(Pocket-lint) - The Samsung Note family is characterised by one thing: the inclusion of a stylus (that's S Pen in Samsung speak).
Previously, the Note stood slightly apart from other devices because of its size. However, as phones have grown, it has been accepted that bigger is a bit better, and the Note has become increasingly normal.
Because of its release later in the year than the majority of smartphones, it has the chance to evolve and expand from Samsung's regular devices. In the case of the Note 7, it builds on the Galaxy S7 edge, a device that's accomplished in its own right. The result is a handset that takes everything good about the S7, adds a dab of polish, introduces new features and throws in the S Pen for good measure.
- Best smartphones 2018: The best phones available to buy today
- Upcoming phones: The future smartphones of 2018
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review: Familiar design
In a moment of blink-and-you'll-miss-it design, the Note 7 doesn't step too far from the design of the S7 edge. That's a good thing, as Samsung's use of the curved edge is one of the things that stands it apart from the majority of flat phones already out there. The phone looks great with those curved edges, but that aspect of the design is more about aesthetic than functionality, as we'll discuss later.
The build is great quality, with a sandwich of glass hemmed in by a metal edge, symmetrical in its design from front to back, enhanced with waterproofing to save you from those little "oops" moments.
The use of glass means a glossy finish and the biggest problem you might face is fingerprints making the phone look smeary, especially in the "Blue Coral" finish we first saw the device in - as shown in many of our pictures. For the long-term loan of this review device we've received the more subdued black finish ("Black Oryx" if you want the full marketing shebang).
Over time that glass rear may become more noticeably scratched than a metal phone - even if it is Gorilla Glass 5 - as we've experienced with other phones before.
Importantly, however, the Note 7 isn't a bloated lump. At 74mm wide it's a big device, but a manageable package. At 169g it's also lighter than the iPhone 6S Plus, and has a smaller overall footprint too.
If nothing else, the Note 7 is an example of how to design bigger phones.
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review: Delicious display
Wrapped into that frame is a 5.7-inch, 2560 x 1440 pixel resolution display. That's 518ppi, ensuring it's packed with detail.
As per Samsung's norm, this is an AMOLED display and it shows all the characteristics you would expect: inky-deep blacks, punchy and vibrant colours.
Samsung has introduced a couple of new elements to this display. The first is a "blue light filter". Like Apple's Night Shift and the forthcoming Night Mode of Android Nougat, the idea is to ease the strain on your eyes during the evening by shifting the colour tone from colder blue towards warmer yellows. We like that you can change the intensity of the effect, allowing to you preserve some of the colour fidelity: you don't want all those movies looking weird when you're watching in bed.
The second, HDR (high dynamic range), is borrowed from the latest television tech. As the first HDR ready smartphone, the Note 7 gives you the potential to stream movies in HDR, with more colours, brighter whites and more contrast than previously available.
Although HDR is being marketed as a new feature, of course you'll need some content to take advantage of it - and, in reality, adding HDR is really just a natural progression of the display's performance. There's an Amazon Prime Instant Video confirmed, with, hopefully, more to follow.
What HDR really means is that the display is really bright (800-nits). So when you need screen brightness, the Note 7 can really deliver it, which is ideal on a sunny day to cut through reflections. Although that has an impact on the overall battery life, it makes the Note 7 lovely to use, with a display that adapts to the conditions to deliver more punch than most rivals.
Those dual curved edges are mostly about looking different, but they do also make the phone's size feel more manageable in the hand. They're not just a pretty point of difference, though: they offer a range of functions, including a full suite of "edge screen" functions.
Those includes notifications, night clock, useful edge panels for launching apps, or reaching contacts with a swipe. However, none of that feels essential and none of it is really ground-breaking functionality. Perhaps we're just spoiled and too used to it in recent Samsung phones.
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review: Battery performance and power
There are few phones these days that lack power to get you through a day or more of use. Enhancements in hardware and continued software optimisation means that even entry-level devices are often very capable.
