What a difference a year makes. Samsung has revealed its Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge phone and you’re in for a treat. Building on its experience, Samsung has refined the industrial design of the Galaxy S line to offer what many of its customers were clamoring for: a larger battery, micro SD support, waterproofing, excellent low-light camera performance and uber-fast autofocus — and more. We played with the Galaxy S7, and here’s our take on it.
Industrial design: superb, waterproof
For the 2016 edition of the Galaxy Series, Samsung is perfecting things, but not revolutionizing them like it did last year. Thanks to the success of the new design language. Instead, Samsung has clarified the handsets positioning and refined its design to the extreme.
You may remember that the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge were concurrent designs addressing the same market. Maybe it was a risk mitigation strategy from Samsung when introducing a brand new design but it also made it harder to accurately predict demand, and Samsung ended up building too few S6 Edge phones to cope with demand.
With the Galaxy S7 Series, the choice will be much clearer: the Galaxy S7 is the regular sized phone (5.1”), while the Galaxy S7 Edge is the larger model (5.5”). Now they address distinct market segments. As their names indicate, the S7 will feature a flatter (but not completely flat) design, while the S7 Edge will have that beautiful curved display that made people rave. Both phones will also have a larger battery than their predecessors. If you want to go nuts, 3rd parties are building a gold-plated version of the S7, sold for $2400.
Call in your shower if you want: it’s waterproof
Let’s dive right away in the most important design change of the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. Samsung is bringing back its protection against dust and water. This is a huge deal since 50% of smartphone that die accidentally do so due to water exposure.
An IP68 Ingress Protection (IP) rating means that dust cannot penetrate or damage the device (dustproof) and that the device can be immersed in water (typically up to 3 meters). Some water may be able to get in some areas, but cannot damage the functioning of the device. [learn more about IP ratings]
"THE S7 GETS A BETTER IP RATING THAN PANASONIC'S ENORMOUS $1500 RUGGED PHONE"This is a very powerful protection that very few smartphones have. If you remember, the Galaxy S5 had an IP67 rating, which means that it was submersible to 1-meter deep for 30mn, but the Galaxy S7 goes well beyond that. T-Mobile did a hilarious underwater S7 unboxing to celebrate the S7 and S7 Edge water-resistance.
Typically, most IP68 smartphones exist only as bulky phones with a huge encasing. It’s pretty amazing that Samsung has managed to build an IP68 phone that has none of the typical waterproofing downsides. T-Mobile really had fun with their underwater unboxing. As a comparison, Panasonic’s gigantic $1500 rugged phone only gets an IP67 rating. That said, Samsung warns user against charging a wet S7 phone.
Save money on storage: micro SD is back too!
The loss of the micro SD slot in the Galaxy S6 series was a big disappointment for a number of power users. It was obvious that whenever possible, the presence of such an extension is desirable – unless you happen to sell the upgrade for a huge profit margin, like Apple does, which is exactly why Samsung brought microSD back.
Samsung heard its customers, and managed to squeeze a micro SD slot within the SIM tray slot. It works similarly to other handsets: you can either use a SIM and a micro SD, or two SIM cards. If you live in the USA, don’t get too excited, there’s no dual-SIM model scheduled at the moment for our market.
The micro SD slot can accept up to 2TB cards (2048GB). However, the biggest ones today are 200-256GB ones and cost around $80, but still, this is as much storage as many laptop computers. Apple charges about $200 for 128GB of additional built-in storage, and Android OEMs charge less, but it’s obvious why micro SD is important to specific power-users.
Materials: metal and glass
The Galaxy S7 industrial design still relies on metal and glass. The Galaxy S7 is a little curvier (front and back) than the S6 and feels great in the hand. It’s a good-sized phone which should appeal to a very wide audience. The new curves make the Galaxy S7 nice and organic-looking, but the S7 Edge has the advantage of the extra-curvy screen. As for the larger display size, it only depends on your taste.
"THE GALAXY S7 DESIGN IS AN IMPRESSIVE ACCOMPLISHMENT"The display of the Galaxy S7 has a very nice looking beveled edge. You may have seen many 2.5D display glass designs, but most are cut at an angle. This one has a rounded glass edge, which means that it took a lot more work/time/money to get done. It also feels even softer in the hand.
