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SAMSUNG GALAXY S7 REVIEW

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HIGHS

  • Gorgeous, waterproof, design
  • Better battery life than Galaxy S6
  • Camera shoots better in low light, focuses faster
  • Micro SD card slot
  • Powerful Snapdragon 820 processor

LOWS

  • Carrier locked with carrier bloatware
  • All-glass design is fingerprint magnet
  • Prone to glass cracking, expensive to repair

It’s spring, and that means there’s a new flagship Samsung phone. The Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge have arrived, and they will likely serve as a hint for what’s coming to Android phones in 2016. Neither of them reinvent the wheel from a design perspective, but plenty of notable changes help elevate them above previous Galaxy phones. There’s plenty to know if you’re considering migrating from an iPhone or another Android.

If you’re feeling curvy, check our full review of the Galaxy S7 Edge. This review will focus on the standard, flat-screened Galaxy S7. It may look the same as last year, but this new Galaxy packs a few new surprises, joyful moments, and disappointments under its glossy exterior.

BEAUTIFUL, WATERPROOF, FRAGILE, FINGERPRINTS

If you’re at all familiar with the Samsung’s 2015 Galaxy devices, you know precisely what to expect from the Galaxy S7. This year, it’s all about refinement. The GS7 sports the same smooth, brushed-metal bumper sandwiched between front and back glass. It’s gorgeous. This improved design extends to the camera on the back, which still protrudes, but only about half as much as last year’s model.

With a 5.1-inch flat AMOLED screen that is the envy of every other phone, and a gentle curve to its back, the S7 is very comfortable to hold in your palm. It’s almost identically sized to last year’s Galaxy S6 (and the Galaxy S5, for that matter). Overall, it’s a comfortable smaller phone that most people should be able to hold (unless you prefer very extra tiny phones like the old iPhone 5S).

But glass is still glass, and the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge are covered in the stuff, potentially making them the most fragile phones available this year. Because that Gorilla Glass is proprietary and curved on the back, it may also cost hundreds of dollars to replace broken or cracked screens, should the slippery phone fall from your grasp. Don’t buy a Galaxy S7 without a case.

The other major caveat to the glass design this year is how easy it is to cover in fingerprints. A week of use left our S7 so caked in fingerprints that it feels downright grimy to hold (another reason to get a case). If this sort of thing bothers you, consider a competing phone, or buying a nice case. Seriously, you’ll want a case. We can’t stress that enough.

We can’t complain for too long, though. Unlike many competitors, Samsung has water and dust-proofed the Galaxy S7. It has an IP68 rating, meaning dust should not penetrate its electronic innards, and you can submerge it in up to a meter of water for 30 minutes with no damage.

This should be an absolute relief for anyone who’s ever used their phone in the rain or near the water, and a return to form for the Galaxy brand. The Galaxy S5 was waterproof in 2014, but the peace-of-mind feature was missing from the Galaxy S6 devices and Note 5.

AN AUDIO MYSTERY

We don’t have a lot to say on the audio front. The Galaxy S7 has a standard audio jack on its bottom and a single speaker. Sound from the speaker is expectedly tinny and weak, like all phones outside of the HTC One series, which have dual-front facing speakers. The full-volume sound from an iPhone 6S is still noticeably crisper than the S7, but neither device hits it out of the park.

Our audio experts haven’t had enough time to spend with it yet, but the S7 may lag behind this year’s other Android flagships when it comes to high-res audio. Our initial impressions are mixed, but we’ll update this section in the future.

ALWAYS ON AND ANDROID MARSHMALLOW

Following in the footsteps of innovations Motorola made two or three years ago, both Samsung and LG are adding Always On screens to their flagship phones this year. The GS7 always shows a clock when the phone is asleep. This feature should disable once you put the phone in your pocket. You can change this screen to show a calendar, as well.

It’s a safe investment if you want a top-of-the-line Android phone.

There aren’t a ton of other software innovations. Samsung has loaded the phone with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, but it has kept the S6’s bubbly, colorful TouchWiz interface and old-school menus. The interface is easy enough to use, but a little resistant to change. For example, Samsung still doesn’t have on-screen navigation buttons, instead sticking with haptic buttons on either side of its physical Homebutton below the screen, which is also an outdated location for that button (if you aren’t an iPhone user). Competitors like the Xperia Z5, LG G5, and Nexus 6P have found other places to stick their Home buttons.

But we digress. Samsung’s settings menus have grown cluttered and disorganized, and the S7 even lacks the fun Flipboard home screen app that previous Galaxy phones had, so you’ll need to download a launcher if you want to read news from the home screen.

Gamers also get a couple other small, but fun features. The Galaxy S7 can record gameplay, has agaming Do Not Disturb mode, and lets you throttle your framerate to save battery life through a special game launcher.

Samsung Pay, which lets you pay via NFC or even tap on a standard magnetic card reader, is still present, though our Verizon testing unit wasn’t able to use it yet. It appears that on some carriers, Samsung Pay will not come preloaded, though Android Pay will.

A new app called Samsung+ is also on Google Play, but not loaded on the phone. It gives loyal Samsung fans access to perks and deals, but more importantly has customer service information and always-available 24/7 video support.

