The smartphone market has become increasingly competitive over the past several years. Samsung, like most of its peers, is facing a number of challenges, including more competition at the high-end, cheaper devices from Chinese OEMs, and market saturation. Last year, in an effort to jumpstart declining sales, Samsung radically redesigned its Galaxy line of flagship phones. Switching from an all-plastic to aluminum and glass construction meant more luxury and less utility, simultaneously attracting new buyers to the brand while alienating its most faithful fans.
The Galaxy S6 and its derivatives sacrificed several features for sexy curves. Protection against dust and water leaked away, and the battery became a prisoner inside the aluminum and glass cage, making easy battery swaps impossible. With the perimeter on lockdown, microSD cards found themselves locked out, denying users storage flexibility and expansion. This injustice only deepened when the more expensive Galaxy S6 edge+ and Note5—which limited internal storage to 64GB—launched later in the year.
After receiving volumes of vociferous feedback and gaining valuable experience with its new design language, Samsung is unleashing its seventh generation Galaxy devices. The Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 edge look to correct the shortcomings of the previous generation, even bringing back some of the previously discarded features such as support for microSD cards, which now share space with the Nano SIM card in a special dual-card tray located on the top edge. Samsung also restores environmental protection, giving the new Galaxies an IP68 rating that makes them dust tight and allows for immersion in water up to 5 feet for up to 30 minutes. Unlike the Galaxy S5, however, the Galaxy S7 devices do not require a plug to cover the USB port.
Battery life is one thing we can never get enough of, and while the Galaxy S6 family of devices compared favorably to their peers, the smaller Galaxy S6 and S6 edge struggled to last a whole day on a single charge during moderate to heavy use. In a move to address this issue, Samsung increases the battery size in the Galaxy S7 to 3,000mAh, up from 2,550mAh in the S6. The Galaxy S7 edge also gets a larger 3,600mAh battery, up from 3,000mAh in the S6 edge+. The fact that the battery remains sealed inside will likely remain a point of contention for some people, though.
The new Galaxy S7 devices retain the design language and materials from the previous generation, but do include a few small refinements. The edges of the lightly-textured aluminum frame are chamfered and polished, and sheets of Corning Gorilla Glass 4 still cover the front and back. Samsung’s iconic pill-shaped home button, with integrated touch-based fingerprint sensor, still sits below the screen, flanked by capacitive, backlit buttons. One subtle difference is the lack of chrome accents around the home button and speaker grille on the front and around the camera components on the back; these accents now take on the same color as the phone, helping these parts blend into the body.
Just like last year, the seventh generation arrives with two different models. Both use SAMOLED QHD resolution screens that differ in size: The Galaxy S7 comes with a 5.1-inch screen like the S6, while the larger Galaxy S7 edge comes with a 5.5-inch screen similar to the S6 edge+. Like its name implies, the edge’s screen curves around both sides, with similarly curved bevels above and below the screen too. While we have not tested these new screens yet, Samsung’s previous generation displays were excellent, with good viewing angles, peak brightness values above 600 nits when using Auto mode outdoors, and sufficient resolution to overcome PenTile’s lower subpixel density. The new S7s, like previous Galaxy devices, also offer different display modes, including Basic, which is an accurate sRGB mode; Cinema and Photo, which use an extended color gamut to provide bright, saturated colors; and Adaptive, which adjusts display parameters based on the content that’s being viewed.
One of the complaints we had about both the Galaxy S6 edge and S6 edge+ was that their curved screens and flat backs made the phones difficult to pick up and also made the sides feel a bit sharp in our hands. By curving the edges on the back too, like it did with the Galaxy Note5, the new S7s are much easier to handle and more comfortable to hold.
Both of the S7s are slightly smaller than the models they replace, thanks to reduced bezels around the screens. The Galaxy S7 shrinks by about 1mm in height and width, while the S7 edge is about 3.5mm smaller in both dimensions. Thickness increases slightly to make room for the larger batteries, a more than acceptable trade off in our opinion considering the extra bulk is barely noticeable. The extra thickness also reduces the height of the rear camera plateau; it's still not flush with the back, but it's not much more than a raised ridge now.
A 3.5mm headphone jack, a mono speaker, and a microphone are still located on the bottom edge. It’s a bit of a surprise to see a microUSB 2.0 port instead of the new USB Type-C variety. Most flagship devices should be switching to the new reversible plug this year, which only makes this port feel even more dated. Sticking with microUSB does maintain compatibility with Gear VR, however.
