When is a huge phone not a huge phone? When it's the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.
Despite having a potentially palm-stretching 5.7in display, Samsung's somehow made the new Note one of the most comfortable-to-hold phablets you'll ever come across.
Couple that with an improved S Pen stylus and software tweaks designed to help you get the most from that gargantuan screen and you have a big phone for people who never realised they'd love a big phone.
UPDATE: or should that be had? After a disastrous launch and a bungled replacement program, the Galaxy Note 7 has been officially pulled from sale and production. Overheating and exploding batteries made it too much of a danger to keep in the wild.
You can't buy one any more, and even if you could, you really shoudn't. We're preserving this review, but with an amended verdict and removed star rating. Read on to hear about what used to be one of the greatest Android phones of 2016.
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 design: Cutting edge
All of the Note 7's impressive ergonomic feats stem from the display.
Now we're big fans of Samsung's curved screens, with the Galaxy S7 Edge's display the best such example yet. But until now Samsung's seemed a little hesitant about pushing us all into the future with it, offering the S7 in both flat- and curved-screen varities. That's changed here, though: the Note 7 is only available in the one version, so if you don't want a display that bends over its own bezels you might as well stop reading now.
You'd be a fool to do so though, because those curves on the Note 7 significantly reduce its footprint (handprint?), making it remarkably easy to hold. Given that it has a whopping 5.7in screen, that's no mean feat.
Indeed, the Note 7 never once felt ungainly, even in my tiny hands, thanks to those curvaceous and slimming edges. It’s like an infinity pool in your palm.
The slim metal frame feels fantastic between your fingers, rivalling the S7 Edge for that 'just right' combination of curves and corners. At 7.9mm it’s super-slim, too - you’ll have no problem sliding it into a pair of skinny jeans.
Looks-wise, it's a stunner. I vaguely recall reading somewhere that as a species, we find symmetry attractive. I can't back that up with any scientific research right now, but I can say this - the Note 7's symmetrical design is absolutely lovely.
The front of the handset is a single slab of curved glass, and gives off strong Galaxy S7 Edge vibes. Unlike the Edge however, the Note 7's rear perfectly mirrors the front, with an identical slab of curved glass wrapping around the back and sides to meet its twin, making for a more comfortable feel in the hands.
The end result is a wonderfully rounded smartphone that almost feels pebble-like when you’re holding it, and its build quality feels as premium and as well-made as we've come to expect from Samsung, and indeed, Apple and HTC.
A quick peek at the bottom shows off a USB-C port - a first for a Samsung flagship, along with, of course, the embedded S Pen (more on that in a bit).
What's more, it’ll survive a dunking thanks to the IP68 waterproof rating: ideal if you want to soundtrack your shower with a Spotify session. You can even make notes and sketches while you’re at it, because the improved S Pen now works perfectly underwater too.
Criticisms? Well the Onyx black version is an unforgiving fingerprint magnet, so you’re better off sticking to the silver metallic shade seen here if you want your Note 7 to stay the gleaming work of art that it is.
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 screen: Pixel-popping
So the screen's shape fits beautifully on the Note 7 - but what about the quality of the panel itself? Well, Samsung’s AMOLED displays regularly put those on other phones to shame, and the Note 7 is no exception.
It's a 5.7in 2K display with 1440 x 2560 pixels. That gives you a pixel density of 518ppi - not quite the highest around, but easily high enough that it looks amazing. Colours lean towards being overly vibrant, just like they’ve always done on Galaxy phones, but that saturation soon grows on you - especially when the brightness cranks up to keep pictures popping off the screen while you’re outdoors. And if you’re not feeling the lively hues, you can always switch to the AMOLED Cinema and Basic screen modes in the Settings menu to rein in the colours anyway.
Movie addicts will be able to put that sky-high brightness to good use, too: the Note 7 is the only phone in the world that can show HDR video. Now Netflix just needs to hurry up and add HDR to its Android app...
The always-on screen that first showed up on the Galaxy S7 makes an appearance here too, only it’s much more useful this time around. Pop the S Pen out without unlocking the phone and the screen turns into a notepad, so you can check your to-do list without having to reach for the fingerprint sensor.
