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Samsung Galaxy Note7 review: The big-screen phone you want

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Samsung is the king of big-screen smartphones. In fact, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that without the company’s original Galaxy Note, we wouldn’t have an iPhone 6s Plus.

So when it came time for Samsung to roll out its latest creation, the company decided to take back its big-screen crown. Which brings us to Samsung’s Galaxy Note7. A 5.7-inch beast of a handset, the Note7 features an elegant, if not original design; waterproof body; iris scanner and new stylus (a writing utensil to use with the phone).

But at $849, the Note7 isn’t exactly cheap. And yet, I can’t help but want one.

A familiar, but welcomed design

I’m not going to sugarcoat things: The Galaxy Note7 looks a lot like Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge. And I mean, a lot. Both phones have curved screens, they’ve both got glossy front and back panels and they both share the same basic overall design. Sure, the Note7 is bigger than the S7 Edge, but beyond that and the Note’s included stylus, they’re nearly twins.

That’s not exactly a bad thing, though. I happen to think both the Note7 and S7 Edge are genuinely attractive phones. And considering how much more modern the Note7’s curved edges look compared to the phone’s flat-screened predecessor, the Note5, I’ve got no complaints. Just know that if you were looking for something unique, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

The Note7’s slimmer body makes it comfortable to hold

In terms of size, Samsung managed to shrink the Note7’s footprint ever so slightly compared to the Note5, cutting its dimensions by a few hundredths of an inch. And despite how small of a change that might seem to be, it actually makes a difference when holding the phones.

The Note7 measures 6.0 x 2.91 x 0.31 inches, while the Note5 measured 6.0 x 3.0 x 0.30 inches. Like I said, it’s not a huge difference on paper, but the Note7 feels thinner and, importantly, more comfortable to hold with one hand.

Like Samsung’s Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, the Note7 is also water resistant. You can dunk this thing in up to 5 feet of water for as long as 30 minutes, and it’ll keep working as if nothing happened. It’s nice to see Samsung expanding its waterproofing technology across its smartphone lines. Now if only some other companies would take note. I’m looking at you, Apple.

Big screen, big dreams

Samsung clearly loves the curved edge screen motif it’s got going on with its Galaxy S7 Edge and last year’s Galaxy S6 Edge and S6 Edge+. Which is why the company decided to bring the feature to the Note7.

The Note’s 5.7-inch, 2560 x 1440 resolution screen uses Samsung’s Super AMOLED (active matrix of organic light-emitting diodes) technology, which produces gorgeous colors and inky blacks. This time around, Samsung has added HDR (high-dynamic range) technology.

The Note7 has a beautiful 5.7-inch display

HDR essentially improves color quality by increasing the display’s color gamut and contrast ration, meaning the screen can show brighter whites and more colors. The rub, though, is that in order to take advantage of the Note7’s HDR capabilities, you need HDR content, and there isn’t much of that available just yet. Netflix offers some HDR shows, but the vast majority of its content isn’t HDR-compatible.

The Note7’s Edge screens function similar to the way the Edge screens work on Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge. Swiping in from the right (or left if you change the settings) opens the Edge panel, which gives you quick access to frequently used apps, your favorite contacts, your calendar, and the ability to make task shortcuts for things like composing text messages to specific people.

The Edge screen also includes Edge apps such as CNN for Edge Panel, Quick Tools, Yahoo Finance, Yahoo News and Yahoo Sports. (Disclaimer: Yahoo is the corporate parent of Yahoo Finance.) It’s certainly helpful to be able to get access to news and sports scores with a quick flick of your thumb, but then again, I can do the same by using Android widgets. So it’s not exactly a make or break feature.

Eye see you 

The coolest, most eye-catching part of the Note7, is the handset’s built-in iris scanner. Yep, Samsung has incorporated “Minority Report” technology into a smartphone.

I’ve been using the iris scanner for the better part of a week, and the wow factor still hasn’t worn off. To use the feature, you simply have to swipe up on the Note7’s lock screen, and the phone’s iris scanner camera will automatically switch on. You’ll then see your face in a kind of blue video box with two large circles where you center your eyes.

When it works, the iris scanner is ridiculously fast. We’re talking blink and you’ll miss it fast. But when it doesn’t work, it’s incredibly frustrating. If you wear glasses or contacts, for example, the reader can have trouble seeing through smudges. And if your glasses reflect light, you can bet the iris scanner camera won’t be able to see your eyes. What’s more, the camera has trouble in heavily lit areas, which means you’ll run into problems using it in direct sunlight.

