We've known for a while now—dating back at least to 2011's Samsung Galaxy Nexus, and continuing with last year's Galaxy Round and LG G Flex—that it's possible to build a smartphone with a curved display.
What's been less clear: why a consumer might get all that excited about buying a curved smartphone. The notion has been that they're more comfy—in the hand when you hold them, and against your face when you make a call. But curved screens still feel like gimmicky technology in search of a practical application.
Today, Samsung is announcing a bunch of new products at simultaneous events in Berlin, Beijing, and New York City: My colleague Chris Gayomali and I are liveblogging the NYC edition. One of the new items is the Galaxy Note Edge, a (much-rumored) new model in the company's line of oversized, pen-equipped, Android-powered Galaxy Note models. It's got a curved screen. And this time, Samsung came up with new interface features—an app launcher, notifications, widgets, and more—which actually take advantage of it.
The Note Edge is one of two new Galaxy Notes, and will be the top of the Note line. The other one is the Galaxy Note 4, which is a more straightforward upgrade to last year's Galaxy Note 3, which typically sells for $299 with a two-year contract. The company isn't disclosing details yet about the new models' prices and availability, but I got some hands-on time with both at a press briefing.
Unlike other curved-screen phones, the Note Edge's display is mostly flat: It's just on the right-hand edge that it curves toward the case back. Samsung treats that curved space as a tall, skinny, dedicated area of the interface which it calls the Edge Panel.
The Edge Panel has several functions, which you can cycle between by swiping:
- You can pin your favorite apps to it—like a vertically-oriented equivalent of OS X's Dock or Windows' Taskbar.
- Android notifications and alerts of incoming calls show up there, so they don't cover up the rest of the display.
- Some applications, such as the Note Edge's Camera app, put their toolbars on the edge, leaving the rest of the display unobstructed by icons.
- Widgets with content from Yahoo scroll information such as sports scores and stock prices, looking a bit like a ticker from Times Square.
- Other widgets include one which shows a scrolling list of Twitter trending topics and another which displays fitness stats such as your steps taken and calories burned.
- Samsung plans to release an SDK which will let third-party developers create other kinds of widgets that live in the Edge Panel.
- Sitting on its side with the screen otherwise turned off, the phone can still display the time along the panel, allowing it to serve as as a bedside clock.
Now, a phone with a conventional flat screen could put all these things alongside the right-hand side of the display, no curve required—just as both Android and iOS have interface elements which live alongside other edges of the screen, such as their notification centers. But judging from my time with the Note Edge, the curve isn't a pointless frippery: It lets you swipe your way gracefully across the Edge Panel without your finger or thumb skidding into the rest of the interface. And it just feels pleasant.
When I got my first glimpse of the phone, I wondered: Would the panel be distracting? Would vertical scrolling text sitting alongside an interface that is otherwise horizontal feel disjointed? Would my thumb or palm brush along the edge and accidentally trigger actions I didn't want?
In practice, the panel is reasonably well integrated with the rest of the experience, in part because Samsung has done a sensible job of figuring out when to display it and when to hide it. It's there when you're on the home screen, but slithers out of view when you launch an app. You can then swipe in from the right to bring it back; if you tap in the app, the panel disappears again.
There is one group of people who definitely shouldn't buy this phone: Those who hold their smartphone in their left hand. It's designed to be grasped in the right hand while you use your right thumb to slip-slide around the Edge Panel; you can rotate the phone 180 degrees to get the curve and the Edge Panel on the left hand, but that requires you to hold your phone upside-down, which would be silly.
For the record, I'm a lefty, but I usually hold my phone in my right hand, as I did with the Note Edge, so the design didn't bother me. But if there's a Galaxy Note Edge 2 in a year or so, I wouldn't be startled if its big new feature is that it's curved on both sides, letting you choose a left-hand Edge Panel or a right-hand one—or both.
Trying the Edge Panel in its current form didn't leave me nodding my head and thinking yes, of course, someday all phones will work this way. But unlike some much-touted Samsung features of the past—like the ability to scroll by waving your hand or pausing video by averting your glance—it also didn't come off as a party trick rather than a useful feature. If the idea appeals to you in the first place, I could see you finding value in it every day.
Except for the panel, the Note Edge is essentially the same device as the Galaxy Note 4, with the same features and specs. And the Galaxy Note 4 refines on the Galaxy Note 3 rather than reinventing it. Starting with the industrial design, which hasn't changed much—although the band around the edge is now real metal rather than metal-ish plastic. (The leather-ish back is still just leather-ish.)
The Note 4 has the same 5.7" Super AMOLED screen as the Galaxy Note 3, but the resolution is now 1440-by-2516 at 518 pixels per inch, up from 1080-by-1920 at 386ppi. (The Galaxy Note Edge's screen is 5.6 inches.) Both it and the Note Edge have a 6-megapixel rear camera. In a first for Samsung phones, the camera sports optical image stabilization that helps reduce the chances that your photos will come out blurry if you're a shaky shutterbug.
As for the 3.7-megapixel front-facing camera, it has a wide-angle lens and a panorama mode, allowing you to squeeze more friends into your selfies. There are also several touchless ways to fire off a selfie, including by saying "cheese" or another phrase of your choice.
Samsung's S Pen now lets you write and doodle with more precision, and can be used more like a mouse—for example, you can tap and drag to select text. The phones' multi-window interface, which lets you run apps side-by-side, is easier to find and figure out. And they have a new fast-charging feature which lets you charge the battery to 50 percent of its capacity in 30 minutes.
Lastly, both new Notes have the (clunky) fingerprint scanner and heart-rate monitor which first appeared last spring in the Galaxy S5.
Since it debuted in 2011, the Galaxy Note line has dominated the market for humongous "phablet" phones. If current scuttlebutt is right, it'll soon face what will surely be its most imposing archrival yet: a 5.5-inch iPhone. It's a safe bet that Apple's take on what a great big phone should be will be strikingly different from Samsung's—which will make it all the more interesting to watch the competition between Samsung's two new phones and whatever gets announced in Cupertino on September 9.
Slideshow Credits: 01 / Photo: Harry McCracken for Fast Company; 02 / Photo: courtesy of Samsung; 03 / Photo: courtesy of Samsung; 04 / Photo: courtesy of Samsung; 05 / Photo: courtesy of Samsung; 06 / Photo: courtesy of Samsung; 07 / Photo: courtesy of Samsung; 08 / Photo: courtesy of Samsung;