Australian Review: Samsung Galaxy Note 7 - Completing the family
It shouldn't come as any surprise that the Note 7 is a good phone.
With the S7 and S7 Edge, Samsung made smartphones that people wanted. They're pretty, they've got a great camera, they're water resistance, they've got expandable storage, and they've sold incredibly well. Samsung fixed the vast majority of complaints consumers and critics had with the S6 family, and listening seems to have paid off.
From this perspective, the Note 7 isn't the most original smartphone. It's essentially a supersized version of the S7 Edge, with a few extra bells and whistles. But hey, why mess with a good thing?
Once again, Samsung has done a great job of fitting a big screen into a smaller than expected body. The 5.7-inch Note 7 is smaller than the 5.5-inch iPhone 6s, while still offering more screen real estate. This is partly due to the dual curve display, as popularised by Samsung's "Edge" phones. The titular contour makes it feel like an edge-to-edge display, which in turn, makes the Note 7 a little bit narrower. Combined with a matching curve on the phone's back panel, the Note 7 is easy to grip and comfortable to hold. This also makes it a little bit easier to bang out messages one handed.
While the Note 7 is small for its size, it's still a big phone. Where the S7 Edge was a big phone that didn’t feel like a big phone, the Note 7 is a big phone that's a little smaller than you'd expect. If you're not a fan of phablets, the Note 7 probably won't win you over.
The Note 7 may cost AUD$1,349 outright, but it almost feels worth it based on looks alone. It isn't overly heavy, but has a nice weight to it. Curved glass on the front and back exudes a modern look, and aluminium seals the deal. All in all, the Note 7 is a beautifully designed device.
Unfortunately, the Note 7 is a fingerprint magnet. As lovely as the phone is to hold, even a delicate touch is probably going to leave a mark. It's almost impossible to keep the Note 7 looking pristine. The Note 7's screen is bright enough to hide any prints when you're actually using the phone, but they're especially noticeable on the back and on the front bezels.
As is often the case with Samsung, the Note 7 has a lovely display. It's bright enough to be visible in direct sunlight (or to blind you when using it in the dark), colours are vibrant, and viewing angles are great. Samsung says the Note 7 display is capable of playing back HDR content - which is a first for a smartphone - but this is simply a case of future-proofing at the moment (at least in Australia). At present, no local streaming apps support HDR video on smartphones.
The Note 7 is the first smartphone to make use of Gorilla Glass 5. Essentially, this means it should have a much better chance at surviving drops from "selfie height". While the exact probability of surviving a drop depends on how thick the glass is and on what angle the phone lands, extra durability is always welcome. Especially on a phone as large as the Note 7, where adding a case makes a big device bigger.
As with the S7 and S7 Edge, the Note 7 is rated IP68 for water resistance. This means the device can survive depths of 1.5 metres for up to half an hour. The Note 7's S Pen is also water resistant, and notably, you're also able to write on the phone's screen while it's still wet. I'm not quite sure why you'd need to do this (taking notes in the bath, maybe?) but it's a neat inclusion anyway. Unfortunately, water does still interfere with regular touchscreen usage.
With the Note 7, Samsung's made the move to USB Type-C for charging. While the change is fairly minor, I'm personally a big fan of the new standard, mostly because it means you're not spending as much time trying to work out if you're plugging your cable in the right way. If you've still got old Samsung chargers, there's a micro USB to USB Type-C adapter in the box, which is a nice touch.
This year's other flashy new feature is an iris scanner, which theoretically speaking, lets you unlock the Note 7 with your eyes. While the iris scanner works better than Microsoft's attempt with the Lumia 950, it's still slower than using the fingerprint reader to unlock your phone. To get the iris scanner to even start looking for your eyes, you need to wake up the phone by hitting the power button, swipe to the right to bring up the unlock screen, and then hope the Note 7 finds them. As someone who wears glasses, results were pretty inconsistent. Sometimes the iris scanner would work in a flash, but at others, the phone wouldn't unlock at all. That being said, the iris scanner was far more usable when I took off my spectacles (although still not quite as fast as the fingerprint reader).
