Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Review: The Only Android Flagship

by Reads (1,522)

UPDATE 10/11/2016: Samsung has ceased production and the Galaxy Note 7 is no longer available.

UPDATE 10/10/2016: Official line from Samsung regarding the Note 7 recall and replacements:

“We are working with the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to investigate the recently reported cases involving the Galaxy Note7. Because consumers’ safety remains our top priority, Samsung will ask all carrier and retail partners globally to stop sales and exchanges of the Galaxy Note7 while the investigation is taking place.

We remain committed to working diligently with the CPSC, carriers and our retail partners to take all necessary steps to resolve the situation. Consumers with an original Galaxy Note7 or replacement Galaxy Note7 should power down and take advantage of the remedies available, including a refund at their place of purchase. For more information, consumers should visit samsung.com/us/note7recall or contact 1-844-365-6197.”

UPDATE 10/09/2016: Samsung has halted production of the Note 7 amidst reports of replacement Note 7’s catching fire. AT&T has ceased exchanging new Note 7 replacement units, while T-Mobile, Best Buy, and Sprint have suspended sales.

The Galaxy Note is Samsung’s true flagship. It’s big and powerful, with unique features that set it apart from the smartphone pack. The S Pen brings added utility and productivity potential, which goes a long way in justifying its high price.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7

Samsung Galaxy Note 7

That’s great for Samsung. Because high-quality smartphones from Motorola, Huawei, ZTE, and others cost less than half as much. Why pay $800 plus for a Note when the Honor 5X offers quality Android on the cheap? But the Honor 5X can’t do what the new Samsung Galaxy Note 7 does. For that matter, nor can the iPhone 6S, LG G5, or HTC 10. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 costs at least $850 at launch, depending on the carrier. In a market awash in smartphones low in cost and high in quality, is it worth it?

Build & Design

No surprise here as Samsung smartphone hardware is arguably the best, the Galaxy Note 7 is an impeccably-crafted device. Samsung ditched the standard flat-screen and bezel smartphone, going instead with the sloped curves of the Galaxy edge series. The curve effect is slighter on the Note 7 than the Galaxy S7 edge, resulting in more flat display space, which plays its part in keeping the device as narrow as possible. Despite having the same 5.7-inch display, the Galaxy Note 7 is .1 inches narrower than the Galaxy Note 5.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 has a slick glass back.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 has a slick glass back.

The back panel mirrors the front with an identical curve. It’s completely symmetrical, with a rounded strip running across around the edges. All this makes the Note 7 easier to hold in one hand than the Galaxy Note 5. It’s a very big smartphone, or phablet, just less unwieldy. Too bad it’s literally slick, then. While the glass back panel looks great, it doesn’t provide any grip. It’s also smudge and fingerprint magnet. Both sides are Gorilla Glass 5 coated, so they should survive the occasional drop. We still strongly recommend Note 7 owners invest in a case. Slick grip aside, the Note 7 feels great in hand. It’s very solid and well balanced. Samsung obviously wasted no space inside. It measures 6 x 2.9 x .3 inches, and weighs .37 pounds. It’s IP68 rated for dust and water resistance. This means that while it will easily survive a rainstorm or spill, don’t take it swimming. It’s available in blue coral, silver titanium, and black onyx. It bears all the familiar Samsung elements and placements, with a power button on the right side, and a two-piece volume rocker on the left. The bottom edge features the 3.5mm audio jack, USB Type-C input for charging and data, pinhole mic, speaker, and S Pen slot. The top houses another pinhole mic next to a microSD and SIM card slot (pin release). The familiar and oblong Samsung home button, which doubles as a fingerprint reader, rests centered under the display, flanked by the capacitive all-apps and back keys. The 5-megapixel selfie camera, iris scanner, and light sensor line the top, surrounding the ear piece. The flash, pulse reader, and 12-megapixel rear shooter sit on the rear panel, middle upper half. Samsung Galaxy Note 7 side

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 has a symmetrical curve.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 has a symmetrical curve.

MicroSD card support is worth mentioning simply because it was absent on the Note 5, though present on the S7 and S7 edge. It’s a welcomed addition to any smartphone. Also, the Note 7 is the first Samsung smartphone with USB Type-C instead of microUSB. This change was a long time coming. USB Type-C is superior, with potentially quicker data transfers and charging times. It’s also reversible, and easier to manage. In addition, Samsung wisely bundles two USB Type-C adapters with the Note 7, one for full-sized USB and another for microUSB, meaning you can hold onto your old chargers and accessories.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 has a microSD card slot.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 has a microSD card slot.

The Note 7 also has USB Type-C.

The Note 7 also has USB Type-C.

