Samsung Galaxy S7 Review: The Best Android Phone of 2016. Period.

Reviews Paul Briden 12:06, 1 Aug 2016

We spend some quality time with Samsung's latest and greatest -- the Samsung Galaxy S7

Typical Price: 
Superb design, excellent and easy-to-use camera, LONG battery life, clean UI, BEST DISPLAY!
lacks Adoptive Storage feature, battery is non-removable, glass back=fingerprints ahoy, some processor heat
Fantastic bit of kit, stuffed to the gills with well-implemented features that'll have you grinning ear-to-ear

Go back a couple of years and Samsung was THE dominant force in the Android market. While on the whole the company hasn't exactly been in trouble since then (sales of its flagship and non-flagship devices in total have been more than adequate to keep it in a market-leading position), it is true that interest in its flagship phones did take a downward turn since 2013. In short, Samsung couldn't catch a break when it came to its lead models, the Galaxy S5 crashed and burned in terms of user uptake and sales, as well as being panned critically.

The Galaxy S6 series was much better received by reviewers, but for whatever reason (perhaps just lingering hesitation) the Galaxy S6 also didn't shift in anywhere near the numbers Samsung had expected. However, looking at the bigger picture, that 2014-2015 period was not a particularly good one for smartphone innovation generally, flagships across the board were pretty dull really and market saturation seems to have peaked. It has taken until 2016 for things to really kick back into a high gear, and Samsung's Galaxy S7 series really did signal the start of that as the first new model out the gate in February.

Following earlier estimates from both industry analysts and Samsung itself for the firm's Q2 2016 performance, the firm has now revealed actual sales, revenue, and profit figures in its latest earnings report. Previously analyst has estimated $6.8bn operating profit for the quarter, while Samsung itself predicted near $7bn ($6.94bn to be precise), but trumping both bets Samsung's actual figure came in at $7.2bn; a year-on-year increase of $1.1bn up from the same period in 2015.

Total revenue for the quarter was $45.3bn up from earlier estimates of $43.2bn, a year-on-year growth of $2.1bn. Earlier estimates also pegged Samsung's mobile division as accounting for around 49% of total profit at around $3.5bn of the earlier $6.94bn prediction; according to the official figures now released Samsung mobile actually generated ang operating profit of $3.84bn, an increase of $382 million on the same period last year and, again, it's believed the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 EDGE are largely responsible.

Off the back of the Galaxy S7, Samsung doesn't show any signs of slowing down. According to the rumour mill the firm has plans for at least five, possibly as many as six flagships in 2017; there's said to be a new Galaxy S8 with a 4K (UHD) display designed for VR applications and a dual-sensor camera, as well as a Galaxy S8 EDGE, a Galaxy Note 8 and Galaxy Note 8 EDGE, and the first fully flexible and foldable OLED smartphone with the Galaxy X, aka Project Valley. We have since heard of a second folding OLED Galaxy handset too; allgedly, between the Galaxy X and this other model, one will feature a 5in display that can be unfolded into an 8in tablet, while the other will have a standard display size that can be folded in half to make the phone more compact - much like old clamshell flip phones, but with a touch display that folds down its middle. According to reports the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8 EDGE will come to MWC 2017 in February/March once again, but we may also see something to do with the Galaxy X/Project Valley folding OLED phones in the same time-frame, even if not a full launch.

What's also interesting is that 2017 is shaping up to be THE year of OLED displays. As well as Samsung's own efforts with flexible OLED the firm is reported to be investing $6.8 billion into its production facilities with the goal of upping output by as much as 50%, up from its current 300 million OLED units per year to at least 500 million. Samsung's introduction of flexible OLED is expected to drive the market towards wider adoption, in conjunction with Apple adopting OLED for the iPhone in the same year. Samsung is also expected to be one of the main suppliers of OLED for Apple's new model, to the tune of 100 million units per year. Samsung is also keen to fend of rivals such as LG, which is also thought to be investing $8.6 billion in its own OLED production for TVs, with plans for smartphones to soon follow.

Samsung has now launched the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 EDGE in the US again, except this time the new models being introduced are UNLOCKED handsets that will work on any network! That includes Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Spring, and US Cellular. The Galaxy S7 is designated SM-G930U, while the EDGE model is the SM-G935U. In all other areas, the duo are the same as the existing models including the Snapdragon 820 processor - these are officially released, supplied and supported handsets and will be given software updates from Samsung. Retail outlets which will stock the new models include Amazon, Best Buy, Ebay, Sam’s Club and The regular unlocked Galaxy S7 is priced at $669.99, while the EDGE is $769.99.

