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.

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

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