Display & Speakers

Samsung screens are routinely excellent, largely due to the Samsung’s Super AMOLED display technology. AMOLED displays pump out the deepest blacks and most severe contrast, along with very vibrant colors. Traditional LED and LCD displays are very close behind, especially with notebooks and tablets, but AMOLED is still the tech to beat in the smartphone space.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 has a 5.7-inch Super AMOLED display.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 has a 5.7-inch Super AMOLED display.

That’s why we’re not too disappointed Samsung stuck with the same 2560 x 1440 resolution as the Note 5. On the 5.7-inch display (also the same), that results in an impressive 518 pixels per inch, which is overkill for everyday use. Virtual reality and the new Samsung Gear VR is the only case to be made for more pixels. That’s only because the Gear VR headset secures the display mere inches from the face, where individual pixels are discernable. Samsung wisely put effort elsewhere, pushing contrast, refining sharpness, reducing glare, and pumping brightness. The Note 7 display excels in all these areas, and it the best we’ve we tested outdoors. It cuts right through overhead sun glare, and is perfectly usable on the brightest days. Samsung also improved color interpretation and temperature, and it’s noticeably more pleasant in these areas than the Note 5 and S7 edge. Compared directly against those devices, cooler tones are more apparent, especially in whites. In addition, Samsung added a blue light filter in the settings. This brings the warm yellow and red tones front and center, which Samsung claims “helps you sleep better.” The effect opacity is adjustable, and can be scheduled for sunset to sunrise, or any other time. We’re no experts, but those with sleep troubles should probably avoid looking at any smartphone display before bedtime, blue light or not. Still, it’s nice to have the added control, along with carry-over options, Adaptive display, AMOLED cinema, AMOLED photo, and Basic. At NotebookReview, we’ve longed maintained smartphone displays range from good to great. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 display raises that bar to extraordinary. Once again, Samsung has the best display on the market. Grading on the severe curve for smartphone speakers, the Note 7’s have decent output. They are fine for personal use, with clear-enough sound and just enough oomph. We found the S7 edge speakers to have a slightly more crisp output compared head to head. That’s hardly a deal breaker if deciding between the two Galaxy smartphones. Either way, audio over headphones or an external speaker is much better.

S Pen

The new S Pen is waterproof.

The new S Pen is waterproof.

New Note means new S Pen. It still the same Wacom-based technology, with Samsung redesigning the physical stick. It now measures 4.25 x .22 inches and weighs 3 grams (just .0066 pounds), with a tiny .7mm magnetic tip (down from 1.6mm). Samsung moved the solitary button further up the shaft, helping to prevent accidental presses (a problem too common with previous S Pens), and made it impossible to dock into the Note 7 backwards (a problem with early Note 5 units). Performance-wise, it has a few new tricks and refinements. It supports up to 4,096 points of pressure (double the previous Note), and is also IP68 rated. This is a big deal because it means the S Pen works underwater. Practically speaking, no one should be jotting notes in the shower, but think about field workers out in a rainstorm, or caterer in a chaotic kitchen where spills are common. Wet touchscreens don’t work, and taps from wet fingers don’t register (ever try using a smartphone after running?). A wet Note 7 will always work with the S Pen, and there is much practical utility there.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 S Pen works underwater.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 S Pen works underwater.

Perhaps the most salient improvement for everyday use is in how the pen feels on the display. Samsung added friction to make it feel more natural, like a real ink pen on paper. It even feels better than the recent pen-toting Windows 10 tablets we’ve tested, the Surface Pro 4 and Huawei MateBook. Those upgrading from a previous Note will definitely notice the difference.

In the Box

The Samsung Note 7 ships with a device, USB Type-C-to-full-USB Samsung fast charger, SIM tray ejector pin, earbuds with media controls, S Pen clip (for removing S Pen tips), additional S Pen tips, and the USB Type-C adapters previously mentioned. That’s a good haul. Kudos to Samsung for including the adapters. Other device makers nickel and dime when it comes to this sort of thing (cough cough, Apple). Buyers should still expect extras like that when buying a premium product.

Performance

A glance at the spec sheet reveals there is not much difference between the Note 7 and the S7 and S7 edge that launched in the spring. Our review unit sported a 64-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 (2.15GHz dual + 1.6GHz dual) and 4GB RAM (LPDDR4), while international versions could see a Samsung Exynos 8890 with similar performance. Specheads may be disappointed the Note 7 doesn’t have 6GB RAM or the new Snapdragon 821 or 823, but no one can doubt the Note 7’s combination is worthy of a flagship. In the Geekbench 3 benchmark, the Note 7 scored 5426, which matches the S7 and S7 edge, and bests the nearly year-old iPhone 6S by 1000 points. In real-world usage, it handles Android 6.0.1 with stability and speed, as well as Samsung’s TouchWiz refinements. This is no small task, given the Note 7 is loaded with the S Pen tools and also the Samsung Edge UX. The Note 7 ships with 64GB onboard capacity, of which about 50GB is available out of the box. There’s some bloatware that can be disabled by not uninstalled, including 10 Samsung-specific apps. Fortunately, there’s nothing too egregious. Facebook, Amazon, WhatsApp, and Instagram come preinstalled, as do Google’s main apps like Gmail, Chrome, and Maps. Snag a Note 7 through a carrier and expect additional bloat.

