Samsung isn't afraid to try new things to varying degrees of success. It pioneered the big phone trend and was one of the first to tackle the nascent smartwatch market. Now the company seems very interested in experimenting on the smartphone, taking a stunning proof of concept and turning it into a tangible consumer product. We saw hints of the future with the concave Galaxy Round. But the Galaxy Note Edge, essentially a more enthusiastic Galaxy Note 4, is something entirely different.
From the back, the device looks like any ordinary Samsung phone: the same soft plastic, the same rectangular shape, the same protruding camera, and the S Pen still sheathed in the bottom corner. Flip it around, though, and it'll look unlike anything else on the market. The entire right side positively melts away, sloping down like something went awry (in a good way) during the production process. In reality, it gives the Note Edge impressive, albeit largely unnecessary, second screen superpowers.
Instead of a simple flat surface, Samsung's concept gives users a kind of landing strip—about the width of a pencil—that can be used as a constant source of information. Think of the screen as a permanent, always visible widget. Browsing the Web? You can have sports scores constantly stream across the Edge screen like a breaking news ticker. It's a weird, crazy, daring idea. At first it seems like a gimmick, a way for Samsung's engineers to show off. But give it time, let it soak in, and you'll find that it's actually useful.
Enough to warrant a purchase over the Galaxy Note 4, or even the Nexus 6? We wouldn't go that far.
This review will mainly focus on the Note Edge design, and the device's second screen. For more information on what it can do, check out our Note 4 review.
Samsung Galaxy Note Edge Video Review
The good news is that the Note Edge is almost a Note 4 clone: the specs, software and design are all mostly the same. The obvious difference is the curved screen, which adds an entirely new element to the experience. You don't just look at the content directly in front of you; the extra strip is there to feed you a steady stream of Tweets, weather, news and more. If nothing else, it acts as an extra icon dock, giving you quick and easy access to apps and folders.
The engineering behind the device is amazing. The Edge is an absolute knockout, one of the sleekest designs we've seen all year. That's partly due to the newness of it. But it also looks like something from the future; it'll elicit one or two mystified looks while out in public. What is that? What's wrong with the screen? It's a Samsung. That's all the explanation anyone will ever need.
Like the Note 4, the Note Edge includes the same S Pen slot, same faux-leather rear shell, same sturdy metal frame. But rather than wrapping around the entire phone, creating flat edges for your hand to comfortably snuggle, the Edge's right side gently cascades into the back of the device. Imagine the slight curve of the iPhone 6's display, which seamlessly connects with the handset's rear aluminum shell, and magnifying that.
With such a pronounced curve, the Note Edge feels strange and absurd in the hand. It isn't comfortable, but it isn't necessarily uncomfortable, either; it's both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Compared to the Note 4, it feels completely different (no surprise), like the phones aren't related at all. Part of that has to do with the Edge's slightly smaller 5.6-inch screen, but mostly it's down to the extra panel, which adds an extra 160 pixels of width.
Getting accustomed to the second panel definitely takes some getting used to. When held in your right hand, your thumb has a natural tendency to actually cover some of the curved portion. Adjusting it to press the onscreen icons can feel like you're performing palm yoga, though you'll eventually learn to adjust your behavior. (You can also flip the device upside down if you're a lefty, with a special mode that adds onscreen nav buttons.) The real problem is that because the right side of the display is curved, there's no room for a power button, which is the only conceivable place to put it on big phones. Instead, it's been displaced to the top of the Edge, making it annoying to hunt down and press.
That said, the Note Edge's footprint is smaller overall, coming in lighter and shorter, though it does include the same impressive specs found in the Note 4. The 5.6-inch Super AMOLED display has a resolution of 2560 x 1600 (524 ppi), and under that sits a 2.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 805 processor, 3GB of RAM, a 16-megapixel camera, 3000mAh battery (the Note 4's is 3220mAh), and either 32GB or 64GB of internal storage, which can be expanded through a microSD slot. You also get Samsung's finicky fingerprint sensor, and Samsung's famous S Pen.
Now he's where it gets interesting. That curved section often has little to do with the main smartphone experience, which is still focused on apps and messages and Samsung's TouchWiz tricks. When you watch a YouTube video, for example, the Edge portion will fade to black and only display a personal message (in some truly ugly font). It's designed not to distract you from where your attention is focused, which is on the video (duh). But swipe on the second screen, and the many different Note Edge panels can be flicked through. Watch YouTube videos and see the latest MLS scores at the same time. Neat.