The Note 7 is a clearly a flagship in terms of speed and performance (64GB of storage out of the box helps too), and Samsung is reinforcing this with a cleaner, streamlined take on Android. There aren't too many apps preinstalled out of the box. There's still some double up with Google, and a few preinstalled Microsoft apps, but there's very little bloat on the phone. Samsung's cut down on a few of its own apps, merging a few into the new Samsung Notes. In addition to letting you type out or scribble down notes with the S Pen, Notes has a fun suite of drawing and painting tools for the more artistically inclined. Different brushes blend and layer "realistically", giving you a surprising amount of flexibility.
The Note 7 does offer a few cool software tricks not found on other phones. My favourite has been the fact you can use the S Pen to turn video into GIFs using a feature called Smart Select. While the implementation is a little bit obtuse (it can take some trial and error to get it right), it's nonetheless a reasonably simple way to make animated GIFs using your smartphone.
Another notable feature is "Secure Folder", which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. If there's an app you don't want anyone else to see or some photos you want to hide, throw them into the Secure Folder, which needs to be unlocked (via fingerprint or iris scan) to open. This also allows you to run two instances of the same app on your phone. For example, you could have a copy of Outlook on your Note 7 with your work email, and a second copy of Outlook with your personal email in your Secure Folder. Or vice versa. Either way, it's a nice to know that even if you hand someone your unlocked phone, they won't be able to access everything.
In terms of battery life, the Note 7 will more than comfortably give you a full day of usage with a decent buffer. I found I had about 40 to 50% battery left on a typical day, whereas heavier usage (mostly involving mobile gaming) would whittle it down to around 20%. In both cases, the buffer is much healthier than last year's Note 5, which needed a top out throughout the day when pushed. All in all, the Note 7's battery is one of the best I've seen in a smartphone this year.
The Note 7's camera is identical to the one found in the S7 and S7 Edge, which is great news for photography lovers. The camera was top tier when Samsung's smaller flagships launched in March, and that's still the case now. While the Note 7's 12MP shooter is quite versatile, it also handles lowlight with ease and excels at macro photography.
It can't take photos in complete darkness, the Note 7 is able to do a surprisingly good job with almost no light. In many cases, I found it was able to produce a usable photo where my iPhone SE simply captured darkness. That being said, taking great low light photos with the Note 7 isn't entirely effortless. When shooting on auto, shutterspeed is noticeably slower than the on the iPhone SE's camera, which can result in motion blur. And if there is a bright area in your otherwise dark photo, it can end up overexposed. The Samsung camera app does however have a "pro" mode, which lets you manually set options like shutterspeed and ISO, and in turn, get a sharper lowlight (although potentially grainier) image.
While I wouldn't go as far as calling the Note 7's camera the very best out there (most smartphone cameras have their pros and cons), it certainly won't disappoint. It can take great photos night and day, and does so reliably. And as a bonus, there's almost no camera bump.
Last year, the Note 5 was easily Samsung's best smartphone, offering just that little bit more than the S6 and S6 Edge. This year, competition between Samsung's own phones is much fiercer (which, realistically, is a good thing). I've really enjoyed my time with the Note 7 - it's a great device - but so are the S7 and the S7 Edge. I mean, if you're looking at Samsung smartphones, the S7 Edge feels like the sweet spot. You get a big 5.5-inch screen in a surprisingly compact form factor, and you save a little money.
Of course, there's still plenty to love about the Note 7, and I'm sure plenty will will love it. Some will want the extra 0.2-inches. Some will want USB Type-C. And some will simply want the S-Pen in their life. If that's you, the Note 7 is easy to recommend. While AUD$1,349 is a steep outright asking price, it's still a bit cheaper than the 64GB iPhone 6s Plus, and you get a free 256GB microSD card if you do pre-order. That's an impressive cumulative 320GB of storage.
If you're after a supersized Android smartphone, Samsung's Note 7 is hard to pass up.
Cybershack Score -
|Lovely design||Fingerprint magnet|
|Great camera||Iris scanner isn't efficient as a fingerprint reader|
|Top notch battery||Expensive|