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Samsung Galaxy Note 4, Note Edge

Samsung has something to prove. It sells more smartphones than anyone else. Samsung is the only Android hardware maker that matters. But it doesn’t have Apple’s brand power. Samsung isn’t cool.

That’s why Samsung took pains getting its latest message out one week before Apple’s carpet-bomb publicity for its iPhone launch.

Samsung announced two Galaxy Note models. First, there’s the updated standard Galaxy Note, now the Galaxy Note 4. It comes with improvements to the screen, camera and pen. There are also microphone updates that improve voice recording. Just as important, the Galaxy Note has moved from a plastic case to a metal frame.

Samsung’s first meaningful smartphone innovation

Samsung fans will argue otherwise, but the Galaxy Note Edge marks Samsung’s first truly innovative smartphone idea. The right hand side of the phone’s display curves around the phone’s edge. That effectively gives a second touch screen that can be used for icons acting as buttons, notifications or even an alarm clock when on your bedside table.

Although the idea is innovative and it looks clever, Samsung hasn’t done a great job explaining how a curved screen is useful in practice.

Given that the Edge will sell at a premium over the everyday Galaxy Note 4 price and earlier Galaxy II Notes already cost the same as an iPhone, this is strictly for well-heeled users looking for something different from an everyday phone.

Low key Galaxy Note

For some reason Samsung treats the Galaxy S as its flagship relegating the Galaxy Note to a lesser role.

The Galaxy Note is a more interesting device, mainly because it attempts something different. The Galaxy S range tries too hard to be an iPhone. It misses the point by cramming in a bewildering array of hard-to-manage apps and features. Then there’s the build quality — it simply doesn’t feel as nice as an iPhone.

In contrast Samsung’s Galaxy Note is more comfortable in its own skin. It’s large 5.7 inch screen and stylus input put it in a different category. You’d buy one of these to do something different to what you’d do with an iPhone.

Smartwatch, VR goggles

Last night’s product launch also included virtual realty goggles and the sixth Samsung smartwatch in a year. It’s hard to get excited about virtual reality goggles without information about the games and content that will work with the device.

It’s even harder to get excited about another Samsung smartwatch. This one is different because you can add a Sim card and use it as a phone. The smartwatch is still large and ugly. It almost certainly has too short a battery life to be useful for most people.

In truth Samsung’s VR goggles and latest smartwatch are niche products that will excite a limited number of people — going by previous experience, readers of this post are among them.

There’s nothing wrong at all here, it’s just that I don’t see the watch, the glasses or the Note Edge taking off. If there’s a potential hit product among Samsung’s announcement it is the Galaxy Note 4. For that to succeed Samsung needs to do a better job of explaining to users why it might be a better choice than an iPhone or a Galaxy S.

Samsung’s locally released (New Zealand) press statement has no specifics about prices or availability, although it does say the products will be on sale this year. This suggests the launch was more about getting the jump on next week’s iPhone launch. That’s smart, once Apple’s machine kicks into gear everyone else will find it hard to be heard.

Overall, last night’s release is confirmation Samsung can innovate and is able to act confidently in the face of competition from Apple. Samsung’s smartphone sales dropped last month, the Galaxy S5 didn’t provide the boost Samsung was looking for. There’s nothing here to fix that unless Samsung finds a better way to sell the benefits of the Galaxy Note.