Should I buy an iPhone 7 or a Note 7?
Samsung stumbled out of the gate with the Galaxy Note 7 in a way that may permanently damage the Note brand, but that doesn't change our thoughts on the phone itself. The Note 7 represents unprecedented polish from Samsung, and a well-tuned feature set that can't be easily replicated. It's the best Android phone you can buy today if price isn't a concern, which makes it the perfect phone to compare to Apple's iPhone 7 Plus.
Samsung and Apple have both placed a premium on quality camera experiences, the fastest, most accurate fingerprint systems, and an external design that reinforces brand recognition. Here's what happens when you put the two side by side.
Apple and Samsung have done their level best to release exquisitely polished rounded rectangles with cameras on the back and home buttons on the front. On both phones, the display takes up a significant portion of the front, and whatever color you choose to buy dominates an otherwise featureless rear.
That all may sound generic, but it makes a solid point: the two phones look more similar than ever before. We're comparing Apple's Black iPhone 7 Plus to Samsung's Black Onyx Note 7, and it's genuinely difficult to tell them apart from across a room when they are sitting face up. If we had somehow been able to secure a Jet Black iPhone 7 Plus, a feat that is at the time of writing close to impossible, the differences would be even less obvious. This point is interesting for two reasons. One, it's unusual for Apple to release a phone outside of the S cycle that doesn't have a significant external redesign; and two, Samsung's industrial design really is that damn good nowadays.
When you pick up the Note 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, the differences become a lot clearer. The matte black iPhone offers a textured surface with a little grip, while Samsung's glass back encourages you to firmly grasp the sides to prevent slipping. This detail is more important for the noticeably larger iPhone 7 Plus, whose body makes it difficult to reach all the way across the screen with a thumb. Apple has done nothing to improve screen-to-body ratio on the 7 series which produces a device that is larger than the Note 7 despite a smaller display.
The display isn't just smaller, it's also packing a lower resolution — 1080p vs 1440p — and is a full 118ppi less dense. There's simply no contest between these two displays. Samsung offers a brighter panel with sharper text, and the curved AMOLED design means images simply fall off the edge of this phone. Both displays even make us of the new, 26% wider DCI-P3 Color Gamut, which means you're seeing true-to-life colors more akin to a human eye. Reds are redder, and yellows more sunny.
Earlier I referred to the iconic indented circle on the front of iPhone 7 Plus as a button, but that's no longer accurate. There's no physical button there anymore, just pressure-sensitive glass and a fingerprint sensor. This is Apple's "Taptic Engine", similar to what you'll find in an Apple Watch or a MacBook trackpad. In Apple's other experiences, this new vibration motor offers a unique experience that not only accurately simulates a button press, but delivers enjoyable tactile feedback in a non-disruptive way.
That these phones are the only two that sit on this very expensive pedestal as truly premium experiences is significant.
On the iPhone 7 Plus, this experience doesn't quite mimic the press of a button. You feel the click all the way through the body of the phone, which is a little disorienting for the first day or two that you use it. One thing it does not do is negatively impact the performance of Touch ID, which is still one of the best fingerprint sensor experiences available today. It's no more or less convenient than it was before, which means it still offers something nearly identical to what you get on the Galaxy Note 7. The only real benefit to this new design will be found over time, with no need to get the home button replaced after two years of aggressive use.
It wouldn't be a Note without the S Pen, and as with every previous year Samsung has improved pressure sensitivity and made some mild ergonomic changes. You either rely on that pen every day and love that it exists or you pull it out once to confirm it exists and never use it again, and that's fine. It's a great tool for those who want the feature, and that's what Samsung is all about right now. Samsung also continues to include a 3.5mm headphone jack, removable storage, and wireless charging. None of these features can currently be found on the latest iPhone, and whether any of these features needs to exist continues to be a heated topic of debate.
Both of these phones look and feel excellent from the moment you pick them up in the morning to the moment you set them down to charge at night. The build quality for both is exceptional, and that these phones are among the only two that sit on this very expensive pedestal as truly premium experiences is significant.
