In 2016, if you're demanding top dollar for a high-end phone, you can't afford to screw anything up. The technology for phenomenal smartphone experiences is within the grasp of all the major players. And competition is such that any device that misses the mark will be chewed out by critics and rivals alike.
This is the competitive environment into which the Samsung Galaxy S7 series is born.
Samsung, for all its monetary and marketing grunt, hasn't always knocked it out of the park. In 2015, the number one Android manufacturer was forced into a complete re-think of its industrial design after the previous year's Galaxy S5 received a lukewarm reception. Even the Galaxy S6, for all its strengths, had a couple of obvious weaknesses: the removal of the SD card slot for expandable storage, and pretty dismal battery life.
To hold onto its crown, Samsung needs to finally deliver the "no-compromises" Galaxy S phone we've been waiting on for what seems like an eternity. This year the Korean firm's curvy Edge Display graduates from quirky sidekick into a starring role — it's the Galaxy S7 edge, not the flat GS7, which now leads the lineup.
So how does hype compare with reality? We've been using the UK-spec Galaxy S7 edge — with Samsung's own Exynos processor — in recent weeks, and we offer up our considered opinion below.
About this review
I (Alex Dobie) am writing this review after a couple of weeks with the European Samsung Galaxy S7 edge (SM-G935F) in Manchester, UK, and Hamburg, Germany, on the EE and Telekom.de networks. During most of that time the phone was running firmware version G935FXXU1APAW. Shortly before publishing this review it received an over-the-air update to version G935FXXU1APC8. I've also been using the GS7 edge with a Moto 360 (second-gen) smartwatch.
In the UK, the GS7 and GS7 edge feature Samsung's own Exynos 8890 processor, as opposed to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 used in the U.S. and Chinese models, so that's what we're reviewing here.
Samsung finally gets it
A refined design
At the risk of stating the obvious, Samsung didn't need to reinvent the wheel with this cycle of phones. None of our complaints surrounding its predecessor had to do with its look or feel. The Samsung of 2016 (finally) gets design, and a year after the company took a quantum leap ahead in terms of build quality and materials, baby steps forward are just fine.
With a screen measuring 5.5 inches diagonally, the Galaxy S7 edge sits somewhere between the regular GS7 and Samsung's larger GS6 edge+. By the numbers alone it's closer to "phablet" territory than you might think.
But there are big big phones and there are small big phones, and the GS7 edge is most certainly the latter. You're getting a large screen without a whole lot of unnecessary stuff around it. Unlike Apple's iPhone 6s, which also packs a 5.5-inch display, the Galaxy S7 edge really doesn't feel like a massive handset.
There are big big phones and there are small big phones.
That's mainly due to slim bezels, and the curves which permeate the entire device. Subtly curved glass on the phone's rear makes it a more comfortable fit than its somewhat angular predecessor, while gently tapered edges can be seen at the top and bottom of both the front and rear face.
It's a bit of a throwback to the now ancient Galaxy S3, which made a big deal about its nature-inspired design and lack of flat sides back in 2012. Like that phone, the GS7 edge almost looks like a polished stone split up by a futuristic metallic trim. The key difference, though, is that the GS7 edge does this and makes it look good. It's a stunning piece of technology to behold.
The joins between metal and glass are more gentle this time around, with a move away from sharp chamfers giving Samsung's latest a more organic look while also improving its ergonomics.
A stunning piece of technology to behold.
The reverse of both GS7s remains something of a fingerprint magnet, on account of the lack of oleophobic coating back there. That has its advantages, however — if a fingerprint-resistant coating was used on both sides of the phone, it'd be even more slick in the hand than it already is. As it stands, the GS7 edge in particular is something of a slippery fish — partly due to its accentuated curves, partly due to the slimmer metallic trim that offers less purchase.
The display itself, naturally, is jaw-droppingly fantastic. Samsung has been pumping out seriously impressive Quad HD SuperAMOLED displays for more than 18 months now, and while it's hard to say there's been a huge jump in quality compared to the GS6, that's mainly because that phone's screen was already stunning. The redesigned edges make a swipe inwards from either side feel more natural, allowing you easy access to Samsung's updated suite of Edge Screen applications. At the same time though, that curved display is a little easier to hit accidentally than previous "edge" handsets. It can take a bit of adjustment.
Sound is one area in which there's been a real tangible improvement for Samsung. The built-in speaker, situated on the bottom edge, packs much more power than the tinny audio reproduction of the GS6, bringing it into line with impressive bottom-facing speakers from the likes of Apple and HTC. There's plenty of power and bass behind the GS7's speaker, although its placement can be problematic when you're holding the phone in landscape mode.
