Hands-on with the Samsung Galaxy Round: few new features, but posh design

The Samsung Galaxy Round is the first phone to use a curved display

What different advantages can a curved screen bring to a smartphone? Well, not a whole lot. But Samsung's newest smartphone, the Galaxy Round, comes off as a posh device that may be the company's best looking handset yet.

The Samsung Galaxy Round.
The Samsung Galaxy Round.

Earlier this month, the electronics giant unveiled the Android phone, calling it the world's first to feature a curved touchscreen display. It has top-of-the-line specs, and includes a few software features that leverage the phone's curved design.

Most of the world won't see the phone anytime soon. Samsung, for now, only plans on releasing the handset to its home market of South Korea for the whopping price of about US$1,000. On Wednesday, the company made the Galaxy Round available for hands-on use at one of its offices in Seoul.

In a way, you could describe the Round as a curved version of Samsung's Galaxy Note 3, as the two handsets share nearly identical features and the same design style. Both have a full HD 5.7-inch screen, a fast processor, a 13-megapixel rear camera, and even the same leather-like synthetic fiber covering the back.

But despite their similarities, the Galaxy Round feels and looks different. The phone is slightly lighter at 154 grams, as opposed to 168 grams, and is easier to grip with its curved back. It's one benefit of using Samsung's flexible displays, which the company says weigh less than traditional displays. At the same time, the phone feels sturdy and its curves are more pleasing to the eye, when compared to the flat exterior of the Note 3.

Consumers, however, don't have to worry about the phone rolling off a table or even wobbling. The device's display is not as round as its name suggests. The arch is quite subtle, and contours more at the edges. When placed on a table, the Round remains stationary. But due to its curved backing, Samsung included a few software features that activate when a user tilts the phone on its spine.

The Samsung Galaxy Round on a table.
The Samsung Galaxy Round on a table.

One of them, called the "Roll Effect", automatically turns the screen on and displays the time and date, when the phone tilts toward the user. A similar feature allows the user to cycle through songs played on the device. A tilt toward the right side will forward to the next track while a tilt toward the left will restart the current song.

When put into practice, the two functions are easily activated, but sometimes it took a harder tilt to cycle through music tracks. Both features, however, can only activate if the phone is laid on a table. A third function works when viewing the phone's image gallery. A soft touch to the screen's center, and a flick of the wrist, will display a sidebar showing the other photo albums stored on the phone.

These so-called "tilt functions" offer nice shortcuts, but they could also easily be incorporated into any Samsung phone. Perhaps the company will do so in the future, but it's likely that most users will look at the features as novelties, much like how the Samsung Galaxy S4 will track facial and eye movements to help the user scroll through websites. Getting them to work on the Round can also take several tries at first.

In terms of looking at the phone's actual screen, the curvature can also be easy to miss. When facing directly at the display, the arch blends in and seems flat. It brings to mind how the electronics industry is also moving to televisions with curved screens. These TVs can arguably offer a wider field of view over traditional flat screens. But in the case of the Galaxy Round, it's hard to notice any difference, given that the phone already has a superb screen with its AMOLED display technology.

Save for the screen, nothing else inside the phone is curved, according to the company. Like other Samsung handsets, the Round's back cover can be removed, and its 2,800 mAh battery easily replaced. It currently comes in a dark "luxury brown" coloring, but a white version will be available in December.

The Samsung Galaxy Round.
The Samsung Galaxy Round.

Samsung is staying mum on the future of its curved displays for smartphones. But Tom Kang, an analyst with Counterpoint Research, doesn't believe that phones like the Galaxy Round will reach major volumes until the benefits of the device become more pronounced.

"To create this kind of product, there are lot of changes you have to make to the production line," he said. "When the consumer benefit is not substantially clear, it's not economic to make those changes to your production line."

Samsung seems to also be aware of the challenges, and is only selling the Galaxy Round in limited quantities. But aside from a few unique features, the phone doesn't offer much new in terms of usability. Perhaps only the phone's aesthetics really set it apart, and make it look appealing. While the handset is nice to hold, consumers outside of South Korea aren't missing much from Samsung's newest phone.

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Michael Kan

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