As with the S7, it also does it primary job excellently, giving you an instant glance at the time or whatever other info might be lurking on your home screen. We've seen others try this and get it completely wrong, **cough LG G5 cough** so fair play to Samsung for nailing the concept. No, it won't change your life but it will mildly enhance it.
Finally, its curved edges mean that you’ll have access to the same Edge Apps found in the S7 Edge too, letting you can pull in customised app shortcuts, contacts and other widgets from the right hand side.
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 lockscreen: Eyes on the prize
The Note 7 screen's other big new skill is the ability to be unlocked using only your eyes.
The first time you do this you'll feel like a character from a Philip K Dick novel - though hopefully without all the existential paranoia. Second time you'll feel like the coolest geek in your office. Third time... you'll probably just turn it off.
Why? Well blame the implementation rather than the tech itself. The iris scanner works beautifully, is a lot faster to set up than scanning your fingerprints and recognises your eyes with uncanny accuracy. It even worked just fine with my glasses on or contacts in place - despite the onscreen disclaimer.
However, in practice it's just not quite as slick as it ought to be.
To use it, you need to wake the phone up, swipe up, then hold it up to your face at exactly the right distance. That's a lot of steps to go through just to unlock it. If you use fingerprints, meanwhile, you merely need to press the button once.
For that reason we'd still stick with the latter tech, although that’s not to say it isn’t useful at all; it can unlock your Secure Folder, the one place you can hide all those shameful selfies or keep your digital diary safe from prying eyes. It works with Samsung Pay, too, but please just use your digits when you’re in line at Starbucks - unless you’re trying to impress the person behind you with your phone’s sci-fi tech.
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 S Pen: Superstylusin'
The one thing that’s always separated Galaxy S and Galaxy Note phones (aside from the massive screens)? The S Pen stylus of course.
After screwing up big time on the Note 5 - insert the S Pen the wrong way round and it'll brick your phone, remember? - Samsung's made sure the new model has the best stylus it's ever made. We've already mentioned its underwater abilities, but while these are impressive they're not likely to get used all that often. Elsewhere, though, the S Pen has had a few upgrades which you'll really appreciate.
For starters it's now a lot more precise, with a finer tip and 4096 levels of pressure for even finer lines. You can really see the difference - doodle on the go and you might actually be able to read what you've jotted down.
The ability to translate foreign words just by hovering over them is also a neat trick, and one that works excellently. I could easily see myself putting it to good use when on holiday abroad. It can also magnify fine print, and though it's not such a useful tool there are definitely occasions when it could come in handy. And then there's GIFs.
Now we rate the animated GIF alongside fire, the wheel and the KFC bargain bucket as one of the greatest inventions ever created, and the S Pen lets you churn them out instantly, turning YouTube clips into shareable selections. Goodbye productivity, hello internet fame.
It's pretty simple to use - you just drag a window over the content you want to be GIFed and click record. However the one slight flaw is that you have to already have the content playing before you trigger the GIF mode, meaning that you potentially miss the start of whatever you're trying to record. Maybe a software update will fix this; until then, it's still good fun if not quite perfect.
All told, some nice improvements over last year’s model then, albeit without anything utterly game-changing. If you’re serious about sketching, you’re still better off on something like an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil. For quick note-taking, though, the S Pen serves your digital needs well.
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 camera: Super snapper
In fact, we'd go as far as to say that it's superb.
A smartphone camera really earns its chops in low-light, and here the Note 7 excels. It’s seriously impressive at night, capturing beautifully atmospheric shots that would have been nothing but noise on lesser hardware. You’ll spot the lack of details if you zoom in, but most shots are fine for filling your Facebook feed with.
The dual-tone flash makes sure your shots stay lifelike when natural light just isn't cutting it, too. It can be a little harsh for snapping those nightclub #squadgoals moments, but it'll do the job in a pinch.
That's not to say that it doesn't cut the mustard in daylight either, though: expect crisp detail and accurate colours all round. Just bear in mind that the Note 7's screen might make those colours look a little more vivid than reality if you're viewing them there.
It’s also excellent at macro shooting, blurring the background with the perfect amount of bokeh to put the focus on your subject.
Just as importantly, it's a cinch to use. A double-tap of the home button whisks you into the camera app almost instantly, so you’ll never miss a shot, and the de-cluttered UI is another bonus once you get there.
