Samsung's 'Unpacked' event was about much more than the Galaxy S7

BARCELONA, Spain -- As expected, Samsung attracted a huge crowd to watch it unveil its new flagship smartphones, the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. But the company clearly has some other things on its mind as well.

The two new handsets drew applause and some gasps, but while the specs look impressive and have a solid look and feel, they won't hold many surprises for those who've been paying attention in the lead-up to the show. As recent rumors indicated, the phones are essentially waterproof (using IP68), and include a microSD card slot. Both are features Samsung had typically offered on its smartphones until last year's Galaxy S6.

The S7 offers a 5.1-inch screen and the S7 Edge a 5.5-screen. Samsung claims the cameras of both phones are significant upgrades, and staff spent several minutes onstage comparing the photos and specs of its phones to those of the iPhone 6S. Both phones have an always-on option and offer very similar specs under the hood, including a 2.15 GHz quad-core 64-bit Snapdragon 820 (in some markets) and 32 GB of storage. Both phones also include bigger, longer-lasting batteries that Samsung hopes will be a key point of differentiation.

"The screen size is just the way you like it -- big and immersive," said Justin Denison, VP and head of mobile products for Samsung's U.S. division. "You'll really like it when you're multitasking with the Edge. I don't mean just switching between apps," Denison continued, emphasizing the ability to navigate the gadget with one thumb

Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint and U.S. Cellular will all carry the devices, which will hit the shelves March 11.

The immediate focal point for attendees of the event wasn't the new phones, however, but the live Gear VR headsets that were placed on the seats of attendees. DJ Koh, Samsung's head of mobile devices, asked guests to strap on the headgear early in the event and after a demo the company used a virtual reality video to introduce its new smartphones.

Samsung also showcased the Gear 360, its first virtual reality consumer camera, and as attendees were entranced in the VR headgear Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg took the stage. Zuckerberg was there to discuss a VR partnership between Samsung and Facebook, but his words were sometimes drowned out as some attendees took off their headgear and rushed toward the stage alongside media photographers to get a shot of the tech icon.

Regardless, Samsung's presentation underscored how the company is working to expand its mobile portfolio beyond hardware as worldwide smartphone growth slows. Global demand for smartphones and their components has weakened over the last two years, and Samsung's fourth-quarter operating profit of $5.1 billion marked a 15 percent year-over-year increase -- not a horrible figure, to be sure, but far short of the 80 percent year-over-year increase it demonstrated in the third quarter of 2015.

So the company is expanding into a broader range of consumer devices with a mobile tilt, including both the Gear VR headset and the Gear 360. Unlike some other mobile gadgets -- smartwatches, for instance, at least so far -- devices with support for VR may have considerable mainstream appeal to a broad range of users. Samsung is hoping to combine its early progress with its massive worldwide footprint to reach those users not just with phones but with a range of VR-enabled gear.

For more:
- see this Samsung press release

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