Curved Samsung Galaxy Round surprisingly comfy
With its bowed screen and back, it's tempting to think of Samsung's scooped-out Galaxy Round as pure gimmick, a unique first-to-market form factor to tack onto a one-off model just to showcase the bent AMOLED display technology that Samsung's been working on for so many years. That, though, would be a mistake. I was surprised at how much I liked the feel of the Round's curvy dimensions, which make it the most comfortable phone that's ever cupped my ear, hand, and pockets. The screen shape has some added viewing benefits as well.
Yet the Round isn't just about style. The phone's high-end specs pretty much mirror the Galaxy Note 3's credentials, minus the stylus, making it one of Samsung's most nimble and capable products.
Samsung and other manufacturers have sold plenty smartphones with unusual shapes and attributes, but with the Round, it has achieved a true rarity: a novel silhouette that's beneficial in everyday use.
That's lucky for Samsung, since the rivalry of LG's actually flexible G Flex shows that experiments in concave phone designs are here to stay.
The Galaxy Round currently sells in Korea in dark brown, with flashier colors (and perhaps in more markets) coming later down the line. In the US, you can get it through retailer Negri Electronics, for a wallet-busting $1,130.
Curved form is more than a gimmick
The Round's most eye-catching and unique feature is undoubtedly its curved display, that eyeful of a smile that's unmistakably laughing at you for ever doubting it in the first place. Let me point out that this screen, while indeed shaped, is immobile. The flexible portion is the AMOLED technology beneath the glass. Other than that, the phone's shape is fixed.
The bow is definitely noticeable at first sight, especially when you're looking near the Samsung logo. Unlike its rival, the LG G Flex, the Round bends lengthwise in a vertical arch that brings the sides slightly higher than the middle.
The Round's curve is gentler than you'd expect, and the phone's back does lie flat on surfaces, though it will wobble -- intentionally -- when you flick down a flared edge. Side-by-side with a Galaxy Note 3 (or any other phone, really,) it's apparent that the screen dishes out, and so does the faux-leather clad back. It's when you handle it that the ergonomics really stand out: a round back that conforms to your palm, and a phone face that hugs your cheek and ear.
You'll notice the arched face's anatomical advantages, too, as you slide it into your front or back pocket -- it pretty much fits in one way. The variety of CNET editors with whom I shared the phone agreed that it's bit more comfortable to carry, and sit on, in jeans than a phone with straight sides.
Also ergonomically important are the shape of the phone's edges. The top and bottom are thicker than on the Note 3, which gives you a sturdier platform for holding the phone, particularly one-handed. All four spines slope ever so slightly toward the phone's screen, which reinforces the grip. I found the phone extremely comfortable to hold for longer stretches, with both one hand and two, while playing video, games, and going about my daily business.
One other thing I'll say about the Round's curve is that by essentially folding the phone, it makes the handset a hair narrower from side to side. In other words, the display still measures 5.7 inches, but curving the screen reduces the width from edge to edge by just a tick.
In other design details, Samsung modeled the Round's hardware internals on the Galaxy Note 3, minus the S Pen stylus. It runs Android 4.3 Jelly Bean on a 5.7-inch 1080p HD AMOLED display, with TouchWiz on top. You navigate with a physical home button and capacitive buttons. Above the screen, you have your 2-megapixel front-facing camera, with the 13-megapixel shooter and LED flash on back.
Moving on to the spines, the volume rocker takes up its usual residence on the left edge, with the power-lock button in its typical, controversial spot on the right spine (controversial in my eyes because the button tends to turn itself on in my bag.) Up top are the headset jack and IR blaster for controlling the TV, and on the bottom you have the Micro-USB charging port.
While the Round doesn't have the Note's stylus, it does share the same backing: a faux stitched leather that's actually molded from plastic. I like the move to matte, and it does have a pleasantly grippy feel.
Display pros and cons
A screen arched like this one immediately raises questions of visibility: does it improve or detract in any way from the phone's viewing experience or day-to-day tasks? In most cases, the screen's more yielding shape is a bonus.
