How Samsung Out-Designed Apple

How Samsung Out-Designed Apple

The new Galaxy Note 7 defies your expectations. What started years ago as a generation of large, chunky phones, is now almost unrecognisable to any fan of Samsung’s Note series. It has a bigger screen than the iPhone 6s Plus, yet it’s more svelte and pocketable. And it features that gorgeous curved screen Samsung pioneered a little over a year ago. It’s a feat that would have seemed impossible just two years ago, when Samsung was in a slump and still known for pumping out high-end phones made out of flimsy plastic.

But the company hit the reset button on its design philosophy starting with last year’s Galaxy S6 — dubbed internally as “Project Zero” to signify that Samsung was starting from scratch. The phone featured a gorgeous curved screen design that was unmatched by any other device. For the first time, Samsung had a phone that was truly unique.

The Galaxy Note 7, which launches later this month, is the pinnacle of the new design language pioneered by the Galaxy S6. It’s two identical pieces of curved glass fused together into a perfectly symmetrical, damn good-looking phone. On top of that, it has all the high-end specs you’d expect from a flagship phone, including water resistance, expandable storage, and a camera that has yet to be beaten by any other device.

In a year and a half, Samsung went from a company that was heavily criticised for cribbing Apple’s ideas to one that ultimately leapfrogged its rival’s designs. (Samsung will probably stay on top for at least another year too. If the rumours hold true, the iPhone 7 will look very similar to the iPhone 6s.)

What may seem like an overnight transition to outsiders, has actually been years in the making, Hong Yeo, Samsung’s lead designer for the Galaxy Note 7 told Tech Insider in an interview this week.

Yeo has a unique background for someone who now designs smartphones for a living. Before Samsung, he was designing supercars at McLaren. His first major project was the Galaxy S6, and he and the rest of the team at Samsung’s international design studio have been iterating and improving on that base design ever since.

“A normal customer feels like we just started the S6, but we’ve been preparing for the S6 for a very long time,” Yeo said.

“We’ve always had that technology and those materials, but we really wanted to perfect and wait for the right time to bring it into market. The S6 was the transformation when everything met together. The new Note is when we really perfected and refined that whole process.”

The standout design feature on Samsung’s phones today is that curved screen. It doesn’t add much functionality to the device — there are some software tricks like displaying a coloured light on the curve when you get a phone call — but Yeo said it’s not just there to look pretty either.

“A mobile phone is more than something you look at. You touch and use it every day. We wanted to improve that grip level, and the curved display allows us to have that perfect grip,” Yeo said. “When people hold it for the first time they’re surprised by how smooth and seamless it is.”

He’s right. I’ve been lugging an iPhone 6 Plus around for almost two years now, and it feels like a brick compared to the Galaxy Note 7. There’s so much included in a tight package that you don’t even realise you’re using a phablet-sized device.

In fact, Yeo says early test units of the Note 7 were sometimes confused with the S7 (which has a smaller screen) because of its small footprint and comfortable grip. Since the phone is built with the same piece of glass from front to back, it feels like it almost melts into your hand or becomes invisible in your pocket.

“We were questioning every surface, questioning every edge,” Yeo said. “That was the key highlight of the design. Perfect symmetry from front to back is really hard to do, especially with the curved glass.”

Before the design team begins a new project, Yeo said they go on what they call “inspirational trips” around the world, talking to customers in focus groups or even quizzing passersby on the street to get feedback and figure out upcoming design trends.

How Samsung Out-Designed AppleImage: Gizmodo Australia

And that feedback from customers often shows up in future devices. With the Galaxy S6, Samsung had to eliminate features like water resistance and removable storage in order to achieve the design it wanted, prompting a sort of mini revolt among its most loyal users. Yeo says the design team took that feedback seriously, and was able to add water resistance and removable storage back in this generation of phones without compromising on the design.

“We’re users ourselves,” Yeo said. “We can understand the feedback and relate to the feedback. But sometimes it takes time. We want to make sure everything works and is produceable.”

That’s perhaps the biggest change in Samsung’s design philosophy that Yeo credits for the team’s breakthroughs so far. There’s more collaboration within the company, but they still maintain their tradition of listening to outsiders and giving them what they want.

Those on the design team didn’t all start as smartphone designers. Like Yeo, they have various backgrounds like architecture and industrial design.

“There’s a global pool of talent,” Yeo said. “Design director Jacob Lee wanted it to be global. I think it’s that change that I noticed since I joined and how we perceived this device and approached design differently.”

It’s not just the outside of the phone that’s seen a big improvement in design. Samsung has also cleaned up its TouchWiz user interface, a modification of Android, to be easier to use and more streamlined. Yeo says this is a result of the software and hardware design teams working together.

But it’s still not perfect. In the US, Samsung’s agreements with wireless carriers means it has to pre-load its phones with a lot of extra software that weighs down the streamlined experience. (Buy a phone from Verizon, and you get loads of Verizon apps you’ll probably never use, for example.) Apple seems to be the only company that’s been able to skirt those kind of carrier restrictions.

