The Galaxy S7 and S7 edge come into 2016 with a rather tremendous amount of baggage in the eyes of the phone enthusiasts of the world. Many viewed Samsung’s move to sealed batteries, non-expandable storage, a non-waterproof design, and glass backs as open and Apple-hued traitorism last year, feeling the company had lost sight of what its most ardent fans considered reasons to buy into the Galaxy brand. The same set of changes also befell what I long thought Samsung’s bulwark in the high-end, high-feature part of the enthusiast market in the Note line (minus waterproofing, as the Note never had it).
And so, some Samsung fans likely scattered into the wind - jumping ship to LG, Sony, Motorola, or even Google’s Nexuses. Granted, not enough to really affect Samsung’s bottom line: the Galaxy S series is the most popular Android smartphone franchise on earth. The Galaxy S6 may have sold a bit below expectations, but it’s not like Samsung didn’t turn a profit last year. Still, many have openly wondered, myself included, if Samsung had entered an inescapable downward spiral: did sitting atop of the smartphone heap make them lazy, lumbering, and unresponsive to consumer demand?
I think that narrative ends up being refuted, and the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge generally prove that Samsung still has plenty to give us. Did the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge have some real issues? Sure. And Samsung basically acknowledges that in these new phones. The microSD card slot? It’s back. Waterproofing? It’s here. Bigger battery? Yep. Better camera? You got it. Does that make these phones sound iterative? Absolutely, and they are. But they’re iterative in the right ways, as opposed to simply being a handful of arbitrary changes and improvements for their own sake. Are there still problems with them? Also yes. But most of those are predictable, and of those that aren’t, none are particularly terrible.
As such, I think you’ll be happy with a Galaxy S7 or S7 edge should you choose to invest - read on to find out why.
Samsung has had the best smartphone displays in the business since, give or take, the Galaxy Note 3. They still do, even if you don't hear that praise being sung so often these days (mostly because it's just a given anymore).
Samsung's phones still feel and look the nicest of any Android OEM I can think of. Everything fits together perfectly, and a phone like the S7 edge just oozes preciousness. You feel like you're holding something special.
While adoptable storage has to be hacked a bit to work, it can be done (easily), and the very return of the microSD slot at all should be reason for cheers from enthusiasts who lamented Samsung dropping it in 2015.
The battery life isn't amazing, but it's finally decent. Last year's S6, S6 edge, Note 5, and S6 edge+ all had, in my opinion, fairly subpar battery life. Sometimes outright crappy battery life. The S7 and S7 edge both last respectably long and drain very predictably. Also, doze mode!
This is a big deal for some people, and while I've never accidunked a phone, I realize it happens. Knowing your phone is waterproof is some additional peace of mind.
TouchWiz doesn't suck
Yeah, yeah - I'm going to take flak for this. I know that. But anyone telling you TouchWiz is so horrible in 2016 is just pushing a narrative. It's fine. Use a Chinese domestic-brand phone and tell me TouchWiz is invasive. TouchWiz is perfectly OK. Let's drop the hyperbole.
The Not So Good
The Snapdragon 820 version of the S7 feels no quicker than an S6 on Marshmallow. Really. It's noticeable. It's also noticeably slower than the Exynos variant. I have my suspicions about this, see them in the performance section.
It has greatly improved low-light performance, but this new camera is also in need of some tuning. The S7's 12MP sensor can take some great shots, but it's finicky and the processing likes to artificially overexpose a lot. Auto-focus is fast, but sometimes uncooperative, overriding tap-to-focus inputs. The front-facing camera is that same one from the S6, and it's good, but with the high-reso FFC race heating up, it's not a showstopper.
The Galaxy S7 edge is around $800 on most US carriers, the S7 around $700. Is an S7 edge $300 better than a 32GB Nexus 6P? For the right person, maybe, but there's little arguing: Samsung can't make up that difference on the spec sheet alone. Trust in the brand is part of the buy-in here. And you know the LG G5 will undercut the standard S7 on price, too.
It's a noticeable downgrade from the one on the S6/S6e/Note 5/S6 edge+ in pretty much every way. Less volume, less fidelity, less clarity. I chalk this up to waterproofing and the larger batteries.
It's a given, but I can't not mention it, because buying a Samsung phone is a game of roulette when it comes to Android OS updates. You'll probably get two major OS updates, but when is anybody's guess, and how well they'll be tested and optimized is, too.
