Samsung doesn’t need saving just yet, but most people seemed to laugh it off last year when I said that the South Korea-based giant was quickly headed toward a big mess. In developed markets, customers flocked to Samsung’s giant phones and their magnificent displays. In regions where mid-range and low-end phones are more prominent, Samsung flooded the market with dozens of affordable models. Even more important, perhaps, the company devoted double-digit billions each year to marketing and advertising its devices, and all that money helped Samsung keep its impossible promise.
But a huge problem was developing and not everyone saw it. Samsung apparently didn’t even see it, or it simply turned a blind eye. The problem with being a leader is that others will follow. Apple’s lawsuits may have branded Samsung a copycat, but the company was absolutely a leader in building a wide range of big-screen smartphones and an even bigger arsenal of capable, affordable mid-range and low-end phones.
Then, others followed. And they did it better. Now, no one seems to be laughing anymore.
At the low end and in the mid-range, China-based smartphone makers launched handsets with better specs and better build quality at lower price points. Then, in the premium market segment, the lead up to the launch of Apple’s new iPhones really took the wind out of Samsung’s sails. In the most recent quarter, Samsung’s net profit plummeted nearly 60% compared to the same quarter last year.
Needless to say, something has to change.
Rumor has it Samsung is going back to the drawing board with next year’s Galaxy S6 and designing its flagship phone for the first half of 2015 from the ground up. After the disappointing Galaxy S5 failed to wow consumers and critics, this is a very good idea.
The question becomes, can Samsung again find the future with its next flagship phone?
Samsung has a problem with editing. I have no inside knowledge of the company’s internal development process, but it seems as though people at Samsung come up with ideas for ways Samsung phones can be different, and they manage to convince themselves that peculiar ideas — or even plain old bad ideas — are good.
Thinking of new ways to differentiate is great. Convincing yourself and your team that an odd novelty or a bad gimmick is a selling point is a disaster waiting to happen.
This brings us to the Galaxy Note Edge.
Samsung’s last major smartphone launch for 2014 is a new twist on its flagship phablet, the Galaxy Note 4. That twist, specifically, is an area on one side of the device where the display curves down toward the back of the phone, creating a separate panel that Samsung calls the “Edge panel.”
There is absolutely no doubt that the Note Edge is new and different. The question, however, is whether Samsung got lost in the editing process once again and is trying to use a peculiar gimmick to sell a phone, or if this is something that consumers might actually find intriguing and useful.
The first thing you should know about the Galaxy Note Edge is that it’s basically a Galaxy Note 4 with a modified display. In terms of hardware and performance, the two devices are effectively the same.
In the context of this review, that might be the most important thing about the Note Edge.
Spec highlights for the Note Edge include a 5.6-inch quad HD display with resolution that Samsung describes as “2560×1440+160,” a 2.7GHz quad-core processor, 3GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage, microSDXC support, a 16-megapixel rear camera with optical image stabilization (OIS), a 3.7-megapixel front-facing camera, an integrated S Pen stylus, a 3,000 mAh battery with Fast Charging support, and Android 4.4 KitKat.
For more on the phone’s software, performance and build quality, see my earlier Galaxy Note 4 review. The one thing I’ll add about build quality is that the white version of Samsung’s new Note Edge still has the light bleed issue below the display that I described in my hands-on preview back in September. This annoying issue that apparently went unnoticed causes light from the bottom of the display to bleed through the top edge of the plastic that borders the display above the home button.
In this review, I’ll focus almost exclusively on the Note Edge’s defining feature: The Edge panel.
Samsung’s new Galaxy Note Edge uses a high-quality quad HD Super AMOLED display that curves downward toward the back of the device on the right side of the phone. The result is an asymmetrical design that creates a narrow, rounded panel on the phone’s face.
This extra portion of the display called the Edge panel is home to a variety of panels that serve different functions. It’s always visible while on the phone’s home screens, and then it hides itself when any apps are open. A simple swipe gesture will then reopen the panel alongside any screen, and a tap back inside an app will cause it to retreat again.
In terms of panels, the first is a favorite applications panel where the user can place shortcuts to as many apps as he or she wants. Icons can be rearranged easily and the panel will scroll infinitely.
A panel with shortcuts to apps seems like the most basic function the phone’s Edge panel can have, but it’s actually quite useful. Moving app shortcuts off the main portion of the display and onto the Edge panel frees up space for Android widgets, which provide zero-touch information to the user.
