On Wednesday morning, Samsung's two new phones arrived at my desk. The Galaxy S6 and S6 edge are two of the most anticipated, most important devices of the year. They represent an entirely new design direction from Samsung, with glass and carefully machined aluminum where there was once dimpled plastic that looked a lot like a Band-Aid. They're Samsung's attempt to keep up with the iPhone, which has entered the big-phone market with no subtlety and lots of success. They're almost certainly going to be enormously popular.
The two S6 models go on sale on April 10th, and they'll be available on all four major carriers in the US—and many more besides. Off-contract pricing isn't available yet, but a 32GB version of the S6 will cost you $22.84 per month over two years on AT&T's Next upgrade plan. That's slightly under $550 in all. The Edge, at $27.17 per month, works out to about $100 more over the course of your contract. The numbers are slightly different for other carriers, but the Edge seems to always be about $100 more expensive.
I've only had a day to spend with the devices, and a full review is coming soon, but there are a couple of things that are already obvious. Some are small: the fingerprint reader is a pain to set up but now works incredibly well. Others are much bigger, like the ability to delete almost any app, even the pre-installed bloatware. But the most surprising thing I've found so far is that the beautiful sloped-screen Galaxy S6 Edge is entirely pointless. It's the first phone I can think of that is a fashion play through and through—no one will ever buy this device because it does something special. It doesn't.
On one hand, that's great! Samsung is latching on to the idea that fashion can drive technology, and that looks and emotion do matter. But I can't help but also see this as Samsung giving up on what could have been a great idea. When it announced the Galaxy Note Edge in September, it was a wild and new kind of smartphone. It was a Galaxy Note, except that on the right side where there was once bezel, there was now more screen. A sloping, thin panel that fell off the side and wrapped around the edge, entirely separate from the flat display on the top of the phone. It looked strange, and it felt a little lopsided in your hand, but it was just cool as all hell.
The best part, though, was that Samsung had dreamed up some clever functionality for the Edge's, er, edge. It became the home for a lot of the phone's buttons and settings; instead of the shutter button obscuring your subject in the camera app, it was set off to the bottom. It could act as a quick launcher for your most-used apps, or a ticker for notifications or news. There were omnipresent controls in games, and easy access to notebooks you were using. It took some time to learn the workflow, but it was really useful when it worked.
The implementations were somewhat scattershot, and the whole idea needed some refinement and testing from Samsung and its developers, but the sliver of screen on the side seemed to be a cool new place to display ancillary information or offer simple actions without getting in the way of what you're doing on the big screen. Developers seemed tentatively on board, too, especially with music apps. Having your controls on the side, no matter what app you're in, is awesome. The Edge's edge was a bit of a gimmick, but it had real potential.
The S6 Edge is a dramatic step backwards in this department. It doesn't have two screens, or cool new ideas about smartphone interaction. It's just curved. It has exactly two functional differences from the regular S6: You can access your favorite contacts with a swipe in from the right side when you're on the home screen, and when you set the phone on a table it can light up notifications or a clock you'll be able to read with your head on a pillow. Both features would be welcome on the regular S6, and neither comes close to justifying the price increase for the S6 Edge. (There's a third feature, a notification light for when the phone is face down, but since people only put their phones face down to not be distracted by them, that light is unhelpful and thus doesn't count.)
The Edge does better this time: since it curves on both sides, it feels more symmetrical and less like a chipped tooth. Mostly, it looks just like the S6, which is itself a marvelous object. They both feel incredibly luxe and carefully designed, in a way no Samsung device ever has before. The Edge is even a little cooler, all thanks to the infinity-pool sloping screen.
The aesthetic appeal is a huge part of the point, which is new territory for Samsung. It's charging more for the Edge, and marketing it as the higher-end device. It's like buying the Apple Watch Edition: It doesn't do anything beyond the base model, but it'll be worth the money to some people because of how it looks and the air of exclusivity it communicates.
That's fine, but it's also a missed opportunity for Samsung to keep trying to reinvent how we use our smartphones. The Note is forever a niche device, the Note Edge even more so—a phone that big just won't appeal to everyone. But the Galaxy S is Samsung's flagship line, the one you see in the hands of every kind of person around the world. The S6 Edge could have brought the edge idea and functionality to more people, which would have in turn helped get developers on board, but instead it ensured that only a few people will ever try this different kind of smartphone. All the promise of functionality, all the funny little edge-screen games and utilities I hoped people would build, just don't seem to be part of the plan anymore. The Edge is all about aesthetics, about Samsung showing it can make beautiful, unique devices with the best of 'em. It's a single screen, curved twice. That's hard work, and I'm impressed Samsung pulled it off. I'm just not going to buy it.
Of course, Samsung's rumored to already be on to the next thing — flexible, foldable smartphones. Things might get crazy after all.