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First Look: Samsung Galaxy S7 and 360 Camera

Here's a hands-on look at the two new Samsung flagships for 2016.

The Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge Credit: Samsung

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For weeks the speculation surrounding Samsung was that the South Korean electronics giant would trot out Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge smartphones just as the Mobile World Congress tech confab was about to begin. Samsung delivered right on cue Sunday.

If there was any mystery left, it was in what these fresh flagships would look like and feature, and what other new devices might Samsung reveal? The answer to this last question is a spherical 360 camera called Gear 360. The camera would appear to nicely complement Samsung’s push into virtual reality, which began in earnest last year with the release of Samsung’s consumer-oriented Gear VR headset.

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But first, here's a look at what the new Samsung phones have to offer, with the great big caveat that I haven’t had a chance to test them out yet.

Some perspective. I was a fan of last year’s high-profile Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge models, judging them the finest-looking smartphones that Samsung ever introduced. At the time, Samsung ditched the cheesy dimpled plastic design in favor of a handsome glass-and-metal design that happened to bear a striking similarity to the iPhone.

Still, some notable features went missing. Those Samsung phones, unlike predecessor models, weren’t water resistant. The onboard memory could not be expanded. You couldn’t swap out the battery.

With the S7 and S7 Edge, Samsung restored two of the three missing features, while sticking with metal and high-quality glass, and for the most part sticking reasonably close to last year’s design.

The S7 retains the 5.1-inch screen size of the S6. The S7 Edge though comes in at 5.5-inches, the same display size as on the iPhone 6s Plus, though Samsung is all too pleased to point out that its phone has a smaller footprint than Apple’s. Both new Samsung phones have curved backs; the S7 with a flat front, the S7 Edge a curved front.

The new devices bring back water resistance, meaning they ought to survive should you clumsily drop them in a puddle or toilet. Moreover, unlike earlier water-resistant Galaxy devices there are no awkward caps covering ports to contend with as you attempt to keep the innards dry.

Both new phones come with 32GB of internal storage, but now there’s a microSD slot for an optional memory card, which sits hidden away on a tray it shares with the SIM card holder.

The battery is still not removable, but the new phones do boast bigger-capacity batteries that, in theory, will last longer — we’ll have to see. Samsung is also promising a very fast wireless charging experience if you have a compatible charger, a feature advantage over the iPhone.

The new devices bring back water resistance, meaning they ought to survive should you clumsily drop them in a puddle or toilet.

The Edge, of course, fits into the fast-growing phablet space that Samsung pioneered with its original Note device. The phone gets its name because of a secondary display that cascades along the right side of the phone. On this new device the edge portion of the display extends around corners, providing a little more space for displaying extra content, including shortcuts to certain tasks (capturing selfies, composing email).

Samsung has also added an always-on display feature that lets you peek at the time or notifications when the phone is face up on a flat surface. The screen otherwise goes dark when you stash it in a pocket or purse. LG boasts a similar feature on some phones. Samsung claims no meaningful battery hit as a result of this feature.

Samsung says the camera is improved for low-light photography.

I haven’t gotten a chance to take pictures yet, but Samsung says the camera is improved for low-light photography. And in a side-by-side demo, Samsung showed how its camera can focus a second or so faster on a subject than an iPhone.

As with its other recent handsets, the latest Galaxy is compatible with the Samsung Pay system that turns them into mobile wallets.

And it exploits Samsung’s enterprise grade Knox security scheme — no word on whether Samsung could or would open up a “backdoor” as law enforcement officials are trying to get Apple to do on one of the San Bernardino killer’s phones.

Samsung starts taking preorders on the new phones Tuesday; in the U.S. they’ll be available, in multiple colors, starting on March 11. Pricing has not been announced.

The Gear 360, meantime, resembles an old-fashioned external webcam or a small robot you might see in Star Wars. But Gear 360 is all about capturing 360 video. It has dual fish-eye lenses, each with high-resolution image sensors. Samsung says it can capture a 3840 x 1920, 360-degree video, or a 30-megapixel still image.

The Gear 360 is only compatible with select Samsung phones.

It comes with a little tripod stand that would let you rest it flat somewhere. You can also screw in standard accessory mounts.

For now, the Gear 360 is only compatible with an app on select Samsung phones, including the latest Galaxy’s. But video is stored on a removable microSD, which makes it convenient to move what you’ve shot elsewhere. You’ll be able to send the video up to YouTube or take advantage of a tool, Samsung says, to move footage to a PC.

Samsung says the battery will last up to 140 hours, depending on the resolution and shooting mode.

I look forward to reviewing the new 360 camera — and the new phones.