Samsung design: the good, the bad, and the ugly

May 9, 2014

It’s not easy to claim the top spot in the worldwide smartphone market. You can’t do it without offering consumers something compelling and that starts with great design. According to Strategy Analytics, Samsung shipped 89 million units in the first three months of this year, for a commanding 31.2% share of the global smartphone market. The share is slightly down on last year, but the market is still growing. According to Canaccord Genuity, 41% of all the smartphone market profits for that same period went to Samsung.

Despite performing well in the market, Samsung has not been winning any design plaudits recently. In fact, the head of mobile design, Dong-hoon Chang had his offer to resign accepted last week. According to Reuters this was down to the reception that the Galaxy S5 received. Min-hyouk Lee, a VP nicknamed “Midas,” will take over, and he too has been a key player in the Galaxy series design, so it remains to be seen whether he will institute major changes.

Let’s take a look back at Samsung’s smartphone designs over the last few years, and see where it got things right and where they went wrong.

The Good

The continued success of the world’s biggest smartphone manufacturer is based on a lot of factors, but the strength of the Galaxy S brand is clearly central and it accounts for the lion’s share of profits. Localytics estimates that 30% of all Android smartphones sold in the world are part of the Galaxy S series. The current leader is the Samsung Galaxy S3 on 15% and there’s a good reason for that.

Global-Android-Share-27.02.14

It’s easy to argue that the Galaxy S3 marks the high point for Samsung’s smartphone design. The company was heavily criticized and sued for copying the look of the iPhone in its original Galaxy S model and it retained a very similar rectangular look in the Galaxy S2. With the Galaxy S3, Samsung went in a new direction, a curved body with round corners, a much slimmer home button with angled sides, and a range of colors. It was genuinely distinctive and it didn’t hurt that it contained truly cutting edge hardware.

Galaxy_S3_press_image

“Designed for humans, inspired by nature” was the tagline and the curves in the design seemed to follow through to the rippling water effects and natural touches in the interface. There was still a little criticism of the removable polycarbonate back, but consumers seemed to appreciate the lighter weight and the comfortable feel. If you stand the Galaxy S series in a line, you can clearly see how the S3 stands out, and the S4 and S5 actually look like steps backward.

The Bad

Before we dive into the barrel of bad Samsung designs and come up clutching the winner, it’s worth mentioning that any OEM trying to innovate with new designs is going to have a few misses. It sometimes feels like Samsung churns out more models than the rest of the market put together in its mission to explore every possible form factor. Consider the Samsung Continuum, the Samsung Sidekick, and even the Samsung Galaxy Round.

The same impatience that drove it to rush out the Galaxy Gear can be seen in a number of its devices over the years. There’s a determination to be first, and a lack of refinement as a result. A lot of Samsung’s bad phones look like inbred children of the Galaxy S series, but you can’t criticize devices like the Samsung Galaxy Fame too harshly because they are deliberately cheap.

Samsung_DoubleTime

If we’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel then the bad title has to go to the Samsung DoubleTime with its white plastic body and giant hinges. It was a fat device with two displays, both awful 3.2-inchers with a 480×320 pixel resolution. One of them was on the outside, but the phone opened up to reveal the other (which was permanently stuck in landscape), rendering the first obsolete, a classic throwback to the feature phone glory days. So what was the point of the hinge? To reveal a keyboard highlighted in pink.

The Ugly

It’s not a massive surprise to see some bad designs pop up in the lower echelons of Samsung’s lineup and cheap can often be ugly too, but when tacky, cringe worthy designs start creeping into your flagship range, there’s obviously a design problem. The signs that Samsung was taking a wrong turn were there to see in the Note 3. A faux-leather effect complete with fake stitching does not add class to a polycarbonate backing. Samsung may have made the best of a bad idea, but it was a bad idea.

