Editors' note, January 29, 2015: This review was updated with comparisons to LG's new dual-curved screen phone prototype and additional impressions of using the Note Edge for several months. There are also thoughts on Android Lollipop and extended discussion of the phone's second interface.
In Samsung's vision of the electronics future, curved is the new flat. Since 2013, the Korean conglomerate unveiled curved wearables, TVs and even a smartphone, the Galaxy Round. (Rival LG has two too.) Here, the Galaxy Note Edge -- first released in November 2014 -- furthers the curved campaign with a subtly arched "second screen" that's devoted to productivity. If a phone like the Edge could one day redefine the flat face of smartphones, Samsung wants to be at the crest of that wave.
While it isn't hard to use per se, the Galaxy Note Edge still isn't a phone you master overnight. Both its asymmetrical shape and wraparound Edge display require you to navigate this handset differently than you would any other phone.
On the one hand, Samsung's new Revolving UI and Edge display apps and widgets make the most of the curved portion of the screen, opening up new possibilities for interacting with your phone controls. On the other hand, it's really expensive and there's no actual need for the waterfall effect, other than to showcase its makers' ingenuity with material properties. And now, in the wake of an even bolder LG attempt at a screen with two curved edges, this original here is looking a little passe.
When I first reviewed this phone, I vacillated between really liking the Note Edge's conveniences and finding them redundant. Now that I've used the Note Edge as my go-to Android phone for several months, my perspective is much more crystallized, and a little more wearied. Read more below to see what I mean.
On the balance, the Edge is a clever, well-designed piece of aspirational hardware that probes future shapes and modes of interaction. It's also a little too clever for its own good. Those looking for a showpiece of a phone will love it, but more conventional devices like the Galaxy Note 4, LG G3 and Sony Xperia Z3 or Z3v are simply better for mainstream buyers.
It's almost expected that phones using new technologies or methods could cost more, but it's a cost few could be expected to bear. The off-contract Edge goes for $840 to $946 in the US (or $400 on-contract with AT&T), about £650 in the UK and AU$1,249 in Australia, so those rival phones are much cheaper, too.
Note Edge versus Note 4: What's different
Apart from its different physical shape and Edge display screen, the Note 4 and Note Edge share top-of-the-line hardware and the Samsung-tinged version of Android 4.4. A few differences include:
Samsung Galaxy Note Edge versus Note 4
5.6-inch 1,440p HD AMOLED display
5.7-inch 1,440p HD AMOLED display
3,000mAh quick-charging battery
3,220mAh quick-charging battery
5.96 x 3.24 x 0.33 inches
6.04 x 3.09 x 0.33 inches
151.3 x 82.4 x 8.3mm
153.5 x 78.6 x 8.5mm
6.1 ounces / 174 grams
6.2 ounces / 176 grams
Black, white, silver, gold, blue, pink
Since the Galaxy Note Edge and Galaxy Note 4 have nearly identical specs, this review focuses on the differences between the two models. There are a few tiny variations with the TouchWiz UI as well. For any other details, see CNET's Galaxy Note 4 review.
Design: The curve that makes a point
The more you think about it, the more ironic it becomes that the standout feature in the Galaxy Note Edge is actually its curve rather than any straight, sharp line. This glossy waterfall of a right spine, which Samsung calls the phone's Edge display, measures 2,560x160 pixels in a vertical ribbon of screen.
About that screen: it's made from one continuous piece of glass that tops the flexible (but fixed) AMOLED display beneath. Instead of having a straight right spine, the curve joins the back of the phone, creating a kind of pointy edge.
You'd think this triangular shape would feel off-kilter or sharply uncomfortable to hold. I certainly got that impression when when I first saw the Edge, but it's surprisingly balanced when you actually use it, even for extended periods of time. I carried the Edge in my right and left hands for an hour at a time during a hike. I did grip it differently than I would other phones, but it felt sturdy and secure the entire time, and I quickly grew used to the altered feel.
