[alert variation=”alert-danger”]Update: We’ve changed the review score from 8.8 to 9 in order to better reflect current smartphone rankings and recent developments. This has not overly affected commentary on individual topics listed below.[/alert]
What makes a Galaxy phone a Galaxy phone? Samsung has been in a state of transition, trying to nail down a brand identity. In the past, making the features and price argument, that strategy stumbled with the Galaxy S5. Last year’s Galaxy S6 was a bold move away from plastic phones, but it met criticism over excluded lifestyle features. The claim for 2016 is that Samsung executives and engineers have been listening to customer complaints. The Galaxy S7 is the product of refining the metal and glass look, while replacing the features people missed the most.
Not to spoil the conclusion, but spending the last week with an AT&T branded Galaxy S7, we’re inclined to believe this experiment is a successful one. Is it the right fit for you? Read on.
Specs & Hardware
What we’re looking at is the smaller of the new Galaxy siblings. Our own Jaime Rivera tackled the larger S7 Edge. There is no curved display here. This visual language now lands directly in Note 5 territory. Where the Galaxy S6 Edge+ had a flat back and curved front glass, the Galaxy S7 is nearly the mirror opposite, and the rear glass curves similarly to the Note 5. It doesn’t create quite the same bezel-less “infinity pool” look for the screen, but it’s still a striking phone design. This unit’s official color is designated “Gold Platinum”, which is somewhat amusing that Samsung couldn’t stick to one precious metal as a name.
Over last year’s Galaxy S6, this phone has grown one millimeter thicker, but is one millimeter shorter and thinner. It’s impressive to consider that the overall dimensions have shrunk, and though the battery is larger, the S7 only weighs 14 grams more than its predecessor. On a personal note, I likely have the smallest hands out of all the reviewers on this site, and it’s always a joy finding phones which can easily be used one handed.
While metal and glass make for beautiful design, the common complaints of fingerprints should still be reiterated. Also, while this phone fits well in smaller hands, it’ll resemble a wet bar of soap in sweaty hands. For those that go hard on their daily driver phones, a case should absolutely be considered.
The 5.1” AMOLED display returns with the same QHD resolution of 2560 x 1440, though now with a tiny bit better screen to bezel ratio. This is one of the finest displays available in a phone today, with excellent color saturation, remarkable contrast, and one of the brightest outdoor viewing modes around.
Our AT&T branded unit is powered by a Qualcomm 820 chipset, 4GB of RAM, and includes 32GB of storage space. MicroSD card expansion returns, sharing a spot on the sim card tray, and that SIM is hot-swappable to better facilitate switching cards on the fly. The non-removable battery is 3,000mAh, a Micro USB port joins the speaker and headphone jack on the bottom edge, and the whole affair is sealed up well. IP68 water resistance means the phone should survive being under five feet of water for up to 30 minutes.
In addition to the screen, the front face holds the traditional Samsung home button which doubles as the fingerprint sensor, and the top of the phone contains a respectable ear piece speaker for calls and a 5MP front facing camera.
The rear is home to the heart rate monitor and the new 12MP main camera, which we’ll discuss in greater detail later in this review.
Our review unit came with Android 6.0.1 installed out of the box, and Samsung’s custom launcher is running on top of that. Manufacturer skins are still controversial, and this one won’t win over Nexus purists. Still, the days of garish Touchwiz candy colored icons are past. Samsung’s software aesthetic is still populist, juicy colors, and lifestyle features baked in, but like the hardware, it’s more refined than previous efforts.
It walks us away from stock Android, but brings features to the table which are still lacking from Google’s OS. Android N will bring split screen multi-tasking apps, but we have that now with fairly wide compatibility on the S7. Many consumers who started with an LG or a Samsung will understand the notification shade layout, with quick access to hardware shortcuts. Anyone who doesn’t enjoy this color style or layout can install a different theme through Samsung’s built in store, or install different launcher altogether.
There are a number of gesture controls and screen tweaks. You can mute a phone call by covering the screen or flipping it onto its face. While looking at a contact, you can call that person by bringing the phone up to your ear. Swiping from the upper corner of the screen will turn any app into a floating window. The phone will offer a tiny haptic pulse when you pick it up, letting you know that you have new alerts, and a triple click on the home button will shrink the screen for an even easier one thumb mode. Will people use all of these? Probably not. It’s the mark of a Samsung phone though that most consumers will find at least one feature they really do enjoy, and that they’ll miss if they ever leave the Galaxy ecosystem.
A few minor gripes, the app drawer doesn’t automatically re-alphabetize newly installed programs. Once installed they get dumped to the end of your app drawer, and the user will have to hit the “A-Z” button manually to re-organize. Also, on our AT&T unit, there is no single column view for settings, only a tab view. There’s a “Briefing” homescreen powered by Flipboard, but we’d still recommend disabling that. Homescreens should slide quickly, and when you land on Briefing, it takes a second to pull down news.
There’s also quite a bit of pre-installed software. Amazon apps, Facebook, Plenti, and Uber, then Samsung’s collection of services S Voice, S health, Milk Music, Gear, Samsung Pay, and lastly AT&Ts collection of Locker, Protect Plus, two Direct TV apps, Drive mode, My AT&T, and the Usage Manger. None of these can be properly uninstalled, but most can be disabled. Throwing unused services into a folder is one solution, but if you organize alphabetically, folders are thrown into the first slot on your app drawer.
