Sensing Samsung: The evolution of sensors in the Galaxy S series

On Sunday at Mobile World Congress, Samsung is expected to unveil its latest flagship smartphone. There are a lot of speculation and rumors swirling about the hardware and features in the new Galaxy S7, and our CTO James Robinson has even contributed his own ideas on what kind of processors we might see in the S7 based on our crowdsourced data. One thing we’re most excited to see at Samsung’s Unpacked event in Barcelona is the new smartphone’s sensor package.

OpenSignal may be most known for using the radios in smartphones to measure network connections, but our ultimate goal is to use all the sensors in the phone (with permission, of course) as a means to quantify the world around us (One such project is our meteorological crowdsourcing app WeatherSignal). That’s why the Galaxy S line is so compelling to our data scientists. Samsung has always used its flagship smartphone to showcase what a device can do when it interacts with its surroundings.

Ahead of Unpacked this Sunday, we decided to create a chart detailing the history of sensors in the Galaxy line, starting with the release of the Galaxy S in 2010 to the current generation (for a few months at least) Galaxy S6.

SamsungSensorEvolution(blog)

You’ll notice that several of sensors here aren’t listed in Samsung’s official specs. They are there nonetheless – we’re able to detect them with our OpenSignal apps. Some of them are virtual sensors, which take the readings from two or more hardware-based sensors to generate new data. The pedometer is a good example. It analyzes the rhythmic changes sensed by the accelerometer and gyroscope to determine whether you’re taking a step. The Galaxy line tends to be loaded with virtual sensors, and for brevity’s sake we left out some of the most common ones, for instance the orientation and gravitational virtual sensors that detect the relative positon of the phone.

We also included several hardware features that you might not think of as sensors, such as the microphone and camera and the phone’s radio stack. Samsung and other phone makers have been pretty creative over the years in using existing hardware components as sensors. A passive microphone for instance can be used for voice triggers, and the front-facing camera for facial recognition. As for the radios, OpenSignal uses them to collect data on network quality and performance, but they can also be used to directly interact with the local environment. Bluetooth and NFC, for instance, are used as proximity sensors in beacon and payment applications. To see detailed descriptions of all the different types of sensors in smartphones, check out OpenSignal’s Sensor Database.

Now let’s take a look at how the sensor package of Galaxy line has evolved over the years. You can see that Samsung likes to try a lot of new types of sensors and it isn’t afraid to experiment. The original Galaxy S wasn’t exactly a sensor powerhouse, but Samsung gradually added more hardware as the generations progressed. That evolution hit a high point with the S4, which included a host of environmental sensors for measuring external temperature, barometric pressure and humidity. The S4 was essentially a mobile weather station, and many S4 users used our WeatherSignal app to collect loads of useful meteorological data around the world.

Unfortunately Samsung dropped the thermometer and humidity sensor in the S6, but it didn’t drop its commitment to sensors. Rather Samsung shifted its focus away from environmental to personal data gathering. The new sensors emerging in the S5 and S6 were geared toward quantified self (pedometer), health monitoring (heart rate and oxygen saturation sensors), and biometric security (fingerprint scanner).

So what new sensors we expect from the new S7? There are rumors that it may include a retinal scanner, which would fit in with Samsung’s biometric focus, as well as a pressure-sensitive touchscreen. In our data, we’re seeing several new Samsung phones we suspect to be test versions of the different variants of the S7 in the field. We’re unable to detect any new sensors in that data just yet, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. If Samsung plans to launch a completely new sensor in this generation of Galaxy that currently doesn’t have an Android API, we wouldn’t immediately detect it on our data. That makes us just as curious as everyone else to see what exactly Samsung unveils at Unpacked this Sunday.

OpenSignal is at Mobile World Congress 2016 too: Visit us in Hall 7 at booth number B17 or at the Qualcomm booth in Hall 3.

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