SAMSUNG PROBLEM WITH WIRELESS CARRIERS

The Galaxy S7 is one of the most popular phones in the world, but we were shocked that in 2016, it still is only available locked to wireless carriers in the United States. You can only buy a version that works on your specific network – nowhere else. There’s no reason for it because the phones are technically capable of running on any network. This phone will cost you $700, but if you switch carriers, you’ll have to go through a horribly annoying, if not impossible, process to unlock it.

Unless you have no chance of changing carriers in the next two or three years, do not buy this phone.

Samsung representatives told us that there is no current option to purchase the Galaxy S7 unlocked in the United States – a shame. Even T-Mobile (the “uncarrier”) sells locked Galaxy phones.

Then there is the problem of wireless carrier bloatware. Our Verizon testing units used heavy-handed wording to try and pressure us into using Verizon cloud backup for managing contacts and vital info. Worse, the default messaging app was replaced with a Verizon Messaging+ app. We cannot think of a reason to ever use a messenger app created by your wireless carrier, and highly recommend you make Google Hangouts or Samsung’s messenger your default.

There are nine Verizon apps on this phone, three Amazon apps, and a bunch of Samsung and Google apps. Verizon’s offerings include gems like NFL Mobile and Go90, which is a Verizon Mobile TV network app that we don’t particularly want to use. But they are unremovable.

A BATTERY CASE, GEAR 360 CAM, AND MORE

The battery capacity of the Galaxy S7 improves to 3,000mAh this year, which is several hundred mAh larger than the S6, but the battery life still doesn’t last much more than a day.

Samsung is making its own battery case for the S7, which should extend your battery life by about 3,100mAh or roughly 2X the battery life of the phone. Because the battery is non-removable, this or a portable charger are your best options for days when you need some extra gas.

In addition to the battery case, Samsung is making a case with a camera lens enhancer built into it (like an Olloclip) and an updated wireless charging pad that sets the phone at an angle and can charge at high speed.

Finally, 360 cameras are the hot new item this year, along with virtual reality, and Samsung is never one to let a trend pass it by. To capitalize, it will release the Gear 360, a dual-camera 360-degree action cam that looks like a tiny robot out of Portal or Wall-E. By stitching photos together from two 15-megapixel fish-eye cameras, it creates a VR-ready spherical image or video. We tried taking a couple videos and stills on it, and though they won’t win any awards, for home movies and viewing, they do get the job done. If you own a Gear VR (our favorite mobile VR headset), you can almost instantly view your 360 videos in actual virtual reality.

One other cool note about the Gear 360 (read our full Gear 360 writeup) is that its handle splits out into a quirky little tripod. Unscrew that tripod and it can connect to any other camera stand.

A POWERFUL, WARM PHONE

If impressive specifications help you sleep at night, the Galaxy S7 may as well be Ambien. It runs on a new quad-core 2.15GHz + 1.6GHz processor, but the maker of that processor will vary by region. In the United States, we’re getting a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor, but in the rest of the world, Samsung is using an Exynos chip of its own design. Samsung claims the new processors are supposedly about 30 percent faster than the Galaxy S6, and the integrated graphics processor is about 64 percent faster.

The Galaxy S7’s Snapdragon 820 processor runs circles around most every competitor.

Initial benchmarks are showing that the Galaxy S7’s Snapdragon 820 processor runs circles around most every competitor. Luckily, our model runs on the 820. It’s done very well in our initial tests, performing just above the Google Pixel C tablet in 3D Mark’s Sling Shot 3.1 test and narrowly outperforming the iPhone 6S on the Ice Storm Unlimited graphics test. On AnTuTu, it blew away all competition by a massive margin, outperforming every listed Android device, including the Galaxy Note 5. Other benchmarks have shown similarly good results. This is a great phone for gaming.

It’s also a great phone for calling. We had no issues making or receiving calls on the Verizon network.

Be warned, however. Though it doesn’t get “hot,” the GS7 feels noticeably warm at most times, despite its new liquid cooling. Even with a case, this is a warm phone.

Aside from the processor, the Galaxy S7 comes with 4GB RAM, 32GB of storage, and the Nano SIM tray also has a Micro SD card slot that can hold any cards available today (up to 200GB). Samsung has even struck a deal so the GS7 and S7 Edge are the first phones compatible with the Vulkan API, which should aid high-end game development.

AN IMPROVED CAMERA

Samsung really wants a better camera than the iPhone, and it has one, by some measurements. The S7 has a 12-megapixel rear cameras that operates faster thanks to an F1.7 lens (up from F1.9 in last year’s), and focuses faster thanks to its “dual-pixel” design. Samsung claims that every pixel in the lens also acts as a focus pixel, and that this is a first for smartphones.

In a direct shoot off in low-light and dark conditions, the Galaxy S7 often outperformed the iPhone 6S. Samsung’s camera was able to capture sharper images in the dark and illuminate areas that the iPhone could not. The speed of focusing also helped it grab a few shots of moving scenes that the iPhone was unable to shoot as smoothly.

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