In the past several years, smartphones have continued to get bigger and bigger. Where once upon a time it was rare to have a phone with even a five-inch display, nowadays it's nearly impossible to find a top-tier phone smaller than that. It's a trend that Samsung is largely responsible for, starting with the runaway success of the company's original Galaxy Note phone.
Last year's Samsung Galaxy Note 5 was easily Samsung's best yet, combining all the best that Samsung had to offer with a design that felt like a truly premium device. It was a perfect complement to the company's reinvigorated Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, with enough extra features that it briefly held serve as our top-rated phone. (Until it was replaced by the newer Galaxy S7 earlier this year)
With Samsung on something of a roll now, it's no surprise to see that the Galaxy Note series is once again taking cues from the slightly-smaller S Series. Of course, the new Samsung Galaxy Note 7 (MSRP $849.99) still has a large 5.7-inch screen and a new and improved S Pen, but it's basically a souped up Galaxy S7. So much so, that Samsung is skipping the "Note 6" to align the Note and S Series once and for all.
And make no mistake, by taking the best features of the S7 Edge and cranking it up to 11, this is about as premium as a smartphone gets. It's expensive, but other than a few nagging issues, the Note 7 stands out as one of the best smartphones we've ever seen.
Update: It appears that several Galaxy Note 7s, which had already been replaced by Samsung, have also been found defective and can spontaneously catch fire or overheat. Samsung has yet to update its official stance on the matter but for the time being we recommend all customers steer clear of the Note 7 and current owners exchange it for a different device._
There’s a ton of new features to go over in this year’s iteration of the Galaxy Note, but first, let’s crack it open and take a look at what we’re dealing with this time around.
• Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 quad-core processor
• 4GB RAM
• 64GB internal storage, up to 256GB of expanded storage via microSD
• 5.7-inch quad-HD (2560x1440) edge-to-edge AMOLED display with S Pen support (included) and HDR10 video playback
• 12MP, f/1.7 primary camera with OIS, LED flash, and 4K video support
• 5MP f/1.7 front-facing camera
• IP68-rated water resistance for up to thirty minutes in 1.5 meters of underwater submersion
• 4G LTE, WiFi, AC/Bluetooth, and NFC support (with Samsung Pay)
• 3,500mAh lithium-ion battery with both fast- and wireless charging support
• USB Type-C port
• Fingerprint, iris scanner, and heart rate monitor
Yep—that’s a top-of-the-line smartphone, all right. This is the first time Samsung is bringing its edge-to-edge display technology into the Galaxy Note line. While the Note series briefly dabbled with having a curved screen with the Galaxy Note Edge, for the most part the series has stuck with a flat design, mostly due to the difficulty of fitting a display that wraps around either side and a stylus in the same body.
The other standout feature is the Note 7's iris scanner, which functions thanks to the use of both an IR scanner and a dedicated front-facing camera. It adds a whole new layer of security to the device, underpinning the Note 7's station as the more business-centric model in the company's stable.
Also new to the party this year is the inclusion of USB Type-C, which sports a reversible cable and supports faster data transfer. And for those of you who dreamt of a waterproof Note, your prayers have been answered—the Note 7 is sealed up and ready for splashes, even with stylus removed.
Our review unit is of the very familiar, blue-black-tinted "Black Onyx" variant, but the Note 7 is also available in "Titanium Silver," "Platinum Gold," and the bright-and-bubbly "Coral Blue." Unfortunately, if you live in the states and you've got your eye on the gold variant, you'll have to settle for one of the other three colors; "Platinum Gold" won't be available in the US as of now.
The best-in-class performance you’d expect from a top-shelf smartphone
The Note 7 is packed to the gills with premium, flexible hardware that will likely keep it at the top of the food chain for years to come. Most of the hardware is similar to that of the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, so it's no surprise to learn that only smartphone that currently rivals the Note 7 in our benchmark tests is the S7 itself.
With a Snapdragon 820 quad-core processor and 4GB of RAM to back it up, there's almost no end to the Note 7's functionality. Everything from multitasking to graphic-intensive gaming carries on without a hitch. And if 64GB of internal memory doesn't seem like enough, there's a microSD slot for up to 256GB of expanded storage.
It wouldn't be a Galaxy phone without Samsung's AMOLED display, which have become a perennial standard for Samsung smartphones. The curved, 5.7-inch quad-HD (2560x1440) screen lives up to its reputation yet again, delivering an absurd contrast ratio (approximately 15,000:1) and rich, accurate color production matched only by—you guessed it—previous Galaxy smartphones.
