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Galaxy Note 7 REVIEW – The world’s best smartphone (Update)

by Todd Haselton | August 25, 2016August 25, 2016 2:00 pm PST

Update: While we originally dubbed the Galaxy Note 7 “the world’s best smartphone,” we are retracting that statement and demanding another recall. U.S. carriers no longer sell the phone and will no longer offer it as a replacement. Samsung is still investigating the cause of the fires. If you own a Galaxy Note 7, you should return it immediately.

I haven’t been shy about my early satisfaction with the Galaxy Note 7.

My first hands-on post was written under the headline “Ooh baby, this thing rocks.” I followed that up with an editorial discussing why I believe the Galaxy Note 7 is miles ahead of the iPhone. I also bought a Galaxy Note 7, as did Jonathan Rettinger, because I knew, at least going into the review period, that the Galaxy Note 7 was going to have a lot to offer.

And it does.

By this point you’ve no doubt heard from pundits across the industry about how superb the screen is, how positively sumptuous the design is when laid naked on a table, and how powerful it is. Indeed, the phone is all of these things and more. But it isn’t perfect.
There is no perfect phone, at least that I’ve found in my nearly decade-long time writing about smart devices, but a few have gotten damn near close.

This is one of those phones.

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Hardware

It took a few years, Samsung a hair longer, but we’ve hit the point where manufacturers have realized that metal and glass work well together for smartphones. Samsung’s design builds on the language introduced last year with the Galaxy S6, which itself ultimately influenced the design of the Galaxy Note 5.

The Galaxy Note 7, as others have said, is a perfect blend between the Galaxy Note 5 and the Galaxy S7 Edge. It shares the curved display of the S7 Edge but with the larger panel found on the Note 5. Samsung took two gorgeous cuts of glass, one for the front and one for the back, and sandwiched a solid piece of metal between. The result is a first class design.

In the case of my personal unit, my glass panels are blue in color with the metal a soft copper-gold hue. It’s an eye-pleasing design and appealing to look at in all situations, whether it’s sitting in my car or reflecting the sunlight in the palm of my hand outdoors.

There’s no other phone that looks like it, save perhaps for some of Samsung’s earlier devices. At the very least, and without even considering the performance, it feels worth the more than $800 I spent on it.

The Galaxy Note 7 is a luxury good and anyone who holds it, like anyone who sits in the leather seat of a Mercedes or Volvo or BMW, knows that this is high-end, reserved for people who care about this sort of product. Folks who complain about the price probably don’t get what Samsung is doing: it attempted to, and successfully achieved, creating the most beautiful smartphone money can buy.

A discussion of the ports may detract from the pure beauty of the phone, I think of those components as secondary pieces to the experience at this point, but I’ll go down that road in any case. You’ll find a new USB-C port on the bottom, flanked on the left by a 3.5mm headphone jack and a speaker on the right. There’s also a home for the S Pen, itself redesigned to prevent damage if the pen is inserted the wrong way. Volume keys are in easy reach on the left of the phone and, across the display from them, a power button is also within reach. A nanoSIM/microSD card slot rests on the top of the phone.

The back of the Galaxy Note 7 is home to a 12-megapixel camera, the same stunning shooter featured on the Galaxy S7 Edge and Galaxy S7, in addition to a single LED flash and sensor. The front of the phone is dominated by the dazzling 5.5-inch curved Super AMOLED Quad HD display, an iris sensor that can be used to unlock the device, and a 5-megapixel front-facing camera.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7-3

Under the hood, Samsung provides a Snapdragon 820 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of standard storage that, as I noted earlier, can be expanded with a microSD card.

Before we move on, I want to note one more thing that’s especially important. Samsung managed to do all of this – the glass, the metal, the S Pen-and created not only an opulent smartphone, but one that can withstand water.

