One of my colleagues said it best when he saw me with the new Galaxy Note 7 for the first time.
“Wait, that’s the new Note?”
He was expecting something bigger. And uglier.
It’s a sharp contrast from a few years ago, when the Note series was seen as an oversized, bulky alternative to the iPhone — something that was almost universally panned by reviewers.
That’s not what the Note 7 is.
The Note 7 is the most beautiful phone I’ve ever used. It has more thoughtful features (waterproofing!) than the iPhone. It has a larger screen than the iPhone 6 Plus, yet it’s still smaller and easier to hold. And even with an eye-popping $850 price tag (on sale August 19), it’s worth every penny if you want the best of the best.
Samsung practically invented the phablet category. Now it has perfected it.
The Note 7 is absolutely a phone you should buy. It isn’t just a great Android phone. It’s a great phone, period.
The most beautiful phone ever made
Last year, Samsung leapfrogged Apple’s design with the Galaxy S6. A year and a half later, it’s perfected every aspect of its phone design with the Note 7. While everyone else is chasing Apple’s designs, Samsung is now in a class of its own.
I’ve been an iPhone 6 Plus user for almost two years now. I’ve grown used to its extra bulk, changing my habits to the point where I take it out of my pocket and lay it on the table so it doesn’t jab into my hip when I sit down. I’ve learned to stretch my fingers to the max so I can operate it with one hand. I’ve given up on trying to hide the giant bulge it makes in my jeans pocket.
I had none of those problems with the Note 7.
Even though the Note 7 has a slightly larger screen (5.7 inches versus the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus), Samsung was able to shave off every millimetre where it counts. The Note 7 is significantly smaller than the iPhone 6 Plus, making it feel much more comfortable in your pocket and even better in your hand.
And then there’s the curved screen, which is now a staple in Samsung’s flagship phones. The Note 7 is unique in that it’s made from two identical pieces of curved glass fused together with a metal band. It’s perfectly symmetrical, making it feel thinner and lighter than it actually is.
That curved screen isn’t a gimmick either. Although there are limited features for the curved portion of the screen like swiping over to pull up a tray of your favourite apps or contacts, it’s mostly just there to look nice and give you the impression that the screen has no bezels at all. That’s good enough for me. I suggest turning off all the extras and just enjoying how good this thing looks. It’s one of the best displays ever put on a phone.
There’s only one downside to the design. The glass on the back is a magnet for scratches. Over the last week, I’ve accumulated two scratches on the back of my Note 7, even though all I’ve done is keep it in my pocket or on my desk at work. If you want to keep your Note 7 shiny and scratch-free, I strongly recommend buying a case.
The best hardware
Samsung is a much different phone maker today. Just a few years ago, it was pushing wild features like touchless gestures and more camera modes than you could possibly use. And it was all packaged in an unattractive plastic body.
That was the old Samsung. The new Samsung is focused on the thoughtful features that matter the most. The Note 7 has it all: waterproofing, wireless charging, fast charging, the best camera ever put in a phone, and removable storage — all inside that gorgeous glass design.
It’s a phone that can do it all without compromising anything.
Like other Note phones before it, the Note 7 also comes with the S Pen stylus, which you can use to doodle or take notes. This year’s model has an improved S Pen with a sensitive tip that feels more natural to write with. There’s also a cute new feature that lets you grab portions of videos and turn them into GIFs.
I’ve never been a huge fan of the S Pen, and I kept it tucked away in its slot for most of my time with the Note 7. I realise there are plenty of Note fans out there who like it, but I’m glad it’s just a hidden accessory, not something essential to the phone.
Just like the Galaxy S7, the Note 7 can survive under a few feet of water for up to 30 minutes. Yes, even the S Pen is waterproof. And yes, the phone can still get wet if the S Pen slot is open. This doesn’t mean you should go swimming with the Note 7, but you don’t have to worry about using it in the rain or accidentally dropping it in the toilet. Or you could always pour champagne on it, Lil’ Wayne style.
The other key feature in the Note 7 is the new iris scanner, which takes an image of your eyes with an infrared light and stores it securely on the phone. You can use the iris scanner to unlock the phone, just like you would with the fingerprint scanner. It also lets you access a new secure folder, where you can store private photos, files, and apps that only you can access.
I was initially intrigued by the iris scanner, but it’s a lot better in theory than in practice. Although it’s more secure — Samsung claims it only works with the user’s living eyeball and can’t be spoofed like fingerprints can — it’s also an impractical way to unlock your phone. The iris scanner doesn’t work well in bright sunlight (it failed on me at the beach last weekend), and it’s not as convenient as clicking the home button and resting your fingerprint on the sensor to unlock the device. With the iris scanner, you have to power on the phone, swipe to unlock, and awkwardly hold the phone close to your face while staring into an interface that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. Not exactly seamless.
I think the iris scanner’s best hope is to serve as an extra layer of protection for security-minded companies and governments that want employees to keep stuff in that secure folder. It’s a clever feature, but falls short of being a game changer.
The Note 7’s camera is the same one that comes with the Galaxy S7, which launched earlier this year. The only difference is the camera app’s interface has been cleaned up slightly, making it easier to use. Even with the rapid pace of camera innovation in phones, no one has been able to top Samsung’s latest camera. It’s the best smartphone camera in just about any condition.
Battery life is excellent too. Even with a slim body, the Note 7’s battery is large enough to get you through more than a day. It also comes with wireless charging, which works with any standard wireless charger. You can also enable fast charging if you use one of Samsung’s charging plugs or wireless charging pads. Battery life is the one feature that matters most to just about everyone, and it’s insane that Samsung is the only premium smartphone maker that takes it so seriously.
One critical flaw
If there’s one big weakness to the Note 7, it’s the software powering it. Samsung likes to make big modifications to Android, which often gums up the experience. That said, the interface is definitely a lot cleaner in the Note 7 than it’s been in previous Samsung phones. Still, Samsung has a horrible record of keeping its phones updated with the latest software, and there’s no guarantee you’ll be getting the new Note features a year from now.
On top of that, the Note 7 also comes bogged down with extras from carriers here in the US. I tested the T-Mobile version, and had to spend the first few minutes clearing away all the T-Mobile branded junk from my home screen. Plus, Samsung has its own suite of apps for email, calendar, etc. on top of all the Google versions of those apps. I’m not a fan of making users juggle two different apps for all the same tasks.
The software isn’t a deal breaker, but compared to the consistency and of iOS and its rock-solid ecosystem of apps and updates, it’s enough to still give the iPhone a very slight edge over the Note 7.
Smartphones have gotten to the point where you can get a lot of phone without spending a fortune. As little as $400 gets you a device with a nice camera, beautiful screen, mobile payments, and even a fingerprint sensor.
So if you’re going to spend twice as much, you’d better be getting your money’s worth. The Note 7 is one of the few premium phones available that justifies its high cost.
Here’s the real kicker: Even though the Note 7 comes with 64 GB of storage, Samsung will give you the option to get a free 256 GB memory card when you buy the phone. That’s an insane value. No other phone this good gives you that much storage at this price. (You also have the option to get a free Gear Fit fitness tracker, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Storage is much more important than a gadget you’re likely to get bored of after a few days.)
Overall, the Note 7’s biggest weakness is its software. It’s not great, but it’s good enough. Aside from that, when it comes to hardware and design, Samsung has cemented its position as the leader in the smartphone world. The Note 7 is the best phone the company has ever made, and one of the first you should consider buying.
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