The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is a far cry from its early predecessors.
When Samsung first introduced its oversized flagship line, there was nothing else like it. The first Note’s 5.3-inch screen was huge, and much of the press saw it as a one-off gimmick. But users liked having such a large screen in their pockets, and now 5.3 inches is just about standard for Android devices – even Apple was forced to make the iPhone 6 Plus.
But mainstream adoption of big phones also means the Note series can no longer survive on size and specs alone. That’s what makes the Note 7 something of a gamble: the spec sheet doesn’t immediately offer anything competitors can’t match or trade blows with.
Thankfully, the Note 7 is much more than its spec sheet. Taking what it’s learned over the previous six devices, Samsung has refined the Note 7 into not just a great big phone, but possibly the most well-rounded, productive, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink smartphone ever made.
Let’s get those specs out of the way. On paper, it’s basically an S7/S7 Edge with a few extra bells and whistles afforded by its larger size. Here are the key bullet points:
- Snapdragon 820 or Exynos 8890 (regional, like the S7)
- 4 GB of RAM
- 64 GB of (UFS 2.0) storage
- Dual curved, 5.7-inch display AMOLED display
- Quad HD Resolution (2460 x 1440, 518 ppi) with HDR support
- Gorilla Glass 5, front and back
- MicroSD Slot (tested up to 256 GB)
- 7.9 mm thin
- 3,500 mAh battery
- Wireless charging and quick charging
- 12 MP camera (same as the S7)
- Fingerprint sensor and an iris scanner
- IP68 water resistant (including the S-Pen!)
- Thinner S-Pen tip (0.7 mm)
- 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity
- USB-C (3.1) with OTG support (comes with a micro USB adapter)
- Android Marshmallow 6.0.1
The Note 7’s advantages are in other areas. Gorilla Glass 5 is supposed to be 1.8 times harder to crack than Gorilla Glass 4, and should survive “80 percent” of shoulder-height (~1.6 m) drops onto concrete. Having 64 GB of expandable storage as the stock configuration is a beautiful thing. The HDR screen is a thing of beauty too, and waterproofing adds a good deal of peace of mind.
Android die-hards might long for the days when the Note series was as overpowered as it was large, but this phone makes its mark in other ways.
Design: How did they make it this small?
The Note 7 continues Samsung’s refined design language introduced with the S6, but you have to hold the phone to really appreciate what Samsung’s design team has done here.
The Note 5 was already more compact than most 5.7-inch devices thanks to minimal bezels. But the Note 7 manages to be even smaller, and, more importantly, feel smaller than a 5.7-inch-screen phone has any right to.
When I said the phone was well-rounded earlier, I kind of meant that literally. While the dual-curved display is less pronounced than on the S7 Edge, the Note 7 actually feels better than the Edge in hand because Samsung has made the phone virtually symmetrical from front to back. Where the Note 5 felt like a relatively hard slab, the Note 7’s round sides help it feel almost pebble-like – kind of like an all-glass iPhone 6.
The curved display helps the Note 7 be 2 mm narrower than the Note 5, making it surprisingly easy to use with one hand. The minimal bezels and capacitive buttons means that the phone uses its real estate more efficiently than pretty much any other smartphone out there.
Display: The best smartphone display ever, with one caveat
Early rumors pointed to a 4K panel, but Samsung stuck with a QHD screen and chose to improve it in other meaningful ways instead. DisplayMate ranked it as the best smartphone display ever, and I’m inclined to agree (mostly)
First off: it’s really bright. It has to be, in order to meet the HDR specification, and it reaches over 1000 nits when viewed in sunlight. I’ve tested almost every flagship in the past year, and I’ve never used a phone that’s easier to read in the daylight. That’s helped by apparently being the first phone with an ambient sensor on both the front and the back – I never felt like I had to stray from the phone’s default settings.
Software: TouchWiz is actually… good?
I like stock Android. My main reason for shying away from Samsung phones has always been TouchWiz, not hardware or features. But with the Note 7, I think Samsung may have finally hit a balance that can appeal to both purists and casual consumers – even if it’s still running Marshmallow (Nougat is promised before 2017).
