The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is a wonderful paradox. It’s svelte despite its huge 5.7-inch screen. A slew of futuristic features exist alongside an old-timey stylus. This is a “productivity phone,” but you can use it in the pool. It’s a niche device due to its price and size, but it can please anyone. It’s a jack of all trades, and the master of…everything.
Samsung Galaxy Note 7
Pretty much everything. The camera, the display, the VR capabilities, the performance, the design, and the S Pen writing experience add up to the most versatile device you can put in your pocket.
It costs $900. Some S Pen features could be more intuitive.
Like the excellent S7 Edge, the 64GB Galaxy Note 7 comes with an all-star component list. Its absurdly good camera excels in the dark. Its quad-core Snapdragon 820 chip and 4GB RAM churn out peppy performance. It can withstand submersion in a sink full of water, and you can even jot subaquatic notes on it. Its ample 3,500mAh battery charges fast and easily lasts a full day. There’s a MicroSD slot, and its curvy AMOLED screen is a stunner.
That’s a lot to gloss over. Especially when it adds up to the best Android phone on the market.
But while the Note 7 shares DNA with the S7 Edge, it’s more than just a jumbo-size clone with a stylus. Most notably, the display has the same 2560×1440 resolution as the Galaxy S7, but it can also handle HDR video from Amazon. Finding HDR content is a chore, but even without it, your eyeballs will be pleased. There’s a reason why DisplayMate calls it the best smartphone display of all time.
The curvy screen also has different traits than the Edge. While the latter is more rounded on its corners, with a gradual slope at the edges of its screen, the Note 7 has steeper curves and a slightly smaller chin. Those design elements make it feel premium, more refined, and somehow less bulky than the Edge. They also let you get closer to the edges of the screen when you’re working with the stylus.
Oh, and you can unlock this phone by looking at it. It’s as cool as it sounds, and it works consistently. After a two-minute setup process—the bulk of which involves finding a sweet-spot distance for the scanning to work correctly—your peepers become your password. You’re not forced to use the feature, and you’re required to set up an unlock pattern or a PIN as a backup. You can also use the iris-scan feature to protect sensitive files in a dedicated “Secure Folder.”
With iris-unlock enabled, the screen shows a pair of round targets for your eye-alignment, and you see a creepy infrared live-view of yourself. Line your eyes up in those circles from the correct distance (about 10 inches away), and the home screen pops open. In my tests, it worked nearly every time, sometimes unlocking immediately and sometimes taking a few seconds. The delays happened if the phone was too far away from my face or my eyes were too squinty. It didn’t register false positives when my friends looked at it or when I tried to fool it with a picture of my eyes. Somehow, it did work when I wore an eyepatch or winked.
The most alarming part of the eye-scan is the lengthy warning screen that pops up when you’re registering your irises. It notes that screen protectors may confuse the scanning cameras, and that people who suffer from seizures or epilepsy may want to avoid using the feature. That disclaimer page also mentions the scanner could get fooled by glasses, contacts, or tricky lighting, although I didn’t experience any problems in dark rooms.
The redesigned “S Pen” stylus is fluid and pleasant to write with. The natural look and feel of your handwriting is bolstered by 4,096 levels of sensitivity and effects that mimic several kinds of pens and pencils. There’s less app clutter than previous Notes, as all your S Pen creations are saved in a single Samsung Notes hub. And yes, Samsung fixed the problem where the stylus gets stuck if you stick it in backwards.
You pull the stylus from its holster, and an “Air Command” menu pops up on the right edge of the screen. It’s the control center for the stylus, and your options go beyond notes and drawings. Translate lets you hover over text with the pen to see translations, and Magnify enlarges parts of the screen up to 300 percent. Glance is harder to explain: You open an app, and Glance puts it in a little window at the bottom corner of the screen. You can enlarge that app window by hovering the stylus over it. It’s handy for referencing things in a browser while composing an email or text.
The stylus also creates GIFs of up to 15 seconds from videos. Tap “Smart Select” in the Air Command menu, fire up YouTube, drag a box to frame what you want captured, and hit a record button to convert it to a GIF. Once it’s captured, you can immediately save it and share it with your contacts.
Still, there is a bit of a learning curve with the S Pen. It took a while to figure out how to convert handwriting to text; you have to jump into the keyboard’s feature settings and tap a “writing-to-text” icon. Mind you, the OCR worked incredibly well. One of the Note 7’s new features—the ability to “pin” a handwritten note to the lock screen—was also difficult to figure out. Some of the S Pen features seem grafted on, distinct from the phone’s core UI, and the Note 7 could improve in making its stylus applications a bit more intuitive and seamless.
This is Samsung’s first phone to charge via USB-C, but they’ve kindly made it backwards-compatible with previous Galaxy chargers. Included in the box are a Micro-USB-to-USB-C dongle, a USB-A-to-USB-C adapter, and a USB-C cable. However, the new connector means the Note 7 isn’t compatible with older Gear VR headsets; you’ll need to buy a new headset if you want to use this new Note for VR.
Let’s end with another paradox: Phones are so good nowadays, they’ve become boring. And $900 isn’t chump change, especially when you consider how good cheap smartphones have become. But the Note 7 combines so many superpowers—its camera, its display, its security features, its VR capabilities, its sleek and stylish looks—that it might be worth it. At the very least, it makes smartphones exciting again.