Samsung Galaxy S to S20: Looking back at Samsung’s flagship lineup
The Samsung Galaxy S21 series is right around the corner. Samsung is all geared up to take the wraps off the next generation in its premier flagship lineup, the Galaxy S series. With the eventual fate of the Galaxy Note lineup up in the air, the Galaxy S series becomes the principal driving force of Samsung’s Android smartphone efforts in the conventional candy-bar form factor. The Galaxy S series has been the recipient of the South Korean company’s mainstream innovation on both the hardware and software fronts. And so, before we take a step forward towards the future with the Galaxy S21, it’s worth taking a look back at how the Galaxy S lineup evolved to become one of the most anticipated smartphone releases in any given year.
Samsung Galaxy S (i9000/galaxys) — The First of its Name
The Galaxy S legacy begins with the original Samsung Galaxy S, the first device from Samsung with the “S” moniker. The Galaxy S was launched in 2010, and while Samsung may have definitely hoped for its success, we’re pretty sure that no one would have imagined the same lineup to continue on this strongly 11 years later too.
The Galaxy S entered the market at a time when Android was just starting to walk, and Windows Phones and Nokias and Blackberrys were still very much a thing — even Samsung’s Bada OS was around, and the Samsung Wave GT-S8500 was one of the competitors against the Galaxy S. The “large” 4-inch 480 x 800 Super AMOLED display on the Galaxy S was one of the better ones around at the time. This was so long ago, our memory even fades figuring out Android competitors, because no other lineup has survived this long. The HTC Evo 4G and the Motorola Droid X were some of the competitors, and while HTC did go on to make several very successful phones later on too, the company did lose its way some years later. Motorola also has taken a back seat from flagships under Lenovo. For Samsung, the Galaxy S line still goes strong.
Samsung Galaxy S2 (i9100) — Thin it up!
The Samsung Galaxy S2 came out in 2011, and it was one of the first Samsung flagships that I had the opportunity to use. Android could still be considered in its infancy, but Samsung was quickly carving its name in the market as one of the better options around for the OS.
While yes, TouchWiz of the time left a lot to be desired, the Galaxy S2 still impressed with its overall hardware package. It was also one of the thinnest phones of its time, which was a mean feat in itself, and it even had a user-replaceable battery. The phone also supported Mobile High-Definition Link (MHL), allowing it to output content to a TV while being charged at the same time.
As far as competition is concerned, the Galaxy S2 went against devices like the HTC Sensation and the LG Optimus 2X. Both of these devices were good products of their time, but the Galaxy S2 won the heart of the tech sphere, despite the myriad of carrier variants and Plus releases.
Samsung Galaxy S3 (i9300/d2) — Bumping it up to HD
The Samsung Galaxy S3 came out in 2012, and it is immediately recognizable for its “pebble”-inspired look. It was a good deviation from the rather boxy design of the predecessor.
What also mesmerized users was the display, as it was the first in the Galaxy S lineup to make the jump to a 720 x 1280 Super AMOLED display. The quad-core Exynos 4412 SoC was also a talking point, as other competitors like the HTC One X and the LG Optimus 4X HD were marketing cores on their spec sheet. TouchWiz was still on board and continued to receive fair criticism, but you now had features like Multi-Window, which was far ahead of its time and official implementation within Android.
Samsung Galaxy S4 (i9505/jfltexx) — Welcome to Full HD
The Samsung Galaxy S4 came out in 2013, with a design that refined what the predecessor had introduced, and an even better 1080 x 1920 FHD display. However, criticism had begun mounting on Samsung for going heavy on gimmicky features like Smart Pause, Air View, as well as overall stagnation.
The Galaxy S4 was a good phone, mind you. It’s just that this (and the next phone) were released at stages when the competition had started getting better. Samsung did sell a lot of units of this phone, but even they had a hint of the growing discontentment amongst the flagship enthusiast crowd. Critics were also vocal of the bloatware laden Touchwiz at this point, and it became clear that some change was needed.
