Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review: A pricey phablet made for power users

The Galaxy Note 7 is Samsung’s phablet darling and the sixth version of the smartphone that started the Big Phone craze. But since the first Galaxy Note launch in 2011, phones with screens larger than 5.5-inches have become more common. Android and Windows phone makers have jumped on the bandwagon with their own Big Phone variants, and even Apple started to offer plus-sized iPhones.

Despite all the competition, Samsung’s Galaxy Note is still the best. This year’s Note 7 is the thinnest, smallest phablet from the company notorious for producing phones almost as big as your head. Its stunning design, fantastic camera, and added functionality of the pressure-sensitive S-Pen make it an even more attractive choice for those looking to become more productive with their daily driver.

Symmetry is a beautiful thing

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The most comfortable Note to date. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s hard not to sound hyperbolic when talking about the Galaxy Note 7 design. Its symmetrically curved metal-and-glass chassis makes it so fawn-worthy that I don’t even mind that it’s a fingerprint magnet. It’s one of the most comfortable phones I’ve held all year, as well as the first Note device that I’ve been able to use effortlessly with just one hand.

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Oh how thin it is. 

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It’s curved edges are spectacularly symmetrical. 

The Galaxy Note 7 is surprisingly smaller than the Nexus 6P, which is taller and thicker despite its same-size 5.7-inch display. I'm reluctant to classify it as a phablet. Bigger smartphones may have become more common across the board, but Samsung managed to keep the same 5.7-inch display size as the last three Galaxy Note phones while shrinking the body. The result is a smartphone that seems to directly compete with Samsung’s own Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. I like the design of the Note 7 more, however, because it’s not as oblong as its flagship siblings. The available color combinations are attractive, too; I’m crazy about the black-on-black Note 7 we’re reviewing here, though my favorite is still the coral blue variant that will launch later on.

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The volume buttons continue to exist on the left side, and the power button is on the right.

Because of its smaller size and curved, bezel-less edges, the Note 7’s 5.7-inch display doesn’t appear as big as it is on other phones with the same size screen. Regardless, Samsung’s Super AMOLED Quad HD display continues to be one of the best looking on the market. I enjoyed binge-watching YouTube on the Note 7, though I have to note that I had to carefully cradle the phone so as to not muffle the bottom speaker. The shrinking size of Samsung’s phablet device also means that the buttons are too close together, and I had to use the phone upside down so as to not accidentally activate one of its capacitive navigation buttons.

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The backside is an absolute fingerprint magnet.

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But you’ll be quick to forgive once you watch something on its vibrant, 5.7-inch Super AMOLED display.

Of course, what good would Samsung’s productivity-centric device be if it weren’t life-proof? The Galaxy Note 7 is IP68 certified, which means it’s water resistant in five feet of water for up to half an hour. As a bonus, the S-Pen is also water resistant, and you can use the stylus to navigate the interface even while the Note 7 is submerged.

About that iris scanner

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The Note 7's iris scanner is awkward to use at first, and you might have to stare at yourself as the phone registers your presence. 

I know you’ve been dying to hear about the new iris scanner. So, rather than wait until we get to the software section further down, let’s jump into it right here.

Samsung’s big sales pitch for the Galaxy Note 7 is that it comes equipped with the ability to unlock the phone using only your eyes. As far as marketing schemes go, it’s really quite genius. This is the kind of technology we’ve only seen exhibited in science fiction films, and it’s not a feature we expected to have implemented so soon in the mainstream.

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The iris scanner grants you access to a special sequestered folder called the Secure folder.

The iris scanner can be used to unlock the Note 7 and a special Secure folder, which effectively functions as an entirely separate, confidential user account. For the most part, using the iris scanning feature is as simple as holding the phone up to your face. You’ll see the infrared sensor light up when it’s activated, and if it works, you’ll move on to the next screen. If not, you’ll have to enter in a backup password.

Sorry, glasses wearers. The iris scanner may not work with your hardware.

Set up is exceptionally easy, too, and much faster than tapping the fingerprint sensor a bunch of times to register your thumbprint. The only downside is that if you’re wearing glasses or contact lenses, the iris scanner may not work as intended (though it worked fine while I was wearing my purple sunglasses). It’s also a bit finicky in direct sunlight, and it won’t work if the infrared sensor is dirty. At the very least, no one else can get into your phone—not even with a picture of your eyes.

