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Samsung Galaxy Note 7 review: Steer clear of the Galaxy Note 7

We loved our first few weeks with the Galaxy Note 7, but its ongoing safety issues make it impossible to recommend.

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Jessica Dolcourt
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Jessica Dolcourt

Editorial Director / CNET Money, How-To & Performance Optimization

Jessica Dolcourt leads the CNET Money, How-To, and Performance teams. A California native who grew up in Silicon Valley, she's passionate about connecting people with the highest standard of advice to help them reach their goals.

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12 min read

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Editors' note, December 9, 2016:

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Samsung Galaxy Note 7

The Good

The Galaxy Note 7 is a beautiful, capable Android phone that showcases Samsung's best in design, battery life, speed and features. The 64GB base model leaves you plenty of space for photos, videos and games.

The Bad

We just can't trust the hardware, given the ongoing reports of battery fires.

The Bottom Line

Don't buy the Galaxy Note 7, and return it if you've already bought it.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is dead. After some handsets from both the initial run and from a second run of replacement phones caught fire, Samsung yanked it entirely. Samsung stopped making it, you can't buy it from legitimate sellers and, depending on where you live, your carrier may even send angel of death software to brick existing Note 7 phones to keep you from using it. (In the US, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint will send out this software. Verizon will not.)

Samsung says that 93 percent of its US customers have now returned the potentially faulty device, which is also banned from all airplanes in this country and many others. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission has gone further, saying, "Consumers should power down and stop using all Galaxy Note 7s."

We completely agree. You shouldn't buy a Galaxy Note 7, even if you can still find one. And if you still own one, you should immediately turn it off and exchange it for a different, non-Note 7 phone. Around the world, carriers and retailers will exchange your Note 7 for phones of equal value on the same network.

Here's everything you need to know about the disastrous Note 7 debacle. And here are phones we suggest you get instead: 9 Note 7 alternatives.

Earlier versions of this review follow.

When we first reviewed the Galaxy Note 7 in August, we found it to be one of the best phones of the year. A big beautiful AMOLED screen, excellent camera, some truly useful S-Pen tools and a big battery that lasted for hours.

And then a few dozen of those batteries burst into flames.

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The new Note 7 has a green battery icon.

Samsung

Since then, Samsung has initiated one of the biggest recalls in consumer electronics history, and recalled more than 2.5 million Note 7 phones globally. And now, the company has a replacement batch ready: more than half a million new Note 7s, with batteries that Samsung says don't have the defect that caused the fires in the first round.

So: if you want a big-screen Android phone, the corrected Note 7 is the way to go, right?

Not so fast. Samsung needs to rebuild trust here, and we're not ready to just endorse the corrected phone and call it a day. To that end, we're waiting at least until the end of October to see if any further reports of Note 7 issues crop up. (We're also testing corrected Note 7 phones in the wild, but just because we don't see a problem with our new review samples doesn't mean that there aren't any outstanding issues. After all, the original battery issue appeared in only a small fraction of the phones shipped from the original batch.)

In the meantime, we're keeping this updated review here -- unrated -- while we continue to seek out real-world feedback on users' experience with the corrected version of the Note 7.


The 5.7-inch, stylus-slinging Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is a damn fine phone. Its sexy wraparound glass, precise S Pen and brilliant screen would impress anyone, but it's ideal for artists, architects and people who would rather write by hand than type on a screen.

It has a gorgeous, symmetrical design that looks particularly stunning in Coral Blue. It takes great photos and has both the water resistance and expandable memory slot that last year's Galaxy Note 5 lacked (oh yeah, there is no Note 6). Battery life goes on and on -- but not as long as for the Galaxy S7 Edge -- and you can charge up wirelessly.

This is Samsung's ultimate phone, with all the Edge's curved-screen goodies and more: 64GB of storage instead of the Edge's 32GB. An iris scanner for unlocking the phone with your eyes. A good, refreshed take on Android. A USB-C charger port that also charges up your other devices (you should buy a USB 3.1 cable for faster data speeds). New pen tricks to magnify, translate languages and make an animated GIF. A nighttime filter you can schedule to automatically give your weary, screen-staring eyes a break.

Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 looks awesome in 'Coral Blue'

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The question you have to ask yourself is how much all this is worth to you. Because the Note 7 is one of the most expensive phones you can buy. It's comparable to Apple's large-screen iPhone 6S Plus (the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus are right around the corner), but costs more than the already pricey Edge, and it's twice the price of the OnePlus 3, a CNET Editors' Choice winner for its excellence as an all-round midprice phone. In the US, promotions that bundle a free memory card or Samsung wearable help soothe the sting.