The appeal here is that the panel doesn't intrude on what's happening on the main display. That allows users to focus on a particular task without having to constantly jump to different apps and Web pages to get quick appetizers of information. The experience is almost supplementary the way a smartwatch is: you'll get the information you need irrespective of what's taking place on the main screen. If you don't want the different Note Edge panels constantly bombarding you, the settings can easily be changed, giving you complete control over what shows up, and when.
The unfortunate part is that there aren't very many panel apps at the moment, which means you'll only have a handful to toy around with in the beginning. Yahoo Sports and Finance are neat, while seeing Twitter activity is handy I suppose. Samsung has released an SDK to encourage developers to add more panels, but right now it's feeling a bit bare. There's definitely potential.
But does it really add to the overall experience? That's the biggest conundrum facing the Note Edge right now. While the design is impressive, and there's certainly a convenience to having a dedicated area for quick information, I found myself preferring the many different widgets Android has to offer instead.
Why have my Twitter constantly ticking through when I can just look at a widget, which also let's me favorite, reply and Tweet without jumping into the actual app? Plus, when holding the Note Edge in portrait, seeing text scroll through at a 90-degree angle is incredibly annoying. The second screen does provide useful information at a glance, but it's not nearly as powerful as a normal widget. That doesn't necessarily make the Note Edge display a gimmick. But it's also not something I found really adding to the experience. Put it this way: I didn't miss it going back to the DROID Turbo.
The problem right now is that you need to use the Note Edge in a specific way in order to get the most out of the additional panel, at least for widgets that display text. It's essentially useless in portrait, which I'm guessing is the way users hold their phone 90-percent of the time. You'll have to flip the phone on its back with the curved side facing you to make the second screen worthwhile. Sitting on the table with the curved side facing you while your hands are busy on a keyboard—that's when the panel becomes useful.
Samsung does actually make an effort to incorporate some of its built-in apps to take advantage of the extra screen real estate, which hopefully means we could see third-party stuff beyond paneled widgets in the future. In the camera app, for example, the shutter button and other settings will show up in the Edge display, giving you easy access without any of the onscreen assets disturbing what's in the viewfinder. The S Note app essentially does the same, using the extra screen real estate to place the various tool options and settings. Audio apps also take advantage of the space by displaying control buttons while music plays in the background.
However, probably the best demonstration of the Edge display is Samsung's Night Clock, which turns the device into a very expensive alarm clock. The setting will showcase the time on the Note Edge's side display in easy-on-the-eyes white numbers. In pitch black darkness, it's not overbearing or intrusive, but it's enough that you can read the time while realizing that you have a few more hours to sleep before your alarm goes off at 6:00 a.m. This feature, like the other panel features, can be set according to your preferences, giving you the ability to adjust the time Night Clock is displayed while you're asleep.
Even if you don't find the Note Edge's extra screen useful at all, you're still basically getting a Note 4, which is one of the best Android devices on the market. You get the perks of the S Pen, the same excellent camera, quick performance, and everything else you loved about Samsung's best ever big phone. Battery life isn't quite as exceptional since the Edge can only accommodate one that's 3000mAh, but by and large this is just a weird-looking Note 4—the added side panel is just a bonus, albeit one that's hit or miss. Overall, it definitely has the potential to be great.
A lot of the existing panel apps aren't must-haves, and you're probably better off with normal Android widgets. But Samsung does provide a few examples of how the second screen can supplement, and ultimately add to, the overall smartphone experience. You'll probably get tired of apps that display text real quick. But moving camera controls off to the side is a nice touch, while Night Clock is great if you have a flat surface to place the device on while you're asleep.
The Galaxy Note Edge is an impressive experiment that is more than just a gimmick.
The biggest problem is that the Note Edge is $399 through AT&T with a two-year agreement. When you consider how experimental the device is, it doesn't quite feel like making that kind of commitment is worth it, particularly when the Note 4 is already expensive at $299 with a two-year contract. If they were the same price, Samsung's concept might then be a worthy contender. But it's not quite there.
The second display isn't always helpful or even needed, though it doesn't detract from the experience, which at its core is just as good as the Note 4. However, the design is a little uncomfortable with the power button up top, and battery life isn't as good. Two small things that definitely add up.
Ultimately, the Note Edge is a neat showcase for Samsung, a device that display's the company's engineering talent. That doesn't mean curved screens will be the future of smartphones. But it's something fun and different, and we give Samsung credit for trying something new.