The History of Flagships: Part II – Samsung

The History of Flagships: Part II – Samsung

Recently, we started the History of Flagships series here at XDA. In the first chapter, we took a look at Sony’s mobile history and their struggle to carve a niche in the Android world. Sony is just one of the many OEMs battling for a spot in your heart, pocket, and wallet. Today, we would like to walk you through some of the flagships produced by Android’s most powerful player: Samsung.

Despite growing competition around the globe, Samsung remained the clear leader in worldwide smartphone sales for Q3 2014, netting over 23 percent of the overall smartphone market share. The Korean OEM’s success is built on the Galaxy brand, with over 50 unique devices including smartphones, phablets, tablets, watches, cameras, and whatever else you can imagine. Samsung is everywhere and sees every person on the planet as a potential customer. Despite a somewhat rocky start, Samsung’s recent flagship devices have been labeled as some of the best devices currently available on the market. One subset of the Galaxy family is the more productivity-oriented Note series, which as we all know has proven to be extremely popular and well received.

Rough Beginnings

samsung-i7500-pressEverything begun back in June 2009, when the first Samsung Galaxy device was released to the public. Samsung took over a year to launch its device, which ended up competing with devices of the era such as the HTC Dream and the Motorola Droid. The I7500 was a “3.5G” smarphone, offering quad band GSM and tri-band HSDPA. The phone featured a 3.2-inch 320×480 touchscreen display based on AMOLED technology. It was powered by a 528 MHz ARM11 CPU with a 256 MHz DSP 256 chip, and it featured 128 MB of RAM. The device offered 8 GB of internal storage, and featured microSD expanadbility. The I7500 had a 5 Megapixel camera with flash, which produced great shots for the day. In addition to mobile data, users could also connect using Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS. And in addition to its touch screen, the device featured five physical buttons to control such functions as calls and some aspects of UI navigation.

The Samsung Galaxy GT-I7500 shipped with Android 1.5 Cupcake, and it was later updated to Android 1.6. Samsung was widely criticized for not providing updates for its first Android flagship device–a valid concern as well as a rather poor start in conquering the Android ecosystem. Luckily, Samsung learned what should be avoided while launching the device. While this Korean OEM still struggles at long term support, their current devices have received much better update support.

S is for Success!

The second Galaxy offering saw a much greater degree of market success. In March 2010, Samsung announced it’s first truly successful flagship device, the Samsung Galaxy S. The device was distributed in over 20 regional and carrier variants, including the Samsung Captivate, Samsung Vibrant and Samsung Epic 4G. The international version (codenamed GT-I9000) featured a Samsung Exynos 3 SoC with a 1 GHz single-core ARM CPU and a 200 MHz PowerVR SGX 540 GPU. Samsung decided to put 512 MB RAM and either 8 or 16 GB of internal storage. One particularly impressive feature was its 4-inch 480×800 Super AMOLED panel. Moreover, the Galaxy S was just 9.9 mm in thickness, making it the thinnest smartphone on the market at launch. The phone had three hardware buttons designed to make navigation as easy as possible.

The Samsung Galaxy S launched with Android 2.1 and TouchWiz 3.0. Samsung issued two major Android updates: Android 2.2 Froyo and 2.3 Gingerbread. TouchWiz allowed users to play with up to seven homescreens and provided many user experience enhancements. Due to the UI layer’s heaviness, Samsung decided not to provide an update to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. However, the South Korean variant of the SGS received a “value pack,” which contained some features backported from TouchWiz 4.0 such as face unlock. At the time of release, the original Galaxy S was a compelling alternative to the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10, HTC Desire, Google Nexus One, and even the Apple iPhone and HTC HD2 Samsung sold over 25 million units, which places the Samsung Galaxy S eleventh on the list of best selling smarphones of all time.