Indeed, they are pricy handsets. But they do pack in a HELL of a lot of specs, features and hardware. In fact, these are likely the most advanced phones in the world right now. And with credentials like that you’re ALWAYS going to be paying top dollar. How things pan out for the rest of the year remains to be seen; Apple will return with two iPhone 7 handsets and Samsung will renew its Note line in the UK with the arrival of the Galaxy Note 7 on August 2.

Basically, if you’re in the market for a new phone there has never been a better time than right now — or the very immediate future.

The Galaxy S7 has pushed Samsung back into the limelight, after a two year slump the firm is back on form. Samsung Galaxy S7 units are selling by the boatload. So what is so compelling about this smartphone? What makes it so good when it doesn't look that different from a Galaxy S6? We spent some quality time with the device to find out what all the fuss is about.

Samsung Galaxy S7 Review: Design

  • Dimensions: 142.4 x 69.6 x 7.9 mm
  • Weight: 152g
  • IP68 Certified Waterproof
  • Corning Gorilla Glass 4

It’s fair to say that design wise the Galaxy S7 is near identical to 2015’s Galaxy S6, so anyone expecting some major visual overhaul may be in for a disappointment. But, with that said, I don’t think a repeat of the design is a bad thing - for whatever reason the Galaxy S6 didn’t sell so well, but I find it pretty hard to believe the design was in any way a factor in this large-scale shunning. Last year’s Galaxy S6 design was the first time Samsung had implemented a metal and glass premium build on a flagship model, and, just so that there’s no confusion here I won’t mince words - it made every Galaxy handset that came before it look like crap. So I for one am very glad to see it make a return for the Galaxy S7.

The matte finish metal surround has a enjoyably high-end look and feel to it, you really do get that satisfying ‘cold steel’ feeling when gripping the device and it makes the Galaxy S7 have a rigid and sturdy presence during operation. It’s solid, in other words. I must confess that I was quite surprised when I first picked up the phone, I can only describe my immediate reaction is that I’d describe it as “chunky”, although I acknowledge this doesn’t feel entirely fair, it remains something I can’t quite get away from.

To be clear, I don’t see this as a negative factor, and also, the Galaxy S7 is not a thick, awkward, or heavy phone by any means. It simply has a heftier look and feel when actually using it than I expected, but I find this reassuring and it remains far from being cumbersome in any way. I particularly like the measurement Samsung has gone with for the edge-to-edge width for the handset when held in the hand in profile; it’s just really comfortable and easy to hold; the  join from the curvature from the back panel into the surround has also been well executed and does help with grip while also making the phone look thinner and more refined on its edges. The only minor downside there is it makes the top and bottom edges look a little bit disproportionately chunky by comparison, but this is a minor gripe.

The antenna bands have again been nicely concealed in the top and bottom of the surround, while the power and volume keys are well positioned on either side of the handset for easy operation with either hand using the thumb and index finger. The curved back panel design contrasts the flat front and mirrors the curved display front of the Galaxy S7 edge and certainly gives things an elegant appearance, and both front and back panels have a particularly neat join with the metal surround (there’s no chance of fitting a credit card in between).

As with all glass-backed phones, particularly like this one with a dark colour finish, fingerprints do show up and spoil things a little - if that bothers you - but realistically this isn’t enough to damn an otherwise fantastic looking bit of kit. Plus if you really hate fingerprints just get a white or gold one and you won’t even notice them. The display bezels are nicely thin so that the front fascia is mostly screen (72.1% display to body ratio, in fact) - always a good look - while on the rear the only disruption to the sweeping expanse of curved glass is the now-familiar softened square camera port, flanked on one side by a dual-LED flash module; this setup is not quite flush but it must be said it’s close, probably one of the more unobtrusive camera ports on the current market.

One of the key differences between the Galaxy S7 series and its Galaxy S6 counterparts is the reintroduction of waterproofing for the latest generation. It’s quite impressive that Samsung has managed to reintroduce this feature that was present on the plastic Galaxy S5, lost aboard the  metal Galaxy S6, and then reintroduced to the metal Galaxy S7 in only a single product cycle. Of course, such a feature is great to have because of the peace of mind it offers; you can use your phone in the bath or near a swimming pool absolutely care free.

It’s something that goes unnoticed a lot of the time, but once you’ve had this feature in a phone you’re unlikely to want to go back to anything that won’t survive a dunk in the wet stuff and gives you that freedom not to care or even think about such mishaps. Also bonus points for Samsung having implemented this via internal nanocoatings, meaning there are no horrible rubber grommets or fiddly port covers to contend with every time you want to plug in a charger or set of headphones, and you don’t have to worry about forgetting to “seal” the phone properly to keep it waterproof either.

