Samsung Galaxy Note 7 Review

This went well! I went through the two recalls and ended up on an iPhone 7 Plus. Good job Samsung, I liked this phone.

Skip to 'Galaxy Note 7' for the actual review and not my background nonsense. Fair warning, this review is full of nerdy Android enthusiast nonsense that most people probably don't care about. This won't even be a review detailing all the features and functionality of the device, just the stuff that stood out to me, and even then I'll probably miss a lot of stuff.

Apologies for the rambling and lack of any proof reading.

Background

I have never been shy about my high preference for stock Android. I've long felt that many of the changes made to Google's OS were not only unnecessary, but were often done by companies who don't appreciate software design as others do.

Samsung was often seen, at least of the bigger manufacturers, as the worst offender. They showed absolutely no self control or restraint, everything they could think of was thrown in there, this applied to features and to the general UX of the phone. Full of clever little novelty features that either had limited long term practical value or just weren't particularly well developed.

Coupled with whizz-bang silly eye catching visual effects and flourishes, it felt like Samsung were using design guidelines for fruit machines rather than a smartphone, especially in comparison to Apple's traditionally more conservative and measured approach to product design.

But more directly, and more problematic for me personally, all this nonsense stood out even more as unnecessary and often harmful when compared to Google's own phone releases, in their Nexus devices. Google showed the restraint I felt Android phones needed to grow as a platform.

Google would absolutely and very deliberately position themselves as more liberal and open compared to Apple's approach, but demonstrated a way to develop this mindset in a way that produced higher quality polished software and eventually hardware which had purpose.

The unique position of Google's Nexus phones perhaps allowed the company to forgo novelty/gimmicky/eye-catching features typically seen as necessary to sell phones to a typical smartphone buying audience. But nonetheless, I think Apple has proven they don't need give up conservative ideals in terms of software design to attract buyers (again, not to say they don't employ their own gimmick strategy, but it's a different one) - so why couldn't Samsung?

Well, it began. I hesitate to use Motorola as an example of restrained and sensible modifications to Android purely because this change began whilst they were a Google company. HTC has toned back their software modifications, but it was seemingly in response to falling sales, an attempt to recapture enthusiasts - which is possibly a good idea - but a series of other missteps negated this move. Sony, a company which has not seen particularly great success.. ever.. in the modern smartphone era also began to show refinement and restraint to their software, including an enthusiast targeted programme to offer alternative 'stock' AOSP builds for their phones (a great move), but it didn't really do much to change their position in the market (as probably expected).

In the west, that leaves us with the two Korean manufacturers, the all dominating Samsung, and... LG. Much like Samsung was for a long time a 'me too' Sony competitor, LG is that to Samsung, unfortunately. LG follow the delayed trends of Samsung, they (with a few exceptions) are where Samsung was philosophically around a year+ prior, not technologically - they compete very well there - but in terms of the ideas and concepts of what a smartphone platform should be.

In the past year, we've seen Samsung make good progress in maturing their software approach. We now have a greater confidence that new and flashy features will not only work well and consistently, but have a genuine use case. Their aesthetic design in their software has grown up considerably, whilst I still believe Google's Material Design is the way to go for Android, I appreciate the drive for a consistent design language. It makes sense, I'd prefer something else, but I can accept it as long as basic good design guidelines are followed.

This perspective on the Android market is here for me to set the scene as to why I've finally decided to give something other than a Nexus phone a chance at convincing me. It's a combination a more refined and mature approach to product design by Samsung, the ability to customise Android and Google making more of their Nexus software available on the Play Store for non-Nexus devices. It means I can largely ignore the Samsung software I don't like or am not interested in, it means I can use the Google software I do like and it means I can make my phone largely look and act like a Nexus device except with the nice added value features Samsung provides (e.g. the S Pen on the Note series). The primary downside (before I start my review), is the lack of Nexus software updates, which is a big one, but maybe it's one I can live with.

Galaxy Note 7

I came into the Note 7 actually expecting to not like it enough to not return it. Reports about general lacking performance were worrying and all my previous worries about Samsung customisation returned, so I went in with low expectations, with possibly a 60% chance I'd return it.