Overall, I enjoyed the novelty of using such a forward-thinking bit of technology. But after a few days of attempting to unlock the phone only with my eyes, I found it faster to simply use a pattern unlock. I don’t like that Samsung puts the fingerprint scanner in the Home button, so I didn’t bother with that either. You may find your results vary, but for the most part the iris unlock is best if used solely with the Secure folder.

The S-Pen is twice as good

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The S-Pen is perhaps one of the best additions to any Android device.

One of the main distinguishing factors between the Galaxy Note 7 and Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge is that the Note 7 comes with a dockable pressure-sensitive stylus called the S-Pen. It’s twice as pressure sensitive this time around, and it’s incredibly responsive, even when you use it on the edge of the curved display. The S-Pen’s tactile drag makes it feel like you’re wielding the real thing. I still struggle with writing on screen, however, and though the S-Pen is useful for things like editing photos and highlighting blocks of text, I hardly remembered to use it.

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Drawing is easy with the S-Pen, even if you don’t know how. 

A look at the Air Command menu and its customization options.

The S-Pen’s Air Command menu, which is activated by hovering the stylus above the display and clicking its single button, has been pared down to the basics. It offers shortcuts for penning a quick note, cropping part of the screen, and snapping an editable screenshot, as well as a shortcut for an instant translation feature, which lets you hover the S-Pen above individual words to quickly translate them into your language of choice. If you’re not interested in any of these features, you can edit the shortcuts that appear in the Air Command menu from the Settings panel.

Samsung bundled in a neat GIF making feature for those with a silly side. To make a GIF, simply use the Smart select feature on any DRM-free video as it’s playing. The feature will then offer a playback menu where you can record what’s on screen and consolidate it into a 15-second animated image. It’s fun to use the first few times, but it’s not something I’d use often. At the very least, you can edit the GIF to your heart’s content after you’ve made it.

Vulkan is here

I’ve already addressed this in my initial hands-on with the device, but if you’re wondering why there’s no Galaxy Note 6 this year, that’s because Samsung opted to skip it and jump straight to the number 7 so that the Note family is in line with the Galaxy S series. The name change also helps illustrate the fact that the Galaxy Note 7 contains most of the same components as the Galaxy S7, including a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 and 4GB of RAM.

In our PCMark benchmark tests, the Galaxy Note 7 performed on par with its counterpart, the S7 Edge. The OnePlus 3 surpassed it because of its extra 2GB of RAM.

The Galaxy Note 7 is a stellar player with games, too, as exhibited in our 3DMark benchmarks. 

The Galaxy Note 7 performs on par with the Galaxy S7, Galaxy S7 Edge, and the other flagship devices this year that run on the same system-on-a-chip. And like its siblings, the Note 7 is Vulkan ready, and there are now a few game titles that take advantage of the new graphics API. If you decide to bring home a Galaxy Note 7 as your daily driver, you’ll get access to the Galaxy Game Pack via the Google Play Store until January 31, 2017. The bundle includes $400 worth of titles and in-app-purchases, including four Vulkan API-ready games. You can read the full list of games offered here.

Battery for business or pleasure

The Note 7's battery lasted about as long as the Galaxy S7 Edge, overall.

I am impressed that the Galaxy Note 7’s 3,500mAh battery outlasted the S7 Edge’s 3,600mAh battery in one of our tests, though it was slightly shorter (as expected) in the PCMark battery test. You would think that because one is slightly bigger than the other that there would be a discernable difference, but there isn’t. You’ll get enough battery life out of this device to last you an entire day of activities. I experienced similar results in my day-to-day usage: I got through an entire day of shooting photos and checking Snapchat at the Gravenstein Apple Fair without needing a charge—and that was with the Note 7’s display at high brightness.

Still the best camera phone

The Galaxy Note 7 produces sharp, contrasted photos.

