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Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review: Sleeker, simpler, better than ever

Engadget Engadget 16/08/2016 Chris Velazco

© Provided by Engadget

Samsung has come a long way. When the very first Galaxy Note launched in 2011, it felt like a quirky anachronism -- wasn't the age of the stylus over? The answer, as evidenced by the Note line's continued existence, is a resounding "no." In fact, somewhere along the way, the Note transformed from a curiosity into a premium device that can (and does) outshine the Galaxy S line on which it was based. This year's attempt -- the $850+ Galaxy Note 7 -- builds off what Samsung learned making the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, and you know what? The company wound up making its best phone yet in the process.

Hardware

Every year, Samsung tweaks its design language for its new Galaxy S phones and applies it to whatever Note device it releases later that year. It's no surprise, then, that the Note 7 has more in common with the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge than last year's Note 5. Since these smartphones share so much, it's no surprise that the subtle differences are what make the Note 7 shine.

Consider its curves, for instance. Samsung built the Note 7 with a symmetrically curved front and back; that is, the metal-and-glass body is curved the same way on both sides. As a result, there's more of an edge for your thumb to rest on so your hand is less likely to accidentally tap something on-screen. I couldn't count the number of times that happened to me with the S7 Edge, and it eventually got so annoying that I gave up on the phone entirely. Here's hoping Samsung applies this knowledge to next year's Edge. The added benefit is that these curves make the Note 7 really, really nice to hold. This symmetry of design, coupled with the phone's light weight and lack of bezels around its 5.7-inch screen mean this is easily the nicest Galaxy Note to actually carry around and use. It's a big phone that doesn't feel like one.

Samsung also opted for a USB Type-C port for power and data transfer instead of the micro-USB seen on the S7. It was only a matter of time before Samsung made the switch, but I'm just a little surprised the company didn't wait until next year. And then there's the storage situation: The Note 7 ships with 64GB of storage, up from 32GB on both US versions of the Galaxy S7. It's a welcome move, but maybe not a surprising one since the Note series phones were always billed as more premium devices.

The Note 7's partner, the S Pen, has also benefitted from some thoughtful little changes. It now has a smaller, 0.7mm nib -- the same size as a typical ballpoint pen -- for more natural writing. You can't stick the S Pen into its slot backward either, because Samsung really didn't need another year's worth of embarrassment. On the flip side, though, this year's S Pen is slightly slimmer than the last one, which makes it just a little less comfortable to grip. Samsung couldn't please everyone.

Some changes, however, are hardly what you'd call subtle. There's an iris scanner above the screen for hands-free unlocking, and it works better in some situations than others. If you don't need corrective lenses, well, congratulations: Assuming you line your eyes up properly, the Note 7 will unlock itself in less than a second. Folks who wear contacts (like I do sometimes) fall into this category too. If you wear glasses, though, expect the phone to take much longer... if it works at all.

Now, about those similarities. There are, uh, a lot of them. Most notable is the silicon, running the show, including a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 chipset, 4GB of RAM and an Adreno 530 GPU. All three phones also share the same 12-megapixel, DualPixel camera setups -- that's just as well since that particular sensor is arguably at the front of the Android smartphone camera pack. (The 5-megapixel front-facing camera is the same too, but that's way less interesting.)

Now, about those similarities. There are, uh, a lot of them. Most notable is the silicon, running the show, including a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 chipset, 4GB of RAM and an Adreno 530 GPU. All three phones also share the same 12-megapixel, DualPixel camera setups -- that's just as well since that particular sensor is arguably at the front of the Android smartphone camera pack. (The 5-megapixel front-facing camera is the same too, but that's way less interesting.)

There's also a spot for a microSD card in the SIM tray, just like with the S7 line, and the phone is also IP68-rated waterproof, a first for the Note line. Meanwhile, I wish Samsung could have transplanted the 3,600mAh battery from the S7 Edge into the Note 7, but it seems Samsung could only fit a 3,500mAh cell into the Note 7's curved body. Thankfully, the difference in longevity is minimal (as you'll see later on).

Display and sound

As mentioned, the Note 7 sports a 5.7-inch Super AMOLED display running at 2,160 x 1,440 (or Quad HD, or 2K, or whatever you want to call it). And wouldn't you know it, this screen is just fantastic, replete with great viewing angles and the vivid, sumptuous colors that Samsung's AMOLED panels are known for. (If the default color temperature is a little lurid, you can always change display modes in the settings menu.)

The screen's bigger size means its pixel density (518 pixels per inch) is lower than that of the S7 and S7's displays, but really, the difference is nigh-impossible to pick out; text and photos are rendered with excellent crispness. It's a summertime champ too: With the brightness cranked to max, I had no trouble sifting through tweets and agonizing over potential Instagram filters under the sweltering August sun. If all of this sounds familiar, well, sorry. Samsung's screens are typically first-rate, but the Note 7's is especially pleasant (particularly since the weird, pulsating effect I noticed on last year's Note 5 is nowhere in sight).