There's also some question about the Note 7's fragility. Although it survived all but the meanest splats in our dedicated drop test, the screen of my review unit mysteriously cracked in my purse. And reports of manufacturing mayhem that's reportedly caused some units to explode en route to customers are putting the brakes on shipments for now. For the record, none of our three review units has exploded or experienced similar trauma.

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The Note 7 lets you leave your laptop behind more often.

Josh Miller/CNET

As much as I loved my time with the compelling, beautiful, functional Note 7 -- and I really did -- I hesitate to recommend it to anyone who isn't serious about using that digital S Pen to draw, write and navigate on the phone. The S Pen has some minor issues, too. It isn't perfect at everything. Sometimes wielding the stylus feels natural; other times tapping and typing make more sense. (Though it does make really great annotated photos, Snapchat snaps and social-media GIFs.)

At the end of the day, most people can easily live without the Note 7, especially with the capable S7 Edge a near doppelganger. If you're ready to move on from the Note 4, switching to the Note 7 gets you more storage and power, an upgradable Android version and a far better S Pen. If you're happy with the Note 5, wait a year. If not, with the Note 7 you get waterproofing, expandable storage and software shortcuts on those curved edges. With its elevated features and fee, the Note 7 is for buyers who delight in rarified details. Buy it and you get an excellent phone -- but if you aren't going to use that pen, forget it.

Samsung Galaxy Note 7 pricing and availability

Sale datePriceColors
US August 19$834-$880 (varies by carrier)Blue, black and silver
UK September 2£700*Blue, black and silver
AU August 19AU$1,349Black, silver and gold

*Provisional, based on one prominent retailer.

Using the new S Pen stylus: It's smooth, precise, tricked-out

Without the S Pen, the Note 7 is just a refined S7 Edge with steeper curved sides. This year's digital stylus has a fine, precise point and senses 4,096 levels of pressure, double last year's model. I wrote countless notes and a haiku, doodled all over, even handed the phone to CNET's art director for his professional assessment. And? It's very good. But, compared with a 10-inch tablet, the screen is a small for creating fine art, though it handles notes and more casual drawings very well.

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You can sketch some really cool things with the Note 7. CNET's art director, Marc Mendell, put my doodles to shame.

Josh Miller/CNET

A few things bothered me about execution. Including the Note Edge, this is the seventh Note phone ever made, so all S Pen maneuvers should be flawless by now. But I still found it hard to paint an entire canvas without onscreen buttons getting in the way (they'll move if you get it right). It's easy to accidentally exit or press unintended controls that mysteriously shift the layout into something you don't want. That's frustrating, especially when you can't figure out how to resume the original canvas.

Here's what's good about the new S Pen:

  • Navigating with the pen keeps the screen cleaner and reduces repetitive-stress finger strain.
  • There's now just one Notes app for all your writing, not five separate apps.
  • You can jot a note from the lock screen, and pin it there.
  • The stylus won't get stuck in its holder if you put it in upside down (it might actually spring across the room).
  • The S Pen worked after we dunked the entire phone in 2.5 feet of water for 28 minutes (it's rated for 30 minutes in about 5 feet of water).

Here's what's not so good:

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Using the S Pen helps keep gross, oily prints off the screen.

Sarah Tew/CNET
  • You can type faster with your fingers than you can handwrite, keyboard-trace or touch-type with the S Pen. I found handwriting mode, where you write with the pen in a specific text field, created many errors, especially if I wrote quickly.
  • You can only see the note you pin to the lock screen when you tap an icon...with your finger. It won't respond to the S Pen. (Oh, the irony.) It'd be better to see the note ghosted onto the Always On display.
  • A few times I worried I'd lose the stylus. Magnetic sides would make it a more loyal sidekick when the S Pen is outside its holder.
  • At the beach, grains of sand wedged in between the pen and its holder, and I couldn't dislodge them with fingernails, a slim knife blade or a flat set of Swiss Army Knife tweezers. They were forever stuck. An outlier case, but it could happen to you, too.

Streamlined design, new iris scanner and waterproofing

The Note 7 looks even better than the already terrific-looking Edge and S7: sleek, symmetrical and sophisticated. Everyone I showed it to agreed. It's heavier than other devices, but feels pleasantly compact for its expansive screen. Not small, but smaller than past Note models and easier to hold. At this point, I'm desensitized to the feeling of phones in my back pocket and their weight in my purse; this fit my expectations, and wasn't too big to zip into my jacket pocket.

