Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review (hands-on): There's something magical about the screen on Samsung's new phone


Back in 2011, Samsung looked at the mobile phone landscape, and decided everything was too damned fiddly for our massive hands. The result was the Samsung Galaxy Note: a handset that almost single-handedly started the phablet boom, and ensured that today it’s pretty hard to find a top handset that’s smaller than 5in.

The Note 2 followed in 2012, and then predictably the Note 3 in 2013. You can guess when the Note 4 was released, if you’ve been paying attention, but that’s where the guessing game gets more tedious. The Note 5 never launched in the UK, and the Note 6 – like Windows 9 – never existed. Good news if you bought a contract Note 4 right at the start: you’ll be due an upgrade right on time.

So we’ve jumped straight to 7, bringing the Note parallel with the S series. That makes sense: the Note 7 is every bit the handset the S7 is – in fact, in the literal sense, it’s a fair bit more.

What was once the Note’s USP – its size – is now far more commonplace, but it’s still a huge phone. But impressively, with dimensions of 153.5 x 73.9 x 7.9mm, it’s actually smaller overall than the iPhone 6s Plus – a good result when it manages to pack in a larger 5.7in, 2,560 x 1,440 AMOLED screen.

And it looks nice. Really nice. Samsung has learned a thing or two about how to make an attractive handset, and the Note 7 definitely matches that brief. Barely any space on the front of the handset is wasted, with the curved screen wrapping around the front of the phone. You’ll have a choice of three colours: Black Onyx, Blue Coral and Silver Titanium. Whichever finish you opt for, the phablet is extremely sleek, and guaranteed to catch intrigued glances.

S Penny for your thoughts

Of course, part of this intrigue is down to the stylus – sorry, “S Pen”. The stylus has gone out of fashion since PDAs stopped being a thing, but the S Pen makes an extremely compelling case for them being given a second chance. I owned a Note 2 back in 2012, and given this is the fourth iteration of the pen since then, it’s no surprise that it’s more of a pleasure to use than ever before. It has a 0.7mm tip (down from 1.6mm in the previous model), and it now feels less like you’re dragging plastic across glass, and more like you’re actually writing on a page. Even something as typically fiddly as annotating screenshots is a doddle:

It’s not just the feel of the S Pen that’s improved – Samsung has added a few more party tricks to it, too. The most impressive of these is that the Note 7’s software now comes with Google Translate built in, meaning that you can get an instant translation just by hovering over a word. Even more impressively, this even works with photos, so intimidating foreign menus needn’t traumatise you any more – unless they use a silly font.

Bringing the Note series in line with the S7 means the phablet also gains some of the established features of its flagship stablemate. Most eye-catchingly, this means that the Note 7 is more rugged than older versions, despite having to include a hole to keep the S Pen in. The Note 7 gets an IP68 rating, meaning that if you really must, you could give your phablet a bath in 1.5m of water for half an hour.

Samsung felt so confident of this at the launch event that they’d installed a handful of devices with a game that involved catching virtual fish by physically dunking your the Note 7 in a large container of cold water. I asked, and no, that was just for us and won’t be on the finished phone – sensible move. Nonetheless, you can feel comfortable answering a phone call in the pouring rain if you absolutely must.

Elsewhere, security gets a boost. The fingerprint scanner made its debut in the Note 4, but this time it’s accompanied by iris scanning, if you find that more convenient. Stare at your phone for a few seconds to set it up, and then it unlocks pretty much instantaneously when you flash your baby blues at it. In fact, it was so snappy, that my colleague Adam at IT Pro couldn’t get a photo of me doing it, because it happened so fast. Impressive.

Samsung says contact lenses and glasses could get in the way of this, and I’m not convinced it’s much more convenient than just using your fingerprint, but I suppose it’s nice to have, and an impressive party trick if nothing else.

The best bits of the S7 have got bigger

Note phones have, historically, been absolute beasts when it comes to specifications and the Note 7 keeps this trend going. Like the S7, the Note 7 uses the 2.3GHz quad-core Exynos 8890 SoC in the UK, backed up with 4GB of RAM. The S7 is among the fastest handsets around, and it’s hard to imagine the Note 7 being anything else when we get a chance to properly benchmark it. Samsung reckons that makes it around 30% faster than the Note 5, and with 58% better graphical performance. The camera sensor is the same as the Samsung Galaxy S7’s, which is to say it should take some of the best photos currently possible on a smartphone.

What’s more, the larger frame means space for a bigger battery, and a 3,500mAh one is duly included. That’s a slightly smaller capacity than the S7 Edge’s (3,600mAh), but a significant bump on the S7’s (3,000mAh). In any case, given those handsets offered between 18 and 19 hours in our battery tests, it’d be surprising if the Note 7 didn’t offer similar stamina. It comes with 64GB of storage built in, but yes, you can expand it with a microSD card.

That screen isn’t just big

To look at, the screen on the Samsung Galaxy S7 doesn’t look anything particularly special. Well, when I say special, that’s relative to the rest of the Samsung range. It’s 5.7in across the diagonal and the same resolution as the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge at 2,560 x 1,440. Naturally, it uses the same flexible AMOLED display panel technology, too.

And yet, behind the headline specifications lies a beast of a screen that even manages to outdo that of the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, if a test report issued by DisplayMate is to be believed.

In measurements, DisplayMate found the screen’s peak brightness hit an astonishing 1,048cd/m2, that’s more than twice as bright as the S7 Edge when in automatic brightness mode.

This is likely to facilitate the screen’s new HDR video mode, but it isn’t the screen’s only big strength. The Note 7 has dual light sensors, where most phones only have one, for more accurate measurement of ambient light. Hopefully, this will help the screen to set its brightness more appropriately for the level of light available.

There’s Gorilla Glass 5 on the front, for improved shatter and scratch resistance, and the phone has a new type of sub-pixel arrangement, with some sub-pixels shaped like diamonds, instead of vertical strips. Coupled with sub-pixel rendering, which allows the display driver to address each of the red, green and blue pixels individually, rather than in a block of three, DisplayMate says the Note 7’s screen can, in some circumstances, appear to have a much higher resolution.

We’ll test this in due course when we get our hands on the phone for testing, but it looks very much like the screen could be the Note 7’s key feature.

Another area where the Note 7 differs from the S7 is that this time Samsung has made the jump to USB Type-C, while the S7 stuck resolutely to micro-USB. How you feel about this will chiefly depend on how many spare cables you have lying around, but in any case, fast charging means you should be able to go from 0-50% in just ten minutes, which should be good enough for all but the most impatient of customers. It does mean it requires another version of the Gear VR, however, with existing models only including a micro-USB port. Pre-order it with certain retailers and you’ll get the updated model free though.

From our brief time with it so far, our impressions of the Note 7 are overwhelmingly positive. The handset is due for release in the UK on 2 September, and we’ll be back with a full review soon, but for now phablet fans can relax: it seems you’re in big, safe hands.

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