Fall 2016 update
It's been a dramatic year for Samsung and its Galaxy line, to say the least.
On September 2, 2016, the company recalled its Galaxy Note 7 phone after a major battery flaw caused a small number of the phones to spontaneously explode. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, along with Canada and Mexico, made the recall official, banning the sale of the phone, and certain airlines have blocked the phones from their flights. (Consult CNET's Samsung Galaxy Note 7 FAQ for more information.)
Before the Note 7 fiasco, there was the Galaxy S7 Active debacle, which now looks positively minor in comparison. After introducing the flagship Galaxy S7 to rave reviews in March -- we still love it, by the way -- Samsung trotted out the Galaxy S7 Active, a variant equipped with a beautiful display, speedy processor, microSD card slot, excellent 12-megapixel rear camera, and supersized battery. Unfortunately, it received its share of unwelcome attention for issues related to its most highly-touted feature: waterproofing -- or its lack thereof. Though Samsung has fixed the problem on its manufacturing line -- and we've verified the fix -- the Galaxy S7 Active's inconsistent performance in water sapped our enthusiasm, and we can no longer recommend the phone with complete confidence.
Meanwhile, Apple has since released its water-resistant iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, which appear to live up to their billing when forced to take a dunk. As covered in our full review, the iPhone 7 also takes great photos, provides long battery life, and delivers fast performance, though it lacks a number of the Galaxy Note 7's cutting-edge features such as iris scanner, wireless charging and wrap-around screen.
The next big comparison for the Galaxy S7 will be the Pixel Phone, rumored to be announced at Google's big October 4 event.
Editors' note: The original Samsung Galaxy S7 review, published in March and updated since then, follows.
The ultimate way to test a new phone? Travel with it. When you're seeing sights and losing yourself to the moment, there's no room to tolerate a poor camera or buggy software, slow speed or short battery life. If there's a flaw, you'll find it.
So I tested the Samsung Galaxy S7 in London and Berlin, while colleagues also took it for a spin in San Francisco and Sydney. And you know what? It did great. Better than great. In fact, the S7 was an awesome phone that never cracked under the pressure of being the only way I take pictures and navigate completely unfamiliar terrain, all while keeping battery life going during long days out.
Straight up: the Galaxy S7 is the best all-around phone out today. It's superior to the excellent Google Nexus 6P, Apple iPhone 6S, LG G5 and HTC 10. In fact, the only phone that surpasses it is its own fraternal twin, the larger, curvy-screen S7 Edge, which is technically my top pick -- but only if you're willing to splurge. Sure, there are some potentially worthy rivals out beyond the horizon -- the iPhone 7, the next Nexus model, and the Galaxy Note 6. But none of them will likely be on the market for months to come. So, for now, the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge remain the best phones money can buy.
Here's what I found (along with fellow S7-testers) while using the S7 around Europe. You can also scroll to the end for a specs comparison chart.
Editors' note: This review was originally posted on March 8, 2016 and last updated on April 16, 2016.
Perfect for pockets, but smudgy as hell
I began my testing on London's crowded, bagpipe-festooned bridges and streets. Since I constantly mashed the S7 into my jeans and jacket pockets only to retrieve it again for a weather check, photo, digital payment or to navigate around, its approachable size was a much better fit for me than a larger phone. "Medium" by today's bonkers standards, it has a 5.1-inch screen.
Throughout all this nonstop handling, the S7's curved back and sides made it comfortable to hold, and the one time I dropped it it didn't dent or break. That was only a few feet off the floor inside a pub, mind you -- I'm sure it'd sustain more damage if it had clattered onto pavement.
I spent a good, long time staring at the S7. That curve-back design I mentioned and some very slight rounding on the edges around the display are damn nice, giving the phone a far more luxe and contoured appearance than most, including last year's ramrod-straight Galaxy S6. In fact, look closely at the details and you can see that this S7 is built better than previous Galaxy phones.
