Samsung's dual-flagship strategy is now in full force, with the launch of both a regular Samsung Galaxy S7 and a larger SGS7 edge model.
The Samsung Galaxy S7 edge is very much the headline hog, with its dual curved edges and larger display it's the hero handset. If this was the 1988 movie Twins, you might think that the edge is Arnold Schwarzenegger to the regular Galaxy S7's Danny DeVito.
But that's perhaps an unfair assessment. The regular Galaxy S7 is smaller and more affordable, but offers very much the same core experience. If you don't want a 5.5-inch handset, but do want Samsung's latest, then this is very much the smartphone for you.
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Samsung Galaxy S7 review: Design
Cast your eyes over the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the design changes from the SGS6 are minimal. From the front these phones are nigh-on identical, only really given away by the slightly squarer home button, the shift of highlighted speaker grille and button surround from silver to black on the review model we have.
Around the sides there has been some refinement in the metal waistband, removing some of the previous contouring for a slightly more minimalist finish. Part of this sees the metal band becoming slimmer at the side, revealing more of a curve to the back edge. Where the SGS6 was pretty much flat across the back, the SGS7 now sports a curve, making it slightly less slab-like when gripped.
That allows the SGS7 to be a little thicker - only by about 1mm; measuring 142.4 x 69.9 x 7.9mm total and weighing 152g - but that sees the bulge of the camera vanishing into the body work. That's a refinement much welcomed, making the Galaxy S7 a step forward, if not a step change.
We really liked the design of the SGS6: it was a major change of direction from the plastic-backed phones that came before. Although the SGS7 is visually very similar, we're happy with this design - it's a good looking handset and the design is fresh enough. The S7 edge might be the more extravagant handset, but for the most part, this regular model is lovely.
The build quality is high, as is the quality of the materials, with Samsung sticking to glass and metal. That glass back is prone to fingerprints, and our biggest criticism is how smeary it gets. Owning this phone means polishing it regularly to keep it looking clean.
A key difference with the S7 compared to the S6 is that it's now IP68 rated, so is better protected against water and dust. You might question the need for those protections, but here's an anecdotal example: we lost our SGS6 to mother nature when the pocket it was in got flooded in a storm up a mountain. The SGS7 would likely survive that abuse.
Samsung has retained the side power button and physical home key, flanked by capacitive controls. Samsung is one of the few manufacturers to still offer a physical button, and here it integrates the fingerprint sensor and the swipe magnetic reader for using payment cards; it acts as your home button, a double-tap quick launches the camera, and a long press opens Now on Tap - so it's put to very good use, even if the other navigation buttons (recent apps, back) are reversed compared to most other Android phones out there.
In terms of sound there's still just a single speaker on the bottom of this handset. It's fairly loud, but easily covered due to its location.
Samsung Galaxy S7 review: Hardware specs and performance
There's been something of a debate raging around the hardware load-out of the Samsung Galaxy S7. In the UK (where this handset is being reviewed), the SGS7 is powered by the Exynos 8890, a home-grown Samsung octo-core chipset. In other regions, there's a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 version. Early tests suggest that Qualcomm's chipset might be the better performer, but in real-world terms you're unlikely to have anything to worry about: the SGS7 is slick and fast, offering a premium performance, whichever model lands in your region.
There's 4GB of RAM to back-up that chipset and Samsung is boasting about much-enhanced performance, both from the CPU and the GPU. The Samsung Galaxy S7 is snappy in navigation, fast to open apps and to jump from one to another, and we've found it lovely and smooth in playing demanding games too.
It does this without getting excessively hot, although you'll feel it heating up during those more demanding times - but never to uncomfortable levels. This is flagship performance and even if the Snapdragon 820 version is incrementally better, in day-to-day usage you probably won't see any difference.
One of the advantages that comes with the 1mm additional thickness of this handset is the increase in battery capacity. It's now at 3,000mAh, compared to 2,550mAh of the SGS6. That's not just a 16 per cent boost in the physical battery, but the performance is enhanced too.
Battery life was the biggest complaint we had with the Samsung Galaxy S6. We accepted it within the new design and cut Samsung some slack, but it was definitely something that needed to be addressed. Which is exactly what's happened: the Samsung Galaxy S7 battery performance is good. It will get you through a typical day, whereas the previous handset would not.
