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

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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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 7 Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge Apple iPhone 6S Plus OnePlus 3
Display size, resolution 5.7-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels 5.5-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels 5.5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels 5.5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels
Pixel density 518ppi 534ppi 401ppi 401ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6x2.9x0.3 in 5.9x2.9x0.3 in 6.2x3.1x0.29 in 6.01x2.94x0.29 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 153.5x73.9x7.9 mm 150.9x72.6x7.7 mm 158x78x7.3 mm 152.7x74.7x7.35 mm
Weight (Ounces, grams) 6 oz; 169 g 5.5 oz; 157 g 6.8 oz; 192 g 5.57 oz; 158 g
Mobile software Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow Android 6.0 Marshmallow Apple iOS 9 Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow
Camera 12-megapixel 12-megapixel 12-megapixel 16-megapixel
Front-facing camera 5-megapixel 5-megapixel 5-megapixel 8-megapixel
Video capture 4K 4K 4K 4K
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 64GB 32GB, 64GB (varies by region) 16GB, 64GB, 128GB 64GB
Expandable storage 200GB 200GB None None
Battery 3,500mAh (nonremovable) 3,600mAh (nonremovable) 2,750mAh (nonremovable) 3,000mAh (nonremovable)
Fingerprint sensor Home button Home button Home button Home button
Connector USB C Micro-USB Lightning USB-C
Special features S Pen stylus, water-resistant, wireless charging Water-resistant, wireless charging N/A Notifications toggle, dual-SIM, Dash Charging
Price off-contract (USD) AT&T: $880; T-Mobile: $849; U.S. Cellular: $834 AT&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$1,349 AU$1,249 AU$1,229 (16GB); AU$1,379 (64GB); AU$1,529 (128GB) Converts to AU$530

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