Samsung is by far the largest and most successful Android device maker on the planet, and its flagship Galaxy phone is the biggest release each year. For a lot of Android users, the annual Galaxy phone is Android. Last year, Samsung made significant changes to the Galaxy S6 that included a unibody metal and glass design, and the loss of a few features.
This year's Galaxy S7 brings a lot of those features back and adds a few new tricks. Let's take a closer look at how this phone stacks up to the competition.
Design and Display
Just like last year, there are two versions of the Galaxy S7, regular and Edge. Unlike last year, the Edge model has a larger screen than the regular GS7. Both phones include many of the same features, so most of this goes for both, except where noted. The Galaxy S7 shares a lot with the Galaxy S6 in overall appearance. The front and back are both Gorilla Glass, but the rear panel curves slightly toward the edges. That makes it nicer in the hand compared to the completely flat GS6.
The aluminum band around the middle has a matte finish that makes the phone a bit less slippery. We are still talking about a glass phone, though, which is going to be more apt to leap from your grip than a plastic one (it's also a fingerprint magnet). The GS7 is also a bit easier to hold because Samsung made it about 1mm thicker this year. That's remarkable when every year they've been crowing about having the slimmest phone ever. Now, the extra thickness allowed Samsung to add a large 3000mAh battery to the GS7 and a 3600mAh to the GS7 Edge. They're water-resistant as well, something that was dropped from the Galaxy S6. This might not be an essential feature for everyone, but it's very nice to have.
While the regular phone is very comfortable to hold, the Edge is somewhat awkward. The metal band is very narrow to accommodate the curved edges of the screen. It's also a larger device at 5.5-inches, compared to 5.1-inches for the Galaxy S7. Both phones have the customary physical home button and capacitive back/overview buttons under the screen. The fingerprint sensor is still there in the home button, and it's much the same as the GS6. That is, not as good as Nexus Imprint, but still useful.
Both phones have new generations of Samsung's Super AMOLED display panels. The GS7 is 5.1-inches at 1440p and the Edge is 5.5-inches at 1440p. The brightness and color accuracy are better on these screens than any other I've seen. I love that I can go outside and actually read these phones well in direct sunlight (they can hit over 800 nits in brightness). They have absolutely perfect viewing angles as well.
Of course, the main difference between the Edge and regular phone is the curved display. I have to say, I think the Edge phone looks really neat. The 5.5-inch screen is also more manageable than the 5.7-inch one from the GS6 Edge+. Still, making it larger than the regular phone is a smart move as there's actually some advantage to getting it. There are some software tweaks for the edge, but the main selling point it that it looks neat.
Internals and Performance
Samsung is back to making multiple versions of the Galaxy flagship for different markets. In the US, we get the quad-core Snapdragon 820 variant. International buyers will get an octa-core Exynos chip. The Exynos benchmarks a little higher than the Snapdragon and has slightly improved battery life, but it won't make a huge difference in daily use. In addition to the new ARM chip, the GS7 includes 4GB of RAM, 32-64GB of storage, and a microSD card slot. That last point is quite important. Samsung took a lot of heat for removing the card slot from the GS6. Now it's back. I've been testing with a 200GB Sandisk card, and it works great.
Benchmarks don't really matter in daily use, but I ran a few just to be safe. The Snapdragon version of the GS7 tops the list with about 130,000 in AnTuTu, a solid improvement over everything from 2015. The device seems plenty fast during use, though it can get sluggish during app installs. That's odd as Samsung is using super-fast UFS 2.0 storage. I suspect the SoC is ramping down during installs to manage heat.
Something that annoyed me about the Galaxy S6 is that Samsung tuned the system in such a way that it failed to take advantage of the full 3GB of RAM. It only kept a few apps active in the background before closing the older ones. Samsung changed the RAM management model this year, and the GS7 actually performs like a phone with 4GB of RAM. You can jump between apps quickly without waiting for them to reload and playing a game won't kill ongoing notifications.
Samsung upped the battery capacity in this year's phones, as previously mentioned. The GS7 also has Android 6.0 with all its battery life-improving features. The result is what I'd consider pretty solid above average battery life. Doze mode from Android 6.0 ensures that the phone sleeps properly, despite all the TouchWiz stuff Samsung is fond of. Screen-on time with heavy usage is over five hours for me on both phones. With lighter usage, the GS7 Edge makes it more than a day on a charge, and the regular phone is just a few hours shorter. It won't run quite as long as some phones, but the GS7 does have Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0. You can go from empty to full in about an hour, which is great.
Samsung took the unusual step of dropping the megapixel count to 12 this year from 16 last year. However, I think it's an undeniably better overall sensor. Samsung is talking up its auto-focusing on the Galaxy S7. It claims that the sensor is able to use all the pixels as autofocus points to improve the time-to-capture. Whatever they did, it works. The GS7 can focus uncannily fast and accurately. It's even faster than phones that have laser autofocus sensors.
