Samsung has done it: The Galaxy S7 is already the phone to beat in 2016.
This marks the first time I’ve ever looked at a Samsung device with such positivity. In the past, Samsung always seemed just out of reach in creating a device worthy of such a tag. The 2014 Galaxy S5 suffered from performance issues and software bloat. Last year’s Galaxy S6 was an improvement…until you realized the battery died during your lunch hour.
With the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, Samsung
has improved battery life and nearly rid its flagship smartphones of performance issues. Those improvements come in addition to an impressive camera, waterproof housing, microSD support, and Samsung’s mobile payment platform, Samsung Pay.
Read more: All About Samsung’s New Galaxy S7
That’s not to say these new devices are perfect—no smartphone is. Yet the S7 lineup is as close to smartphone perfection as it gets in 2016 thus far. Let’s take a closer look at what could very well be the smartphone of the year.
Mix some of the old with some of the new
After disappointing sales and a shift in management within its mobile division, Samsung borrowed headlining features from previous Galaxy models and mixed them more recent additions to its product lineup.
The smaller Galaxy S7 has a 5.1-inch display and subtle curves on the back of the device making it easier to grip. The Galaxy S7 Edge is equipped with a 5.5-inch curved display, a feature giving the impression that the device is slimmer than it actually is. In turn, the S7 Edge is much easier to hold and manage with a single hand than any other smartphone of similar size (namely Apple’s iPhone 6S Plus).
I’ve typically shied away from smartphones with screens of 5.5-inches or larger, using them only when required for work. However, the Galaxy S7 Edge is proof that I can have the best of both worlds—a big screen in a comfortable form factor.
Color options depend on model as the S7 will be available in gold or black. The S7 Edge comes in white, gold, silver and black.
Pricing is carrier-dependent, but you can expect to pay just under $700 for the S7 and under $800 for the S7 Edge without a contract.
Once a mainstay and top-selling point of Samsung phones, expandable storage has returned to the S7, adding up to 200-gigabytes of storage to the phone. Waterproof housing is also back, offering protection under up to five feet of water for 30 minutes. Best of all, the waterproof feature doesn’t require any of the awkward plugs and flaps for the charging and headphone ports.
Missing from the S7 is a removable battery, an omission sure to disappoint some Samsung fans. Instead, Samsung slightly increased the thickness of both devices in order to make room for a bigger battery. The S7 now boasts a 3,000 milliamp-hour battery, while the S7 Edge now carries a 3,600 milliamp-hour battery. That’s up from 2,550 and 2,600 milliamp-hours, respectively. Arguably, the added size is worth the trade-off in improved battery life as both devices offered enough power to get through 16-hour days of normal use and testing.
Outside of screen and battery size, the two handhelds are very much the same on a spec sheet. A 12-megapixel camera is found on the back with a 5-megapixel camera on the front. Both devices are powered by Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 820 processor and sport four gigabytes of memory along with 32 gigabytes of storage.
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A camera unlike any other
Low-light photos are the Achilles heel of nearly every smartphone camera on the market. Each manufacturer puts its own spin on how well the camera performs with limited light, often touting a jargon-filled flyer to explain why their camera is better than the competition. Overall, we’ve only seen iterative improvements in low-light performance across all brands and platforms.
When Samsung announced the S7 line, the company followed the same script of promising a camera that could finally take good photos in low-light situations. Only this time, Samsung actually delivered on its promise.
In what seems like a backwards move, Samsung lowered the megapixel count on the S7. Last year’s S6 used a 16-megapixel shooter, but this year’s model dropped down to 12-megapixels. Samsung asserts the drop in overall megapixels is beneficial thanks to the addition of Dual Pixel Sensor technology, something previously found only on more expensive DSLR cameras.
In simple terms, Dual Pixel Sensor technology increases the focus speed on an object while capturing more light, overall improving low-light photography.
Focusing with the S7 camera is incredibly fast and a welcomed feature for someone snapping photos a child or pet, both of which never sit still for very long.
