Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review

Samsung's stacked Galaxy Note 7 does things you didn't know a phone could do

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 was the best phablet you could buy, until it was recalled.
Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 was the best phablet you could buy, until it was recalled.
Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 was the best phablet you could buy, until it was recalled.

Highs

  • Stunning, comfortable design
  • Fresh user interface
  • Powerful S Pen
  • Water resistant body
  • Edge panels work well

Lows

  • May set on fire or explode
  • Recalled from all stores
  • Please return yours if you purchased one
  • Glass grabs fingerprints
  • Expensive and locked to carriers

DT Editors' Rating

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EDITORS’ NOTE: We do not currently recommend purchasing the Galaxy Note 7. On Sept. 2 Samsung issued a broad recall citing a problem with the battery cell, following reports of  Note 7s bursting into flames. With several replacement units also reportedly catching fire or exploding, and sales of the Note 7 halted, the phone’s future is unclear. Read more about the recall here. Digital Trends has lowered the score in this review, for now, and removed our Editors’ Choice badge.

For a while, Samsung seemed to be on a roll. Its Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge were outselling the iPhone, and demand for the Note 7 was outstripping supply. But the company has hit a snag — Samsung is recalling the Galaxy Note 7 due to a “battery cell issue.” The issue only affects a handful of units, or so Samsung says, but it’s widespread enough for the company to demand a recall. We do not recommend purchasing this product until Samsung has fixed the problem and begins shipping devices again.

You can learn more about the recall here. We also have a full guide on how to return and replace your Note 7 immediately.

Although we completely recommend that you DO NOT buy the Galaxy Note 7, we did review the device before its demise. The following is our full review, which was published prior to the debacle.

Smooth, symmetric design

Samsung took all the lessons it learned from the Galaxy S7 Edge and put them into play on the Note 7. When you hold the Note 7 next to the Note 5, it looks much smaller, even though they both have 5.7-inch screens. The phone is slimmer, sleeker, and more comfortable to hold.

If you thought the S7 Edge was comfortable in your hand, wait until you get your hands on the Note 7, which is just barely wider. It’s one of the most comfortable phones we’ve ever held. Samsung fused together two identical pieces of curved glass onto the front and back of the device, so that it curves perfectly into your hand – no more sharp edges.

The aluminum frame is so slim you barely notice that it’s there — all you feel is the cool curve of glass warming against your hand. The perfect symmetry of the Note 7 adds to comfort, grip, and style. It also looks stunning, especially in the new blue color, which I would almost describe as periwinkle (shh, don’t tell all the men who will love this color).

 If you’re an artist, you will absolutely love the S Pen on the Galaxy Note 7.

Of course, you’ll quickly mar the Note 7’s perfect surface with fingerprints. It is still an all-glass phone, so if oily smears bother you, you’ll need a case. The fragility of glass is another matter: the slimmer metal frame means even more glass is exposed to danger if you drop your phone. We highly recommend you buy a case to keep your Note 7 safe – even if Gorilla Glass 5 is supposedly super strong.

Luckily, though it’s fragile, the Note 7 is water resistant, and claims the same IP68 protection rating as the Galaxy S7 Active. Yes, Consumer Reports found that those phones took on water, but Samsung told us the Note 7 is made on a different production line and it doesn’t suffer from the defect. (For the record, that defect has been allegedly been fixed across all production lines.)

Samsung’s silver and blue color options hide fingerprints a bit better than the black one, but they’re all a sight to behold. Sadly, the gold version is not U.S. bound at the moment, because each market only gets three colors.

Amazing new S Pen

Samsung made the stylus cool again with the first S Pen, and the latest one is better than ever. The Galaxy Note 7’s stylus supports 4,096 points of pressure, which is double the amount that most styli offer. That means more pressure sensitivity, so the S Pen will know whether to make a sketchy fine line or a bold strike. Extra accuracy will certainly appeal to artists, but it’s also beneficial to note takers. The pen tip is closer to ballpoint size, at 0.7mm wide. It doesn’t drag, either, so the S Pen slides smoothly across the surface when you’re writing or drawing.