Hardware and design
The S7 and S7 edge are small but entirely noticeable iterations of the S6 and S6 edge+. Both phones sport a more rounded shape - that’s really the main thing you see in press images - but both have also been designed to be easier to hold. Samsung’s accomplished this by adding a rear curve they originally implemented on the Note 5 to both devices, making them fit more naturally in the contour of your hand. It sounds like design-marketing mumbo-jumbo, but it works. The S6 edge was oddly uncomfortable to hold, and while the S6 edge+ made improvements in that area, the S7 edge sees that refined even further. With less of the metal midframe protruding from the phone and that gentle rear curve, the S7 and S7 edge almost feel like smoothly polished rocks. It’s actually quite a nice hand-feel. (I regret using that phrase immediately.)
Compared to the S6 edge, the S7 edge’s power button is positioned slightly closer to the screen (as opposed to the back), making it easier to press, and the mid-frame is at a less extreme downward angle, more evenly exposing the button itself. The volume rockers are largely similar, though they slightly narrower than the ones on the old S6 edge or edge+. It’s these little changes that show Samsung really was considering the entire design of the S7 as opposed to simply reusing existing parts wherever possible, even if the end aesthetic of the phones is obviously extremely similar.
Moving to the back, both the S7 and S7 edge sport reduced camera humps, though Samsung’s claimed victory here is a bit empty given that both devices are marginally thicker than the outgoing phones, and the camera humps themselves only marginally thinner. I think we know what happened there. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing - I really don’t care at all that these new phones are thicker, and neither should you: the phone thickness wars are little more than industrial design dick-wagging at this point, and I’m glad Samsung has finally realized a bit more thickness for a bit more battery (and waterproofing) isn’t even worthy of being dubbed a trade-off. It’s a win all around.
On the edges of the phone, you’ll find that the beveled look is gone, and Samsung now has gently curved the aluminum frame all the way up to the edges of the glass, once again making the phones feel a bit less sharp. The Onyx Black versions of the S7 and S7 edge shed much of the “chroming” on various surfaces, too - no more silver surrounds on the camera lens cover, the flash cluster next to it, the home button, the speaker grille - all of it now matches the black color of the phone body. The white, gold, and platinum silver models still have these chromed (or gilded) accents, but the flatness of the black version makes it my surprise favorite of the bunch. It’s sleek. I wouldn’t mind a similarly all-body-color dark gray or even dark green, Samsung.
The home button is now more of a rounded rectangle now as opposed to the pill shape, though that’s the only real change there that I’ve noticed.
And, of course, waterproofing: the Galaxy S7 is now IP68 dust and waterproof, capable of withstanding full immersion for moderate amounts of time undamaged (in theory). Samsung has accomplished this by sealing the headphone jack, microUSB port, and speaker, as well as with soft gasketing inside the phone. There’s even a nano-coating on the various PCBs and connectors inside the phone, in the event water does manage to get in, acting as a last line of defense against a total smartphone meltdown (or rather, wetdown). And all without the annoying-as-hell USB port cover found on the last waterproof mainstream Galaxy phone, the Galaxy S5. Just say no to port covers.
On the bottom of the phone we find the headphone jack, microUSB port, and speaker grille, basically unchanged aside from waterproofing measures. Which brings us to type C USB: is it really a big deal that Samsung didn’t include it? And why did they stick with microUSB? I think the rationales for the latter have been well explored (GearVR makes some sense for the “why”), but in terms of implications, I don’t think almost anyone in the market for this phone really cares. The only real type C evangelists out there right now are Nexus users, and they aren’t buying this phone. While the G5 and doubtless other phones released this year will adopt type C, Samsung has to look after a huge number of legacy users - far more than any other Android brand - who simply are going to be less receptive to a port change.
The next Note would make far more sense as the introduction point for type C on Samsung smartphones, as it typically draws a much more enthusiast sort of audience. The S7 and S7 edge are undeniably mainstream, and mainstream smartphone users are exactly the sort of people who are going to cry foul in the extreme about what they consider an arbitrary change in connector that forces them to buy “expensive new cables and chargers.” Apple took huge heat for this with the switch to Lightning, and I have zero doubt Samsung is going to hold off on USB-C until it can justify the switch as simply being in line with industry standards. The implication to you? All your old cables still work with the S7 and S7 edge and… not much else. USB-C for phones, at the moment, brings reversibility and the need to buy new cables. It’s not bad, and it is the future, but microUSB still makes perfect sense on the world’s most popular Android phone brand. By the time current S7 users upgrade to the S9, or whatever it’s called, USB-C (and USB 3.0) will likely bring a host of other benefits to make the switch more enticing, or at least more justifiable. Right now, it’s really just future-proofing, and future-proofing is decidedly un-mainstream.
