Peter Nowak: Enough with the curved gadget screens already

Samsung is the worst offender, writes Peter Nowak.
A man holds a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 during a launch event at the Hammerstein Ballroom, on August 2, 2016 in New York City. Drew Angerer / Getty Images / AFP
A man holds a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 during a launch event at the Hammerstein Ballroom, on August 2, 2016 in New York City. Drew Angerer / Getty Images / AFP

If there’s one trend in gadgets that needs to stop right now, it’s curved screens. Whether they’re on phones or televisions, these convex displays – billed as beneficial to consumers by their manufacturers – are a bad idea through and through.

Samsung is the worst offender. The South Korean company has been touting curves in its televisions and phones for the past few years, with its latest product – the just-released Galaxy Note 7 smartphone – the latest.

Why Samsung does this is understandable. With phones and TVs quickly approaching toaster-like commoditisation levels, manufacturers are facing increasing pressure to differentiate their products. As one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of screens, Samsung has an innate advantage that it would be foolish not to exploit. Curves are thus permeating its offerings.

It’s not just Samsung, though. BlackBerry’s first Android phone, the Priv, also had them. The Nikkei Asian Review this week reported that Apple is also considering adding a curved screen to future iPhone models. Apple, of course, did not comment on the speculation.

Despite that, the benefits of curves for consumers are dubious.

I’ve had the Note 7 for a few weeks and have also used previous curved phones, including the Priv. In each case, I’ve found at least three reasons why the displays are more of a gimmicky detraction than a useful feature.

For one thing, they’re harder to use than simple flat screens. It’s easy to make mistakes when typing or tapping anywhere around the curved edges, unless you happen to have thin and pointy stylus-like fingers. (In the case of the Note 7, that might be redundant since it comes with an actual stylus.)

Samsung’s curved devices also feature a separate “edge” panel, accessible from the edges, that houses most-used apps and contacts. But like trying to type on the edges, the hidden panel is finicky and difficult to call up.

Curved screens are also more prone to cracking after a fall. With more protruding glass – even if it is the strong Gorilla Glass 5 that the Note 7 boasts – there’s simply more surface area that can come into contact with the ground.

That means you’ll need a good case for extra protection, which can ultimately defeat perhaps the only real benefit of a curved screen – its slightly sexier or novel appearance.

If you don’t protect your device with a bulky case, you may experience the third detractor sooner rather than later – a pricey repair bill. Reports estimate the cost of a new screen for the curved Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge at a whopping US$270, which is almost the price of decent mid-range – and non-curved – smartphone.

That cost is ultimately the real problem. Curved glass is more expensive to produce than its flat counterpart, which inevitably jacks up the price of the device. The Galaxy Note 7, for one, costs a staggering $850 off-contract. That’s a lot of money for a dubiously useful feature.

The usefulness of curves in televisions is even sketchier. Here, Samsung has been joined by its competitors LG, Sony and others in trying to convince consumers that curved displays offer better, more immersive pictures.

The manufacturers have pointed to movie screens, most of which are indeed curved, as their inspiration. Most experts, however, agree that the much smaller curved televisions provide no discernible benefits in terms of picture quality or immersion. They also tend to have worse viewing angles and look rather foolish when mounted on a wall. None of this is stopping the manufacturers, as all of them are continuing to pump out curved 4K televisions.

Some misleading metrics may indeed be encouraging them on the phone side. Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge, for example, was the hottest selling Android phone in the first half of this year, with an estimated 13.3 million units shipped, according to the tracking firm Strategy Analytics.

The firm pointed to the S7’s curved display as one of the features that caused consumers to sit up and take notice, but that may be a stretch. The S7, like the Note 7, is just a good all-around phone that is deserving of its hot sales. Either device would be likely to post big numbers without any curves, and possibly even better since they’d be cheaper for consumers.

Unfortunately, there may be no end in sight to the curved display trend – unless of course consumers realise en masse that manufacturers aren’t being entirely straight with them.

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.

business@thenational.ae

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Published: August 25, 2016 04:00 AM

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