Samsung Galaxy S7 review: A perfect iteration

Samsung Galaxy S7 review: A perfect iteration


The smartphone world has quickly become a very competitive ground where manufacturers keep improving on their yearly flagship iterations. In a world where specs alone don’t necessarily mean a device will sell unlike in 2012, there has been an increased focus on the user experience these devices bring. The year 2015 saw Samsung shift design from polycarbonate (plastic) to metal and glass. It was a much welcomed strategy since the Galaxy S5 left much to be desired. A new design had to come in place to turn this around. Samsung could not risk losing the much coveted market share it had gathered over the years to other manufacturers. A premium design had to be born. The focus brought forth “Project Zero” to light where a new Galaxy had to be designed from the ground up.


“Want to pick a call in the rain? Go ahead. Want to reply a text when it’s drizzling? The Galaxy S7 will be just fine.”


Enter the Galaxy S6. It was beautiful. Sleek. Smooth to touch with the metal frame sandwiched between two glass panels. It brought an insanely great camera – a camera that for once made pro-photographers delight in its low-light capabilities. Samsung polished and toned-down its TouchWiz overlay with the “gimmicky” and obscured features being done away with. This was great, since TouchWiz (others called it LagWiz) had been known to be laggy, with updates seeming to ruin the user experience – call it the software upgrade paradox. Things were however not all sunshine and blue skies. Expandable storage which Samsung had been known to provide was out of the window and so was the removable battery. It was a price to pay for the sleek design that customers longed for. The battery was reduced to a measly 2550mAh which resulted to the Galaxy S6 barely lasting a day of a full charge. Customers complained and Samsung indeed listened. Behold, 2016 came and with it is the Galaxy S7. The device in review is an Onyx Black, 4GB RAM, 32 GB base storage, Exynos 8890 Octa chipset with a 12MP Sony camera sensor. The review is done over a month’s usage.


DESIGN

Picking up the Galaxy S7 and you’ll feel, umm…wow! First you get to feel the cold off the side metal rail. There is a shimmer effect when you hold the device and tilt it slowly against the light. The metal edge has been chamfered so that it doesn’t feel sharp to touch. Looking closely, the glass slopes and curves evenly to the metal edge, a 2.5D glass effect, borrowed from the Note 5. You immediately feel that you’re holding something pricey, premium and most of all, special. It’s curvy enough unlike the S6 where the metal frame stuck out a bit making it difficult to pick up and hold it due to the sharp edge.

GALAXY S7 CHAMFERED EDGES

The chamfered edges make the S7 feel more comfortable in your hands

The S7 is indeed slippery just like its predecessor. For this reason I have it in a clear case (more on this later in the review) to avoid events of unprecedented contact with the ground. It’s necessary to protect the $750 investment. The device doesn’t feel big at all, meaning hand gymnastics are at bay. It’s hard to say the same about similar devices of the same screen size. It is so tightly packed that there’s no gap at all.

GALAXY S7 FRONT AND SIDE

The Home button is less “round” than on current Galaxy devices

The front top houses the usual sensors: the notification indicator, ambient and proximity sensors to the left of the earpiece and a 5 megapixel front facing camera on the right. The bottom of the display has the usual Samsung capacitive key layout: Recent apps switcher on the left of the Home button with the back button on the right. The Home button which houses the fingerprint scanner has seen a design change too, it is less “pill-shaped” resulting in a larger area than Galaxy S6 for your fingerprint to be captured. The button is very responsive on every press. Flip over the phone and you’ll notice the camera lens bump is less pronounced unlike on the S6.

GALAXY S7 BACK

The new introduction is the micro SD card slot which resides in the same tray as the SIM card. The device can handle up to 200GB of expandable storage.

GALAXY S7 BACK AND TOP

The SIM card/Memory card tray is located on top of the device

When the display is off the glass blends seamlessly with the top and bottom bezels, evident especially on the Onyx Black Galaxy S7 I have.

GALAXY S7 ALWAYS ON DISPLAY 2

AOD lets you check time, date & more when your phone is on standby

Add the Always On Display(AOD) to this and you’ll see as if the clock numbers are floating on top of the display. It’s such a marvel to look at considering that the Super AMOLED screen only lights up the individual pixels required, with the rest turned off. Speaking of the Always On Display. It brings memories off the Nokia E63 I had which could display the time even when the display was off. With the Galaxy S7, you have the option of having a clock (analog or digital), a calendar or an image. Samsung has some battery friendly images pre-installed for this. The calendar is so far my favorite – the content displayed moves around once every minute to avoid the dreaded burn-in effect.

