Samsung's newest phone is its best phone ever. But that's no surprise — we've said that about every flagship Samsung release for the last couple of years. No, what's interesting is why the new Galaxy Note7 stands out from the crowd — and it's not because of its world-first iris-scanning biometric unlocking.
AU Editor's Note: Uniquely for this iteration of the Galaxy Note, the Note7 shares many hardware features with the Galaxy S7 from February. For examples of the phone's camera, check out our Galaxy S7 review. — Cam
This review was originally published on August 15 at 11:00PM.
What Is It?
- 5.7" 2560x1440 Super AMOLED
- Dimensions: 53.5x73.9x7.9mm, 169g
- Processor: Samsung Exynos 8890 octa-core
- 64GB Storage, 4GB RAM
- 12MP rear, 5MP front cameras
- Android 6.0 Marshmallow
The $1349 Samsung Galaxy Note7 is a 5.7-inch smartphone running Android 6.0 Marshmallow, with largely identical specs under the hood to the Galaxy S7 launched in Australia earlier this year. That means an octa-core, Samsung-built Exynos 8890 processor with four 2.3GHz and four 1.6GHz cores along with 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM, as well as the same high-quality 12-megapixel f/1.7 rear camera and 5-megapixel f/1.7 front camera. You do get double the internal storage space at 64GB of onboard UFS 2.0 flash storage, though, as well as an external microSD memory card slot that will take a card of up to 256GB in size for a total of 320GB of storage.
The Galaxy Note7 is the first Note without a flat sheet of front glass covering its 2560x1440pixel, 5.7-inch Super AMOLED display. Instead, in a compromise between flat Note and curved Edge, the edges of the Note7's display are curved at a tight radius, rolling off quite close to the edge of the screen to maximise the phone's screen-to-body ratio while still including those side-mounted power and volume buttons that almost all smartphones have in those locations. There's effectively no visible bezel at the phone's sides — instead, you'll hold the phone either by its top or its bottom bezel, which hide the fingerprint-sensing home button and capacitive back/menu buttons, as well as the Note7's front-facing camera arrays.
In a first for any Android smartphone, the Note7 has a front-facing iris scanning camera and infrared camera module in its top bezel, and this feature represents the second point of biometric authentication alongside the fingerprint sensor that first appeared on the Galaxy S5. Operating between 25 centimetres and 35 centimetres from your face — the kind of distance that you'd usually hold your phone around if you were reading from the screen, Samsung says — the Note7 can unlock itself using the unique pattern of one or both of your eyes. In practice, it's a very quick but also currently quite niche feature — but more on that later.
Samsung's Note phones have always been associated with business use, and even if the Note7 is moving away from business smartphone to general-purpose superphone, Samsung has made a concession to security-conscious buyers in the inclusion of a new Secure Folder app, which silos off any application stored 'within' its home screen space and encrypts any files used by that app. You can have duplicate apps, too — a Gallery folder for all your regular photos and downloaded images, and a Secure Folder-ed Gallery for everything else. It's also a great delineator between business apps and personal apps, if you're the kind of person that has the opportunity to run their office from their phone.
What's It Good At?
This is the best a Note has ever been built. The Gorilla Glass 5 screen glass on the front of the Note7 is identically shaped to the glass at the rear, and makes the phone feel very right in the hand — it doesn't dig into the edges of your palm like older Samsung smartphones, and the metal bezel that runs around the phone's edge is so thin on the vertical sides as to be unnoticeable when you're holding it normally. Sure, there's a camera hump, but it's small. The front of the phone is clean, slick, and impressively simple. IP68 waterproofing — either with the S Pen removed or inserted — means the phone will stand up to 5 feet of immersion for up to half an hour without any ill effects.
The Note7's S Pen is a significant improvement on the previous Note's, and it marks the first time that we've actually enjoyed using the stylus on a Note — or any phone or tablet, really — for an extended period of time. The Note5 got a lot of the way there, but in hindsight, the relatively thick tip of the last-generation S Pen feels imprecise; on the Note7 it's much smaller and feels more accurate without losing the easy-to-draw nature that we've always liked. And, of course, there's the fact that Samsung has fixed up the entire note-taking and drawing and handwriting experience with the Note7 by getting rid of four overlapping apps -
And it's USB Type-C! There's no overstating how happy we are that Samsung is finally ditching the microUSB connector — whether it's the tiny microUSB 2.0 trapezoid or the weird, wide microUSB 3.0 port of the Galaxy Note 3. It's reversible, it has the potential to charge faster — although Samsung hasn't taken that with the 9V 2A charger bundled with the Note7 — and it natively supports a huge array of accessories like on-the-go storage and HDMI video output dongles. Sure, you'll have to get rid of all your old cables, but trust us, it's worth it. Take the opportunity to invest in some that will stand the test of time — like the Nonda ZUS — and you'll be very happy that you did.