Samsung also has a poor record updating the software on its phones with new features, so there’s always a risk your phone this year will miss out on new features next year.

Still, Samsung’s efforts in design are paying off. After watching its mobile business shrink for a few years, it’s now growing again, thanks largely to the success of the Galaxy S7. According to the research firm Kantar, the Galaxy S7 even outsold the iPhone 6s in the US during its first three months on the market. And reviews of the latest crop of devices have been universally positive.

After spending a short time with the Note 7, I can tell it already feels like another winner.

“Overall, it’s a very unique product from a design standpoint,” Yeo said. “It can’t be something left out in the cold. It’s almost an emotional product. We’re constantly trying to improve that connection.”

This article originally appeared on Business Insider Australia


  • Having actually held and used this device briefly on Tuesday, the edge design does not feel great in the hand. Why they did that truly escapes me… it will not sell well beyond the fanboys

    • I’m an iPhone user and I was quite impressed with the look and feel of the S7 Edge (rather than the S7 note that I haven’t seen). To be honest, it’s no more slippery or hard to hold than Apple’s offering.

      I was especially impressed with the software settings and the ability to locally transfer files between handsets for upgrading or crossgrading between Android and IOS. I liked the SOS feature (as my friend, the owner of the phone I played with, is getting on in years and this could be a life-saver). Apple are WAY behind on features, especially locking in SIRI with inferior products like Apple maps, or not being able to adjust the volume using SIRI.

      Where Samsung fails is that the main interface of Android is poorly designed. Sliding screens that seem illogical compared to other parts of the UI, search boxes all over the place. How you add and delete things of the desktop is far too complex. I deleted a contact but the details stayed on the desktop. In this respect, Apple have a big lead over Android. Android, from the first time you switch it on, is far too complex. I also still don’t quite understand why apps appear on the desktop and in apps, whatever apps is.

      I think it’s too early to rubbish Apple for their next phone when it’s not even out. Part of this article sounded like it was written by the Samsung marketing team or a fanboy.

      I like Samsung’s aesthetic. However, I’ll stick with Apple because the end-to-end experience is better integrated (sans iTunes) and more consistent. Also, the updates, as Jamie said, are a big problem for Samsung. Samsung do not manage regular updates well for a premium device.

      • Think of ‘Apps’ like Windows PC start menu. You can have a shortcut on your desktop but the app is still in your start menu too.

      • Stop comparing the S7 to a budget phone iphone 6s The screen on the iphone 6s is 750p budget, where is the ois on the iphones camera, budget, where is the latest oled qhd screen, budget, where is wirless charg budget iphone, stop comparing a real flagship to a budget spec phone.

    • I think they should have done a flat one and an Edge variant.

      I have an S7 Edge and absolutely love it, to the point where I can’t imagine ever going back to a non-edge phone, but I can see how people might not like it. I wouldn’t risk using it without the flip case as it’s quite slippery!

  • But at the end of the day it is still a Samsung, and will always be several OS updates behind because they take so damn long to customise it once Google releases an update. If they weren’t always behind the 8-ball and more proactive in getting the OS updates out it would be great. Having owned a Samsung before, I don’t think I could go back with them.

  • Sadly this poor attitude to software pervades the company. Even their air conditioning arm trumpets the WiFi connectivity available on higher end models, despite the fact the app is mostly broken and almost never updated. The company doesn’t care about the after-sales experience once they’ve flogged you a piece of hardware.

  • This is clearly a Samsung-paid article. Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock for the last 7 years, Samsung merely caught up to Apple. That’s what they’ve done since copying them in the first place. I dont know how they’ve out-designed them?

    • Look, I’m not going to deny that the iPhone is a superb phone, and the fact that it’s conception drove the development of the smart phone industry.

      But seriously?

      All Apple ever does with the iPhone is take existing ideas, refine them and claim them as their own. Whiile other companies are taking chances and exploring new technology, Apple lags behind to see what are safe bets for them and then profit from consumers who worship the Apple logo.

      That being said, TouchWizard is absolute garbage and until Samsung releases a Google Play Edition of their phones, I’m not touching them.

  • Gentlemen, the sad thing is you all have become apple zombies, for examples your contracts restricts you into buying iPhone/Apple Approved Suppliers Only ! Where’s your freedom if your broke !

    For those of us who have chosen alternative manufacturers such as Samsung, in my opinion they have great cellphone products such as the Note-3 and it seems to me now the Note-7 has a good future ahead.

    Samsung also, provides accessibility to less expensive hardware & software programs, unlimited music, etc…, which means I have more money to spend on new toys !

    By the way, what ever happened to your futuristic iPhone Cellphone Watches? Apparently to this date, your high priced fitness watch can only tether up to 30-ft. from it’s handheld.

    Surprisingly since 2012, we the proud owners of Samsung Galaxy Gear-S & Gear-2 Watch Phones have been leaving our handheld phone at home, because they both came with it’s own assigned phone number & data plans.

    So who’s behind the time now ?

    Don’t judge the book from a distance, because Apple Inc. is at it’s prime and Samsung Electronics Limited is getting started !

    See you at the next finish line !

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