The phone is smart enough to know when it is in the pocket and avoids displaying content. It even detects the ambient light condition around making the content visible enough even in outdoors. Totally neat! Always On Display is one of the nifty features I never knew I would ever find myself using every day, it is indeed a great addition.

The Galaxy S7 is IP68 certified, meaning it is able to handle being submerged in water for up to 1.5 meters for 30 minutes. This test is done in a controlled environment. The water under consideration here is fresh water. It’s important to note that having the device in salty or chlorinated water will result in corrosion making it vulnerable to water damage. So the next time the phone gets dusty don’t go applying soap then rinse it. Want to pick a call in the rain? Go ahead. Want to reply a text when it’s drizzling? The Galaxy S7 will be just fine.

GALAXY S7 IP68 RATING

“You can spill on it, splash it, dunk it—then wipe it off and keep going.”

At the bottom Samsung decided to stick with the micro-USB 2.0 port instead of jumping on the USB Type-C bandwagon. This is to ensure compatibility with the existing Gear VR headsets, instead of forcing users to buy extra cabling. The headphone jack and single speaker are to the left and right side respectively.

GALAXY S7 BOTTOM

Sorry, no USB Type-C.

Pressing the Home button and holding a bit unlocks the phone. The whole process takes less than a second. The fingerprint scanner is accurate. Very accurate. Behold, here’s the display.


DISPLAY

GALAXY S7 ALWAYS ON SCREEN

The Galaxy S7 has a 5.1 inch Super AMOLED display with a pixel density of 577 ppi and incredibly good brightness even when outside on bright sunny days. The display is simply gorgeous. Colors are vibrant and vivid giving an immersive experience. Everything is pin sharp and the only way you can distinguish individual pixels is if you place it under a microscope.

Samsung has kept improving its displays toning down on saturation to give a great experience. The device evenly adjusts the auto brightness with no sudden hops when light conditions change. Amazingly, the device using the ambient light sensor stores information of the light surrounding of environments in the sense that if I visited a river bank a week ago and head back there today, the S7 will know the ambient light of that place and compare it with the history stored to give a perfect display brightness. I’ve never seen such efficiency before and I love it.

Smart stay is here which tracks the eye pupil to determine whether you looking at the display or not for it to keep the display on or turn it off. The default wallpapers are dark with light shades of blue. They really bring up the infinite contrast and deep blacks well known in Super AMOLED displays. The color accuracy is spot on. Screen modes are here as well for those who are not fans of the default mode.


THE CAMERA

GALAXY S7 PRO MODE

Pro Mode in the S7 camera

As if to say megapixels are too mainstream, Samsung has lowered the number to just 12 away from 16MP in the Galaxy S6. Any photography professional will tell you that megapixels alone don’t count. Other factors come in such as the pixel and aperture size, which determine the overall quality of the photos taken. The S7 camera has larger pixels compared to the S6 (1.4 microns and 1.12 microns respectively). There is also a wider aperture f/1.7 compared to f/1.9 in the S6. Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) is here too to help in shaky situations of say taking a photo of a moving subject.

The camera features dual-pixel technology (similar to that of DSLRs) where every pixel acts as a focus pixel. It’s the first time such tech has been incorporated in a smartphone and the end result is nothing short of amazing. First, the camera is so fast to launch and focus. It’s so fast that you won’t realize that it’s ready to take a photo. The shortcut of quickly pressing the Home button twice works fast as well. With this you are sure that you won’t miss any moment, because most of life’s best moments rarely give you time to prepare to capture them. Instead off fiddling around with the settings, with the S7 you just point-shoot, point-shoot. Easy.

Photos look really sharp with vivid and vibrant colors. Auto focus and white balance is spot on. Some smartphone cameras have a hard time resolving detail especially when colors such as red or pink are involved, the S7 does just fine, no overblown highlights. Macro shots look awesome. Here’s the thing, when you see as if the light conditions are too low to bring out a good photo, things turn out different when you launch the S7 camera. Viewing the scene surprisingly seems brighter than what your eye can perceive. By default photos are taken in 4:3 aspect ratio. To have a 16:9 photo will require lowering the resolution in the settings to 9.1MP. There is a Selective focus mode where focus photos taken can be adjusted after they have been taken.

