Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review: Biggest and best

Samsung Galaxy Note 7

Product advisory: After a recall due to exploding batteries, and a subsequent batch of replacement Galaxy Note 7s catching fire, Samsung has permanently discontinued the Galaxy Note 7. You won't be able to buy one from your carrier or other major retailers, and you should not buy a Note 7 second-hand. Catch up on how we got to this point with everything you need to know about the Galaxy Note 7 recall.

The quick take

Even though the Note 7 doesn't immediately strike you as an altogether stand-out device like its predecessors, it's still an amazing phone that stands atop others available today. The Note 7 takes the Galaxy S7's formula of minimizing gimmicks in order to offer a fantastic core smartphone experience, and does so with very few, if any, missteps. It checks all of the boxes, and goes above and beyond expectations in just about every way. It's the best Galaxy Note to date.

The Good

  • Beautiful hardware
  • Industry-leading display
  • Great camera
  • Unique S Pen features

The Bad

  • Still too big for some hands
  • Very expensive
  • Carrier bloatware still horrible
  • No U.S. unlocked model

Samsung Galaxy Note 7

The best Samsung phone of its time?

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Full review

When Samsung came out ahead of the Galaxy Note 7's unveiling and announced that its latest Galaxy Note would skip a numerical generation to fall in line with the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge launched earlier this year, it was a great bit of foreshadowing. The combination of weeks of leaks and that subtle announcement of the bump past Note 6 and straight to Note 7 should've given us a good idea that we were going to see a Galaxy Note 7 not unlike the Galaxy S7 edge that came just six months earlier.

And then, that's pretty much what we got.

The Galaxy Note 7, part of the Note line that historically has been in its own class, generation after generation incapable of really being compared directly to any other phone, now shared a large portion of its specs, design and DNA with a non-Note phone. The Note fans immediately reacted negatively, worried that if they were to buy a Galaxy Note 7 they wouldn't necessarily be on the bleeding edge of technology, differentiated with a mound of new specs and features beyond that of what Samsung or any other company could pack into a phone. Reaction from the general populous, though, was set to be a bit more realistic — simply seeing a beautiful phone with all of the features they wanted, badged with a name they associated with really nice smartphones.

Yes the Galaxy Note 7 is very much a part of the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge family, no longer on a disparate path. The number 7 appended to its name sets that expectation, the outside reaffirms your suspicions and the experience solidifies them. But that isn't a bad thing, and it doesn't mean there isn't a ton to get to know about the Galaxy Note 7, including how it indeed still differentiates itself from the world of high-end Android phones, Samsung or otherwise. I'm here to tell you just where the Note 7 fits in this world — read on.

About this review

I (Andrew Martonik) am writing this review after a week using a T-Mobile (G930T) version of the Galaxy Note 7, which was provided to Android Central by Samsung for review. The review was conducted using the T-Mobile network in the greater Seattle, WA area. The phone arrived on software version UVU1APGC, and was not updated during the course of the review.

Pretty pictures

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Video review

Before I get deep into the details writing about the Galaxy Note 7, I encourage you to check out a full video review recap of the phone. Check it out above, get a feel for the phone, and then follow along as I break down all of the details of the latest Galaxy Note!

Samsung Galaxy Note 7

More change than you think

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Hardware

To dismiss the Galaxy Note 7 out of hand (or ... in your hand?) simply because it bares an initial resemblance to the Galaxy S7 edge is taking the easy route. Samsung has simply improved this metal-and-glass design with each iteration — this is the largest generation-to-generation design change yet, and easily the best executed as well.

The Note 7 lost a considerable amount of metal in its frame compared to the Note 5, and it's immediately noticeable when you pick it up. Whereas the Note 5 very much felt like a primarily metal phone that simply had its back replaced with a piece of glass, the Note 7 feels like a glass phone with only a necessary amount of metal sandwiched in between the panes.

