Can Samsung excite Note fans with a phone that's essentially a Galaxy S7 edge with an S Pen? Find out in our first look at the new Galaxy Note 7.
By all accounts, Samsung has a hit on its hands with the one-two punch of the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge. The same great phone platform, available in two different sizes to cover a wider potential audience. It's a proven strategy — in fact the past three Samsung launches have involved pairs of phones: one flat, one curved.
That's about to change. The Galaxy Note 7 is launching alone, unaccompanied by a stylus-free option — and we're also skipping the Note 6 and jumping straight to 7. There's a good reason for that: the Galaxy Note 7 shares the same core specs and functionality found today on the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge — down to the individual components, camera and screen quality.
Once highly differentiated and in a tier of its own, it might seem like the Note is now just another Galaxy phone. (The 5.5-inch S7 edge surely has a lot to do with that.) But rest assured there are many important new additions in both hardware and software that help this Note shine in its own right. Read on to learn more, in our full hands-on preview.
Watch it first
A Galaxy Note 7 video preview
As you get ready to learn all about the Galaxy Note 7, you should kick it off with our full video preview of the phone.
Galaxy Note, evolved
A familiar hardware story, relentlessly refined
Take a look at a Galaxy S6, Note 5, S7 and Note 7 in order and you'll see a steady progression in design language, as Samsung fine-tunes and iterates upon what is easily its best design platform yet. It's been a good couple of years since the last major overhaul in the way a Samsung phone looks and feels. But if you've used one of these handsets you can't deny that it's a great design. There's no need to reinvent the wheel just yet.
Samsung is past doing massive yearly hardware changes.
Yes there's still glass on both sides, and a metal frame throughout is exposed around the edges. The volume and power keys, home button, speakers, USB port, headphone jack and cameras haven't moved a millimeter. But the question is, why should they? Instead Samsung focuses on more important hardware changes.
The Note 7 looks similar, but feels much better
The big change here is symmetry. The Note 7 is symmetrical top-to-bottom, and of course side-to-side, but it's also now symmetrical front-to-back. The curved back glass is more subtle than it was on the Note 5, and that also means that the 5.7-inch screen is now curved — à la S7 edge — to match. However it's a tighter, narrower curve than the S7 edge, producing an even more striking visual effect. As a result, the Note 7 is almost two millimeters narrower than the Note 5, and of course you get the full "Edge UX" software from the Galaxy S7 edge available with a swipe in on the curved portion.
For me, the Note's curved screen works. It doesn't feel like as much of a form-over-function decision as in the Galaxy S7 edge. The smaller, tighter curve makes it easier to reach across this big-screened phone, but it doesn't have such a large surface area as to cause unintentional touches or interfere with swipe-in gestures. The display uses Samsung's familiar Super AMOLED screen technology at Quad HD (2560x1440) resolution, and that means is yet another phone with an industry-leading display — it's superb all-round.
There are two other changes here that you can't necessarily see, but are hugely important. The first is water resistance, which is rated up to the same spec as the Galaxy S7 at IP68. Splash it, spray it, dunk it — just don't leave it in liquid too long and dry it off afterwards, and you'll be safe. The next is Corning's Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and back of the phone, which is even more capable at handling drops onto hard surfaces without breaking.
The brand new Gear VR
With the move to a USB-C connector on the Galaxy Note 7, Samsung had to release a new version of the Gear VR headset. It refreshed more than just the connector, though, switching to a new color scheme, improving comfort and tweaking the touchpad and buttons.
Elsewhere in the hardware, you'll notice little changes. The corners of the Note 7 are more tightly curved, and the metal and glass are sculpted to flow almost seamlessly together. (You might think that would make the Note 7 super slippery, but in my time with it the phone felt more stable and manageable than its predecessor, the Note 5.)
And then there are the colors, where Samsung has taken the black, gold and silver colors of the Galaxy S7 — plus a new bright blue option — and added an extra bit of flair by anodizing the metal frame in their corresponding hues. The black phone now has a black metal frame, while the gold and silver models have slightly different silver bands and the blue color has a pinkish coral metal.
This phone looks like a fantastic upgrade for Note 4 owners.
The subtle design changes, renewed focus on symmetry and fresh color options — paired with an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality elsewhere — has resulted in a really beautiful phone.
And that's true despite the fact that there's a lot of familiar stuff here. The Galaxy Note 7 is easily the best iteration of Samsung's metal-and-glass design to date. Though it may seem as though it's very similar to the Galaxy S7 edge, the changes were made in specific areas for good reason, not just for the sake of change.
Well, it's a Galaxy S7 edge
In a meeting ahead of its announcement, Samsung referred to the Note 7 as being built on the same "platform" as the Galaxy S7 — that's another way to say it shares a lot of its internal hardware with that phone. Inside the new Note 7, you'll find the same Snapdragon 820 processor (we again expect an Exynos internationally), 4GB of RAM, a 12MP camera, micro-SD card slot, screen technology and resolution as the phones from earlier this year.