It doesn't usually make a lot of sense to compare iOS to Android. Google and Apple focus on entirely different things, and at the end of the day you either place value in polished singularity or unified diversity. Android connects as many aspect of your apps to each other for a great overall experience. For iOS, each app is its own special playground that only talks occasionally to a handful of other apps, but it's a really nice playground. In short, this section is not about to debate the merits of iOS and Android.
This iPhone 7 Plus regularly takes the Note 7's lunch money when it comes to performance.
Instead it's important to credit Apple for such an incredibly polished software experience on iOS 10, due in no small part to the amount of control Apple has over its processor. Put simply, the iPhone 7 is the fastest phone in existence today. Downloading apps from the App Store happens in the blink of an eye, and opening those apps has never been faster. This iPhone 7 Plus regularly takes the Note 7's lunch money when it comes to performance, from the smoothness of rotating from portrait to landscape to the sub-second launching of the camera app. It's more than a little impressive, and you can feel it in every aspect of the software.
That being said, it's time for Apple to catch up with some much needed features. It doesn't do the user any good to make the camera launch this fast if you still have to jump through hoops to get to it in the first place. Samsung's home button double tap means I can reach into my pocket and have the camera app loaded before I'm even ready to line up the shot I want to take. Apple needs an equivalent, and it doesn't exist yet because they're only just now figuring out that people want a clear all button for their notifications.
If Apple can be dinged for moving too slowly on obvious features, Samsung needs to be held accountable for stuffing everything but the kitchen sink into their version of Android. Between carrier bloatware, a retina scanner than only works occasionally, and an entirely separate apps store with its own rules, it's easy to be overwhelmed by Samsung's offerings. Some of it is well hidden, like the Virtual Reality platform that only activates when you connect your phone to the Samsung Gear VR, but not everything treats the user with the same level of respect.
If Apple can be criticized for moving too slowly on adding features, Samsung needs to be held accountable for stuffing everything but the kitchen sink into their version of Android.
Samsung and Apple both face interesting software challenges this year. Apple is polishing themselves into a corner, creating UI experiences where there are back buttons in the notification tray and design guidelines that lead to frequent accidental taps. Samsung still lacks overall optimization, and has a nasty habit of pushing things on the user. Neither experience is "the right way" for everyone, but it's not hard to see how so many would see Apple's offering as the more palatable choice.
Few places in the smartphone world have been as competitive and engaging as the camera. For years Apple was the name when it came to the best phone camera, but the last two years Samsung and others have stepped up in truly significant ways. Apple furthered that conversation with the addition of a second sensor and lens in the iPhone 7 Plus, which offers 2X optical zoom (a 56mm equivalent focal distance) without needing to rely on digital zoom.
That slight difference in aperture turns out to mean there's a difference in low light photography, and it usually works in Samsung's favor.
Samsung's focus this year is on a single great 12MP camera with an f/1.7 aperture and OIS. On paper it's very similar to Apple's 12MP sensor, paired with lenses at f/1.8 or f/2.8 depending on whether you're activating the zoom. Both phones capture plenty of detail and fantastic colors, but Apple also takes photos in the same DCI-P3 Wide Color Gamut as on the iPhone 7 Plus display, which means those colors are more true to life. Samsung's Note 7 sensor will capture lots of amazing color, but it can occasionally appear artificially saturated.
That slight difference in aperture turns out to also mean there's a slight difference in low light photography, and it usually works in Samsung's favor. Night photos with iPhone 7 Plus are greatly improved over its predecessor, but still introduces noise to compensate for the darkness. You also don't want to use the 2X zoom mode at night at all if you want great shots, which is unfortunate. Despite being slightly less low light-capable, Apple maintains the same motion capture capability at night, and Samsung currently does not. Low light blurriness isn't a constant problem for the Note 7, but it can occasionally ruin an otherwise great photo.
You really can't go wrong with either camera here. They're both amazing for smartphones, and the quality differences between the two are so slight you're unlikely to ever be able to tell the two apart — something we put to the test quite recently with a blind camera test.
