But I've been using a new Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge for the past 10 days and I think the company may have gotten its mojo back. In large part that is thanks to one hardware innovation that most people have written off as a gimmick: The edge of the Edge, that piece of curved screen that shows notifications. The Edge screen feels to me like it could be a huge step forward, something so simple it's brilliant.
It's important to note that very small hardware design changes can have massive effects on smartphone sales. People laughed at Samsung when it first started to produce large-screen "Note" phones in 2011. No one had seen anything like them. Phones were small in those days because people wanted them to fit snugly into their hands. Holding a Note, by contrast, was like holding a book against the side of your head.
Here is Business Insider's infamous wrong call on that, from four years ago: "Would You Buy A 5-Inch Android Phone That Comes With A Stylus?" we asked. "With a 5.3-inch screen, the Galaxy Note blurs the line between tablet and smartphone. And we're not so sure that's a good thing. ... a 4.5-inch screen like the one on the Samsung Infuse already pushes the limit. The Note also comes with a stylus so you can write on the phone's massive screen. We're not huge fans of styluses these days. ... Plus they're so 2001."
Sure, Samsung's sales have yet to recover. But the point here is that two simple innovations in hardware design — a curved screen and a stylus — are the company's two biggest bright spots. And, crow all you like, but Apple now appears poised to follow Samsung into edge screens and styluses. Apple has filed a patent to add a stylus for use with its mobile devices. And Apple has also developed an Edge-like screen of its own.
All three new Samsung phones — the S6 Edge, the S5 Edge Plus and the Note 5 — have received rave reviews. My colleague Steve Kovach — who uses an iPhone religiously — says the S6 Edge Plus is the most beautiful phone he has ever seen. "It's nearly perfect," he says. Another colleague of mine, Antonio Villas Boas, says the Note 5 is "the best smartphone I have ever used."
This is a crazy, upside-down world! For the last year the tech media has been telling us that Samsung is washed up, the also-ran company to Apple.
So when I got my hands on a new S6 Edge I paid special attention to the new Edge screen "gimmick."
I loved it.
The Edge screen has three main uses:
It lets you see notifications from apps — like email and Twitter — without having to light up or undo the entire lock screen.
It lets you store five favourite contacts on the side of your phone for easy-access.
It becomes a glow-in-the-dark clock when you put it to sleep at night, so you can see the time without switching it on.
Right now, the number of things you can do with the Edge is limited. There aren't enough apps or publishers providing Edge feeds and notifications. I rigged mine to show me some stocks and my Twitter and email accounts.
But it's early days — the phone is still new. More importantly, I wanted the Edge screen to do more. I really liked being able to "use" my phone passively for notifications without having to switch the whole thing on.
In that way, the Edge screen is a little bit like the Apple Watch. It took a long time before people realised that the watch was not a replacement for the iPhone, but a filter for certain notifications that saved you from reaching into your pocket every 2 seconds for the phone. Similarly, the Edge can sit on your desk or in your hand and alert you to notifications without you having to interact too much with them.
(In other words, if Apple had designed this, people would say it was awesome.)
I tried showing the Edge screen to my friends and they weren't all that impressed. Frankly, the notifications setup process could use some improvement and the rubbing gesture that switches them on needs to get faster and easier. But again, this is a new product and these things are easily fixed.
Weirdly, everyone loved the night clock.
Mobile phones have largely replaced alarm clocks. But the Edge screen night clock feels a lot like those old digital radio-alarms that everyone used to have before 2007. There is something pleasingly vintage about it. And it works.
I look at my old phones now (a perfectly serviceable Galaxy S5 and an older iPhone that both do everything I need them to) and I don't want to go back.