The Note 7 is packed with an Exynos octo-core chipset and 4GB of RAM in the UK, making it every bit as capable as other flagship phones out there. It doesn't stutter or complain under load, although it doesn't always snap open apps as fast as you might want it to.
Some regions will have a Note 7 powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 chipset and if we've learnt anything from this divide on the Galaxy S models earlier in the year, it makes very little difference: both are very good. The 6GB RAM model might be a point of difference, but if the OnePlus 3's loadout is anything to go by, this level of RAM isn't being used effectively just yet.
The Note 7 doesn't get excessively hot either, nor does it chew through the on-board battery with excessive pace - although we did find a recurring failure, especially in Chrome, which would need a restart to get things running again. Perhaps that's why Samsung still includes its own browser.
One of the sacrifices for that slim and compact design is the battery capacity is 3,500mAh, which isn't much greater than some smaller smartphones: the S7 edge has a 3,600mAh battery, for example.
The result is that the Note 7 will get you through most days without having to worry about recharging every few hours. But at the same time the Note 7 is happy to turn on the tap when you want and need it to, and if you're making a lot of calls, heading out for a Pokemon Go session, or streaming those movies on the move, you'll still find you want a charger close to hand. Yes, the Note 7 could have squeezed in a larger battery to fend off some of those big battery phones like the Huawei Mate 8, but we're happy with this balance between pocketability, design and endurance.
The Galaxy Note 7 will charge in little over an hour when hooked-up to a rapid charger, but there are software power-saving features too. With an expanded power saver mode option it takes a four-strand approach to saving battery. Taking an approach a little more like Sony, you can choose which elements are changed and which aren't. That's good, because if you don’t want background data turned off, you can keep it, striking a balance that fits what you want your phone to be doing.
As great as Samsung's new power-saving is, it needs to be used with caution: one of the options in the package is to step-down the screen resolution to save battery. If you happen to be playing a game, that will be restarted – so don't just tap the option in the quick settings without reaching a point in your game that you're happy to stop at.
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review: S Pen superiority
It's the S Pen functionality which really makes the Note 7 a different device beyond its Galaxy cousins. This new S Pen is more capable than ever before, adding more functions and interactions. It's even waterproof, operates underwater (er, useful?), and can't be put back into the device upside-down (a previous Note series bugbear).
Current Note users will know about Air Command, the multi-functional menu that pops-up when extracting the S Pen. This brings the ability to write memos and notes, including annotation over on-screen content; and Smart Select which is acquire specific content and share between apps in dual-screen mode.
In the Note 7 the core Air Command principle remains much the same, but with some additions: Magnify, which enhances a square on-screen area by 150-300%, depending on the S-Pen's position; and Translate, which plugs into Google Translate and can translate words on-page or even from photographs, one word at a time (but not in sentences or paragraphs, thus rendering it largely pointless).
The best new S-Pen feature, in our view, is one that doesn't appear in Air Command at all: Screen-Off Memo. This allows you to extract the S-Pen without turning the phone on, to make quick notes on the always-on display (it's white scrawl on the black background) and even pin alert pop-ups to the screen to return to later, without unlocking the device.
It's the fluidity of writing that we love most about the S Pen. It feels so natural writing notes on the display, perhaps because its twice as sensitive as previous Note devices. Whether that's making notes on the lock screen, or using handwriting rather than the keyboard, there's an elegance to the S Pen's scribbles. It feels right and that that encourages use. Where you might have once been reaching for a pen and paper, you'll probably not bother and use the Note instead.
However, the Note 7 isn't just about its stylus. This is a perfectly capable phone for those wanting a big screen device, whether you're an S Pen fan or not.
Samsung Galaxy Note 7: Camera performance
What the Note 7 camera offers is practicality and consistency. When you open the Note 7 camera and hit the button you'll easily get a decent shot, assisted by optical image stabilisation, auto HDR and other automated assistive features.
That's what really matters on a smartphone: it's not the level of detail you can dive down into, it's how it performs across conditions day-to-day. That's where the iPhone has made its mark and Samsung does the same here too: the Note 7 just works, to use the Apple adage.
