Samsung's big-screen Galaxy phones face tough test

NEW YORK - It's clear that the success of Samsung's latest smartphone and phablet will be a crucial test for Lee Jae-yong, the heir to Korea's largest conglomerate and vice chairman of Samsung Electronics.

And it'll certainly be a tough challenge, given the hugely saturated nature of today's smartphone market that has competition cropping up at every bend in the road.

"Samsung definitely has a huge presence, all over the US and in the world," said one participant at last week's Samsung Unpacked event who declined to be identified. "But it's a tough, tough environment right now, and this is making a lot of people (at Samsung) nervous."

In terms of both looks and functionality, the latest Galaxy S6 Edge Plus and the Galaxy Note 5 were top of the line.

We're talking about sensational designs and upgraded software for the two devices that were unveiled at Lincoln Center on Aug.13.

CEO Shin Jong-kyun delivered a strong keynote, although some of us wished he would stop trying to be funny -- or that his scriptwriters would stop -- and his colleagues at Samsung's US offices did their best to stoke enthusiasm.

Among the new specs, the one that drew the biggest attention seemed to be Samsung Pay. This mobile payment app does both NFC and Magnetic Secure Transmission, meaning you can simply wave the device over the card reader to pay.

Despite all the fanfare, however, critics predicted that Samsung will to struggle to maintain its status as the world's No.1 smartphone maker.

"It's a cutthroat competition between Samsung and Apple, and they also have to compete against cheaper but sustainable brands like Xiaomi and OnePlus," said an executive from a Samsung partner firm who wished to remain anonymous.

In the second quarter, Samsung's global market share slipped to 21.7 per cent from last year's 24.8 per cent, according to market intelligence firm International Data Corp. During the same period, Apple's market share rose to 14.1 per cent from 11.7 per cent, while Xiaomi advanced to 5.3 per cent from 4.6 per cent.

One analyst at the event said, however, that he still expects consumers to flock to the new Samsung phones for their vamped up designs, as the specs are not too different from other high-end devices in the market.

And speaking of design, Samsung's next smartwatch, the Gear S2, will be unveiled at the IFA international gadget fair in Berlin next month.

The S6 Edge Plus and the Note 5 will start selling in Korea on Aug.20, the same day that Samsung Pay will be launched there. Sales of the devices in the US are scheduled for Aug.21.