The same leather-like coating used on the back of the Note 4 also adds some extra tactile support, and feels pretty good. Unlike most Samsung phones, the power/lock button migrates from the right spine to the top.
One last point is that although the screen is a hair smaller than the Note 4, the phone itself is a little bit wider. With my smaller hands, I'd have to use both to maneuver the phones regardless, but it's something for prospective buyers to bear in mind.
Second screen: Samsung's revolving UI
Samsung made brand-new software to fit the Edge's brand-new shape, and the company calls its interface the Revolving UI with good reason. It's best to think of it as a multifunctional home screen that you can swipe through to see various icons and widgets. Like a revolving door, you swipe your thumb toward the phone edge to advance, and to circle back to the beginning.
You have some control over the icons you can include on the primary panel, and how many panels you want in all. Samsung is wooing developers to make more. A panel manager and editing tool help with customization, though you can't add every phone app to the primary panel, and many of them you can't edit at all. There's also some under-baked functionality in the weather widget. You can see it at a glance, but tapping the widget won't open up a fuller forecast.
Apart from icons and tools, you'll see the notifications that are linked to many apps flash along the Edge display. You can open and close these with a single tap. Missed alerts greet you in this side notifications display as well as the traditional notifications shade at the top of the Note Edge's screen. Just like your home screen, the Edge display supports folders, too. These take longer to pop out though, and the animation didn't seem as smooth, so using them wasn't my favorite.
In addition to seeing alerts, the Edge display has its own set of settings. Pull down from the top of any Edge window to open quick tools like a flashlight, a voice recorder, a timer and stopwatch, and a ruler. I really like these in theory, but I rarely needed them in a natural, unforced way. With the exception of the ruler, which is really clever, I'm also not convinced that tying these tools to the Edge display offers any real value. They'd be just as convenient to access from elsewhere on the phone.
For customizations, there are a few. You can personalize the color of the Edge display when the phone is locked, and customize the message that appears when it's idle. That's about it.
There are two times you'll use the Edge display alone, and I like both modes. First, when you want to wake the phone up (by swiping vertically along the curve) to see just the date, time and weather. Swiping up and down some more activates a ticker to view your notifications. If the phone is facing you, colleagues across the table from you (for instance) can't see your screen.
I never used the Edge display as a way to keep notifications private -- there's little need for that in my world -- but I do like the ability to call up a little information without waking the entire phone. This just feels like minimal effort is required, which is exactly how it should be.
Now for the second benefit, one that's actually one of the phone's best "unique" features. After-hours, the date and time will dimly and persistently glow out at you from the Night Clock. This is an optional mode that lets you set the times you want it. In my case, from 11pm to 6am. And glow it does. With the Note Edge laying flat on its back and the edge turned toward you, it becomes as effective and far less obtrusive than other docked alarm clock setups, but is still bright enough to read.
Although battery drain is low, you should probably keep an eye on the overall battery life if you use this mode. The last thing you want is the phone to die before your morning alarm.
What about lefties?
The Edge is a phone made for righties and adapted for the southpaws among us. A setting to flip the icons 180 degrees lets lefties turn the phone upside down so they can swipe and tap on the Edge display with their dominant hands. Since that orientation now puts the home button and navigation keys along the top (and well out of reach), you can swipe up to surface some on-screen navigation controls. It's a workaround that seems to do the trick.
Using the Edge display
I've now had months to scrutinize what it's like to use the Note Edge display, some good, some perpetually a little weird, and some kind of bad. Here are a few common scenarios that sprang up repeatedly.
Taking photos on a hike in the mountains around San Francisco, I mostly launched the camera from the phone's lock screen or from the Edge display. It was there by default and I didn't add the icon to my home screen.
At first, the camera controls on the curved portion of the screen felt a little awkward, since I kept trying to take photos by pressing my index finger to the screen (the usual for many smartphone cameras) instead of the button along the Edge's ridge. It shows up at the top when you're in landscape mode and the middle in portrait.