Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review: Scans your eyes, empties your wallet

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New Atlas reviews the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, a terrific phone that sometimes struggles to justify its sky-high price(Credit: Will Shanklin/New Atlas)

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The Galaxy Note 7 may be Samsung's smallest step forward in the lineup's five-year history, but that doesn't mean it isn't still a Smartphone of the Year candidate that's worth consideration for your next phone. But is it our top choice? And does it justify its sky-high price? Join New Atlas as we review the Note 7.

Update: So much for that – as you've probably heard, the Note 7 was great for lighting cigarettes and campfire storytelling, but not so great at being a smartphone that doesn't catch on fire. It's been completely and permanently recalled. Our original review remains below, for historical archives.

When companies announce new features we've never seen before, there's a temptation to get caught up in the novelty and make the conversation entirely about said feature. We'll try not to do that, but we do want to start by looking at what will likely be the most advertised feature of the Note 7, its iris scanner.

The sensor, which scans your irises to log you into your phone, is a fun new piece of tech that adds, unfortunately, little to no practical or experiential advantage over the fingerprint sensor that's already built into this phone (and most others). It looks like Samsung is reverting to its old habit of focusing on features that add more to its advertising agency's arsenal than to the average customer's experience and return on investment.

In our experience, the iris scanner is at best redundant, at worst gimmicky.

The somewhat tedious process of swiping the screen to start the iris scan, holding the phone just right to line up your eyes and waiting for it to register (why not just press your finger on the home button?)(Credit: Will Shanklin/New Atlas)

In the long haul, iris scanning may be a bit harder for a thief (or government agency) to replicate and trick than fingerprints. It's possible today's scanner is laying the groundwork for future versions that will be more user-friendly than Samsung's implementation today. And it also could come in handy on the rare occasion when your fingers are too wet for the fingerprint sensor to work well. In theory, it sounds really neat.

But today the iris scanning requires more time to log in than with a fingerprint, makes you hold the phone at just the right angle for it to get your eyes in view, slows down even more if you're wearing glasses and works like rubbish in direct sunlight.

If you don't like the feature, though, just ignore it and enjoy the rest of the phone, right?

Well, partially, but that isn't the whole story: Because if the iris scanner is contributing to the phone's US$100 price hike over every previous Galaxy Note, then we have to question the handset's overall value proposition. When advertising-friendly novelties with limited customer value trump good ol' fashioned bang-for-your-buck – no matter how technologically impressive those novelties are – we're going to dock points in our overall recommendation.

That's too bad, because there isn't much to complain about elsewhere. The Galaxy Note 7 has a beautiful glass and aluminum build that marries Samsung's curved screen tech with a standard (non-"Edge"-branded) flagship for the first time. Its spacious and sharp display may be the best you can find in any smartphone. And you still get the S Pen, the stylus that the Note series hangs its hat on.

This year that S Pen has twice the levels of pressure sensitivity over the last two Galaxy Notes, which shows itself if you do any sketching or handwriting on the new Note. When combined with its virtually imperceptible latency, this is as close to the look and feel of pen on paper as we've seen in this lineup.

The stylus itself is thinner than in previous models. We like the feel in hand well enough, but it does still strike us as an odd pairing: highly premium phone with plastic pen that feels like it could break in two if you bent it hard enough. Why not give us an aluminum S Pen to go along with the aluminum/glass slab of a phone we're paying $850 for?

Samsung also added its annual batch of software-based S Pen features to the new model. This time around that includes translation, where you hover the pen over a word, wait a second or two and watch as it pops up an equivalent word in your native language (niche for most people, but potentially extremely useful in some cases). There's also a feature that lets you easily create a GIF animation out of any video: It works well, but when it comes time to share the GIF, you'd better use social media, as sending to a friend as an MMS will convert it into a still image.

But the killer feature of every Galaxy Note, in our book, isn't these sometimes-forced features that Samsung cooks up every year; it's the simple feeling of using a highly-responsive digital pen with a beautiful and handheld multitouch computer. In that way, it's better than ever.

When you use a phablet that doesn't have a stylus, you have to hold the phone kinda like you would a small tablet, leading to either this hand-crunching thing with two hands, or one-handed use where you'll have trouble reaching your finger across the screen. With a stylus, you just cup the phone in your offhand, swipe and scribble away with the pen in your dominant hand. To us, it feels perfectly natural and intuitive. It's fulfilling the dream that extinct PDAs like the Palm Pilot aimed at over a decade ago, but never quite nailed (or made remotely fashionable).

