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Galaxy Note 7 review: Great phone with questionable extras

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Iris scanner, curved edges and stylus all add to the cost, but bring only marginal value.

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SAMSUNG GALAXY NOTE 7
THE GOOD: Fantastically sharp screen and great camera.
THE BAD: Iris scanner doesn’t work well, curved edges are annoying.
RATING: A A A A

Phones are a lot like toasters today – they’re more or less all the same and you expect them to just work. Gone are the days of having a handicapped device that doesn’t do everything you need it to do, unless of course you’re still using BlackBerry 10.

This is a problem for phone makers, who are constantly struggling to convince consumers that their toasters are better than the other guy’s. There are a lot of gimmicks floating around as a result.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7, available in Canada now through most major carriers, may be the worst offender by this measure. It’s a very good phone at its core – one of the best available, actually – and it packs a number of features that differentiate it from the rest of the pack.

But… I’ve been using the Note 7 for past few weeks and have found that those differentiating features are actually the least compelling parts of the device.

First, the good. The Note 7 touts some top-of-the-line specs. Its 5.7-inch Super AMOLED screen, with a pixel resolution of 1,440 by 2,560, is one of the sharpest available and its Snapdragon 820 processor means its blazingly fast.

It also has 64 gigabytes of storage with a microSD card slot, which is a lot better than the chintzy starting storage being offered by those other fruit phone guys.

The Note 7 also boasts turbo-charging, so you can quickly recharge the battery. It really is fast – I plugged the nearly-drained phone in on a few occasions and, by the time I remembered to check on it, it was already recharged. Officially, Samsung says it needs only 15 minutes to get to 75-per-cent charge. I believe it.

The camera, at 12 megapixels, is also great. Android device makers took a long time to catch up to Apple, but it’s now more common than not to see good if not great cameras. The Note 7 certainly qualifies, as the pics below illustrate:

flowers

It’s not a perfectly fair comparison, since I’m juxtaposing the Note 7 against the nearly-two-year-old iPhone 6 Plus that I regularly use, but the point is there.

The Note 7 posts better colour and contrast in brightly lit and colourful photos, whereas the iPhone looks washed out in comparison. Samsung’s device also captures better colour in low-light situations:

iguana

Of course, this advantage may be short-lived as Apple is set to debut its next iPhone – complete with camera improvements – in a few weeks.

The Note 7 currently runs Android Marshmallow, although Samsung is promising an update to Nougat for late 2016. But, with carriers having a say in that, it’s perhaps wise not to hold one’s breath.

Which brings us to the differentiators. The Note 7’s marquee feature is its infrared iris scanner, which offers up yet another way to sign into the device. Samsung bills it as impossible to forge and therefore more secure than a PIN code or even a fingerprint.

That may well be, but it’s a pain to use. In the best-case scenario, you have to hold the phone up to your face so that it can recognize your irises, which it may not do that well if you wear contacts or glasses.

In a worst-case scenario, which is what I usually encountered, it works about as well as Microsoft’s Kinect or Apple’s Siri. In other words, it’s neat when it works, but that only happens about 70 or 80 per cent of the time. It’s enough to send you back to the other, more reliable methods, which is what I did after about two days.

The Note 7, like a number of previous high-end devices from Samsung and the BlackBerry Priv, also features curved glass screen edges, complete with their own app panel. The edges are supposed to provide users with a secondary, easy-to-access interface, but they actually do the opposite. Not only is the edge difficult to access, the curved screen also interferes with regular typing and navigation.

I’ve never liked a curved screen on any device for that reason. The edges add a sexy glint, but usually at the cost of usability. And never mind what they add in actual cost, but more on that in a second.

The Note 7’s other main differentiating feature is, of course, its stylus, or what Samsung calls the S-Pen. It’s easy to fall into one of two camps here – some people love it, others hate it. I’m ambivalent, though I can see the use cases for certain types of people.

The Note 7’s S-Pen has some neat new functions, like the ability to translate words that appear on screen simply by hovering over them. But, unless you’re an artist who needs to have a sketch pad handy, or you’re someone who still writes out notes – I try to avoid handwriting at all costs – it’s something you’ll likely forget about quickly.

The differentiators are a cumulative problem because all that extra technology adds cost to the device. And the Note 7 is pricey – it costs $1,049 without a contract or $549 on a two-year term. That’s a lot of cheddar for a bunch of stuff that most people probably won’t ever use.

Samsung, and all phone makers for that matter, are thus in a tough spot. How can they make devices that stand out from competitors without baking in a lot of extraneous costs? The Galaxy Note 7 is a great phone at its base, but it’s clear that Samsung hasn’t solved that problem yet.

Samsung supplied a trial unit for the purposes of this review.

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