Thursday, 14 April 2016

Samsung Galaxy S7 / S7 Edge

Samsung Galaxy S7 / S7 Edge

Is Samsung’s evolution rather than revolution approach enough?

Being in the business of making successful Android flagship devices is no easy feat. Just ask Sony. Or HTC. Or LG. Arguably the only company that managed to really triumph with its flagship last year was Samsung, with the acclaimed (albeit not perfect) S6 and S6 Edge, which were shortly followed by the S6 Edge + and the Note 5. Highly capable mid-range devices have continued to erode the need for ultra high-spec devices over the last year, and with companies such as Xiaomi entering the fray with the competitively priced and highly capable Mi5, there has never been more pressure to deliver a truly exceptional experience with top of the range products.

In 2015, Samsung took a brave step with the S6 range: it removed features that long-standing Samsung fans demanded from Galaxy S products, such as removable batteries and expandable memory. In addition, it shifted focus to design excellence, producing well-made, thin devices – at the expense of battery life.

Despite this, the devices were still successful. Outstanding cameras, pared-down software customisations and that pure desirability meant that the Galaxy S6 and its derivatives were without a doubt the finest Android phones released to date.

With the new Galaxy S7 range, Samsung looks to have done exactly what it needed in order to build on this success – it’s retained the same design language and instead focused its efforts on tweaking the formula to address the issues with the S6, looking to win back the Galaxy S faithful in the process. It’s also looking to make oney on its flagships, with the S7 starting at a slightly eye-watering £569 SIM-free.

If, as an S6 owner, you wrote down a list of improvements you’d like to see in a future model, it’s quite feasible that you’d ask for better battery life, the return of a microSD expansion, waterproofing and perhaps a slightly refined in-hand feel. All due credit to Samsung, it clearly knows this– because that’s exactly what you get with these new models.

The S7 and its S7 Edge sibling both gain bigger batteries. The S6 included a 2550mAh cell, which has grown to 3000mAh in the S7. That’s an increase of around 17.5 per cent, so it’s reasonable to expect a similar increase in stamina. Removable storage is indeed back, with the SIM tray on the top of the device now including a microSD slot too. With the price of 128GB microSD cards having fallen precipitously in recent months, it’s now incredibly cheap to achieve a massive amount of storage capacity in your phone. The SIM tray has a rubber seal, part of the new waterproofing and dustproofing IP68 rating, which means you can drop your phone into a litre of fresh water for 30 minutes with no ill effects. The fact that Samsung has included this level of protection without negatively impacting the form factor is particularly impressive. The bigger battery means that the device has filled out a little, coming in at 7.9mm versus 6.8mm on the S6.

The S6, S6 Edge and S6 Edge + all included a squared-off edge on the back, a design feature that Samsung departed from with the release of the Note 5. The updated Note introduced a curve on the sides of the back panel, which has now graduated to both S7 devices. The result is a much more comfortable feel in the hand, particularly for the S7 Edge with its thinner sides.

As well as these improvements, the S7 includes the specification bumps under the hood that you would expect of a new model. The Exynos 7420 octa-core processor, sourced from Samsung’s own processor unit, is upgraded to an Exynos 8890 octa-core, this time featuring four custom Mongoose cores. The graphics processor is also upgraded to a Mali-T880. The net result? Some of the highest benchmark scores ever seen. The processor is additionally paired with 4GB RAM. As is often the case at the high end, the spec increases don’t lead to a hugely variant performance – the S6 was already a speedy device.

A full complement of wireless connectivity is included, with speedy Category 9 LTE, dual band 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac MIMO Wi-Fi, the latest Bluetooth 4.2 LE standard and NFC, which is limited in utility at the moment but is vital for forthcoming mobile payment products such as Android Pay. The S7 includes a microSD port, with Samsung choosing not to migrate to the USB Type C standard for this generation. Although this may mean that the device doesn’t include the ‘latest and greatest’, the reality is that Type C is actually something of an inconvenience when you’re likely to have a host of microUSB devices around the house. Maybe we’ll see it in the S8?

Fast Charge Wireless is included in the S7 devices, as previously seen on the S6 Edge + and Note 5. On the S6, wireless charging always felt like something of a compromise (it was very slow), but thankfully this is no longer the case. A Fast Charge compatible charger is included in the box, which can charge an S7 from fl at in 90 minutes or an S7 Edge in 100 minutes.

If there was one feature that defined the S6 range, it was undoubtedly the camera. After years of playing second fiddle to a certain rival device, there finally came along an Android phone that delivered. The S6 camera didn’t only deliver excellent pictures (particularly in good light), it was also extremely fast and with an impressive camera app, easily launched directly from the physical home button.

For the S7, Samsung’s focus is on improving the former device’s average low-light performance, with a reduction in megapixels but highly improved light capture with larger pixels and an increased aperture. The camera app itself remains mostly unchanged, exhibiting the same excellent performance, intuitive design and a wealth of camera modes.