In the back, the camera is more flush as before, and a side by side photo with the S6 Edge+ shows that very clearly. It’s very difficult to reduce the depth of the camera module, so I’m really curious about the internal design of these handsets.
To conclude on the design, Samsung is consolidating and defining the Galaxy S7 design better. The fact that Samsung was able to increase the battery life substantially (more on that later in the article), while reducing the camera’s footprint, with micro SD support and with IP68 waterproofing shows the extraordinary skills of their Industrial Design team. The Galaxy S7 design is an impressive accomplishment.
Camera: amazing AF speed, low-light performance
As the best Camera Phone of 2015, the Galaxy S6 series has a lot to live up to, so we were curious to see what Samsung had in store for 2016. Long story short, the Galaxy S7 (and Galaxy S7 Edge) is setting the bar by pushing the limits on two fronts: the auto-focus (AF) speed/precision and the low-light performance. A few numbers first:
- 12 Megapixel image sensor
- f1.7 aperture
- 1.4um pixels with dual-pixel diode technology
- up to 4M pixels used for phase detection auto-focus (AF) at any given time
- All the pixels can potentially contribute to auto-focus
- 95%* more light sensed within the entire camera system (*Samsung estimates)
Low light performance
Let’s start with the low-light performance, which is a combination of the larger aperture (f1.7), and the larger pixels on the sensor. If you are not familiar with aperture size, the lower the number, and the more light comes into the lens system. In turn, this reduced image noise and helps the autofocus system to react faster.
"LARGER PIXELS+LARGER APERTURE=HIGHER LOW-LIGHT PERFORMANCE"The larger aperture and the extra light that comes in allow for a faster shutter speed. This reduces the risk of getting blurry photos, which is one of the key problems with low-light situations.
The increased pixel size of 1.4 um (up from 1.12 um) also contributes to better sensing. With an increased surface area for each pixel, it’s like having a telescope with a bigger mirror. More light=better, it’s that simple. Note that this isn’t the first time that an OEM brags about “larger pixels”.
HTC did so repeatedly, and Google/Huawei also did with the Nexus 6P – yet, none did beat the Galaxy S6. Pixel size is only one out of many factors. Software processing of the sensor’s signal is actually an extremely important factor that is not reflected in the camera’s specs – keep that in mind.
As expected, the first independent Galaxy S7 camera vs. iPhone 6S+ camera reviews show the S7 as a clear winner.
Uber-fast autofocus (AF)
In a first for a mobile camera, 33% of the Samsung Galaxy S7 image sensor are able to contribute to phase-detection autofocus. This is rather extraordinary because even most full-size cameras don’t have that ability. This is made possible by dual-pixel diode technology.
You can read our complete explanation of Dual-Pixel Diode technology, but the idea is this: each pixel of the camera’s image sensor is split in two photodiodes (light sensors) that are just below a micro lens. Because of the separation, it is possible to use a Phase-Detection autofocus algorithm for every single pixel. In some ways, it’s like having 12 Million focus points on the sensor.
Invented by Canon around 2013 for its Canon EOS 70D DSLR camera, this technology in the camera sensor of the Galaxy S7. Canon says that Dual Pixel Diode technology increases autofocus speed by 80%. Since the Galaxy S6 phase-detection AF already had one of the fastest AF speed on the market, you can see how painful this can be for whoever doesn’t have this tech.
"THE S7 CAMERA AUTOFOCUS USES LEADING DSLR TECH"With up to a third of all pixels contributing to the AF process, that’s about 4M pixels, which could be considered as that many focus points. The actual pixels that contribute depends on the focus zones and other factors that Samsung has kept secret for now.
The result is an ultra-fast autofocus, even in extreme low-light situations. When the phone was presented to us, Samsung had a demo apparatus that was opposing the Galaxy S7 to the iPhone 6s Plus. As you can see in the movie below, the result is without appeal: the iPhone 6s Plus has a much slower AF speed and higher image noise in low-light. The iPhone 6s was already losing slightly to the Galaxy S6, but the gap has now become much wider.
