In 2011 Samsung came out with a phone called the Galaxy Note. It was ridiculously large (such a big display, who needs big screens on a phone?). It came with a built-in stylus (a stylus? What was Samsung doing, going back to the 1990s?). It had a lot of business software (huh? Who was Samsung trying to compete with? Blackberry?).
The Galaxy Note was laughed at by the industry, by the analysts and by the media. The ones not laughing, however, were the consumers, who bought the phone in millions. Samsung laughed too, all the way to the bank.
The new new thing
Thus was born the phablet and Samsung redefined the very idea of the mobile phone. Large screens became the norm and practically killed off the tablet market.
The Note became the symbol of cutting-edge technology with every iteration pushing the boundaries and setting new standards. That class of phones went on to become a cult success, with big screens, an incredibly intelligent stylus mated to software, serious specs, a great camera, huge battery and almost limitless memory storage add-ons.
So this year, the launch of the new Samsung Galaxy Note 5 in New York was heralded as a redefining moment in the smartphone business. It truly was – though it had a huge splattering of awesomeness sprinkled with a serious amount of confusion.
The crux of the problem is that Samsung launched the Note 5 and the S6 Edge Plus together. And the two are remarkably similar. So similar that it’s almost impossible to identify them visually or specs-wise.
Both have the same looks (metal frame, glass back, similar size, weight and structure), same sized screen (5.7 inches with 2560 x 1440-pixel resolution), the exact same camera on the front and back (16.0 and 5.0 megapixel), the same processor (Exynos 7420), same RAM (4GB, which is awesome), same battery (3000mAh, which is a huge step down for the Note), same internal storage (32 and 64GB only) and a whole lot more of sameness that I could keep rattling off.
The huge setback is that the Note now has a sealed non-replaceable battery that is of a lower capacity than the Note 4. It also no longer has a slot to add more flash-storage cards. That is going to make Galaxy Note fans hopping mad!
So, why would Samsung take a product as iconic as the Note and take away most of the things that set it apart? Why create a brand identity so strong for the Note only to reduce it to nothing by making it a clone of the S6?
The answer lies in the criticism that Samsung has taken now for years. That its phones may be the best in their class but the design and materials used are a decade old. That Samsung may have the best specs, but totally falls flat, with also the worst looks.
The S6 and the S6 Edge were a radical departure from anything they had done before. The phones used extreme styling and fantastic materials. That got Samsung the title that they had always wanted. The S6 and the Edge were called the best-looking phones on the planet.
And therein lies the story of why the Note 5 has sacrificed function for form, features for looks! People don’t buy ugly phones anymore and Samsung wanted to make sure they had the best looking phones in every category, including the Note.
It’s not that the Note 5 has nothing to differentiate itself from the S6 Edge Plus. It still has the magnificent stylus with all its jot-down-and-doodle magic (now even better as you can even take notes with the phone screen off), it has VDIS (Video Digital Image Stabilisation, which gives you rock-solid video capture in every kind of situation) and of course the massive add-on productivity software that has always made Note users happy.
The Note 5 with all its specs, its display, its 4GB of RAM, its astoundingly good looks, the metal frame and that stylus that now clicks out with a push makes it one of the best Android phones out there.
In fact it seems good enough to take on the might of the other super biggies that dominate in this segment: the LG G4, the HTC One M9 and even the Apple iPhone 6 Plus.
These are the super good-looking and super powerful phones that the Note 5 needs to take on its new avatar, not an easy feat considering the brands and products involved.
The might of the fruit
And that, of course, brings me to the other reason that the Note and the S6 Edge look similar and have come out at the exact same time. This is a dual assault from Samsung on the Apple iPhone 6S Plus, a phone that is also just about a month or so away from being launched.
And if the rumours are to be believed, it has some fantastic features and great styling to take the iPhone bandwagon forward. This is Samsung getting ready for that battle.
But overall, the problem remains. By taking away its identity and mixing it into the Galaxy S family, Samsung may have made a huge mistake. One that it may look back and regret.
Having a phone that started the phablet revolution, having a phone that stood out distinctively with hardcore tech specs and no-compromise business features was a huge advantage for Samsung. With its S6 Edge like styling, the Note may just have lost its Edge.
Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3
From HT Brunch, August 23
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