The Galaxy Note 7 comes equipped with the same camera hardware as its siblings, the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. This includes a 12-megapixel rear-facing Dual Pixel camera with a f/1.7 aperture and a 5-megapixel front-facing camera with a built-in beautifying feature, which automatically airbrushes your face so that you look perfectly prepped every time you snap a selfie. And like its counterparts, the Note 7 is fast to focus and quick to shoot.

The Galaxy Note 7’s 12-megapixel rear-facing camera is only a minor improvement over last year’s Note 5. 

There’s a minor difference between the Note 5 and Note 7’s low light performance, but it’s pretty miniscule, even with the latter shooting at f/1.7.

Samsung’s 12-megapixel camera is still one of the best on the market, but in the case of the Note 7, it’s only marginally better than its predecessor. The Note 5 also delivered on camera performance, so if you’ve still got one as your main point-and-shoot, you’re covered for at least another year.

The Note 7’s depth of field abilities are exemplary, especially if you use the Selective Focus functionality.

You can read more about Samsung’s 12-megapixel camera and its post-processing engine in our original review of the Galaxy S7 , or our camera shootout against the iPhone 6S.

The Note 7’s new camera mode selection menu is easier to use. All it requires is a swipe to the right on the view finder to bring it up.

Lastly, the Galaxy Note 7 comes with a slightly updated version of the camera app featured on the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. Its freshly modernized interface corresponds with the new aesthetic that TouchWiz has got going on, though we’ll touch upon that in the next section. The camera app now features minimalist icons and a swipe-left gesture that lets you quickly change camera modes. The implementation of this new functionality makes it easier to set up a photo with the Note 7 one-handed, and it’s more intuitive than tapping around in an attempt to find the setting you need.

You really don’t need to use Instagram to filter your photos if it’s built into the camera app.

Alternatively, swiping to the left on the viewfinder will bring up a variety of different live filters you can use to snap photos. They’re completely passable as Instagram filters, so they’re worth using from time to time. Not to mention, they’re easier to use than snapping a photo and then editing it in an app.

TouchWiz receives a facelift

The Galaxy Note 7 runs a modified version of Android 6.0.1. Marshmallow. There’s no word on when Android 7.0 Nougat will make it to Samsung devices, but the company has added in a few Nougat-like features that should help tide you over, like peek-a-boo Quick Settings and a nifty blue-light filter for nighttime use. There’s no word on whether Samsung will sell the Note 7 unlocked just yet, so any future Android software updates are at the mercy of the carriers.

Samsung’s TouchWiz UI might look the same as always, but there’s a few new tricks up its sleeve.

Samsung tweaks its TouchWiz UI with every new smartphone release, but it’s clearly still figuring out what works. I like the Note 7’s newly simplified aesthetic and I’m happy to see that the blue hue is mostly gone. But in order for the new interface to truly feel cohesive, Samsung has got to do something about the round, cartoon-y icons. It’s not a good look for Android, and TouchWiz would be better off if it stuck to the stock Android design in that regard.

The Quick Settings have been overhauled to look like what Android 7.0 Nougat looks like now.

Unfortunately, carrier bloat is still a real concern, but at least this year’s Note 7 comes with an expansion slot to help you reclaim some of that storage space taken up by apps you can’t delete.

Should you buy it?

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Who wants to go back to the Nexus 6P after using this for a week?

I’ll be perfectly honest: I don’t want to go back to my Nexus 6P after a week with the Galaxy Note 7, and that’s with it running the latest version of the Android 7.0 Nougat preview. The Note 7 is simply a better device with more to offer than Google’s stock smartphone, and even though I didn’t always reach for the S-Pen, I appreciated having it readily available for the few times I needed a more precise hand on the interface. You also can’t beat the camera performance coming out of Samsung’s devices this year, or the vibrant Super AMOLED display that makes even the trashiest of reality television shows appear polished and pristine.

Here’s the thing about the Galaxy Note series: It’s meant to be marketed as more than just another smartphone for your pocket. It’s supposed to be capable of doing almost everything a souped-up tablet or mid-range laptop could do so that you’re literally carrying around a tiny computer that you can work and play on. In some cases, the Note 7 might be too much technology for the casual consumer—in which case, they should consider the just barely-smaller Galaxy S7 Edge—but for power users, it’s simply stellar.

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