Related: Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 packs the legendary S Pen, an iris scanner, and USB Type-C

An improved S Notes app houses all your S Pen creations in a searchable, simple app. You can create new notes right in the app, instead of having to pop your S Pen in and out to conjure the Notes app. When you create a new note, you get several options, including one for artists, which now supports color blending, so that your paintings look more like real oil paintings.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

I couldn’t stop drawing with it, and spent the better part of my commutes on the NYC subway sketching. The different brushes, pencils, crayons, and markers are great. You won’t get the same level of fancy tools that you’ll find in SketchBook Pro or other high-end drawing apps, but the simplicity of the tools makes it easy to just sketch freely. It’s very similar to 53’s Paper, which is one of my favorite drawing apps on iOS.

Samsung’s PenUp app lets you share your creations in the Pen Up social community for S Pen artists. You can browse artists, participate in drawing challenges, and connect with fellow artists.

The S Pen has always been my favorite Note feature, but now it’s better than ever. If you’re an artist, you will absolutely love the S Pen on the Galaxy Note 7.

Samsung also made the S Pen water resistant with an IP68 rating, so you can write underwater, which you’ll never do, or so you can operate your Note with wet hands.

Other new features include the ability to pin notes to the always-on display for quick access, create scrollable notes, make and share GIFs with Smart Select, translate text into 38 languages with Air Command, open a magnifying glass to increase text size up to 300 percent, and click a single button to erase. All of these features take the S Pen to the next level.

Same killer specs as Galaxy S7 Edge

These days, most Android flagship phones have the same incredible specs, and the Note 7 is no exception. It boasts the same dual-edged Super AMOLED screen as the S7 Edge with a Quad HD 2,560 x 1,440 pixel resolution, but it’s size is 0.2 inches bigger, spanning 5.7 inches diagonally.

The new Note is powered by a top-of-the-line Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor and 4GB of RAM, just like the S7 Edge, and it’s equally speedy. I never noticed any lag or delay while using the Note 7, even when the phone was performing heavy-duty tasks. That high-level of performance is reflected in the benchmark scores. The Note 7 got a multi-core score of 5,231 on the Geekbench 3 test, 2,517 on the 3D Mark Slingshot test, and 40,038 on Quadrant.

You can only buy the Note 7 with 64GB of storage, but it is expandable with a MicroSD card up to 256GB, so you should be fine. Like most recent Samsung phones, the Note 7 supports Samsung Pay.

Stunning cameras perform flawlessly

The same 12-megapixel back camera and 5-megapixel front-facing camera that graced the S7 Edge are present on the Note 7, too. There’s also an additional front-facing camera, but that’s for the iris scanner.

In our testing, we found the camera to be just as good if not better than the iPhone 6S Plus’ camera. Photos turned out absolutely beautiful in any lighting. Close ups were sharp and all the details were present, even in tricky mixed lighting situations. The camera focuses quickly and takes strong shots in low light. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better camera on a smartphone.

A pro mode lets shutterbugs adjust ISO, white balance, shutter speed, and more in real time. The interface is very easy to learn.

Battery life is standard for a flagship

The Note series used to be known for exceptional battery life, but this year’s Note 7 has a normal-sized 3,500mAh battery inside, with correspondingly average endurance. It typically lasted a day on a charge, though light users could eke out a day and a half. The Note 7 sadly won’t last you any longer than most flagship phones, but the quick charging is an amazing concession. When you can juice up to nearly full in 30 minutes, you almost forget that the battery life isn’t so hot.

The Note 7 is the first Samsung phone to use a USB Type-C connector to charge up. For the uninitiated, USB Type-C cords can be plugged in either way, so you never have to struggle again. If you have older Micro USB accessories you love, Samsung gives you an adapter to use. The company also made a new Gear VR for the Note 7.

Like other Galaxy phones, the Note 7 also charges up wirelessly on Samsung’s quick charge pad. This method takes longer, but it eliminates the wires.

Security and an iris scanner

Samsung doubled up on biometrics with the Note 7. It has both a fingerprint sensor and an iris (eye) scanner. You can choose to use either one, both, or neither when you set up the phone.

Iris scanners are notoriously finicky. On previous phones, you had to hold the phone at just the right position, avoid certain lighting, and take off your glasses every time you wanted to use the iris scanner. Luckily, the iris scanner on the Note 7 isn’t quite so tricky. You have to set it up without glasses on, but after that, it can read your iris through your glasses. It seems to handle different types of lighting well, but glare from overhead lights or a room that’s too dark to see in will foil the sensor.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

It took me a few tries to set it up, because the software wouldn’t recognize my eyes initially. To use it, you turn on the phone with the power button, swipe up, and you’re presented with the option to enter your passcode or use your eyes to open your phone. You’ll see a creepy black and white image of yourself on the phone that looks like it’s from the Blair Witch Project. You line your eyes up with the circles and your phone should unlock.

