The new Samsung Galaxy S7 isn't the most interesting phone at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. That's LG, with its modular G5. But the S7 and its S7 edge companion is more important, because the changes under the hood are significant and that will make Australia's most popular phone after the iPhone more useful for everyone that will buy it. Here's why I think Samsung has a real good year to look forward to.
The Design: Simple, Straightforward
The new Galaxy S7 is a tiny bit thicker than the S6 it's replacing — 7.9mm versus 6.8mm — and a tiny bit heavier — 152g versus 138g. You don't notice that straight away when you pick the phone up, though, because it feels just about on par with what we've come to expect from a phone of its size and shape. What you do notice is how it feels to hold compared to last year's iteration; the slightly curved edges of the rear panel, like the style seen on the Note 5, make it more comfortable to palm and easier to wrap your fingers around. The same is broadly true of the larger S7 edge as well.
When you look at it for the first time, the S7 looks... normal. It doesn't have any crazy design cues, it doesn't have any out-of-left-field tweaks like a concave screen or a power button surrounding the rear camera. And that's a good thing! Like the iPhone, Samsung is finally making its smartphones for mass worldwide adoption and that means it has to be sensible about the decisions it makes. And that is why it is so excellent to be able to say that the S7 and S7 edge are both water resistant and dust tight, with the highest possible IP68 rating, and also support microSD.
That microSD storage — up to 200GB in a single card — is great for enthusiasts, the people that want to store hundreds of TV shows or movies or thousands of songs and high-resolution photos. But the water resistance is something that'll affect a lot of people, that will stop phones dying in the rain or after being dropped in the bath. It's also good that the S7 doesn't look like a waterproofed phone, like Sony's Z3 and Z5 smartphone family — it's a normal phone, for normal people, just with a little bit of extra skill and precision having gone into its manufacturing.
The Screen: No Huge Gains Made Here
For the most part, the S7 and S7 edge's 5.1-inch and 5.5-inch Super AMOLED displays are the same on paper as last year's S6 and S6 edge+ — despite, of course, the fact that the new S7 edge's size sits between the 5.7-inch S6 edge+ and the 5.1-inch S6 edge, both of which will be eventually phased out with the S7 edge taking their place as Samsung's chief fashion-forward smartphone. Last year's panels, both 2560x1440 pixels, were excellent, so no complaints from me.
Samsung has introduced an always-on element into the occasion, though, using OLED's self-lighting pixels to efficiently display a digital or analogue clock or calendar display even when the rest of the S7's display is powered down. The always-on display can be enabled or tweaked or disabled in settings, of course, but a few of the digital options are actually quite attractive — I'd leave them on on my particular S7.
One thing I did notice on the S7 edge I test-drove for a few minutes was the excellent range of brightness that was on offer when the automatic ambient brightness adjustment was disabled. The minimum screen brightness was very dark, which should make for excellent night-time or cinema-room reading, while the maximum brightness is eye-searingly bright — similarly useful for glancing at your phone when you're outside on a sunny day.
The Camera: A Huge Improvement, Again
When we talk about smartphone cameras, we always say how much they've improved since the last generation. And it's true, the advancement is always rapid — it massively outpaces digital SLR or mirrorless camera development. But you're still working with a tiny imaging sensor with an extremely basic set of lens elements and a relatively high megapixel count, and those three things conspire to make it difficult to take photos in anything but the best and brightest lighting conditions.
The S7 and S7 edge's cameras have improved where it matters. There are fewer imaging megapixels — from 16 megapixels on the S6 to 12 on the S7 — but their individual size is larger at 1.4um, letting in 56 per cent more light than the 1.12um of the previous model. The lens' maximum (and fixed) aperture is down to f/1.7 from the f/1.9 of the S6, letting in another 25 per cent more light. And holding the two phones side by side in dark conditions, you really can tell the difference. And focusing is a huge improvement, nearly instant versus a second or more on the old phone.
Apple has always been ahead of the game in not caring how many megapixels its phone cameras have; Samsung has caught up to that trend, and it's been a long time coming. Zoom in on a S7 photo snapped in normal lighting and you'll see a good amount of detail for a smartphone photo — perhaps as much detail as I've ever seen in a smartphone JPEG. But it's crucially not oversharpened or or oversaturated, and actually looks quite Apple-esque in its detail and colour gradation from my quick testing — and that's quite impressive.
The Hardware: Plenty Of Power Under The Hood
Going on the trend of previous years, Samsung will bring its in-house-developed Exynos 8 Octa 8890 chipset to Australia inside the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. (Other markets around the world get the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 that LG has inside its new G5.) It's an octa-core with a quad 2.3GHz and a quad 1.6GHz setup, made using the most advanced chipset production process currently available. And that means it runs cool and efficient, doing great things for battery life.
That battery is improved again, up to 3000mAh cell size in the S7 and 3600mAh in the larger S7 Edge. That, along with the more efficient processor, should do very good things for battery life. Those kind of upgrades are always incremental — don't suddenly expect two-day battery life from these new phones — but we should finally be reaching that point where you can use your phone heavily all day and not have to worry about whether it'll last you long enough to get home and plug it in later that night.
The phone has grunt, though. I can't say for sure that it's lag free, because I haven't tested it enough to come to that conclusion yet, but it has more processing power than any Samsung phone before it and that means it has the lifting power to handle stitching 360-degree video from the Gear 360 together in a matter of seconds — that's a task that would usually require a proper PC and time and effort. 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM should make for fast app switching, and in my short time with the phone I'd say that's true too.
Gizmodo traveled to Mobile World Congress as a guest of Samsung.