The result is a camera that is massively improved compared to its predecessor when taking pictures in challenging light conditions. The reduction in raw megapixels does result in a loss of detail when zooming in, but it’s no question a price worth paying for the improved low-light performance. Focusing using the dual pixel phase detection system, previously only seen on a few high-end digital SLRs, is incredibly fast. The saying goes that the best camera is the one you have with you, but with the S7, there’s a pretty good chance that it’s the best camera you own anyway – lack of optical zoom aside, the S7 is likely to have everything you’d ever need in a camera for the majority of buyers. Paired with the new waterproofing addition, it’s a great holiday camera too!

Samsung flagships exclusively use Super AMOLED screens and the S7 is no exception. Next to the S6 there is no noticeable difference between the displays, but this isn’t necessarily a weakness – the panel on the S6 was exceptional and it is outstanding in this device too. Compared to LCD displays, the use of AMOLED means that blacks are truly dark and that colours are saturated and really pop, even if they aren’t necessarily true-to-life representations. Brightness is excellent, outdoor visibility is very good (traditionally an AMOLED weakness) courtesy of an automatic sunlight mode, and the auto brightness does a great job. A nice feature – albeit one that is hidden by default but can be activated by using Density Menu from the Play Store – is the ability to switch between standard and condensed mode, which shrinks UI elements to make better use of the screen’s real estate.

Since the launch of the original Galaxy S, Samsung has taken a lot of criticism for TouchWiz, its custom skin on top of stock Android. While the TouchWiz branding itself has long been consigned to history, Samsung devices still feature a heavily modified version of Android, even if it becomes slightly more pared down with each successive release. Samsung has made concerted efforts to reduce the annoying sounds that plagued devices like the S5, and navigating the device’s menus is now more intuitive than ever with increased use of text labels (although slightly over the top in some places). Additionally, while there is still no shortage of Samsung add-on features, they are less intrusive now and are mostly all valuable additions. A partnership with Microsoft means that some additional software is preinstalled on the device, such as Word, Excel and OneNote. Some annoyances remain, such as the renaming of the Calendar app to S-Planner, which is sure to cause confusion for new Samsung users looking for the application in their launcher menu.

Upon picking up an S7 device, you can’t fail to be immediately impressed. The glass front and back, metal edge and impeccable fit and finish really make it feel like a well-engineered product. It’s neither too heavy nor too light, and it sits well in the hand thanks to that curved back. The power button on the right hand side falls naturally to the hand and the volume buttons are separate on the left of the device. Samsung persists with its multi-tasking Home>Back capacitive key layout, in contradiction to the Back>Home multi-tasking Android standard seen on-screen on Nexus devices, but this doesn’t take long to get used to.

The device setup wizard includes a huge number of initial steps, but it does offer the ability to copy data from another device using the USB adaptor that is included in the box. With Android Marshmallow on board, the S7 is much better at restoring applications and data from backup, an area in which Android has always lagged behind. The process is far from perfect, but it is getting there. During the setup, the user is presented with the option to use Easy Mode. The S7 offers an optional  iPhone-like homescreen experience, which dispenses with the traditional app drawer and just dumps all apps on the home screens. We’re not big fans of this approach.

As you’d expect, the performance of the device is very good, no matter how intensive the app or game you throw at it. 4K video recording, virtual reality, complex 3D gaming – everything is managed with aplomb and without significantly heating up the device, courtesy of heat pipe cooling. Heat is a genuine concern with today’s flagship devices, but it looks like manufacturers have the issue in hand for 2016. One slight oddity that lives on from the S6 is an excessive keenness to shut down applications in the background, despite the huge 4GB of RAM. We wouldn’t mind seeing Samsung improve this behaviour in future.

One question you might ask is whether the S7 is a worthwhile upgrade if you are a current S6 owner. If you own an S6 or S6 Edge, the vastly improved battery life alone is a compelling reason to do so. Together with the other incremental improvements, the new phone is clearly a better device. If you are currently using an S6 Edge + then it’s less clear - that model has a larger battery already and a bigger 5.7-inch screen. Again however, improvements such as waterproofing and a microSD slot are undoubtedly valuable.

Samsung has drawn a formidable line in the sand for other manufacturers. Put simply, the S7 and the S7 Edge are by some margin the best devices available in the Android world today. Yes, there is still room for improvement next time round – particularly in the area of software refinement and of course, a further battery life boost will always be welcome – but Samsung has certainly succeeded in producing an exceptional device that is suitable for all, albeit at a hefty price.

The Galaxy S7 is quite simply the best Android phone you can buy today. Outstanding.

Technical specs
Operating system - Android Marshmallow 6.0.1
Processor - Samsung Exynos 8890, quadcore 2.3 GHz Mongoose + quad-core 1.6 GHz Cortex-A53 (Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 in some markets)
Memory - 32GB ROM/ 4GB RAM
Dimensions - 142.4x69.6x7.9mm(S7), 150.9x72.6x7.7mm(S7Edge)
Weight - 152g (S7), 157g (S7Edge)
Display size - 5.1-inches (S7), 5.5-inches (S7 Edge)
Display resolution - 2560x1440, 577 PPI (S7), 534PPI (S7 Edge)
Front camera - 12MP / f1.7
Rear camera - 5MP / f1.7
Connectivity - 4G LTE CAT9, Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac (2.4/5GHz), MIMO, Bluetooth 4.2LE, ANT+, USB 2.0, NFC
Expansion slot - microSD up to 200GB