Lastly, on the subject of design, there’s the physical controls on the front of the phone; a fingerprint scanner Home key flanked on each side by capacitive Android controls for multitasking and navigation. On reflection I think I prefer on-screen controls myself, although I do get that if you’re going to have a fingerprint scanner this is probably the best setup (not keen on those rear-mounted ones), and although I’m not fond of the capacitive keys having just these two on-screen without a home button would probably have looked weird.

Regardless, this is again another minor gripe and not enough to sour me on the rest of the phone. I think it's quite telling that any criticism I can come up with is a minor nitpick and I still like the phone regardless!

Samsung Galaxy S7 Review: Display

  • Display Size & Type: 5.1in Super AMOLED (72.1% screen-to-body ratio)
  • Resolution: 2560 x 1440 pixels QHD
  • Pixel Density: 577 pixels-per-inch (ppi)
  • Corning Gorilla Glass 4

You may have already read our in-depth article looking at the technology behind the Samsung Galaxy S7’s display and examining DisplayMate’s extensive testing and research on the hardware.

If not, we'd strongly encourage you to take a gander by clicking this link.

Put simply, regardless of what anyone thinks of it from just eyeballing the Galaxy S7’s screen, the data doesn’t lie - Samsung’s Super AMOLED tech present on this handset is empirically the best display tech on the market. It uses a diamond sub-pixel layout and is one of the sharpest QHD phone displays available - it’s a 5.1in screen at 2560 x 1440 pixels and 577ppi. It has the highest maximum brightness levels, the most accurate colour gamut, the best contrast, lowest reflectance, and best performance in high ambient light - those last two means it’ll perform better than anything else in terms of being able to see what’s on the screen when you’re out on a sunny day.

It also offers some of the best user customisation of your visual experience (if delving into fine tuning such things is your bag) - it even has something called Personalised Automatic Brightness Control where the phone will learn how bright you like the display in certain conditions and automatically adjust it accordingly. In addition, there’s the new Always-On feature, which admittedly isn’t entirely new as we’ve seen it on some rival devices before, but it is nice to have the time, date, and battery percentage displayed constantly when the phone is idle and in a low power mode that doesn’t seem to impact much on the battery life.

All of which sounds great on paper, but when you pick it up, crank up the brightness and just use the thing you can see exactly how this is all true. It’s incredibly sharp, bright and vibrant with loads of pop from the colours and contrast. In a word, gorgeous, undoubtedly one of the best displays we've ever seen.

Samsung Galaxy S7 Review: Specs & Hardware Performance

  • Chipset: Samsung Exynos 8890 Octa
  • Cores: 2.3GHz "Mongsoose" Quad-Core Cluster & 1.6GHz ARM Cortex-A53 Quad-Core Cluster
  • GPU: Mali-T880 MP12 650MHz
  • Storage: 32GB OR 64GB & microSD card up to 256GB
  • Wi-Fi Connectivity: Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Dual-Band, Wi-Fi Direct, Hotspot
  • Other Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2 (LE), NFC, A-GPS/GLONASS, microUSB 2.0

As usual, Samsung has produced two processor variants for the Galaxy S7, but the one we have for our review is the model available in the UK and Europe (SM-G930F) equipped with the firm's own Exynos 8890 SoC. This is a 64-bit octa-core chipset with a 2.3GHz clockspeed , a Mali T880 GPU, and 4GB RAM. Performance in the high-end Android space seems to have more-or-less levelled out across the board (not that this is a bad thing) and in no small part this is probably due to the fact that most of them are running Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 820 chip.

Having spent a bit of time with a few other high-end 2016 Android phones using this setup (and others) such as the HTC 10 I can say that the Exynos 8890-based Galaxy S7 is definitely in a similar ballpark. In general operation things are silky smooth for navigating Android and hopping between apps, and even when playing intensive 3D games this phone definitely packs a punch. I can't say I noticed any latency issues or lag whatsoever, even when trying to deliberately push the device out of its comfort zone, although it must be said the back panel did heat up a fair bit.

Benchmarks tests do show that the Snapdragon 820 edition does ever-so-slightly outperform the Exynos hardware, in particular when it comes to graphics, but the main takeaway here is the difference between the two in most scenarios is a handful of frames-per-second; importantly not enough to be noticeable in actual real-world use. A quick glance at most benchmarking test results and databases online shows that the Galaxy S7 Exynos model is still one of the top performing smartphones on the market, and I for one think this is reflected in actual operation. NOTHING seems to shake this handset, it just waltzes through whatever you throw at it effortlessly.