With the success of the Galaxy Note series through the last five years, it's a bit strange that other smartphone OEMs have yet to add a stylus option to any of their high-end flagships. The closest thing is LG's mid-ranged Stylus series, but they aren't in the same class as the Note – in terms of specs or overall experience. Many of us would love to see more options from other companies here.

One of our favorite things about the Note 7 is how the premium design feels in hand. The display curves over near the edge, but is also curved on the back, leading to this nice rounded feel along the edges, with smooth glass and just a hint of metal gently pressing against your palm and fingers.

With that said, unless you're unusually bold, you'll probably end up stuffing that smooth piece of kit inside a smartphone case. This is the irony of modern high-end mobile devices: Designs are expected to be premium and sexy across the board, only so we can hide them inside a piece of overpriced rubbery plastic that costs about 50 cents to manufacture.

This is the first year that the Galaxy Note series gets water resistance, as the new Note picks up the same IP68 rating (continuous submersion beyond 1 m of water) as the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge. Its stylus is also water-resistant.

Though it's far from a major concern, the Note 7's performance isn't quite as zippy as we'd hoped for. Using other Snapdragon 820 phones like the HTC 10 and Moto Z, we get a noticeably peppier UI navigation experience than with the Note – things like multitasking, opening and closing apps, and other random tasks. We suspect all those stylus-based features and other TouchWiz goodies are slowing things down just a hair. Perhaps some of the Note 7's rumored specs from before the official announcement, including 6 GB of RAM and a Snapdragon 821 chip, would have remedied this.

Make no mistake: On the whole, real-world performance is still very good, if not great. But for a phone that costs more than twice as much as the OnePlus 3, which has excellent performance, we expected the Note 7 to be at least on par with it. On the Android side of the aisle, phones with stock or near-stock versions of Google's OS still tend to handle the smoothest.

Battery life is solid enough, but not breaking any records. In our benchmark (streaming video with a consistently measured brightness output) it dropped 11 percent per hour. For some context, the Moto Z Force and LG G5 both dropped 8 percent per hour, the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge each dropped 9 percent per hour, and the 2015 iPhones both lost 13 percent.

The Note 7 has an excellent camera, but it's the exact same one found in the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge, so we'll refer you back to that review and our comparison with the HTC 10 for samples and impressions. In a nutshell, it's still one of our picks for best smartphone camera, thanks largely to its low-lit performance.

In other areas, the new Note is generous in the storage department, with 64 GB internal and microSD support. It also supports wireless charging, an always-on display and the very best mobile VR, with the newest model of the Oculus-powered Gear VR.

The Galaxy Note 7 is an outstanding phone that you could make a case for as best of the year. Yet it also isn't a no-brainer recommendation due to that insane $850 full retail pricing, which may be due partly to the redundant iris scanner. And while you get a terrific camera, loads of storage, decent enough battery life, ultra-responsive stylus input and that smooth build, you also get real-world performance that sometimes feels just a hair laggy.

It's an ultra-premium phone that doesn't always reach the lofty bar that Samsung's pricing sets for it. It's like a high-end Mercedes that doesn't consistently outperform a Honda Civic.

If money is no object, then right now we'd probably put the Note 7 at the top of our recommendation list, along with the Moto Z, HTC 10 and Samsung's other 2016 flagships. But if you want to make your money go as far as possible, it's hard to recommend over the $399 OnePlus 3 and other premium flagships in the more typical $650 full retail range. The Note 7 is outstanding, but sometimes feels more like a collection of commercial-friendly features than a cohesive, unified, gapless experience.

Ideally, when companies like OnePlus push the boundaries of flagship pricing, that forces the Samsungs and Apples of the world to be more careful about overpricing their ultra-premium flagships. But Samsung hasn't followed suit, instead – inexplicably – going in the opposite direction, while headlining with a feature that could easily be branded as an attention-seeking gimmick. That's a worrying precedent.

With all of that said, we do still think the positives outweigh the negatives for those willing to pay. At heart, the phone is still a ton of fun to use, something that Samsung, despite its habitual flaws, has always excelled at.

The Galaxy Note 7 is available now for all major US carriers, and many others around the world.

Product page: Samsung

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