Fire it up and you'll see only the most important controls on screen, meaning you won't have to waste shooting time working out which icons do what. Swipe to the right, though, and you’ll get more detailed modes, including a Pro mode which gives you control over ISO, shutter speed, white balance and exposure settings.
Swipe up and it'll flip round into selfie mode, putting the 5MP front sensor into action. It's great when you've got good light, but the built-in beauty modes can be a little overbearing when it gets darker. Dial them down, or it'll smudge your skin until you look more than a little ghost-like.
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 software: Gee Wiz
If you’ve steered clear of Samsung phones in the past because of its custom TouchWiz software, we've got some good news for you: you no longer need to. That's because the UI has matured a lot this year, with subtle but significant changes that go a lot deeper than the new-look icons.
Sure, you still get a bunch of Samsung apps that you may or may not use, but they’ve all been tucked nicely away in a folder instead of scattered across your home screen, screaming desperately out for attention.
The ones you do end up using feel a lot more like stock Google apps, too. The colour scheme might be slightly different, but there’s definitely a hint of Material design going on here.
That's true in the Settings screen, in the Notification tray, and the Multitasking menu too. There's still a signature Samsung twist on Google's original look, but it's not the Marmite of Android skins any more.
Toss in services such as Samsung Pay and hardware like the Gear VR, and Samsung has built a comprehensive ecosystem to fortify their smartphones for the long run.
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 performance: All the power you need
Depending on where in the world you live you’ll either get a Snapdragon 820 or one of Samsung’s own octa-core Exynos 8890 CPUs inside the phone running the show. We got the latter, and it’s quite the potent performer.
Now we're the first to maintain that benchmarking software can only tell you so much about a phone's performance, but with that caveat out of the way we're still impressed by a score of 134,332 in AnTuTu; that puts it on par with the S7 Edge and narrowly in front of the iPhone 6s. In the real world, it’s easily fast enough to play Need for Speed: No Limits at a rock-solid frame-rate, with no signs of the phone faltering under pressure.
Even with Samsung’s tweaks and enhancements running on top, Android 6.0.1 still feels super-smooth, too. Apps open very quickly and multitasking is lightning fast as well. Sure, you might notice it getting a little hot at times but it's far from the worst offender on this front and it never reached uncomfortable levels during our testing.
There’s loads of room to fill with apps and games. You get 64GB of built-in storage, plus a microSD card slot which lets you stick in up to 256GB more when you eventually run out of space. Bit of a media hoarder? You’re in safe hands.
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 battery: Charge me up
On specs alone you might expect the Galaxy Note 7's battery to be its Achilles heel: it has to make do with a 3500mAh cell, which though a big improvement on the Note 5’s 3000mAh juicepack is smaller than the 3600mAh you get in the Galaxy S7 Edge. In reality, its battery life is pretty good, if not quite superb.
You'll get a full day's use out of it anyway, though not necessarily much more. I took it for a 6-hour Pokemon-hunting session at the weekend and it dipped down to 30%. That's respectable, given how big a battery drain Pokemon Go can be, but it's not quite class-leading performance. Still, that was without activating either of the battery-saving profiles, which can help you eke out more hours before it’s time for a top-up.
You also get fast-charging tech, and here the Note 7 really is a winner. A quick blast between my alarm going off and leaving the house was enough for me to survive the morning commute; an hour plugged in at the office was all I needed for a full charge.
Samsung Galaxy Note 7 verdict
The similarities between the S and Note range were such that Samsung didn't even bother releasing the Note 5 in the UK: 'the Note's just an S7 with an S Pen', a cynic might say.
But really that's only half the story. It's the combination of the S Pen with the bigger 5.7in screen and clever software that takes advantage of both that makes it different. And while previously you'd have to compromise on form factor in order to get those advantages, that's no longer the case.
So what are we left with? Well, a big phone that doesn't feel like one, and a productivity powerhouse that doesn't look like one.
Sure, its battery won't last quite as long as the S7 Edge and it's at least £150 more expensive, but then again the Note 7 gives you a supercharged phone that doubles as a tablet.
UPDATE: It was good while it lasted, but dangerous battery overheating issues forced Samsung to pull the Note 7 from sale in October - just a few months after it launched. It was certainly a great phone, arguably one of the best Android phones around at the time - it was just all too brief. It might have had our recommendation before, but until Samsung decides what to do next, it's game over for the Note 7.