Much has been said about the specs and the features of the brand new Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and Note Edge, unveiled last night in Berlin. Samsung has upped its phablet offering by several notches and has added two choices for consumers looking to move up in smartphones this holiday season. The aim is to dislodge Apple’s plans to make a killing with the new larger screened iPhones arriving next week, but it’s also about re-establishing its credibility after poor performance in terms of sales and revenue. So the question is whether Samsung has done enough with the Note 4 ‘series’ to get back to its innovative best, and bring its A-game to the smartphone battle? We weigh in.
A lot of people are wondering whether Samsung has done enough to make Apple sit up and take note. But honestly, the question should be whether they have done enough to put Android rivals in emerging markets under pressure. Samsung Electronics’ operating profit fell to a two-year low in the second quarter as it lost market share in China and in India. So for them to stage a recovery, they need the Note 4 and the Note Edge to have a huge impact. In terms of specs, Samsung has really upped the game and given both phones everything from the quad high-definition display to a 16-megapixel rear-facing camera but they are all incremental; changes that will make it difficult for Samsung to differentiate its product from other Android phone makers like Xiaomi and Gionee, who can and probably will produce similarly spec’ed phones at much lower prices
The side display on the Note Edge is the most interesting feature that Samsung displayed but that can’t be their most innovative feature. They don’t have the advantage of an app store focussed to take advantage of that — after all what more would you want to do with that display than have a ticker, notifications or even display the time? Is there scope to do anything else? Is it just another gimmick that no one will use?
The stylus for Note phones continues to improve but then again it is something that can only be used with the Note and that again isn’t a make or break area for them. So while the answer to whether Samsung has done enough to ward off the competition maybe a yes, the answer to whether they have innovated enough to make everyone (Xiaomi, Gionee, Nokia and Apple included) look at them in a new light is still a no.
Samsung’s fourth iteration of the flagship Note phablet looks the most refined of the lot. It’s slimmer, maintains the clockwork-like increase in specifications without changing too much in the way of familiarity and there’s a bit of metal in it too. It’s also waterproof. But the piece de resistance is the beefed-up S Pen stylus. On the face of it, it looks just like any other S Pen, but Samsung has continued to innovate on the possible applications for the stylus.
From being able to convert pictures into text, to clipping any part of the Web or the UI to a virtual scrapbook, to using it to minimise or reduce the app window size. If it sounds like a mouse, it’s because Samsung wants it to be used as one. That in my opinion is the biggest innovation in the Note 4. Most people who have never used the S Pen realise very little about how powerful it can be, and it’s in fact the primary reason to pick a Galaxy Note. Phablets are dime-a-dozen, but not all of them have a powerful S Pen.
If the Note 4 was about refining the stylus, the Note Edge brings Samsung back to its comfort zone of hardware. It’s display is eye-catching put simply, but it represents a shift in the mobile landscape. Last year’s Galaxy Round and LG G Flex turned out to be show-ponies, but the Edge adds real usability. Yes, it’s up to the developers to utilise the API being released for it, but by default it’s an exciting new addition to the Note series that was growing a bit homogenous by the iteration. With the Edge out now, next year’s Note could have both sides curved, each being put to use for different purposes.
These are not in your face innovations, but they are refinements of concepts Samsung has already played with. In fact, this is the sort of innovation that Apple is best known for, taking an idea that already exists and fine-tuning it to make it work better. The crucial bit is convincing third-party developers that these refined ideas are worth the effort to add support in their apps.
The Samsung Unpacked 2014 event was surprisingly mellow with the focus being on the products being announced rather than having unnecessary celebrities giving us gyaan on how using the Note 4 changed their lives. As compared to the Galaxy Note 3, the Galaxy Note 4 brings some interesting things to the table – QHD display, 16MP rear camera, water-proofing and so on.
But what I really liked was the amount of S Pen specific features that have been added. The ability to minimise/maximise screens to access different apps, swiping diagonally to save a picture from a webpage, Snap Note are interesting things and add to the overall user experience. S Pen evolution over the years has been good and Samsung can work with developers to help them innovate their apps to make use of the new S Pen.
Samsung has finally decided to use metal in its construction which is a relief. The directional microphones on the Note 4, which will let you isolate sounds thanks to multiple microphones, sounds like a good feature to have – specially for us journalists who do a lot of interviews. There have been improvements in the rear camera. And as for the front camera, well I’m not a big fan of selfies so that ‘Wide-selfie mode’ feature is useless to me – but I’m sure a lot of you out there will disagree with me on this point.
As for innovations, I doubt anything really made me go “Wow!” Well, maybe the Samsung Gear VR did. But as far as design innovations go, I think smartphones or phablets have reached a level of maturity where you cannot really improve much on the basics of smartphone design. That goes not just for Samsung but even for Apple and Google. Samsung has tried a new form factor with the Note Edge, which basically adds some usability to a curvature. But frankly speaking, do we really need that kind of thin display on the side? Is that really going to add to the user experience? I don’t think so. We all know how well the Samsung Round and LG G Flex fared with their so-called “innovative” designs. Simple mantra: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Innovations with smartphones now lie in services (or apps to an extent) around your hardware, and that is where the future battles will be fought.