Do you know why you don’t hear about the quality of Samsung’s smartphone displays as often as you used to? Because they really have no legitimate competition anymore. I mean, sure: Apple’s LCD designs are very good and do offer better peak brightness. But Samsung’s Super AMOLED panels basically stand alone in the industry now, just look to the Nexus 6P as proof: everyone was excited to know it had the latest generation of Samsung AMOLED panel. The newest QHD Super AMOLED displays introduced in the Note 5 and S6 edge+ are basically the same ones you’ll find in the S7 and S7 edge. They’re more power-efficient than those of the S6 and S6 edge, have better peak brightness, and better ambient contrast.
Using Samsung’s display color modes, you can set them from the visibility and media-consumption focused Adaptive mode with its bright and vivid colors and exceptional contrast, down to the ultra-accurate “Basic” mode that has won Samsung accuracy shootouts on DisplayMate, with the site declaring that the S6e+ and Note 5 had the best smartphone display accuracy they'd ever recorded. I’m inclined to agree, and that same performance is packed into the new S7 and S7 edge. You want the best smartphone screen? This is the best smartphone screen.
The S7 edge obviously brings curvature into the equation, as well, and the response to this design has been overwhelmingly positive going all the way back to the original S6 edge, at least in my experience. Everyone I talk to finds the edge display to be striking and beautiful, and after spending a lot of time with the S6 edge+ last year and now the S7 edge, I still agree. Samsung remains so far ahead of the game on screens that most of their competitors are actively downplaying the display panel as a major feature of their smartphones these days in any regard but resolution.
One area I’d like to touch on that I typically don’t in the display section is… touch. I’ve had a serious problem with grip rejection on the Galaxy S7 edge, and I know I’m not alone. Basically, the S7 edge is constantly detecting my fingers grabbing the edges of the glass, interfering with scrolling, capturing images when holding the phone in landscape (shutter button goes non-responsive), and making typing far more obnoxious than it needs to be (keypresses sometimes won’t register, especially the delete key). This is a real usability issue, and for that alone, I actually recommend you hold off buying the US versions of the S7 edge until it’s clear it’s been resolved. Fortunately, Samsung has already sent out an “urgent” update to “the edge display” for international S7 edge devices, and I strongly suspect this is what that update corrects. Hopefully American carriers move quickly in approving the patch (which I can’t actually confirm fixes the issue, unfortunately), because it’s a really annoying problem.
The S7 edge has been my daily driver, so I can’t comment on the specific battery life of the standard S7. But if the edge is any comparison, it’s good. Not great, not amazing, but good. Definitely better than the Galaxy Note 5 or S6 edge+, and seemingly much more consistent. I never felt anxious about the S7 edge’s battery at the end of the day, but I also never ended up feeling like I could leave it unplugged overnight.
It’s not quite the amount of breathing room I became used to on the Nexus 6P when left idle, I’ll say that. But under use, the S7 edge doesn’t exhibit the extreme consumption that I frankly started to consider “normal” with many of last year’s phones. Time spent actually using the device results in predictable battery drain, and idling on mobile data, too, gives you a pretty easy timeline to extrapolate from.
Could the battery life be better? Absolutely. For 3600mAh, I’d personally expect a bit more on the idle drain side with Android 6.0 Marshmallow’s doze mode, but the in-use figures seem solid. I’ve managed over 5 hours of screen-on time on Wi-Fi (with SIM inserted and mobile data enabled) with the S7 edge, and that decimates the S6 edge+ I used last year, which I don’t think I ever managed to get past 4 hours under similar conditions. Now, be careful with those figures - math tells you that’s a 25% improvement, but it’s under fairly specific circumstances (i.e., the way I use a phone), so your mileage will undoubtedly vary. While we’ve surely seen an improvement compared to the S6 and S6 edge+ on battery life, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a whole lot more than you’d expect given the expansion of the cell size and some of doze mode’s magic. It’s important and it's noticeable, but it's not a revolution.
As for the battery drain using always-on display? Samsung says it’s around or under 1% per hour with the feature active. If that’s just an estimate, we could probably ballpark the real drain range somewhere between 0.7-1% per hour, meaning 10-15% additional battery drain per day. Is it worth it? I’ll dig into that more in the software section, but in short: for all but a small subset of people, no, it isn’t.
Storage, wireless, and call quality
The Galaxy S7 and S7 edge are available with 32GB of storage in the US. Period. You get no other choices. Some other regions may get other storage variants at some point, but Samsung has stated most will be stuck with 32GB, as well. As you might expect, a good bit of that is devoured by the system and bloat out of the box, with my Verizon S7 edge having a little under 23GB available. I found my international Exynos S7 had a full gigabyte more.
