The Galaxy Note 7 is ready for the titanic clash: arrives on the scene with iris scanning, water resistance, and 64GB base storage
Whatever you may think of Samsung's contributions to the industry, one in particular stands out: it practically invented the 'phablet' category with the Galaxy Note series. Much larger in size than their more conservative brethren, these humongous devices quickly took root, spawning a loyal following of millions of people.
And now, nearly 5 years later, we're finally up to the sixth successive Note smartphone, confusingly dubbed the Galaxy Note 7—so as to correspond to the Galaxy S7 family. This change in pacing aside, the Note 7 is still remarkably similar to the original Note at the core, but meaner and leaner pretty much across the board.
The stakes couldn't be higher, however. Just last week, Samsung announced its quarterly results, and the Galaxy S7 series were the driving force behind the mobile division's profits. As we approach the end of 2016, and with Apple setting up for an iPhone refresh, it'll soon be a question of whether the Note 7 can carry the expected slack from the aging S7 and S7 edge, and spar, or outdo, the upcoming iPhone 7 Plus.
Looks and display
As the barrage of leaked images suggested, the Galaxy Note 7 really is nothing more—and nothing less—than a slightly larger Galaxy S7 edge. Sporting a 5.7-inch, Quad HD resolution (1440 x 2560) Super AMOLED display with Gorilla Glass 5, the Note 7 is nearly indiscernible from the S7 edge, with the same dual-edge glass—both front and back—and Always On Display. Like it, too, the Note 7 is IP68-certified, and therefore resistant to water and dust-tight.
Also identical is the layout of the physical buttons, with the two volume keys high up on the left side, while the power button sits towards the center on the right. Samsung's signature, physical Home button, as always, is available up front, hugged by the capacitive keys for Back and Multitask. The one sure way of telling the the new Note 7 from the S7 edge is the S Pen's slot on the bottom, or by sizing them carefully.
The phone will be made available in a number of colors, including Blue Coral, Black Onyx, Silver Titanium, and Gold Platinum. Depending on the region, a subset of three of these will be made available, with the US in specific getting everything sans Gold. Blue Coral, in particular, caught our eye, though it may come across as a little tacky, what with the frame and various accents painted in gold.
Going back to the screen—traditionally the highlight of the Note series—Samsung is also making some of its TV tech available to the Note 7. More specifically, the open HDR10 standard will be supported, meaning a potentially highly visible improvement in picture quality when watching appropriate titles off Netlix or elsewhere. Main theoretical advantages of HDR10 content include a higher dynamic range—and therefore better contrast—and richer color granularity due to 10 bit color. How well HDR10 really translates onto the screen remains to be seen—but we're definitely interested.
Finally, and because this is likely on the minds of many, the answer is 'No': there isn't a model of the Note 7 with a more conventional, 'flat' screen.
Part of the constructional integrity of the Note 7, the S Pen is naturally also water-resistant and will even work under water—not that you'll be sketching whilst submerged in the kiddy pool, but there you go.
Beyond that, a few notable advancements have been made in this area, including even better pressure sensitivity, faster response times when writing or drawing, and a smaller tip that is more alike to a typical ballpoint pen in size. The S Pen also has its physical button moved up slightly closer towards the tip, which is a welcome improvement—especially for people with larger paws.
On the software side, too, changes have been made. The Air Command suite of options now features two new actions, including Magnify and Translate. Fairly self-explanatory in nature, the former can be cranked up to 300% the magnification when hovering over the interface, while the latter translates text in various languages on the fly. Older apps perfect for use with the S Pen, such as S Note and S Memo, are now all brought under the umbrella of a new entry simply dubbed Notes. All of the previous functionality is available from there.
Iris scanner and security
Sketched out way in advance of the actual unveiling of the Note 7, the iris scanner on it is among the highlights of the phone, and the first time we see the tech on a flagship-level Android smartphone from a major player.
The tech works by incorporating a second front-facing camera, expressly used for this type of biometric authentication, coupled with an infrared illuminator that will reveal your irides even in the dark. To actually break past the lock screen when using the iris scanner, however, you'll first have to swipe to get it started.
In terms of performance, Samsung promises sub-second reaction times, with the scanner smart enough to authenticate through most types of glasses and reject even high-res images of the user's eye in case of attempted fraud. The scanner will also work even if you're wearing an eyepatch.
It's important to note that the iris scanner exists alongside other, more conventional authentication methods, such as fingerprint (integrated into the Home button), a pattern, or PIN. In other words, if you don't like it, you can dump it and switch to whatever you're most comfortable with. Apparently, enterprise models of the Note 7 will come with the option to set multiple authentication methods to bolster security even further.