The conclusion for the camera is that it looks extremely strong, and it is very likely that the Galaxy S7 series succeeds to the Galaxy S6 as being the top camera phone on the market. We will need to confirm that after a more exhaustive field test, but for now, what we’ve seen is leading-edge.
Battery: ~20% bigger
The Galaxy S6 has been the topic of some criticism for the lack of removable battery, something that the S5 was proudly featuring, despite being waterproof. With the Galaxy S7, the back cover is still not removable, but the battery jumps to 3000 mAh – that’s a 17.64% more than the S6 and 7.15% more than the S5.
The Galaxy S7 Edge gets a 3600 mAh battery – that’s a 20% boost when compared to the Galaxy S6 Edge+ (the big S6). By all standards, this is a very nice increase in battery capacity.
Both handsets will feature integrated wireless charging, including “fast” wireless charging. You may remember that the Galaxy Note 5/S6 Edge+ were the Samsung handsets that introduced fast wireless charging while the original S6 only featured standard speed wireless charging.
Always on display was a great innovation for the Android Wear smartwatches, allowing people to see the time without the need to press a button to do so. The AMOLED technology is the best to provide this feature, since the black pixels do not use any power, they are basically turned off. The Samsung Galaxy S7 offers a great Always On display where you can see the time, date, your calendar, your email notifications and you can customize it as well.
New EDGE UX
The key benefit of the Edge display is the fast access to apps directly under your thumb, on the side, which is great for one hand operation.
Samsung improved the Galaxy Edge S7 user interface by adding a second vertical column of shortcuts, and by offering a lot more apps accessible from the Edge shortcuts, now you can choose from 9 panels of apps in the settings.
Another cool addition to the edge UX is what Samsung calls the “My Places Edge” which provides the ability to program up to four apps that change based on your location.
“Task Edge” allows users to go directly to a specific function in an application in one click, for example, in the Contact app you access directly the function “add a new contact” in one click.
You can see how the new Edge UX works in the video demo at minute 1.26.
Games Settings add no disturbance and better battery life
If you install more than a couple of games, the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge will create a special gaming directory for your games. But the game settings are the real interesting part. First, it will now be possible to disable notifications so they don’t pop and disturb you during a game (or worse, have you virtually killed).
Secondly, it is now possible to set the games to run at 30FPS instead of 60FPS, which reduces the framerate obviously, but also the computing power required by the game by 2X. Think of it, games compute millions of pixels per second, and all of that requires tremendous energy. You now have the freedom to choose to sacrifice FPS to gain battery life and play longer. I’ve been asking for this for many years, and I’m glad OEMs start to “get it”.
Access to Google Apps Marketplace
Galaxy S7 users can use the Google Apps Marketplace, which is an app-store for enterprises. It gives some control to the IT staff to pre-approve apps. This is important for companies that require employees to use specific phone models due to security concerns. Also, it means that if you bring your personal S7 to work, IT will be happy and will let you use your own phone, instead of giving you a potentially “ugly” one.
System performance: Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 or Samsung Exynos 8
It’s been confirmed to Ubergizmo by Samsung that the U.S market will get the handsets powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 chip. Reads our complete overview of the chip if you want to see the small details, but it’s an excellent one.
— Samsung Exynos (@SamsungExynos) November 11, 2015
For other markets, Samsung has not confirmed it, but we suspect that the Samsung Exynos 8890 (Exynos 8 Octa official page) will be it. Announced around November, the Exynos 8890 uses 8 cores in a big.LITTLE configuration of four powerful Exynos M1 CPU cores, and four low-power ARM A53 cores.
The A53 core has been in use for a while, but the Exynos M1 core is new and it is a custom CPU core from Samsung. Chipmakers sometimes build their own CPU core (“custom”) design because their analysis tells them that they can optimize it specifically for the workload or other priorities they have in a market.
Samsung claims a 30% speed increase over the Exynos 7420 used in the S6, but we’ll know for sure when we’ll run benchmarks. Samsung also claims a 10% higher power efficiency for the same workload.