Samsung-Galaxy-Note-3--camera

Who knew that things would be pushed further with the Galaxy S5? There’s no arguing that it’s a powerful and impressive smartphone, but how the design team could look at that pockmarked back panel and not be slightly concerned is beyond us. The Band-Aid comparison might be going a bit far, but it’s not just the texture, the white version looks really cheap and the blue and gold are downright gaudy.

samsung galaxy s5 gold back cover battery 5

It may not be strictly-speaking, the ugliest phone that Samsung has released, the DoubleTime has a shot at that title too, as does the Galaxy S4 Zoom, but they have mitigating reasons for their bad looks. Stick the Galaxy S5 in a line-up with the best that Sony, HTC, LG, and Apple have to offer and ask them to turn around. It definitely stands out as the ugliest of the bunch.

That’s like, just your opinion, man

There’s no way everyone will agree about this post. Some people felt that the S3 was ugly when it first came out and it went on to be the company’s most successful smartphone ever. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and so is ugly. You might also argue that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, and there are plenty of great cases to hide your phone in.

What would be your picks for Samsung’s good, bad, and ugly? Do you think the Galaxy S series needs an aesthetic overhaul?

Up next: The Best Galaxy S5 Cases

Comments

  • K

    Definitely needs a design overhaul. With that said, it doesn’t necessarily mean the next version has to be metallic like the HTC One. Perfectly good looking plastic phones have been put out by Motorola, HTC, and even Nokia. Samsung just has a thing to make plastic look and feel as cheap as possible. It doesn’t have to. The Moto X has a great plastic body and the Lumia Icon shows that an aluminum border with a plastic back looks pretty good.

    • suspiciousdude

      i wouldn’t buy a metal bodied phone as i had a HTC legend and once you drop it and take a chunk out of the solid metal body you are screwed you cant even replace the back and to send it off to be repaired costs as much as buying a new phone! i speak though experience :)

  • Dimitar Gospodinov

    The only thing I don’t agree with is that the Note 3 back is ugly…I don’t like the S5 but the Note 3 is alright…Nice read tho! Thanks!

    • MasterMuffin

      They really should have used the Note 3′s design in S5!

      • Dimitar Gospodinov

        Yup…the good thing is that there will be tons and tons of back covers for it and we can choose whatever we like right? Pretty sure there will be one like the Note 3…

      • K

        Similar to the Galaxy S4 black edition too. A lot better looking than the S5

        • MasterMuffin

          Yup that black edition is nice!

    • Kiliman

      My wife has the Note 3 and with the S-View cover, it actually looks like a leather-bound portfolio. Looks really nice. It’s white so it gets dirty, but a little Magic Eraser works wonders.

  • Captain Spaulding

    I think the last good looking phone they had was the GS2 (not the version with the physical home button). I don’t get their obsession with that awful looking home button, to me, that just ruins the look. While the back of the GS5 doesn’t look all that great, especially the gold, it does feel nice in hand. As far as I’m concerned, LG G3 FTW!!!

    • Captain Spaulding

      .

      • simpleas

        This new LG is freakin beautiful. But I need spen lol.

  • Shark Bait

    I think its funny how every once calls it polycarbonate now after apple tried to upmarket plastic!

    Back to topic, personally I think, samsung design is crap, where as apple, htc and sony do it for me. I think in a world where everyone has a 1080p screen and snapdragon 801, design is a real way to stand out from the crowd. And sammy suck at both hardware and software design! of course that’s just my opinion

    • Dimitar Gospodinov

      Not to argue just sharing…I honestly can’t like Sony’s design…HTC looks kinda good (to me) but I can’t live with all the tape inside now when I have seen it…and those bezels….Not saying that I like the way the S5 looks but the back is removable so there is a very easy way to “fix” it…check out what I did with my S3:

      https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-ebtSiRbF1O8/UyM6vyJx3AI/AAAAAAAAGJU/xiTrnMA6w18/w1185-h889-no/14+-+1

      P.S. it’s the original back ;-)

      • asd

        I agree I find the Sony phones very ugly and bulky

      • simpleas

        Sony design is not so bad. Htc design is good too but I dont like the curved back. Never did. I prefer the back side of my phones to be flat. Samsung design is not attractive but simple and has as far as phone itself always has the best. So as a geek, i only have one choice lol, galaxy notes.