All smartphones have issues with reflection, which manufacturers try to tamp down in various ways. The Round's screen still bounces back artificial and natural light, but the way that light hits the eye has changed. The curve distorts reflections, so that looking at the locked screen head-on, you'll see horizontal or vertical bands of light, depending on the phone's portrait or landscape orientation.
When viewed from the side -- say, laying the Round and Note next to me on my desk, so that I have to glance away to see the display -- the Round gives off the same amount of light and patterns as the Note 3, but blurs some of the reflection so it looks gauzier and less distinct. That's all while the screens are dark. When playing content, this distorted reflection helps make reflections less distracting.
Watching movies, playing games, and viewing video are all completely natural and immersive on the Round's surface. You wouldn't guess you're looking at a contoured screen. In one test, I watched the same video play on a Note 3 side-by-side with the Round. Video quality seemed almost identical to the naked eye, though it did seem the Round reduced glare by a tiny fraction.
Games requiring a lot of swiping, like Temple Run 2 and Fruit Ninja, seemed unaffected or only slightly affected by the display's bend. I did get the impression in Temple Run that the game didn't always accurately register swipes I made on a slope as well as it recognized centered gestures. I didn't notice this problem later on, though, which may mean I adjusted to the screen's slightly altered layout. The landscape mode Riptide GP 2 played great.
You may notice a few more mistakes than usual while typing on the Round, especially in portrait mode. When they aren't lit up, I sometimes missed the capacitive buttons and some of the virtual keys. I wasn't drastically off, but they weren't where I thought they should be based on muscle memory. Thankfully, adjusting didn't take long.
What's the use of a phone you can rock on a tabletop if you can't have a little fun with the motion? Samsung, never one to let a software feature go untested, adds two gesture controls just for the Round.
The first, Quick Glance, shows details like the time, date, battery level, and message badges when you hold down the Round's side -- either edge will do. It works as advertised, just not very well. You have to press and hold the phone in position about three full seconds before a blue light appears, followed by your details. If the phone is on a slick surface, chances are good the phone will skid across it every time as you valiantly try to hold on.
As a timesaver, Quick Glance actually is more gimmicky than helpful, especially since you can get the same details more quickly by just pressing the power/lock button once. A better move? Double-tapping the screen to show details, like some other rival Androids.
Tilt-to-play music controls work better. If the screen goes dark while music from your library is playing, you can gently bounce down the phone's right side to advance a track and the left side to go back. The problem here is that the feature only works with the music player app, so if you're streaming songs from Pandora, Spotify, or Google's cloud music system, these gesture shortcuts won't have an effect.
You'll find both these add-ons, and many more, in the Motions submenu of Controls in the Round's settings menu.
Even more software features
There're a tremendous number of apps and software features tucked into the Galaxy Round's version of Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, from Google-loaded services like YouTube, Maps, Navigation, and Search, to Samsung apps and partner contributions, like S Health, S Voice, Dropbox, and Trip Advisor.
Swipe up from the bottom of any home screen (or triple click the Home button) to access My Magazine, a Flipboard-powered newsreader. You'll be able to swipe down (or better yet, swipe with two fingers) to get to toggles for activities like reading mode and multi window, and to system settings like near-field communication, Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth.
Motion controls handle a bundle of tilts, swipes, air gestures, and eyeball-tracking and touch activities.
Camera and video
The Round is blessed with the same feature-rich 13-megapixel camera that also graces the Galaxy Note 3 and Galaxy S4. That means access to modes that use both the front and rear cameras, burst mode, a number of filters, stabilization algorithms, and white balance presets. There are voice triggers as well as guideline marks.
The camera uses continuous autofocus and touch focus, but you can also turn on a setting to take pictures when you tap the screen.
Image quality is high with the right lighting conditions in place; in other words, lots of it. Colors look most accurate and images are sharpest in natural light, with edges getting a bit fuzzier and colors less true-to-life under an artificial glow.
Low-light photography is a Samsung weakness across the board; the company compensates with an automated night mode that's meant to lend a hand. In my experience, the resulting photos were usually soft and took too long to process. I got my best photos of dim environments by just using the flash. That's not everyone's cup of tea, I know, since flash can also blow out backgrounds, add crazy glare, and blind all your friends.
