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It’s the rare gadget these days that gets my 8-year-old interested enough to come see what daddy is reviewing. But there he was putting his arm around me as I used the Galaxy Note 7's improved S Pen to sketch a landscape, blending colors and drawing a tiny frog in a pond. "This is a cool app," my son said. "It's a pretty cool phone," I replied.
And then I let slip how much it cost. "$850?!"
Yeah, that's a lot of money for a big-screen handset, but the Galaxy Note 7 has a lot to recommend it. It boasts the same best-in-class camera as the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, a water-resistant design, a bigger 5.7-inch display (complete with HDR video support), and even the ability to unlock the phone with your eyes. Still, the main reason to get the Note 7 versus other phablets remains the S Pen, and Samsung has added some features to make that pen appealing to more users.
Design Feels Natural, Shrugs Off Water
It seems like a marketing gimmick that Samsung jumped from the Note 5 to the Note 7, but this phone actually looks and feels two generations ahead of its predecessor. Gone are the straight edges on the previous phone, replaced with a symmetrical, dual-curved Gorilla Glass body that has the most natural feel of any phone I've held. It's remarkable how the rounded edges meet in the middle, with little evidence of a seam.
Our Note 7 came in Black Onyx, which looks sophisticatedly subdued, but I'd much rather have the bolder Blue Coral color. You can also opt for Silver Titanium.
At 6.04 x 2.9 x 0.31 inches, the Note 7 is slightly thicker than the 0.29-inch thin Note 5 but a bit lighter at 5.96 ounces (down from 6 ounces). While I still have to stretch my thumb across the screen to reach icons on the left side, this Note feels a lot more manageable than the too-wide and too-tall iPhone 6s Plus (6.23 x 3.07 x 0.29 inches), which is also a lot heavier at 6.77 ounces. The OnePlus 3 is a bit wider than the Note 7 at 6.01 x 2.94 x 0.28 inches, but it's also a lighter 5.57 ounces, thanks in part to its smaller 5.5-inch screen.
The Note 7 includes three other notable design differences versus the Note 5. One is IP68 water resistance, which means you can submerge the phone in 5 feet of water with its S Pen attached for 30 minutes and it will continue to work just fine. After leaving the phone in a fish tank for a half hour, all I had to do was wipe the phone off to start using it again. However, I did notice that some water came out of the S Pen's hole when I ejected the pen.
Second, there's a USB-C port on the bottom, which supports fast charging. And, third, the Note 7 has a microSD card slot on the top edge that supports 256GB cards to augment 64GB of internal storage.
S Pen — Smarter Features, But Still Not for Everyone
The first thing you notice about the S Pen is that writing and sketching feels more like pen and paper than ever before, thanks to a narrower tip and support for up to 4,096 levels of sensitivity. This is a great tool for artists, and I like that Samsung has combined many of its previous pen-enabled apps into one for taking notes, drawing, annotating images and more.
Samsung also beefed up the Screen Off Memo feature, which enables users to eject the pen and just start writing on the screen. You can pin your notes to the Always On Display, which shows the time and notifications without using the full-color screen. Plus, you can write farther down the screen than before in this mode by tapping the down arrow. I just wish Samsung converted handwriting to text in this mode, as it does in the Notes app.
Other new S Pen features include Translate for highlighting and translating text, but I could see a lot more people using Magnify, which blows up the screen 300 percent wherever you hover the S Pen. This could be very handy for those with poor eyesight, especially when it comes to clicking on small links.
I became way more addicted than I thought I would to the S Pen's GIF Animation feature. Using the Smart Select tool from the Air Command menu, I could place a window around a YouTube video, press record and then edit the footage to my liking before sharing it as a GIF. I had a blast creating a GIF of Flash dodging Batman's throwing cutter in the Justice League trailer.
Iris Scanning and Secure Folder: For Your Eyes Only
I freaked a few people out during my time with the Note 7 when I held the phone to my face for what seemed like no apparent reason. But what looked like an extremely up-close selfie was me unlocking the device with eyes. The Note 7 has a built-in iris scanner, which takes just a fraction of a second to work — provided you do it right.
After you go through a quick setup process, the next time you try to unlock the Note 7, the top part of the screen looks for your eyes. So long as I put my face quite close to the secondary camera and IR sensor above the display, the Note 7 unlocked almost instantly. But at times, the screen displayed messages to either get closer to the phone or to open my eyes wider. The good news is that you can always enter your PIN as a backup or just opt for the fingerprint reader inside the Home button.
You can use the iris scanner for yet another trick: locking away files and apps in a special Secure Folder. (Yes, you can rename this folder.) If there are photos, documents or even games or other apps you don't want other people to see, you can store them in the Secure Folder for safe keeping.
For example, I simply pressed on the Menu button when viewing a photo and then Move to Secure Folder to lock it down. To see that photo, I had to open the secure folder, unlock it with my eyes and then tap the image.
Dual-Edge Display is Completely Immersive
It's still quad HD (2560 x 1440 pixels) and it's still a luscious Super AMOLED panel, but there's something about the dual-curve treatment to the Note 7's screen that makes movies, photos and games seem like they're floating above the rest of the device. The iPhone's display looks downright dull by comparison.
When watching the Rogue One trailer on the Note 7, I could make out small scratches on the K2SO Droid, and yellow sparks flew at me as Stormtroopers flipped across the screen during an explosion. The picture will get even better once Amazon has optimized its video app for HDR (high dynamic range), which will offer better contrast and more lifelike colors.
Having zero bezel on either side of the display can present challenges. For instance, a few times during my testing I accidentally activated the Edge screen menu for accessing various shortcuts. But overall this panel is superb.