We did get some change, in the form of the Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition. Launched jointly with Google, the Galaxy S4 GPE took the flagship hardware from Samsung, removed the bloaty software that Samsung still appeared to be struggling with, and presented it with an AOSP experience with Google Apps and an easily unlockable bootloader. It was practically perfect, other than the fact that AOSP also had a lot of maturing to do — while enthusiast crowds like ours would have loved AOSP back in 2013, Samsung’s bloaty Touchwiz could arguably have been considered a better average-user-experience than stock Android 4.4 Kitkat.
Samsung Galaxy S5 (k3gxx/klte) — The Bandaid?
The Samsung Galaxy S5 came along in 2014, and it brought along the fingerprint scanner to the home button, as well as a heart rate sensor near the primary camera. It also brought along an IP67 protection rating and a very unique microUSB 3.0 port with a flap cover on the bottom.
While the upgrades made it sound like a winning formula, critics came down heavily on Samsung’s continued use of polycarbonate on its flagship series. Even though the device tried to switch it up with a different finish, opinion was clearly divided on whether it felt better or worse — it did make good memes though, at the time. Competing devices like the LG G2, Sony Xperia Z2, and the HTC One M8 — each had their own strengths and weaknesses. But for a moment, Samsung’s position at the top appeared to be on the verge of an upheaval in the coming year. Don’t get us wrong — the Galaxy S5 was still a good flagship at heart. But the competition appeared to have better designs, stereo speakers, cleaner UX, and more, providing an experience that appeared to be better than the combination that Samsung was offering on its flagship. This feeling had persisted since the Galaxy S3 days, and it was high time for some change.
Samsung Galaxy S6 (zerofltexx) — The New Direction
And a radical change did arrive with the Galaxy S6 in 2015. Samsung made a complete shift in design language as well as big changes for software, and it even threw in a second model to the mix with the Edge release. The highlight of these new flagships was the glass-and-metal sandwich design that enabled wireless charging as a feature, and the curved edge display on the Edge variant, which was a big talking point back then, and even a resolution bump up to QHD on the Super AMOLED display.
While the Galaxy S6 Edge was not the first phone with a curved display from Samsung (that crown goes to the unapologetically asymmetrical Galaxy Note Edge), it did polish the learning curve for early adopters, enough for them to momentarily overlook the removal of IP ratings and begrudgingly accept the removal of the microSD card slot. The curve wasn’t particularly useful per se, even though Samsung threw a few features on, so its future on flagships was still up in the proverbial air. But by and large, the Samsung Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge began walking down the path of what will turn out to be Samsung’s best selling flagships.
Samsung Galaxy S7 (herolte) — Yearly refinement
The Samsung Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge came out in 2016. While the Galaxy S6 series was a pretty risky endeavor from Samsung, the Galaxy S7 series played it safe and focused on refining the overall experience.
With the Galaxy S7 series, Samsung brought back water-resistance and the microSD card slot. We also got the Dual Pixel AF camera that opted to go down in MP count in favor of bigger pixels and brighter aperture, which many would agree was the right move to make. All in all, the Galaxy S7 series felt a lot like what the Galaxy S6 should have been, but you have to give credit to Samsung for the redesign and the refinement.
Samsung Galaxy S8 (dreamlte) — Attack on the Bezels
The Samsung Galaxy S8 came out in 2017. While the Galaxy S6 turned the series around on its heels, the Galaxy S8 also was a big change, just in less noticeable ways. It was an even more incredible feat considering the fact that the company was poised to take a more cautious step after the Galaxy Note 7 fiasco.
With this lineup, Samsung did away with flat and edged variants — instead, you got curved edges in a smaller size and a larger Plus-sized variant. The display also changed aspect ratios, so you got a “bigger” diagonal with a taller phone that was now easier to hold. Samsung saw bezels on the front of the device, and attacked it viciously — what was left was called the new Infinity Display design. The home button was caught as collateral damage, and Samsung had to opt for virtual buttons and shift the fingerprint scanner to the back of the device. Even TouchWiz was not spared — the culling of the feature creep and the S6-inspired refresh led to a TouchWiz experience that was not exactly TouchWiz anymore, so Samsung renamed it to Samsung Experience UX. Samsung avoided any major plays around the camera, so that remains a recognizable aspect of the phone.