Success v2

The successor to the Samsung Galaxy Swas released in May 2011. Unsurprisingly, it was named the Samsung Galaxy S II. This phone featured a 1.2 GHz dual core Samsung Exynos 4 SoC (and ARM Mali-400 GPU). Some other variants were powered by either the Texas Instruments OMAP4430 or the Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 APQ8060 SoCs. In addition to the nice SoC, Samsung loaded the device with 1 GB of RAM, a 4.3” Super AMOLED Plus panel, and an 8 megapixel rear camera. The phone featured 16 GB of internal storage, expandable to 64 GB with a microSD card. It was one of the first devices to offer Mobile High-Definition Link. USB on-the-go was also supported. The powerful specs, impressive connectivity, and stunning display made the device one of the most anticipated smartphones of the day. On 9 May 2011, Samsung announced that they had received pre-orders for 3 million units, demonstrating an impressive sales start. Samsung improved upon the original SGS in all the right ways, and made the device greater than ever.

Tspecification_imghe Galaxy S II launched with Android 2.3 featuring the TouchWiz 4.0 user interface layer. It was updated to Android 2.3.6 in December of that year, and Android 4.0.3 a few months later in March 2012. The last update for this phone was Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean back in 2013. The iteration of TouchWiz for the device featured tons of modifications atop AOSP such as hardware acceleration for various 2D UI elements (a feature later incorporated into Android 3.0 Honeycomb and beyond), gesture-based interaction, and more. The Jelly Bean update brought some enhancements from the Samsung Galaxy S II’s successors such as Direct Call, Pop-up Play, Smart Stay, and Easy Mode.

Samsung also released plenty of similar variants such as the Samsung Galaxy R, which features the Nvidia Tegra 2 SoC instead the Exynos processor. As was the case with its predecessor, the SII was also available in numerous carrier and regional variants released in over 120 countries. The list of spin-off devices is quite long and includes phones such as the Samsung Galaxy W, Galaxy Ace Plus, and even the somewhat-related Samsung Nexus S and Samsung Galaxy Nexus.

The Samsung Galaxy SII was named “SmartPhone of the Year” at the 2012 Mobile World Congress’s Global Mobile Awards. Critical reception was pretty great, and the Samsung Galaxy SII is considered to be one of thebest smartphones ever released. With over 40 million sold units, the SII is ranked as 10th most popular smartphone of all time.

Happy Marriage with Google

While discussing the first two S phones, we can’t forget about the first Samsung-produced Nexus device, the Google Nexus S. This device was co-developed by Google and Samsung, and manufactured by Samsung Electronics for release in December 2010. The Samsung Nexus S was the first device to ship with Android 2.3, and it was also the first device to support Near Field Communication (NFC) in both hardware and software. This was the fourth time Google decided to work with an external manufacturer to create a handset. The Nexus S had 16 GB of NAND memory, Google-Galaxy-Nexus-and-Nexus-Spartitioned as 1 GB of internal storage and 15 GB of USB storage. The device lacked a microSD card, but it featured a slightly curved glass touchscreen. Unlike the Samsung Galaxy S, the Nexus S was updated to Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich and Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean.

On 17 November 2011 , Samsung created yet another Nexus smartphone for Google. The Galaxy Nexus featured the dual-core 1.2 GHz TI OMAP 4460 SoC, featuring two ARM Cortex A9 cores and a PowerVR SGX540 GPU. It also rocked 1 GB of RAM, 16 or 32 GB of internal storage (without microSD card slot), a 4.65″ 1280×720 HD Super AMOLED panel (PenTile), and a 5 megapixel camera. The Galaxy Nexus had no physical buttons on its front face, as they were replaced by software navigation keys. The popular GNex was the first device to run Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, and it was updated to Android 4.1, 4.2, and 4.3. Unfortunately, the device failed to receive an update to KitKat, likely due to a lack of adequate driver binaries, following TI’s exit from the mobile SoC market. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus was released in a few variants specified to work with American, Australian or Korean carriers.

Samsung Galaxy S III: The iPhone Killer

“Designed for Humans (Inspired by Nature)” was the slogan for one of the most successful Android devices of all time. The Samsung Galaxt S III was released on 29 May 2012. This phone was a powerful device with what some would consider to be a cheap-looking industrial design. The phone featured a 4.8” 1280×720 HD Super AMOLED touchscreen covered with Gorilla Glass II. Like the previous models, the S III was released in two main variants: one with the Samsung Exynos 4, and another with the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8960. The Exynos version featured a 1.4 GHz quad-core Cortex-A9 CPU and Mali-400 MP4 GPU, whereas the Qualcomm Smartphone Galaxy S3edition had “just” two cores clocked at 1.5 GHz. Samsung put only 1 GB of RAM in the international version of the device, which later proved problematic in trying to deliver KitKat to its users. The Korean variant with LTE had 2 GB of RAM, and as such, it was given official KitKat love. The phone was available in various storage sizes (16, 32 or 64 GB). To round out the hardware specs, it also offered an 8 megapixel camera.

