Saturday, 13 September 2014

Galaxy Note 4 and Note Edge initial impressions

The Note 4 and its sibling, the Note Edge. Image: Tabtec
While Sony had a very good lineup on display at IFA 2014, there's no doubt that all eyes were on Samsung. The fourth generation Galaxy Note was teased immensely leading up to the event, and rumours were swirling about a phone with a curved display making an appearance. That rumour turned out to be accurate, as we also got the Galaxy Note Edge to accompany the more traditional Note. What started out as an experiment back in 2011, the Galaxy Note line has thrived. At first, the 5.3" Note was considered to be ridiculously huge, but people have adapted, and Samsung has continuously improved the device year after year. More tellingly, Samsung's gamble with the Note line has seen the ultimate sign of acceptance when its largest competitor, Apple, released a 5.5" iPhone 6 Plus (I'll be writing about this too in the future). Samsung thoroughly deserved the Twitter attack on Apple that came afterwards. Known for throwing everything to the consumer to see what sticks, the Note line is probably Samsung's most successful experiment in the mobile industry, and many people (myself included) believe that is has slowly taken over the Galaxy S line as Samsung's flagship. With this success, it was only a matter of time until Samsung released a variant of the Note, like they do with every other product they have. So does the Edge have the edge in becoming the next big thing in mobile? And did the Note 4 live up to the hype? Here are some early thoughts.

Galaxy Note 4

I may not be a fan of Samsung, but I have no problem saying that the Note is the best in it's class (large phones a.k.a phablets). While other OEMs just make phones with large displays (which Samsung also does with its Galaxy Mega), Samsung makes the large display on the Note useful, thanks to the addition of the S-Pen. The stylus itself has undergone several tweaks over the years, and the suite of S-Pen software on the Note has also seen its fair share of updates. The Note 4 is no exception. The S-Pen is slightly slimmer and will now come in the same colour as the phone. In addition, the pressure sensitivity has been increased to give you more control over your note-taking and artistic expression. There are some software tweaks with regards to the S-Pen functionality, which you can checkout on Samsung's promotional video on YouTube.

Moving on from the S-Pen, the actual phone has also gotten the expected upgrades over last year's Note 3. The display remains the same size at 5.7", but the resolution has been upgraded to 1440p giving it a ppi of over 500. I've made my feelings about 1440p displays on phones clear in the past, but that's the direction the industry is going, so yeah. Another notable improvement is the addition of a metal frame around the edges of the phone. Yup. Metal. On a Samsung phone. After all the effort that went into defending plastic, Samsung has jumped on board with the addition of this metal frame. It's good don't get me wrong, many early hands-on videos have said the phone feels better, and it's indicative of how Samsung is finally listening to criticism. Another inclusion to the Note 4 is the fingerprint scanner that is also on the S5, and optical image stabilisation to the camera, similar to LG's flagships and the Nexus 5. The rest is pretty much as you'd expect. A newer SoC, similarly sized (only 20 mAh larger) battery, still 3GB of RAM, and TouchWiz got some changes, most notably the new app switcher interface that looks more like what was seen in the Android L preview. 

So the Note 4 is a good upgrade over the Note 3, improving in all the right places and solidifying the brand as the best in the phablet category. But that's pretty much it. Similar to how the Z3 was an iterative upgrade over the Z2 without really bringing anything new to the market, the Note 4 is the same. It's a good upgrade, but nothing more. Sure, we've reached a point in the industry where truly innovative features are few and far between, but that's the challenge OEMs need to take up. In all fairness, Samsung did try something new at IFA, which leads us to the next part of this post, the Note Edge.

A good upgrade over the Note 3. Existing Note users will be pleased.
Image: Android Authority

Galaxy Note Edge

Samsung is known for releasing several variants of the same device. The Galaxy S5 has variants such as the S5 Active, the S5 mini, and the S5 Sport. The Galaxy Tab comes in the standard Tab, Tab Pro, or Tab S variants. In fact, the Note has already seen a variant, in the Note 3 Neo. But that was an unspectacular device, mainly because it was basically a rebranded Note 2. But Samsung's latest variant will surely turn heads, as it comes with a curved 160 pixel display on the right edge of the phone (hence the name).

Note the Edge on the right side of the phone. Image: Android Central
The Note Edge is pretty much identical to the Note 4 in terms of specs, with the only major difference being that curved display on the edge. It isn't merely a curved extension of the main display, rather a separate display that can act independently. On the home screen for example, it replaces the dock found on the bottom of the display, so you'll be launching your favourite apps from the curve instead. Buttons usually found in the camera interface (like the shutter) will be displayed on the edge instead of the viewfinder, and the same applies to media playback buttons as well. There are also several types of panels that can be displayed, such as notifications, tool shortcuts such as a ruler, torch, and timer, sports scores, stocks, and news headlines. This is all customisable, and Samsung even prepared an SDK for app devs to be able to incorporate this curved edge into their apps. 

The Edge is definitely an experiment. Just like the curved Galaxy Round and G Flex from last year. And while those phones were cool (the G Flex more so), neither of them really kickstarted a shift towards curved phones. Similarly, I doubt the Edge will be able to pick up any traction in the industry. It may have some utility but if you ask me, this is just Samsung looking to solve a problem that doesn't exist.

This is Samsung, creating problems while trying to solve problems that never existed.
Image: Google+

Samsung is kinda in a tough spot at the moment. Its latest quarterly earnings forecast reported a drop in profits of 24% over the same period last year, making the previous quarter Samsung's worst in two years. Samsung's market share also dropped 7% over the same period. And while this was happening, Android actually gained market share, up to 85% from 80% the previous year. What this means is, more and more people are buying Android devices, but they aren't made by Samsung. Will the Note 4 and Note Edge help turn Samsung's fortunes around? I'm not too sure. The Note line appeals to a certain type of consumer - a power user who uses their phone as a productivity tool. The average consumer, who mostly just browses social media, takes photos and chats with friends is perfectly fine using a normal smartphone sans stylus. And the Note Edge? We'll have to see how it goes, but I doubt people will be rushing to the stores to pick one up.