Naturally, the GS7 edge's internals have received a tune-up too. Like its flat sibling, the edge runs Samsung's own Exynos 8890 processor in the UK — an octa-core chip with four low-power ARM Cortex-A53 cores for less demanding tasks, and four beefy Samsung Exynos M1 cores for high-powered stuff. It's a big deal for Samsung because it's the first time the company has used its own custom core designs (the aforementioned M1) in a smartphone chipset. And that makes this Samsung phone arguably much more vertically integrated than in years past.
In the U.S., the GS7 series uses Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 SoC, a quad-core part that favors fewer, more powerful individual cores.
Hardware features like microSD and water resistance make a bigger difference than improved number-crunching capabilities.
For the most part, both perform fantastically, but we are seeing some anecdotal differences in battery life between the two GS7 variants, with the European Exynos model I'm using seeming to eke a little more life out of the 3600 mAh fixed battery. We'll follow up with a more scientific test soon.
Suffice to say, day-to-day performance is amazingly speedy. We're reaching the point of diminishing returns for smartphone performance, where factors like flash memory speeds and software optimizations make a bigger difference to how fast a phone feels than sheer number-crunching potential. Instead, the biggest change is something more tangible — the return of the microSD slot. Right now the Galaxy S7 only comes with 32GB of internal storage, but you can easily augment it by tossing in an SD card and using that for photos or offline music storage. While some may be disappointed at the lack of a 64GB (or even 128GB) option, I can live with 32GB perfectly happily — assuming my photos and music aren't included in that allowance.
The inclusion of IP68-rated water resistance is also big deal — not because I'm going to be taking the GS7 scuba diving anytime soon, but more for the peace of mind it'll give me the next time I'm caught out in a rainstorm. Many phones can probably survive an occasional encounter with rain or a spilt drink, but having this guaranteed is a huge plus for Samsung, and a much-needed differentiator. (And doing so without unsightly GS5-style plastic flaps over the ports is also a welcome development.)
Finally, major GS6 tentpole features make a return in this year's model — wireless charging (including fast wireless charging if you fork out for Samsung's faster charging pad, Qualcomm QuickCharge 2.0 (fine, not the newer 3.0, but still fast enough) and fingerprint security. The GS7 edge's single-touch fingerprint scanners worked about as well as the GS6 edge+ for me, which is to say it's generally reliable, but not as quick or accurate as the iPhone's TouchID or Google's Nexus Imprint.
All in all, Samsung has taken a proven design and added the expected incremental improvements to turn last year's good phone into this year's great phone. More importantly, the return of removable storage and water resistance, as well as a significantly larger battery, give the GS7 edge some important differentiating features in a highly competitive market.
A fresh take on TouchWiz
Samsung's Marshmallow software tune-up
Samsung continues to build its own visual style atop Android, and the Galaxy S7 edge comes with a streamlined TouchWiz interface alongside version 6.0.1 of Google's OS. Samsung's take on Marshmallow involves re-tooled, rounded rectangular icons, less visual cruft (such as drop shadows), and a move away from the bright teals and blues of the GS6 era. Instead we're seeing more greys and whites in the mix, giving things a more muted look. Android veterans will also notice new swooping animations to complement the Material Design-inspired interface of Samsung's own apps.
Samsung's take on Android is colorful as ever, and a little more approachable than stock.
Make no mistake, this is Samsung's UI more than Google's, but at the same time the company hasn't stampeded over the work of Matias Duarte and his team. It's also interesting to note the visual changes that seem influenced by iOS and the leading Chinese phone makers, such as optional rounded "squircle" icons and changes to the power menu.
For the most part, the TouchWiz of 2016 looks reasonably good. Samsung's UI holds up well next to its contemporaries, being more colorful and playful than vanilla Android, and carefully building upon the Galaxy S6's software capabilities without becoming mired in the feature creep that characterized the GS3-GS4 era.
With the exception of the strange light-grey quick settings and notification drawer, the interface looks like a cohesive whole, and performance has been smooth and responsive throughout my time with the phone. I can't guarantee you'll never make the GS7 skip a frame, but the times it does are incredibly rare.
Whatever you say about the Edge Screen's software tricks, you can't deny it's mostly there to look cool.
