Mobile Technology

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

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 hands-on...
New Atlas goes hands-on with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, an incremental update that might add just enough to warrant the upgrade
New Atlas goes hands-on with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, an incremental update that might add just enough to warrant the upgrade
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The Galaxy Note 7 has twice the levels of pressure sensitivity as the Note 5 and Note 4
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The Galaxy Note 7 has twice the levels of pressure sensitivity as the Note 5 and Note 4
The S Pen is still made of plastic, but is thinner and has more tricks up its sleeve
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The S Pen is still made of plastic, but is thinner and has more tricks up its sleeve
New Atlas goes hands-on with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, an incremental update that might add just enough to warrant the upgrade
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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
The curved glass is a bit different than it is on the Galaxy S edge series, here giving the edge of the phone a rounded, all-glass feel
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The curved glass is a bit different than it is on the Galaxy S edge series, here giving the edge of the phone a rounded, all-glass feel
Its screen is still 5.7 inches, AMOLED, with QHD resolution
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Its screen is still 5.7 inches, AMOLED, with QHD resolution
At over $800 a pop, these are expensive wall decorations
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At over $800 a pop, these are expensive wall decorations
The Galaxy Note 7 goes on sale August 19
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The Galaxy Note 7 goes on sale August 19
The gold Note 7 in hand
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The gold Note 7 in hand
We tested the iris scanner on the Note 7, and it worked perfectly
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We tested the iris scanner on the Note 7, and it worked perfectly
A couple of Notes, side by side
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A couple of Notes, side by side
The striking black Note 7
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The striking black Note 7
The stylus got a few new tricks, like translation and a magnifying glass
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The stylus got a few new tricks, like translation and a magnifying glass
Another look at the rounded glass back of the Note 5
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Another look at the rounded glass back of the Note 5
Taking the IP68 rated Note 7 for a dip
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Taking the IP68 rated Note 7 for a dip
The magnifying feature on the Galaxy Note 7
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The magnifying feature on the Galaxy Note 7
An event attendee taking the new S Pen for a spin
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An event attendee taking the new S Pen for a spin
Pull-down settings menu on the Note 7
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Pull-down settings menu on the Note 7
This year there's no separate "Edge" phone being released simultaneously, as the Note itself now has a curved display
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This year there's no separate "Edge" phone being released simultaneously, as the Note itself now has a curved display
You can't get much on camera quality in a hands-on area, but the shots we did see looked good
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You can't get much on camera quality in a hands-on area, but the shots we did see looked good
5.7-inch QHD AMOLED screens are now well familiar, thanks to phones like the previous two Galaxy Notes, Galaxy S6 edge+ and Nexus 6P
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5.7-inch QHD AMOLED screens are now well familiar, thanks to phones like the previous two Galaxy Notes, Galaxy S6 edge+ and Nexus 6P
New Atlas on the new Note
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New Atlas on the new Note
Translating text on the fly with the S Pen
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Translating text on the fly with the S Pen
Creating a GIF animation, by dropping a Smart Select box around a video
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Creating a GIF animation, by dropping a Smart Select box around a video
The Edge Display features appear to remain the same as the GS7 series
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The Edge Display features appear to remain the same as the GS7 series
The Note 7 is an unusually expensive flagship, starting in the mid-$800s
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The Note 7 is an unusually expensive flagship, starting in the mid-$800s
Note 7 pre-orders are now open
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Note 7 pre-orders are now open
The glass back is familiar to owners of Samsung's 2015-16 flagships
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The glass back is familiar to owners of Samsung's 2015-16 flagships
Note 7 in hand
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Note 7 in hand
The Galaxy Note 7 is 7.9 mm thick
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The Galaxy Note 7 is 7.9 mm thick
The Note weighs 169 g, a minor improvement over last year's Note 5
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The Note weighs 169 g, a minor improvement over last year's Note 5
MicroUSB is (finally) out of Samsung's devices, replaced by USB-C
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MicroUSB is (finally) out of Samsung's devices, replaced by USB-C
The iris scanning setup process
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The iris scanning setup process
Two color variants of the Note 7
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Two color variants of the Note 7
It's a little surprising that more smartphone OEMs haven't borrowed the Note's stylus focus
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It's a little surprising that more smartphone OEMs haven't borrowed the Note's stylus focus
Despite the addition of the iris scanner, the fingerprint sensor is still around
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Despite the addition of the iris scanner, the fingerprint sensor is still around
The Samsung Notes app finally merges all of Samsung's note-based apps into one – now with color blending
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The Samsung Notes app finally merges all of Samsung's note-based apps into one – now with color blending
The striking black onyx variant
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The striking black onyx variant
Black onyx Note 7
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Black onyx Note 7
An attendee playing with the Samsung Notes app
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An attendee playing with the Samsung Notes app
Note 7
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Note 7
Another experiment with Samsung Notes
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Another experiment with Samsung Notes
S Pen features menu
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S Pen features menu
An optional Samsung-made battery back that will launch (for an unknown price) sometime around the Note's release
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An optional Samsung-made battery back that will launch (for an unknown price) sometime around the Note's release
Ready to launch some S Pen goodies
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Ready to launch some S Pen goodies
Back of the blue coral Note 7
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Back of the blue coral Note 7
App drawer on the Note
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App drawer on the Note
Another look at the black model
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Another look at the black model
You won't find many (any?) better-looking smartphones
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You won't find many (any?) better-looking smartphones
The Note series has always had a strong business-use crossover appeal
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The Note series has always had a strong business-use crossover appeal

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 curved glass is a bit different than it is on the Galaxy S edge series, here giving the edge of the phone a rounded, all-glass feel
The curved glass is a bit different than it is on the Galaxy S edge series, here giving the edge of the phone a rounded, all-glass feel

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.

We tested the iris scanner on the Note 7, and it worked perfectly
We tested the iris scanner on the Note 7, and it worked perfectly

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.

Taking the IP68 rated Note 7 for a dip
Taking the IP68 rated Note 7 for a dip

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.

The stylus got a few new tricks, like translation and a magnifying glass
The stylus got a few new tricks, like translation and a magnifying glass

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.

The magnifying feature on the Galaxy Note 7
The magnifying feature on the Galaxy Note 7

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).

A couple of Notes, side by side
A couple of Notes, side by side

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

4 comments
phissith
Without real innovation, the think Samsung had run the Note series aground.
JweenyPwee
I'm going to date myself...but there isn't anything here to make me ditch my Note 3. I've got a 128GB MicroSD card in there with a 3rd party 6,500mah battery that lasts for days between charging, the 1080P screen is still more than adequate and looks great, along with great front and rear cameras and a Snapdragon processor that still blazes through everything I can possibly throw at it. The Note 7 doesn't have anything worth the $800 to upgrade over even my Note 3. Kind of a bummer. I was excited. But alas.....
Tom Swift
This is what happens when Samsung doesn't wait to copy Apple.
DaveVeneri
BS, If the public is stupid enough to lay out 1000.00 for a phone that is incrementally improved, then the public deserves the beating. This also takes into account that these phone companies contribute squat towards the price of the phone. No thanks Samsung, you want my money come out with something revolutionary.