You can take this whole package, no case required, and dunk it in the pool. Take it for a swim. Drop it in the sand. It’s IP68 rated, which means none of that will damage the device. It survived our tests in the rain and Jon Rettinger even took it for a swim in the ocean. That’s not advised, the Galaxy Note 7 isn’t built to withstand salt water, but it did. Just make sure to rinse it off.

You will not find any other smartphone on the market that’s as elegant and strong.

Software

The new software on the Galaxy Note 7 is technically called “Grace TouchWiz” I think, but we’ll call it TouchWiz for short. I actually surprised myself – I’ve had the phone for about a week now and I’m still using the stock Samsung launcher.

Everything is nice and clean, organized well, and Samsung even lets you change the size of the homescreen matrix for icons, letting you squeeze a few extra apps in if you want to.

I miss features like the “Cast” option on purer Android smartphones, for use with my Chromecast, but love quick shortcuts to Samsung’s new Blue-light filter software. Like Night Shift on the iPhone, it cuts out blue light at night (on a schedule if you like, or whenever you want it in) so that you’ll have an easier time falling asleep.

There are other niceties tucked into the software, too. The Always on Display (AOD) from the Galaxy S7 is here, but can now be used to show notes you’ve taken with the S Pen. And speaking of the S Pen, there are new features. You can now use it to magnify certain parts of the screen, translate text (so long as you’re using Samsung’s browser) and even create a recording on the screen that can be saved as a GIF. The thinner S Pen has a 0.7mm tip that features support for 4,096 levels of sensitivity, so when it comes to taking a note or creating a sketch, it feels – and the results look – even more like a real pen.

As a journalist, I still prefer to jot down notes by hand when I can. The Note 7 felt, unlike any Note before it, much more like a little notebook in my pocket. If I needed to jot down something quickly, it was always there right in my pocket at the ready.

Another neat feature in the software is called “Secure Folder.” It takes advantage of Samsung’s super-strong KNOX platform to encrypt everything inside, keeping your photos, apps, videos, notes and other data private from prying eyes. You can lock it behind your irises, too, making it feel even more secure.

I didn’t use it as much as I thought I would. I don’t really have apps or pictures I want to hide from anyone, but I can see why this might be useful or compelling for folks who do. It seems to work well, which is what matters most.

Iris Scanner

The Galaxy Note 7 features an iris scanner on the front. This isn’t the first time I’ve seen that on a smartphone, the Lumia 950 takes that award, but it’s still a very novel idea.

You’ll move through a quick registration process that takes about 5-10 seconds and allows you to store a digital print of your eyeballs in an encrypted, never shared, totally locked down section of the smartphone. That’s what Samsung says, in any case. Then, when you go to unlock the phone, you just open your eyes nice and wide and the phone unlocks.

This works most of the time and it can be fast when it does. When I first played with the Galaxy Note 7, it seemed so instantaneous I couldn’t quite catch it on video. In practice during my review period, though, it hasn’t been as exceptional. Sometimes it doesn’t catch my eyes – maybe I’m not opening them wide enough, and other times it does almost instantly.

It can work through glasses and contacts and, as Jon found, even through a pair of sunglasses. Since it uses infrared, it even works at night or in the dark.

You can’t use it for Samsung Pay yet, though, but it does work with the aforementioned secure folder. While it’s a fun feature most of the time, and certainly a cool party trick, the fingerprint reader is much faster most of the time.

Performance and Battery Life

I don’t want to go too deep into performance because most of our readers already know what to expect from a Snapdragon 820 device. Samsung didn’t add the 6GB of RAM we thought might appear, either, so the real-life performance is really on a par with the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge.

I did notice, as did Jon, that the Galaxy Note 7 gets sluggish at times. Even if all of my apps are closed out, the phone might lag if I try to open up Messages to create a text, or unlock it or try to launch the camera. XDA Developers’ Brandon Miniman has been discussing this on Twitter and said he found it with his Exynos unit, too, so it’s probably more of a software issue.

