Samsung has been at the top of the smartphone tree for some time now, but in 2015 it dropped the ball. Not in terms of the quality of its flagship phones – that remained typically brilliant – but in the way it attempted to market two top-end handsets with the same screen size at vastly different prices. It’s changing that with the S7 this year, with clear air between the 5.2in Samsung Galaxy S7 and its 5.5in sibling, not only on price but also on screen size.
In short, Samsung – just like Apple does with the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus – is giving its customers a clear choice. If you like your smartphones big, choose the 5.5in Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and pay a bit more; if you don’t like having to stitch up holes in your pockets every few months, the smaller, slightly cheaper 5.1in Samsung Galaxy S7 I’m reviewing here is the way to go. Either way, you’re getting the best smartphone on the market.
There. I said it. You don’t even have to read the rest of the review if you don’t want to. You might as well go out and buy one right now if you want to save yourself the effort. It’s good, great even. Trust me.
The first feature of note is storage expansion. Galaxy fans were in uproar about the lack of a microSD slot in last year’s models, so Samsung has brought back the feature here. It’s the sensible
thing to do and Samsung hasn’t compromised on the design of the phone to do it, either. The microSD card is neatly hidden away next to the nano-SIM card in an elongated SIM drawer on the top edge, meaning there’s no unsightly second slot to muddy the phone’s clean lines.
The dust and water resistance is another nice feature making a comeback here that doesn’t impact on the look and feel of the phone. It’s an upgrade on the IP67 protection of the Samsung Galaxy S5, too, which was the last Samsung flagship to have the feature.
Technically, this means it’s possible to completely submerge the phone in up to 1.5 metres of water for up to 30 minutes, so you could use it to take pictures of hermit crabs in rock pools – if that’s what floats your boat.
I prefer to think of it as extra peace of mind. With the Galaxy S7, you don’t have to worry about getting your phone out when it’s raining or putting it down on a beer-soaked table in the pub. From that perspective, it’s something that’s well worth having.
Aside from those headline changes, though, the Samsung Galaxy S7 is a mild update. The Samsung Galaxy S6 was, and still is, a very good smartphone, so this doesn’t represent too much of a problem.
The S7 has a 5.1in Super AMOLED display with a resolution of 1440x2560 – the same as last year’s Samsung Galaxy S6 – and it’s as sharp as sharp can be.
The quality of this new display is excellent. Samsung has long perfected producing top-notch screens on its smartphones, managing to tame the oversaturated colours typical of Super AMOLED while delivering something that’s extraordinarily colour-accurate and incredibly punchy all at once.
Contrast is perfect, as you’d expect from a Super AMOLED-based panel. Since the individual pixels provide their own source of light, there’s nothing to leak through from behind and so you get inky, perfect black.
Colour quality is excellent. The phone has several different modes available to use and it ships with the eye-catching Adaptive mode enabled. That’s the one I tested,
and it delivers excellent figures.
With auto-brightness disabled, brightness peaks at 354cd/m2, which doesn’t look all that great. As with previous Samsung handsets, though, that all changes when you enable auto-brightness. On a bright sunny day, the screen is capable of peaking much higher – up to 470cd/m2 – so it should be perfectly readable in most conditions.
Samsung’s Adaptive mode also does a great job of presenting eye-popping graphics without looking too unnatural and covers 100 percent of sRGB colour space.
Also unchanged is the glass-sandwich design and exotic, metallic finish that underpins it. In short, the S7 looks just as good as the S6 did last year – all shiny, flashy and glitzy glamour – and it looks just as awful once covered in greasy fingerprints. This is a phone you’ll be wiping on your shirt to keep clean – a lot.
Flip the phone over and look at the rear, however, and you’ll begin to see differences. First, the camera “hump” has been cut from about 1.6mm on last year’s model to 0.46mm here.
The camera bulge also has more rounded edges, meaning it’s less likely to catch on your pocket and it lies flatter on a wireless charger so is less likely to fail to charge.
Second, the vertical edges of the phone at the rear now curve up to meet the phone’s slim aluminium frame, just like the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 except without the stylus.
The only other major difference to the S6 is the screen’s always-on capability. As with Motorola’s Moto Display, this shows useful information such as time and recent notifications even when the phone is on standby.
Unlike Motorola’s version, Samsung’s is switched on permanently. But after living with
the S7 for a while I’m not convinced of the usefulness of the feature.
A faster, better camera
Behind that smaller hump there’s been a dramatic change to the imaging sensor. Samsung has cut resolution from 16 megapixels to 12 and changed the aspect ratio of images captured from 16:9 to 4:3.
You might think this would be a problem, but in the process (or perhaps as a result of the resolution cut) Samsung has boosted the size of the pixels from 1.16um to 1.4um and enabled an aperture of f/1.7.
This is brighter than any rival and, on its own, delivers 25 percent more light to the sensor than last year’s S6. More light means faster shutter speeds and sharper pictures. It can also mean less noise, which should lead to cleaner, more detailed photographs. That’s precisely what the Galaxy S7’s camera delivers. I took shots in exactly the same conditions as the S6 and, examining the EXIF data, found the S7 tended to shoot with a faster shutter speed and lower ISO sensitivity. This doesn’t make a huge difference outdoors where there’s plenty of light, but it means you’re far more likely to get sharp pictures in low-light situations.
On the downside, I found the colours weren’t quite as saturated as those captured with the S6 and that the auto-exposure didn’t work quite as well, blowing some highlights out where the S6 didn’t.
The other big camera development is that the sensor has an improved, phase-detect autofocus system. It’s a “dual-pixel sensor” of the type first used by Canon in cameras such as the superb Canon EOS 70D and, predictably, Samsung is claiming it as a world-first in smartphones.