In terms of software, Samsung based the original release on Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich with TouchWiz Nature UX. “Nature” as seem in the S III featured a more “organic” feel than previous versions, with more interactive elements such as a water ripple effect on the lock screen. Samsung has also added S-Voice, which served as their answer to Apple’s Siri. This software was able to recognize eight languages including English, Italian, French, and Korean. The device’s firmware contained so called “smart” features to facilitate improved human-device interactivity. To that end, the phone “knew” when a user wanted to pick up a call. Since its release, the S3’s Android version has been updated to 4.3 Jelly Bean. Due to TouchWiz’s memory demands, Samsung only managed to deliver a KitKat update to the Korean 2 GB version described above.

The hardware design of the SGS3 was similar to the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. The user could select multiple color variants including white, blue-grey, red, black, brown and gray. The “Garnet Red” model was available only on AT&T. The design of the device was considered by many to be underwhelming, but despite all the critics, the Samsung Galaxy S III was one of the most popular devices with over 60 millions of units sold.

Here Come Eight Cores!

The next Samsung Galaxy S came less than a year after the S3’s release. On 14 March 2013, Samsung upgraded the S3’s hardware and software and created the Galaxy S4. While the device featured a very similar design aesthetic to its predecessor, the OEM added various new features such as eye tracking and hover finger detection. The Samsung Galaxy S4img_kv_01_phone was released on a whooping 327 carriers in 155 countries just one month later.

Once again, Samsung decided to release its phone with both Exynos and Qualcomm systems-on-a-chips, depending on carriers and countries. This time, Samsung chose the Samsung Exynos 5 Octa-core 5410 (featuring the tri-core PowerVR SGX544 GPU) and the Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 (and its Adreno 320 GPU), depending on region. All Qualcomm variants have LTE support, while the support on Exynos devices varies based on region. The SGS 4 had 2 GB of RAM and 16 or 32 GB of internal storage. The S4 gained a bit of size compared to its predecessor, featuring a 5″ 1080p touchscreen covered by Gorilla Glass. The camera also increased in resolution to make sure that shots taken look great on the new screen.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 was released with Android 4.2.2 and TouchWiz Nature UX, which is based on the previous version of the interface. Samsung added even more eye tracking capabilities such as Smart Scroll. Samsung issued two updates to the device, bringing Android 4.3 and 4.4 to this not-so-old smartphone. Just a few weeks ago, the Android 5.0 update started to roll-out.

Like many of its predecessors, the S4 was released in many variants. To prevent grey market reselling, models of the S4 manufactured after July 2013 implemented a regional lockout system in certain regions. Among the many regional variants, Samsung released a Google Play edition. This variant contained a stock AOSP ROM, and it was directly supported by Google. The S4’s reception was quite warm, although some journalists criticized Samsung for cramming in too many applications and features. This phone is the best commercial Android device sold by Samsung, with a whooping 80 million sold.

Building on the Success of its Predecessor

The most recent Samsung Galaxy S phone is the S5. This time, the Korean engineers aimed to improve the device’s build quality with a new textured back, as well as give it IP67 water and dust resistanceSM-G900FZKAXEO-53-0. The S5 featured several new security features such as a fingerprint reader on the home button and private mode, as well as expanded health features (such as a built-in heart rate monitor), and an updated camera. The Samsung Galaxy S5 was unveiled at Mobile World Congress 2014 in Barcelona.

This 5.1” Full HD device features the Samsung Exynos 5 Octa 5422 (with Mali T628MP6 GPU) or Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 (featuring the Adreno 330 GPU) for the LTE version, or the Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 in the LTE-Advanced version. Samsung used 2 GB of RAM and gave its users 16 or 32 GB of internal storage. The storage can be expanded by up to 128 GB through a microSD card. The S5 includes a 16 megapixel rear camera. Unlike other models, the LTE-A version also upgrades the display to a quad HD, 1440p panel.