I've been using the "edge" variant, and that means I get to play with Samsung's revamped Edge Screen features. The Edge Screen always seemed like a solution looking for a problem — something Samsung did because it looked cool, then worked backwards to find software features to shoehorn into it. That's still kind of the case in the Edge's latest incarnation, but it's clear the software implementation is far more thoughtful than in previous years. The extra-wide Edge panels give you more room to see information like calendar entries, app shortcuts and weather forecasts. Meanwhile the inclusion of more individual Edge panels — including the hilarious ruler panel from the ill-fated Galaxy Note Edge — give you more ways to use this key software feature. (There are even third-party Edge panels to download via Galaxy Apps if you're so inclined.)
Then again, there's nothing about this feature that inherently needs a curved display. And I can't say I've found myself using any of the Edge panels with any regularity. That said, the Edge screen still fulfills its primary function — looking damn cool.
A closer look at the Edge Screen
No longer is Samsung's curvy display there for decoration alone. The Edge Screen of 2016 is larger, with a more customizable drawer, and an enormous array of new panels to play with. Take a closer look at what the Galaxy S7 edge's new software tricks can do in our hands-on walkthrough.
Samsung's trademark multitasking features also make a return in the GS7 series. Though later in the year they may be overshadowed by Android N's split-screen implementation, right now Samsung's your best bet for running two apps on-screen at once, or juggling a bunch of apps at once in pop-up window mode. And given the GS7 edge's relatively large screen size, there's plenty of visual real estate to go around.
Other software notables:
- The GS7 edge's home screen launcher defaults to a 4-by-5 icon grid, which looks a little weird on a display this large. Changing to 5-by-5 grid gives you more space for icons on each screen, while also ensuring the icons themselves aren't unnecessarily large.
- Samsung has replaced the Flipboard briefing slide-out panel with the Upday app in Europe. Like Flipboard, it's supposed to let you create a personalized news feed in your home screen. And like Flipboard, it was one of the first things I turned off.
- Speaking of things I almost immediately turned off, Samsung's always-on display is pretty useless in its current implementation, only showing alerts from Samsung's built-in apps, not third-party stuff. This feature seems unnecessarily hobbled.
- Samsung's built-in keyboard has actually gotten pretty good. I'm back using SwiftKey right now. But my "time-to-SwiftKey" — my personal measure of the time before I cave and install my keyboard of choice — was longer on the GS7 than just about any phone I've used in recent months.
- Persistent notification nags in TouchWiz have been eliminated. Samsung's Gallery app no longer pesters you with useless "Event" collages. And the "app optimization" feature's regular nags can be disabled as well.
- My unlocked UK GS7 edge was swiftly updated to the March 2016 Android security patch, a little over two weeks after its release to Nexus devices. It'll be interesting to see if Samsung can maintain this pace for future security patches. (And how far carrier versions lag behind.)
A lateral move
A camera that's dependable and impressive, but not flawless
All of which makes surpassing that high water mark in 2016 all the more difficult.
The numbers really don't do the GS7's camera justice.
Samsung's answer is a new sensor with larger pixels — 1.4-microns, up from 1.12 before — to take in more light, allowing for better low-light snaps, paired with a brighter f/1.7 lens to let more light in in the first place. The trade-off? A lower resolution overall — 12 megapixels, down from the GS6's 16.
Around the front you'll find a similar 5-megapixel sensor, also behind an f/1.7 lens for clearer selfies.
The characteristics of the main camera make it easy to label the Galaxy S7 as a side-grade in mobile imaging, not an upgrade. But that doesn't really do it justice.
It's true that the GS6 — still one of the best smartphone cameras out there — can produce highly detailed daylight shots rivaling its successor. But that's balanced out at the other end by the GS7's superlative low-light capabilities. In exchange for a relatively minor loss in fidelity in daylight pics, you're getting a camera that's a generational leap ahead in low-light photography.
Images appear crisp and sharp, with none of the weird focus hunting I sometimes experienced from the GS6's camera. Essentially, you can point and shoot and be guaranteed a good-looking photo almost all of the time. That's been one of the iPhone camera's greatest strengths, so it's important to see Samsung reaching this milestone in ease of use.
And thanks to that f/1.7 lens, the GS7 can capture some gorgeous macro shots with backgrounds that disappear into a beautiful bokeh effect.
Samsung's new camera also handles HDR shots in a more realistic way than many rivals, although in some situations the GS7 actually captures less shadow detail than its forerunner. (As a trade-off, areas of fine detail, such as tree branches, didn't exhibit the weird discoloration and artifacting that we frequently saw from the Note 4 and GS6 cameras.) We also noticed that the newer model was less aggressive about switching to HDR mode when this option was set to "Auto."
