It's Galaxy Note7 review day here in the US! ...Our review isn't ready. I received my evaluation device less than a week ago, and we've been swamped here with various leak posts and bringing on some new faces (say "hi!" to the newest members of our team when you spot their bylines), and there just hasn't been time for me to fully formulate thoughts and compile them into a 5000-word-plus post for you. But would you take an abridged review/extended hands-on until I can make good on that promise? If so, read on.
Early review notes
- Industrial design and attention to physical detail continue to climb to ever-greater heights at Samsung. The Note7 is a precious, fine object in its own right.
- Display is still world-class.
- Camera is still very good, if seemingly unchanged from the S7 / S7 edge.
- I admittedly don't really get the S Pen as I'm not a stylus guy, but Samsung says this is the best one yet.
- Battery life is surprisingly solid so far, I don't see a real reduction versus the already-great S7 edge.
- New TouchWiz makes some questionable design decisions, but new features in power management and the new Smart Folder app are far from gimmicks, and warrant serious attention from competitors.
- USB-C is USB-C which OK.
- Performance, like the SD820 S7 and S7 edge, is alright, but can frankly feel slow versus phones like Huawei P9 or Moto Z. It's probably tuned conservatively in the interest of power savings.
- S-Pen does not go in backward.
The Galaxy Note7 is easily Samsung's most refined, elegant smartphone design to date. The Note7 just feels right in your hand, despite the fact that its 5.7" display doesn't exactly make it a compact glass-metal brick. And with a case? While about as small as a 5.7" phone could practically hope to be, there's little getting around the width and weight such things inherently entail, and it makes the smaller, lighter S7 edge feel like the nimble hatchback to the Note's sports sedan. At 12g heavier, 2.6mm taller, 1.3mm wider, and a sliver (0.2mm) thicker, the Note7 takes the S7 edge's well-loved big-to-small phone balance and tips the scales just enough to matter.
But perhaps the better comparison yet is to last year's Note 5. The Note7 is lighter - if only just. It's substantially narrower - the most important dimension in the "palmability" index - by 2.2mm, in fact. It is a bit thicker and taller, though; the latter I find slightly surprising. But the curved edge display and the reduced width still make the Note7 the more comfortable device to hold, and by no small margin. The Note 5 feels a bit sharp and blocky by comparison, though the Note 5 still is among the better ergonomic smartphone designs out there. Samsung is simply setting the bar that high.
The little improvements continue: the camera hump protrudes less. The gaps between the bands of the aluminum frame and the display and rear glass are reduced. Samsung even claims the S Pen has a more refined, natural design - though I'm not enough of a stylus user to really comment.
And compared to last year's phone? The display is brighter. It's highly water and dust-resistant, with an IP68 rating. The curved edges give the whole phone a much smoother, more streamlined look when the screen is illuminated. If you aren't impressed with the industrial design of the Galaxy Note7, you're simply not truly interested in the subject: Samsung is giving a master class here, and we're all just left to wonder how they're managing to do this at such a scale and with such attention to detail. It truly is something that you won't get on a Nexus.
There are areas of more debatable advancement - the speaker isn't much better, if any, and Samsung's press-to-activate fingerprint scanner still feels to me an inferior implementation versus the always-on versions like those from Motorola, Google's Nexuses, or LG. But much of the gripes around hardware will center around the primary question of whether or not you've liked Samsung's phones since the big Galaxy S6 revamp of 2015. If no? There's nothing new here to really get your attention from a hardware perspective. If you can't be sold on the glass-on-metal-on-glass construction (a fair enough position if you want to go case-less), you aren't suddenly going to give in here. The S7 edge would have seen to that, barring those of you dying for a stylus in 2016.
I see the merits of this feature endlessly debated, and that's a topic for a full review. In short? It works, and you'd be surprised at how well. Figuring out the distance the phone needs to be from your face has been a struggle for me so far, but I think with time, I'll learn. Other than that? It all depends on your expectations. I still vastly prefer the fingerprint scanner, there's not even a glimmer of doubt in my mind there. It's faster, doesn't require your actual-eyeball-attention, and is considerably less demanding in terms of bodily occupation.