Stylus functionality that’s both useful and fun
And now we've arrived at my absolute favorite aspect of the Note 7—the (very addictive) S Pen. This year, Samsung redesigned its stylus to more closely imitate the feel of a ballpoint pen, and the end results are fantastic.
Most of S Pen's chief features have been folded into the Samsung Notes app, which allows users to scribble and doodle with a wide array of tools and sharing options. There's also the Note 7's Always On display, wherein memos can be jotted down and pinned for future use without having to unlock the phone.
But what really pushes the S Pen's functionality over the top are new features that have nothing to do with doodles or grocery lists. With Air Command, users can not only use the S Pen to magnify the display, but translating foreign words and phrases is as easy as hovering over select text. Not all languages are supported, but the feature is a dynamite addition if you travel a lot.
In addition, the S Pen allows you to create animated GIFs up to fifteen seconds in length from pretty much any video that isn't copyrighted. If you've ever wanted to quickly create, personalize, and share GIFs sourced from videos you've shot personally, it's never been easier.
Same screen size but a slimmer profile
The curved, edge-to-edge display on the Note 7 is the same size as the display on last year's Galaxy Note 5, but the phone itself has been slimmed down by around 2.2mm. This might not seem like much at first, but holding one in each hand and it's obvious that the newer phone is much easier to wrap your fingers around.
Given its size, it's obviously still not the easiest smartphone to use with one hand, but the curved screen and thin profile give it a leg up over its 2015 predecessor. It's especially noticeable over other large phones in the market, like the much wider Apple iPhone 6s Plus, which is a real bear to hold onto.
A battery that outlasts the competition
Last year, the Galaxy S7's 3,000mAh-sized battery ran circles around its competition, putting up some of the best results we've ever measured. This year, the Note 7 has an even bigger battery (3,500mAh, to be exact), and the results are predictably good.
The Note 7 made mincemeat of our Geekbench 3 battery test, running for nearly eight-and-a-half consecutive hours and crushing the likes of the iPhone 6s Plus. In non-intensive, everyday scenarios with limited GPS and data usage, users can expect to last a day and a half to two days without reaching for a charger.
Like its predecessors, the Note 7 comes equipped with fast and wireless charging support, and the new USB Type-C port is a convenient, welcomed addition that allows for fast data transfer. So even if Pokemon Go will drain the battery in a few short hours, it only takes about 30 minutes to get back up and running again.
A best-in-class rear camera
The Note 7's 12-megapixel primary camera is one of the best on the market, rivaling low-end point-and-shoots when it comes to sharpness, color detail, and automatic white balance. And, because the camera sensor uses extra large pixels, low-light performance is absolutely stellar, too.
The only type of lighting that seems to throw the Note 7 for a loop is incandescent lighting, but even in these conditions the results are better than most flagship smartphones. Now, as exciting as it sounds, don't get too carried away. You're still going to get some mushy noise reduction in low light, and that over-processed, oversaturated look in bright light, but the raw potential—including literally the RAW version of photos, if you choose—is there to take better photos than nearly any other phone on the market.
Moving past that, by far the most impressive aspect of the Note 7's camera is its ability to focus quickly and fire off shots at lightning speeds. The entire process—from opening the camera app to finding a subject and snapping an in-focus subject—only takes two to three seconds. It's even quicker if you double-tap the home button to open the camera app, letting you reliably fire off a couple shots whenever a photo-worthy moment comes your way.
Amateur videographers and filmmakers will find the Note 7's 4K video capabilities absolutely essential, though we recommend a microSD card to store the gargantuan files. All in all, UHD video shot on the Note 7 is incredibly sharp and smoothly rendered, with almost no judder or interference to speak of.
IP68-rated waterproofing thwarts rain, spills, and splashes
One of the coolest aspects of the last two Galaxy phones was their IP68 waterproofing (if you're unfamiliar, please allow Lil Wayne to demonstrate).
Given the S Pen slot on the bottom of the phone, I've always assumed that such waterproofing would prove tricky for the Note series, but perhaps it was silly to doubt Samsung's engineers—the Note 7 is waterproof for up to a half hour under 1.5 meters of water.
While no one in their right mind would ever recommend you go swimming in the ocean with the Note 7, it's more than capable of withstanding rain, spilt beverages, accidental toilet dunks, and (I'm assuming) champagne showers from eccentric rap artists.
Built with security in mind
You've heard of fingerprint scanners. Now take a deep, wide-eyed look into the possible future of smartphone security: iris scanning.