      • madmax

        sony looks ugliest for real..htc design not bad..but I dont find it as mesmerizing as people make it be…

    • stitch

      I understand design is rather subjective, but for me, a smartphone as a masterpiece of the modern technology, it should have a classy and futuristic look, in which Sony, apple and recently htc have integrated it into their flagships.
      Some may say the look is not important, but I have to look at my smartphone every time I use it, and if I can choose, of course I’m going for a premium looking device, which Samsung fails to deliver such device, and that contributes to a significant growth in mobile phone casing business.
      I aint gonna hide my beautiful Htc one, or Xperia Z2 under a plastic, if you’re worried about it getting scratched, maybe you should be more cautious not to throw it around.

    • madmax

      hardware!!! ….really????

    • Nkolsen

      It was called poly carbonate way before the cheap 5c, god im tired of people who think everything is because of apple.

      And there are TONS of people who care more about function than design. They dont need gadgets to make themselves look good.

    • Matevz

      What about LG?
      :) noone mentioned LG. I like HTC One’s design best, I but I think LG G2 is a good looking phone 2.. :)

      • Shark Bait

        Totally agree, the nexus 5 is a nice phone too, clean refined design , I like that!

  • Emmanuel

    The real issue here is NOT that Samsung designs are bad because they really are not as bad as people say it is……….. it’s just that we know they can do better but for some reason their mobile division doesn’t want to.

    http://bilisimhaberi.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/samsung-ativ-book-9-plus-4.jpg

    http://www.samsung.com/nz/consumer/flagship/UA55ES6800MXRD/images/1_Perfection.jpg

    http://www.silicon.fr/wp-content/uploads/logos/samsung-wave-ii.jpg

    http://images.bit-tech.net/content_images/2011/09/samsung-ssd-830-256gb-review/samsung830-5b.jpg

    • Eisenhorn1976

      This is EXACTLY why Samsung’s smartphones are so disappointing. I mean, don’t their designers talk? Their premium notebooks are very nice devices — very refined, good attention to detail and performance-competitive. Their build quality are also top-notch — when held one-handed, their Series 9 and 7 ultrabooks have the same stiffness as the MBA and MBP.

  • Kiliman

    Since I put all my phones in a case, the actual external phone design doesn’t matter all that much to me. However, I do prefer the Nexus phones with stock Android over TouchWiz on Samsung phones.

    I also wish they would ditch the physical home button. The thing that throws me is that the back button is on the opposite side compared to stock Android.

  • Rauel Crespo

    My biggest issue with Samsung phones (at least in the US) is the lack of a higher storage option via the carriers. It’s always 16GB, which is getting tight these days, and the fact that KitKat has put even more restrictions on SD-Cards, makes the ability to “expand” storage virtually pointless. You don’t even get access to most of that storage either, it’s eaten up by Samsung garbage-ware and carrier cruft, leaving us with about 5-8GB of storage to install our own apps.

    16GB devices (Tablets, phones, chromebooks) have to end this year. As OnePlus One proves, it costs comparitivly nothing to quadruple the storage for $50, and their is enough demand for higher storage devices that the 16GB OnePlus One was delayed due to the overwhelming demand for the 64GB version.

  • dogadget

    Surely it doesn’t matter as majority of users stick the thing in a butt-ugly cheap silicone rubber cover anyway. I actually prefer the less ostentatious approach of Samsung (with exception of the gold cover) to the easily scratched unibody designs of HTC and Apple. But they all end up in some kind of case anyway so it doesn’t matter.

    2014 smartphones: Thinner, lighter, easier to brea aka more likely to generate a second sale within 24 month contract (even if payed for by insurance). Heck even the bendy screen on the LG flex has gorilla glass on top that will shatter if dropped on a corner from even a low height. I can’t help but wonder if insurance companies are now second only to MNOs as biggest B2B customers of the manufacturers.