The Note series of phones has always had the most impressive screens of any smartphone release in its yearly cycle, and the same is true of the Note7. Like the Note5, it's a 2560x1440pixel panel that looks sharp edge to edge — despite the curve — and that has excellent black levels and impressively bright whites thanks to the versatility of Samsung's first-party Super AMOLED displays. There's one thing worth mentioning that the Note7 supports that isn't available just yet, but that sounds good on paper under very specific conditions — mobile HDR streaming, which should be supported in the not-too-distant future by Australia's only HDR-friendly video streamer Netflix.
What's It Not Good At?
As Samsung further refines the design of its Galaxy range of Android smartphones, the differentiation between models — at least on the outside — is smaller than ever. A Galaxy S6 or a Galaxy Note 5 or a Galaxy S6 Edge+ looks very similar to the Galaxy Note7, and the improvements under the hood are iterative rather than revolutionary. I said as much about the iPhone 6s Plus, too; unless you really need that iris scanner, the Note7 isn't a must-buy. If you're thinking about upgrading to the Galaxy Note7 from a Galaxy S7 or a Galaxy S7 Edge, you need to seriously reconsider the amount of money you have free to throw away on electronics.
Similarly, the big physical difference between Note generations — the iris scanner — is still a first-generation tool at the moment, and it only operates correctly within a limited range. Hold the phone around 25 to 35 centimetres from your face, and it works perfectly — just as fast as a fingerprint scan, and even faster when you take into account the fact that even the latest Samsung fingerprint scanners aren't 100 per cent accurate all the time and occasionally take an incorrect scan. We've had a much better success rate so far with irises — but you do need to hold the phone up to your face, and you do need to hold it within that window.
As with every iteration of every smartphone that has come out in the last decade, we've come to expect — and demand — iterative improvements in the quality of the screens, the speed of the processors, the in the software that ties everything together. But we've also come to expect improvements in battery life. As Android adds ever more features — and the occasional bug — the demand on phones to have larger batteries grows, and Samsung's move to a 3500mAh versus the 3600mAh cell in the similar Galaxy S7 edge might be seen by some as a downgrade. We've found it provides effectively identical battery life, but it's not an improvement despite the slightly smaller screen. It's not a failure, just not an improvement.
And, as wonderful as USB Type-C is — thank you Samsung, seriously — it does mean you won't be able to use your new Galaxy Note 7 with your old Gear VR headset. If you already have one — from your S6 or a Note 5, although I've already questioned whether that's an entirely rational upgrade path to be taking — then you can't use it with the Note7. For that, you'll need the new Gear VR, with its Type-C connector and the included adapter to plug older headsets in as well. That's an extra cost if you're one of the people that likes VR and wants to use it with their mobile device. It's a small extra cost on top of the already hefty RRP of the Note7.
Should You Buy It?
- Superbly refined design
- Significant S Pen upgrades
- Slickest Samsung interface ever
- No battery life improvements
- Largely identical to S7 series
- Iris scanner is imperfect — for now
There's no doubt about it, as usual — the $1349 Samsung Galaxy Note7 is the best phone that Samsung has ever made, again. It has the most refined design, adds an interesting new feature in the iris scanner, doubles down on the company's continued attempts to pare down the visual bloat of the Android-skin-formerly-known-as-Touchwiz, and equals its predecessors in every area that it does not improve upon them. I really, really liked the design of the Galaxy S7 when it came out, but the symmetrical front and back of the Note7 feel even more luxurious. It's still mostly the same design, but you can feel and appreciate the improvements from the S7 and the S7 edge and especially the previous-generation Note5.
Iris scanning is a cool inclusion, but it doesn't feel necessary just yet. The hardware is mostly there — it's great, when you're using it at the right distance — and it'll only take some novel software applications for the Note7's most important new feature to really come into its own stride and stand out for the crowd. But for now, it's not a must-have feature. It's like buying a laptop with Windows Hello — it works really really well, within its useful boundaries, but it's not a mandatory inclusion for every laptop right now. There's certainly no obvious downside to its inclusion, sure, but it's a slow burn. Give it time, guys.
It's actually in the software, though, that the Note7 really sets itself aside. It's the simplest that Touchwiz — now called Grace UX, at least internally by Samsung — has ever been, and it's a big improvement in a huge number of tiny areas. The quick settings menu is simpler. The settings screen is more coherent. The camera app is easier to operate and to navigate through. The addition of Samsung Notes rather than four more complicated apps is a godsend to anyone that likes using the S Pen for note-taking or doodling. Samsung is approaching the refinement of its chief competitor from Cupertino with the Note7's particular brand of Android.
And that, more than anything else, is why I'm happy to wholeheartedly recommend the Note7 to a high-end smartphone buyer as we head towards the pointy end of 2016. It's an excellent piece of hardware — if not hugely differentiated from its S-series sibling released earlier in the year — backed up by software that, for the first time, is a coherent and consistent experience throughout. Samsung has taken the Note's tock within the yearly tick-tock cycle to fix up some small but cumulative invisible problems with its Android interface, and has erased some of the chief complaints Apple fans have with it. It's a very, very well put together smartphone.