Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review: The most beautiful phone of 2016
Four years ago, Samsung – commercially successful but at the time often criticised for copying the iPhone – promised the world that “one day”, the company would produce iconic products as Apple had done.
Since then, it has tried out what seems like countless “innovations”, some more successful than others. Large screens, bendy glass, styluses, and a smorgasbord of different designs often made it seem like the company had little idea of what the perfect phone was.
But even as we have heard that phone innovation has petered out, with devices converging on homogeneity, Samsung has kept experimenting. And occasionally, the stars align in a way that works.
The Galaxy Note 7, Samsung’s latest phablet, is one of those instances. The sixth phone in the Note series (confusingly, Samsung skipped the Note 6 to bring the line up to date with the Galaxy S7), the Note 7 is undoubtedly one of the best phones of 2016. I’d go so far as to call it the best-made smartphone money can buy.
Design and screen
The first thing to say about the Note 7 is that, for a big-screened phone, it is remarkably svelte. The Note borrows the Edge screen from the Galaxy S7 Edge that curves onto the sides of the phone, which has allowed it to pack a 5.7-inch screen into a device that is notably dinkier than both the previous Note and my iPhone 6s Plus.
While the smaller-handed may still struggle with it, it’s certainly easier to hold than most of the larger-screen phones out there. This is helped by the shape of the phone: the curves of the front are mirrored on the back, giving it a pleasant symmetry and making the Note 7 easy to wrap a hand around (although the Gorilla Glass back gets covered in fingerprints).
The super AMOLED screen, meanwhile, is glorious, but you don’t have to take my word for it: The experts at DisplayMate reckon it’s the best they have ever tested. Samsung has also taken the “always on” screen from the S7 that shows the time, date battery, and any notifications when the phone is in standby.
One of the key selling points of the Note 7 is the introduction of an iris scanner, which Samsung says is actually more secure than a fingerprint reader (nobody can use it to unlock your phone while you sleep, for example).
Setting it up is certainly easier than with a fingerprint: you simply hold the phone up to your eyes and it will scan them once, rather than having to repeatedly put your thumb or finger on the sensor. The iris scanner can be used to unlock your phone as well as a new “Secure folder” where you can store apps or photos you don’t want to be accessible on the home screen.
Practically, though, the scanner is not perfect. For me, it worked around 90 per cent of the time, but it tells me fairly often that the sensor may be dirty, hindering it. Since you have to point the phone at your face for the scanner to work, that 10 per cent when it’s wrong can be irritating: you feel a little foolish failing at it on public transport, for example. There are also some occasions where you might not want to peer at your phone to unlock it, such as quick check at the cinema or in a meeting.
That said, you can also use the Note 7’s fingerprint scanner, so think of the iris unlock as an added bonus. It’s also Samsung’s first go at this, so the technology is likely to improve. After four days of using the phone, I haven’t deactivated it.
A dividing feature of the Note series has been the “S-Pen” stylus. It’s apparently a key selling point of the phone, but the last Note model wasn’t even released in Europe, reportedly because consumers here don’t engage with the stylus.
The S-Pen and notes system has had a big upgrade for the Note 7, which does give it some neat new functions. For one thing, the pen – as well as the phone itself – is now waterproof, so if you really need to use it underwater, you can.
When the phone is on standby, you can now just click the S-Pen out and scribble on the screen to take a quick note, such as jotting down a phone number, which you can save for later or pin to the home screen. Samsung’s various note-taking and drawing apps have also been neatly packaged together in a new “Samsung Notes” app.
By far the most fun new feature related to the S-Pen is the ability to create GIFs on the fly. When you have the S-Pen out, you can turn record what’s on the screen – say a video or your own camera screen – and create a GIF which you can then doodle on.
Overall, the S-Pen still feels like an add-on rather than the integral part of the device that Samsung claims. Any smartphone screen is too small on to make proper notes, and the handwriting recognition is good, but slower than just typing on a touchscreen keyboard. The best thing about a stylus is still that it’s better than a finger for annotating photos or Snapchats: Fun, rather than real work.
On many fronts, the Note 7 shares a lot with the also-excellent S7 and S7 Edge. The 12MP camera is truly best-in-class and speedy, and the battery life is good enough to last a day (although no longer).
There have been a few welcome software tweaks too: The camera app’s controls are simpler – for example you simply swipe up or down to switch between selfie mode and the main camera, and left and right for filters and camera modes respectively, which makes it effortless to use.
Samsung’s TouchWiz Android interface has been cleaned up a little, so icons look better and it’s a little easier to navigate menus. The minimum storage is also 64GB, compared to the 32GB of the S7.
The Note 7 is a truly excellent phone. As with the S7 and S7 Edge, its camera quality and screen are among the best you can get, while the few tweaks to software and the novelty of the iris scanner are reasonable improvements.
The design, though, is what clinches it: the Note 7 is beautiful to look at and effortless to hold despite its huge screen. In terms of pure hardware design, I would go as far as to call it the best you can buy. Whether you should choose it over the iPhone 6s Plus (or hold on for the iPhone 7) depends on what side of the Android/iOS line you sit on.
Of course, at £739, it is also very, very expensive: £100 dearer than the S7 Edge, albeit with a slightly bigger screen, double the storage, an S-Pen and an iris scanner. Samsung is also throwing in a free Gear VR on pre-orders before the end of August.
If you don’t think you’ll use the pen, and don’t think the Note’s design is worth it (I much prefer it to the more rounded S7), it may not be the best value for money. But if you can stretch to it, it’s hard to recommend another Android phone.