The most interesting point in the CPU benchmarks is the single-core performance. A test like Geekbench shows that the “per core” speed is close to Apple’s dual-core iPhone processor, but the Snapdragon 820 chip has 4 cores. That’s why it has no problem at all leading the multi-core test. Read “are more cores better?” to understand the finer points in this matter?
Overall system benchmark
If we look at a benchmark such as Basemark OS II, which is designed to measure the overall system performance, we can see that the Galaxy S7 is the top Android phone of the moment, but is challenged by the iPhone 6s series. Interestingly, the S7 does well in synthetic CPU and graphics tests, so we’ll have to take a closer look to see where the iPhone 6s pulls ahead. The storage speed may prove to make a difference here, but that seems unlikely…
The graphics processor (GPU) of the Exynos 8890 is the Mali-T880 MP12. The “MP12” name indicated the number of graphics cores, and the MP12 version is the most powerful commercially available at the time of publishing.
In the Snapdragon 820 version of the S7 series, the Adreno 530 GPU offers excellent performance, and the benchmark show this well. Maybe GFXBench Manhattan is most representative of many 3D games while 3DMark Slingshot can be a proxy for the most advanced ones.
Interestingly, the Galaxy S7 will support the new Vulkan graphics API out of the box. Vulkan is an alternative to OpenGL ES, and is designed to provide better graphics performance, and lower CPU overhead.
Samsung Exynos vs. Qualcomm Snapdragon
We need to run numbers on retail units before reaching a conclusion. At the moment, and according to numbers spotted online, the Exynos 8890 would score slightly better than Snapdragon in CPU tests such as Geekbench, while Snapdragon 820’s graphics processor would score better in some graphics tests.
With early drivers and all, tables can still be turned, but in similar situations in the past (Galaxy S5), we know that the differences don’t really affect the larger user experience between it’s really hard for the user to sense these differences in the real-world, especially in non-gaming apps.
We’ll update this section of the review as we get the final firmware. It would be premature to post scores and charts right now.
Integrated 4G LTE modem
Both Snapdragon 820 and Exynos 8890 have integrated LTE modems, and offer leading-edge LTE connectivity and comparable performance and features (at least from a practical standpoint). Both can claim 600 Mbps to download speed and 150 Mbps of upload speed (theoretical best case scenario).
To the user, the difference between internal and external modems shouldn’t be a sway factor. Integration is great for the chipmaker and the handset makers because it’s more cost-efficient and has a smaller footprint. In terms of functionality, there are no visible changes.
Conclusion: the new leading smartphone
The Galaxy S7 is a remarkable smartphone. The Galaxy S6 pretty much lead the Android market for all of 2015, and the Galaxy S7 is giving them a good chance to do the same in 2017.
For this generation, Samsung has once again chosen to focus on what arguably matters the most: larger battery, camera performance, great (waterproof) design and next-gen computing and communications capabilities.
"THE GALAXY S7 SETS THE BAR FOR ALL 2016 SMARTPHONES "The camera technology is particularly impressive. By using technology originally built for DSLR cameras and found on no other handset, Samsung can offer unprecedented and unrivaled autofocus performance. It couples this with a large camera aperture and high-performance sensor to create a top low-light camera performance.
Being a waterproof phone, the Galaxy S7 is much less likely to die in one’s kitchen, pool or bathtub, and could even be used in the shower (a popular usage in some parts of Asia). All in all, the Galaxy S7 sets the bar for all 2016 smartphones.
Availability and prices
Samsung is making the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge available in select markets on March 7 (we’ll update this section as more granular information comes out). As for pricing, it will probably be comparable to other high-end phones before it, so aim for the ~$650 range (unlocked), and ~$800 as imports during the early days. An estimated 17.2M Galaxy S7 series phones should be built by April 2016.
Update: many carriers are already proposing deals such as T-Mobile buy one get one free, which competes with a similar deal from AT&T. Boost and Virgin Mobile carry the S7 series, along with Verizon and Best Buy. AT&T and Sprint have started to ship S7 phones in early March (T-Mobile too). You may also want to keep an eye on Samsung’s phone leasing program which should come on March 11, and don’t forget that select carriers will give away the Gear S2 smartwatch or the Gear VR headset with an S7 purchase.