Speaking of security, a new Secure Folder feature lets you lock files and even entire apps, access to which prompts re-authentication. This will apparently allow you to host two versions of the same app, making it easier on BoD buyers that use their phone for both work and play.
Processing power and tech
With the Note 7, Samsung will once again rely on San Diego-based Qualcomm to supply the chips for devices sold in the United States. More specifically, stateside buyers will be treated to the flagship, quad-core Snapdragon 820, with 64-bit Kryo cores clocked at up to 2.2GHz, and an Adreno 530 GPU with support for OpenGL ES 3.1+ and the Vulkan API.
Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 for the US; Exynos 8890 for the rest of the world.
International users, on the other hand, will be treated to Samsung's own octa-core processor, the Exynos 8890 that is already available with the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge. Also built on a 14nm node, the 8890 features two sets of four cores working in big.LITTLE arrangement, with the more frugal cluster clocked at 1.6GHz, while the powerful one reaches up to 2.3GHz. The GPU of choice is the ARM Mali-T880.
The base model of the Note 7 will come with 64GB of storage, with microSD expansion available regardless of the processor in use. Both will also feature a USB Type-C connector.
Finally, powering the show is a large, 3,500mAh battery with support for fast charging (expect zero to full in about 100 minutes), along with wireless fast charging.
The one area Samsung has spent no time perfecting on the hardware side is the camera—both front and back.
The main snapper is the same 1/2.5", 12-megapixel unit found in the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge, with extremely wide, f/1.7 aperture lens and LED flash. The camera features phase detection auto focus for extremely fast lock times, even in the dark, and optical image stabilization that makes a world of difference when capturing video. As expected, the unit is capable of 4K UHD video capture, alongside special modes such as time lapse and slow motion.
The cam up front is also identical to what we've seen already: a 5-megapixel unit with equally as large, f/1.7 aperture lens, and with included HDR and video capture at up to Quad HD resolution (1440 x 2560 pixels).
Were it another camera system we were talking about, we might have had reason to protest the lack of update, but given the S7 and S7 edge's stellar imaging performance, we're simply happy to get something as polished.
On the software side, however, quite the change has occurred. The camera app's interface has been revamped, and is now more swipe-driven than before. For example, to switch shooting modes, you swipe to the left, while visual effects are available from the pane on the right. Juggling between the front and back camera happens with a simple swipe up or down.
Looking at the Android Marshmallow-based TouchWiz software loaded on the Note 7 more holistically, it's been evolved from what was available on its predecessor.
For starters, iconography has been changed, with icons now a more square-ish round than before, and most with a number of style changes. Overall, app icons now have more minimalist look, which we actually tend to appreciate.
Another interesting change is Samsung's efforts to match the Note 7's interface's color scheme to that of the color of the phone itself. So buyers of the Coral Blue model will get a predominantly blueish interface, while the Gold flavor will bet on... you guessed it, gold accents. Not a novel approach, but certainly a welcome step forward in Samsung's mobile story.
Finally, and this one shouldn't come as a surprise, the Edge UX from the S7 edge has found its way to the Note 7, allowing you quick access to various actions and panes with a horizontal swipe from the right edge of the screen.
Price, release date, and expectations
While Samsung is yet to talk pricing, we're told to expect the Galaxy Note 7 to enter the pre-order stage in two days, on August 3rd. A little over two weeks later, on August 19th, the Note 7 will begin its journey towards shelves in retail stores around the States and parts of the globe. The Big Four in the states—AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint—will all carry the Note 7, with the former selling the phablet for $29.34/30 months, or $36.67/24 months for AT&T Next Every Year subscribers. T-Mobile has already made its pricing plan public, as well: $849.99 full retail, or $32.50 every month for 24 months, with a $69.99 down payment.
T-Mobile is also offering a choice between a 256GB microSD card, the Gear Fit 2 fitness tracker, or a year worth of Netflix. AT&T, on the other hand, is offering the Gear S2 smartwatch for free, alongside the Galaxy Tab E which you can snag for just $0.99 with a 2-year commitment.
In closing, nothing about the Note 7 really surprises, but that's mainly due to the excessive leaks we got ahead of launch. The lack of the typical unveiling enthusiasm aside, Samsung's new giga-phone is a perfected piece of telephony that has already stood the test of time, and there's no reason to believe this latest iteration will stumble and fall. And, as is typical of the Android giant, no major release is possible without a 'wow' factor, and this time around the honor goes to the iris scanner. Beyond the novelty, however, we've got to applaud Samsung for offering 64GB of storage standard, for continuing to perfect its designwork and introducing water resistance, and for staying on its feet as far as new technologies such as HDR10 are concerned, ensuring users get a taste before long.
Samsung has spoken. Apple, it's your turn now.