But I have used the iris scanner while in the kitchen once (wet fingers), and a couple of times when checking my phone in bed. It's certainly not useless, but how useful it will be is going to be contingent upon the frequency with which you encounter situations where it will be advantageous versus the fingerprint scanner (and if you use smart lock, when that's not active). There's certainly no downside to having it.
And yes: you can unlock secret private folders of apps and files with your eyeballs, which is essentially the future. Though you could just use your fingerprint, too.
I was worried the Note7 would disappoint in this regard, but so far? It's been thoroughly satisfactory. Exceptional, even. Which is to say: very similar to the sort of battery life I get on the Galaxy S7 edge. Samsung's made some changes here, including a completely new battery management software suite that automatically "sleeps" apps you haven't used for a certain number of days (configurable from 1 to 7, or able to be turned off entirely). Sleeping apps likely won't send you notifications, at least until you next open them.
This feels very... Chinese smartphone, to me. For typical owners, these kinds of features do make sense, though. With the insane popularity of apps like Greenify, why not just bake similar functionality into the OS? The new suite of tools shows you how much battery percentage per hour, on average, monitored apps are using, too, which is nice. It'll send you a notification if the system thinks an app is "going rogue" and sucking down too much power (something Chinese phones like Huawei do now), and also provide "unstable app" notifications if the system thinks an app is throwing too many errors, which may cause it to keep the system awake.
For power users? You may want to go in with an open mind and see if it affects your day to day usage. It hasn't seemed to have any real negative effects for me, and Samsung does notify you every time it "sleeps" an app. This is also far less aggressive than the kind of behavior you see out of the box on phones from the likes of Xiaomi or Huawei. The advanced settings now even allow you to turn fast charging capabilities on or off, something you may find handy if you're prone to using your smartphone for things like gaming while it's plugged into the wall. Though discoverability of this feature is pretty much nonexistent for your average Joe, it's there if you want.
Finally, there are brand-new power-saving modes inspired by Samsung's excellent Game Tools app. There are two power-saving default setups: MID and MAX. The mid mode limits maximum brightness to 90%, changes the system resolution to 1080p, limits CPU speed, animations, and more.
Max mode limits brightness to 80%, changes to 720p resolution, limits performance, and prevents background network usage. But it goes much further yet: it also limits your number of usable apps and applies a system-wide dark theme (lots of black) to further reduce power consumption. You can add up to four custom apps to the limited homescreen in this mode, but that's it. And some apps can't be added at all. It's pretty similar to Samsung's current Ultra Power Saving mode in that sense.
But it's the mid setting you'll be interested in. Using the "customize" options, you can adjust the brightness limit from between 80 to 100%, put the screen at 720p, 1080p, or full-resolution (1440p), toggle the "limit performance" option, and also disable background network usage. The configurability here is limited, but Samsung provides estimates as to how much it thinks each change will impact your device's overall battery life.
In all essence, it's the same one you get on the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge. The results do seem comparable, too. I'll add some more thoughts in the full review, obviously, but you can expect typical Samsung results: heavy sharpening, lots of contrast, and a very "pop"-y, highly social-media-shareable look to your photos. Some people love it, some people hate it, some people don't really care: that's all down to you. Still, there's no doubt Samsung's cameras remain highly usable and technically impressive.
As to the new app design, I'm not sure how I feel about it just yet. I don't really use the various modes or filters, so it actually feels nice to have them out of the way in favor of further emphasizing the two buttons I actually do use in the camera app: flash and HDR. Your mileage may vary.
The "new" TouchWiz - a Galaxy Note tradition of late - is something of a toss-up, in my opinion. For every positive change like the powerful new battery saving tools or the new blue light filter, there are more questionable alterations like the cumbersome and excessively busy expanded notification controls, or the borderline-oversimplified settings UI.
There's also now a dedicated.... "Clean RAM" function. Gag. Some of these things are clearly and directly pointed at Chinese smartphone users and their expectations of a device, and Samsung's continued struggle to gain traction there seems to be bleeding into UI and feature decisions on its global products. That seems an odd thing, indeed.
Take, for example, the new "Secure Folder" app. Here, you can manage hidden photos, files, and second instances of applications on your phone. If you have two Facebook profiles and want one of them to be secured and "firewalled" from the first in a separate install of the app, you can now do this. On TouchWiz. By default. I'm still coming to terms with this. Anyway, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to maintain a separate profile for a particular app or game, I am more than aware. Maybe you've got your kids playing Clash of Clans on your phone to keep them busy sometimes, but you'd also like to maintain a separate profile for the game that they can't access (and mess up). Makes sense!