I say, “should,” because sometimes the phone will refuse to open and tell you to move your phone closer, higher, lower, or further away. Sometimes it asks you to “open your eyes fully.” This whole process can take a few seconds if you don’t get it just right, and gives onlookers quite the spectacle. That’s the price you pay for living in the future — you periodically look like a dork.

Samsung says it’s harder to dupe than a fingerprint scanner, and you can use it when your hands are too wet for a fingerprint read. But with this level of reliability, it’s more of a backup than the main way you’ll unlock your device. Luckily, the fingerprint sensor is nearly fail-safe.

Samsung’s TouchWiz UI gets a makeover

After some much-needed changes, the latest version of Samsung’s TouchWiz user interface is gorgeous. Samsung went for a more modern look with attractive colors, a flatter UI look, and white backgrounds. Everything looks more open and fresh. Gone are the cartoonish icons, and in their place are attractive ones you won’t be embarrassed to tap on. We literally oohed and ahhed when we saw the changes to the new settings menu — yes, I’m serious.

It’s a stronger device with both the Edge panels and the S Pen.

As far as bloatware goes, Samsung does include its fair share of extra apps. You’ll likely replace many of the generic ones with your favorite alternatives, but there are a few unique ones like Notes, Pen Up, S Health, S Voice, Secure Folder, and Samsung Plus. If you love your S Pen, you should check out Pen Up and Notes. S Health is for the fitness freaks among you, and the Secure Folder is for the privacy conscious. It lets you keep documents, notes, pictures, and even apps in any encrypted spot where no one else can see them. It remains locked even when your phone is unlocked, and you have to use the iris scanner or fingerprint sensor to unlock it. It’s easy to remove or add files to the folder.

Samsung Plus lets you get instant customer service when you need it, including live video or audio assistance from a customer service rep when you have serious problems. For routine questions, you can also consult the included guides for all your registered Samsung devices – not just the phone. These extras help make the Note 7 worth the money.

Since the Note 7 is technically an Edge phone, too, it has all the same Edge panels as the S7 Edge. You can download new ones from the Samsung app store or just use the app shortcuts, contacts, and other edges Samsung has pre-loaded on the device. The Edge is much more useful than it used to be, and together with the S Pen, it makes the Note 7 a much stronger device.

Software updates and warranty

Samsung doesn’t exactly have the best record of updating its phones with the latest Android software in a timely fashion, but the company told Digital Trends that the Galaxy Note 7 should get the monthly security patches in a timely manner. Android Nougat has yet to be released, but the new version of Android will hit the Note 7 after a time. Samsung told us that it’s been working to improve the speed of its updates. Hopefully it sticks to that bargain, and gets the carriers to act faster as well.

Related: Whip out that S Pen! Eight apps to use with the Galaxy Note 7

The Galaxy Note 7 has a one-year warranty that covers accidental damage and defects. To get your device replaced or repaired, you have to send it to an authorized phone service facility with the receipt or proof of sale showing the original date of purchase, the serial number of the product, and the seller’s name and address.

It’s important to note that the two curved glass panels on the phone may be expensive to replace, though Samsung hasn’t given us an exact amount yet. If you’re paranoid, you can buy an extended warranty for $100 that covers accidental damage, including screen breaks.

Conclusion

The Galaxy Note 7 was the best smartphone Samsung made in 2016. It was beautiful as the S7 Edge, but it was as functional as every other Note before it. The Note series is one of our personal favorites, and we were glad that Samsung was folding the Edge into the Note. It made for a truly unique and well-rounded device. The Note 7 was the galaxy to beat — until it started exploding.

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The Note 7 is no longer sold at AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon Wireless stores. You should not buy it under any circumstances and if you have a Note 7, you must return it immediately for your own safety. Here is our full guide on how to return your Galaxy Note 7 and get a refund or new device.

You should consider the Googel Pixel XL, LG V20, iPhone 7 Plus, or LG G5 instead at this point. The Axon 7 or OnePlsu 3 are also good choices.