Another Samsung photo "aid" comes in the form of Beauty Face, an airbrushing filter that's automatically applied to front-facing camera shots. Too much of yourself up close isn't always a good thing, Samsung knows, but I personally find photos taken in this mode to be creepily artificial, taking too many years off my age and giving my skin a grayish mannequin mask.
Check out some sample photos for yourself, which were taken using the Round's automatic mode, unless otherwise stated. You can click to see the full-resolution image.
Performance: Processor speeds and battery life
Processing brawn is impressive, with the Round's 2.3GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 (MSM 8974) processor, it's about as zippy as you can find on a phone these days. It's accompanied by an Adreno 330 GPU, and 3GB RAM.
Navigation and apps loaded rapidly, and gameplay was especially responsive, with detailed graphics. Gaming felt extra sensitive and streaming video performed flawlessly in my tests. There's plenty of storage to go around, with 32GB of onboard space and an up-to-64GB microSD card slot.
Like the Note 3, the Round blew diagnostic Quadrant results out of the water with a score of 21,766. That said, I'd take that with an ounce of skepticism; Samsung has been accused of cooking the books in popular tests like Quadrant.
The 2,800mAh battery should keep things ticking along, though battery life will falter far before the Note 3, which has a 3,200mAh ticker. The Round's battery is rated for 16 hours, and 15.4 days on standby, versus the Note 3's 25 hours of talk time and 17.5 days on standby. Stay tuned for more detailed runtime tests from our labs.
I was unable to test LTE in San Francisco using an AT&T SIM card. I'll update this review in the future if the Round is optimized for US networks.
I tested the unlocked Galaxy Round in San Francisco using AT&T's network. As with the majority of Samsung phones I've tested recently, audio is on the low side, which means that it sounds most comfortable at top volume. That's fine and dandy for quiet, indoor locales, but if you're venturing outside, your only recourse is to use some volume-boosting software that you can toggle on from the dial screen.
Quality was a mixed bag when I held the phone at hip level. The line was clear throughout all my calls -- I didn't catch a whisper of background noise -- but in some, I did hear some skipping, like my test partner was always clearing his throat (he wasn't.) His voice also lacked qualities of roundness and depth, making it sound as though he was skimming the surface of our call without sinking in.
On the other end of the line, the Round was praised as "nearly as good as a wired phone," though perhaps not as clean-sounding or sharp. My partner said there was absolute silence on the line and no odd sounds, but volume was strong.
Samsung Galaxy Round call quality sample
Speakerphone wasn't bad at all just below maximum volume, but raise it to the highest levels and it'll acquire a buzzy audio quality. Voice quality was acceptable, but sounded slightly hollow. On his end of the line, volume dropped, but the call's clarity remained unchanged.
The shape of the future?
I'll admit I was skeptical of the Round when I first heard of it, but the comforts of its screen curvature have quickly won me over. The shape isn't necessarily life-changing or industry-disruptive, but the advancement in screen tech that lets bowed-out AMOLED displays work in the first place, opens the door to a lot of interesting and potentially useful applications for any electronic device topped with a touch screen.
Yet with subtle slants and attention to ergonomic detail, the Galaxy Round elevates the already top-tier hardware with handheld comfort and a design that also reduces distracting visual glare. While the curve could alter how you adapt to typing and screen presses, and some "roll" effects are superfluous, on the whole, the scoop is slight enough to be more help than hindrance.
As usual, there's a battle brewing on the "right" way to do the curve. The Round opts for a vertical bend, the folded-magazine approach, while the rival LG G Flex bends down at the middle, the top of the phone is reaching for its toes. It'll certainly be interesting to compare the two for comfort and ease-of-use (so stay tuned!).
Although the Round isn't really a serious option for much of the world, its higher-end specs put the nuts and bolts of the thing ahead of the Flex in terms of hardware -- the part that matters more to me. Yet the Flex's actually bendable form -- which snaps back if you press it flat -- is the more innovative to my ears. Either way, the Round and Flex are just the start of contoured handsets to come.
It's a pity that the Galaxy Round is only sold with Korean carriers for now, because this ergonomically minded high-end smartphone offers practical, real-world benefits, and makes a strong case for curves.