Look, feel and build

That changed almost immediately, the phone itself feels amazing. It is by a comfortable margin the best feeling smartphone I've held, not just ergonomically but material and build wise too. It feels solid and perfectly put together, the build feels as good as an iPhone, which I didn't expect. Glass feels great, putting aside concerns about durability aside, and I'm pretty happy about seeing its return. On the subject of durability, you do understandably feel a bit more.. on edge.. about dropping it due to the high likelihood of it shattering. But, since about 2008, I've never dropped and smashed a phone, not to say it won't happen, accidents do happen, but I'll be using it without a case (can't stand 'em) and screen protector.

I'm not one to spend £700 on a phone just to wrap it up in ugly uncomfortable cases and screen protectors, that's just wiping out a portion of the value of the phone immediately. If I drop it, I have insurance, I'll pay the excess.

I've had Android phones where I've ranged from dissatisfied (Nexus 4) to just nearly happy (HTC One M7 Google Play Edition conversion) with the general look, feel and build, but the Note 7 is the first one I can say I'm truly happy with, one to match the iPhone 4 and 4S at the time.

Also, a not so small note. It's IP68 water & dust resistant, which is really nice to have. I definitely haven't used my phone in the shower...

Software

Performance

By far my biggest worry about the phone, whilst the Note 7 is possibly the best reviewed Android phone ever, reports of lacking performance kept coming - but primarily from US users - who get a version of the phone with a Qualcomm SoC (snapdragon 820).

This differs from the version that most of the rest of the world gets, which uses Samsung's own SoC, the Exynos 8890, which not only has more favourable CPU performance, but has the benefit of being Samsung's own, which suggests there may be bias in optimisation in favour of that.

I worried about it being less fluid and quick than my Nexus 6P in general real performance, and that wouldn't have been acceptable. I'm glad to report that is not only the case, but I feel a reasonable increase in performance over the Nexus 6P in real world tests. Perhaps it's due to my own 'optimisation' in disabling lots of Samsung's software which I didn't want or use, but either way, I'm happy with the upgrade from a general use performance perspective.

I'm not really one to play mobile games, and the ones I do aren't typically graphically intensive, so GPU performance and other more intensive tasks aren't something I'm too fussed about, outside of browser performance. Which again, feels like a good improvement over my Nexus 6P, both in Chrome and the stock Samsung browser.

UX

I've said much about the general UX above, but here's my conclusion on the Note 7. It's okay. It's not great, it's not bad, it's acceptable. I don't like the colour schemes (not a big deal) and I don't like other modifications, such as the lock screen and the notification shade (especially, it's a terribly busy, ugly mess).

Fortunately, Samsung offer a rather nice alternative to the latter two in their 'Good Lock' application. It allows you to turn those into something that is mostly 'stock' Android, from status bar icons to the notification shade design (with an extra, probably unnecessary bar).

The screenshot above is of my setup from a few weeks back, if you were to compare this to my Nexus 6p - it'd be entirely indistinguishable. Differences become apparent in many other areas, but it's all close enough that I'm happy.

For the general colour scheme and 'theme' of the device, thankfully Samsung offer a decent theming engine and store to get themes from. One of the themes available is a 'Material Design' theme which looks to mimic as close as possible to 'stock' as is possible within the framework Samsung provides. It's pretty good, not perfect, but close enough.

My conclusion here is that I was worried about having to use Samsung's ugly and annoying software. But given the customisation I can do without rooting or flashing a new ROM onto my phone to get rid of much of that stuff I don't want, I'm pretty happy.

Features

There are probably 2 primary features which the Note 7 is sold on, the S Pen (the hallmark of the Note series) and the Iris scanner. I'll start with the iris scanner because that's the easiest to get out of the way with:

  1. It's usually not more convenient than the fingerprint scanner
  2. It works well about 75% of the time - and it's very quick much of the time - sometimes recognises and unlocks before the preview panel appears.
  3. It has been useful in more than a few cases and could see it becoming more so in the winter.