There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, there's the newer hardware with a 14nm chipset and that bigger battery, but there's also power-savings in the software. Some of this comes from Android 6.0 Marshmallow - and the Doze function will see your phone use very little power when you leave it alone - but Samsung also has a number of power-saving methods at the app level.
The SGS7 will automatically find those apps you rarely use (the measure for that is no use in the last 3 days, although you can opt for 5 or 7 days if you prefer) and automatically save power on them. They essentially go to sleep, so you might not get notifications or updates from them. You can opt out of this and disable power saving if you prefer, or force power-saving for particular apps.
The end result is the phone that doesn't burn through the battery in half a day. Of course, if you're making lots of calls, shooting Ultra HD video, streaming music and munching through lots of data, then you'll get through the battery a lot faster. The only way around that is to have a massive battery capacity, like in the Huawei Mate 8, but that comes with other implications, namely physical size.
The SGS7 does support fast charging though, so connect the handset to a Quick Charge charger and you'll see it powered up in less than 2-hours. Wireless charging is still supported, although our experience is that wired charging is a far better option. Technically, Quick Charge is a Qualcomm technology, but the SGS7 is still able to fast charge, proprietary name or not.
Perhaps one surprise is that the SGS7 retains Micro-USB. There's been no move to USB Type-C that we see appearing elsewhere, so you're stuck with that one-way up cable for a little longer.
Samsung Galaxy S7 review: Display performance
The Samsung Galaxy S7 has a 5.1-inch 2560 x 1440 pixel resolution display, giving you a pixel density of 571ppi. This is pretty much a repeat performance of the handset it replaces, which offered the same size and resolution.
This is an AMOLED panel and it carries the characteristics of that display technology with it. The colours are richly saturated and the blacks are deep. This is a phone that's all about vibrancy and punch on the display. It lacks some of the impact of the SGS7 edge, because it doesn't stretch to and over the edges; so sat side-by-side with the S7 edge you'd probably pick the latter phone for its display every time, because it just looks better.
But in reality, the SGS7's display is very capable. It offers great viewing angles and there's plenty of brightness. Step out into bright sunshine and the Galaxy S7 ramps itself up to max to give you the best chances of seeing what's on the display. This is also reflected in the slider in the quick settings, so you know what it's doing. Step back inside, and it returns to where it was before.
Samsung has also added "always-on" display, to show key features. Much song and dance was made of this feature, but it's nothing new. In reality, it's pretty similar to the feature on Windows Phone, the Moto X or LG, although on the Samsung it's a permanent fixture and has to move the image around from place to place to avoid AMOLED burn-out. You can customise it a little, or add an additional background pattern and it will save you from hitting the button to wake your phone and check the time. Unfortunately it will only show you notification icons from Samsung apps, so it could be better than it currently is - who really uses Samsung apps in the long-term anyway?
Samsung Galaxy S7 review: Storage and the return of microSD
There is 32GB of internal storage in the SGS7. Of this, about 8GB is taken up by system files (fairly standard for a skinned Android handset) but Samsung has reintroduced microSD card expansion in the Galaxy S7. That means you'll be able to throw in a card to get yourself more storage over the internal capacity.
It's worth noting, however, that this isn't using Android Marshmallow's adoptable storage feature. That means it isn't seamlessly integrated, it appears as a separate section as SD cards have done in the past. We like adoptable storage, we find the straightforward integrated expansion a good solution because you never have to think about it, you just slap in a 128GB card, install those massive games a revel in the space you have.
However, Samsung gives you the option to move apps to microSD card, so you can manually manage your device's storage use. You can also fill the card with media to save the internal storage from filling up and save your photos there, for example. As this isn't acting as integrated storage you can then move the card to a different device to share media content, although you can't move apps from device to device like this.
Whether one solution is better than the other is perhaps debatable. The adoptable storage solution is a little technical, because you have to tell the hardware to take over that storage. On the other hand, digging into the settings to move the apps is also a fairly technical process. Either way, it's a relief to have microSD back in Samsung's flagship, but we suspect that not using adoptable storage is to avoid cannibalising sales in higher-capacity devices in the future.