Game Launcher is a new feature which mobile gamers will enjoy. It’s a one stop hub to find all of the games installed on the phone. Users can launch titles from there obviously, but Samsung includes tools to help your game play, like the ability to mute notifications, or locking the hardware back and multi-tasking buttons which constantly interrupt me on the Note 5. For folks looking to share their game play, Game Launcher can capture screenshots and video.
If there’s an area where the Galaxy S7 might show some weakness, it’s with audio. The hardware speaker is about as loud as the speaker found on the Galaxy S6, and it’s decent enough for a bottom firing unit. The S7 emphasizes mid range EQ though, and doesn’t quite deliver as much bass as last year’s Galaxy. Many have complained that the audio is “tinny”, which we haven’t found, as that mid range is sufficient for speakerphone applications, but it lacks some of the punch we’ve enjoyed on previous Samsungs.
What might be more disappointing is finding the headphone output to be quieter than the S6 by several decibels. Full volume is still uncomfortable on good headphones, but the amp in this phone won’t drive your headphones nearly as well as an iPhone, HTC, or LG V10. The tone from this jack is quite nice though. A colorful but even EQ, delivering nice bass and bright highs which don’t step on the mids. Pretty much all genres of music will be well represented, and for those who like to tweak, there are options for stereo widening, concert hall reverb, tube amp simulation, and a full seven band EQ to tailor fit the audio to the listener.
Our review unit has a 1/2.5” Sony image sensor, with a 27mm equivalent lens, and a large f/1.7 aperture. Samsung had two goals for the S7 camera improve speed and low light sensitivity. Judged by those goals, this camera is a smashing success. There is no smartphone camera which launches faster. Adding dual pixel technology to the sensor delivers the fastest autofocus we’ve ever tested. The burst mode can fire off 100 full resolution photos faster than 10 pics per second.
Low light sensitivity is greatly improved. The combination of a 1/2.5” sensor, lower resolution, and hardware optical image stabilization produces bright and saturated images at night.Images in day light will be bright, maybe slightly over exposed, and Samsung has a reputation for juicy saturation, but post processing to create jpgs refrains from distorting the color of your scene.
Video is very high quality. UHD is shot at 30 fps and saved with a very high bitrate. 1080p at 60fps is crispy, and the new slow motion mode, shooting 720p at 240 fps, is much improved though it doesn’t quite match the buttery smooth performance found on an iPhone or Nexus 6P.
These improvements don’t arrive without some compromises however. The lower resolution means you’ll have less range to zoom or crop before an image degrades. The 4:3 aspect ratio maximizes the amount of lens used, but produces a square-ish image. Cropping that image to 16:9 will further reduce the resolution. The wider aperture is fantastic for getting more light on the sensor, but can make macro shots a bit hazy.
All told this is an excellent camera, and for folks who want to dig really deep into the optics and performance, we have the most in depth review of the Galaxy S7 camera available online.
When the Galaxy S6 was first launched, it was a bit of a mess in regards to RAM management. Thankfully the S7 doesn’t suffer the same problems. This new phone is still more aggressive than many others at killing background processes, but it doesn’t leave you with the feeling that while multi-tasking, every app is being relaunched from scratch.
UI performance is clean and quick. You’ll rarely be left waiting for menus to open and apps load quickly. Gaming performance is solid. Riptide GP2 and Skyforce 2014 play smooth with a fast frame rate. More graphics intensive titles like Marvel Future Fight drop more frames than on older Exynos powered devices, but we expect future titles to perform better as games arrive with support for Vulkan APIs.
The Qualcomm 820 will get warm as you’re using the phone, especially while charging the S7, but we’re nowhere near the kind of heat which can be generated from an HTC One M9 using a Qualcomm 810.
Network performance has been excellent. On AT&T’s LTE, we’re generally seeing a 2-3dB reception advantage over the LG V10, and a 4 dB advantage over the iPhone 6S. So long as you’re in an area with decent coverage, you should expect a solid signal and fast data speeds. Phone calls come through loud enough on the ear piece, and I haven’t had any complaints from callers about the audio being sent from the phone, so that’s good enough for us.
Lastly, battery life is nicely improved over last year’s phone. Moving up to a 3,000mAh battery, we have to be seeing other efficiency improvements than just a 17% bump in capacity. Maybe a more efficient chipset, display improvements, or software optimization, but the Galaxy S7 had little problem making it through a moderately busy day off the charger, with five hours of screen on time, and almost 30% battery after dinner.
Our video test, streaming 30 minutes of HD video at 50% brightness over wifi, resulted in 5% battery draw, where the Galaxy S6 was closer to 8%.
Even though we don’t have the latest and greatest Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 technology, the Galaxy S7 recharged 30% of the battery in 30 minutes, and wireless charging is built in for additional flexibility in topping off the battery throughout your day.
Pricing & Availability
Our unit as reviewed from AT&T sells for $694 for the 32GB version of the phone. On a Next 30 month plan, this works out to $23.17 a month. At the time this review was written, there wasn’t an option to pick up the 64GB variant, so investing in a memory card would be a good idea.
To answer the question posed at the top of this review, this year’s Galaxy phones present us with the most complete vision yet of what a Galaxy phone should be. Nearly every issue we had with the Galaxy S6 has been addressed, and most everything we liked about the S6 has been refined. There’s precious little fault we can find here, and most of the criticisms we can lob at this phone will largely come down more to personal preferences than objective examinations.
Of course no phone is perfect, and at this price, it would be completely understandable if one minor issue might turn into a complete deal breaker for some customers, like the headphone playback. Plus the Galaxy S7 doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it faces intense competition from other manufacturers this year.
Even so, this will be a tough act to top.