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Samsung’s big launch: does the Note even matter anymore?

When Samsung launched the original Galaxy Note back in 2011, it helped kickstart the phablet phenomenon. Earlier today, it announced the launch of the latest in the series, the Note 5. But is it enough for it to claw back some ground on Apple? And perhaps more importantly, does the Note still matter?

The latest version of the device, which hits shelves on 21 August, certainly looks impressive. Available in black and gold, it comes with a glass back and has includes design elements both from its predecessor, the Note 4 and S6.

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It’s also borrowed some features from the S6, including the 16 Megapixel camera and the the octacore Samsung Exynos processor.

That may be part of Samsung’s efforts to be a leaner, more efficient mobile company and the truth is most people won’t care that their phone shares components with another one in the range.

What they do care about are the features that might make the high-end users the note is aimed at switch over from the iPhone.

The improved looks and seemingly better build quality are a step in the right direction and probably matter a lot more than the new Note-specific features.

Still, they are worth noting. You can, for instance, now use the S-Pen (which Samsung says has improved sensitivity and performance) to write on the lock-screen. You can also use the camera app to live stream directly to YouTube, which interesting if you’re into that sort of thing.

In all honesty though, it’s unlikely that any of the above will help Samsung capture the magic of the original note.

Big is normal now

Back when the first Note launched, most smartphone screens were somewhere between 3.5 and 4-inches big. Most people were happy with that. Heck, iPhone users of the time practically gloated about their small screens, wondering aloud why anyone would want a bigger display.

The first Note answered that question in a big way. Its 5.5-inch display opened up the possibilities of what you could do with a smartphone. The business users who it was targeted at could now plausibly leave their tablets at home for one.

But as the Note sold in surprisingly large numbers, other manufacturers began to sit up and take note. They too started upping to the size of their screens until we got to the point where at today. Phones with screens larger than 5-inches no longer seem like they deserve a special classification. Even Apple eventually twigged and what were once phablets are now the standard for most smartphone makers’ premium models.

Heck, even the other phone launched at today’s event — the S6 Plus — has nearly identical hardware to the Note. Aside from the S6 Plus’ curved screen design and the Note’s ubiquitous S-Pen, there really isn’t much to separate the two devices.

It seems increasingly likely then that the Note will go back to being a niche device. And that doesn’t bode well if Samsung wants to use it as a weapon in its war against Apple.

Let the fruit fly

And it certainly seems that Samsung does actually see the Note 5 as a viable Apple beater. That much is evident from the timing of the launch.

As IHS Technology senior analyst Daniel Gleeson points out, “the timing and details of the launch are notable and different compared with previous years”.

Over the past few years, the Note range has usually been announced at the IFA conference in late August/early September.

“By launching a couple weeks earlier, Gleeson says, “Samsung is hoping to steal a march on Apple’s new iPhone announcement which will likely happen in early September”.

That may well be down to Samsung learning from the lessons of the past. As Gleeson notes:

“The Galaxy Note 4 was hit by direct competition from the larger screen iPhone 6 Plus during the year which likely had a significant impact on the Note 4’s success. Until autumn 2014, Apple had no large screen smartphones which could compete with Samsung”.

Whether or not the timing of the launch has an effect on sales is something the market will be keeping a keen eye on over the coming weeks.

What’s clear however is that Samsung is trying to eke out any competitive advantage it can.

Late to the (mobile payments) party

Even with this early launch though Samsung still has some catching up to do, especially in the mobile payments space. It’ll have an especially difficult time competing with Apple here.

Aside from the fact that it pushed the launch of Samsung Pay back from June to September, it also lacks the 800-million or so payment card accounts associated with iTunes which Apple used to gain rapid traction with its payments service.

As a further complication, Gleeson reckons that “Samsung Pay’s co-existence with Android Pay is likely to create frictions in the Android ecosystem as consumers could be confused by the two payment options”.

Room for two giants

Despite those very real complications, Gleeson reckons that Samsung and Apple can both be successful in the same market.

“The Note 5 is an excellent device to market for ‘prosumers’ and enterprise due to its stylus and keyboard attachment,” he says.

He does however add that “Samsung must aim to accelerate the launch of both models into all global markets. Otherwise, consumers with a preference for one or other of Samsung’s differentiated designs will simply defer their purchase, hurting Samsung’s business”.

The thing is, Samsung’s already hurting. It’s spent so long fighting Apple that other players have come in and owned the bottom and middle of the market, spaces which Samsung once dominated.

The Note 5, which now pretty much has just the S-Pen separating it from other phones on the market, won’t change that.

It’s certainly unlikely to be an Apple beater. If Samsung wants that and a real chance at recovering from its recent slump, then it needs to move beyond “the new normal”.

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