Samsung’s newest, most powerful, most water-resistant-iest, most iris-scanning-iest, note-iest Galaxy Note is here. The new Samsung Galaxy Note7 doesn’t leapfrog the existing Galaxy S7 in any hugely significant ways, but in everything from its construction and craftsmanship to the software that runs on it, it’s Samsung’s most refined and feature-complete flagship smartphone yet.
Design: Superbly Slick, The Smallest Big Phone Yet
When it came around to introducing the new, $1349 Galaxy Note7, Samsung displayed it alongside the entire family of Galaxy Note devices — all the way back to the original Galaxy Note of 2011. Those were big phones, and even the relatively svelte Note5 felt chunky in the hand compared to the skinny-edged Galaxy S6 Edge+. The Note7 is different. It doesn’t feel like it has a 5.7-inch screen inside that chassis.
The Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and rear of the Galaxy Note7 is identically shaped — that same, smaller-radius-of-curvature edge runs on both sides, and it makes the phone feel quite symmetrical in the hand. That means the metal strip that runs around the perimeter of the phone is the smallest and least obtrusive it has ever been, with a similar glass curve on the phone’s top and bottom that slims it down there as well.
And, yes, there’s an S Pen hidden away in the body of the Galaxy Note7 at the base, alongside a (quite powerful) stereo speaker, a 3.5mm headphone jack and the brand new USB Type-C power and data connector. I loved the Type-C port on the Samsung Galaxy TabPro S, and this is no different — it’s reversible, it’s capable of ridiculously fast data transfers at 10Gbps, and it supports Samsung’s existing 18 Watt fast charging regime.
The Note7 is, of course, IP68 water resistant — able to withstand immersion in up to 5 feet of water for up to 30 minutes according to Samsung. (The company is cagey about it being called waterproof, but you get the idea.) That’s with or without the S Pen detached, and said pen can even write on the screen while the phone is underwater, like some kind of ridiculously high tech SCUBA diving whiteboard.
Hardware: You’ve Seen It Before, But That’s Because It Works
Under the hood, the Samsung Galaxy Note7 is functionally identical to the Galaxy S7 introduced in February of this year. With a 5.7-inch Quad HD (2560x1440p) Super AMOLED display that is on paper identical to the one in the Note5 — but likely with some hardware improvements year on year, as Samsung tends to hide away in the spec — the Galaxy Note7 is slightly slimmer than its predecessor thanks to those curved edges.
Internally, the Galaxy Note7 runs the same Samsung Exynos 8890 octacore processor, with four cores running at 2.3GHz and four running at 1.6GHz. It’s Category 9/10/12 compliant, so it’ll zip along at impressively fast speeds on Telstra, Optus and Vodafone’s carrier-aggregated high-power 4G networks in metropolitan areas. It has the same 4GB complement of LPDDR4 RAM, but ups internal storage to 64GB of high-speed UFS 2.0 flash.
The same 12-megapixel and 5-megapixel front and rear cameras, too, as the Galaxy S7 make for some versatile photographic equipment. I really like the S7’s camera — it’s our go-to for holiday snaps over its 2016 competitors from LG and Sony — and while it would have been nice to have a bit of a sensor upgrade, we’re not exactly disappointed that the same tried-and-tested sensor is in use here as well.
All of this translates into a big-screen phone that is perfectly and consistently quick and zippy around Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow’s pared back interface. It doesn’t do anything hugely different to the top-of-the-line phone that came before it, and while that might be disappointing to the specs-hounds that always want a massive upgrade between handsets, the Note7 is more of a significant improvement on the Note5 than it is on the S7.
New Tech: Iris Scanning, A Better S Pen, USB Type C And Mobile HDR
These four new features are small but iterative improvements on last August’s Galaxy Note5, offering a legitimate reason to upgrade for previous Note users and any competing smartphone users that might find them appealing. The S Pen, for one, is the most powerful it has ever been — and, for a smartphone stylus, it does very well. I’m not an artist and I don’t need those 4096 levels of pen tip pressure, but it writes smoothly on the screen.
Iris scanning through a dedicated camera on the Note7’s front allows for a second or alternative layer of biometric security to the Note7’s existing fingerprint scanner, but it only works when the phone is between 25 centimetres and 35 centimetres from your face. It works well enough from a quick test, and only needs a single eye although you enrol both initially. Now, I am in love with Windows Hello on my Surface Book, and I can see myself using iris scanning on the Note7, but that very same feature has a larger range of motion on the Surface Book’s more powerful IR blaster.
USB Type C — thank god, Samsung. It has been a long time coming, hasn’t it? I really don’t like the tiny trapezoidal microUSB connector, so good riddance to it. USB-C is completely reversible, it supports much faster theoretical charging rates — up to 100 Watts, although you’d melt any phone you plugged that into — and it supports up to 10Gbps data transfers as well as a whole bunch of video and networking codecs too. It’s great. I love it. You should love it. You should get one. Hooray for all of us.
Now, mobile HDR streaming. As far as I can tell, this is a paper launch for a technology that isn’t supported on mobile by Netflix or any of its high-def video streaming competitors yet — beyond Amazon, which will enable mobile HDR streaming for its Amazon Prime video library later this year. If the Galaxy Note7 supports the HDR-10 video standard, that would be amazing, but I’ll reserve judgment for now and give you a more reasoned opinion once I know more. It’s a great piece of tech in theory, but unless you have unlimited mobile bandwidth — HDR video requires an internet connection of at least 25Mbps, and likely significantly more than that — it’s a bit superfluous for the time being.
Software: Ever Simpler, With Some Useful Extras
The Galaxy Note7 runs Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, the same version of the Android OS that the Galaxy S7 launched with earlier this year. That’s good, but the only problem is that Android 7.0 Nougat — the next iteration, with significant performance and security improvements like a new stock launcher and better search — is literally just around the corner. It’s expected to be released along with new Nexus devices within the next few days. We’ve been told the Note7 is at the front of the line for a 7.0 update, as fast as Australia’s mobile carriers can certify it for release.
The interface that the Galaxy Note7 runs is a further simplication upon the one that runs on the Galaxy S7, with a much more straightforward colour scheme — and lots of white space — that Samsung thinks will be easier to understand for novice Galaxy users, and likely the Apple iPhone users that the company wants to tempt away from their incredibly easy to operate smartphones. The simplest application of this is in the Note7’s new Camera app, which has a significantly pared-back main screen that hides away features like HDR and Pro mode until you actively search for them.
The biggest change between Note devices is that the Note7 consolidates four different note-taking apps — Action Memo, Memo, Scrapbook and S Note — into the Samsung Notes app. For anyone that has been confused by where their scribblings have gone in the past — me — it’s a godsend. It’s the kind of small change that would genuinely make me more likely to use the S Pen on a regular basis, although typing is always going to be faster and likely more conveinent for most users no matter what.
And the same Knox hardware-based security system that enables Samsung Pay and the siloed fingerprint sensor and iris scanner information also enables a new Secure Folder feature, a sandboxed area — shown as a home screen folder — in which you can place apps that you don’t want any guest user of your Note7 to have access to. You can throw an app like Gallery in there, and to access it, you’ll need to re-authenticate via password or iris or fingerprint. It’s a great idea, and it should make the Note7 more appealing for combination business and personal use.
Gizmodo travelled to New York as a guest of Samsung Australia.