Samsung is doubling down on big phones and clever design, announcing on Wednesday two new versions of its popular Note 4, one of which includes a unique curved design and features two separate touch screens.
The company also announced a virtual reality headset accessory for the Note 4 that offers wireless, immersive game and video consumption.
The Galaxy Note was a surprise hit for Samsung that arguably started the trend toward so-called phablets – phones that are almost as big as tablets. Indeed, Samsung says the Note outsells its better-known Galaxy S phones in some markets and that Note users are among its most passionate. And with Apple possibly poised to announce a new, larger-format iPhone next week, Samsung took the chance to remind smartphone fans that it was there first.
The updated Note 4 does not get any larger – it’s still a 5.7-inch display. But the display itself bumps up in resolution and quality. Samsung has also made some changes to the phone’s camera. The 16-megapixel rear camera now features optical image stabilization, which helps reduce shake and, therefore, blur. Improvements were noticeable in a quick demonstration. Samsung also promises longer exposures for better lowlight images.
The front-facing camera is now 3.7 megapixels for better-quality selfies, and it includes a wider shooting angle and a sort of panoramic mode for taking photos of big groups. In a demonstration, Samsung used its now-famous Oscar selfie, taken by Ellen DeGeneres, and pointed out that the new angle would have allowed the photo to include Jared Leto and Angelina Jolie, who were cut off in the published photo – major omissions, indeed.
Samsung also noted software improvements and showed off an interface that made the phone seem more like a PC than a tablet. You can actually resize the windows of native apps like the browser, email and phone dialer, position multiple windows on the screen, and use the phone’s stylus to click, highlight and even drag text between windows.
But the company, known for its “try everything” approach, also introduced an entirely new version of the Note called the Galaxy Note Edge. This phone is reminiscent of an infinity edge pool: the edge on the right side of the phone curves sharply and wraps down to the back.
On this curved edge sits a second, totally separate touch screen that functions as a sort of dock for favorite apps, a notification bar, an information ticker and even an alarm clock. You can customize which apps you put in the secondary screen and scroll through notifications on the side screen while another app like a video or email takes up the primary display.
Samsung did not give prices for either Note 4 device but said the Note Edge would cost more and was intended to be a “premium” device for, presumably, design-minded buyers who don’t mind paying extra to have something completely different.
The Edge is interesting, to be sure, but since developers will have to make any extra apps – like information tickers – specifically for that small, vertical display, it is unlikely to get a lot more features. Right now, its information ticker is limited to Yahoo news. But there is an alarm clock mode that offers a low-power, dimmed display of time and date – great for sitting on a table next to a hotel bed.
Samsung introduced its Gear virtual reality headset as an accessory to the Note 4 device. The phone snaps into the headset, which then displays virtual reality video like concerts, movies or travel tours.
Samsung is also dipping a toe into virtual reality, with a headset similar to the Oculus Rift device that is powered solely by a Note 4 phone (not the Note Edge). The phone snaps into the Gear VR headset, which itself contains speakers and a few electronics for displaying on-screen video in a wraparound experience.
The Rift headset, by contrast, plugs into a desktop or laptop, whereas the Samsung headset is wireless and mobile. But the two clearly have a prior relationship: a device teardown of the Oculus Rift showed a Note 3 display inside, and Samsung is now saying it has a “deep partnership” with Oculus in developing its headset.
The company showed off a 360-degree Coldplay concert, and I was able to look up, down, side to side and behind me as though I was really in the room. There was a game, developed in partnership with Oculus, and some fun (if kind of silly) content based on the Marvel Avengers movie.
Samsung did not reveal pricing for the Gear VR, but said it would be available “this year.” Its market is obviously limited, since it only works with the Note 4 and will have little content at first. Also, it is heavy, slightly uncomfortable and makes its wearer feel extremely self-conscious – not to mention slightly motion sick, at least during a 360-degree flyover of New York City. But it’s probably an attempt to kick-start content for future virtual reality devices.
Samsung has struggled to continue to sell smartphones at the rapid clip it enjoyed in the last couple of years, as it becomes harder and harder to impress buyers with new features. But the company has the resources and design chops to try new things that sometimes feel either odd or distracting.
The original Note was one of those experiments, and it worked out pretty well. Will every phone have a curved second screen two years from now? You never know.
Authored by Molly Wood via nytimes.com.
Correction: September 3, 2014
An earlier version of this article misstated where Ellen DeGeneres took a famous selfie. It was at the Oscars, not the Emmy Awards.