The nanoSIM and microSD card share a slot. Yes, I dropped my review unit. :*(
You do get a microSD slot, but Android 6.0’s adoptable storage feature is not enabled on the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge (in any market). You can enable it via adb without root or any other hacks, though, so it’s still a very real option if you decide you want it.
Wireless connectivity has been solid for me, though I can’t say the S7 or S7 edge provided any better Wi-Fi range than I’m used to. I will remark on Bluetooth: it works with my freaking car correctly. I have so many Bluetooth problems with my Nexus 6P - both calls and audio streaming, along with the general issue of staying connected - that the S7 edge was a sweet return to the “just works” level of functionality I expect in that area.
The S7 and S7 edge do feature VoLTE and HD Voice technologies depending on your market, though I didn’t have much of a chance to test these things. I didn’t have any problems with the calls I did make using our Verizon test phone.
Audio and speakers
Headphone audio on the S7 and S7 edge is still of a very high quality, though Samsung’s obnoxiously low “DANGER: YOUR EARS!!1!11” threshold makes managing Bluetooth volume or high-impedance headphones far more of a chore than it should be, given that such uses often necessitate getting close to the device’s maximum output. I’m still not sure why Samsung is so ardent about providing this warning when they frankly have absolutely no idea what level of output is necessary for your given external audio use case. But that’s a rant. The headphone audio is good. You won’t have issues. Bluetooth streaming audio also gave me no problems at all on the S7 or S7 edge.
Now, to the speaker. Remember that whole waterproofing and bigger battery thing? Yeah, well, waterproofing is generally going to be bad for speakers. By sealing the speaker housing up with gasketing and also placing said gasketing all around the phone, you can end up deadening the sound the speaker produces. And by sticking a bigger battery in the device, you potentially reduce the amount of empty of space for a reverb chamber. Compared to an S6 or Note 5, the S7 and S7 Edge’s speakers are noticeably quieter and sound slightly muffled, and it’s very obvious in a side by side comparison. This is a definite downgrade from the previous devices, and given that Samsung is already disadvantaged by using a single, down-ported driver (the top grille speaker being used for a “stereo” effect rumor did not pan out, by the way), this may well create the weakest point of the S7’s hardware. It also may not matter to you… at all, but hey, I’m just pointing it out.
So far, my experience with the new camera has been great at best to OK at worst. It honestly is in need of some tuning. The Galaxy S7 sports a new sensor with larger pixels at a lower total resolution (12MP) to make low-light imaging less sucky. And less sucky it is: the Galaxy S7 really can do well when ambient light isn’t cooperating. I took it inside a dimly-lit house museum on the central coast of California called Hearst Castle, and some of the shots I got inside the building were stunning given the dim incandescent bulbs peppered conservatively in most rooms.
The one issue I had consistently is that the camera errs pretty generously on the side of overexposing in dark or high-contrast shots in an attempt to increase visible contrast, and sometimes the images just come out looking unnaturally bright and weird. You can adjust the EV on the fly in the viewfinder by tapping to focus and then using a slider that pops up, but that’s far too much annoyance for your average smartphone camera user like me. I just want it to figure everything out on its own.
This scene was far darker to the naked eye - the S7 gave it a blown-out, faded look. This is a common issue I had with the camera in multiple settings.
In favorable lighting, the S7’s camera performs well, and I did get a couple of shots I very much liked on a recent outing. Samsung’s new auto-focus tech licensed from Canon really does work - it’s crazy fast, though it does occasionally get “stuck” on a certain focal point that the sensor prefers even after doing tap-to-focus in some situations, like the camera thinks you’ve moved enough that the image should re-focus, when in fact you just want it to hold where you’ve told it to. This can probably be tweaked down the road. But the AF is undoubtedly quick.
I never had any issue with shutter lag, and even in the darkest scenarios, the camera felt pretty responsive in terms of focus and minimizing capture time. The automatic HDR was probably not as aggressive as I’d like coming from a Nexus 6P, which pretty much HDRs allthethings.jpg, but when it worked it worked. You can, of course, force it on, too. See the full gallery of samples below.
So, are the S7 and S7 edge with Snapdragon 820 processors fast? I mean, I guess? Here’s the thing: these phones don’t feel any faster to me in day-to-day usage than a Galaxy S6 on Marshmallow. I mean that with complete sincerity. The only areas I really notice speed improvements are the camera and 3D performance (i.e., gaming). And in some areas, they actually seem slower sometimes.
On the Exynos version, though, I do feel things are faster. Apps load more quickly. Web pages scroll more fluidly. Hell, even the lockscreen feels more responsive. None of this is particularly encouraging for those of us with the Snapdragon 820 version here in the US. That feeling appears to be increasingly corroborated by informal testing.