As you might expect, the Note 7 inherited the S7's always-on display mode, and it's as handy as eve. Samsung updated it with new designs, though: There are three more designs for the persistent clock and one new image (of constellations) that should wind up on the company's earlier flagships before long. And while we're on the subject of minor additions, there's also a blue light filter mode that's meant to reduce eye-strain and preserve the sanctity of your sleep cycle. These display modes are popping up all over the place, and whether they actually help is up for debate, but it's a welcome touch as I write this review in the middle of the night.

As usual, though, the quality of the Note's speaker setup lags behind that of the display. There's a single grille etched into the phone's bottom between the Type-C port and the S Pen's hiding place, and it's capable of churning out loud (if somewhat lifeless) audio. Things get better when you plug in a pair of headphones, at least: Samsung's high-quality audio upscaler adds just a little more oomph to your tracks, with options for simulated surround sound, tube amp effects and concert hall reverb. I didn't really love these effects when they first showed up on the S7s, but they grew on me -- spacey, vocal-centric songs can benefit a lot from that faux surround sound, for example. Still, if you hated these effects the first time around, don't expect to change your mind.

Software

Like all the other flagships that launched this year, the Note 7 ships with Android 6.0.1 onboard -- that means you've got those new permissions controls, Now on Tap's handy info cards and all the other core Marshmallow features we've been enjoying for nearly a year now. More interesting is how Samsung's approach to TouchWiz continues to evolve: What used to be a bloated, obnoxious punchline of an interface gradually became bearable, and then eventually pretty nice. Lots of us (including yours truly) will always prefer stock Android, but Samsung has spent the past few years cleaning up its act and that's worthy of some praise.

At first glance, not much has changed since the days of the S7/Edge -- Flipboard's Briefing lives to the left of your homescreens, and Samsung's Edge UX is back. Quick recap if you haven't used an S7 Edge: Swiping the tab on the right side (by default) of the screen brings up panes with shortcuts to your chosen apps, contacts and "tasks" like composing messages and taking selfies. You can flesh out your list with third-party "edges" for Yahoo Sports and Finance, but we still can't craft macro-like tasks the way we could on a full-blown computer. Once it's set up, the Samsung Pay tab lives at the bottom of the screen too -- a flick upward loads your payment method and preps it for either an NFC or a magnetic "swipe" transaction.

The differences will become more apparent as you start digging a little deeper, and you'll wonder why some of these changes haven't been in TouchWiz from the start. Pulling down the notification shade, for instance, reveals a search bar, brightness slider and a distinct lack of circular icons -- Samsung ditched them for a cleaner grid of quick settings icons. The app launcher has a search bar sitting up top too, making it easier for find the app you're looking for. That sure beats the clumsy search button on the S7 and S7 Edge. This streamlined approach carries over into the Note 7's settings page, where Samsung excised the circular icons and trademark teal in favor of a much simpler list of options. (Don't worry, the interface is still punctuated with blue here and there, in case you're not great with change.) And if you hate those rounded white frames encasing your app icons, you can turn them off. One word: hallelujah.

Naturally, there's more going here beyond the Note 7's clean new look. Let's say you're trying to keep your Tinder habits on the down low -- you have the option to download the app directly into Samsung's new secure folder, keeping it perpetually hidden from prying eyes. But what if it's already installed? Easy. You can add the app to the secure folder and then uninstall the original instance, leaving an independent, fully functional copy hidden from the rest of the world. You can lock down this digital storehouse with a PIN, password, a fingerprint or an iris scan, but the latter two require you to set up a password just in case your biometric signature doesn't pass muster. What you use the secure folder for is your business, but regardless, Samsung's implementation is both clever and useful.

Samsung's browser is also more useful thanks to its support for extensions, including a QR code reader and an "Amazon assistant" that's meant to "get instant product matches while you shop across the web." I'd love to tell you more about how Amazon is removing barriers between you and your darkest buying impulses, but this extension wasn't live as of this writing. Then there are the updated power saving modes. In addition to dialing down the screen's brightness and throttling performance, they'll also reduce the Note 7's screen resolution (down to as low as 720p) to conserve even more juice. Huawei adopted this trick first, but it's remarkably handy for keeping your Note 7 alive when its battery level gets grim.

Thankfully, there aren't a ton of pointlessly pre-loaded apps. We have the usual slew of Google apps, plus Samsung's email client, browser, file manager and S Health app, along with all the Note-specific stuff, which I'll get to in a second. My review unit is a T-Mobile model, and Legere's crew thankfully didn't go too crazy with the bloatware. All told, this version of the Note 7 comes with eight carrier apps pre-installed, ranging from the pretty useful (SlingTV was handy for following the Olympics on the move) to the irritating (I can manage my security fine, Lookout, but thanks).