Shootout: The Best Smartphone Camera
Most modern, high-end phones have great cameras. But which is the very best? We've pitted the Samsung Galaxy S7 against the iPhone 6s, Google Nexus 6P and Microsoft Lumia 950 in our conclusive smartphone camera shootout. Which phone takes the crown? Hit the link below to find out!
As for areas of weakness, like other Samsung cameras the GS7 tends to make low-light snaps look overly warm, especially in reasonably lit indoor shots. We also noticed an occasional instances of motion blur in night shots and indoor food and macro snaps, even with the included optical image stabilization (OIS).
But we're really nitpicking here. On the whole, this is a phenomenal smartphone camera.
Every smartphone camera needs a quick-launch feature like Samsung's.
On the software side, Samsung continues to boast the best camera app of any Android phone maker, with a solid Auto shooting mode backed up by new additions like live panoramas — a short 1080p video recorded as you shoot panoramic images — and built-in Hyperlapse for smoothed-out time lapse videos.
What's more, Samsung's double-press-home-key shortcut remains my primary method of firing up the camera app. Whether the phone is awake or asleep, this is a super-quick and reliable way to guarantee you'll be looking at the GS7's viewfinder by the time you've moved it into place. (And with the GS7's ultra-fast autofocus, chances are your subject will also be in focus and ready to snap.)
What we've been waiting for
All-day battery life
Smartphone battery life is a highly subjective thing, and with a beefy 3600mAh cell inside, the Galaxy S7 edge has a lot to live up to. And we've already heard reports of battery life differing between the Snapdragon (U.S.) and Exynos (global) versions of phone, further confusing matters.
Regardless, I've been seriously impressed with the longevity of the Exynos-based Galaxy S7 edge I've been using. The difference isn't so much in the total time between charges — though the huge battery capacity surely helps there, as does Android 6.0's "doze" mode for the times the phone's idle and stationary. The biggest difference for me is how little battery power the GS7 edge uses when the screen is on and the mobile radios are fired up.
The GS7 edge brings a significant reduction in battery anxiety.
Previous Samsung phones — heck, earlier Android phones in general — have a tendency to tank the battery when you're browsing on LTE and rapidly switching between apps. Anecdotally, the GS7 edge held up to this type of heavy use far more robustly than the Marshmallow-updated Galaxy S6 edge+ I was using previously.
A good example is traveling with the phone. I would almost reflexively pack my Samsung Fast Charge Battery Pack in a pocket when flying with other Android phones, including the aforementioned GS6 edge+. After switching to the GS7 edge, this stayed in the overhead locker.
In terms of raw numbers, I can get to the end of a regular working day — mostly on Wi-Fi — with a good 50 percent remaining, assuming I'm not charging the GS7 edge wirelessly. Pushing it harder, I can go from early morning to late night without a single mid-day charge, and around six hours of screen-on time. That's a huge deal, and a new standard for battery life in high-end Android phones.
Awesome is the new ordinary
The bottom line: The best Android phone — for now
It's an unfortunate fact that many high-end Android phones of the past year or so have come with a bunch of caveats attached. Samsung's 2015 lineup just didn't have great battery life. LG's offerings lacked spectacular build quality and great-looking software. Google's Nexus phones had painfully slow cameras.
A truly awesome, pretty much entirely compromise-free Android flagship.
The Galaxy S7 edge is the closest I've come to a compromise-free Android experience, to the point where the less desirable things about it are mainly matters of personal taste. Maybe the edge screen isn't your thing. Or a 5.5-inch display could just be too big (or small!) for you. Or maybe it's the look and feel of TouchWiz that just cheeses your onions.
At a high level, however, the GS7 edge does pretty much everything right. And you really have to pick nits to find any legitimate complaints.
When awesome is the new ordinary, it takes a lot to stand out. But that's exactly what Samsung has been able to achieve with the Galaxy S7 edge — a phone that's good at everything, and exceptional where it's really important.
Where to buy the Galaxy S7 edge in the UK
If you've decided that the GS7 edge is the smartphone for you, you can turn to several different places to pick one up. It'll set you back a good amount of money, but as we've shown here, you're getting a lot of phone for your money.
Samsung Galaxy S7 edge U.S. review
Want to go in-depth on all the Galaxy S7 edge's hardware, software and camera features? You'll want to check out Andrew Martonik's full review of the U.S. version of the GS7 edge on Verizon Wireless. Hit the link below for an American perspective on Samsung's new flagship smartphone.
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