Pros / Luscious design, immaculate curves and the best flagship battery in years – the Note7 gets everything hardware just right.
Cons / Despite some real progress, TouchWiz is still a bit rough around the edges.
Verdict / Samsung’s Galaxy Note7 will impress at every turn. Not all of its features are fully mature, but that’s to be expected from the cutting edge of the smartphone continuum.
Editor’s Note: This product has been removed from our side-by-side comparison because it has been discontinued. You can still read our original review below, but Top Ten Reviews is no longer updating this product’s information.
The Samsung Galaxy Note7 is probably the closest we’ve ever come to a perfect phone. It would be easy to dismiss that statement as overhyped, and indeed, neither Samsung nor its latest phablet are without their flaws. But the Note7 ticks all the important boxes and does so in a compact, artful package that almost doesn’t feel like a big-screen smartphone.
Incredible battery life with some brilliant new power-saving features: check. A comfy, ergonomic design and luscious-to-the-touch screen: check. A superbly fast custom processor that dominates most of the competition: check. The return of the industry’s fastest, best smartphone camera: check.
The TouchWiz Android overlay is still a bit rough around the edges, but even there Samsung has risen its game from past phones. Those who’ve been skeptical of TouchWiz in the past – like myself, I’ll freely admit – will concede that there’s some real brilliance to the software this go around.
Take all this together and you end up with a phone that’s worthy of praise. It’s also obscenely expensive, and the hefty price tag alone is probably enough to scare off a lot of buyers. Try to stick around if you can afford it, though; we’re reviewing the best of the best.
A whole lot of digital ink has been spilled these last weeks over the elegant symmetry of the Galaxy Note7, and rightly so: It’s a sexy phone. Brilliantly machined, the device’s small touches set it apart from the pack. The screen’s curvature, for instance, isn’t as pronounced as you see on the Galaxy S7 Edge, which means the slope doesn’t distract; it merely accentuates the swiping experience. The back of the phone cradles in your palm, making you want to keep it free of a case just to enjoy its feel.
There are definite advancements over past models like USB Type-C. Samsung’s finally hopping aboard the reversible train with the USB-C connector, while addressing the biggest concerns users have – compatibility with their existing cables – by including free, compact adapters in the box. I adore Type-C: It’s easy, sturdy, fast and flexible, and it’s about time Samsung got up with the times.
Other small touches are nothing new for Samsung, but they’re still welcome inclusions. The headphone jack’s placement on the bottom of the phone makes for fewer wires blocking your screen or camera, and it makes the phone very pocketable. Keeping the volume buttons on one side of the phone and the power button on the other means you won’t accidentally turn the phone off when you’re trying to crank up the music. Water resistance means that spills aren’t the end of the world. Even the clicks of the onscreen keyboard feel just right – not too buzzy, not too insistent. Individually, these are all great touches. Together, they ooze a level of polish most manufacturers can’t hope to match.
Ironically, the central feature of any Galaxy Note phone isn’t really the phone at all; it’s Samsung’s iconic S Pen. A stylus that slips inside the phone when it’s not in use, the S Pen can be used to jot down notes; draw and paint within a simple, yet surprisingly versatile drawing app; capture and crop screenshots; and even create GIFs from running video.
Chances are, you’ll use it most often as a simple note-taking device. As with previous Note phones, the Note7 lets you write on its screen even when it’s turned off. Simply removing the pen from the chassis flips the display into a white-on-black, low-power notetaking mode so you can immediately jot down that reminder. When you slip the pen back into its holder, the note is saved and the screen shuts back off. It’s quick, it’s convenient, and with the improvements Samsung has made to the S Pen itself – better pressure sensitivity, finer precision and an improved tactile response that feels incredible – it’s really, really fun.
The Iris Scanner
The other big feature of the Galaxy Note7 is its new, built-in iris scanner, but the gadget isn’t ready for prime time. In theory, the iris scanner lets you unlock your phone or lay additional security on top of features like Samsung Pay. You hold the Note7 up, it scans your eyes, analyzes your irises, and determines whether or not you’re you. In theory.
In practice, the iris scanner works when it wants to. Samsung admits that the scanner might not function in all lighting conditions, and it gives clear instructions for use – hold it at least eight inches away from your eyes, but not too far; keep it level with your face and out of harsh light, unless you scanned your eyes initially in harsh light. If the scanner can’t immediately grasp your eyes, it throws a black-and-white viewfinder of your face onto the screen, captured with the infrared LED and iris camera. The idea is to help you position your face right, but in practice it’s, well, creepy.
In the end, I was able to get Samsung’s iris scanner to work about half the time. I was creeped out by my ghostly, Blair Witch face two-thirds of the time. And I was annoyed by the slowness of the whole process the entire time. As one might imagine, I switched back to the fingerprint scanner right quick.