Is it a bit odd that apart from America, where Qualcomm’s close relationship with US carriers ensures quick approvals of handsets with fewer certification hurdles (read: money), Samsung felt the best chipset for the Galaxy S7 was the Exynos? For a while, I thought it was simply a supply constraint or cost issue with the 820 - enough could not be produced for the whole world. And while that may well be true, why use it at all then? Surely Samsung could manage Exynos capacity for the US if it did so for the rest of the world (except China). Could it be that the 820 was chosen primarily for its ability to reduce the cost of doing business for Samsung in America, as opposed to it being “the best” chipset for the device? Comparing the two really has me wondering at this point, as I already prefer interacting with the Exynos version of the handset versus the noticeably slower 820.
The thing is, benchmarks don’t really bear my suspicions out, at least not often. The 820 is slightly faster in single-thread CPU performance than the Exynos, though noticeably less powerful in multi-threading (that makes sense, it has half the cores). It’s marginally quicker in terms of GPU performance, particularly when the phone gets warm. The phones have the same NAND storage and RAM. So why would one feel slower than the other? And I think the answer here may come down to power.
I haven’t been able to test the battery life of the Exynos version of the phone, but I have a suspicion that Samsung has rather aggressively tuned the Snapdragon 820 S7 and S7 edge for efficiency after many complaints about battery life on their US devices last year. Is it possible Samsung is gimping the 820 version of the phone to meet battery life targets, or has simply poorly optimized for the 820? One benchmark that supports such a theory is the browser-based Octane suite that Google publishes. If there’s an tomfoolery going on with unlocking the CPU in known benchmark apps, a browser-based benchmark may be able to avoid that. And the results aligned with my suspicions - admittedly creating some possible confirmation bias here. the Galaxy S7 with the Exynos chipset scores over35% higher in Octane than the Snadpragon 820 version (roughly 7500 for the 820 vs around 10,300 for the Exynos). That’s nuts. And this is unique to Samsung’s implementation of the 820 - I’ve got a G5 here with that same 820 at the same clock speed, and it scores more than 20% higher than the S7 edge with the 820.
Something’s afoot here, and I’m really not sure what it is. Maybe Samsung has some updates in store for the 820 version of the phone to get it on par with the Exynos variant, or at least closer, but right now I can’t help but feel a bit uneasy about the Snapdragon 820, or at least Samsung’s implementation of it. Granted, the battery life doesn’t suck, so we’re still doing miles better than we were last year, right?
I’ve had no app crashes or really any stability issues on the S7 or S7 edge so far. I did have some Wi-Fi issues on 5GHz that I think are resolved after a firmware update on my router, but I’ll have to use the phones a bit longer to be sure that’s the case. Granted, Samsung phones are famous for developing bugs and issues down the road, so this portion of the review is really just our way of saying “nothing is horridly wrong after week one.”
The one issue we have had that I’ve already mentioned is with the S7 edge’s display detecting my fingers grabbing the phone when it shouldn’t. To recap, the phone is detecting my fingers holding the phone, and this is causing random scrolling, missed touches, and general frustration (especially when typing or trying to snap photos). I’m not the only one with this problem, and I believe Samsung has released an OTA internationally to address it. Hopefully it arrives in the US sooner rather than later (it looks like T-Mobile may already be rolling it out). Honestly, I’d suggest holding off on the S7 edge in the US until a fix does arrive. You may not notice it immediately, but the problem is real, and it really needs to be corrected.
Software: what’s new?
What’s new with the S7’s software versus what we already saw on the S6’s recent Marshmallow update? Let’s dive in.
Always on display
The always-on display was a big draw initially when the S7 was announced, so was the hype deserved? Well, let me put it this way: the always-on display is a great way to consume about 1% of your battery every hour. It’s really only useful as a bedside clock (which was already a feature on last year's phones) or for its ability to let you discreetly check the time in a movie theater or other dark room where you wouldn’t want to phone lighting up so brightly. These are use cases, but enough of a case to sacrifice ten-plus percent of your battery every day? Personally, the only situation I actually find it kind of cool is when it’s not trying to be a tool - more on that in a minute.
And when the display lighting up isn’t an issue, it’s really no harder to tap your home button to see the time. And when you do that, you can actually see and interact with your notifications on the screen, too. The always-on display doesn’t show notifications, and even if it did, you wouldn’t be able to do anything with them, as the touch controller is off when the phone is in the always-on mode.
The only mode I really thought was worth considering using is the one that is totally non-functional: just some random background imagery that sits on your screen. Like some little trees, or objects in space. That’s kind of fun, and it does look neat. Is it worth around 10-15% of battery drain per day? That’s your call. For me, probably not.