Specs

Our Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review unit has the following specs:

  • Display: 5.7” Quad HD Dual edge Super AMOLED 2560 x 1440 (518ppi)
  • OS: Android 6.0.1 (Marshmallow)
  • Network: LTE Cat.12 / LTE Cat.10 / LTE Cat.9
  • Dimensions: 5 x 73.9 x 7.9mm
  • Weight: 169g
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 Quad Core (2.15GHz Dual + 1.6GHz Dual), 64 bit, 14 nm process
  • Memory: 4GB RAM (LPDDR4) , 64GB (UFS 2.0)
  • Cameras: Rear Dual Pixel 12MP OIS (F1.7), Front 5MP (F1.7)
  • Battery: 3,500mAh, Fast Charging on wired and wireless Wireless Charging compatible with WPC and PMA
  • Payment compatibility: NFC, MST
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (2.4/5GHz), MU-MIMO(2×2) 620Mbps, Bluetooth v 4.2 LE, ANT+, USB Type-C, NFC, Location (GPS, Glonass, Beidou)
  • Sensors: Barometer, Fingerprint Sensor, Gyro Sensor, Geomagnetic Sensor, Hall Sensor, HR Sensor, Iris Sensor, Proximity Sensor, RGB Light Sensor
  • Audio support: MP3, M4A, 3GA, AAC, OGG, OGA, WAV, WMA, AMR, AWB, FLAC, MID, MIDI, XMF, MXMF, IMY, RTTTL, RTX, OTA
  • Video support: MP4, M4V, 3GP, 3G2, WMV, ASF, AVI, FLV, MKV, WEBM
  • Price: Starting at $849.99
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 TouchWiz

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 TouchWiz

Software Features

Samsung gave its TouchWiz Android overlay a fresh coat of paint in the settings menu, going with a primarily white and open aesthetic. It’s intuitive, and you can still find what they need with minimal effort, but it’s distinct from pure Android. Those pining for a more Google-like software experience can always download and install the Google Now Launcher from the Play Store. All the goodies from previous Galaxy smartphones are present, including the neat Always-On display, excellent Samsung Pay, Game Tools, and the Samsung Edge UX. While we’ve never been huge fans of the Edge panels, they flashed potential when Samsung refined them for the S7 edge. That’s the case here, too.

Pen Features

The S Pen software has two new tricks: magnify and translate. Magnify digitally enlarges a portion of the display up to 300%, while the other works with the Google Translate API to translate from 38 languages and to 71 (the discrepancy is based on word spacing in certain languages, which can throw off Google Translate). Both seem handy at a glance, but fail to offer much in practice. Magnify works across the device, and can be used on images or even through the camera app. We noted its potential for PDFs in our Note 7 preview, then realized that pinch-to-zoom does the same thing. Translate worked well in testing too; it’s quick. The drawback is that it’s limited to translating one word at a time. It would be much more useful if you could highlight blocks of text with the S Pen, then translate. Besides all that, Google Translate has its own fine app, which does more.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 magnify

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 magnify

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 translate

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 translate

S Pen fans shouldn’t fret though. All the other superb S Pen tools from the Note 5 are present, with Samsung streamlining the interface by combining redundancies. Of the holdovers, Smart Select has a new trick. It can record the display for animated GIFs, up to 15 seconds long, which you can then draw on. It’s a bit kludgy, in that if you want an animated GIF of your dog chasing its tail, you’d have to open up the camera app and record from the display through the viewfinder. And you can now pin screen-off memos to the always-on display.

Security Features

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 iris scanner

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 iris scanner

The new iris scanner is one of those “look at what my phone can do” features, and it has an excellent sci-fi vibe. It worked on the first try about 95% of the time in our testing, often unlocking the smartphone in less than a second. It’s based on infrared LED, and works in the dark, and through regular glasses and contacts after initial setup. Samsung included two safety precautions: it only scans for 9 seconds at a time, and it won’t scan if it senses the face is too close to the camera. So what does it accomplish? It ultimately serves as just another way to unlock the Note 7, along with the PIN, password, pattern, and fingerprint (the fingerprint sensor is much improved here). We like it, but it’s redundant. The Secure Folder is more consequential. It’s password (or iris, or fingerprint) protected, and here you can keep sensitive info. Think of it as a completely isolated portion of the phone, complete with apps, files, pictures, and accounts. For example, the Secure Folder portion has its own gallery and camera apps. Pictures taken with that camera app are only visible in the Secure Folder gallery app. They functionally don’t exist outside the folder. It works great for balancing separate accounts too. The Secure Folder can have its own Gmail app, tied to a private account, different from any other on the Note 7.

