It’s a weird time for in-person tech events. On one hand, companies are just champing at the bit to host them after a few years of lockdown livestreams. Samsung is the latest of them, after OnePlus, Apple, and Google all took their turns last year. But on the other hand, the mobile devices on center stage in this new era of live events have been kind of boring and often upstaged by their wearable counterparts. The Apple Watch Ultra was arguably the biggest announcement to come out of the company’s fall event in Cupertino, and the Pixel Watch was (justifiably) all anyone wanted to talk about after Google’s event launching the Pixel 7 series.
That’s just to be expected for a mature product category like smartphones — the year-over-year changes aren’t the technological leaps and bounds forward that they once were. Foldables might be on the cusp of taking off, but slab-style phones like the S23 series we will surely see in the spotlight on Wednesday have reached cruising altitude.
At least, that’s what a multitude of leaks and rumors suggest. The S23 Ultra looks like it will get a 200-megapixel camera sensor and a very slight reshaping, while the S23 and S23 Plus seem to offer new Snapdragon 8 Gen 2 processors and not much more. If that’s the case, then Unpacked might have some big “this in-person event could have been a livestream” energy.
“Phones are boring” isn’t a problem that Samsung or any other smartphone maker needs to solve; it’s just the new reality. Washing machines are boring, too, but they are still relevant to many people’s lives and important businesses for companies that make them (including Samsung!).
And it’s not that mobile technology isn’t moving forward — it’s just that the developments being made now don’t translate well to the stage. Take Samsung’s new 200-megapixel image sensor: it has relatively tiny individual pixels, which can lead to problems with overexposure and blooming in photos because they have a lower capacity for storing electrons than larger pixels. Samsung seems to have engineered a way to compensate for this low “full-well capacity,” as it’s called, by using dual vertical transfer gate technology. That’s very cool, but I bet you five dollars we won’t hear the words “full-well capacity” or “dual vertical transfer gate” on stage this week.
So what will we hear about? Samsung hinted that the Ultra model will be at the forefront of the Unpacked announcements, and that makes a lot of sense. The S22 Ultra has one of the best mobile camera systems we’ve ever tested, and if Samsung can carry that momentum forward in the next generation, then that’s worth celebrating.
Maybe these flashy in-person events are less about convincing everyone that they need to upgrade their phone right now for this newest model and more as a reassurance that you bought into the right ecosystem — a reminder that you’re rooting for the right team, like a pep rally. Sure, you’re not buying a new phone this year, but if you were, you’d get the greatest and best phone ever made. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s a fantastic watch and a pair of earbuds to go with it, too. You wouldn’t dream of switching systems, would you?
Anyway, maybe this year’s event makes a little more sense when you think of it as a victory lap for the S22 Ultra — which didn’t get an in-person launch — or even slab-style phones altogether. If the Galaxy Z Fold ever gets a truly great camera system, an integrated S Pen, and a slightly more reasonable price, it’ll make the Ultra obsolete. Why get a slab-style phone that does everything when you can have a folding phone that does everything? But not to worry — it’s not time for a curtain call just yet.