Samsung has simplified some of the aesthetic. It still uses guady squircles for icons (you can turn this off for non-Samsung apps), but at least they now use a more flat design instead of the old gradients. The settings menu is now a simple list, and the notification shade behaves more similarly to stock Android, without horizontal scrolling.
Then there are the bits where it shines over stock Android:
- You can view 15 quick settings at a time with a second swipe from the notifications shade
- You can almost completely skin the UI to a variety of community themes. Some make it look really close to Material Design, and some I’d say look better
- New battery saving modes, such as lowering your screen resolution or reducing screen performance for an extra couple of hours
- The ability to change your DPI between small and large settings (though this feature is coming to Android Nougat)
- Creating floating windows for most apps
- A legitimate one-handed mode that shrinks the entire screen by triple-tapping the home button (although that launch gesture is a bit clumsy)
- Game tools that allow you block alerts, disable capacitive buttons, and record video during gameplay
- A proper equalizer and a few useful sound quality enhancements
- Device Maintenance to clear up storage and manage battery
- Always On display to quickly glance at time and notifications or just setup a cool screensaver
There are some duplicate apps – there are two browsers, two email apps, two gallery apps – but they generally offer a few advantages over Google’s variants – for example, editing GIFs frame by frame in the gallery, or syncing tabs with your Gear VR headset with the browser. You can uninstall or disable most of them too.
Honestly, the worse thing about TouchWiz nowadays the set of terrible, still all-white emoji. You can theme everything else, why not the emoji?
Nitpicks aside, there’s no denying many of Samsung’s proprietary features are legitimately useful – perhaps even most of them. And if you’ve been a long-time Samsung user, I can see it being hard to go back and miss out on the customization.
S Pen: More reasons to remember to use it
The Note 7 is all about the S Pen, and you’re going to actually want to use it this time around.
Kudos to Samsung for reduced its various note-taking apps from four (Action Memo, Memo, Scrapbook, S Note) to just a single Samsung Note app. It’s more powerful too, allowing you to blend colors like real paint and supporting the new pen’s added sensitivity.
Meanwhile, the Note 7’s air commands bring four big new features.
You can magnify any content on your screen by hovering over it with your S Pen, up to 300 percent magnification. It’s useful if you have poor eyesight or are visiting a website you can’t zoom in on images via multi-touch.
Iris scanner: an extra tier of security, not a fingerprint replacement
The iris scanner is the flashiest new touch. I had my doubts given its implementation in Windows Phone, but it’s a smarter approach here; the iris scanner is complements the fingerprint scanner instead of replacing it.
Basically, Samsung wants you to think of it as an alternative unlock method when convenient – it’s going to be great for the winter when you’re wearing gloves – or a second form of authentication when you want extra privacy.
For instance, fingerprint scanners are sucky when your hands are wet, and can be hard to access when you’re busy carrying something. The iris scanner has no such problems, and it’s almost as fast and versatile as the fingerprint reader.
The key word here is ‘almost’ though, which is why Samsung emphasizes using the scanner as secondary authentication (plus, the iris scanner has a lower false-positive ratio).
The phone features a ‘secured folder’ where you can store private files as apps, which you access using the iris scanner. You can easily save
naughty private photos to this folder using Android’s share function, and it even includes an incognito browser for when… you need to buy your bae a special gift.
That’ll come in handy if you’re the type of person who tends to share passwords give fingerprint access to your family or partner, but would still like to keep some things private. Of course, Samsung could have done the same with a password, but this is faster, and we all know how terrible people are at choosing passwords.
By the way, the iris scanner doesn’t work with dead people. Sorry, would-be homicidal thieves.
Camera: Still top notch, but nothing new
It’s the same exact camera as in the S7, so you should check out our review of that phone. It’s probably the best single camera on any smartphone right now.
The only difference here is in a slightly streamlined app. You can now swipe down to access the selfie cam, or left and right to change modes or filters, respectively.
