A few years ago, Samsung was not known for making phones that looked nice. Oh, Samsung made popular phones, but no one swooned over them. That started to change after the sour reception Samsung got with the Galaxy S5. It began taking risks with materials and designs, and it made some bad phones in the process. However, here we are with the Galaxy Note7, a device that represents the culmination of Samsung's design refinements over the years. Samsung is clearly proud of what it has on offer with this phone, but you'll pay handsomely to get your hands on it. Can a phone be good enough to justify an $850 price tag in 2016? Let's find out.
64 GB plus microSD card
5.7-inch curved AMOLED, 1440p
12MP front with OIS and f/1.7, 5MP front
3500mAh with quick charge 2.0, USB Type-C, wireless fast charging
Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow
153.5 x 73.9 x 7.9 mm, 169g
The Note7 has the best build quality of any Android phone I've used. It's surprisingly small for a 5.7-inch display, and it's water resistant too.
Samsung still offers the best photography experience you can get. This phone nails snapshots more consistently and in more lighting conditions than other phones. Its low-light performance is especially impressive.
No one can touch Samsung's display technology. This screen looks amazing both indoors and out. The smaller curve isn't as striking as Samsung's other curved phones, but it makes sense for the stylus.
If you need (or just want) a stylus, this is the only game in town. The stylus can't be jammed in backward this year, and it has a few new features.
Okay, I thought this would be dumb, but it's actually pretty cool. It works better than I expected.
The Note7 has above average longevity.
The tweaked TouchWiz UI looks nice overall after a few adjustments. Features like Secure Folder and the extensive power options are appreciated.
The Not So Good
While the Note7 isn't a slow phone, it's slower than other Snapdragon 820 devices.
Samsung hasn't kept up with other phones when it comes to the fingerprint sensor. It's not as fast or as accurate as I'd expect from an $850 phone.
And about that price, the $850 launch price is substantially more than the Note5 was, and more than $200 higher than the Galaxy S7. It's hard to justify that much money for a phone when cheaper devices have gotten very good.
This is still TouchWiz, if that's something you can't handle. It has a few unnecessary features like the device management interface from Cheetah Mobile.
Before I held the Note7 in my hand, I knew that it had a 5.7-inch curved screen. This was information I had typed out and posted on the internet at several points. But holding the phone in my hand, that didn't seem right. I wondered, was I wrong? Had I been presenting inaccurate information? I checked the specs just the make sure, and yes, it's a 5.7-inch screen. When you hold this phone in your hand, it feels much smaller than that.
This is the first impression made by the Note7, one of almost impossible compactness and elegance. It's narrower than the Note 5 was and just barely wider than the Galaxy S7 Edge with its smaller 5.5-inch display. The front and back panels are Gorilla Glass 5, and they curve toward the central aluminum band symmetrically. That makes the phone more comfortable to hold than the other curved display smartphones Samsung has released. The Note7 is also water resistant, which the Note5 was not. It's a nice bonus when your $850 phone can't be destroyed by a little water. Yes, it's still a slippery fingerprint magnet, but I guess everyone has decided that doesn't matter. Glass phones are very in.
Below the display, you've got Samsung's trademark physical home button and capacitive back/overview keys. The capacitive buttons are still on the wrong sides (Samsung, why?), but the home button is a little different. It's flatter than on other Samsung devices, and almost completely flush with the surface of the phone. The ridge around the perimeter gives it good tactility, though.
The fingerprint sensor is built into the home button as it has been on all Samsung's phones going back to the GS5. Not much has changed since the GS6, and I think that's a problem for Samsung. The fingerprint sensor gets the job done, but it's not as fast or as accurate as what you get on phones like the Nexus 6P, HTC 10, or even the OnePlus 3. And by the way, that last phone costs less than half as much as the Note7. The Note7 is too sensitive about the angle you hold your finger at, and reading your print takes about a second. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it's just enough that I often start wondering if it's even detected my finger. Sometimes, the answer is no. Samsung really needs to up its game here.
On the rear panel, the Note7 has a lot in common with the Galaxy S7. The camera module is flush with the back, and the entire device is slightly thicker than last year's version. This allows for a larger battery, which I'll get to later. There's also a heart rate monitor in the flash module. I sometimes (okay, pretty much always) forget it's there. I'm not even sure why Samsung still includes these.
