Samsung reportedly considers the Galaxy Note Edge a “limited-edition concept” for now, due to its “technology-intensive” design. It’s not the first time the company has pushed out a high-tech product that feels like an experiment — witness last year’s concave Galaxy Round, or any of the six smartwatches the company has announced in the past 14 months. But Japan’s biggest carrier, NTT Docomo, released the phone last week anyway, and I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to work out the benefits of its bent screen.
So, here I am, with a Galaxy Note Edge stuffed into my pocket. I don’t quite know why it exists, but it feels like something the Samsung of today would create. And I like it.
Ignoring the curved display area is something you’ll soon get used to. While it does look impossibly cool at first, the concept doesn’t change the basic smartphone experience all that much. Here’s how it works: on the home screen, the curved area is taken up by one of a series of widgets that you can flip and swipe through. When you’re in an app, this column is shrunk down to a tiny strip with a customizable message written in a tacky font, and you can swipe in from the right to bring up the full-width widget over the edge of the app you’re using.
The widgets can contain a few things. The most obvious is a list of app shortcuts, letting you jump between apps with a swipe and a tap. The next default tells you the weather and displays the icons for any apps that may have unread notifications. The other two widgets that I’ve found myself leaving on are a location-based list of trending Twitter topics — cool, because it’s not something I’d usually check myself — and one linked to S Health, which reads out step and distance data from the pedometer. These are all simple tweaks that sometimes come in handy without blowing the mind.
There is an app store for the Edge screen, but at the time of writing it was populated with a grand total of two widgets. One is a Samsung-made game called Tiny Burger, where you have to stack your burger to the customers’ orders as quickly as possible; I can only assume the idea is that you secretly play it next to a spreadsheet when your boss is sitting to your left. The other downloadable widget is, hilariously, a single vertical bar that displays RAM usage and nothing else. If, after buying a phone with 3GB of RAM, you find yourself stricken with worry over how much of that remains free on a minute-to-minute basis, the Note Edge may well be for you.
If you swipe down from the top of one of the Note Edge’s columns, you’ll get a list of quick-access tools as with Control Center for iOS. These include a flashlight, a stopwatch, a timer, a voice recorder, and — brilliantly — a ruler. Some of these can be pretty useful; I used the timer when cooking and, while on iOS I’d have to keep jumping in and out of the full-screen Clock app, on the Note Edge I could catch up on my Pocket queue while checking in on the time with a simple swipe from the side. And, in another reasonably sensible example of simple functionality, you can use the curved edge as a nighttime clock with the rest of the screen switched off.
And you also get Samsung’s new part-metal design direction, which I’m not as enamored with as some of my coworkers. It’s certainly an improvement on prior efforts from the company; the metal frame makes the phone feel far more solid and look a lot less tacky than the fake plastic chrome trim of old. But the rear of the phone is still thin plastic, this time etched with a cheesy pattern that Samsung’s designers would have you believe emulates the finest leather from Togo. The absurdity of that statement aside, I suppose I should just be grateful that there aren’t any imitation plastic stitches this year.
But there’s no reason to think that any other 2014 Android phone would leave you better off. The most pessimistic assessment possible of the Note Edge is that it’s a slightly cooler-looking version of the best Samsung phone yet. Assuming no major difference in price — which may be a bad assumption — I’d pick this over the Note 4 just because it’s more fun and interesting to use. I can see why others may prefer to stick with the known quantity of the Note 4, though.
So no, Samsung hasn’t proven the curved-screen concept to be anything close to essential yet. But if we’re ever going to get to a future beyond near-identical flat slabs of glass, we’ll need products like the Note Edge along the way. After all, it wouldn’t do for us all to be the same.