Performance and battery life: Good, but not the best
The Note 7 shares specs with most other flagships this year, which also generally happen to have lighter interfaces. So while the Note 7 is definitely fast, it won’t be the quickest Snapdragon 820 phone (we didn’t get to test the international version with Samsung’s own Exynos chip, but it’s worth noting those are traditionally a little more responsive).
For example, the Moto Z, which I’ve been using for longer and have installed more apps onto, feels snappier all around with its near stock UI. The G5 has a heavier skin, but is still lighter on customization than Samsung, and feels ever-so-slightly faster as well.
Entering developer mode and shortening animations helps speed things up a bit, but the Note 7 always seems to be just hair behind those devices in terms of responsiveness, with the very occasional stutter and dropped frames. That feels like something that can be fixed with an update.
Maybe there are some pre-release bugs to iron out, but it shouldn’t be enough to keep you away from the device; it’s still faster than almost any 2015 device, it’s just not the quickest Snapdragon 820 one. I’d also argue the Note 5’s multi-tasking features make up for any mild performance stutters when it comes to actually getting work done.
Battery life, on the other hand, pulls ahead of most other 2016 flagships. I’m getting about six hours of screen on time with my average, heavy use. The 3500 mAh battery should be enough to get most people through a full day.
That’s generally without using the new power saving modes. If you know you’re going to be out for a while, you can choose to lower the screen resolution, max brightness, and CPU performance separately; the default power-saving settings will net you about 3 hours of extra battery life over using the phone on full blast.
Unless you’re looking for it, you won’t be able to tell a difference between the 1080p and QHD resolutions, other than that you need to be on QHD to use the highest density DPI setting. There’s a 720p option, but I’d avoid it unless you’re really strapped for battery.
I’ll update this post once I’m able to do a more proper run down of the different power saving settings.
Finally, the phone of course has quick charging (and wireless charging!), but it’s a bit slower than what we’ve seen on devices like the Moto Z. A full charge takes aabout an hour and 45 minutes from empty.
Everything but the kitchen sink
When I reviewed the Note 5, I thought it was the best big phone you could buy at the time. After spending a week with the Note 7, I’m having a hard time not thinking of it as anything else than the most well-rounded smartphone I’ve ever used.
I’m trying to avoid hyperbole, but the Note 7 has almost everything you could ask for from a flagship smartphone in 2016. It might not be the most exciting phone – the Moto Z and its modularity win that prize from me – but frankly, it feels like Samsung just went through a checklist of the things people say they want in a smartphone, and then went and did them all:
- Top of the line processor and RAM
- 64 GB of storage, stock
- Expandable storage because we’re greedy
- Best-in-class camera
- Full waterproofing
- A small body with minimal bezels
- Legit security features
- Sleek, eye-catching design
- A display that (probably, hopefully) won’t crack when you drop it
- Great battery life with heavy use
- Wireless and quick charging
- A history of timely updates
- A not terrible UI
- A stylus
Imagine if someone told you a phone would hit every single one of those marks just one or two years ago, and then add a couple of extras like the best mobile VR headset and an iris scanner as well.
Of course, it might not be the top option if you’re looking to buy unlocked or don’t wan’t to deal with carrier subsidies, and there are plenty of great affordable phones out there nowadays, but you probably knew that coming into this review.
Moreover, the Note 7 brings genuinely useful productivity features, something that becomes more important with every passing years as people look to do more serious work on smaller, more portable devices. The Note 7’s multi-tasking is second to none, to the point that I wrote some of this review on the device.
Yes, the Note 7 is very expensive at around $850, but in the US at least, most people won’t care because of carrier subsidies. Besides, the free Gear Fit 2 or 256 GB (!) microSD card are quite the sweet pre-order bonus.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for the best you can buy right now, the Note 7 is the closest thing to a perfect smartphone there’s ever been.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 launches Augsut 19, and you can pre-order the device now from Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile in the US. As mentioned above, you can get either a free Gear Fit 2 or 256 GB microSD card when you order “for a limited time,” valued at $179.99 and $250, respectively.