There are really only three small differences — the first being the 64GB of internal storage, which is double the 32GB on the Galaxy S7 edge and may lead even fewer people to reach for an external memory card. Then of course there's the 3500 mAh battery, which is actually smaller than the Galaxy S7 edge's 3600 mAh cell. That may initially rub people the wrong way — particularly because the Note 7 has a larger screen — but it's still a nice bump over the 3000 mAh of the Galaxy Note 5. There's also a USB-C port — a first for Samsung — to lead the company into the new era of connectivity standards. (Naturally, there's a micro-USB to USB-C adapter in the box for your old cables.)
|Category||Galaxy Note 7|
|Operating System||Android 6.0 Marshmallow|
Dual edge screen
Gorilla Glass 5
|Processor||Quad-core Snapdragon 820 (U.S.)
Octa-core Exynos (international)
|Expandable||microSD up to 256GB|
|Rear Camera||12MP f/1.7
1.4-micron pixels, OIS
|Front Camera||5MP f/1.7|
|Charging||USB-C, Fast Charging
Qi, Powermat wireless
|Input||S Pen stylus
4096 pts of pressure sensitivity
|Water resistance||IP68 rating|
|Security||One-touch fingerprint sensor
|Dimensions||153.5 x 73.9 x 7.9 mm
It's hard to be upset seeing the same proven internals that offer a great experience on the Galaxy S7, but hardcore fans may have hoped for more. They'll wonder why Samsung didn't bump the specs to include things like the newer Snapdragon 821 processor, or 6GB of RAM, or tweaks to one (or both) of the cameras.
Then again, it's worth remembering spec-hungry enthusiasts make up a relatively small portion of Samsung's customer base, even in a top-tier device like the Note.
Unsung software changes
When a new phone is first unveiled, we (and sometimes the companies themselves) often focus on the hardware and specs — those are the things we can quantitatively compare to past phones and quickly see at a glance whether they fit our personal criteria. But the software we interact with every day makes a huge difference in the overall experience, and on the Note 7 that's changed quite dramatically in a few areas. What's more, at launch Samsung hasn't really made much fuss about it.
While we're of course still looking at Android 6.0 Marshmallow, and main elements of the launcher and app drawer remain unchanged, but you'll find tweaked versions of most Samsung app icons and a lighter look to folders in the launcher. (Including a flower icon for the gallery that's totally an orange Shuriken.) There's also a fresh take on the notification shade and settings area on the Note 7. Both are even simpler and flatter, and shake up the color scheme immensely — there's a single predominant shade of light grey for the entirety of these interfaces, with subtle hints of bright blue that were still present in the Galaxy S7's interface.
These greys are contrasted with more subtle pops of color in the Settings app, which itself has been drastically simplified. This important app has been completely rearchitected to create bigger groups of settings that fit into large sections, without sub-groupings or confusing separation. The new layout will make it easier for newcomers to find the basic settings they need, while also having the deeper stuff for power users to get what they want
It's a fresh look, on top of lots of new unsung features
But these changes aren't just skin deep: Samsung has also improved major functions of the operating system. Though there aren't many headline software features (outside of the S Pen, which we'll get to next), there's a helpful selection of smaller changes that benefit the overall experience. For example the Power Saving Mode is completely customizable now, giving you control over several functions of the phone to save battery while providing the features you still need. The camera interface has been slimmed down to cut back on unnecessary buttons and features. There's also a blue light filter to change the screen's color temperature to your liking at night. Behind the scenes you'll find Samsung still has integration with the "Hiya" service to block unwanted spam and scam calls — somehting that's been around since the Galaxy S7 when Hiya was part of Whitepages.
The subtly curved display of the Note 7 has allowed Samsung to bring over the "Edge UX" experience over from the Galaxy S7 edge as well. You can of course choose to skip the feature altogether — and with the S Pen in tow I wouldn't be surprised if you did — but for those who want quick access to contacts, apps and widget-like experiences it's there to use. And it works just like it does on a GS7.
Yes, you will still get the pile of pre-installed Samsung apps that you may or may not want. (Though many of these are actually pretty good if you give them a chance.) And yes, carrier partnerships will add another folder full of bloatware and other crap. Such is the nature of the U.S. carrier system. (There's currently no word on any unlocked U.S. version of the Note 7.)
We'll be able to spend far more time with the software on the Note 7 in our full review, and we're inclined to take an even deeper look after seeing so many notable and unexpected changes throughout. Chances are we're getting a good look at what Samsung's latest phones will look like once updated to Android 7.0 Nougat, and that's very exciting.
S Pen improvements
Samsung didn't have to add much, it just had to make the S Pen more approachable
Let's face it: You're still going to be using your fingers on this screen more than the included stylus. Samsung's S Pen is ingenious in the right situation, but it takes time to pick up and can be tough to master. This is the case, despite how powerful and genuinely useful the S Pen has been for the past couple of generations.