There’s nothing to be alarmed about here, and indeed this is the same sort of experience I have with the Galaxy S7 Edge I also own. Most of the time the phone is still snappy, but there are times when a task feels like it takes longer than it should or than it does on a really zippy device, like the OnePlus 3.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7-19

This is perhaps my biggest knock against the phone, because while everything else seems to be nearly perfect, the performance suffers from time to time.

The Galaxy Note 7 has a 3,500mAh battery which is smaller than the unit found in the Galaxy S7 Edge. It’s a weird choice given the larger display, and I definitely saw the downside of having less juice. If I’m really using the device much – for GPS, Twitter, checking mail or chatting in Slack, I regularly need to charge my Galaxy Note 7 before the day is up, which has been kind of a bummer. Today, I’ve been at my computer most of the day, and so my battery is at 77 percent as I write this at 4:25 p.m. It came off the charger at 7a.m. That’s awesome, but I’ve also hardly used the phone today.

Samsung has some neat tricks to help resolve that, though. One power saving mode called “Mid” can help me extend my battery life by an additional 2 hours by changing the display to show at 1080p instead of Quad HD. Another, MAX, can give me another 23 hours of battery life, but that turns off almost all of the phone’s functions except for the core necessities.

The battery life isn’t fantastic, but I’m willing to put up with it given the array of other features. Also, the Adaptive Fast Charging feature, which lets you juice up a majority of the battery in about an hour, is super convenient and makes the pain of a lower-capacity battery sting a bit less. Jon also appreciated the fast wireless charging pad, which he found nearly as fast as the wired charger.

Camera

The camera modules on the Galaxy Note 7 are the same as on the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge. The software experience has changed, however.
Samsung made it easier to flip between the front-facing selfie camera and the primary camera with a swipe of the screen. You can also easily swipe left and right to access filters and the camera’s settings, respectively, which means everything is tucked away nice and neat.

I took a bunch of photos with the Galaxy Note 7 while on a flight from Manhattan to Montauk, New York, recently, and they’re all fantastic. I switched from my iPhone to snap all photos with the Galaxy S7 Edge when I bought it, and I’ll continue doing that with the Note 7 now.

I recorded some video in 1080p, as well, which looks nice and clear and has crisp audio – despite the whizzing of the plane’s propellers in the background – when played back on the phone or my computer.

Jon, who recently took a vacation to Hawaii, was able to test the water-resistant camera functions. He found it worked well in the ocean and pool for photos but noticed that, while trying to record video of his son in the pool, the phone’s video would cut out right as he submerged it. Samsung suggested we remove the S Pen to force the screen to stop reacting to the touch of the water, but this didn’t seem to solve our issue. I haven’t personally tried it with my own unit.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Review: Final Thoughts

The Galaxy Note 7 is a win for Samsung and a win for consumers. It is the world’s best smartphone. There are others that may surpass it in one area or another, but nothing offers the combination that the Galaxy Note 7 has, particularly when one considers the industrial design. It isn’t vastly different from the Galaxy S7 Edge, though, so budget-minded buyers should consider that phone if they don’t need the iris scanner or S Pen. You aren’t sacrificing much.

If you want every last bell and whistle you can find on a smartphone, this is your device. You want mods? Go buy a Gear 360 and a Gear VR – those are far more useful than anything introduced by LG or Motorola. There are no gimmicks here. This is Samsung innovating at a rapid pace, one that will frighten its competitors and please its customers.

Disclaimer: I bought my device and used it for a week.  Jon bought a device and additionally used a review unit from Samsung for almost two weeks.

Galaxy Note 7 S Review:

Pros:

  • Excellent design
  • Stunning screen
  • Water and dust resistant
  • microSD card slot

Cons:

  • Battery life could be better
  • Sluggish at times

Todd Haselton

Todd Haselton has been writing professionally since 2006 during his undergraduate days at Lehigh University. He started out as an intern with...

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