If you worry about those curved sides getting in the way of S Pen navigation, the good news is that they mostly don't. Mostly. A couple of times when drawing to the screen edge, my pen did slip off the sides.

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Watch this: Make a video GIF on the Note 7
Make a video GIF on the Note 7
0:54

The iris scanner that lets you unlock the phone with your eyes is fast and accurate, and worked with my glasses and contacts. But if the phone's already lying on the table, picking it up again is inconvenient. Also, Samsung told us it's meant more as a secondary security measure to the fingerprint scanner than for constant use. (And is it even secure?) You might want to use it to unlock the Private Folder, for example.

The Note 7 is the first Samsung phone with a USB-C port, which is reversible. That means no squinting and fumbling to see which way is "up." Best yet, it supports USB 3.1, which means you can ask it to charge other devices and transfer data more quickly (this won't happen automatically). However, Samsung supplies a USB 2.0 cable in the box. A USB 3.1 cable will get you faster data speed transfer with a compatible USB port, but don't sweat it too much. The standard cord still works fine. Read more about the wonders of USB-C charging here.

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With its waterproofing, splashes ain't no thing.

Josh Miller/CNET

On the splish-splash front, the Note 7 survived our two bucket dunk tests, both with and without the S Pen snapped inside. That's 28 minutes in 2.5 feet of water for each test. The phone's rated for 5 feet and up to 30 minutes (also known as IP68), which could break the device. We just want to put it under stress. Considering the other phones in the "7" family passed our underwater pool test, we feel pretty good about this one -- though Samsung does apply a yearlong warranty if something goes wrong.

Corning's Gorilla Glass 5 tops the Note 7's stunning screen (it uses AMOLED technology versus LCD, as always, to achieve high contrast). This version of the chemically strengthened glass promises to withstand 1.6-meter drops, or 5.25 feet, but don't get too excited. That's only Corning's promise for a straight sheet of the stuff; it makes no claims once a device maker has shaped the screen like Samsung does here. Prepare to buy a screen protector and a case to guard your investment.

Sleeker Android, with Nougat ahead

The Note 7 runs Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, but will upgrade to Android Nougat down the line. Samsung's refreshed custom layer is a more colorful, trimmed-down take on its TouchWiz software interface, and feels cleaner and easier to read. If you don't like digging around, simply search the app tray and settings menu for what you need.

There are bonuses sprinkled here and there, like adding apps to home screen folders with a tap (rather than a drag-and-drop), and more visually accessible data in subsettings like the battery and memory meters. The setting to keep the phone from turning on in your pocket or bag is clutch.

Camera: New gestures, great photos

The Note has the same cameras as the S7 and S7 Edge: 12 megapixels on the back and 5 up front. As on those phones, this is one of the best all-around cameras we've used. If you're worried that the Note 7's 12-megapixel camera pales in comparison to the Note 5's 16-megapixel shooter, don't be. 16 sounds more impressive than 12, but as we keep saying, image quality has a lot to do with processing and light.

Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 tackles a day at the office

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Just like the S7 and S7 Edge, the Note 7 takes clear, bright, crisp photos in indoor, outdoor and low-light settings. Selfies are generally good, too, especially when the screen lights up as a flash for dark environments. The extra-wide selfie works like panorama mode and is impractical for group pics that require others to stay still. There are tons of filters and editing features; shortcuts make photos easy to share.

The camera app gets a jolt with new gestures. Swipe up and down to switch between front and rear cameras, and swipe to the sides to bring up filters and effects. This usually works well, and I liked the instant gratification of previewing the filter effects before choosing the one I wanted. But my fingers kept accidentally tapping the Back and Recent buttons, which kicked me out of the app. Sometimes my swipes zoomed the photo or slid a vignette control instead of calling up the other menus or switching cameras. Mistakes like these are time-wasting and annoying.

Battery and speed are great, but a bit behind S7 Edge

The Note 7 has many of the same hardware guts as the S7 Edge, but performance and battery life slightly lag (see full specs list below). Its barely smaller battery ran 2 hours shorter in our looping video drain test; an average of 17 hours, 40 minutes versus the Edge's 19 hours, 40 minutes. In real-world tests, I got a solid day between charges and topped up in between using either a wireless charging pad (sold separately) or through USB-C cables at work and at home. Samsung gives you one in the box; I recommend buying a spare.

