We've covered the interesting physical and technical aspects of the Note Edge, but the most intriguing (and confusing) portion of this phone is what it's like to actually use. Samsung didn't curve the edge of this phone so that you end up using it the same way as any other, of course — the hardware and software aim to offer a unique user experience.
Interacting with the edge screen
When you're in an app the edge screen is simply pulled off to the side and blacked out, acting as a normal screen bezel would.
First, let's explain the basics of what the edge screen actually is. The edge screen has two main states — expanded and retracted. When you're in an app the edge screen is simply pulled off to the side and blacked out, acting as a normal screen bezel would.
A single swipe (but not a tap or palm press) in from the edge with any finger deploys the edge screen up over whatever content you're looking at, launching into the first panel you've selected to be there. Additional swipes in either direction scroll through the other panels you've enabled. Swipe up from the bottom edge on any panel to access the edge screen settings, or swipe down from the top of any panel to bring down the tools panel. As soon as you interact with the main display, the edge panel retracts.
That's your basic navigation paradigm, and it feels incredibly natural, even on a curved screen that not many of us are used to dealing with. Samsung has absolutely nailed the tap and palm rejection software, and the edge screen really only reacts when you want it to.
Edge screen software
The software for managing the edge screen is actually very basic, fitting in line with the minimal screen real estate you have to work with. Most of the functional customization comes down to the "panels" that you choose to have on your edge screen, of which you can have up to seven enabled at any given time.
The primary panel you're encouraged to enable is "favorite apps," which takes place of the standard bottom row of your app launcher on a normal phone (the Note Edge lacks that fixed bottom row of icons on the launcher, in fact). It can hold seven of your often-used apps or folders (or more if you want to scroll) in any order you wish, and it'll be the first panel shown whenever you're on the home screen or swipe in on the edge screen in any other app.
Out of the box there are nine panels in total to choose from:
- Favorite apps (explained above)
- S Health — displays step, distance and calorie information
- Twitter — trending topics in a scrolling list
- Yahoo Sports — scrolling list of updating sports scores from user-selected teams
- Yahoo News — scrolling worldwide news headlines
- Yahoo Finance — scrolling finance news and information
- Briefing — displays weather, missed calls, messages and notifications
- Contacts — scrolling list of your contacts
- Memory Match — a card matching game
- S Note launcher — mirrors functionality of the S Note widget
There are few panels available at launch, none are particularly compelling, and organizing them is a pretty clunky experience.
In addition to the pre-installed panels, there are also (at the time of this writing) eight panels in the Galaxy Apps store for download, though Samsung is naturally hoping that third-party developers use its edge screen SDK to make even more.
You can organize the panels in whatever order you want, though the way you do so is quite clunky. To change the ordering of the panels you need to check the boxes to enable panels in the order which you want them displayed, which isn't immediately apparent when you're customizing the edge screen. I'd greatly prefer a long press, drag and drop method or something of the sort. The way it's done now seems very rudimentary.
For panels that have customizable elements, such as the Yahoo Sports or Briefing panel, you can tap an edit button in the settings to choose what content gets pulled in by the panel or how it acts. Most of them are pretty basic or not customizable at all, though.
Beyond the individual panels, the edge screen also picks up all of your notifications and displays them just as the notification shade would, but vertically along the edge. There's no control over which notifications go to the edge screen, meaning every Hangouts message, every app update, every email and every Words With Friends notification pops up and covers a small portion of your screen with that information.
Any music that you're playing, regardless of app, will trigger the edge screen to display a music panel with basic album art and playback controls as well, just like a typical notification shade widget would. The camera also puts all of its controls on the edge screen, leaving the full screen open as a viewfinder (that is, if you shoot in 16:9 aspect ratio).
There's also a neat "night clock" mode, which can be set to run when the screen is off in up to a 12-hour period, which you define. The night clock mode subtly illuminates the edge screen with time, date and alarm information, and can work nicely as a clock on your bedside table, so long as you position your phone (and charger) correctly.
Daily life using the edge screen and panels
I didn't find any of the panels (pre-installed or downloadable) available today particularly compelling, though, and found it tough to work them into my regular use of the Note Edge.
