Hands-on review: Samsung Galaxy Note 7

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The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is a phone that’s designed for a very specific user base: those who want a larger screen but are craving a stylus too. That’s not to say others might not get some benefit from it, but it’s mostly centred around the functionality of the S Pen.

The S Pen is, indeed, back again, and comes with more features and tricks to justify its existence. I’m still not sold on the point of it, but there are those out there who crave its unique feature set, it seems –50,000 signed a petition to bring the Note 5 to Europe, for example.

(By the way, if you’re confused about the naming, the Galaxy Note 6 was skipped over so Samsung could bring its S and Note range onto the same numbering system, rather than making its yearly heavyweight phablet look like it’s last generation before it’s even announced).

  • Here’s everything else you could want to know about the new Samsung Galaxy Note 7
  • Or want to see everything in one easy place? Check out our Samsung Galaxy Note 7 hands-on video review!

There are some other cool elements here though: the screen is once again the most advanced on the market, gaming is faster than ever and there’s additional security offered through new biometric sensors.

I can’t help but shake the sense that the Note 7 is a phone that doesn’t stray far enough from the excellent Galaxy S7 Edge – but then again, I wouldn’t sign a petition to bring it to Europe when that territory already had the decent Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+.

Key features

The Note 7 does feel like an incremental improvement over the S7 Edge, taking in some updates to the S Pen and making the new phablet feel more business-like and, well, grown up.

One thing I loved on the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge was the Always On Display, which showed a static image of a clock, calendar or image so you didn’t need to keep switching on the phone to simply see little updates. With the S Pen, you can now write directly onto the almost-blank screen – it’s like you’ve always got a piece of paper and a pen to hand.

Your scribbles can then be pinned to the front screen as a reminder, or saved to your notes for looking back at later – not having to open the Notes app every time you want to jot something down seems to be a real win here.

There are some new Always On Displays to check out, like space images – and the good news is that these have already come to the S7 range, via a recent update.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review

The main changes to the S Pen’s toolbox are adding a GIF maker, the ability to instantly translate, the option to magnify the screen and – for some reason – enabling you to paint directly from the Notes app and then blend those colors as if they’re real oils.

The latter feature is a neat trick, although it doesn’t feel like something that’s going to change the world – I’m thinking the notes section is going to be more used as a to-do list rather than an entertainment centre – but I’m really impressed that Samsung is still looking to enhance this area, and keep making it more attractive to a wider selection of users.

The Magnify option feels rather pointless; I get that it can be used to help accessibility, and that’s a great thing, but so much of this phone’s UI is small and precise to make use of the S Pen’s direct input, so it doesn’t feel that user-friendly in that case.

It’s the same with Translate – it’s a cool feature to have, but there are equally good apps out there which can do the same thing. I’m on the fence with this one, as I’ll be interested to try it out and see how often it really does come in handy.

The GIF maker is another contentious issue. My colleague loved the idea, as it gives you a granular level of control frame by frame, and you can add stickers and other pictures over the top for the ultimate in social network sharing.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review
The Note 7 really is a fingerprint magnet

But you can only use it to pull GIFs off video, not capture the screen as you’re working, which feels more like the sort of business-like implementation you’d expect here – it’s a shame that’s missing.

The user interface is a lot more muted than the colorful overlay on the Samsung Galaxy S7 range, which again makes it feel like Samsung is leaning the Note 7 towards a more business-like audience; one that doesn’t want to be seen with a device that’s too ostentatious.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review

Then again, you can get it in a silver option that’s clearly more gold (we’re not sure how that’s come about either), so perhaps being a little more bling is on Samsung’s roadmap.

The 5.7-inch screen is larger than anything in Samsung’s current range though – with the S7 Edge side by side it looks very much the big phablet of the group that we expected.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review

Next to the iPhone 6S Plus it seems smaller and more refined, despite packing in so many more pixels and a larger display.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review

Better display

That display also comes with a big headline element: mobile HDR. For the uninitiated, this means you’re getting a screen that can display dark areas and bright zones equally well – as long as it’s filmed that way.