  • Carlos Portillo

    It’s all about opinions. I’ve seen opinions on the Note 3 from this website before saying the faux leather back is nice and better than previous designs… Now this article says it’s ugly and a bad idea.

    So yeah, opinions.

    I don’t even know why people care so much. Everyone looks for a perfect case anyway!

  • suspiciousdude

    to be honest i couldn’t give a monkeys what the back looks like as i have a leather case which completely encloses it , they are simply to fragile to not have protection on as i discovered with my s4 , i wouldn’t go for another samsung though as i am sick to death of them fighting with Apple i will probably switch to Sony for the next phone i go for.

  • Gab Tab

    Honestly as a user of the Samsung galaxy s3, I decided not to switch to S4 or S5. Because they haven’t made any noticeable differences. My S3 is definitely on a custom rom, and obviously with a case. And the only thing I can complain about is that Samsung’s phones are made of cheap plastic. They can really improve, but they chose not to. They can listen to what their fans want, but they choose not to (Just like Activision). But they should really try to step up a bit, they are starting to become just like Apple. They keep making phones that all look the same. And I am also horribly disappointing in their updates, they take way too long.

    • simpleas

      then what phone would you like that has this “noticable” difference. get out of here.. smh

    • The-Sailor-Man

      “And the only thing I can complain about is that Samsung’s phones are
      made of cheap plastic. They can really improve, but they chose not to. They can listen to what their fans want, but they choose not to”

      Should they listen to their REAL fans, or to you iboy? (Yup. Pretending to be samsung or android user is already old and dumb iTrick)

  • Isaac Lau

    I like Samsung design especially the removable back cover. The cover is so light and flexible. Nowadays, I think 90% of phone users would buy cover no matter what material Such as plastic, leather and metal. So, the original design of phone is not a big deal. Also, phone with metal body like iphone may have the risk of get an electric shock.
    Actually, removable battery is Samsung’s competitive advantage. Hope we can see a surprise design of the next generation of note devices.

    • Gary W

      - Anodized aluminum is not conductive.
      - Removable battery is arguably a feature, but not the future. We need a more efficient way to power the phone.

      - Plastic is fine, cheap plastic is not.

      - I like beautiful women. Over 90% of the time they are dressed, but the time in which they are naked matters too. Beautiful women also make the dress look better.

      • The-Sailor-Man

        iBS.
        -Using the beautiful women naked is good thing. But you are not using your cheap aluminum iCrap naked. And it’s NOT EVEN beautiful, but iMyth

        -” Plastic is fine, cheap plastic is not.” – S5 is not made of “cheap plastic”. In fact one of the most expensive . And the S5 frame is made of fiber glass alloy, but AA and the other so called “tech media” will not tell you that.

        -”Removable battery is arguably a feature, but not the future.” – call me when this “future” comes

        - “Anodized aluminum is not conductive.”
        iBS again. Feel sorry to tell you that ALUMINUM is the worst material for making smartphones.

        • Gary W

          - On plastic, we were talking about plastic back cover. It feels pretty cheap to me. The material of S5′s frame you brought up is irrelevant. I haven’t heard of fiber glass alloy. What is it?

          - According to Wikipedia:”Aluminium alloys are anodized to increase corrosion resistance and to allow dyeing (coloring), improved lubrication, or improved adhesion… The anodic layer is non-conductive.”

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anodizing
          Based on that, I tend to think anodized aluminum on iPhone does not increase risk of electric shock.

          • The-Sailor-Man

            -”Based on that, I tend to think anodized aluminum on iPhone does not increase risk of electric shock.”
            Well just try it ,make a short circuit with your iphone body, and come back again, iboy.

            -”On plastic, we were talking about plastic back cover.”
            Yup. I’m talking about it, too. And it’s not “cheap”, and feels great in the hand when hold it. And looks great, too.

          • http://www.1singur.deviantart.com/ Stefan Dumitrache

            Don’t be rude.