In bright light, the GS7's camera is essentially flawless. The colors are accurate and the level of detail looks great. HDR mode flips on when it's needed and offers excellent results in shots with varied lighting. HDR captures don't seem to take any longer than regular ones, so there's no downside to turning it on. Even without HDR, I feel like the GS7 is very smart about exposure and color temperature.
When the light starts to dim, Samsung says the larger pixels and wide f/1.7 aperture on the GS7 will make for faster, brighter shots. In general, I'd call this a success too. The GS7 can manage consistently good photos in lighting conditions that would render most phone cameras nearly useless. It has very low noise, and the colors (while a bit warm) are mostly accurate to my eye. There's a bit of weirdness with the post-processing in dim lighting, though. Images can sometimes be brightened up so much that they look slightly washed out. They'll still look better to most casual observers, but you lose a touch of sharpness.
If the auto mode doesn't do it for you, the camera has a handy brightness slider accessible without changing any settings. If you want more control, there's a pro mode with full manual controls and support for RAW capture. This is probably overkill for most people, but there might be times when you'll be thankful you have it. Samsung's other camera modes are kind of pointless for me. The panoramas are okay, video collage is weird, and selective focus (post-capture refocusing) is buggy at best. The slow-motion video is rad, though.
Samsung's camera also has robust optical image stabilization. I don't care what Google claims about electronic stabilization; true optical stabilization is far superior. Especially when light is less than ideal, OIS can make all the difference in getting the shot or staring grumpily at a blurry mess.
The software on the Galaxy S7 is still recognizable as TouchWiz, but it's a better version of TouchWiz than we've had in the past. This is the same thing that happens every year. Samsung trims more of the fat from years past, makes some small tweaks, and you get something that's at least tolerable.
Right off the bat, I'm happy to see Samsung has changed the default TouchWiz theme to varying shades of blue. The blue-green thing it had going on before was not great. Again, several buggy and less popular features from the Galaxy S6 are gone. The big stuff like ultra power saver, adjustable screen modes, multi-window are still front and center, though. I'm pleased that Samsung added a few things from the Note 5 like that cool scrolling screenshot feature that lets you stitch together multiple screens.
I'm not enamored with Samsung's home screen, but it's noticeably faster than the GS6's launcher. The app drawer still doesn't stay in alphabetical order, though. You have to manually rearrange it as new apps are added on at the end. The Briefing news panel is still there, and it's still bad. It is at least easy to turn off.
There's a new suite of gaming features this time, which are surprisingly good. The Game Launcher is basically a smart folder that organizes all your games. If it misses one, you can add it manually. This also gives you the ability to turn on the optional game tools. That includes the option to mute notifications, record the screen, and disable the back/overview buttons. You can also lock frame rates to 30FPS to save power.
The GS7 also has an always-on display mode. It's cool for seeing what time it is, but that's about all. Like many Samsung features, it only works with Samsung's apps. That means the notification icons for messages, email, and so on will only show up if you use Samsung's built-in solutions. There are a few options for the clock, or you can switch to a calendar or just an image… for some reason. It doesn't seem to drain much power, so keep it on if you like.
The Galaxy S7 edge has only a few features to differentiate it from the regular phone. The Edge Panel can be opened with a swipe on the small translucent tab at the edge of the screen. It has app shortcuts, contacts, quick tools, news, and so on. You can customize most of these panels, disable the ones you don't want, and even download more from Samsung's app store. Some of them are genuinely useful -- the app shortcuts and contacts, for example. I don't imagine I'll ever need a ruler on my phone, though. You also have Edge Feeds, allowing you to swipe the edge zone while the phone is sleeping and see your recent notifications, news headlines, and a few other bits of data. Again, you can customize these items in the settings, but it's not nearly as capable as the Edge Panel.
The best things about the Galaxy S7's software are the things Samsung didn't have anything to do with. This is Android 6.0, so you get Doze Mode for extended standby battery life, granular app permissions, and Now on Tap. I still don't love Now on Tap, actually. It's getting better, but I still find it misses too much. Otherwise, Marshmallow is a welcome addition to Samsung's software. The fingerprint scanner is now properly understood by apps that use the standard Android APIs rather than just the ones that use Samsung's.
All in all, Samsung does better by Android than some companies. I'd much rather use TouchWiz than Huawei's EMUI or Xiaomi's MIUI. TouchWiz mostly looks and works like Android on other phones. It's a solid experience these days that only gets better each time I see it.
The Samsung Galaxy S7 is an incredibly nice phone. Is it the best phone? That really depends on what you're looking for in a device. If you don't mind spending $700 on a smartphone, it's probably the one to get. The display is fantastic, the camera is the best I've used, and it brings back useful features like water-resistant design and the microSD card slot.
Putting up with TouchWiz is easier than ever with Android 6.0. Samsung's propensity to overload a phone with background services won't matter when Doze mode kicks in, and the main feature set is more focused. I don't know that the Edge variant is really taken advantage of in software, but it sure looks neat.
The biggest knock against the GS7 is that it's running Marshmallow, and in a few months that won't be the current version of Android anymore. Samsung will take months to update the GS7, and during that time you might wish you'd gotten a Nexus device.