In addition to a front-facing selfie camera, Samsung placed a dedicated camera and an IR scanner on the front of the device that work in tandem to scan irises. Once the appropriate eyeballs have been detected, the phone—and any encrypted files—can be accessed. All things considered, the process is incredibly fast. I still stuck with the tried and true PIN security personally, but if you need a little more security in your life, Samsung doesn't make the process any more difficult.
It remains to be seen whether people will prefer a method of security that requires them to hold their phone in front of their face instead of discretely using a thumb or finger, but for the time being, it's an impressive demonstration of the technology, and one that's nice to have.
A sleek design marred by fingerprints and delicate glass
You really didn't think we'd get through this review without picking a few nits, did you? No smartphone is perfect, and the Galaxy Note 7 is no exception.
Look, I love the way recent entries into the Galaxy series look and feel, but the glossy, all-glass backside is an absolute smudge magnet. The effect is notably worse on the "Coral Blue" and "Titanium Silver" variants, but even our black-tinted review unit is insanely susceptible to fingerprints, so you'd better have a micro-fiber cloth on hand.
The glass design also makes the Note 7 an accident waiting to happen, so our advice is to either be as careful as you've ever been with a smartphone or to suck it up and buy a case for your Note 7. You've been warned.
It ain’t cheap.
Given the sheer amount of top-shelf hardware on display, it should come as no surprise that the Note 7 carries one of the heftiest price tags in the game. Even the—ahem— premium cost of the iPhone 6s Plus comes in at a little less than the Note 7.
Historically speaking, smartphones in the Galaxy Note line have always comes out of the gate priced higher than other flagships; the cost can easily be attributed to the quality of the build, the size of the screens, and the inclusion of stylus functionality. Unfortunately, historical context doesn't make nearly-$900 price tag any easier to make peace with. We've also found Note screens are more expensive to replace if you don't have insurance, so keep that in mind.
That said, the Note 7 is a smartphone for people who know what they want and aren't afraid to pony up the dough to get it. And, while the iPhone 6s Plus's premium cost feels a bit like Apple design inflation, the Note 7 feels more deservedly costly given the sheer amount of functionality built into it.
No removable battery
The fact of the matter is that almost every flagship smartphone at this point has given up on the concept of a removable, user-replaceable battery. And given that the Note 7 has a fused glass back and it's fully waterproof, it would be outrageous to expect the ability to swap a battery in and out.
That said, it's still a feature we miss. Batteries wear out after a time, and over time the phone that used to last you all day may start to need a charge by dinner time. Don't get us wrong–we'd take waterproofing and the Note 7's premium design over a user-swappable battery any day—but shout-out to anyone still hot-swapping batteries.
Perhaps the best thing I can say about the Galaxy Note 7 is that it’s just a really fun and easy phone to use. Between doodling in Samsung Notes, making animated GIFs out of the slo-mo videos of my friends, and never having to fret about the status of my battery, the Note 7’s mantra seems to be, ”Relax—I got this.”
But when it comes to whether or not you should buy it, let’s try a little exercise. Check all of the following that apply:
1. Is owning a best-in-class smartphone a priority for you?
2. Do you want—or more importantly, do you not mind—a smartphone with a huge, 5.7-inch display?
3. Can you justify spending nearly $900 on a smartphone?
If you checked-off all three, then it would be foolish not to consider the Samsung Galaxy Note 7. If you want to save a little money the Galaxy Note 5 is still a killer phone, but with waterproofing, a better stylus, a bigger battery, and the edge display there's no question the Note 7 is the better phone.
That said, the Note 7 isn’t for everyone. It certainly isn't cheap, and frankly even with its slimmed down profile either you are okay with a phone this big or you aren't. If not, the 5.2-inch Galaxy S7 is a nice little compromise, as is the Apple iPhone 6s.
But for phablet fans, the Galaxy Note 7 is where it's at. In a year where most of its competition—LG excepted—has once again opted for taking last year's model and making it slightly faster, or slightly bigger, the Galaxy Note 7 comes loaded with meaningful upgrades and a "Sure, why not?" approach to design.
Despite this, the Note 7 manages to not only avoid being an over-engineered disaster, it actually comes together in a smart, cohesive package. Maybe it was all planned out, maybe Samsung just threw a bunch of stuff against the wall and all of it stuck. Who knows? Either way, this is once again Samsung at the top of its game and—at least for now—the Note 7 is our favorite phone of 2016.
Meet the tester
Senior Staff Writer@Reviewed
Michael Desjardin graduated from Emerson College after having studied media production and screenwriting. He specializes in tech for Reviewed, but also loves film criticism, weird ambient music, cooking, and food in general.
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