Galaxy S4 launch sets stage for cutthroat 2013 smartphone battle

Marketing strength gives Samsung an edge even if its new smartphone is no better than the competition

The launch of Samsung Electronics' Galaxy S IV will set the stage for this year's battle for smartphone market share. Competitors such as HTC and Sony will face an uphill battle, even if they release great products, according to analysts.

With the launch of products like the HTC One and Sony Xperia Z, Samsung's Android competitors have done their best to develop products that can take on the upcoming Galaxy S IV, which will be announced Thursday evening local time at an event in New York.

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"Those products are all well-equipped in terms of technology to compete with the Galaxy S IV," said Malik Saadi, principal analyst at Informa Telecoms & Media.

However, just like last year, the challenge will be to break through what is expected to be an unprecedented marketing campaign from Samsung.

Sony is in a better place because it has started shipping the Xperia Z, which was announced in January at CES.

"Sony has improved its position over the past 12 months. The company has a clear strategy in that it wants to move content across screens, and owns assets it can leverage," said Pete Cunningham, principal analyst at Canalys.

HTC is working on getting the One out the door. On Tuesday, the company said it wouldn't start shipping in large volumes until April, which is not good news. However, the company has taken to heart that it needs to become more aggressive in marketing its products and hired a new chief marketing officer at the end of last year. The question is whether HTC has the financial resources to back up that effort.

Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE are also putting out more competitive products. A dark horse going forward is Lenovo, which has become the world's fifth-largest smartphone vendor thanks to sales in its home market, according to Canalys.

"Lenovo is going to be hugely disruptive in this space," Cunningham said. "Unlike Huawei and ZTE, it has a brand that resonates in other parts of the world than China."

But whatever tactics competing vendors choose, they will find themselves in a difficult position.

"Samsung is a beast at the moment. It is an incredible machine that is basically steamrolling everything in its way," Cunningham said.

Products from other members of the Android camp aren't the only ones the Galaxy S IV will have to contend with.

BlackBerry's Z10 and Nokia's Lumia 920 are among those also competing for consumer spending. The Finnish vendor is rumored to be working on an improved version of its flagship model called Lumia 928 for Verizon Wireless. It will have Xenon flash, an aluminium shell and be lighter and thinner than the standard Lumia 920.

However, Samsung's most important battle is still with Apple, so if Samsung manages to start shipping the Galaxy S IV soon it will likely give it a window of opportunity for sales before a new iPhone arrives.

The Galaxy S IV is expected to have a 5-inch screen with full HD resolution and a 13-megapixel camera, as well as a multitude of LTE bands. The processor that will power the phone is not yet publicly known -- the reported alternatives are a quad-core processor from Qualcomm and its own Exynos 5 Octa eight-core processor.

The latter is based on ARM's big.little architecture. It has four powerful Cortex-A15 cores and four Cortex-A7 cores for less demanding tasks on one die.

Saadi also expects there will be a version of the smartphone with 128GB of integrated storage. Last year Samsung's semiconductor arm began volume production of embedded memory modules at that size, so if the company wants to increase the storage beyond 64GB it has the resources to do so.

Software, including Samsung's own user interface addition TouchWiz, will play an even more prominent role, according to analysts. Rumors regarding what new software features the smartphone will have include eye-tracking for scrolling on a Web page. That would build on the Smart Stay feature on the Galaxy S III, which prevents the screen from dimming when someone is looking at it.

But, if the rumors about features prove true, not everyone is convinced the smartphone will be something consumers will enjoy using.

"The technology that enables this is still immature," Saadi said.

Using eyes to control tablets and smartphones is challenging because users are often outside and on the move, according to Sune Alstrup Johansen, CEO at Danish company The Eye Tribe, which specializes in eye tracking.

What Samsung really has up its sleeve will be revealed Thursday in New York. The launch event starts at 7 p.m. EDT.

Send news tips and comments to mikael_ricknas@idg.com.

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