Samsung Galaxy S7 review: TouchWiz meets Marshmallow
The Samsung Galaxy S7 launches on Android 6.0 Marshmallow with Samsung's heavy TouchWiz interface over the top. This latest iteration of TouchWiz builds on the version we saw on the SGS6, so it's cleaner and slightly lighter than older TouchWiz versions, but only slightly.
For the most part, TouchWiz is pretty good. It's packed full of functionality and is as comprehensive a reworking as you'll find, with the only raw Android element that's untouched being Now on Tap. Just about every other element gets the "S treatment". The settings are entirely reworked, the launcher, folders, apps drawer and quick settings are completely redesigned.
For an Android user it's a bit of a wrench away from the sophistication that Marshmallow now offers. It's Samsung owning the identity of its devices, but at least you're spared some of the bulk that once pervaded. There's still a collection of Samsung apps sitting alongside Google's apps and Microsoft's apps, and there's some duplication: you've got another browser, there's a second Samsung Gallery in addition to Google Photos, and there's another email client.
The Flipboard-style news feeder has been replaced with an alternative called "upday" that feeds you news based on a few preference selections. This lives in prime position just off the left of the home page, although we found it a little dense in information delivery, which puts us off using it. We sort of wish it was lighter, like Google Now. Or that it was just Google Now instead.
With Gear VR being in the focus, you'll find the app pre-installed, as well as Samsung's new Game Launcher. At first glance this looks like it crosses paths with Play Games, but it does offer some functionality, like being able to turn off alerts when you're in a game, or being able to access other tools. The other tools seem a little pointless, and we get the feeling that this is just tinkering for tinkering's sake.
There's a running theme through TouchWiz that Samsung is trying to make your life easy, but in the process it adds complexity that perhaps needn't be there. Some of the options offered probably appeal to more advanced users who could easily dig them out in menus; others will just see clutter they don't need.
For example you can access the notification settings from the notifications panel, with a perpetual "NOTI. SETTINGS" option added, as though editing the notifications is something you need to do regularly.
Then there's the apps tray which is a mess. It sticks to Samsung's preferred horizontal scrolling (also in the settings shortcuts and sharing apps), but to get your apps in alphabetical order you have to select the A-Z option and hit save. There seems to be no logic here, as once you've done it, any new app is then added to the end of the list and you have to repeat the process.
Another example could be the addition of the option to quickly connect to other devices also from the notifications area, as though life is one big romp through device connections. It's complication through simplicity, as though everything has to be addressed, when it really doesn't.
Samsung's keyboard is ok - we like the fact it has numbers available all the time - but it's no match for SwiftKey in prediction. S Planner is a poor cousin to Google's normal Calendar; it might offer some fancy appointment settings, but the day view is weak and rather dated (excuse the pun).
These things are easily changed, but it's easy to see why people think TouchWiz is over the top. There's more here than is necessary and you may well find you turn off a lot of the additions that have been added - Smart Stay, Smart Call, Smart Capture, and the rest - that really don't add anything fundamental to the experience, other than clutter.
The positive thing is that this doesn't appear to hold the SGS7 back: it's still slick, fast and we've found things to run smoothly and stably during the time we've been using the phone. For Android fans, we suspect that Google Now launcher and some stock apps will swing into place to re-Androidify this handset.
Samsung Galaxy S7 review: Camera performance
For us, Samsung is very much at the forefront of camera performance. This has been true for several generations of device - Note 4, SGS6 edge - with a repeat performance here on the SGS7.
There's a lot crammed into Samsung's camera, but there's one really important point. You point, you shoot and get a consistently good results. That's something Apple has been hitting hard on the iPhone, because that's where it really matters. Most people point and shoot, and that's where you need Auto HDR doing its stuff, that's where you need fast accurate focusing - and that's where Samsung delivers.
The Auto HDR - which helps to level shadows and highlights in exposures - is impressive because it isn't too aggressive, so you get good results with little effort. Blue skies pop, overcast skies get some texture and things pretty much look the way they should. Some of the results are boosted by the display, so when viewing images do remember they might be a little more saturated than they appear on other devices.