Another year, another S Pen

Weird as it sounds, the Note 7 is so well put together and pleasant to use that it's sometimes easy to forget there's a stylus hidden inside. This year's S Pen doesn't look dramatically different from the Note 5's but the changes are there if you look closely enough. As mentioned earlier, the nib is smaller for more fluid writing and sketching, and the S Pen's body is ever so slightly narrower and lighter. You wouldn't think a change this minute would be apparent, but it sort of is -- despite near-identical dimensions, this S Pen feels a little flimsier than the one we got last year. Funny how big a difference this stuff makes.

Still, the Note 7's S Pen still has few clear advantages. For one, it's water resistant just like the phone itself. Since the entire package is IP68-rated, you can actually write things on the Note 7's screen while underwater, though I'm not sure when anyone would ever actually need to. (Getting phone numbers at the beach? Who knows.) Speaking of the screen, the Note 7's can now recognize up to 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity, or double what the Note 5 was capable of. It's one of those differences that's only really noticeable when you have the two devices side by side: light strokes that didn't register on the Note 5's display showed up just fine on the Note 7, making it a better choice for artsy types who value precision. If all you're going to do is dash off notes and reminders, though, you probably won't notice the change much.

While we're talking about the screen, I'm pleased that one of the Note 5's best features has made it over to the Note 7. Removing the S Pen while the display is off brings up a dark interface for (appropriately enough) screen-off memos. Here, you can draw or leave yourself a note, and then pin it to the always-on display for easy reference throughout the day. The inherent lack of friction in this process means anyone who picks up your phone can pin doodles to your display, which in my case led to lots of juvenile drawings all over my sleeping screen. Thanks, guys.

Samsung is all too aware that the S Pen isn't for everyone, so it cooked up a few new Air Command features to make its stylus more versatile. My eyes are pretty terrible, so it was neat being able to magnify anything on the screen up to 300 percent when pinching-to-zoom wasn't an option. Cool? Sure. Consistently useful? Eh.

You can now translate words on-screen from one language to another too, though the translations aren't as elegant as I'd wanted. Here's the thing: The feature only lets you translate one word at a time, rather than sentences or paragraphs. As such, it's handy for picking up bits of a language you don't know, and lousy for interpreting lots of information.

And then there are the GIFs. The "smart select" feature has been updated to let you choose parts of the screen with the pen, record them and turn them into GIFs. I didn't have high hopes for this process since making GIFs on a regular computer is sort of a pain, but it turned out to be surprisingly elegant. Once the recording is done (you can capture up to 15 seconds), it's simple enough to doodle on top of them, change how they loop and share them everywhere. Meanwhile, Samsung's software cleaning spree continues with S Pen stuff: Four(!) separate S Pen-specific applications have been combined into a single one called Samsung Notes. This is where you'll do most of your note taking and doodling, and it's perfectly serviceable; it's good enough that I didn't miss any of the old standalone S Pen apps.

All of these tweaks are steps in the right direction, but I wonder whether they'll actually change anyone's mind about the S Pen. The fact that Samsung keeps churning these devices out must mean a lot of people out there dig using a stylus, but if you weren't sold before, you probably won't be now.

Camera

We can keep this part brief: Both of the Note 7's cameras are identical to the ones in the S7 and S7 Edge, and are therefore really damned good. The photos I shot over the course of a week were almost uniformly well exposed, with lots of detail (they really pop on this AMOLED screen) and vibrant, accurate colors. It's damned fast at focusing too, thanks to the camera's DualPixel setup. If you'll pardon the extremely unscientific explanation, every 1.4 µm pixel on that 12-megapixel sensor is split into two photodiodes that are used to gauge the distance between the camera and the subject. Since every single pixel is used to for these focus calculations, the Note 7 is super fast at locking onto whatever's in front of it, even when the subject is a finicky, adorable toddler celebrating her second birthday.

It goes without saying that smartphone cameras tend to suck in the dark, but the Note 7 fares well thanks to the size of the pixels on its sensor. There's surprisingly little noise, even in shots taken outside at night, and the always-there exposure controls help reduce the influence of extra light that could otherwise soften a shot's sharpness. In short, the Note 7 is a very impressive all-around shooter, ranking alongside the S7 and S7 Edge as one of Android-powered cameras to beat. Meanwhile, the 5-megapixel camera up front takes respectable selfies with enough verve to please all the but the most terminally vain. I just wish Samsung had bumped up the resolution a bit this time around.