Beyond the shortcuts panel, there several more panels on the phone, each of which can be displayed or hidden from within the settings on the device.
One panel on the Note Edge uses the phone’s step-tracking features to display the current step count and distance travelled for the day. Another provides media controls that can be used to skip songs or pause music without leaving the app you’re in. There are also some panels that stream information, such as news headlines and stock quotes.
An S Note widget panel provides shortcuts to various S Pen apps, and a notifications panel displays the weather along with any notifications. No development is needed for third-party apps to display notifications on the Edge panel — if an app can display notifications on Android’s standard notification shade, it can display notifications on the Edge panel.
Beyond the panels that come preinstalled on the Galaxy Note Edge, Samsung also has a portal where new panels can be downloaded. Third party developers can create their own panels and distribute them here.
There is a panel of “quick tools” that can be accessed from any Edge panel by swiping down from the top. Available tools include a ruler; shortcuts to a timer, a stopwatch and a voice memo recorder; and a shortcut to turn the phone’s LED flash on an off for use as a flashlight.
Another function of the Edge panel is to serve as a night clock. The user can configure a time of day each evening to enable night clock mode, as well as a time the next morning to disable it. Then each day between those times, the Edge panel will remain on, lit dimly, while the Note Edge’s screen is off. It will display the time, of course, and will automatically be disabled if the phone’s battery drops below 15%.
Also cool is the fact that in Samsung’s media player apps, the controls are now moved off of the main part of the display and onto the Edge panel, so they no longer cover videos or other on-screen content.
And, for reasons unknown, there are even games that you can play in the Edge panel.
Lastly, the Edge panel has a great “Table Mode” function that lets you see the time, date, weather conditions and some notifications without having to wake the phone. Sadly, it is made significantly less great by the ridiculous gesture Samsung requires to activate it: With one or more fingers, you have to rub the Edge panel back and forth.
The look of disgust on my wife’s face when she saw me testing this gesture said it all.
It’s almost as if Samsung, at times, doesn’t consider real life or context at all. Can you imagine sitting at a conference table in a meeting and slowly stroking your phone back and forth to check the time or see if you have any missed calls? Can you imagine what you would think if you saw someone else do it?
Other companies including HTC and LG use a simple double-tap gesture to trigger functions when a phone’s display is off. It is beyond me why Samsung felt the need to replace that obvious and simple gesture with something that is, quite frankly, ridiculous and embarrassing.
Earlier in this review, I wrote that the Galaxy Note Edge’s feature parity with the Note 4 might be the most important thing about the phone. Why? Because that means there is only one important question for customers considering this handset: Does the Edge panel add $100 of value to the Note 4?
For most people, the answer will be no.
Samsung’s new Note Edge phablet will cost $399.99 with a two-year contract in the U.S., and as much as $950 without a contract. The Edge panel is nifty, but that is a hefty asking price for something that most people will view as a gimmick.
Personally, I wasn’t sold on the idea of the Edge panel even after I spent some time with the phone back in September. After using it for a couple of days, however, it has grown on me a bit. It asks the user to learn an entirely new behavior but once that behavior is learned, the Edge panel becomes a nifty part of the user experience.
But would I buy one myself? Definitely not.
$400 is too steep an asking price for this phone. Period. The Edge panel doesn’t currently add $100 of value in my opinion, and I simply don’t have confidence that this is something third-party developers will be quick to embrace so they can add additional value to the Edge panel.
Rumors suggest that Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy S6 might include similar functionality and that certainly would give developers more of an incentive to embrace the Edge panel. As a flagship Samsung phone in 2015, Galaxy S6 sales will be in the double-digit millions.
Note Edge sales will not even approach figures like that. So for the time being, there is precious little reason for app makers to spend time and money on the Edge panel unless Samsung decides to grease the wheels with incentives.
The Galaxy Note Edge’s price tag will drop. It will likely drop fairly quickly following the phone’s launch, in fact. Even still, fresh new flagship smartphones for 2015 will be on the horizon by then, and the Note Edge still won’t be a smart buy.
Samsung’s curved displays finally have a reason to exist thanks to the Galaxy Note Edge, but unfortunately it’s not yet a good enough reason to buy a phone that includes one.