The Twitter panel isn't customizable and when tapped doesn't work with third-party Twitter apps. The Yahoo apps are very limited in their customization of topics, and don't even include major leagues in many sports. Few people will actually need a scrolling list of their contacts or quick launch icons for S Note at the ready all of the time. And God help me if I ever need to surreptitiously play a mini game on a 160 pixel-wide screen on the side of my phone.
These are the big features that are supposed to be selling points of the Note Edge, but they don't feel thought out in any way. They're just there.
Almost all of the panels look really cool scrolling by in demo mode (I suppose that's part of the point), but in practice they're not massively useful right now. Content scrolls up vertically, making it hard to read when using your phone in portrait mode, as we all do a majority of the time, and is only available to view when you actually swipe in the edge screen on top of other content on your screen. The panels don't offer as much information as a widget, and lack usefulness as a secondary display because the edge screen disappears as soon as you touch the main app.
The Favorite Apps, S Health, Briefing and Tools panels — in particular the timer and ruler — are the only ones I found useful on the Note Edge, but they're still not really adding much to the experience. Having the Favorite Apps launcher was something I got used to for promptly switching between often-used apps in place of the Recents or Home keys, but it quickly became a bit of a confusing experience.
Your eyes and fingers never have a regular, repeatable motion to go through to use the phone, and that's a problem.
You go to the edge screen for some content and app launching, but then you need to go to the home screen and Recents menu for other content. Notifications come in on the edge screen, but if you don't tap it while its notifying you, you need to swipe down the notification shade to get to the actual notifications (or go to the Briefing panel, which loosely handles app notifications). Your eyes and fingers never have a regular, repeatable motion to go through to use the phone, and that's a problem.
The camera interface uses the edge screen to display the settings and shutter button, but it actually makes it tough to press that shutter button because it's now on a curved portion of the display facing away from you. And if you choose to shoot in 4:3 aspect ratio, as many do, it makes no sense to have the controls on the edge screen as they wouldn't be obstructing the viewfinder anyways.
But what about left-handed users?
A natural question comes about when looking at the asymmetrical design of the Note Edge: What about folks who hold the phone in their left hand? That's not just those who are left-hand dominant, of course — plenty of right-handed folks, myself included, use phones regularly in their left hand throughout the day.
"Rotate 180" lets you use the Edge upside down. And it works about as well as you'd expect.
Well of course Samsung wasn't going to make two versions of the Edge with the curve on opposite sides, and instead includes a "Rotate 180°" mode that lets you turn the Note Edge upside down, putting the edge screen on the left, and rotating the entire interface 180 degrees. You then get on-screen buttons for Recents, Home and Back, as the regular navigation buttons are now on the top of the phone.
It isn't elegant, pretty or a best-case scenario, but it does work. As frustrating as having to flip your phone upside down to use it is, trying to reach all the way from the left side of the screen to swipe on the edge screen is borderline impossible, so your only real option for left-handed use is to use the Rotate 180° mode.
Adding questionable value to the Note experience
Even ignoring the usefulness of the edge screen, the curved portion of the screen creates real problems for physically holding and using the Note Edge. The Note Edge is a full 6 millimeters wider than the Note 4 (which in itself isn't tiny), making a cross-device thumb reach even tougher — or let's face it, impossible for some hands.
The curve also makes standard right edge swipe gestures — including the very necessary "reduce screen size" gesture — in apps slightly more difficult, because there's no physical boundary between the "real" screen and the edge screen. Because the curve takes up the entirety of the right edge of the phone it also pushes the power button to the top of the device, the least logical location on a phone of this size.
A smaller device may solve some of these problems. In any case, these are all issues you'll have to deal with if you choose the Note Edge over its more mainstream sibling.
After a week with the edge screen, there's just not a single piece of software here that had me compelled to continue using it.
After a week of trying my best to use the Note Edge and the edge screen to its full potential, there's just not a single piece of software introduced here that had me compelled to continue using it. And there certainly aren't enough exciting features here to justify the awkward curved edge and the ergonomic issues it introduces.
I can understand the appeal of large phones and know why some folks want to use them. I'm even convinced that a Note 4 could be my primary phone. But there's a difference between a phone being large and a phone being awkward to use. The Note 4 is large, but the Note Edge is awkward.