal-breakers at this price.

That’s it for now. I’ll be back in a few weeks for a pre-holiday Editor’s Desk.

-Alex

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