Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review
A stunning screen and a stylus aren’t enough to justify the ridiculous price tag of this buggy phone
- Stunning 4k AMOLED screen
- Useful bespoke software
- Good low-light camera
- Bit explodey
- Massively overpriced
- Lack of bezel encourages operational mistakes
- Chipset is getting old
At $1349 we expect perfection and this isn't it. The lack of bezel means input mistakes are a constant bugbear. But the screen is good and the Iris scanner interesting. There's better value to be had everywhere else, though.
At $1349 you’d be forgiven for wondering if you were looking at a laptop or tablet review, but no, this really is the price of Samsung’s new phone.
We have very fond memories of the Note series, especially the Note 3 and Note 4. These launched with the latest chipsets so they’d always have the best performance on the market. Their plastic chassis and removable backs withstood falls and meant you could easily add memory cards, replace the battery and they did away with all the bloated apps that the regular Galaxy S phones foisted upon us. We never even used the stylus. They were just great-performing, large phones.
But since the Note 5 (there’s no Note 6 – we've jumped to the 7 to keep continuity with Galaxy S range nomenclature) the Note range has been transformed into a fashion-conscious phone, rather than an ugly-but-functional, supreme professional tool. We’re still quite sad about that. But is this any good?
5.7in, 1440 x 2560, 518ppi AMOLED display; 64,4GB RAM; Exynos 8890 Octa-core CPU plus Mali-T880 GPU, 16MP/5MP cameras, Android 6.0, 3,500mAh fast charge battery, Iris Scanner, Fingerprint reader, NanoSIM, MicroSD card slot, 154 x 74 x 8mm, 169g. Full specs here.
The insides are basically the same as the Samsung Galaxy S7 which launched six month’s ago, so it’s disappointing that a premium is being charged for a chipset that’s looking long in the tooth. Samsung’s Touchwiz operating environment sits atop standard Android without being too conspicuous but it does seem to add some lag to proceedings on some occasions – but generally apps open near-instantly and we suffered few performance-related issues in terms of speed.
We did, however, find that Samsung’s edge-to-edge screen could be infuriating. While the sides of the screen don’t curve down to the extent seen on the S7 Edge, you’re constantly touching the edges of the screen as there's no bezel. While most of the time those touches aren’t registered, too often they were and we found ourselves opening unwanted apps or suffering dramatic typing fails. The screen's registering of multiple presses while Swype-texting were a constant bugbear and we’d regularly have to go back and delete multiple "words" in a sentence. The Samsung keyboard also seemed to have a slight delay when registering input meaning we’d frequently experience the wrong word appearing. All in all, we’ve not struggled with typing on any other device (since the S7 Edge) as much as this. It’s a basic functionality fail and we’re inclined to say, don’t buy this phone without a case – just so you’ve got something to hold onto at the sides. This is ridiculous for a phone that costs over $1300.
It’s not just typing that suffers. Because the software doesn’t register your fingers at the sides, it also doesn’t register some intentional screen presses at the sides when you actually want to make them. Upvoting and downvoting on reddit is a good example that sporadically failed - we'd find ourselves jabbing forlornly at the sides of the screen. It's not all the time but it's regular enough to be consistently annoying.
The back is covered in Gorilla Glass version 5. While this sounds strong and looks good, we’re completely over having glass exteriors to phones: it’s just one more thing to break. Our Note 5 lasted a week before dropping it on a hard floor left the back shattered. The Note’s of old had plastic crumple zones which would absorb impact and protect the phone. The glass on the rear also makes the Note 7 particularly slippery, whether in your hand or pocket. This is another reason for keeping it in a case.
The stylus is inconspicuous and easy to pull out should you want it. It provides a few, potentially-useful features like precise cutting and pasting and scribbling on screenshots. There’s also a magnify feature – when you hover the pen over areas of the screen – and a translate feature when you hover the pen over certain words. Another feature, called ‘Glance’ temporarily maximizes an app screen when you hover over a thumbnail of it. Otherwise, the stylus is mainly good for precise interaction with things like movie editing. We’ve been using Note phones for years (the wife still uses the 4) and neither of us have ever bothered with the stylus too much, but its features may appeal to some. You can also use the stylus when the screen is under water, but we don't recommend doing this unless you (for some reason) absolutely need to.
Iris scanner and unlocking
We like to see innovation in phones but we’re not convinced about Samsung’s Iris scanner just yet. Excellent, rear-mounted, speedy fingerprint readers on Huawei’s Mate 8 and P9 have convinced us that using a lock screen pattern is a time-consuming annoyance these days. Samsung’s fingerprint reader is on the function button at the bottom of the screen which isn’t the most convenient position any more. It’s also not instantaneous at unlocking the phone.
The Iris scanner, while carrying the promise of not contorting your thumbs on a pattern-unlock screen or fingerprint reader, brings with it some horror movie-like issues. A red light ulluminates your eyes while you have to stare at two circles at the top of the screen. What you see looking back at you is reminiscent both of the movie White Noise and Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars – it looks like your soul has been ripped from your body and is screaming at you from within the phone in a plea to be released. It's a trifle unsettling.