On the bottom is the new USB Type-C port, a speaker, and the S Pen. The USB port is a USB port—you've seen Type-C ports before, but it's nice that Samsung is getting with the program. You get an A-C cable with the phone, as well as a few adapters for old cables. A lot of sound comes out of that little grille, but you won't hear much bass. It's a fine speaker for voice, but not so much for music.
One hardware feature unique to the Note7 is Samsung's new iris scanning tech. This has been rumored for years, and it's finally a reality. In all honesty, it works better than I would have expected. The phone uses an IR pulse to illuminate your face for the front-facing camera to get a good look at your eyes. This will work even in the dark, and with glasses on (though maybe not as well).
Iris scanning can be used to unlock the phone and access Samsung's special Knox-infused features like Secure Folder. The iris scanning UI will appear at the top of the screen whenever it's active. You get two large circles, which you want to get your eyes in. The phone needs to be roughly 18-inches or closer to your face, with the optimal distance in my estimation being about a foot. The scanner is fairly flexible about the angle; the phone just has to be in front of your face. If you're in that zone and your eyes are open, iris scanning is extremely fast—so fast that the iris scanning UI doesn't even show up. It takes a little practice to get it in the right area and angle consistently, though. Iris scanning is a bit of a luxury, but it's neat. It's a feature to show off to your friends, if nothing else.
You hear this every year with Samsung's phone, but the Note7 has the best display available on a smartphone. The resolution is still 1440p, but Samsung has kicked the brightness up from the Note5 and even from the GS7. The Note7 is the most readable phone in bright outdoor light without a doubt. You can also pull the brightness way down for use in a dark room. The default calibration bumps the colors up to look slightly richer than real life, but there are several different screen modes. Lesser displays on the HTC 10 or OnePlus 3 might look fine; even "very good" in a lot of situations. The Note7's screen is simply nicer in every respect compared to those.
Samsung has brought the curved AMOLED design to the Note series this year, and there won't be a flat version. With the Note's reliance on the stylus, Samsung was faced with a problem. The stylus doesn't work well on the curved edges, so the Note7 has a bit less of a curve than the GS7 Edge does. This results in more flat writing space on the display. It's a little less striking than the GS7's display because of it, but the overall shape of the device is nicer and it makes more sense for a stylus.
Since there's essentially no bezel around the display, touch rejection is key to making the Note7 usable. It was always a little buggy on the Galaxy S7 Edge, and it's pretty much the same on the Note7. It doesn't ruin the experience, but I find that I end up triggering the wrong thing on occasion because the phone thinks I'm tapping the curved section while holding it.
The viewing angles are perfect with no color casting or loss of brightness at off-angles. The gentler curve does come with one important advantage—there's less UI distortion at the edge of the screen.
The camera module in the Note7 is the same one we saw in the Galaxy S7. It's 12MP with optical stabilization and larger pixels for better low-light performance. It does about as well as the Galaxy S7 in my experience, which is to say excellent. The speed with which the Note7 focuses is uncanny. It's faster to acquire the subject and snap a photo than any other phone (ignoring the equally good GS7). Samsung's HDR mode is useful as it takes virtually no extra time to snap a photo compared to non-HDR. I love the way Google's HDR+ photos look, but they take so long to capture as to be almost useless for moving subjects. Samsung's HDR mode is almost as good and it's considerably more robust.
The Note7 nails most exposures in bright light, even when you've got a very bright background with a shadowy foreground. Indoors, it's still the best performing smartphone camera. There's very little noise and color reproduction is excellent. The white balance and clarity are noticeably better than what you get from other phones. There's also no shutter lag in such conditions, which is impressive. A lot of phone cameras get very slow in poor lighting.
The Note7 is better not just because of the hardware, but because Samsung's image processing is superior. Look at the Nexus 6P, which has a solid camera with very similar hardware. It consistently produces photos that are warmer and more noisy in low light. It's hard to find fault with the Note7's camera, but I would say the Note7 shows a slight tendency to overexpose indoor photos, leaving the resulting image a little washed out. This is more noticeable in poor lighting. However, I think it usually results in more usable photos in those conditions than the "natural" brightness.