The camera sensors might not have changed, but the camera interface sure has. Remember all the different mode and settings icons that used to pepper the main view of the camera app? Many of them have been moved out of sight to give you a cleaner interface. All of the photo modes from the S7 -- Pro, panorama, selective focus, slow motion, hyperlapse and more -- are back and still available by swiping to the right. Instead of tapping a separate button to switch cameras, though, you'll have to swipe up.

Camera resolution options and the timer has been moved into a separate settings menu, while live filter effects can be applied by swiping to the left. Trust me: It's all much more intuitive than it sounds, and the "out of sight, out of mind" ethos here is fine by me. After all, just about every photo I took on full auto looked great. Shooting video was similarly painless and yielded accurate, handsome footage no matter what resolution I picked. (Fair warning: Tracking autofocus doesn't work when shooting 4K video, so be prepared to handle it yourself).

Performance and battery life

Because of those shared internals, the Note 7 performs almost exactly like the S7 and S7 Edge, which in turn behave much like the rest of this year's flagship smartphone heap. That means this year's Note is a smooth operator thanks to the quad-core Snapdragon 820 and 4GB of RAM. I spent my week multitasking lots, playing games like Hearthstone, Asphalt 8, Republique and generally doing my best to make the 7 stutter or slow down. I succeeded, but only rarely and never for long. If you're concerned about whether the Note 7 can stand up to your hellacious routines, don't be: This thing brings the heat (sometimes literally, but never to the point of discomfort).

Then again, were you expecting anything else? Qualcomm's near-monopoly on the mobile chip business has led to a détente where one high-end device more or less performs the same as any other. That makes it hard to write about these things over and over, but it's still a win for everyone reading this -- there's almost no such thing as a bad choice, at least as far as performance is concerned.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7HTC 10Samsung Galaxy S7 EdgeSamsung Galaxy Note 5
AndEBench Pro13,60116,67313,03014,152
Vellamo 3.04,5894,8764,1524,104
3DMark IS Unlimited29,69726,74726,66626,981
GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps)47484747
CF-Bench49,25649,89146,29036,488

Because their internals are the same, differentiating factors like battery life are more important than ever. Now, the Note 7 might not have the biggest battery in Samsung's lineup -- that distinction goes to the S7 Edge -- but it's still one of the best day-to-day performers I've used in some time. When it came to our standard rundown test (looping a high-def video at 50 brightness), the Note 7 lasted just over 14 hours. That's about a half hour less than the S7 Edge, just a few minutes more than last year's Note 5, and on par with the Moto Z Force. Not the type to watch the video until your eyes bleed? That's fine: I routinely got two full days of consistent, mixed use out of the Note 7. With the help of Android Marshmallow's Doze feature, my runtime stretched closer to three days with more sporadic use, though your mileage may vary.

The competition

It goes without saying that if you're looking for a phone you can use with a stylus, you can't do better the Galaxy Note 7. That said, if you're looking for a great phone-and-stylus combo, I've found that the Galaxy Note 5 still holds up really well. It's been updated to run Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow and put up benchmark figures that were surprisingly close to this year's model -- a testament to the power of the octa-core Exynos chipset lurking inside. Alas, it's not waterproof and lacks any expandable storage options, though you could easily find a good deal online.

The Note 7 also faces some stiff competition from its cousins, the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. They have the same brains, after all, not to mention the same waterproofing, the same punchy AMOLED screen technology and the same overarching design language. I still think the S7 Edge is too prone to accidental touches, though, a problem that frankly drives me up the freakin' wall -- I'd definitely take the Note 7 over the Edge (especially since they share those edge-centric features), but the GS7 remains an excellent choice for those who want Samsung's best in a more compact form factor.

Meanwhile, fans of first-rate build quality should consider the HTC 10, a phenomenal smartphone that offers power and style in spades. It, too, makes use of the Snapdragon 820 chipset, but the company's attention to detail is what really makes the HTC 10 shine -- the build quality is impeccable, the phone packs a low-latency touchscreen, and it's the first Android phone that natively supports Apple's AirPlay streaming standard. The 10's battery and camera aren't quite as good as the Note 7's, though, so you'll have to love HTC's design and its approach to software.

Wrap-up

When I reviewed the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge earlier this year, I was already convinced Samsung was operating at the top of its game. After using phones as well crafted as those, I didn't think it would be possible to love the inevitable follow-up as much. I was wrong. The Note 7 isn't a perfect phone: It's expensive and there still isn't a hugely compelling reason to buy into the S Pen lifestyle if you haven't already. Even so, by combining the updates that went into the S7 siblings with a number of subtle improvements to the Note's design and software, Samsung has built its finest phone yet. The Galaxy Note 7 isn't just the best Galaxy Note ever -- it's a strong contender as the best Android phone you can find right now.

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