Samsung Galaxy S7 review: The best smartphone money can buy
25 Aug 2016
Samsung has been at the top of the smartphone mountain (and at times it really can feel like a literal mountain) for some time, but in 2015 it dropped the ball.
Not in terms of the quality of its flagship handsets – that remained characteristically brilliant – but in the way it attempted to market two top-end handsets with the same screen size at vastly different prices.
All that has changed with Samsung’s approach to the Galaxy S7, with the company placing clear air between the 5.2in Samsung Galaxy S7 and its 5.5in sibling, not only on price but also on screen size.
In short, Samsung – just like Apple does with the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus – is giving its customers a clear choice. If you like your smartphones big, you’ll want to opt for the 5.5in Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and pay a bit more; if you don't like having to sew up holes in your pockets every few months, the smaller, slightly cheaper 5.1in Samsung Galaxy S7 we’re reviewing here is the way to go. Either way, you're getting the best smartphone on the market.
There. I said it. You don’t even have to read the rest of the review if you don’t want to. You might as well go out and buy one right now if you want to save yourself the effort. It’s good, great even. Trust me.
But you’re not going to do that because you’re here to find out more. You want to know exactly why it’s so fantastic. Why the design is better, the features more feature-y and the camera more capable than the compact you spent hundreds of pounds on ten years ago. Latest news: The Samsung Galaxy S7 is one hell of a smartphone and, in my book, a better handset than the iPhone 6s. For once, it seems that the general public agrees, and US sales of the S7 and S7 Edge have overtaken the iPhone for the very first time.
The latest figures on the US mobile phone market for the three months ending in May (issued by Kantar Worldpanel) see the S7 and S7 Edge accounting for 16% of sales, while the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus grab 14.6%. Across all models, Samsung holds an even bigger lead, with a 37% share compared with Apple’s 29%.
It’s a landmark moment, for sure, but it seems that not many of those buying the S7 are moving from an iPhone – that's 5% according to the report.
Meanwhile, in Blighty, the competition between the two brands is a much closer affair, with each manufacturer commanding 36% of the total smartphone market. The most popular handset in the UK is the Apple iPhone 6s, followed by the iPhone 5s, the Samsung Galaxy J5 and the iPhone SE.
Samsung Galaxy S7 review: What’s new?So, without further ado, here’s our review of the Samsung Galaxy S7. We'll start with a closer look at the major changes, most of which are impossible to spot from a cursory physical inspection. The first feature of note is storage expansion. Galaxy fans were in uproar about the lack of a microSD slot in last year’s models, so Samsung has brought back the feature here. It’s the sensible thing to do, and Samsung hasn’t compromised on the design of the phone to do it either. The microSD card is neatly hidden away next to the nano-SIM card in an elongated SIM drawer on the top edge, meaning there’s no unsightly second slot to muddy the phone’s clean lines.
The dust and water resistance is another nice feature making a comeback here that doesn’t impact on the look and feel of the phone. It’s an upgrade on the IP67 protection of the Samsung Galaxy S5, too, which was the last Samsung flagship to have the feature. Technically, this means it’s possible to completely submerge the phone in up to 1.5 metres of water for up to 30 minutes, so you could use it to take pictures of hermit crabs in rock pools – if that’s what floats your boat.
I prefer to think of it as extra peace of mind. With the Galaxy S7, you don’t have to worry about getting your phone out when it’s raining, or putting it down on a beer-soaked table in the pub. From that perspective, it’s something that’s well worth having.
Samsung Galaxy S7 review: DisplayAside from those headline changes, though, the Samsung Galaxy S7 is a mild update. The Samsung Galaxy S6 was, and still is, a very good smartphone, so this doesn’t represent too much of a problem.
The S7 has a 5.1in Super AMOLED display with a resolution of 1,440 x 2,560 – the same as last year’s Samsung Galaxy S6 – and it’s as sharp as sharp can be. Some might say such a high resolution is pointless; after all, from normal viewing distances most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the S7’s screen and a 1080p one of the same size. At least not without reverting to a magnifying glass.
It’s for use in a VR headset such as the Samsung Gear VR, however, that such high resolutions come into their own. With the phone strapped into a pair of VR goggles, the screen mere centimetres from your eyes, and split in two (one half per eye), the resolution you need for a crisp display skyrockets and every extra pixel counts.
In fact, even with such a high-resolution display, the Samsung Galaxy S7’s screen looks a touch grainy in its VR headset, so the extra resolution isn’t as over the top as it might at first appear.
The quality of this new display is excellent, too. Samsung has long perfected the art of producing top-notch screens on its smartphones, somehow managing to tame the oversaturated colours typical of Super AMOLED technology, while delivering something that’s extraordinarily colour-accurate and incredibly punchy all at once. That doesn’t change here.
Contrast is perfect, as you'd expect from a Super AMOLED-based panel. Since the individual pixels provide their own source of light, there’s nothing to leak through from behind and so you get inky, perfect black.
Colour quality is excellent. The phone has several different modes available to use, and it ships with the eye-catching Adaptive mode enabled. That’s the one I tested, and it delivers excellent figures.
With auto-brightness disabled, brightness peaks at 354cd/m2, which doesn’t look all that great. As with previous Samsung handsets, though, that all changes when you enable auto-brightness. On a bright sunny day, the screen is capable of peaking much higher – up to 470cd/m2 – so it should be perfectly readable in most conditions.
Samsung’s Adaptive mode also does a great job of presenting eye-popping graphics without looking too unnatural and covers 100% of the sRGB colour space.
Samsung Galaxy S7 review: DesignAlso unchanged is the glass-sandwich design and exotic, metallic finish that underpins it. In short, the S7 looks just as good as the S6 did last year – all shiny, flashy and glitzy glamour – and it looks just as awful once covered in greasy fingerprints. This is a phone you’ll be wiping on your shirt to keep clean – a lot.
Flip the phone over and look at the rear, however, and you’ll begin to see differences. First, the camera “hump” has been reduced in size, from around 1.6mm on last year’s model to 0.46mm here. The camera bulge also has more rounded edges, meaning it’s less likely to catch on your pocket when you’re stowing it away, and it lies flatter when you pop it on a wireless charger, so it’s less likely to fail to charge.
Second, the vertical edges of the phone at the rear now curve up to meet the phone’s slim aluminium frame. If you keep up with all things smartphone-related, it’s just like the Samsung Galaxy Note 5, except without the stylus.
The rest of the design is fairly similar to the S6. The buttons and ports are all in the same place: the SIM card and microSD drawer are on the top edge, the volume buttons are on the left, the power button on the right, and the 3.5mm audio, micro-USB port and speaker grille on the bottom.
The only other major difference is the screen’s new always-on capability. As with Motorola’s Moto Display, this shows useful information such as the time and recent notifications on the screen, even when the phone is on standby.
Unlike Motorola’s version, Samsung’s is switched on permanently, and you get a choice of what style of always-on screen is shown. There are seven different basic clock and notification views, ranging from basic digital displays to twin, world clock views. You get a choice of two different calendar views, and three images – a couple of the stars and planets, and another of stylised trees.
Having lived with the S7 for a while now, though, I’m not convinced of the usefulness of this feature. Although it’s nice to be able to see what the time is without tapping the screen or pressing the power button, the fact it doesn’t show more detailed notifications is a big missed opportunity. Although you can see when you’ve missed a call or received a text message, you can’t see who the call or message was sent by. Come on, Samsung – I want more information.