That's it. Would I care if it stopped working tomorrow? not particularly, but it's a nice to have, as the technology is iterated upon, with larger range, better accuracy (under more difficult conditions, too), then it'll be a good addition to smartphones - but this is a solid first generation effort.

The S Pen, however, is pretty good. I went into it not really knowing what I'd use it for, but wanted it anyway. I have found myself taking a lot more notes than I used to, and those notes being useful, but my most common use case are the convenience features it adds to the OS. The ability to select content, extract it, translate it, manipulate it, draw on it, share it, etc is all really great. I did a lot of this before the Note 7, I do it even more now because it's just such a nice experience.

The pen itself is also impressive, it has a level of friction with the screen that I really didn't expect, I expected it to feel too smooth and light, but they've managed to add a nice drag to it which really helps when writing or drawing on a screen.

Even outside of actually useful things to do with the pen, I have found myself constantly getting it out just to scribble and doodle things because it just feels so nice to do. Sometimes I'll find myself navigating the OS and using the phone exclusively with the pen, like the good ol' days before Apple ruined everything...

There isn't really anything negative I have to say about the pen, it exceeded my expectations in more ways than one and I still get excited to use it.

These aren't the only two useful features, however. There are lots of small (and some not so small, but now less impactful post Android 7.0), things such as multi-window are fairly well implemented, but now kind of obsolete given the upcoming, more officially and widely supported multi-windowed mode in Android 7. Nice additions, such as the very customisable active display, one handed mode (which shrinks the display to a bottom corner of the device) and some interesting power saving modes.

That's not to mention the myriad of inventive shortcuts for existing functions and features, such as swiping down on the rear heart rate sensor on the back to take a photo on the front facing camera, or the slightly less useful 'show an open palm to the camera' to trigger a timed shot. The OS is packed to the brim with them, much of which are disabled by default - a good thing - the options are useful.

The bad

Please, Samsung, maybe I don't want to use your apps. This is Android, let me disable or uninstall yours and use others (Google's!). Now, it's not a terrible big issue, you can disable basically any thing you want (services and apps), and I have done, but you can run into some trouble doing that, specifically with battery life and performance. Because Samsung has baked these services and apps in at the system level, you're never sure if you're disabling something that something else depends on.

I don't want all your Gear services running in the background, when I disable the 'edge' functionality, I want it gone completely, not having certain edge panels still exist in memory for some inexplicable reason, when I want to use another calendar app, let me at least hide yours without having to use package disablers!

As I said, it's not a big issue because the work around is easy enough, but the time spent trying to figure out what is safe to disable and what isn't is something I'd rather not deal with. I had disabled some service that should have been fine based on its name, but the result was reduced performance (regular stutters every 500ms or so) and reduced battery life, I just re-enabled everything and started again because I couldn't even figure out what it was that was causing it.

Camera

The cameras in the latest flagship Samsung phones have been well documented to be some of the best, and in some regards the best. The Note 7 is no exception, it takes great photos in a variety of situations and the camera software is great with some cool functions that all perform very well. I came from a Nexus 6P, which I felt was a very good camera in a variety of conditions too - but what let that phone down was the dreadful performance when you decided to take more than two photos in a row, not to mention the actual camera app was poor, both in performance and feature set.

So I'd say over my 6p, the biggest improvement isn't really in image quality, it's in the quality of the camera software and the speed of the camera. It's amazing to be able to fire off loads and loads of photos and not have your phone grind to a halt whilst it is 'processing' them. Or sometimes just have your camera app freeze or crash whilst opening the camera.

Summary

The Nexus 6 was the first Android phone I could say I was 'satisfied' with, the Nexus 6P was the first Android phone I was 'happy' with, the Note 7 is the first Android phone I love. The happiest I've been with a smartphone since the iPhone 4, which says a lot.

If it weren't for the battery issue, I'm sure this phone would have been some potentially worrying competition for Apple. It's unfortunate that a lot of people's hard work at Samsung has been tarnished by something that probably wasn't their fault (it was the fault of some people/departments within Samsung though, no question).