In low-light conditions results will soften, with image noise processed away to deliver cleaner, albeit softer images. This happens progressively as the ISO sensitivity rises - but up to about ISO 400 things stay sharp enough. Once the camera ramps itself higher, as required in lower-light conditions when shooting handheld, quality will fall away as you lose detail and sharpness.
There's also a very capable manual/Pro mode for those who want more. This gives you control over ISO sensitivity, alongside focusing, metering zones and shutter speed. You can't select the highest ISO sensitivities that the auto camera offers, but you can dive down as low as ISO 50 - combine that with a longer exposure and you'll get nice clean lower-light pictures if you can keep the phone steady.
The Note 7's front camera isn't the best out there, especially in low-light conditions, but boosted by the front flash you'll be able to get photos of yourself in all conditions. We also love the double-press of the home button as a camera shortcut, and that another double press will switch cameras from front to back.
With UHD (4K) video on offer - and plenty of other resolutions too - the Note 7's camera experience certainly isn't lacking. The Galaxy S7 is amongst our favourite cameras of 2016 and with a compelling experience mirrored in the Note 7, it's impossible not to love the experience of using this camera.
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review: Software refinement
Samsung has made some big changes over the past few years in the software department. The Galaxy S6 started a transformation and in the S7 there were a few elements that were still a little messy. The Note 7, perhaps remarkably, takes Samsung's existing software platform and evolves it.
There are a number of differences from the devices launched earlier in the year and it's impressive that Samsung is evolving at such pace, as things are mostly refined over an already great software position. The settings are tidier, there are features that even trump the forthcoming Google Android 7.0 Nougat update – like the blue screen filter and split screen (now several generations old for Samsung).
There's a lot of customisation and plenty of options built deep into Samsung's software - you can find a full run-down of what it will do here - but so much is achieved in the core level of the user interface, rather than through extra apps.
There is still a position with the Note 7 where Samsung is keeping itself independent. Unlike Motorola or HTC that are turning more toward Android standard, Samsung is still offering an independent store to update its own apps, wanting you to sign into a Samsung account with its own backup options.
But where excessive tinkering sometimes leaves a mess, there's plenty of charm which makes it forgivable here, as most of what Samsung is doing elevates the Note 7 to be a more useful and better than the rest.
Sure, we think the animation that wants to play every time you turn on power saving is just excessive, but otherwise, this is Samsung at the top of its game.
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review: A few negatives
Fingerprint scanners are so last year. Well, not entirely - the Note 7 still has one of those, on its front, which doubles-up as the home button, in the same manner as the Galaxy S7. It works really well, although generally prefer such scanners to be positioned on the rear of phones this large, like the Huawei Mate 8.
Where the Note 7 tries to push things forward is with its iris scanner for unlocking. We've met this iris scanner previously on the Microsoft Lumia 950 and we didn't like it so much then. In reality, Samsung's fingerprint scanner is so good, there are few occasions we've found we actually needed the iris scanner. However, it works reliably enough, even if it still shines a red light in your eye, and excessive eyeball unlocking ends up being a little blinding.
If there's one true weakness on the hardware front, it's the sound quality from the speakers, which is a little weak. For all that Samsung offers, for the speakers to be the only real weakness, is quite an accomplishment.
That the Note 7 is a remarkable phone won't come as a surprise to fans of the series. Time and again, this larger format device has found fame for all the right reasons. For 2016 the Note 7 no longer feels like the freakishly large phone the series once was: it's almost normal, a refreshed Samsung handset for those who didn't jump and get the Galaxy S7 edge when it launched earlier in the year.
The Note 7 is no one-trick pony either. This phone isn't only about its S Pen stylus, it's about a complete package, bringing great design and build, power and a fantastic display, software maturity and overall refinement into the one device.
Samsung has packed the Galaxy Note 7 full of features and full of technology, making this one of the best smartphones ever. It might be much more expensive than some of the big screen rivals, but it delivers and it's totally worth it.