Back in 2012, I was finally in a position to buy my first real flagship smartphone. I’d decided on Android for the ease of customisation, and a friend had recently purchased a Samsung Galaxy S3. He’d handed it to me in a bar and I’d fallen for it immediately. I went out and ordered mine the next day, and I was a Galaxy owner by the end of that week. The Galaxy S3 was a solid phone, but it ultimately let me down. It needed to be repaired twice and I swore I wouldn’t go back to Samsung. That resolve hadn’t really been tested until now, four years later.
The Galaxy S7 is a beautiful machine. It looks great at almost any angle, and it feels solid in the hand. It has a clear density and feels dependable; gone are the days of cheap plastic and poor build quality. Samsung proved with the Galaxy S6 line that it could move into the upper echelon of smartphone manufacturers and build a premium product, and they’ve iterated beautifully on that design in the Galaxy S7. The camera hump is less pronounced, the fingerprint scanner is faster and the curved glass back feels comfortable in the hand.
TouchWiz, Samsung’s version of Android, has also been iterated upon to the point of maturity. This latest version, based on Android 6.0 has a modern, flat design and tasteful hints of colour are splashed throughout the interface, making the UI simple to navigate. Personally, I prefer the vanilla version of Android that can be found on Google’s Nexus line, but Samsung’s TouchWiz is certainly closer now than it has been in years. Samsung has quietly slipped in a ton of handy shortcuts such as the double-tap of the home button to launch the camera. Overall, the software feels zippy and gets out of the way when you need it to.
Photography is one of the areas where the Galaxy S7 really shines. Our staff of photography nerds were all very impressed with it as it made its way around our office. Samsung has dropped the megapixel count from 16 in the previous version, but focus time has been cut down by up to three times versus the previous generation, thanks to the new dual-pixel system that allows every single one of the 12 million pixels to act as focus pixels. The focus time is very, very fast.
Switching between the background and foreground is near-immediate, and Samsung’s ‘Pro’ photography mode is a delight to use. In ‘Pro’ mode, you can manually adjust ISO, White Balance, Shutter Speed and Focus, and the S7 also allows you to shoot in RAW (although you’ll need a third-party app to open RAW files). A neat touch in this mode gives you a cropped zoom view when manually focusing, to make sure that you get tack-sharp images even on a small screen.
The autofocus is also responsive, and although it struggled a little with fast-moving objects in our tests, it generally performed well. The camera software handles dynamic range well in auto mode, and has great low-light performance to boot. In tests with the iPhone 6 Plus (the newest we could find in the office), we found that the S7 produced punchier colours and and had a slightly wider dynamic range in auto mode.
Samsung has also introduced (or re-introduced, if you used a Galaxy S4) a feature named ‘Motion Photo’,which records 3 seconds before you hit the shutter, so you can relive each photo along with a short video. I’m still to be convinced by this feature, but it’s there if you want it. Overall, this is a supremely confident mobile shooter. You’ll get crisp, quality images 99% of the time thanks to an f/1.7 lens and Samsungs powerful processing.
The video quality on the S7 is also consistently excellent. Although video lags behind still photography on mobile in many ways, Samsung is doing its best to close the gap. When LG announced V10 last year, one of its most-touted features was the manual video mode, which immediately put that phone onto the radar of videographers. Now the Galaxy S7 is touting the exact same features and is barely shouting about it. You can adjust the shutter speed, ISO, white balance and focus as you record, and it all works seamlessly. OIS also helps to steady your shots, making it easier to capture smooth, high-quality video.
The S7 is capable of recording up to 3840×2160 at 30fps, as well as a number of slow-mo modes including 240fps at 720p. We unfortunately didn’t get to take a look at the new lens case that will be available with the phone, but even without it, the Galaxy S7 produces video as good as almost any we’ve seen from a phone.
At the top of this review I called the Galaxy S7 a beautiful machine, and this phone is exactly that – a machine. It performs remarkably, works hard in every department and is a powerhouse on paper and in real life. Despite this, I found it hard to really connect with this phone. Perhaps it’s due to my history with Samsung phones, but the S7 never compelled me the way other phones have.
It felt like something that I admired, rather than something I loved. As my colleague Ian wrote about the Fuji X-Pro 2, “best is subjective, and rather than always having technical specifications at the forefront of every gear debate, ergonomics and the ’emotion’ of a product should be an equally driving force behind every consumer decision.” The Galaxy S7 felt lacking to me in the emotional, thrilling sense. This is undoubtedly the best phone I’ve ever used in terms of specs, but somehow that still doesn’t make it my favourite.