Built-in audio EQ
I’m unsure if this feature is actually new, versus new to Samsung phones in the US. Anyway, there’s now a built in EQ and tone UI in the “sound quality and effects” area of the sound and vibration settings. It has two layouts, a basic tone and mid-range adjuster, and a more traditional set of equalizer sliders for “advanced” use. There are also a number of EQ presets. I assume, but am unsure, this will work system-wide.
There’s also a “concert hall” effect mode, which makes your audio sound like it’s coming through a crappy tin can 50 yards away. (If you can’t tell, I think this is dumb.)
Also present are the old Samsung effects - UHQ up-scaling (which in my opinion is audio snake oil), “surround” mode, and tube amp pro mode.
Game launcher and game tools
While Samsung’s Game Tuner and Game Recorder+ apps were very solid first entries into the gaming tool space, it seems they’ve still got more to show us on the S7 and S7 edge. New are the “game launcher” and “game tools” features, both of which I think deserve your attention if you do much gaming on your smartphone, because they’re incredibly handy.
Basically, the game launcher is where all the magic starts - it’s an app that acts as a folder and hub for all your games, but also various tools and settings. Like Samsung’s Game Tuner app, the launcher can adjust your games’ performance to minimize power consumption and maximize performance, though with a bit less configurability (no per-app settings, no “high” mode). There’s normal - full resolution (often 1080p in 3D games on Android) and a maximum FPS of 60. Then there’s “save power,” which drops the frame rate to a maximum of 30FPS and lowers the resolution (likely to 720p). Finally, there’s “save maximum power,” which keeps the 30FPS cap but drops the resolution even further, probably to 480p. There’s also toggles to disable notifications while you’re in a game and to enable in-game tools.
The game tools are the really handy part of this whole suite - you get a tiny little floating button that sits on top of the screen in any game that’s in your game launcher list (you can manually add titles that aren’t detected). When you tap it, a bunch of other bubbles pop up with options. These include:
Disable notifications while in game.
Turn off the back and recents keys while in game (nice!).
Minimize the game by turning it into a floating bubble that sits on top of the phone’s UI, frozen in state (no more unexpected reloads).
Take a screenshot.
Record your game including audio captured from the device’s microphone.
Oddly, features like memory boost and front-facing video recording from Samsung’s handy Recorder+ app aren’t part of this new game tools suite, and that app doesn't currently show as compatible with the S7 or S7 edge I have. Perhaps they’ll come later?
All in all, this is a robust set of tools for mobile gamers and, I think, makes the S7 and S7 edge hugely more appealing to those who are serious about playing games on their smartphone. How many such people there are, I’m not really sure, but these features are damn cool.
Other changes and regional tweaks
Believe it or not, that actually does round out the major software changes on the S7 and S7 edge compared to the Marshmallow build Samsung is shipping on the S6 (a full review of all the changes in Marshmallow would just be gargantuan). Here are a few of the smaller ones.
Samsung now supports the PIN to decrypt on boot feature. It must be enabled manually in the lock screen and security settings area under “protect encrypted data.” Also, the S7 and S7 edge are full-disk encrypted by default, and cannot be decrypted.
Some US variants of the phone have the “download booster” function disabled, just as with other Samsung devices last year (though Verizon now has it).
Both the US version and the Canadian version of the phones I have lack Samsung’s “Galaxy Labs” feature we saw on demo units at MWC, though this feature admittedly had all of two experiments in it, and neither were especially useful.
The edge screen UI has some very minor changes, but really, nothing functional is different - all the same edge tabs are available.
For whatever reason, US carriers think us simple Americans can’t understand that blue/right versus white/left means “on” and “off,” and so have text in those settings toggles saying “on” and “off.” Our Canadian variant just has bare toggles in the settings, which look much nicer.
Obviously, US carrier versions like Verizon’s come with bloat. On my Verizon S7e, I disabled 10 apps Verizon specifically pre-loaded. Notably, this is less than I’m used to disabling on an AT&T phone, at least.
Software: in general
Oh boy, everyone’s favorite part of a Samsung review: time to rip on TouchWiz! … right? Honestly, I just find it hard to hate TouchWiz anymore. It is what it is. Samsung generally acknowledges its duty to live within the universe of basic similarity to the core Android OS and rarely messes with important things just for the sake of it. Once you’ve used something like Huawei’s EMUI or Xiaomi’s MIUI, you realize just how “light” TouchWiz’s hand can be. Slap on Google Now launcher and you’re really only going to have to interact with TouchWiz in a few obvious places like the settings menu, notification bar, and multitasking UI. And, I suppose, the lockscreen. And none of those things are truly terrible.