The Note 7 turned in a very high 187 percent of the sRGB color gamut, which is comparable to the OnePlus 3's OLED display (192 percent). However, the OnePlus 3 showed more accurate hues, as its Delta-E score of 2.9 (0 is perfect) beats the Note 7 (3.45).
I had no problem reading the Note 7's screen in direct sunlight, but it's not the brightest. The display hit 351 nits of brightness, which is about the same as the LG G5 (354 nits) but less than the OnePlus 3 (379 nits).
Camera Remains the Best
Samsung took the 12-megapixel back camera and 5-MP front shooter in the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge and put them in the Note 7, and that's totally fine by us. Based on our in-depth comparisons, the S7 Edge remains the best camera phone around, thanks in part to Samsung's dual-pixel technology for speeding up autofocus. Plus, the Note 7's camera lets in 95 percent more light than the Note 5, which results in much better low-light shots.
The Note 7 captured nearly every vein in a pink hibiscus flower's petals, and when I zoomed in on the photo, even the fuzzy green stigma looked clear.
I took this next shot while walking up Fifth Avenue. The people walking in front of me were slightly out of focus, but the Note 7 did a remarkable job capturing the warm sunlight bouncing off the buildings without blowing out the blue sky or the clouds. It's a well-balanced photo. My only issue is that the Note 7's images would come out too bright in direct sunlight.
Indoors in near darkness, the Note 7 strutted its stuff versus the Note 5. While the older Note took a fuzzy image of a vase and white decorative flowers flanked by a jar of kitchen utensils, the newer phone's camera excelled, using much more of the available light. You can barely tell that the Note 5 image has a fire extinguisher in it on the right.
The front 5-MP camera continues to excel. When I snapped a selfie, my blue V-neck T-shirt popped, and I could make out fine lines in the short sleeves. I also like the wide field of view the front shooter provides, which makes it easy to fit multiple friends in a shot.
A More Subtle TouchWiz
Samsung keeps refining its software overlay to make it less in your face, and the Note 7 takes things another step forward. Running on top of Android Marshmallow, the TouchWiz UI has more subtle icons without the usual sea of drop shadows. It's a lot flatter than before. I noticed the quick settings menu had a cleaner look, with no circles behind the icons.
The Note 7 also adopts the Edge screen software from the S7 Edge, which you access by swiping in from the right. You can program app shortcuts, access your favorite people and also perform various tasks with a push of a button, such as Take selfie or Compose Message. Samsung has also let developers in on the Edge screen fun. I liked being able to scan the top four CNN headlines at a glance.
Unfortunately, the major carriers get their own folders of apps on the Note 7, but there was nothing too offensive on the T-Mobile version in terms of crapware. You'll find a Device Unlock utility, a Mobile Hotspot, T-Mobile Name ID and Visual Voicemail. I could do without two separate TV services (T-Mobile TV and Live TV) and the Lookout security app.
As with previous Galaxy Notes, you can run two apps side-by-side to make the most of the 5.7-inch screen. If a given app supports multiwindow functionality, you can just press the icon in the recent apps menu to open one app and then go back in and to the other. For instance, I liked having Chrome open with Facebook at the same time.
Performance: Speedy But Not the Fastest
The Note 7's Snapdragon 820 processor and 4GB of RAM are the same components in the Galaxy S7, but they combine to provide plenty of pep. From launching the camera in less than a second to juggling more than a dozen apps, this phablet rarely left me waiting. OK, I did have to wait 7 seconds for levels to load on Unkilled, but I was rewarded with silky smooth frame rates as I mowed down hordes of zombies with my machine gun.
On Geekbench, which measures overall performance, the Note 7 scored 5,256, which is a bit below the Galaxy S7's mark of 5,498 and behind the OnePlus 3's 5,554 (although that phone benefits from 6GB of RAM). Still, the Note smokes the smartphone category average of 3,324.
The Note 7 took 4 minutes and 29 seconds on our video transcoding test, which is much faster than the average Android phone (7:47) and on a par with the Galaxy S7 but not nearly as speedy as the LG G5 (3:31) and the OnePlus 3 (3:28).
Great Battery Life
The Note 7 is one of the longest-lasting phones around. It packs a beefy 3,500 mAh battery, up from 3,000 mAh on the Note 5. On the Tom's Guide Battery Test, which involves continuous web surfing over 4G LTE, the Note 7 lasted an impressive 10 hours and 26 minutes. That's nearly an hour longer than the Note 5 (9:35) and a half-hour longer than the Galaxy S7 Edge (10:09). The OnePlus 3 and LG G5 didn't crack 9 hours.
The Note 7 offers quick recharging via its USB-C port. For example, the phone went from 55 to 75 percent battery life after just 15 minutes of charging. It took another 14 minutes to hit 90 percent, though.
If you want a phone with a big screen, the Galaxy Note 7 should be at the top of your list. It offers a gorgeous 5.7-inch display in a striking rounded design that's a pleasure to hold, plus a best-in-class camera, water resistance and very long battery life. However, $850 is a lot to spend on a phone, even when you break it up in 24 payments of $32.50 — and that's after you pay $70 up front on T-Mobile.
The 5.5-inch Galaxy S7 ($779) has pretty much everything the Note 7 has with the exception of the S Pen and iris-scanning security. The S Pen delivers smoother performance this time around, and it's fun to draw with more precision, create GIFs and take notes on the fly, but not everyone needs that versatility. Those on a budget might prefer the OnePlus 3, which costs just $399 and delivers faster performance than the Note 7 along with an OLED display, though it lasts 2 hours less on a charge.
Overall, the Note 7 is the phablet to beat for power users willing to spend more to have it all.
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Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom's Guide and has covered technology for over 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom's Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends, including Cheddar, Fox Business and other outlets. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.