Samsung Galaxy Note7: An excellent phone for the high-price market

Samsung Galaxy Note7: An excellent phone for the high-price market

Samsung's new addition to its Galaxy line of phones has a superb display, well-thought-out design and strong security features.

If you've been watching the Olympics in the U.S., you have certainly seen the inescapable ads for Samsung's Galaxy Note7 phone. But these crushingly ubiquitous ads emphasize the phone's stylus without mentioning two of its prime attractions: its terrific screen and its enhanced security features.

Fast and fashionable

The Note7 measures 6.0 x 2.9 x 0.3 in. and weighs just shy of 6 oz. The superb Super AMOLED screen, curved at the long edges, is 5.7 inches diagonal with QuadHD resolution of 2560 x 1440 pixels.

(By the way, let's just call this a phone and retire the increasingly meaningless word "phablet." Smartphones, particularly at the high end, have been getting bigger over the last year. The Note7 is not noticeably bigger than Samsung's Galaxy S7 Edge and is actually a bit smaller than the recent OnePlus 3 or the Moto Z Force. We're talking about 0.1-in. differences in length and width.)

Though the phone's edges are pleasingly rounded, its back is completely flat -- save for a modest camera bump -- a requirement for wireless charging. The Note7's corners are more squared off than the S7 Edge's, and the casing strip that divides the front and back of the phone is black on the Note7 and grey on the S7 Edge. Other than that, there is very little to physically distinguish the two phones.

The phone is driven by a Snapdragon 820 quad core processor, has 4GB of RAM and comes with 64GB of storage, which you can expand with a microSD card. There's a fingerprint sensor on the phone's chin that also acts as a Home button and an NFC chip. Radios include Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac; Bluetooth 4.2; ANT+ (which is a little unusual; it's a protocol for wireless interoperability between devices); and GPS, Glonass and Beidou (the last two are, respectively, the Russian and Chinese versions of GPS).

I used the AnTuTu Benchmark 6.2 to test the phone's performance: The Note7 scored 141459, behind the 149220 for the Moto Z Force, roughly equivalent to the OnePlus 3 at 140208 and ahead of the S7 Edge's 134599 and the iPhone 6S's 133781. In actual use, the phone felt quick and the screen speed did not drag, nor did the biometric authentication.

The battery is 3,500mAh and supports both Qi and AirFuel wireless charging; the phone uses USB-C for wired charging. (Fully aware of the transition from microUSB to USB-C, Samsung thoughtfully includes a small adapter that you will probably lose.) Battery life, using the AnTuTu drain test, was about five hours. Recharging with Samsung's wireless fast charger (which uses the Wireless Power Consortium's Qi standard) took just under three hours.

There is a headphone jack on the bottom left edge. The power switch is on the right edge, volume buttons on the left, and the SIM/microSD drawer is at the top.

Samsung claims the same high level of water resistance for the Note7 as it does for the S7 phones, which is to say IP68: water resistance to five feet for 30 minutes. The screen is covered by Gorilla Glass 5, the newest and latest edition of Corning's tough shatter-resistant glass.

The Note7 runs Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, but what the company has done with the Settings menu is kind of interesting. Native Android organizes a phone's endless settings into categories like "Wireless and Networks," "Phone," "Personal" and "System." The Note7 does away with those categories but organizes the settings into 13 well-selected groups plus a user manual. Furthermore, each of the settings submenus includes at the bottom a couple of suggestions for what you may also have been looking for. It is well-thought-out, and is surprisingly effective in taming Android's menus.

The S Pen

The signature feature of the Note7 is the S Pen stylus. The S Pen is on the small side -- 4.25 x 0.2 in. with a button about halfway down on one side and another at the top. When not in use, the S Pen docks inside the phone; there's a spring-loaded port on the bottom right edge of the phone, and unlike with the Note5, it's impossible to insert the pen backwards.

The phone recognizes when you remove the S Pen and offers you several options. You can create notes using the stylus -- which is pressure sensitive -- as a brush or a pen, or as input for limited handwriting recognition. (This last is hard for me to test; my handwriting frequently defies even the most sophisticated human interpretation.) Hovering over a word will translate it into English or several other languages. And -- perhaps neatest of all -- you can extract editable text from any screen by selecting it with the pen in Smart Select.

Your enthusiasm for the stylus will depend on how you plan to use the phone. I never did master it entirely, although there were certainly times when it I found it useful -- for example, there's a new feature that lets you jot brief notes that would appear on the sleep screen, where they're hard to ignore. Others could use it to annotate photos: take a picture of something, draw angry red circles to isolate a problem, or write "Fix this now!" and send it off in an email.

Samsung reps have said that it will be possible to buy S Pens to replace ones that are lost. No price was available at press time.