But it works. Sometimes. It’s not as fast as Huawei’s simple fingerprint unlocker but it does occasionally let you avoid contorting your thumb into an awkward position at the front.
We used to get two days out of the Note phones and the two degrees of power saving meant this could stretch to five days at a push. However, the Note 7 has a 3,500mAh battery which is slightly smaller than that the S7 Edge.
It generally lasted a full day under reasonable usage – lots of internet and Facebook, Olympics watching plus some map navigation and a bit of gaming – but not much longer.
A USB-C port is used for charging and the fast charger works well. But it’s basically the battery life we’ve come to expect from most phones. Nothing special.
Power-saving mode drops the screen resolution down to regular Full HD while an app called App Power Monitor is always available on the notifications area. This gives you an estimate for the amount of battery remaining (in hours) along with options for extending that number (we found it was generally very optimistic in its projections). Nonetheless, it makes it simple to extend life by dropping processor speed and brightness as well as turning off background data usage.
Video was among the best we’ve seen in some respects. Focusing is fast, smooth, silent and accurate – unlike most competitors. It also did a reasonable job at smoothing out footsteps while walking around. Sharpness could be impressive although (as usual) it was much better when both the camera and the subject were still. The big letdown was a regular flickering during lighting changes – this was more of an issue indoors when moving between darker and brighter areas. Another issue is that video recorded on a landscape orientation typically played back in portrait mode. This may be an issue for some usage scenarios as it’s not always easy to rotate video.
A special mention needs to be made for low light. In a very dark child’s birthday disco, the screen acted like night-vision goggles – you could actually see more using the camera than in real life which is a huge difference to most digital cameras.
Quality under such circumstances would still be incredibly grainy but as an extreme test, the fact that some pictures were even usable without flash here was extraordinary. In our modestly-lit room we were still impressed with sharpness. Moving objects would naturally blur quite heavily but the main camera’s ability in low light in general is among the very best. It’s not a miracle worker and the flash can take a long time to fire – so don’t think it’s a solution to poor-light shooting, but it’s definitely better than everything else we’ve seen.
In general well-lit use, pictures are sharp and colour saturation was generally good. We still prefer Huawei’s P9 (with Leica-optimised dual cameras) but this is one of the better cameras on the market. Enough to justify the huge price premium? No.
The selfie camera is impressively sharp and comes with some potentially-handy skin smoothing and other ‘beauty’ effects which either make you look a bit less like a potato or more like an alien. There’s quite a fish-bowl effect (which is pronounced if you hold the camera too far from your face) which can be an issue for group shots, though.
Samsung includes some potentially-useful software. When playing games an overlay allows you to keep a game running while minimized, take screenshots, record the on-screen action as a video and lock the navigation keys.
Samsung Pay theoretically lets you pay for goods in a PayWave style – but doesn’t work in Australia.
Samsung Notes lets you make multimedia sticky notes which can then be shared or posted on the main screen. Samsung’s Secure Folder lets you store files, media and apps in a secure folder which might be interesting to those who periodically give their phone to other people.
Other software appears when swiping from the side. This gives you the ‘Apps Edge’ or ‘People Edge’ launcher which provides shortcuts to your most used apps and contacts. When it works. If you swipe from the wrong part of the screen you get another app or navigation page altogether. There are other apps available here, including compass tools, weather and CNN news feeds. Adding a case may well interfere with operation of this feature.
The phone is IP68 rated meaning it’s water-splash and dust resistant. The pen allows it to be used under water but we didn’t want to test that. It’s nice knowing that extra bit of durability is available though.
Movie Enhancer software adds a movie-like filter to video in a similar way to setting your TV to Movie mode – things become a bit more dramatic.
One of the best features rarely gets a mention from Samsung – SOS Message. When set up, you can press the power button three times and a picture, audio recording and GPS coordinates will automatically be sent to emergency contacts.
$1349 is a ridiculous amount of money for a phone so we expected perfection. But we don’t have it here. Yes the screen looks great – better than pretty much anything else on the market – but using it is a pain thanks to the total lack of bezel. Constantly correcting text which has been butchered by erroneous touch recognition is a real pain as is poking things near the screen's edges and having them not registering. It may well be that buying a separate case fixes this but you shouldn’t be thinking like that at this price. We’re talking about the most basic of usage here.
The battery life is average, not great. It’s not particularly fast. While it does look very svelte and pretty it’s also slippery as a compromise and we worry about the glass back.
The cameras are very good but then so are those from the competition.
And this is where the wheels start to fall off. You can now buy a Huawei Mate 8 for less-than-half the price. There might not be a stylus and the screen is only a Full HD LCD instead of 4K AMOLED, but it handles better, has better battery life and it feels more sturdy. There’s also the Huawei P9 which does have an AMOLED screen and an even better camera (thanks to Leica). It can be had for just over $500.
If you have to have a Rolls Royce phone, be aware that the new iPhone is about to appear and will likely be cheaper than this.
We used to love the Note line, but now it’s more of an expensive S7 Edge with a pen. Unless you’re really going to make extensive use of the stylus, there’s far better value to be had from everywhere – not least from Samsung’s own S7 Edge which can be had for a whopping $400 less.
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