Samsung Galaxy Note 7 hands-on: No radical step forward, but enough to make us want it

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New Atlas goes hands-on with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, an incremental update that might add just enough to warrant the upgrade(Credit: Will Shanklin/New Atlas)

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Today Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Note 7 at a Manhattan event. Afterwards, we got some hands-on time with the latest minor but still possibly upgrade-worthy iteration of the stylus-laden phablet.

When you pick up the Galaxy Note 7, if you aren't already well-acquainted with the Galaxy Note series and all the neat new stuff bullet points in the new model, you might think it was last year's Note 5 (yes, Samsung skipped the six). That doesn't mean, though, that there aren't subtle improvements that combine to push the lineup ever-so-slightly forward, in a significant enough way.

The Note now gets a curved edge display, similar to – but not the same as – what we've seen on the Galaxy S Edge lineup for the last couple of years. It's a bit different this time, with subtler curves that start closer to the edges of the screen. Samsung says it did this to make the curve and S Pen (stylus) play nicely together, but it also makes the device feel ridiculously smooth in hand. More than ever, the edges have a rounded feel that, when combined with the glass front and back (there's just a smidge of aluminum in between that your hands won't notice), gives the phone a unified, almost completely glass feel.

This isn't the top feature you'll see advertised, but we think these subtle new ergonomics just might be one of the Note 7's killer features.

The top feature you will see advertised is the Note's new iris scanner. It does the same things fingerprint sensors do, securing your phone with a piece of biometric verification only you can provide, but replaces the ever-so-difficult resting of your finger on the home button with gazing your peepers at the top of the screen.

Samsung let me add my irises to one of the demo models, and it worked as advertised. Swipe the phone to unlock, look at the screen and within a second or so, it lets you in.

There were some warnings splashed on the screen during the setup process, clarifying that the iris scanner works better indoors and may not be reliable in bright sunlight (a pretty big piece of fine print) and that it also may not be as reliable if you wear glasses or contact lenses. For what it's worth, I was wearing contacts during my demo and it worked perfectly.

The question is whether an iris scanner is really an improvement over fingerprint sensors (which the Note 7 also has), or if this is just a case of Samsung reaching for something sexy and new to sell us on the latest model. Considering fingerprint sensors take next to no effort and aren't necessarily any less secure, our first impression is leaning a bit towards the latter – despite the novelty of unlocking your phone with your eyes, which is extremely cool the first time you do it.

You do occasionally hear about master thieves 3D-printing or otherwise replicating fingerprints to unlock phones, so perhaps iris scans will ultimately prove slightly more secure in the long run. For most of us, though, we aren't convinced there's going to be any practical advantage over the fingerprint sensor you probably already have in your current phone.

It isn't new to Samsung flagships, but IP68 water resistance does make its way to the Galaxy Note lineup for the first time this year. Samsung had a shallow water tank on display in the demo area, and the phones were all chugging along as expected after living inside of them during the demo period. In a less expected development, not just the S Pen but also the phone without the S Pen inside are also water resistant – no small engineering feat, considering there's an extra hole in the phone once you unsheathe the stylus.

The S Pen also has double the pressure sensitivity of last year's Note, with 4,096 levels to the Note 5's 2,048. Playing around with it, it didn't exactly feel like night and day over the Note 5 – the pen sensitivity there was already terrific – but perhaps this is something that will show itself more over time.

A stylus is a handy alternative to the finger: Despite the crude reputation that styluses in pre-Note devices (a la Palm Pilot and Apple Newton) got, there's a powerful feeling in the extra precision that comes with one. But the Galaxy Note's stylus has always been as much about the software features it pairs with the pen as it is the hardware itself. The software transforms it from a plastic pointy-thing into a magic smartphone wand that can, with a click and a tap, do things that might require long-presses or multiple taps and swipes on other phones (if they can do it at all).

This year, one of the marquee additions is a quick translate feature, that lets you get an instant translation of any word, from and to any major language, just by hovering the pen over it. Not only will it work in apps and web pages, but you can also take pictures of things like signs or menus and use it in the photo.

There's also an instant magnification feature that lets you hover the S Pen around the screen, seeing a real-time magnification of whatever is below. This is more of an accessibility feature than anything, but maybe people with normal vision could still find use in magnifying points on maps or portions of videos without having to zoom in and back out.

Another new S Pen feature the Samsung reps were eager to showcase was a GIF creation feature: use the Smart Select tool to wrap a box around a video or anything else on screen that's moving, hit record and instantly transform it into a shareable GIF file.

These are niche features, mind you: We don't think a large percentage of the populace is clamoring for floating magnifying glasses and GIF-makers for their next phone. But these goodies do continue the Note line's legacy of adding (potentially) useful stylus-based touches that combine to make the phone feel more like a full computer.

In other areas, the phone's screen specs are unchanged from the last two generations: 5.7 inches diagonally, with QHD (2,560 x 1,440) resolution. The display (unsurprisingly) looked great in the demo area. The phone's Snapdragon 821 chip also had it zipping through the tasks we and the Samsung reps threw at it.

We can't do much with battery and camera in a demo area, but the few shots we took – both with rear and front cameras – looked great. And the Note has a 3,500 mAh battery, along with an optional Samsung-made battery back that isn't quite as bulky as many third-party options (though still not as slim or elegant as the Moto Z's snap-on battery mod).

Apart from being much more iteration than breakthrough, our biggest gripe about the Note is that it actually got a price hike over last year's (already expensive) model. US carrier pricing for the Galaxy Note 7 is falling in the mid-US$800s full retail, about a $100 increase over past models. It does give you 64 GB internal storage, rather than the Note 5's 32 GB (or the paltry 16 GB Apple expects you to make do with), but that's still an extremely high asking price, even for an ultra-premium flagship. For the Note 7's price, you could buy two OnePlus 3s and still have some pocket change left.

Stay tuned for our full review. The Galaxy Note 7 goes up for pre-order tomorrow, and launches on August 19.

Product page: Samsung

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