Both storage options are pretty ample with the base model being 32GB going up to a full 64GB if you're splashing out. Certainly we can see the sense in the modern app and content market of ditching a 16GB lower-tier, but although the presence of 256GB of microSD support is a welcome one it's only really any good for multimedia as Samsung hasn't implemented Android Marshmallow's native Adoptive Storage feature - in other words it can't use cards for storing apps. While the flexibility is nice, we can't help but wonder why Samsung wouldn't either open up support for Adoptive Storage OR introduce a 128GB top-tier storage model above the 64GB one. Without either option, some power users may be in for a tricky time, but most users shouldn't have too much of a problem.

A quick comment on audio. I think it's fair to say that as long as no-one but HTC is investing in precision-made and amplified front-facing stereo speakers then nothing else will really top BoomSound, but with that said I was really quite impressed with the Galaxy S7's audio quality from its single base-mounted speaker. It has a nice range on it and decently high volume capabilities, and although as mentioned I have heard crisper audio quality elsewhere this is pretty damn good; I couldn't discern any tinniness from the handset.

Samsung Galaxy S7 Review: Battery Life

This is it. The big one. For many users these days good battery life is the holy grail feature for smartphones, one that is so often elusive, and there's a simple reason why: the more flashy display tech and high-end processors that are crammed into a phone the more juice it will glug. Happily, there seems to be more and more flagships coming out where the battery consumption has been carefully optimised, most recent high-end Android devices and the last few iPhones have all impressed us with their capable battery life often spanning a couple of days now with at least moderate usage. In Android's case this is no doubt due to leaps and bounds made by chip manufacturers and Google's own software optimisations in the last couple of Android builds, such as Doze.

Samsung was making some headway in this regard with some innovative features like Ultra Power Saving mode (to put the phone into a bare-minimum, calls-only, black-and-white state) are now permenant fixtures and offer over a week if you're off exploring some wilderness, for example. However, with that said, although it was similar to its contemporary peers the Galaxy S6's battery performance was one of the main let-downs of the handset and wasn't exactly amazing.

Clearly someone was paying attention. The Galaxy S7 battery life is noticably better than its predecessor and easily one of the best battery performers from the current crop of flagships. For a start, it's a bigger cell than the Galaxy S6 at 3,000mAh instead of the old 2,550mAh. But it also seems plenty of optimisations have been made, with the phone clocking up a 17 hours and 48 minute result in our continuous video playback test. To put that in perspective, the Galaxy S6 result was 13 hours, so you get nearly five hours more life out of the Galaxy S7 - that's most of a working day! As you can see from the graph, it also outperforms the iPhone 6s and Google Nexus 6P, both impressive juicers already.

From my time with the phone I can say this is reflected in the hands-on, real-world performance. With low-key operation you will probably be prompted once every few days or so with a low battery warning, which really is a refreshing change. With moderate use you're looking at a breezy day and a half at least.

Even the most voracious power users should get at least a full day out of this phone, if not more, and when we say a full day we mean from when you wake up to bed time, not just when you get to the front door!

The only handset we've seen outclass the Galaxy S7 so far is the Huawei Mate 8, but that thing is mostly battery anyway and although it's a nice phone it doesn't have all the shiny bells and whistles this device does.

However, one important thing to note is that the Galay S7's metal and glass sealed body design doesn't allow for a removable battery cell in the old Samsung style; while this isn't particularly unusual in the current market, there are now manufacturers offering premium design with this functionality, most notably LG with the LG G5. Is this a big deal? It's debatable. Old schoolers understandably miss being able to remove the battery because it gives you more flexibility, you can carry a spare, or if the battery develops a fault (as they sometimes do) you can easily replace it rather than the troublesome and sometimes costly process of having it fixed by a professional. The other argument is that battery deterioration is inevitable in every electronic device, so being able to replace it seems like a good idea, however, typically this isn't likely to occur until the phone is at least a few years old, by which time many people's contracts will be offering them an updated model anyway. The counter to that is if you're buying SIM-free and want your phone to last longer than a couple of years, but this all comes down to personal taste and what you're prepared to accept from your purchase.