Performance and battery
The Note7 is powered by a Snapdragon 820, just like every other flagship device of note in 2016. So that means it's blazing fast, right? Well, not entirely. This is certainly not a slow phone, but it doesn't feel quite as snappy as the LG G5 or HTC 10, for example. I don't see any issues with memory management on this phone, though.
It's tempting to blame it on the TouchWiz bloat, but I think this level of performance is by design. Samsung has decided how fast a phone ought to be to keep people happy, and considers everything beyond that to be wasted energy. The Note7 feels as fast as the Note5 in general use. Nothing lags (except the stock keyboard, which I do not like at all), but you might wait a split second longer for an app to open or a web page to refresh. This isn't the sort of thing you'll always notice, but you can tell if you've got another phone side-by-side to compare.
Bottom line: the Note7 is fast enough, but it's not going to blow you away. The performance tuning allows for the battery life to be very, very good, though. The 3500mAh battery is non-removable, of course, but it'll last you easily more than a day under moderate use.
Battery life estimation is always difficult because your usage patterns might not be like mine. That said, I left the phone with stock settings, installed all my usual apps, and had three email accounts syncing. With light use, I think I could make it through almost two days with the Note7. With heavy use (including email, messaging, gaming, a few phone calls, and some music streaming), the Note 7 manages more than 6 hours of screen time over the course of 16 hours of total usage.
Samsung has also beefed up its battery saving options this year. The medium and maximum power saving modes include expected things like deactivated background data, lowered brightness, and throttled CPU clocks. In addition, they change the resolution the interface is rendered at. Medium uses 1080p and maximum uses 720p. What's more, all the settings are configurable. If you want to set up medium power saving to slow the CPU, render at 720p, and leave background data untouched, you can do that.
Software and S Pen
Much was made of Samsung's so-called "Grace" UI in the weeks leading up to the Note7 announcement. It was supposed to be a lighter-weight version of TouchWiz, but I estimate that was the 35th time we've heard such a rumor. Instead, it's a modest overall improvement with the usual smattering of bad decisions. Par for the course with Samsung, really.
The home screen hasn't changed much. The Briefing panel is still there, and you still need to turn it off because it's terrible. The app drawer defaults to a weird custom order, and you have to keep reorganizing it alphabetically because it doesn't stay that way (inexplicably). The phone also defaults to putting dumb squircle frames around all your app icons. Luckily, you can turn that off.
Notifications are essentially stock, but Samsung has revamped the quick settings substantially. Every single tile in the quick settings has a drop down menu, even those that have no reason to have one. It makes sense with things like Bluetooth (list of devices), power saving (different efficiency levels), and WiFi (list of networks), but NFC, airplane mode, location, and others have them too. All those include in the drop down are redundant toggles and descriptions of what the features do. The quick settings also has a search bar for the Finder, but this is just a glorified shortcut. It opens the Finder app, and doesn't even highlight the search bar—you have to tap again.
The Always-on Display got a nice upgrade this time. When the Galaxy S7 launched, the only notification icons you'd when the phone was asleep were those from built-in apps. That made it pretty useless for keeping tabs on your notifications. Now, you can see icons from any app, and you can double tap on them to launch. You don't get the notification text, but this is still a step in the right direction.
Features like scrolling screenshot, one-handed mode, and multi-window are still present as well. There's no substantial difference in the way these function. Because this device has a curved screen, modest though it is, the Note7 gets Samsung's Edge UX. It's the same as the GS7 Edge—you can drag the handle in from the edge to get quick access to apps, the calendar, weather, news, and more. I also really like Secure Folder, which is adapted from an optional feature on Samsung's last few phones. It lets to segregate certain apps and their data from the rest of the system, and it's quick to access with the iris scanner.
The settings UI has been made much more vertical as well. Rather than have multiple sections of very specific menu items in the top-level settings, the Note7 collapses everything into a fewer items. For example, instead of having WiFi, Bluetooth, data monitor, and so on at the top, there's just a single item for "Connections" that contains all of them. I've never seen a phone simplify the settings like this, but it's actually rather nice once you get used to it. There's less scrolling to get where you need to go.