The phone was released with Android 4.4 KitKat with TouchWiz Nature UX 3.0 software. The interface was re-designed with a flatter and more geometric look. These changes were due in part to a licensing deal with Google, in which the Mountain View company required Samsung to follow a more Android-inspired design. The settings menu was updated with a new grid-based layout. A “kid mode” was also been included. An interesting feature that was also introduced is the new “download booster,” which allows users to combine Wi-Fi and LTE to get higher download speeds. Recently, the Galaxy S5 received its update to Android 5.0 Lollipop.

All Galaxy S phones starting with the Galaxy S3 contain KNOX security software. Samsung added it to make devices safer and more business friendly. For power users like ourselves, KNOX is somewhat of a curse that we have to live with. Flashing a custom ROM likely trips the KNOX flag, leading to a potential warranty issue. Users have to decide whether they prefer to take the risk and flash a custom ROM or kernel, or stick with the stock firmware so that they can rely on Samsung’s service if something goes wrong.

A Notable Success

The Galaxy brand isn’t limited to just the Galaxy S line. During the past several years, Samsung also released several incredibly successful phablets, notable tablets, and novel watches that can be considered flagships as well. Samsung took a stab at productivity-minded clients with its Galaxy Note line. The Samsung Galaxy Note includes both phablets and tablets. Here’s a short history of the line, which started back in Samsung_N7000_1 late 2011.

The first phablet (portmanteau of the words phone and tablet) was released at IFA Berlin 2011. The original Samsung Galaxy Note featured an incredibly large (for the era) 5.3” HD Super AMOLED screen and a Wacom-powered S Pen stylus to greatly enhance the phone’s productivity potential. Just like the Galaxy S line, the original Note was released in two major variants with Exynos and Qualcomm SoCs. The Exynos 4210 version contained a dual core 1.4 GHz CPU and Mali 400 MP GPU, while the Qualcomm variant features a dual core 1.5 GHz Scorpion CPU and Adreno 220 GPU. This device features LTE connectivity, 1 GB RAM, and 16/32 GB storage expandable with microSD card. The phablet shipped with Android 2.3 Gingerbread and TouchWiz, and it was later updated to Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich and Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean. Samsung added tons of features to maximize the stylus experience, including a handwriting mode. This phablet quickly turned out to be quite successful, and Samsung celebrated 10 million of sales in 2012.

The second attempt at the Galaxy note was Galaxy-Note-II-N7100even more successful. Unveiled on August 29, 2012 and released a few months later, the Galaxy Note II was the successor to the original Galaxy Note. This time, Samsung used a larger 5.5” screen, as well as an updated hardware design based on that of the Galaxy S III. The Note 2 features an Exynos 4 (4412) SoC with a quad-core 1.6 GHz ARM Cortex-A9 CPU and Mali-400 MP4 GPU. The phablet’s RAM was doubled, and the phone was made available in three variants featuring 16, 32 and 64 GB internal storage. The S Pen was also upgraded to allow for a new hoverbox feature. The Note 2 was released with Android 4.1.2, and it received updates to Android 4.4.2. Samsung is planning to update it to Lollipop, which should be available very soon. Like any other Galaxy Device, the Note 2’s firmware features the TouchWiz interface. The Note II is undoubtedly one of the Korean OEM’s most successful devices, shipping nearly 40 million units worldwide.

samsung_galaxy_note3_note3neoThe Samsung Galaxy Note 3 was released in late 2013, and was the first smartphone to feature 3GB of RAM. With the Note 3, Samsung made the jump to Full HD displays for its phablets. The Note 3 features a larger 5.7” 1080p Super AMOLED panel, but it retains the slim profile of its predecessors. It offers a 13-megapixel camera with an improved flash, and of course improved S Pen functionality. Like its predecessors, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 was available in a few variants. The N9005 utilized the 2.3 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 SoC, while the international N9000 featured the octa-core Exynos 5420, consisting of four 1.9 GHz Cortex-A15 cores and four 1.3 GHz Cortex-A7 cores in a big.LITTLE arrangement. The Galaxy Note 3 is also the first smartphone to include support for faster USB 3.0 data transfers and charging when connected to a compatible port. The Note 3 shipped Android 4.3 Jelly Bean and TouchWiz Nature UX 2.5. Currently, the device is in the process of receiving its Android 5.0 Lollipop update.