There is a Pro mode which is handy when you want to get all creative on the scene. You can manually adjust everything, from ISO, White Balance, Exposure Value and even the color tone. In this mode you have the option to save images in RAW DNG format. What happens is each photo taken is saved in 2 copies, a JPEG and RAW (DNG) file. RAW files are however not viewable in the default gallery app. These files are handy for editing and tweaking as they contain so much information to work with unlike JPEGs. Note that they do consume some substantial amount of space, a sample photo I took had its DNG file at 23MB size. Huge!

Tracking Auto focus helps track a subject while taking a photo or recording video. The 5MP front facing camera features an f/1.7 aperture size and can record QHD video too just like the rear camera. There is HDR-auto which kicks in when a scene has tricky lighting to expose the shadows.

The Galaxy S7 camera is an impressive camera. It really shouldn’t bug you which configuration you get, be it one with a Samsung or Sony sensor. Both are equally good. Macro, panorama, landscape, low light photos come out amazing with plenty of detail. It amazes me every time I take a photo. Here are sample photos for you to gaze at.

(Click on the thumbnails for the high resolution images)


USER INTERFACE AND SOFTWARE

The Android 6.0.1 Touchwiz UI

The Android 6.0.1 Touchwiz UI

The Galaxy S7 runs Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow with Samsung’s TouchWiz overly on top. Samsung has polished TouchWiz since the S6 to result in a lag-free experience. This is true. Ask me whether the Galaxy S7 lags and I’ll ask you what lag is. The aggressive memory management in the S6 that led to app redraws is not present here. The same couldn’t be said about the Galaxy S5 where tapping the Recent apps button resulted to unnecessary waiting for recent apps to show. Swipe down from the status bar and you’ll see the blue background in the toggles area has been replaced with a grey-white color scheme. Below that is a brightness slider and a Quick connect button.

Galaxy S7 - Recent Apps and Split Screen View

Recent Apps and Split Screen View

Recent apps are displayed in 3D rolodex styled cards. The cards are large enough to view what’s on them. The most recent app card is near the bottom of the display, a feature that is only existing in Android N Developer Previews. Switching between apps is smooth and so is switching to the split screen view – long-pressing the recent-apps key turns on split screen view with supported apps displayed at the top view. Recent apps also have a split screen view icon shown next to the “close” button of supported apps allowing you to switch to split screen view quickly. My only gripe is that unlocking the device using the fingerprint sensor at times results to the split screen view showing up. I hope Samsung fixes this in a software update.

Samsung has scaled things down on the S7. The videos app is not pre-installed though it is available for download in the Galaxy Apps store. Briefing home screen is here, so are the Microsoft apps Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneDrive and OneNote.

Game Tools is a handy software feature that has never been before seen on Android. Ever been on a Subway Surfers winning streak collecting coins then a call comes in freezing everything ending up being hit by an oncoming train? Yes, I know. It can make you angry. Here’s how Game Tools works: You can choose to have absolutely no alerts while gaming or you can lock the recent-apps and rack keys to avoid accidental taps. You can also take a screenshot (no weird button holding) while at it and even record gameplay as well as lower the resolution and frame rate to help conserve power while playing. See, it’s features like these that have me wishing before a device goes official – “Show me something that isn’t in other Android devices yet?” This is one of them. When Game Tools is turned on it detects all games installed and has them loaded, so when you launch Game Tools you’ll see all your installed games.

Game Tools

You don’t see features like Game Tools everyday on other Android Smartphones

Gestures are also available under “Advanced features”. These include Pop-up view gesture which lets you reduce the app window size by a swipe downwards diagonally from either corner at the top of the screen, Smart capture which allows you to crop a screenshot before saving and sharing it (You can even capture more to show hidden parts of a screen, quite handy when you want to share say a thread of comments of a long list of items), Palm swipe which allows you to capture a screen by swiping the edge of your palm across the screen and One-handed operation which lets you reduce the size of the display by quickly pressing the Home button 3 times.

Galaxy S7 advanced features

From left to right: Gestures, S Health and the Smart Switch Mobile app

S Health is present to keep track of fitness. You can measure your daily activity including the heart rate, oxygen saturation, stress levels, step count and more.