Samsung Galaxy S7 Review: Camera

  • Sensor: 12MP, 1/2.6"
  • Aperture: f/1.7
  • Pixel Size: 1.4 µm
  • Focal Length: 26mm
  • Flash: Dual-LED
  • Features: Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS), dual-pixel phase detection autofocus, simultaneous video and still capture, touch focus, HDR (auto), face and smile detection, panoramic capture, motion panorama, wide angle selfie, "hyperlapse", motion photo
  • Video: 4K, 1080p, 720p
  • Secondary Specs (Sensor, Aperture, Focal Length): 5MP, f/1.7, 22mm

I've consistently been impressed by Samsung's camera setups for years now and with the Galaxy S7 this doesn't show any signs of changing. Yes, the sensor has a lower 12MP rating than the Galaxy S6's 16MP setup, but then again so does every major flagship on the market right now because, across the board, OEMs have finally twigged that more MP doesn't mean better image quality all on its own. Thus, plenty of other aspects of the imaging setup have been tweaked instead, including a very large aperture, pixel, and sensor size, resulting in much sharper details and less noise. The Galaxy S6's imaging capabilities were already impressive, but this is even more so. 

The dynamic range is very capable as you can see between the shaded roof area and the brightly illuminated street. I also remain very fond of Samsung's approach to photography which is similar to its displays, that is; it is not afraid of punchy colour saturation and contrast. The result of this is really vibrant images, whether that's capturing a really bright blue sky on a sunny day, lush green vegetation, colourful flowers, or the crisp contrast on that statue head pictured below. 

As you can see from this coffee bean shot, close-up work still gets plenty of detail and crispness. Capture speed is lightning quick thanks to the dual-pixel phase detection autofocus and this together with the detail-intensive sensor/aperture AND OIS means there's very little chance of picking up any blurriness.

The camera interface is nice and simple to use too. Just as with the last few generations of Samsung flagships, here again I am a big fan of the ease-of-use with Samsung's camera hardware and software. Too often there are mobile camera configurations which, while actually sometimes a bit more capable in terms of image fidelity, are frustratingly complex to actually get the best results. I am far happier with Samsung's compromise, it makes me willing to actually use the camera and feel confident I will get good pictures from it, where with rivals, even if I know I can get a decent photo, I also know I will have to faff so much I rarely have the patience to even bother.

It must be said, that even these rival cameras which are technically better in terms of image quality (for example, Microsoft's high-end Lumia PureView models) are not very far ahead of the Galaxy S7 at all, while the Galaxy S7 is tons more fun to use and consistently able to produce images you're proud of.

For those who do want to fine-tune their photography the Galaxy S7 does include a "Pro" mode for manual control for key features like focus, brightness, ISO, exposure, and more.

Samsung Galaxy S7 Review: Software

Samsung's TouchWiz UI overlay has gradually shed a lot of weight in recent years, more than likely due to Google's push for some kind of Android cohesion and the introduction of the streamlined, minimalist Material Design aesthetic. Naturally the Samsung flavoured differentiation hasn't disappeared entirely, there are still enough little signature hints scattered around to remind you that this is a Samsung device you're using. But it is different, it's more subtle, there aren't so many silly fonts or crazy colours. Unlike the old days none of it is overblown - it's not at all far removed from Google's vision of Android even if it's not entirely stock. In terms of usability it's quite intuitive too, things are exactly where you'd expect to find them - there is much less faff than ever before, but this comes alongside increased user customisation; for example, the drop-down quick settings menu is nicely set up by default, but a couple of quick gestures and you've got an intuitive screen for letting you pick and choose what takes prominence every time you do that downward swipe.

In terms of features, most of what's on show here we've seen before, including split-screen multitasking, windowed applications, and a fixed news feed homescreen you can toggle on or off; it's just tidier, more discrete, thanks to the new UI. This is a very welcome shift of direction for Samsung, one that arguably has taken its damn time to get here, but now that it's arrived it was definitely worth the wait. My only criticism of the software side of things doesn't even relate to the UI, and it's the fact that Samsung didn't enable Android's native support for Adoptive Storage on microSD - that means that you can't use a microSD card as if it's the phone's own storage and install apps onto one. A big shame.

Still, I don't think that's enough to sour the milk that much. Apart from this it was very enjoyable to interact with the software features of Samsung's latest handset.

Samsung Galaxy S7 Review: Verdict

What can I say? A tremendously pleasing smartphone to use. It's been a while since I test-drove something I didn't want to give back, but the Galaxy S7 fits into that category quite comfortably. It looks sharp, feels reassuringly expensive and robust in the hand, the camera experience is an absolute joy. Performance is what you hope for from a flagship; it's fast, smooth and responsive, while the battery life is amongst the best available. The software is as close to stock Android as Samsung has ever come and as a result is one of the most hassle-free Samsung Galaxy devices I've used to date.

In short? Top marks to Samsung for this one, an absolute stunner.

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