Samsung Secure Folder

Samsung Secure Folder

This is the kind of thing we’d like to see Google adopt (steal) for a future Android version. It’s where we’d keep banking apps and financial documents. It ultimately provides an extra level of security in the case of phone theft or loss, and who couldn’t use that? Not to mention, it’s really cool using iris unlock to open up the Secure Folder. It feels like Mission Impossible.

Battery

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 has a 3,500mAh battery, supporting fast charge on wired and wireless, compatible with WPC and PMA wireless standards. It lasted 9 hours and 12 minutes in our torture test, streaming Netflix over Wi-Fi with the display brightness set to max. This is about the bare minimum you can expect from the Note 7 in a real-world situation, and it’s an excellent result. Anything over 8 hours is good. Samsung’s Adaptive Fast Charging, based on the Qualcomm Quick Charge, is one of our favorite smartphone features. Plugged in and charging, it pumps the Note 7 battery to about 43% capacity after just 30 minutes.

Camera

We claimed the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge had the best smartphone camera, so we’re happy to see the same shooters on the Note 7. Those are a 12-megapixel rear Dual Pixel camera, and a 5-megapixel front-facing camera. The Dual Pixel technology first launched with the previous S7s, where each photo pixel doubles as a focus pixel. This results in whip fast focus. On top of that, each of the individual image pixels are larger than those on the Note 5 photo sensor, making the Note 7 much better in low light (bigger pixels, more surface space to capture light). Bigger photo pixels also means there are less of them, which is why the Note 5 has a 16-megapixel rear camera, and the Note 7’s is 12 megapixels. Trading megapixels for quick focus and low-light performance? We’ll take that deal. High dynamic range (HDR) video capture is the only new addition to the Note 7. HDR video support is the next great leap in home entertainment, along with 4K high-def. Simply put, HDR video combines footage from various exposure levels into a clip, resulting in a wider and more realistic color range, brighter whites, and deeper blacks. Most smartphones can already take HDR photos. As with anything smartphone video related, the effect is limited and tough to discern. Both HDR and standard video look great on the Note 7’s AMOLED display, but a large-screen TV exposes limitations. In other words, it’s great for capturing life’s little and big moments, just don’t expect to shoot the next great nature documentary on the Note 7.

Sample Photos

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Value

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 costs between $850 to $880, based on the carrier. Each is also running promotions at launch, with Samsung offering up a 256GB microSD card or a Gear Fit 2 with perorders. That’s a lot of money for a smartphone, even if it’s in line with other 64GB phablets and flagships, like the iPhone 6s Plus. Mid-range and budget smartphones are getting closer to flagship levels with each generation. If you can tolerate a little compromise, the Huawei Honor 5X, OnePlus X, ZTE Zmax Pro, and Motorola Moto G4 are great devices that cost less than $300 and work just as well as the Note 7 for apps, email, messaging, and general smartphone activities. You won’t get the premium display or advanced S Pen tools, however. For that, you might consider a Note 5. It’s still an excellent smartphone, and it can be had refurbished for as little as $350.

Conclusion

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is a near-perfect smartphone. It’s the best smartphone available as of this writing. It has a world-class design, knock-out display, and the best mobile productivity features. The only other smartphone that comes close on all three counts in the Samsung Galaxy Note 5. The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 has a 5.7-inch Super AMOLED display. Those upgrading to the Note 7 will be immediately drawn to its symmetrical build. This thing looks great and feels great. Its IP68 water resistance is the most practical benefit, and we think all Note 7 owners will come to appreciate using the S Pen on a wet screen sooner or later. Samsung gets bonus points for bundling USB C adapters to ease the transition from microUSB to the new standard. The new iris scanner delivers quickly and consistently. We set it as the default unlock option and never thought twice about switching to the fingerprint scanner or PIN option. And Secure Folder is a legit addition. We wish all smartphones had something similar. The camera will also impress anyone not upgrading from an S7 or S7 edge. It still the best on mobile, with fast focus and great low-light performance. The S Pen has never felt more natural on the display, thanks to the added friction. And while magnify and translate are lackluster additions to the S Pen toolbox, the holdovers are present and still the best for mobile inkers and note takers. The only thing keeping the Note 7 from being a must-have device is its high price. Eight hundred and fifty dollars will snag a high-end 2-in-1, or Core-powered laptop. It’s a lot to plunk down for a smartphone. But if you want the best of the best in late 2016, this is it.


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