You’d notice that we stopped mentioning competitors. That was because the Galaxy S6 was the shot in the arm that Samsung needed, and the phones after that occupied the top spot at the helm of Android, overshadowed only by Samsung’s Galaxy Note series. Consistent competition from the likes of HTC was no longer around, and OEMs like OnePlus started getting recognized for flagship-grade-performance devices. The Apple iPhone 7 was also a mammoth to compete against. The Google Pixel had also just landed, and while Google did not really make splashes through volume, it did occupy headlines and reviewer-attention. But undeniably, the Galaxy S had its own brand value built up by now, solidified by the refinements of the Galaxy S8.
Samsung Galaxy S9 (starlte) — Yearly refinement, again
With the Galaxy S9 coming out in 2018, it was a bit of a familiar story. There weren’t as many radical changes overall, just touch-ups and refinements. And that’s okay — don’t fix what’s not broken, and reception to the preview phones indicated Samsung had done some things pretty well.
What Samsung did try to fix was the camera, in a surprisingly novel way. The phone came with a variable aperture, going from f/1.5 wide to f/2.4 narrow. To the best of my knowledge and memory, I do not recall any other mainstream OEM experimenting with a variable aperture on a device of importance. Samsung gave up on the idea the very next year, but this is something we still hope makes a comeback sometime in the future. The Galaxy S9 Plus did get an additional rear camera, and we began seeing feature-divergence on the lineup beyond just physical dimensions.
Samsung Galaxy S10 (beyondlte) — The Future was here
Just when you thought that the bezel situation was good enough, Samsung went ahead and shaved some more millimeters off the front with the Samsung Galaxy S10 series launched in 2019. And speaking of feature-divergence on the lineup, we graduate to having three different phones with good differences between them.
The phones looked great, and consumers not-so-surprisingly were impressed with what they saw. So what if the overall upgrades were simply cumulative refinements over the last-gen — they did add up to a tighter, and more cohesive experience. A fair bit of that credit goes on to One UI, Samsung’s latest redesign of the User Experience skin, which came off as a breath of fresh air over the TouchWiz remnants on Samsung Experience. While yes, there is still an abundance of features, the overall experience came in line with what you would expect from top-end hardware. The Galaxy S10 Plus represented maturity for the Galaxy S lineup.
Samsung Galaxy S20 (hubble) — Back to the numbers race
The Samsung Galaxy S20 series, launched in 2020, brought a lot of the focus on the Samsung flagship lineup back to numbers. For instance, the name signified the year of launch, allowing Samsung to skip all the numbers from 11 and land on a good 20, and make its flagship naming a lot more uniform and predictable.
Some more numbers got a decent bit of attention, at least on the flagship end: 120Hz refresh rate, HDR10+ support, taller 20:9 aspect ratio, overkill 16GB RAM and 512GB internal storage, USB 3.2, 45W fast charging, and of course, the 108MP primary camera, the 48MP periscope zoom camera, and the 40MP front camera. That’s a lot of numbers, and it takes us back to the era when marketing on phones revolved around them having the biggest and most numbers — to that end, the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra very well succeeded.
Samsung Galaxy S21 — The Everyday Epic?
If you’ve noticed the patterns around, you’d see that the focus this year should be on refinement and experience, more so than raw numbers. And well, there are going to be raw numbers as well, if the leaks so far are to be believed.
For instance, we’ll hopefully finally see a 120Hz refresh rate on a QHD+ display on a Samsung flagship, refining the base standard that the Galaxy S20 Ultra left us with. The 108MP spec on the camera is going to stick around, but we can expect a much more polished experience with the second generation sensor. And we will also finally get ourselves some good S Pen support, even if stored externally, providing convergence to two of Samsung’s top flagship experiences.
How the Galaxy S21 series will be received, and where we go from there, is only something we can find out post-Samsung Unpacked 2021. Until then, we make do with the nostalgia trip with the undisputed flagship lineup of Android.