Essentially, this technology employs a pair of photodiodes for each and every pixel site on the camera sensor, hence the name. We’ve seen phase-detection pixels embedded on the sensor, but they’re scattered across it with only a small number of the total camera pixels – usually between 5 and 10 percent – used to aid focus.
What does this mean for your photography? Simply that focusing on a subject that’s close to you and then far away is faster and more surefooted now, so that should mean fewer blurry, out-of-focus images.
The sensor also retains Samsung’s Isocell tech, first introduced with the Samsung Galaxy S5, to ensure cross-talk noise is kept to a minimum.
Samsung has added a couple of new modes to the camera app as well. Motion Panorama allows you to capture movement as you shoot panoramas, so that when you scroll left and right, things move in your pictures. It’s weirdly effective. Hyperlapse creates ultra-timelapse videos, automatically selecting frames in your video to ensure the final results are smooth and stable.
It’s clearly a superior system. Samsung demonstrated this at the launch event for the phone by mounting an S6 and S7 next to each other at the end of a sealed box and moving a dimly lit photograph back and forth, forcing both cameras to refocus at exactly the same time. Predictably, the S7 focused quicker than the S6 – noticeably so – and it reflected that performance in real-world use.
All told, the S7 has a fantastic camera. For the vast majority of smartphone users, it’s the better camera and a great step forward.
Performance and battery life
The international version (sold outside the US and China) reviewed here has an octa-core Samsung Exynos 8890. This will comprise a pair of quad-core CPUs, one running at 2.3GHz for demanding tasks, the other running at 1.6GHz.
As for RAM and storage, the S7 has 4GB and 32GB respectively. The big news, of course, is the S7’s microSD slot in the SIM card tray.
Finally, we come to the phone’s new liquid-cooling system. The Samsung Galaxy S7 has a sealed “thermal spreader”, which uses evaporation and condensation cycles to cool the phone more effectively than standard methods. The aim is to reduce overheating and, therefore, CPU and GPU throttling.
So how does all this go together to affect performance? You guessed it: it’s quite good. It feels ultra-responsive. Screen swipes, panning and zooming web pages and Google Maps, scrolling through image-heavy websites; everything feels buttery smooth and runs at hyperspeed.
And it’s just as impressive in benchmark tests. The S7 equipped with the Samsung Exynos 8890 SoC is as fast as any on the market. It matches or beats the all-conquering iPhone 6s in most tests and stretches out its lead over the competition.
So performance is great. The big question is whether the boost in speed – and that always-on screen – has a negative impact on battery life. I’m happy to report it doesn’t seem that way, most likely due to the S7’s big 3,000mAh battery.
In our video-rundown test, in fact, the Samsung Galaxy S7 lasted almost 18 hours in flight mode, playing our test video file on loop with the screen brightness set to 170cd/m2, a result that beats the S6, iPhone 6s and all major rivals.
In real-world use, however, this isn’t reflected as I expected. You can get a day out of it with moderate use, but even with relatively light use I found myself having to reconnect the S7 to nits charger well before the day-and-a-half mark. Whether that’s from the always-on screen – which isn’t accounted for in our test since the screen is always displaying video content – or some other factor, isn’t clear. However, the S7 is not the battery-life revelation we hoped for. If that’s important to you, you’re better off with an iPhone 6s Plus or Sony Xperia Z5.
However, it’s good to see Samsung is trying to make using the phone more efficient. As with many rivals, it has a highly effective ultra power-saving mode that cuts background tasks to a minimum and switches the screen to monochrome. There’s also a slightly less aggressive power-saving mode that caps the phone’s performance, limiting when the phone vibrates and restricting when it uses the GPS radio. It’s worth noting that when either of these modes is enabled, the phone’s always-on screen function is disabled.
Samsung hasn’t made any huge changes to the S7’s functionality, beyond those detailed and those enforced by adopting Android 6. There’s Doze, of course, which allows the phone to save power when it’s left still on a surface – your bedside table, for instance. The permissions system is more granular, with apps asking for access to the phone’s resources as and when they need them, rather than in bulk on install. It’s also worth noting it allows you to disable individual permissions you may have granted.
Android 6 Marshmallow also introduces Now on Tap, a search contextual facility that takes a screenshot, reads it and generates intelligent search suggestions based on the content, but in the months I’ve used Marshmallow-based handsets I haven’t found it particularly useful.
There’s no doubt the Samsung Galaxy S7 is a better phone than the S6. Is it good enough to oust the superb Nexus 6P from the top of the smartphone rankings? I’d say not quite, entirely due to the price.
As usual, Samsung is pricing the S7 at the upper end. It’s $1,149, and free handset contract deals start at about $65 per month. The Nexus 6P is $250 cheaper SIM-free and free phone contracts start at about $48 per month. So although the Nexus 6P isn’t quite as good as the S7, it’s much better value for money and that tips the balance – just – in its favour.
For those who want the best, however, the Samsung Galaxy S7 is undoubtedly the phone to buy for now. It’s fast, sleek, beautiful and capable - a wonderful handset.
- 5.1-inch Super AMOLED display, quad-HD resolution, always-on
- Octa-core Samsung Exynos 8890 processor (2 x quad-core CPUs running at 2.3GHz and 1.6GHz)
- 32GB storage
- microSD slot supporting up to 200GB
- Android 6 Marshmallow
- 12-megapixel rear camera with f/1.7 aperture, dual-pixel phase-detect autofocus
- Smaller camera “hump” protrudes only 0.46mm
- IP68 dust and water resistance
- 3,000mAh battery capacity