Throughout my time with the S7, I sent various photos to friends, starting with one taken on my personal iPhone 6S and then another with the S7 or S7 Edge. I simply asked the recipient to pick the photo that he or she liked better without revealing which phone captured either photo.
Out of the 20 or so photos I sent, only once was the iPhone 6S declared the winner.
A display that never turns off
Samsung’s AMOLED display provides users the option to leave the device’s screen lit at all times, displaying the time or notification icons yet still free from a significant impact on battery life. An always-on display should replace the lock screen that users see countless times a day when checking the time or notifications.
I found Samsung’s current implementation of the feature more of a distraction than an added benefit. This is primarily because notification support for non-Samsung applications doesn’t exist. In other words, if you expect to view Gmail or Facebook alert icons using the always-on display feature, you’re going to be disappointed.
Ultimately, I found the feature distracting. I’ve grown accustomed to looking at my phone whenever the screen lights up, typically indicating an alert or notification. The S7’s screen is always on, and the clock displayed on the screen moves around every few seconds. Each time it moved, I would glance at the phone expecting a new alert.
Thankfully, the feature can be turned off, which is exactly what I did on the fifth day of using the S7.
Solid performance, still too much bloat
The S7 runs the latest version of Google’s
mobile operating system, Android 6.0 Marshmallow (6.0.1 to be exact). Samsung included TouchWiz, its proprietary customization for Android on these devices. In recent years, Samsung has made it a point to reduce the amount of customization and unnecessary software (often referred to as “bloatware”) on its Android products.
With the S7, it’s apparent TouchWiz is still very much apart of the experience, but it’s not as overbearing as it once was. However, the amount of unnecessary apps added by carriers is still very much a problem with the Galaxy line.
For example, the review unit I was sent is a Verizon Wireless model. During my time with the device, I’ve repeatedly received alerts offering me advice detailing how to achieve an “enhanced” visit to a Verizon Wireless
store. I don’t know what that means, and I don’t really care to find out. Not to mention it’s nothing I signed up to receive on the phone. AT&T models of the S7 feature similar alerts asking users to sign up for AT&T
Economic reasons aside, the practice is disrespectful to users. Installing a carrier application that pushes alerts to the user without explicitly asking for permission beforehand is a blatant disregard for the user.
This practice of installing unnecessary software has long been a problem for everyone outside of Apple
, who has thus far been able to avoid carrier software on its iPhone line.
Overall performance on the S7 is still fast. Apps open quickly, and multitasking by switching between open apps is smooth. Occasionally, I experienced sluggish performance with the S7 despite no real apparent cause or reason, but those instances were rare.
The sickening, it happened to me
Samsung is also pushing its $99 Gear VR virtual reality headset with the S7 line. Users who preordered either smartphone will receive a free virtual reality headset and $50 worth of games. The headset relies on the S7 to power and provide a display for the experience. I used the S7 Edge with a Gear VR a few times, but I was limited in how much time I could spend in the virtual worlds because it made me feel queasy.
My kids, however, loved being able to watch a dinosaur from Jurassic World walk around them or view various short animations using the headset. There’s no question having the added option of turning a smartphone into a VR headset is appealing—if only nausea didn’t accompany the experience for some of us.
Your move, Apple
Rumors and speculation surrounding the design and feature set of Apple’s next iPhone are already commonplace, some six months before the company typically unveils its latest smartphone. That’s six months for Samsung to claim the title of the best smartphone on the market and put pressure on Apple to release something to reclaim the crown.
My personal preference between the smaller S7 and the slim but bigger S7 Edge is for the latter device. It fits almost too comfortably in my hand or pocket without compromising overall screen size. If you’re in the market for a smartphone, you owe it to yourself to give the Galaxy S7 line a long look before making a final decision.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated the S7 would be available in white, which is not the case in the U.S. Additionally, Samsung’s Always-On Display feature isn’t enabled by Qualcomm’s processor, the post has been updated to reflect that. Fortune regrets the error.