The new phones bring a selection of new colors. In the U.S., the Galaxy S7 is available in Black Onyx and Gold Platinum, while the S7 edge is available in Black Onyx, Gold Platinum, and Silver Titanium. Both the gold and silver colors have a shiny, reflective finish.
Smartphone camera resolution has been increasing at a steady rate, with OEMs fueling a megapixel arms race. Because of physical size constraints for the sensor package, however, increasing the number of pixels generally means making them smaller. But smaller pixels capture less light, reducing dynamic range and low-light performance. Some OEMs, such as HTC and Apple, have favored using fewer, larger pixels to improve low-light capability at the expense of image detail.
With camera performance a high priority, Samsung is opting out of the megapixel race, choosing a completely new lower-resolution sensor with larger pixels for the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge. The 12 MP rear camera, the same resolution as the iPhone 6s, has 1.4μm pixels. There's also a new lens array with a larger f/1.7 aperture that lets in 25% more light than the f/1.9 aperture lens in the Galaxy S6. Combining the sensor’s larger pixels with the lens’ lower f-stop allows the new camera to capture 95% more light than the previous generation, according to Samsung. It will be interesting to see if this new camera can actually outperform the Galaxy S6, which currently has the best smartphone camera we’ve tested, at least when using the 16 MP Sony IMX240 Exmor RS sensor (some Galaxy S6 phones use a Samsung S5K2P2 ISOCELL sensor that does not perform as well).
The demonstration shown in the video above—conducted by Samsung—shows a tantalizing hint of the new camera’s performance by pitting the Galaxy S7 against the iPhone 6s Plus. When the light inside the box is dimmed, the Galaxy S7 certainly appears to capture more light.
This video also shows off the Galaxy S7’s autofocus capability. The Galaxy S7, like the S6 and most other premium phones, uses phase detect autofocus (PDAF), which provides superior performance to the contrast detection method. However, the S7’s new camera sensor uses far more pixels for phase detection: Where the Galaxy S6’s sensor only uses 0.78% of its total pixels as phase pixels, the S7’s new sensor uses 100% of its pixels. Samsung says that each pixel in its Dual Pixel sensor is split into two photodiodes. We're still not sure exactly how this works, but it seems to perform well based on Samsung's limited demo.
The other thing we're not sure about is if customers will still need to play the camera lottery with the S7. Samsung won't say, but based on the novelty of this sensor it seems likely that it's made by a single manufacturer.
In the past, Samsung has equipped its Galaxy devices with different hardware for different regions, generally preferring Qualcomm SoCs for the North American market and its own Exynos chips for other regions. Last year, Samsung decided to use its Exynos 7420 SoC, the first to use a 14nm FinFET process, exclusively for its Galaxy S6 phones, avoiding the Snapdragon 810 and its thermal problems. With Samsung developing its own custom 64-bit CPU for the Exynos 8890, along with a new high-end Snapdragon from Qualcomm, it would not be surprising to see Samsung revert back to dual-sourcing SoCs for the Galaxy S7. While Samsung has not specified what chip will power its new flagship globally, we do know that the S7 will use Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 820 for the North American market.
Featuring four of Qualcomm's new custom 64-bit Kryo CPUs arranged in a heterogeneous dual-cluster configuration, with one cluster optimized for higher performance and the other optimized for lower power, the 820 focuses on improving single-threaded performance. In our performance preview of the Kirin 950, we found that Kryo holds an instructions per cycle (IPC) advantage over the Cortex-A72 CPU in both integer and floating point operations. However, octa-core SoCs such as the Kirin 950 can perform better when running multi-threaded workloads. The 820, coincidentally, uses Samsung’s second-generation 14nm LPP (Low Power Plus) FinFET process that enables lower power consumption at a slightly higher frequency than the first-generation LPE process used for the Exynos 7420.
Samsung pairs Qualcomm's SoC with 4GB of LPDDR4-1866 RAM, which should help alleviate the memory pressure problem that limited the Galaxy S6’s multitasking performance.
All of the Galaxy S6 phones include two or three options for internal storage capacity, with the S6 and S6 edge offering up to 128GB. The Galaxy S7 and S7 edge come in only one configuration, however: 32GB. If that's not enough, the internal UFS 2.0 NAND can be supplemented with a microSD card.