Dazzling screen

The screen, as I mentioned earlier, is terrific. The Note7 allows no fewer than four screen modes, which is three more than most phones. The default Adaptive Display setting adjusts the screen's specs to accommodate most day-to-day activities, particularly useful in bright light. Basic Screen mode is the setting to use for regular photography; AMOLED photo mode is accurately calibrated for high-end photography like HDR mode photos and videos; and AMOLED cinema produces color accuracy on a par with 4K movies.

In addition, the screen has a blue light filter for night viewing, because studies indicate that the blue light in phone displays can interfere with sleep. (iOS has had this feature, too, in the last couple of generations of iPhones.)

The eyes don't quite have it

The Note7 has a couple of interesting security features that stop just short of being enterprise class: iris recognition and Secure Folder.

Android users are used to pattern and PIN unlocking, as well as the more recent fingerprint security. Some phones played with face recognition, but that turned out to be pretty unreliable. The Note7 is the first phone to include iris recognition.

It's relatively simple: Swipe up from the lock screen, point the face of the phone so that the camera aligns properly with your eyes, and the phone unlocks. Although you can register several fingerprints, the Note7 lets you register only one eye print.

Once you're used to it, it's quicker than it sounds. But I found that iris unlocking didn't work well in low light, and glasses seemed to confuse it. In an interview with Computerworld, Chris Briglin, Samsung's director of enterprise mobile product marketing, acknowledged that glasses presented a challenge -- scratched, high-diopter or progressive lenses can defeat the infrared light used to scan irises. Still, Samsung positions this feature as being even more secure than fingerprints, and well suited for work applications where the user may be wearing gloves.

I'll agree with the validity of the use case, but the actual usability of iris unlocking still leaves a bit to be desired. Unlocking is instantaneous when the phone finally sees your eyes, which takes some practice. But I wasn't able to either register my irises or unlock the phone with my glasses on.

All else being equal, most people will probably stick with one of the other three authentication styles. But don't expect iris recognition to go away.

Secure Folder

Also on the security menu is Secure Folder. Based on Samsung's Knox technology, the Secure Folder is essentially a fully separate managed partition of your phone, protected by password or biometrics. Previous phones have had the feature, but this is the first time that Samsung is trying to bring it to the fore by putting an icon directly on your home screen and mentioning it during setup.

Secure Folder allows your phone to have two separate personalities, with different email service, different contacts, different photos, different apps -- everything but a different phone number.

But if you're an IT manager, keep in mind that Samsung draws a line between the "lockbox" of Secure Folder and the containerization of a managed device. Secure Folder, says Samsung's Briglin, is designed so you can hand your phone to friends and keep them from seeing things you'd rather they not see. IT departments that want to control Samsung devices can add Knox Workspace, a separate product that allows complete policy management.

In fact, a phone with Knox Workspace, Briglin says, could have three containers: the main phone, the Secure Folder, and the container under corporate control. A separate email from Samsung, however, said that Secure Folder itself was beyond the reach of Workspace policies.

Advanced camera and other features

The excellent 12MP camera is the same as the one as in the S7 phone. It can take videos of up to UHD (3840 x 2160) quality, and save stills in RAW format. Even the 5MP front camera can take videos of up to QHD (2560 x 1440) quality. You can trigger the shutter by tapping the screen; showing it your palm; by saying "smile," "cheese," "capture," or "shoot," or "record video"; or tapping a volume control.

As other vendors seem to be cutting back on photo modes, Samsung continues to go all in. Modes include panorama; selective focus; slow motion; hyperlapse; a food mode; virtual shot; video collage; live broadcast, which connects to YouTube Live Event, and Pro, which gives you manual control over everything from ISO speed and metering to white balance and autofocus mode. Other interesting features: The Note7 also adds the same utility to the right-hand curved edge of the screen as the S7 Edge uses. You can add panels to the phone's edge that keep your calendar, the weather, browser bookmarks, news and contacts a swipe away.

Samsung Pay works as expected -- which is to say, well. It's activated by swiping up from the bottom of the screen, locked or unlocked. Remember that Samsung Pay can mimic a card swipe at the diminishing number of credit card terminals that aren't ready for contactless payments. Be advised, though: That feature has a tendency to freak out unknowing cashiers.

Bottom line

Where is the ceiling on smartphone prices? The Note7 -- which comes in black onyx, blue coral or silver titanium -- costs $879 free and clear from AT&T. At T-Mobile, it's $850, plus $20 for the SIM card; at Verizon; it's $864; and at Sprint it's $850. (All vendors have installment plans that discount the phone but tie you to contracts.)

That's a lot of money, but this is a lot of phone. The screen's top-notch, the camera's great, the battery goes the distance, the Secure Folder feature is useful, iris recognition is pretty cool even if it's not perfect, and the stylus is more than a gimmick.

Then again, the OnePlus 3 costs $399, the Moto Z Force is $720, and Samsung's own Galaxy S7 Edge hovers around $750 to $800.

If the things that make the Note7 great are important to you, then you may not have reached the breaking point with pricing. But I'm worried that manufacturers are warming us up for the $1,000 mark, which is a psychological barrier that may be tough for buyers to cross.

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