The new curved display and mirrored curved back encroach on the now much-thinner metal strip along the sides of the Note 7, and the theme continues onto the top and bottom where the metal no longer extends up and over the glass but instead recedes to let the glass take over the edge. You won't find bevels on the top and bottom of the metal anymore, either: just a smooth, gently rounded edge that meets up with the metal seamlessly.

And though there's less material here, what's left there is stronger than any previous Samsung phone — the Note 7 uses a 7000 series aluminum for its frame, some of the hardest you can get and the same used in the iPhone 6s. Not only is it tougher to scratch and ding in daily use, it'll also cut down on flex in the body of the phone.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7

Now, I have to talk about the color options available for the Note 7. The model I'm reviewing here, black onyx, is far and away my favorite of the bunch. The black-on-black design is so sleek, so monolithic and so stealth that I honestly can't imagine buying the silver, gold or blue coral versions, as nice as they may be in their own right. This color combination is a perfect match for the smoother, simpler hardware the Note 7 offers. It also shows Samsung's willingness to mix things up with the color of both the glass and metal, as each of the four (three in the U.S.) available colors has a different anodization process applied to the aluminum — a nice treat.

Samsung's design team talked at length about the symmetry of the Note 7 at the phone's launch event in New York City, and it's something that actually makes a notable difference in how compact the phone feels. The smaller amount of metal on the sides of the phone paired with the dueling glass curves let the phone nestle deep into your palm, making it a bit less awkward to reach across what is still a very large phone.

  • 5.7-inch SuperAMOLED
  • 2560x1440 (QHD) resolution
  • Gorilla Glass 5
  • Dual curve screen
  • 12MP, f/1.7, OIS rear camera
  • 5MP, f/1.7 front camera
  • 3500 mAh battery
  • Non-removable
  • Fast Charging
  • Wireless charging
  • Snapdragon 820 processor
  • 4GB RAM
  • 64GB storage
  • microSD card slot

It's absolutely gorgeous, and easier to handle than previous Notes

Because of these subtle design changes, I find the Galaxy Note 7 easier to use and manipulate in one hand than the Galaxy S7 edge, which I consider a huge win. This is still a big phone, no doubt, but I think at this point people generally know that they're getting into some sort of trade-off situation where they're getting a larger screen — and its associated benefits — in turn for slightly decreased usability.

Over time more and more people seem to be fine with moving to a larger screen, and Samsung has at the same time met them from the other side with a more compact device. Very much in the same vein, consumers are willing to take trade-offs in order to have a more beautiful phone in their hands and on the table in front of them.

The hardware changes integrated into the Note 7's design have accomplished mightily on both fronts. It's a great-looking smartphone, at any size, and while it clearly isn't designed 100% from a functional standpoint, it strikes a wonderful balance.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7

Same wonderful display

Oh Samsung, you spoil us so much with these SuperAMOLED displays. You just can't do better when it comes to a smartphone screen, and no other company comes close. The 5.7-inch 2560x1440 screen (with due credit to Samsung's software tuning) is so amazingly bright and colorful, with great viewing angles, that I can't really ask for much more at this point. Daylight visibility is best in class, and Samsung's software does a good job with automatic brightness control in other situations to boot.

Samsung's SuperAMOLED continues to destroy the competition

But the magic of the panel itself isn't the only reason why the Note 7 offers such a great viewing experience. You also have the curving of the screen on both sides, something of course introduced back on the Galaxy S6 edge but has been done much more subtly on the Note 7. With a tighter radius and overall smaller curve when compared to the Galaxy S7 edge, the screen curves simply provide a functional narrowing of the device, without the downside of accidental palm touches and missed swipes. The visual effect the small curve provides is fantastic as well, in that it really gives the feeling that the Note 7 barely even has bezels on its sides.

