Welcome to IRL, an ongoing feature where we talk about the gadgets, apps and toys we're using in real life and take a second look at products that already got the formal review treatment.
Flat smartphones are so early 2013; concave is the new hotness. At least, that's what Samsung and LG might have you believe: both companies have brought new curved displays to a limited market for an extremely high price. The Samsung Galaxy Round and the LG G Flex probably won't be on most people's wish lists, as each one costs well above $900 in Korea. Still, we have a feeling we'll be seeing plenty more (for a lower price) in the not-too-distant future. If this is indeed a sign of things to come, why shouldn't we want to spend more time with the phone that started the whole craze? Fortunately for us, our friends at Negri Electronics -- an online retailer which sells the Galaxy Round and G Flex -- offered us the chance to use an imported Korean version for a few days. Take a look at the galleries below and read on for some detailed impressions.
I'm not joking when I say the Galaxy Round is essentially a curved version of the Galaxy Note 3, just without the S-Pen. Like the Note, it features a 5.7-inch 1080p display, micro-USB 3.0, a 2.3GHz Snapdragon 800 processor, 3GB of RAM, 13-megapixel rear camera with UHD video recording capability, microSD and removable battery. It even features a similar leather-like back cover, complete with faux stitching. I showed it off to several people at Engadget Expand, and every single one of them mistook it for a Note 3 until they stopped to look more closely.
Not that there's anything wrong with this setup, exactly -- it just shows that, outside of Samsung's newfound ability to produce flexible screens, you won't find anything unique here. Not only are most of the specs the same, but the TouchWiz UI and Android 4.3 operating system are identical as well. In fact, there are only two real differences: the Round's smaller battery (which I'll discuss in a moment) and the now-famous "roll effect." The latter is basically Samsung's quick glance feature, which lets you peek at notifications and battery life without turning on the display, but here it's activated when you roll the device to one side or the other. The bad news? It didn't always work on my device.
The best thing about the Round is how comfortable it is to use. In fact, it's even more pleasant to handle than I expected. Since the front of the device is curved, the back is, too. And because its arc makes for an incredibly natural fit, it's the most comfortable large smartphone I've ever used. It's also easier to use one-handed, because the opposite side of the display is technically closer to my thumb, and scrolling left-to-right (and vice versa) is especially smooth. Lastly, just as our own Richard Lai noted, it feels better in a pants pocket than most devices.
As for the 1080p flexible Super AMOLED display, it looks just as good as the Note 3. It didn't necessarily give me a more immersive experience when watching movies, since the arc is fairly subtle, but the light reflects off the screen in a different way. Either way, I can't say these minor changes made the experience any better or worse. Meanwhile, as you'd expect, since the Round uses the same 2.3GHz Snapdragon 800 chipset as the Note 3, overall performance is pretty much the same. Gaming, phone calls, internet use and general navigation were all identical.
Because of the phone's design, the 2,800mAh battery on the Round is smaller and narrower than the 3,200mAh version used on the Note 3. I carried the phone around as my daily driver in New York City for a couple days, even though I only got AT&T HSPA+ at best, since LTE compatibility is limited to Korean frequencies. All told, the battery could get me through an entire day, but as expected it didn't offer quite the same longevity that the Note 3. I even performed Engadget's standard video rundown test, managing around nine hours and 30 minutes on a charge.
It's not going to cure diseases, wash dishes or solve world hunger. It doesn't have any superhero powers. The Galaxy Round, true to the second half of its name, is nothing more than a round smartphone that takes on most of the qualities of the Galaxy Note 3. However, outside of the "roll effect" and better in-hand ergonomics, it doesn't offer any additional enhancements that justify the absurdly high price. It's a great phone in terms of overall performance, but there's nothing that would compel mainstream consumers -- or even early adopters -- to plunk down $1,000-plus for it, and we can't in good faith recommend you do such a thing.
Then again, as silly as it may seem, consumer interest is not the reason for this handset's existence. It's a novelty at first -- a proof of concept developers can play with in order to come up with new use cases for a curved display. And yeah, it also doubles as a luxury item for well-heeled geeks to show off at parties. There's also a matter of Korean pride at stake: by beating LG to market with its curved smartphone, Samsung is now able to claim it was the first manufacturer to come out with such a device. This doesn't automatically make it the best, of course -- stay tuned for our first in-depth look at the LG G Flex to get our impressions of both phones.