Oh no! A stylized notification shade, avert your eyes!
Might they be visually offensive to some? I guess. But Samsung has lightened up the notification bar, so it’s no longer a garish neon green on teal carnival - now it’s just a pleasant shade of blue on gray and white. Dare I say, it almost looks good. The multitasking UI is basically similar to stock Android’s, albeit with a “close all” button, and the settings UI has returned to just being a simple list with a “quick settings” area up top. Altogether, TouchWiz is no more annoying than LG’s UI (and I’d argue it looks a good bit better) or even HTC’s Sense these days. If we’re going to complain about the way it looks, let’s just call that complaining what it is: that it doesn’t look like stock Android in some areas. Is the world going to come crashing down because of this? No. What really bugs me about Samsung’s software is not the way it looks, it’s how long it takes for updates to the core OS to trickle down, particularly in America, and how often they end up making the phone worse with various bugs and issues that rarely end up fixed. That is annoying. The way it looks is very “whatever” to me. I’m much more concerned that it works like I expect and gets the new Android features I want.
Samsung, of course, also adds features of its own. Samsung Pay’s MST emulation is one of the coolest and most useful proprietary features on any smartphone currently available, say what you will about the social awkwardness it occasionally creates. S Health is a more powerful health tracking client than Google Fit, so it’s actually not a half-bad redundancy to have. The Gear VR is an accessory in its own league - it’s one area where Google and co. are unabashedly playing catch-up to Samsung, and Samsung has a very powerful partner in Oculus. Gear VR really does put Cardboard to shame, and the content on its grows by the week (I get emails from Oculus every other week with new content on the store). Yeah, Samsung’s proprietary features nowhere near obviate the need for Google’s services and products, but neither do any other Android OEM’s [outside China]. Samsung generally has far more to offer here than any of their Android competitors. What LG-specific feature can you really say adds value to the phone that you couldn’t get on a competing handset? That’s going to be a short - and let's be real, forced - list.
The capacitive touch keys and home button, while not technically software, are a big part of how you interact with that software. So let’s talk about those. Has this issue been beaten to death? Absolutely. I am going to continue beating it to death: capacitive keys are not great. They don’t adapt to changes in display orientation, they require separate lighting to see, and are often near-invisible in sunlight. Yep, this is Samsung’s #brand. And yep: they’re there for legacy users who might get confused by scary new software buttons. And yes: you can see more of the screen. (Ignoring, of course, that any situation in which you need the whole screen the OS generally hides the software buttons automatically.) The home key still has that obnoxious delay when going to the home screen, and the unlock process takes entirely too long because you have to press the damn thing before the fingerprint sensor turns on, which I really don't get when no one else but Apple is doing it this way anymore. Anyway, that’s my capacitive key rant. Back to the software.
Realistically, using a Galaxy S7 or S7 edge isn’t all that much different on the software end than any other Android phone running Marshmallow. I’m really trying to get away from feeding this stigma TouchWiz has developed over the years. Once upon a time, TouchWiz was this garish, bright, weird thing that did substantially alter certain functional portions of Android, but a lot of time this was because Android just wasn’t good at certain things or plain didn’t have them. Samsung tried to fix those things or substitute for them, and a lot of times their efforts were... sub-optimal. But as Android has evolved, TouchWiz has slowly cut down on redundant features and service, and while there’s still Samsung’s own app store, music service, and VR portal on the S7 (more on that soon), what about these things interferes with your experience? I concede that they do take up storage space, albeit a marginal amount, but aside from that? TouchWiz really isn’t the big evil bloaty monster it was in years past. It’s just another UI theme with a slightly different layout and a good handful of additional functions. Some of them were good enough that Google has even pushed stock Android in a similar direction, and while that may sound ridiculous, it’s kind of true.
For example, look at the new quick toggle layout in the Android N preview - a row of icons permanently in the notification bar. Remind you of anything? TouchWiz has had this for years. I’m not saying they were the first, but they’re easily the most visible implementation. Split-screen multitasking? I’m not saying the concept was invented by Samsung or that Google was unaware of it, but there it is: Samsung has had this since, I believe, the Galaxy Note 10.1 in early 2012 (correct me if I’m wrong there, Samsung fans). Mono audio output mode? Samsung has offered this feature since at least the Galaxy S II, and Google just added it Android in N.
A quick launcher replacement reveals... a largely normal Android phone with some extra stuff and a theme.