The settings are also home to something you probably won't care for—a device management UI powered by Cheetah Mobile. Samsung had the so-called Smart Manager (also powered by CM) in many of its phones last year and this year (except where removed by carriers), but this takes it a step further. The features of Smart Manager have basically become the device management screen. If you want to see your battery, storage, or RAM settings, you have to go through Cheetah Mobile.
So, what do you get when you open Device Maintenance? A giant graph that tells you how "optimized" your phone is (on a scale of 0-100) based on pointless metrics like cached data, running apps, and so on. You know, typical Cheetah Mobile garbage. There's a big "Optimize Now" button that kills all that, which is not something you need to ever do. There's also a dedicated task killer in the RAM menu. Making these features so prominent was a foolish decision on Samsung's part. The device management features are the only part of the software that I'd call truly bad.
The S Pen design seems largely unchanged from the Note 5 with one major difference—you can't put it int he phone backward. It was possible to put the Note 5's S Pen in the wrong way and get it stuck and/or break the pen detection mechanism. A slight tweak to the shape of the S Pen this year makes that impossible.
If you've used an S Pen stylus before, the basic functionality is unchanged. You can hover over the screen to see a cursor and perform a few gestures like scrolling and magnifying images. This won't work everywhere, though. The button on the side of the S Pen can be used to bring up Air Control from any screen or highlight text. The screen-off note taking functionality that debuted with the Note 5 is still front and center—just pop the stylus out to jot something down. The screen selection tool also gains the ability to record a GIF of an area of the display. It's a neat trick, but I'm not sure when I'll ever use it.
It seems like Samsung is having trouble coming up with new uses for the stylus. The main benefit is simply that it provides higher precision when using the device, but so much of Android is designed to be touched with your fingers rather than a stylus. The S Pen seems like a nice bonus these days more than an indispensable feature.
The Galaxy Note7 is an amazing piece of hardware. The little ergonomic tweaks Samsung has made to the formula over the years have really paid off. The company took risks as it readjusted following the Galaxy S5. There were phones like the Galaxy Round and Galaxy Note Edge that didn't catch on, but those were just experiments, and the Note7 is the pay off.
There is no other phone on the market that's built as well as this. The HTC 10 is a solid phone, the OnePlus 3 is a solid phone, and the same goes for many other devices you can buy right now. They're not this well-built. Not only is the Note7 shockingly comfortable to hold for a 5.7-inch display, it's water resistant without looking like it. No port covers and no rubber gaskets—it's just a beautiful device.
The Galaxy Note7 is not the fastest phone, in fact it's a little slower than most other Snapdragon 820 devices. It's fast enough, though, and the battery life is phenomenal. Admittedly, this might not be the right balance for everyone.
The display is the best one Samsung has ever made, and that makes it the best anyone has ever made. No other display manufacturer can touch what Samsung is doing, and the curved design is just Samsung reminding us of that. It's a blatant flourish with little to no utility, but it is really, really pretty. The less extreme curve makes the S Pen more usable on this device, and it's definitely the most useful it's ever been... for whatever that's worth. I don't see much need for the S Pen personally. The note taking and screen-capture features (yay, GIFs) are very slick and well-implemented, but I don't find myself using them too often.
I think Samsung's software on the Note7 is a net improvement, but only barely. I like the changes to the Always-on Display, and the aforementioned S Pen GIFs are neat. While there are some annoyances like the home screen icons, Briefing panel, and sluggish stock keyboard, you can easily replace or disable them. The Device Maintenance features are irredeemably dumb, though. I could go on complaining about all the little things TouchWiz got wrong, but the fact of the matter is it's worlds better than less mature manufacturer skins like EMUI and MIUI. I'd choose TouchWiz over either of those in a heatbeat.
The Note7 gets almost everything right, but the cost remains a stumbling block. The $850 price tag is $150 more than the Note5 at launch. Even the 64GB Note5 variant (where available) was $100 less than the 64GB Note7. It's also priced more than $200 higher than the regular Galaxy S7 and more than $100 higher than the Galaxy S7 Edge. For the added money you get a larger screen, slightly better ergonomics, the S Pen, and the iris scanner. If money is no object and you really want one or more of those things, you should get the Note7. It's the best large phone you can get, but it's too expensive for most people.