Hands-on: An impressive finale to 2016 from Samsung Mobile

2016’s great line-up of smartphones continues with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7. We might have already seen fantastic devices like Galaxy S7, HTC 10 and even Huawei’s P9, but the latest flagship phablet from the Korean company might the best yet.

It takes a load of the features that made the Galaxy S7 so special, including the curved display from the Edge, and adds in the S-Pen and a nifty new HDR display.

It’s an impressive package, but that one that could ultimately be let-down by its high asking price.

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Video: Galaxy Note 7 hands-on

I won’t cover the basic specs in too much detail in this hands-on, as they're close to identical to the S7's. The Note 7 runs on the same CPU as the Galaxy S7, and there’s still 4GB of RAM. Some might be disappointed that Samsung didn’t match the OnePlus 3 and its needless 6GB of RAM, but I can almost unequivocally say you won't notice a difference. It’s also got the same camera setup as the Galaxy S7, which happens to be the best in the business right now.

Related: iPhone 6S Plus vs Note 7

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The 12-megapixel camera has large Dual Pixels that let in more light, and the wide f/1.7 aperture makes it surprisingly easy to achieve shots with lovely bokeh, where the background blurs out and you’re left with the subject in focus.

Testing a camera in a demo room is tricky, but from what I've seen the Note 7 should perform just as well as the S7 and S7 Edge. The camera app opens almost instantly with a double-tap of the home button, and it’s got all the tricks you’d expect – 4K recording, auto-HDR, slow-mo and much more.

Like the Galaxy S7 Edge before it, the Note 7 is an absolutely stunning phone, with curved edges making the display melt into the metal rim.

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The 5.7-inch screen is big, but the Note 7's curved back makes it easier to hold than the iPhone 6S Plus and Nexus 6P – though you’ll probably still need two hands to use it most of the time.

My only gripe with the design is the phone's glass back, which, if it’s anything like those of the S6 and S7, won't be the toughest around. I’ve been using a Galaxy S7 Edge for the best part of four months and the back cracked quite dramatically in the top corner after a single tiny drop.

The 5.7-inch Super AMOLED display only comes with that Edge-style curvature – there’s no ‘flat’ option like there is with the S7. It’s still quad-HD too, not 4K like the rumours suggested, but in my mind this isn't a big deal. 4K on mobile is overkill and the Note 7's screen is one of the best _phone_ displays I've ever used, if not the best. Colours are bright, but not oversaturated, text is crisp and blacks are inky.

The screen also comes with new ‘Mobile HDR’ tech. Mobile HDR is a riff on the high-dynamic range feature that makes high-end televisions look so good. It gives you increased contrast and brightness, with a wider differentiator between light points and dark points.

Related: What is HDR?

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During my demo I was told you’ll be able to use HDR when watching videos on Amazon Prime, but it wasn’t confirmed whether it’s a benefit of the screen itself or if the selected app can simply harness the screen's capabilities better. The display didn’t look noticeably brighter than the one on my S7 Edge, but I didn’t get to try out any video. I'll just have to wait until I get a full review model before I can test out Mobile HDR.

The iris scanner is another exclusive feature that beefs up the Note 7's security. There’s a small sensor above the display that, once set up, will read your eyes and unlock the phone. It sounds simple, but I doubt I’ll be using it instead of the fingerprint scanner.

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During my tests I found the scanning process to be a little slow, and I could open the _phone_ quicker with my thumb than my eye. You have to turn the screen on, press the home button and wait for it to scan your eye before it unlocks. I'm also concerned it won't work very well for people with glasses – the person demoing it to me had to repeatedly remove his specs to get it to work – and that it'll struggle in poor light.

The biggest Galaxy Note 7 feature, and the thing that really sets it apart from the S7 Edge and pretty much every other phablet, is the S Pen. If you’re new to the Note series, the S Pen is a stylus that fits snugly into the bottom of the phone, popping out when you want to jot down a note. I've never been a fan of styluses, though – they seem unnecessary when my finger is good enough to jot notes and navigate menus.

But I know a lot of you love the S Pen and for existing fans it's a great stylus with a bunch of really nice abilities. It’s slim and sturdy, and it’s water resistant just like the phone. Pop it out and a menu will appear, highlighting all its functions. The most basic is jotting down notes, but its 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity make it great for arty drawing too.

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The S Pen has some other tricks, too. Hover over text and you can instantly translate it, or press down on a YouTube video and you’ve got yourself a GIF. Cooler still, bring out the pen while the display is off and you can write a note on the blank panel.

The Note 7's battery is actually smaller than the one in the 5.5-inch Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, measuring in at 3,500mAh rather than 3,600mAh. It's a small difference, but I've found the S7 Edge’s battery life to be wildly inconsistent, so I have some initial concerns about the Note 7's. Thankfully there’s Fast Charging on board – both wired and wireless – and this is the first Samsung phone to utilise USB-C, which was a surprising omission from the Galaxy S7.

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That does mean, though, that the Note 7 won’t work with your old Gear VR, but – surprise! – Samsung has you sorted. It’s selling an updated Gear VR with a USB-C port that comes in a sleek black colour and has an improved design. It’s also much comfier to wear, thanks to a toughened foam wrapping and more customisable headstrap. There’s also an external port, so in theory you can plug a Galaxy Gear 360 directly into the headset.

Software has always been a sore point on Samsung devices, due to their use of the TouchWiz UI. I feel like I say this in every Samsung review, but the Note 7 has the cleanest TouchWiz UI layer yet. It’s sparser than before and a lot of the annoying bright colours have been replaced with pastel shades. The default apps are a lot cleaner, and the icons are less childlike.

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A particularly nifty software feature is the Secure Folder. This is far more than just a folder that’s locked away behind a passcode, as it actually acts as a separate OS. Throw the Twitter app in there and it’ll be a clean install, letting you add a completely new account. It’s backed up by Samsung’s Knox software and can be secured by a fingerprint, iris, password or passcode. I can see this being useful to not only hide your secret second personality on Twitter, but to also, ahem, conceal those pictures you don’t want to accidentally scroll through in a business meeting.

Early Verdict

In many ways, the Galaxy Note 7 isn’t a huge step beyond what Samsung already offers. There’s been no great leap forward in display resolution, processor power, RAM or battery capacity. Even so, this feels like it could be the must-have phone of 2016.

It's a gorgeous phablet that instantly catches your eye with its sloping sides and minimal bezels. Hold it and it feels fantastic. It might be big, but I never felt like I was going to drop it. The screen is stunning too, and it's going to be as fast as anything on the market.

Buy Now: Samsung Galaxy Note 7 at Amazon.com from $969

I said this in my Samsung Galaxy S7 review, but Apple needs to do something exceptional with the iPhone 7 if it hopes to compete with Samsung in 2016.