Despite the unusually small number of changes to the exterior of this phone, the iPhone 7 Plus feels alien to me. The home "button" doesn't feel like a button, but that doesn't stop me from pressing it as I once did out of habit. This habit took a full day to break, and now I'm comfortable with pretending. I know if I press down I'll feel a click all the way up in my fingertips, but it's alright. The whole bottom of this phone is a button now, as strange as that is to say. Even with the ability to adjust how hard that button taps back it's never going to feel like the button on the iPhone 6s Plus, much less the incredibly well made button on the Note 7.
I don't really notice the missing headphone jack on the iPhone 7 Plus.
I don't really notice the missing headphone jack on this phone, much like I didn't miss the headphone jack on the Moto Z, but I enjoy having it on the Note 7 for one very specific purpose. Samsung's Gear VR experience is amazing with headphones, and Bluetooth often means dealing with slight delays in audio delivery which is not at all good for VR. Since the lower resolution and lesser pixel density on the iPhone means it's already not very good for any form of VR, this entire experience doesn't really have an equivalent on iOS.
Speakers are something different, and in this I give a huge point to Apple. The iPhone 7 Plus fires from both the top and bottom when delivering audio, whereas the Note 7 only fires from the bottom. This isn't a musical quality benefit since Apple's speakers aren't evenly distributed, with one set firing straight at you from the headset holes and the other firing down from the bottom of the phone. For many other things, like when I stick my Note 7 in my cupholder with GPS navigation running, that top speaker on the iPhone 7 Plus is sorely missed.
There really is nothing that compares to Samsung's display. Apple can tout color accuracy all they want, but the Note 7 is brighter outdoors by a mile, darker in a room with no lights on, and makes everything on it looks amazing.
Once you work those Samsung features into your workflow, it's downright painful to use a phone without them.
That amazing display means something on the Note 7 is less amazing than the iPhone 7 Plus, battery. The 2900mAh battery in the iPhone 7 Plus is noticeably smaller than the 3500mAh battery in the Note 7, yet somehow Apple is able to routinely deliver a full hour more use. The Note 7 still has no problems getting me to the end of a 15-hour day with 20% or more remaining, which is more than enough for a lot of people, but the iPhone 7 Plus regularly ends the day at 28-30%.
While it's true many Note 7 owners never unsheath the S Pen after the first week, I happen to love mine. The ability to quickly take a note just by removing the pen is an incredible feature. Grabbing a screenshot to doodle on is great, as well. Samsung has worked hard to make this much more than something you'd give someone who likes to draw, and it's totally unique to the Note line. It's one of those things Samsung does well if you dive in and take a look at the features offered. The same can be said of Samsung's Edge features, which are great if you love a quick launcher for apps you regularly use or want a peek into your calendar.
Once you work those features into your workflow, it's downright painful to use a phone without them. There isn't any one thing about the iPhone that offers the same feeling, though it could be argued that pure software polish is that one killer thing.
Which should you buy?
Ultimately, what makes the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 special is the collection of great ideas you can mold into the experience that works best for you. There's no single feature or experience that grabs you as this truly exceptional thing, but the ability to put these individual ideas together and create your own no compromise phone with its own fun set of features is fantastic. It's also a little clumsy and a lot confusing if all you want is a "phone that does apps" and lets you post to Facebook.
The iPhone 7 Plus represents more than the next iteration in Apple's design and software, it's the next iteration of Apple's whole ethos. This is a phone that works well as long as you use it exactly the way Apple thinks you should use it. Apple "courageously" created a singular experience that is beautiful and powerful in its own way, but also weirdly limiting and occasionally artificial in ways that are just plain unnecessary.
Which should you buy? Well, if you want a phone you can explore and make your own, knowing it has features you'll probably never use but will still be a great overall experience, you want a Note 7. If you want the most powerful phone with the truest to life imagery, and don't mind being told you don't need other features you might find interesting in order to have that experience, the iPhone 7 Plus is exceptional.