Using the Smart Switch Mobile app and the USB connector bundled in the retail package you can transfer content from an old phone to the S7.

A notable feature is the Quick launch camera where you can launch the camera by pressing the Home button twice. You can do this from anywhere in the user interface or even when the device is locked. It is so fast, very fast. Which brings us to the camera.


BATTERY LIFE

Ask any Galaxy S6 user how long the device lasts on a single charge and they will just turn around and walk away. When Samsung announced the Galaxy S6, they listed the battery as a 2550mAh and I knew things wouldn’t be good. First, that battery would have to power the 1440p display. Yes, the S6 had an efficient Exynos 7420 Octa chipset but that didn’t help either. Users complained. A lot. This time Samsung listened and even increased the width from 6.8mm in S6 to 7.9mm in S7 to accommodate the 3000mAh battery. But does this translate to any battery improvements? In a word, yes. The Galaxy S7 will certainly last a day on moderate use and even 2 days on light use. Turn on Power saving mode and the device will go even further.

S7 battery life

While all this is subjective, the improvements are quite noticeable. The device supports Quick Charge 2.0 (I know, QC 3.0 is better) meaning it can get to around 60% in about 30 minutes of using the bundled adapter. The S7 supports wireless charging via both Qi and PMA standards. Samsung says the Always On Display only consumes 1% battery per hour. For my case I have it on all the time and it doesn’t take a toll on the battery. Trust me, the S7 with Always On Display turned on is a beauty.


“Always On Display is one of the nifty features I never knew I would ever find myself using every day, it is indeed a great addition.”


It is easy to clock 5 hours of SOT (Screen on time) when using the S7. I even got to 6 hours of SOT on a day of tweeting, browsing and taking a couple of photos. I don’t know how Samsung did it but I love it. The S7 barely sips power. Of course hardware optimizations and software (Marshmallow) play a part in this. It’s worth pointing out that the Exynos S7 users seem to have more battery endurance than those with the Snapdragon S7. But as always, different usage yields different results. Personally I have never got such good battery endurance on a device (Exynos S7), the one that came close was the LG G2. While competitor manufacturers are struggling to strike a perfect balance between QHD display and battery life, Samsung is already past this.


TESTS

How does the Galaxy S7 perform in normal daily usage? I can’t complain about design or build quality. It does feel premium. Yes, it’s slippery so a case comes in handy to counter this. Speaking of cases you’ll want to stay clear of the S-View Clear Cover as in my usage it does scratch the 2.5D glass edge of the display. Yes, it has done that to my S7 already. How this happened I don’t know but the edge of the cover is rough enough to cause this. The scratches are small enough to only be visible when I tilt the phone and have the display against light but surely it does bug me. For now I’ll stick to a back case.

S7 Scratch

The S View Cover Scratched my precious S7

A phone has to be able to make calls to be regarded as a phone. Call quality is very clear, you can hear the other person quite well and even determine the environment they’re in. Reception is quite good even in areas where network coverage is less than optimal.

The bundled adapter does charge the device really fast. Very fast. I have no complaints on battery life.

Tests and UpdatesThe device doesn’t face the dreaded thermal throttling that plagued the Snapdragon 810 chip. It does warm up a bit on charging but not to the extent of being uncomfortable to hold it.Performance is fluid, nothing lags even when switching between heavy apps. The S7 handles pretty much everything I throw at it. For benchmark enthusiasts my AnTuTu test had the device clock 128,021 points. That really shows the amount of raw power the device has and what it’s capable of.

I have since got an update weighing in at 208 MB that has the build number change from APB6 to APD1. This brought improvements including palm rejection and fixing a bug that had unlocking the phone using fingerprint sensor result to the split screen view popping up.


CONCLUSION

Galaxy S7 side

It’s hard to point out a flaw in the Galaxy S7. It’s even harder to point out a minor flaw that would make one say, no I can’t buy this. It ticks all the check boxes. I haven’t found anything that has me regret buying it and I don’t think anyone should, after all preferences are always subjective.  The design decision of sticking with micro-USB port instead of USB Type-C is justified. For the IR blaster, an alternative connection mode is here.

It’s the best Galaxy ever made. There is no perfect phone but the Galaxy S7 is so close. Its price is steep but remember you are paying for the very best. The moment you get hold of it you realize that it’s worth the price.


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