And of course the Note 7 is also the first phone to incorporate Corning's Gorilla Glass 5, which as is the case every year steps things up with even more robust scratch and shatter resistance. This is hardly a "shatterproof" phone, and believe me it will pick up scratches over time, but it never hurts to have increased damage resistance on a phone that has two huge panes of glass with curved edges.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 USB-C port

The move to USB-C

On the face of it it seems like such a small thing for the Note 7 to ship with a USB-C connector instead of the tried-and-true Micro-USB. Nobody could've blamed Samsung much for sticking with Micro-USB considering its long legacy of accessories that use the port, but seeing such a big company finally shift to the new USB standard is great — particularly as it likely means that all of its phones going forward will use USB-C.

It's handling the transition in the right way, it seems, as well. You'll find a USB-C to Micro-USB adapter in the box with your Note 7, and Samsung has released a new version of its Gear VR headset that adds (among other features) a swappable plug that lets it work with both old and new Galaxy phones. For now its other accessories like batteries still charge up over Micro-USB, but these will start to come with adapters in the box as they eventually transition to USB-C also.

The benefits of USB-C like the fact that it's reversible and can carry more data are easy to understand, but that still won't overcome the feeling amongst some owners that moving to USB-C from their legacy of Micro-USB accessories will be a pain. Years of buying phones with Micro-USB ports has left many of us with a pile of cables, batteries, docks and plugs that are now useless, and that's going to be a realization that may hurt Samsung a bit — but it had to rip the band-aid off at some point, and it might as well be with a phone that people are already spending $850 on. You can afford a couple new cables.

Galaxy Note 7 SDcard slot

Return of the microSD card slot

After Samsung took a 180-degree turn with no expandable storage and instead offered internal storage options up to 128GB in its 2015 flagship phones ... customers spoke in words and with their wallets: "We want an SD card slot back." Whether it was technically or philosophically the "correct" move for Samsung is irrelevant — removal of the SD card slot from its 2015 flagship Galaxy phones was a failure. That much is clear now, and the SD card slot is back.

With 64GB internal, even fewer people will need the SD card slot

Functionally, things pick up right where they left off on the Note 4 when it comes to adding an SD card to the phone. Despite running Marshmallow there's no Adoptable Storage option here — the SD card simply acts as a standalone volume to store media and some apps if you choose.

It's a good way to fill up a card on your computer and transfer files over to your phone for viewing or listening, but is altogether a second-class experience in terms of actively using it for media you create on the Note 7 itself. There are confusing (and entirely necessary) restrictions on which apps and parts of apps can be moved to the SD card, as well as usability hurdles when it comes to capturing photos and videos directly to the card.

With the Note 7's bump up to 64GB of internal storage there are even fewer people who will need an SD card, so I would caution you to just give the phone a try and see how much you fill it up before buying an SD card just because it has the capability. After installing all of my usual apps, I still had 45GB free.

Waterproofing

This is the very first waterproof Galaxy Note. And it shouldn't come as a surprise, as this has really been one of the pinnacle features that Samsung has hung its hat on since launching to a widespread customer base earlier this year with the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge.

Just like those phones (and the "Active" ones before them), the Galaxy Note 7 has what's called an IP68 rating, meaning it can handle both dust and water under some pretty standard situations. The big one is water resistance, where the phone can handle 30 minutes submerged in up to five feet of water. While that doesn't mean it can replace your GoPro camera, or serve as a "rugged" phone, it will absolutely handle a drink being spilt on it at dinner or taking a quick dunk in the shallow end of a swimming pool.

Over the course of this review I exposed the phone to plenty of water and it just kept on going, including giving it a shot at recording video under water, which it actually accomplished nicely unlike my previous tests with the Galaxy S7 edge. I think every single high-end phone should be resistant to water in some capacity, and it's great to see Samsung continue to carry the feature on its best phones.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7

A stealthy update

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Software

It's easy — and understandable — to focus on the hardware story in the Galaxy Note 7, but Samsung also took this launch as an opportunity to roll out a pretty considerable software redesign as well. Having Android 7.0 Nougat and all of its associated software update headaches on the horizon it would have been completely understandable to save these changes to coincide with that large platform release, but we get them early here built into Android 6.0 Marshmallow.