Or you have "personal" and "work" profiles for certain apps, the latter (or former, if it's a work phone) that you'd like to secure and sequester to prevent mixups or unauthorized access. No doubt: this tool is powerful, and it's backed by the Samsung KNOX enterprise security that is becoming increasingly popular in the business world, and is generally respected in the security community. From the Secure Folder app, you can launch separate versions of the gallery, camera, contacts, email, browser, file explorer, and Samsung Notes apps. Anything you do in those apps will only be visible when the versions of them in the Secure Folder app are launched. Hell, you can add an entire Google account to the Secure Folder app. That's crazy. It's essentially a miniaturized KNOX profile without all of the enterprise management, full UI, and remote bits.
All in all, this is a robust security feature that, despite having potential for some slightly sketchy (ok, really sketchy) behavior, is worth commending for its simple yet powerful implementation. Samsung: you done good. Again, similar features are often available on Chinese smartphones (or via 3rd party apps), though those don't carry the Samsung KNOX name. Honestly, I came in thinking Secure Folder was a gimmick. It is not a gimmick. This is legit.
But it's still TouchWiz, based on Android 6.0, and all the assurances in the world from Samsung won't convince me it's getting Nougat that much faster until I get similar assurances that the carriers got the memo on that. If you don't care about getting Android N soon, great! If you do? It's still a Samsung phone. There are six-plus years of history telling you that timely OS updates are not exactly a priority at this company. Don't be surprised when it becomes apparent they still aren't that much of a priority. But you can probably rest assured security updates will be kept up fairly well.
Oh, this also doesn't feel like a very fast phone at times. Yes, I know: benchmarks. UFS storage! Snapdragon 820! LP-DDR4 RAM! But as I have felt with the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge Snapdragon 820 variants, Samsung seems to be tuning these phones conservatively in order to reduce power consumption. (Side note: that seems to be working.) As a result, the Note7 is noticeably slower than the Moto Z, Huawei P9, and even sometimes feels a bit more leisurely to respond than my old Nexus 6 running Nougat. Now, I know that this will upset some people to hear but: Samsung clearly isn't setting out to build the fastest phone from an interface standpoint these days. They just aren't. If they were, we'd likely be seeing the Exynos version here stateside, and we'd probably also be getting substantially worse battery life on a true performance tune.
As I said in the S7 and S7 edge review, the Note7 basically feels as fast as last year's Samsung phones in most respects. Not slow, but nothing about it feels like a jump forward in this area. It's fine, but as more of the 2016 competition gets out there, it's becoming clear to me that Samsung is prioritizing power efficiency over raw speed. If you want "the fastest phone," I can guarantee you this year's Nexuses will feel quicker. Samsung just isn't playing that game this year.
Conclusion... for now
You may be saying "that sort of read like a review to me, David." And in a sense, it is - just not a finished one. But I haven't had enough time to really focus and dig into the Note7 to come to a definitive verdict yet. There's a lot to like here - a recurring theme with Samsung's phones of late. But at well over $800 on most carriers here in the US, this is a whole lot of money for a phone that is, on paper, not particularly more advanced than the Galaxy S7 edge, a device that's getting cheaper all the time (and will only get cheaper yet around the holidays).
If you're dying to know: I don't see any "dealbreakers" with the Galaxy Note7 that aren't immediately obvious on paper, a visit to S7 or S7 edge reviews, and a cursory knowledge of Samsung history (i.e., updates). Like the Note 5 last year, this phone is nothing if not predictable in most ways.
Are the differences enough to spend a pretty penny over the more compact S7 edge with its larger battery? I have yet to really come down either way on that. Is it a good phone? Of course. I'm not really expecting any bad phones from Samsung at this price point. And for the Android Police Nexus-curious, does the Note7 offer enough today to avoid remorse tomorrow when Google's new chosen devices launch? I can't tell you how to interpret a specification sheet, and I can't tell you how much updates matter. But I think if you know what your priorities are, that shouldn't be a hard question to answer, even absent prices for the new Nexuses. In a way: not much has changed in this battle versus last year. But maybe your experiences as a smartphone owner mean your expectations have.