Those are just three examples, but I’m sure there’s smaller stuff you can find or similarities you can at least make a case for. Samsung, for all the crap they get in regard to TouchWiz, has undoubtedly been one of the driving forces pushing Google to evolve Android either out of sheer competition or just friendly sharing of ideas (or more likely, both). Yeah, a lot of Samsung’s features are total flops. And so are most of their services. Remember ChatON? Yeah, nobody else does, either. But let’s criticize Samsung for the right reasons, not because of dogma about TouchWiz that continues to circulate years after the skin’s truly laggy, awful, space-sucking Gingerbread days.
The right reason to criticize Samsung? Major OS updates often come too slowly, and they’re often not especially polished. Samsung is infamous for pushing major OS updates that slow down and create bugs in devices, and though the latter tends to be true of most smartphones, Samsung does have the scale and resources to do better, I would think. They also don’t always support phones especially long, and phones more than a model year old often get absolutely subpar treatment. The Galaxy S5 still doesn’t have Marshmallow anywhere in the world, despite leaked test builds and accidental rollouts in the last few months, and some estimates say it won’t be out till May 2016. That’s a full seven months after Android 6.0 was published to AOSP, and likely closer to a year since the Marshmallow PDK (platform development kit) was made available to OEMs. I’d be running for CyanogenMod if I was still stuck with a Galaxy S5, I know that much.
So that, to me, is the real problem with Samsung’s smartphone software. It’s not about what you buy, it’s what you do or don’t get down the road, and when you get it.
The Galaxy S7 and S7 edge will invite controversy by their very existence. Samsung could serve up the S7 at half the price and with half the bloat and people would still be making TouchWiz jokes like it was 2012. That’s life when you’re the most popular Android smartphone maker on the planet.
The real dirt on the S7 and S7 edge? They get better battery life - considerably - in comparison to their predecessors, even if they’re not necessarily the all-day champions some might have been hoping for (though I personally found the S7 edge totally doable for all day in my heavier usage). Their rear cameras perform noticeably better in adverse lighting, and focus more quickly, even if I still find myself preferring the Nexus 6P’s camera for night shots (Google’s HDR processing, while heavy-handed, just looks a lot better). The design is refined and both phones are just nicer to hold for it. The displays, while unchanged from the Note 5 and S6 edge+, are world-class, besting anything else on the market in every respect but peak luminosity. They’re waterproof, and lots of people care about that - no other flagship smartphone on the market here in the US can currently claim that, and outside the US, Sony’s Z5 is an aging choice if you’re buying a phone today.
Coming from a Galaxy S5 or even a Note 4, you’re going to see major upgrades across the board, no doubt. If you’re on the fence, take the plunge - these phones embody the refinements the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge+ needed, even if they aren’t perfect. You’re basically buying all the things Samsung figured out it needed to fix or update in last year’s phones. What’s not to like about that?
Coming from an S6 or other 2015 Samsung phone, you’ll see the battery life boost and the better camera, but now that those phones are being updated to Marshmallow, they’re getting a lot of what the S7 has to offer on the software side of things. That’s not to say there’s no reason to upgrade, I’ve just told you how these phones are better than the last ones, after all. Just that you won’t see a quantum leap improvement in any one area.
The downsides? The 820-powered S7 and S7 edge we’re getting in the US aren’t all that quick compared to last year’s phones. I legitimately believe an S6 on Marshmallow is just as fast as the new 820-powered S7 in everything but 3D gaming, the S7 just gets better battery life. The speakers on these new devices are a real downgrade from last year, too. And if you’re interested in fixing your phones when they break, iFixIt basically gave the S7 a repair score of “don’t bother.” I personally find the capacitive buttons annoying, and the S7’s fingerprint scanner still requires you to tap the home button first in order to be used, something I strongly suspect is simply because “that’s how Apple does it, so it’s fine.” Oh, and that bug with the S7 edge’s display detecting fingers on the sides of the display is super annoying - that really needs to be patched ASAP. And then there’s the whole aforementioned situation with Samsung and OS updates, which is still far from ideal. Some of those issues are legitimate reasons you may want to weigh other options. Some of them are also just as true of some of Samsung’s competitors.
But overall? The S7 and S7 edge are incredibly well-rounded (no pun intended) smartphones, and the best hardware Samsung’s shipped yet. If you’re worried about the big, bad TouchWiz monster so many people love to demonize, just don’t: it really isn’t anything to get caught up on. If you want strictly stock Android, that’s perfectly fine! But you aren’t in Samsung’s user demographic for these phones. The Galaxy S7 and S7 edge will serve the many millions of people that buy them quite well, at least based on my first week using them. We’ll return down the road with our revised thoughts as these phones age and get some software patina on them, but in the here and now, they get my recommendation - assuming you can stomach the price.