Samsung also released a more budget-friendly variant of the Note 3 named the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 Neo. This phablet sports a smaller screen (5.5″ Super AMOLED), 2 GB of RAM, and either 16 or 32 GB of storage. The Note 3 Neo is available in two variants: a hexa-core 1.7 GHz Cortex-A15 and 1.3 GHz Cortex-A7 Exynos 5260 with LTE support and the ARM Mali T624MP6 GPU, or a quad-core 1.6 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon with the Adreno 305 GPU. The device is scheduled to receive its Lollipop update quite soon.

Samsung-Galaxy-Note-4The latest premium phablet by Samsung is the Galaxy Note 4. It was released in September 2014, and it offers a 5.7-inch 1440 x 2560-pixel (Quad HD) display, 3GB of RAM, 32 GB of storage, 16 MP rear camera, and a powerful Exynos or Snapdragon SoC. As before, there are different variants for different regions, including one with the Exynos 5433 SoC with eight cores running at up to 1.9GHz and the Mali T760 GPU, as well as the Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 with a quad 2.7 GHz CPU and Adreno 420 GPU. The Note 4 is also the first in the Note series to get optical image stabilization for its main camera. The Note 4 shipped with Android 4.4 KitKat OS with TouchWiz Nature UX 3.0, and is expecting Lollipop very shortly


Other Samsung Flagships

Phones and phablets aren’t the only premium devices Samsung has to offer. In February 2013, the Korean OEM announced two new tablets: the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 and Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1. Both are powered by the Samsung Samsung-Galaxy-Note-10.1-2014-Edition-vs-Galaxy-Note-10.1-2012-versionExynos 4412 quad-core SoC. The 10.1 version uses a slightly underclocked 1.4 GHz CPU, while 8.0 is powered by a 1.6 GHz part. Otherwise, the specifications are very similar. Both devices feature 2 GB of RAM, 16 or 32 GB of storage, a 5 megapixel camera, and WXGA (800×1280) displays. The tablets shipped with Android 4.1.2, and are upgradable to Android 4.4.2 KitKat.

In 2014 Samsung announced another premium tablet, the redesigned Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014 Edition). The tablet features the 1.9 GHz octa-core Samsung Exynos 5420 SoC processor (for Wi-Fi/3G & Wi-Fi variants), or the 2.3 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 SoC processor (for 4G/LTE). Samsung gave the device 3 GB of RAM, as well as three choices in internal storage: 16, 32 and 64 GB. The tablet features a 10.1″ WQXGA (2560×1600) Super Clear PLS TFT display with excellent image quality. It was released with Android 4.3 and TouchWiz Nature UX 2.5, and the Android 5.0 Lollipop update is on its way.

The OEM also announced another true beast of a device in early 2014. The monstrous Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 features powerful hardware such as its 12.2″ 2560×1600 WQXGA PLS display, highly useful S Pen, and high end processor. Depending on connectivity option selected, the Note Pro 12.2 features either the Samsung Exynos 5420 SoC processor (Wi-Fi) or 2.3 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 SoC processor (4G/LTE). These devices utilize the ARM Mali-T628MP6 and Adreno 330 GPUs, respectively. The tablet comes with 3 GB of RAM and two storage options (32 and 64 GB). Everything is powered by a humongous 9.500 mAh battery, giving the device impressive longevity. The tablet was released with Android 4.4.2 and TouchWiz Nature UX 3.0, but it’s quite clear that it will soon be updated to Android 5.0 Lollipop.

That’s All Folks!

As you can see, Samsung had a little bit of a bumpy ride to the top. However, the OEM quickly learned its lessons early, and became one of the most dominant OEMs in the Android ecosystem. They are also one of the most recognizable brands in Android, and there is a fair chance that you’ve used (or are using) one of their devices. This series will continue, and next time, we will take a look at Motorola. See you again next time and thanks for reading!

About author

Tomek Kondrat
Tomek Kondrat

In his 30's. Joined XDA in 2011 and the portal in 2013. Senior Moderator and Developer Committee Leader. Android enthusiast that needs to have his devices rooted. Likes football (the real one), travels, TV shows, Kodi, post-rock and good food. Contact: [email protected]