With every new generation of phone, Samsung’s TouchWiz gets a little better. Even if you’re not a fan of its aesthetics, the added functionality Samsung always brings to its Android overlay is often welcome. Little extras that aren’t in the OS by default, like a blue light filter that makes the screen easier to read at night, come standard in the Note7. It’s not always organized as crisply as we’d like – for example, the ability to turn icon frames on and off, homogenizing the look and feel of apps, is under display options, even though the ability to change icons completely is listed under theming options. This sort of disconnect is far from a deal breaker, but it speaks to a strange carelessness that isn’t present anywhere else in the phone.
Of course, the real meat of TouchWiz comes in the additional panels and screen functionality it brings to the table. If you’ve used the Galaxy S7 Edge or the Note5, you’re probably familiar with these tools – extras like an always-on screen saver that uses just a tiny fraction of your battery but lets you see a clock or calendar at any time, perfect for when the phone is on your desk in its wireless charging cradle.
Seeing as the Note7 has a slightly curved display, Samsung has used the curvature to subtly hide a small, on-screen slide-out panel. Since the handle for this virtual drawer is on the very edge of a display, you probably won’t notice it unless you know to look for it, but the drawer that slides out is full of quick-access functionality – apps, contacts, a compass and more. There are multiple panels you can flip through once the drawer is pulled out, and all are customizable.
The camera in the Galaxy Note7 is the exact same model Samsung packed in its Galaxy S7, and it’s incomparably good. A 12MP sensor might seem a bit smaller than the competition, but in this case size doesn’t matter. The ultra-wide f/1.7 aperture chugs light; the Dual Pixel autofocus can isolate targets with stunning speed; and the resulting photos are, as of this writing, the best you’ll get from any top smartphone on the market.
On the software front, Samsung’s camera app is easy to use and packed with features, without ever feeling overwhelming. The pro tools are especially powerful and straightforward, though the system’s desire to get controls out of your way can feel a bit overzealous at times; I had to keep bringing the exposure slider back up to make changes, when I wished it would just stay in view until I dismissed it. But that’s a tiny nitpick in the grand scheme of things.
Samsung keeps rocking back and forth between relying on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processors and its own custom-built Exynos system-on-chips (SoCs). For the American version of the Note7, the company has elected to go with the tried-and-true Snapdragon 820, a quad-core processor with an average clock speed of about 1.9GHz. It’s the same chip that’s in the Galaxy S7, but somehow Samsung’s managed to squeeze more performance out of it.
Indeed, after running 90 separate benchmark routines and collecting almost 450 data points, across both synthetic and real-world tests, only one phone still manages to beat the Note7 as of this writing: the OnePlus 3. That phone, however, has to push far less power to its 1080p display than the Note7 needs to fully fuel its 1440p screen. As such, we’re confident calling the Note7 the most impressive smartphone we’ve reviewed and the most powerful one you can buy right now.
The phone industry has coalesced around an average battery size of about 3,000 mAh. That equates to around 8 hours 30 minutes in our web browser battery test, or about a full day’s worth of moderate use. When it comes to battery life, though, whatever you have is never enough, which is why it’s gratifying to see Samsung up the ante in its Galaxy Note7 and pack in a 3,500 mAh cell.
In our web browsing battery test, the Note7 came in at 10 hours 26 minutes – two hours over the standard time. It managed a full hour more than the Galaxy S7 in Geekbench’s battery test, which runs the phone through high-stress operations, and a massive three hours more than the Nexus 6P in that same benchmark.
Translation: Expect the Note7 to last you through a whole day, even if you spend an hour or two watching videos or playing a processor-heavy game. That’s solid, and it’s buttressed by the phone’s great charge options: fast charging via USB Type-C and wireless fast charging using the Qi standard.
Samsung’s also included a new battery management feature we’ve never seen before called dynamic resolution scaling. In different power saving modes, the phone can downscale its own resolution from 2560 x 1440 to regular 1080p or even further down to 720p. The entire display is still used, but the processor only has to do a fraction of the work, which means it can run in a reduced-power state and help keep your phone alive that much longer.
Longtime Samsung fans needn’t wait to upgrade; the Galaxy Note7 is, unsurprisingly, the best smartphone the Korean company has ever made. Its design is exquisite: near-perfect curves, elegant symmetry and a surprisingly small stature for its screen size. Its components are premium: The processor is among the most powerful we’ve ever benchmarked, and the device’s battery life is phenomenal. Even its TouchWiz software is ever-improving, packed with features that are actually useful, rather than gimmicks.
The phone has a near-ludicrous price in an age when devices like the OnePlus 3 are available for less than half the cost. Granted, you get incredible polish and a bevy of fun features for all that dough, but dropping a lot of money on a phone isn’t easy to do, no matter how well off you might be.
I’m sorely tempted, though, and you should be, too. The Galaxy Note7 is just ridiculously good.