          • madmax

            your source …really? .. looks like u did the least research possible

        • mad max

          damn true..true everything

        • Eisenhorn1976

          Oh please. Aluminum, when machined correctly, is beautiful to look at and hold.

          You Samsung fanbois always go the other way and attempt to insult Apple’s design and material choices when all it demonstrates is your lack of taste. You’re probably one of those people who thinks a flaming pink Hawaiian shirt is tasteful. Jeez.

    • http://www.1singur.deviantart.com/ Stefan Dumitrache

      Removable battery and external storage. If my memory serves me well, I think HTC got into their senses and started to equip their flagships with sd ports. They used to lack on this department.

      • Isaac Lau

        We can repair the phone much easier if the battery can removable. Once the battery is not working, we can buy a new battery instead of buying a brand-new device or folk out a large sum of money to repair. External storage can expand freely due to the advanced technology on cloud storage. I agree with you opinion. If HTC can do such things better, more people is willing to try. The design and durability of phone are equally important. The difficulty of tear down and the cost of repair would be a point to consider before we buy phones.

        • Eisenhorn1976

          Hahaha. Before posting on an English-language site, kid, try to learn how to actually write in English.

          Reading your stilted grammar makes my head hurt just like the Galaxy S5 hurts my eyes.

    • Isaac Lau

      I think the back cover of S5 is not cheap. Alternatively, the material can enhance our hand holding experience. Unlike S4, S5 is not slippy at all. I am glad to see Samsung trying to use different materials to produce the back cover and make the phone much like a luxury item.
      Efficiency of battery life and cloud storage would be an useful technology which phone producers focusing on.
      Will Apple introduce iphone 6 with 4.7 inch or 5.5 inch screen on June? Back in the history, apple claimed that any smartphone with larger than 4.0 inch screen would be a dead and the design of phone should be limited for one hand holding.
      I am looking forward to see how Apple introduce iPhone 6 to media and general public.

  • hey

    Yeah, ban Samsung like always. Man is this getting old! Why cant “editors” write better articles nowadays? Its all about HTC, SONY, moto x, pr LG, but Samsung is the worst all. Just stop your bs and drop it already.

    Unless you’re getting paid by the competition. Its pathetic!

    • The-Sailor-Man

      Their aim is to split the Samsung’s market share, to some other Android brands.(preferably ALUMINUM, so to advertise the Apple “supremacy”)
      And their LOVELY Apple to regain their market dominance as a brand.

  • The-Sailor-Man

    Next article
    “Apple design: the good, the premium, and the aluminum.”

    Happy to help.

    P.S.
    When is hard to find what to bash S5 for, is good to try in subjective things. As long as they can.

    It was same with Note 3. Right?

  • john peter

    first when i saw the s5,i guffawed,but later on you got to admit it that it is not that bad after all,i mean it won’t slip out of your hand,neither will it impress anyone but still i think this is more manly as compared to s3 and s4,they were girly looking phones
    BTW, i am a sony fanboy,just bought a z2

  • john peter

    i like the basic design but the metal type thing which covers the edges looks like shit

    • The-Sailor-Man

      When the journalists at WMC first got the S5 in their hands, all of them didn’t know if it’s real metal or not. They were so confused that it’s real , that they went to ask the samsung staff . The answer was- FIBER GLASS (mix) but only one tech media wrote it, and don’t dare to repeat it again.

      So? What is the problem?

      • Tien Chen Tu

        You do know you can buy fiberglass in any regular hardware store, right? Don’t get why you’re getting all warm and fuzzy inside over the fact its fiberglass “alloy” as you said before. Fiberglass is everywhere, from car trunks to halloween costumes, since it’s very easy to use, polish and paint.

  • The-Sailor-Man

    Apple’s Propaganda:
    “When we can’t bash some great device with objective arguments and feel helpless , let’s try hard and organized , every day, …..with subjective “arguments”. And no one can judge us, because we will say that’s only our “opinion”, and wash our hands, when ppl see at the end, that we brutally lie and manipulate”

  • Poopik Shmill

    I don’t care if it’s plastic or metal.
    Anyway we all put it in a plastic case to protect it.