With the Note 7, having had a full year to work on new advancements, Samsung has kept the same core S Pen experience, but dramatically trimmed down the number of individual apps required to support it. Rather than continue to have Memos, S Note, Action Memo and Scrapbook as separate apps, the functionality of all four is combined into a single Samsung Notes app — and I'm not entirely sure why it took so long. Simply making the robust set of features more accessible feels like a win for anyone who wants to use the S Pen more.
Beyond that, Samsung has added even more features, including the ability to highlight text with the S Pen to magnify, read aloud or translate it on the fly. There's also a new feature in Smart Select that lets you create an animated GIF out of any (non-DRM) video playing on your screen (or any thing going on on-screen in general) — a neat addition for GIF fans. The S Pen experience has also been built into the Always-on Display mode from the Galaxy S7, giving you quick access to memos and notes while also offering up information on the display when the phone's sleeping.
The S Pen hardware itself hasn't changed much in terms of size or styling, but it now offers double the pressure sensitivity at 4096 levels, and is also just like the rest of the Note 7. And unsurprisingly, Samsung has designed it in a way that the S Pen will not go into its slot backwards; going a step further from the mid-cycle "fix" to the Note 5's internals, the Note 7's pen won't go into the body more than a couple of millimeters, avoiding any potential issues. Smart move, Samsung.
The last big feature that's entirely new to Samsung phones is the oft-rumored iris scanner — something that seems extremely sci-fi, but in reality isn't all that complicated or even altogether new in smartphones.
While it's a first for a Samsung Galaxy phone, we've seen other phones for well over a year now use iris scanners, though they haven't exactly been the highest end or widely purchased models: phones like the Alcatel Idol 3, ZTE Grand S3 and Lumia 950/950XL, for example.
Iris scanning on the Note 7
You can use your eyes to securely lock your Galaxy Note 7 — here's how it all works.
I'm not sure how it's going to fit alongside the fingerprint sensor
The Note 7's iris scanner works pretty simply, using the combination of a dedicated camera and an infrared light on the top bezel of the phone — together, they can very precisely read your irises (it prefers to see both eyes if possible). The iris scanner definitely works, even through glasses, but of course faces issues when it comes to using it in very bright or very dark lighting situations, as well as times when you need to unlock your phone but it's not immediately easy to lift up the phone to face your eyes.
Thankfully the iris scanner doesn't come at the cost of a fingerprint sensor, which you'll still find included in the home button on the Note 7. And in fact, the iris scanner doesn't have as much far-reaching usefulness in the software either. You can use the iris scanner to unlock the phone, access Samsung apps that have secure functions and authenticate in Samsung's KNOX security platform, but your iris can't yet be used to unlock third-party apps that are designed to look for a fingerprint. Right now, it's a neat (albeit not altogether new) feature — whether or not it really catches on will depend greatly on how fast and reliable it is in everyday use.
More Note to come
The bottom line, for now
It's easy to say that Samsung took a conservative approach overall to the Galaxy Note 7. It's hardly a stagnant device when compared directly to the Note 5, but the extreme similarities to the Galaxy S7 edge indicate that Samsung didn't feel the need to try and reinvent the wheel here. Unlike Notes of the past, the Note 7 isn't a solo stand-out, industry-leading device that blows the doors off of everything else with more features, power and appeal than the competition. Instead, that duty is now spread across three phones for Samsung: the Galaxy S7, Galaxy S7 edge and Galaxy Note 7.
The Note is no longer going solo — it's the highest-end device in a three-pronged attack
And from that standpoint, it makes a whole lot of sense for Samsung to keep a common core of specs, features and design across the three, despite the Galaxy Note 7 launching some six months later than the first two phones. This is a family of devices in which there really are few (if any) trade-offs as you move up through the models — you just get more and more, built on a familiar platform. At the baseline, you simply get a fantastic phone with the Galaxy S7. You get the same experience, larger curved display and bigger battery with the Galaxy S7 edge. And now you can get an even larger display, more storage, an S Pen and new software features on the Galaxy Note 7.
The homogeneity of this set of phones may seem bland to hardcore fans and those who mobile industry closely. And you can argue that keeping the Note 7 in line with the Galaxy S phones this year has limited its potential. But even when you sit down and look at the Galaxy Note 7 in a bubble, can you really say that it's missing anything important? Or that it doesn't have enough features? Or that it fails to give the the consumer a great experience with all of the power that they need? The Galaxy Note 7 absolutely does all of those things, while also serving as the top-end of a three-pronged Galaxy phone attack from Samsung.
When regular consumers pick up a Galaxy Note 7 for the first time, they won't care how similar it is to the S7 edge, they'll care about how great it looks and all of the awesome things it can do for them. And if they think it's just too much phone, there are two smaller (and less expensive) options waiting that look and feel very similar. That's what sells phones, and this combination has been selling a lot of Galaxy S7s and S7 edges thus far. And it's poised to do the same for the Galaxy Note 7 as well.