More studios are filming in this format each year, with Netflix and Amazon being big supporters of the technology, and you’ll be able to get those benefits on the go too now.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review

Except there’s isn’t a whole host of mobile HDR footage out there right now. It feels a bit like when Sony launched the Z5 Premium with the 4K screen… yes, there is Ultra HD content coming, but it’s not being piped into a phone at the moment.

I couldn’t see the larger screen on the Note 7 benefiting from the tech in general use, but that could be because the Super AMOLED technology Samsung is using these days is so good that it’s hard to see the incremental improvements.

Iris scanning

It’s hard to know really why Samsung decided to bring iris scanning to the Galaxy Note 7 – it feels utterly like a luxury choice when there was already something good there. The fingerprint scanner is present and correct, and is as swift as ever: press the home button to wake the phone and you’re already into the main display. Exactly what you want to see.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review

But with the iris scanner, you need wake the phone, swipe right and then place the phone perfectly in front of your face to make it work. Yes, when it’s held in the right position it works instantly – and that’s mega impressive – but it was too erratic in my early tests to see it as a winning feature – especially when there was already a great one right there in the fingerprint scanner.

Perhaps you can argue that the iris scanner is more secure, as it comes with 200 points of recognition over the approximately 80 for a fingerprint. But neither are flawless, and given this is just a safer way to avoid having to put in a PIN, I’m not convinced.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review

I suppose if you have wet fingers A LOT (wait… what are you actually doing? You’re not a dolphin trainer) then this could be a good alternative. Or if the feature worked just by lifting the phone up in front of your face, without needing to switch it on… but as it stands, it feels a little bit like a feature for the sake of it.

That said, you can put a fun cartoon mask on the iris scanning screen if the night-vision eyes scare you too much.

Design and specs

The design of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is pretty impressive – it’s like the S7 Edge, but slightly refined to cater for a new audience. There’s a slimmer curve into the metallic rim around the edges, and the back is curved into the same frame.

The Note 5 had the curved rear, as does the Galaxy S7, but the combination of the front and back is more reminiscent of the S7 Edge. It’s not quite as pronounced and smooth, which is a shame, but it does mean fewer accidental taps of the screen.

The edge display is offered though, which is great as you can add in your favorite apps and shortcuts to simply get to things that matter to you – and hopefully more elements to download to here will appear soon as Samsung expands it.

In terms of specs, it’s a little confusing here – as in the US you’re getting a Snapdragon 820 CPU, which is quad core, but the UK and other parts of the world will be receiving the Exynos option instead (Samsung still hasn’t confirmed which model this will be) to get a little more power.

Note 7 review

There’s 4GB of RAM on both, 64GB of internal storage and the option to expand that by up to 256GB with a microSD card too.

One of the surprising additions here is a USB-C port, which is something the brand decided against just a few months ago for the new S range – but apparently the technology has matured enough in that time to be worth bringing it in.

That means faster data transfer and charging – and don’t worry about upgrading all your leads as there’ll be an adaptor in the box too. Phew.

Camera and Battery

The camera is largely the same as found on the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge – which means a 12MP snapper with optical image stabilisation and the customary bump on the back to allow for the larger sensor.

It took the same great, quick pictures you’d expect from a Samsung handset, and flips between the modes really quickly with a flick of the finger. The South Korean brand has been hard at working making the user interface more one-hand friendly, and you can easily flip between filters and the front-facing camera now with a slip of the finger.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review

The battery is confusing though: it’s 3500mAh, which is smaller than the Galaxy S7 (although bigger than the Note 5’s from last year) – despite being in a bigger chassis.

I can only assume this is because the S Pen takes up a lot of room down the side… but it means battery life will be compromised. That said, it will still charge up super-quickly, and there’s all the wireless options out there to be instantly charging when you pop it down on a relevant charging pad.

Early verdict

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is all about refinement while bringing a product segment back to the whole world. The S Pen is a great addition for those that like the precision it brings, and some of the new features seem fun, if not inherently indispensable.

The iris scanner doesn’t seem to have much of a point at the moment, as it’s too slow and doesn’t seem to add much over the fingerprint scanner that’s already there.

But with the brilliant camera and design rebooted slightly to come into the stylus-enabled phablet, as well as IP68 waterproof smarts on offer too, it’s hard to see how anyone is going to hate this compact, yet intensely, powerful phablet.

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