When Samsung launched its Galaxy S6 edge phone in February, it dazzled the market with a curved glass edge that seemed to rewrite the rules of phone design. However, it did not manage to dazzle the market equally with sales figures for the device. Ironically, demand was high, but supply was constrained by the complexity of manufacturing the curved screen.
Its more basic sibling, the S6, was too similar to the previous S5 and even S4 to capture customers’ imagination. It was no surprise, then, that Samsung focused on the devices that made a difference when it staged its latest Galaxy Unpacked event in New York last week.
It unveiled a larger version of the edge, the S6 edge+, pushing it into the “phablet” space with a 5.7-inch screen – up from 5.1-inch on the smaller edition. At the same time, it announced the Note 5, the latest in a series that has redefined the market for larger smartphones.
The original Note, released in 2011, carried a mere 5,3-inch display, but was mocked as being absurdly big. Samsung had the last laugh, selling 10-million units in less than a year, and heralding the dawn of both the “phablet” and demand for larger screens. In a rare misstep, Apple initially dismissed the trend, but eventually succumbed with its iPhone 6 Plus last year.
The next two versions of the Galaxy Note each had a bigger screen, until it maxed out at 5.7-inches, where the new Note 5 has also settled. That appears to be the sweet spot for phablets, and the battle is now one for differentiation rather than format.
At the launch, Samsung Electronics President and CEO JK Shin made a point of reminding the audience of the legacy of the device: “The Note created a category. Some said we were crazy, but we saw a problem we could solve.”
This time round, the problem was Samsung’s own: “What does it take to stay ahead of the curve?” The answer, he said, was to “start with the rules and bend them”.
The result is two phablets aimed at two entirely different markets. The Note series captured an audience of professional users looking for more productivity from a handset, in particular through the introduction of the S-Pen that allows for handwriting recognition and drawing on a phone.
“The Pen is to the Note what the mouse is to the PC,” Shin explained. The Note 5 plays hard to this strength, with a “more solid, more precise and sensitive” S-Pen, which Shin says feels “like writing with a ballpoint pen”.
The S6 edge+, on the other hand, is aimed firmly at the consumer multimedia market, with an emphasis on content, sharing and consumption. It improves dramatically on the functionality of the original S6 edge, which only allowed for inclusion of contacts on the secondary side screen. The edge+ allows any apps to be added to the side screen, bringing the notion of a phone edge into its own. This functionality should eventually be rolled out to the original edge phones as well.
The most significant innovation on the edge+ is not entirely on the handset itself. It’s called Live Broadcast, and allows users to share moments directly from the phone, as video.
“Sure there are other video apps that can do that,” said Shin, “but your friends and family have to be signed up with the same platform. With Live Broadcast, you can broadcast directly from the phone to YouTube, and people can watch live or catch up on the feed later.”
Wireless charging based on industry standards means the devices can now be charged in any location where standard wireless pads are provided, such as some Starbucks outlets in the United States. These are expected to become widespread in the near future.
According to Craige Fleisher, Samsung’s Director for Mobile Communications in South Africa, the enhancements to the devices represented a more significant change than the market realised, as they “bring our design innovation to the large screen format”.
Dealing with the power demands of large displays has also represented a major challenge, he said.
“Understanding that power in terms of battery consumption and recharge is a key consideration in terms of consumer purchases, I see Samsung bringing innovation to this environment as we have historically to camera and screen technology.”
Fleisher says the S6 edge+ will arrive in South Africa in the first week of September, while the Note 5 will be released in November.