One downside to the S7's shiny metal-and-glass backing is that smudges pile up on smudges, leaving a semi-permanent sheen of finger grease all over your expensive property. It's gross, and a pain to constantly clean, which always fails anyway. But like all beautiful phones, you're bound to slap a case on it anyway, so it's almost a moot point -- just not an excuse.
Camera, camera, camera!
I took a boatload of photos in London while testing the phone, but when my sister and I went to Berlin for the weekend, all hell broke loose. Every pastry and pretzel, imposing museum, graceful river crossing; every glorious kebab and lip-smacking beer became an opportunity for dutiful documentation.
What was confirmed again and again is that crisp photos from the 12-megapixel camera countered low-light interference in every darkened cocktail bar, moodily lit restaurant and dusk-dimmed park.Although this camera has fewer megapixels than last year's S6, it takes better photos.
Scenes are brighter, which makes the action easier to see.
Even in low-light scenes, such as a Berlin speakeasy, the S7 trumps the iPhone 6S, yielding brighter, more usable photos. Digital noise was still there, just diminished; those small speckles of color that infiltrate the picture are an inevitability in low-light digital camera shots.
Whip-quick autofocus was also a winner, grabbing clear shots of moving objects, like swaying flowers (yes, I really do take photos of flowers) and my sister lunging like a lightsaber-wielding Jedi in front of a mural (fear her!).
Photos didn't just look great on the S7's sharp screen; they also stood up to enlarged views on my laptop and an even larger monitor back in London.
I also really liked using the new, optional preview mode that lets you delete or share photos immediately after taking them. Oh yes, the S7 has optical image stabilization (OIS), which helped keep my photos from blurring after all those jetlag-fighting coffees.
I'm still less sure of the 5-megapixel front-facing camera, which now has even more "beautification" filters than before. I never liked these, even though I'm vain enough that I don't want to see every line and wrinkle. To me, they make skin appear plastic and dull; maybe the uncanny valley of too-perfect skin, but I know plenty of people who love the youthening effect. At any rate, I turned all of these filters to zero, but still found that selfies either looked fake or overly harsh. Something in the processing seems off, but this isn't a dealbreaker by any means.
I did use the S7's front-facing screen "flash" to light dark selfie scenes, which basically means the phone screen whites-out before the camera fires. This came in handy, since my sister basically selfie-documented every move we made for her husband and kids, especially at dinner and the bar. The flash...it's blinding. Toning down the brightness would make it more useful, especially if I could pick a warmer color temperature or lower brightness setting to make it all less intense. The iPhone 6S' similar selfie-flash did better in the same scenes.
Less bloatware is a very, very good thing
Back in London, my appreciation for Samsung's more restrained customizations to the Android 6.0 software settled in. The S7 slims down the bloatware considerably, while leaving plenty of advanced settings for customizing everything from the lock screen to phone themes -- you just have to dig a little deeper now to find everything. Samsung also added a few nice-but-subtle optional touches, like a new "tray" to help you easily move app icons from one screen to another.
Speaking of extra touches, I really like the idea of the Game Launcher, a set of tools you can turn on to trigger some quick actions, like recording the screen or minimizing your game so you can do something else. I'm not the kind of active gamer who would immediately benefit from these features, so trying it out on the subway threw off my movements when playing more precision-based games, like the Riptide 2 racer.
My colleague Jason Parker in San Francisco liked being able to turn off all alerts (with the exception of actual incoming phone calls), but pointed out that the notification for an incoming call still covers most of the screen -- so this particular feature doesn't go far enough.
During my week away from San Francisco (aka home), I fell in love with the S7's new always-on display, which shows you either the clock, a calendar or an image. It was immediately useful for checking the time and the phone's battery levels, a constant worry, without actually having to take the phone out of standby. I also set up a clock for the local timezone and the one at home, so I knew when it was too early to call or text.