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Watch this: Galaxy Note 7 camera closeup
Galaxy Note 7 camera closeup
1:02

Depending on your region, the Note 7 comes with either Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 chip or Samsung's housemade Exynos processor. I tested the Qualcomm version, and my colleague in Asia ran benchmarks on the Exynos version as well. Both scored high compared with most phones, but weirdly, the Qualcomm version was a little lower on the graphical benchmark test Geekbench 3 than the S7 Edge.

In real-life tests, the Qualcomm-outfitted Note 7 is a pretty snappy device. It gamely handled fast-paced, graphics-heavy games, launched apps and downloaded and uploaded content quickly. But when I started using the drawing tools heavily, it lagged. Not much, but enough to notice.

Be aware, a security flaw in Qualcomm's 820 chip may affect this phone and millions of other Androids.

Note 7 versus the competition

I compare the S7 Edge, Motorola Moto Z, iPhone 6S and OnePlus 3 in-depth here. Also a quick breakdown, as well as how the specs stack up, is below.

Note 7 versus S7 Edge: The Note 7 costs more, has the stylus and doubles the Edge's onboard storage. However, microSD cards are affordable, and if all you really want is a large screen, the S7 Edge does a fantastic job for less. Get the Note 7 if you'll use the S Pen. Otherwise, go for the S7 Edge.

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Every Note phone ever made.

Josh Miller/CNET

Note 7 versus Note 5: Compared with the Note 5, it brings a more sensitive and powerful pen, water resistance and an external storage slot on a sexy, curved-screen design. If you can be patient, it's financially prudent to wait.

Note 7 versus Note 4 and earlier: The Note 7 is a great upgrade for any Note older than a year. Seriously, everything is better.

Note 7 versus OnePlus 3: You can buy two OnePlus 3s for the price of a single Note. Our favorite midprice Android phone lacks the Note 7's features largesse, but it does share specs like 64GB of built-in storage and an identical processor. Get the Note 7 if you want a pen plus expandable storage and the OnePlus 3 if you're happy with an all-arounder. If you're looking for large-screen luxe, the S7 Edge will do.

Note 7 versus iPhone 6S Plus: With the iPhone 7 phones coming in a matter of weeks, don't even bother. Wait to see what that large-screen phone holds, and keep in mind that the 6S Plus' price will drop after the iPhone 7 Plus goes on sale.

Comparing phablets

Samsung Galaxy Note 7Samsung Galaxy S7 EdgeApple iPhone 6S PlusOnePlus 3
Display size, resolution 5.7-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels5.5-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels5.5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels5.5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels
Pixel density 518ppi534ppi401ppi401ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6x2.9x0.3 in5.9x2.9x0.3 in6.2x3.1x0.29 in6.01x2.94x0.29 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 153.5x73.9x7.9 mm150.9x72.6x7.7 mm158x78x7.3 mm152.7x74.7x7.35 mm
Weight (Ounces, grams) 6 oz; 169 g5.5 oz; 157 g6.8 oz; 192 g5.57 oz; 158 g
Mobile software Android 6.0.1 MarshmallowAndroid 6.0 MarshmallowApple iOS 9Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow
Camera 12-megapixel12-megapixel12-megapixel16-megapixel
Front-facing camera 5-megapixel5-megapixel5-megapixel8-megapixel
Video capture 4K4K4K4K
Processor 2.15GHz + 1.6GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor (or Exynos, depending on region)2.15GHz + 1.6GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapgradon 820 processor (or Exynos, depending on region)Apple A9 chip (64-bit)2.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 820
Storage 64GB32GB, 64GB (varies by region)16GB, 64GB, 128GB64GB
RAM 4GB4GB2GB6GB
Expandable storage 200GB200GBNoneNone
Battery 3,500mAh (nonremovable)3,600mAh (nonremovable)2,750mAh (nonremovable)3,000mAh (nonremovable)
Fingerprint sensor Home buttonHome buttonHome buttonHome button
Connector USB CMicro-USBLightningUSB-C
Special features S Pen stylus, water-resistant, wireless chargingWater-resistant, wireless chargingN/ANotifications toggle, dual-SIM, Dash Charging
Price off-contract (USD) AT&T: $880; T-Mobile: $849; U.S. Cellular: $834AT&T: $795, Sprint: $750, T-Mobile: $780, Verizon: $792, US Cellular: $780$749 (16GB); $849 (64GB); $949 (128GB)$399
Price (GBP) £700£639£619 (16GB); £699 (64GB); £789 (128GB)£329
Price (AUD) AU$1,349AU$1,249AU$1,229 (16GB); AU$1,379 (64GB); AU$1,529 (128GB) Converts to AU$530