The Note7’s iris scanner in action

I also had trouble using the iris scanner while under fluorescent lights. It seemed as though the lighting was causing my already ghostly pale visage to blow out and affect the camera. When I wasn’t under such bright lights, though, the scanner worked without issue.

It sounds like the scanner is more trouble than it’s worth, but to be honest, I only had issues with it while wearing my glasses. When I lifted them up, the scanner worked. That’s the thing, though. Why would I go to the trouble of lifting up my glasses to use the iris scanner, when I could just as easily use the Note7’s fingerprint reader?

Don’t get me wrong; I think the iris scanner is a welcome addition to the Note7 and the kind of innovative feature more companies should be trying to implement with their devices. It’s just disappointing that I have to take off my glasses whenever I want to use it.

Styling with a stylus

The Galaxy Note7 just wouldn’t be a Note phone without a stylus. For the latest incarnation of its S Pen stylus, Samsung has given the pen a smaller tip that it says feels more like an actual pen. I’ve used a number of styluses (styli?) over the years and the Note7’s S Pen is easily among the best. Of course, writing on such a narrow screen can be difficult over long periods of time, but it’s great for quick notes.

The most helpful feature of the Note7’s S Pen is that you can pull the stylus out from the phone and immediately begin writing on the screen without even unlocking the handset. It’s perfect when you need to take down a shopping list or are in the middle of a meeting and need to jot some chicken scratch.

To be honest, though, that’s about the limit of my need for the S Pen. Sure, Samsung lets you use the stylus to take and drawn on screenshots, translate text into English and make gifs with the pen, but I don’t see myself using those features but once or twice just to show my friends.

That said, I know people who use the S Pen on their older Notes constantly. It all comes down to personal preference.

Camera (or if it ain’t broke …)

Samsung’s Galaxy S7 has the best smartphone camera on the market. So rather than reinvent the wheel for the Note7, Samsung just gave it the same camera as its smaller stablemate.

The sky over Times Square

That means the Note7 has a 12-megapixel rear camera with dual pixel technology, which Samsung says helps the shooter focus faster than competing cameras. Apple’s iPhone 6s Plus also has a 12-megapixel camera that shoots beautiful photos, but it tends to overcompensate when white balancing, which can make images look a bit unnatural. I also tend to like the oversaturated colors captured by the Note7.

The iPhone 6s Plus overcompensates for this photo’s white balance.

The Note7 is especially fantastic at shooting low-light photos. The iPhone 6s Plus’ camera certainly captures quality low-light photos when compared to other smartphones, but the Note7 is in a whole other league.

The Galaxy Note7 captures clearer low-light images (Not a mugshot. I swear)

More power!

The Note7 is a high-powered beast of a smartphone. Inside, it packs a quad-core processor and 6GB of RAM. That’s a ridiculous amount of performance for a smartphone and it shows. I didn’t notice a lick of slowdown while using the Note7 even while playing games like “Pokemon Go,” which causes a good amount of lag on my Galaxy S6.

The Note gets 64GB of on-board storage, which can be expanded via a microSD card. That’s a lot of space for all of your photos, videos and apps.

Samsung also equipped the Note7 with a new USB-C port rather than a traditional microUSB slot. Thankfully, Samsung kept the phone’s 3.5mm headphone jack, something Apple is rumored to eliminate with the upcoming iPhone 7.

On average, I was able to use the Note7 for more than a day without having to recharge is battery. When I did need to give it a charge, though, its fast-charging technology got it back up to full charge in no time.

Should you get it?

I’m a big fan of the Note7. It’s got a big, beautiful display, excellent camera, and waterproof design. The Edge panel and S Pen stylus might be superfluous to some (me), but others might find them interesting. The only reason I can see someone balking at buying the Note7 is its price. At $849, it’s not exactly cheap.

But, here’s the thing. Apple’s 64GB iPhone 6s Plus is the same price. And sure, Apple sells a 16GB version of the 6s Plus for $749, but 16GB of storage is like asking for headache, since you’ll inevitably run low on storage space and start having panic attacks every time you take a photo.

If the $849 is really too much for your budget (it’s too much for me), then you might consider opting for the Galaxy S7. It’s got the same camera and an equally beautiful, albeit smaller, display. But if cash isn’t a problem, go for the Note7.

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Email Dan Howley at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.