The SGS7 has a 12-megapixel sensor (of a size so it has 1.4µm pixels), with f/1.7 aperture on the lens. The play here is to better low-light performance, an obvious area for development.
The SGS6 was pretty good in low-light situations, but the message here is that it's now better. That f/1.7 lets more light in, but means you're getting a narrower depth of field which can result in only part of the scene being in focus. For a landscape you won't notice, but in macro shots, you might find only a section of the scene is sharp.
That can provide some nice background blurring, but can mean the subject isn't all in focus too. It's a trade-off to get better low-light performance - on a real camera you get flexibility in the aperture size to avoid this problem, which smartphones don't offer (typically speaking, anyway - there are few exceptions).
In auto mode the camera will jump up to higher ISO sensitivity in low-light, and we found dark conditions the results from ISO 1250 were actually pretty good - fine for sharing - but obviously lose some detail into mush as a result of processing, so it won't stand up to enlargement or zooming.
Smoother results can be achieved with the Pro mode where there's manual control, importantly for ISO and the exposure length. Sensitivity in manual runs from ISO 50 up to ISO 800 and the exposure runs from 1/24,000 sec through to 10-seconds. That's a decent length of time giving you versatility for taking low-light or more creative shots as long as you can keep the phone steady.
If using a tripod, use the self-timer option to avoid shake from pressing the button and you can get some good results. However, if you're just going to post that picture to Twitter or Facebook, you may find that the results from Auto are good enough anyway.
In Pro mode you can also opt for raw capture, saved alongside JPEG versions of the same picture. However, there doesn't appear to be a raw editor (not that you'd really be able to see what you were doing on the device itself) and you'll find Pro shots sitting in a different "Camera" album in the Gallery which is a bit organisationally messy. If you want to access these raw files, you'll need to drag them over to a computer to edit them.
There are plenty of other shooting modes too. Video, which includes a 60fps 1080p option and an Ultra HD option (for 2160/30p), gives detailed results, but there's no option to lock the focus, so you might find you get focusing pulses mid-capture from time to time.
There is also a Hyperlapse mode, making it really easy to create timelapse-style videos, with a range of different playback speed options. If you fancy the iPhone's Live Photos then there's the option for Motion Photo in the Samsung to capture the action before you take the shot, although this means you're just buffering more data through the phone and eating more battery.
There's a front-facing 5-megapixel camera with f/1.7 aperture and, again, it delivers good results. In good light it's perfectly capable and there's a full range of options to smooth skin, enlarge eyes, slim your face and otherwise distort yourself. Perhaps the most useful is HDR (again) as well as a selfie flash. This simply uses the screen to give you a quick bright blast before taking the picture. It's surprisingly effective, even if you will look a little mushy thanks to the ISO 800 setting it will inevitably select. Importantly you'll be able to grab selfies no matter how dark it is.
Overall, the SGS7 camera performance is great. It's really easy to get good results with little effort. There are options for those who want a little more, but we suspect that many will find that left in its auto state, there's little reason to change anything. The double-tap shortcut on the home button remains one of our favourites: it's slick, fast and convenient and we use it pretty much all the time.
The Samsung Galaxy S7 has quite a challenge ahead of it. Born with a bigger and better looking sibling device, the S7 edge, the regular model is likely to be a phone that fights for its place in the spotlight.
It continues Samsung's great design reinvention, though, refining what started with the SGS6, but adding some really compelling options in waterproofing and microSD card inclusion. There's plenty of power too - even if we're predicting some sort of international outrage over the Qualcomm vs Exynos debate - paired with a great display, pretty good battery performance and a camera that's consistently good.
Where the Galaxy S7 stumbles is in the continuing software excess. Although it runs smoothly and you get options to turn so much of it off, we can't help feeling that Samsung isn't making this phone better by adding so much to it. Less is more, as they say, and TouchWiz really could do with decluttering. Switching out some of Samsung's efforts for Google's offerings may well deliver a better experience.
But when you've got power, design, a great camera experience and a battery that gets you through the day, it's difficult not to like the SGS7. It fixes much of what was generally disliked about the SGS6 and, for those who don't want to grapple with the larger edge version, is the more apparent choice.
For all its foibles, this unsung hero is a strong addition to the world of smartphones.
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