The Snapdragon 820 includes an integrated X12 LTE modem capable of Category 12 download speeds of up to 600Mbps and Category 13 upload speeds of up to 150Mbps. The Galaxy S7 also includes support for 802.11ac MU-MIMO Wi-Fi, with peak theoretical throughput of up to 867Mb/s, and Bluetooth 4.2 LE.
Hardware support for Samsung Pay, the company's wireless payment system, first appeared on the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge, with software and vendor support rolling out late last year. Like Apple Pay, it uses the fingerprint scanner to authorize payments at terminals supporting NFC. Unlike Apple Pay, Samsung's solution works at most traditional magnetic stripe credit card terminals too, making it a far more useful solution.
Running atop Android 6.0.1, Samsung’s TouchWiz UI receives some refinements and new features. This latest build retains the mostly white interface with coordinated highlight colors that was introduced with the Galaxy S6. Looking more closely, however, reveals new application icons and a redesigned notification shade.
One of the new features is Always-On Display (AOD). Similar to Google’s Ambient Display and Motorola’s Moto Display, this feature displays some basic information while the screen is locked, like a calendar, the time and date, or notifications. There's also an option to personalize what's displayed. Power drain is minimized by taking advantage of the AMOLED display’s ability to only illuminate the pixels in use, rather than turning on the entire panel like most IPS displays. AOD also uses the ambient light sensor to detect when the phone is placed inside a pocket or purse and turns itself off.
A new utility called “Game Tool” provides quick, in-game access to several features. One of its simplest tricks, but possibly the most useful, is keeping notifications from interrupting your gameplay. It also allows you to grab screenshots or record up to 6Mbps 1080p video to document your gaming skill. You can even record a voiceover using the phone’s microphone.
Edge UX, a feature unique to the Galaxy edge devices, undergoes a significant makeover and gains new functionality. For those not familiar with this feature, it's a panel that slides out from the curved edge of the screen that's meant to provide quick access to frequently used apps or favorite contacts, among other things. The most obvious change in this latest version is that the panel is now wider, allowing for two columns of circular icons rather than a single column like before.
In addition to the Apps and People edge panels mentioned above, there's a new Tasks edge that offers shortcuts to common tasks such as composing an email, taking a selfie, creating a calendar event, or opening a specific webpage. The new Quick tools edge displays a compass or a ruler, which can certainly come in handy.
What makes Edge UX really interesting is support for third-party panels (think edge widgets). Informational panels showing news, weather, or sports scores are obvious examples, but other possibilities exist too. More panels can be downloaded from within the configuration menu as they become available. To keep things from getting cluttered, individual panels can be toggled on or off, and the panels can be reordered.
Previous TouchWiz features carry over too such as the quick launch camera, which jumps straight to the camera from within any app or from the lock screen by double-clicking the home button. Multi Window, which allows multiple, windowed apps to run at the same time, returns too, and so do the options for improving one-handed use.
All of these software features put pressure on system RAM. This problem negatively impacted the user experience on the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge, whose 3GB of RAM was already over 70% capacity after a fresh reboot. Without enough free memory for applications, the operating system needed to unload apps and webpages to make room for new ones, reducing multitasking and browsing performance. We have not had a chance to investigate this issue on the Galaxy S7 devices thoroughly, but a quick check showed only 55% of system memory in use after closing open apps. Hopefully, this translates to better overall performance under heavy use.
The Galaxy S6 and its derivatives are good phones, notable for their design, performance, and the new technologies they brought to market. But they fell short of perfection: Deficiencies in ergonomics, battery life, and multitasking held them back, as did the exclusion of several features Samsung’s customers associated with Galaxy phones.
The Galaxy S7 and S7 edge appear to address many of these issues. The curved edges on the back make the phones easier to handle and more comfortable to hold. Bigger batteries should prolong battery life, and the extra RAM should improve the multitasking experience. Expandable storage with microSD cards and IP68 environmental protection, last seen on the Galaxy S5, also make a comeback, although a swappable battery is still MIA. Throw in the Snapdragon 820, which performed well in our initial tests, and some interesting changes to the camera, and the new Galaxy S7 and S7 edge seem like solid flagship phones.
In the U.S., both devices will be available in Black Onyx and Gold Platinum, but only the Galaxy S7 edge will be available in Silver Titanium. The new phones will be available from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon Wireless, along with other major retailers, on March 11, with pre-orders starting at 8:00 a.m. EST on February 23.
As an initial incentive, consumers who purchase a Galaxy S7 or Galaxy S7 edge between February 23 and March 18 will receive a free Samsung Gear VR and a six-game bundle, while supplies last.