    • The-Sailor-Man

      I care.
      Because the ALUMINUM is the worst material for making smartphones.

      • Gary W

        And how?

  • http://www.1singur.deviantart.com/ Stefan Dumitrache

    Since I’ve seen the OnePlus One (pictures only), almost any other phone looks underpar, especially those made by BIG brands. The S5 looks cheap and I realized that S3 and S4 also lack in the beauty departament, even if they are better than S5. Minimal design is key, and a good design is defined rather by what is felt instead of what is seen. Why having all those dots or strips or whatever on the case back? Why not just a flat case, but with a well chosen material treatment?

    • The-Sailor-Man

      Here we go again. LOL
      The iHairdressers teach us tech design. Using same old pathetic BS-tricks.

      • http://www.1singur.deviantart.com/ Stefan Dumitrache

        iHairdressers? I can hardly get the meaning of this. If you imply that I’m an iPhone user, do note that I’m an Android devotee.

      • Ben Edwards

        Here we go again, The-Sailor-Man can’t handle the opinion of others and instantly assumes anyone who doesn’t like something about Samsung is an Apple fan.

  • chanman

    I actually kind of like Samsung’s design language… maybe I’ve been drinking a little bit too much of their kool-aid, but I find it comfortable in the hand. The new pock-marked back may not be much of a looker at first glance, but I find myself liking the feel, and it grows on you.
    I don’t own one, btw. Still stuck on the Note 2, but I think I’ll be upgrading to the X+1 when I can afford it. Hoping the real leather thing isn’t just a rumor. (As you guys might be able to tell by now, I’m more into the softer textures than things like glass or aluminum)

  • Sebastian Bartlett

    I think the note 3 is one of the nicest looking phones around

  • Chuck Blackburn

    The Galaxy Note 3 is just what I wanted. SWEET spot screen size lots of memory. Readability even with books is awesome. To me it is the ultimate evolution in smartphones. It does everything I need a smartphone to do at blazing hot speed!

  • Silvantis Hardy

    Comparing the S5 to the likes of the HTC One M8 is like comparing McDonald’s McDouble to a Ribeye steak… there really is no comparison to be made. Hands down the One M8 for better design, UI, and sound.

  • http://www.friendlyphotozone.com/ Friendly Photo Zone

    I’ve been a huge fan of the Note series for years (had an AT&T Note 2 and now have a AT&T Note 3). While the Note 2 felt embarrassingly plastic-fantastic, I didn’t have any complaints about the design of the Note 3… until my wife got an HTC One M8. Now THAT’S beautiful design. I have an M8 of my own now, and the Note 3 sits unused in a drawer.

    (not to mention Samsung’s draconian practice of locking down the Note 3 to the point where I can’t even root it… to hell with that crap, I’m loving HTC’s more open policies in this regard)

    • Leviathan Black

      Erm… How is note 3 difficult to root? You can root it like any other samsung phone via auto root.

      • http://www.friendlyphotozone.com/ Friendly Photo Zone

        No you can’t. The AT&T version with kitkat is un-rootable. Look it up. Locked down tighter than Fort Knox… (as it were)

  • http://zci.sf.net/ Zamroni

    It’s not about the plastic, but the design. Nokia does good job with plastic. Even HTC One X and 8X is also beautiful.

  • LeviathanBlack

    I liked the note 3 design and while I agree that touchwiz is too bloated for its own good, I liked the S Planner original stickers in S3 (shame they changed it to a uglier pale version) and the notification ribbon is my fav (the new one on S5 is now more beautiful~~)

    But I have to agree that Samsung really could have stuck to the leather look with S5…The pockmarked design and colours offered looks horrid

  • Leonardo Monday

    S5 great phone with one fugly back cover … Samsung should just stop being a mule and release new back covers.