For seven generations now, Samsung's Galaxy S series of smartphones have been torn between two conflicting impulses. Much of the time, as Apple partisans and other detractors have so often charged, Galaxy phones have been the industry's most high-profile iPhone wannabes. But Samsung's strategy for competing with the iPhone has often involved offering features designed to set its products apart from Apple's phone. That, at times, has included gimmicks, which is tough to imagine an iPhone ever offering, such as a screen that scrolls when you tilt your head.
Last year's Galaxy S phones—the S6, S6 Edge, and S6 Edge+—were very much in the iPhone-wannabe mold. They dispensed with the plasticky cases, removable batteries, and memory slots of past Galaxy models in favor of far classier, sealed-up cases—hey, just like the iPhone has always done. Instead of stuffing in as many features as possible, Samsung took a more Apple-esque, minimalist approach and focused on doing fewer things and doing them better. Best of all, its camera finally caught up with the iPhone in terms of overall quality.
With the new Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge, Samsung has swung back toward differentiating itself from Apple. Both phones are incremental advances on last year's (excellent) Galaxies, and don't offer anything to respond directly to the new flagship features in the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus, such as 3D Touch input and Live Photos. Instead, they offer a number of things that iPhones don't, including items that Samsung did away with in its haste to make its S6 models more iPhone-like. And in an area where the iPhone has traditionally set the standard—camera quality—the new Samsungs are not merely competitive, but a new benchmark for all smartphones. (Samsung provided me with test units of both phones for this review.)
Like Apple, Samsung is releasing two similar phones at once. But while the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus are nearly the same handset in two strikingly distinct sizes (4.7 inches and 5.5 inches), the S7 and S7 Edge aren't so easy to explain. At 5.1 inches for the S7 and 5.5 inches for the S7 Edge, their screen sizes are closer than those of the two iPhones. Rather than sharing the same industrial design, the S7 Edge is unquestionably the posher of the two new Samsungs, with the slickest iteration yet of the company's curved-glass design, which gracefully tapers off the display on the left- and right-hand sides rather than ending in an abrupt right angle.
Industrial design-wise, the S7 models look a lot like last year’s Galaxy phones, with a few nips and tucks. Even the non-Edge version of the S7 has a sculpted backside, making it more pleasant to hold. The S7 Edge has a similarly shapely back, and its front glass now sports a slight curve at the top and bottom, reminiscent of the current iPhones. On both new Galaxies, the unsightly rear camera bulge of the 2015 models has been sanded down to a much less-pronounced protrusion.
Oh, and in an eminently sensible move, Samsung made these phones a skosh thicker than their predecessors, opening up additional interior space for larger-capacity, longer-running batteries. I didn’t do formal battery tests but easily got through a day on a charge, with juice to spare.
If price were no object, I’d opt for the S7 Edge over the plain S7 in a nanosecond. It’s a spectacularly attractive smartphone, and the borderless, curved display lets it squeeze 5.5 inches of screen real estate into a phone that’s significantly more comfy in the hand than the iPhone 6s Plus. (The S7 Edge also modifies the Android interface with Edge UX, which lets you swipe stuff out from the curved edge—such as favorite apps and contacts, utilities such as a flashlight, third-party applets from companies such as Yahoo and CNN, and more. But even though Samsung has beefed up these features, they're still not a huge whoop.) And if price is an object? Well, the base-model S7 is also among the most handsome phones on the market, and a hundred bucks cheaper than the Edge.
Here’s one thing that simplifies the buying decision: Inside those two different cases, you’re essentially getting the same well-equipped phone. Both models have Samsung's wonderfully crisp, vivid Super AMOLED screen technology, at the same resolution. They’ve got Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 chips, 32 GB of storage, and 4 GB of RAM. The cameras—a 12-megapixel shooter on the back, a 5-megapixel selfie cam on the front—are identical. Unlike many newish Android phones, they continue to sport micro-USB jacks instead of ones based on the more versatile USB-C standard, which at least preserves compatibility with the cables you probably have strewn all over your home.
In a bit of backpedaling that’s unusual in gadget evolution, both phones bring back a couple of significant features that Samsung had ditched with last year’s S6 models. The option of expanding the phone’s storage up to 200 GB with a MicroSD card has returned, via a cleverly designed tray that can accommodate both a SIM and a MicroSD. And when it comes to water and dust resistance, the phones have a IP68 rating, which means that they can be submerged in 4.9 feet of water for up to half an hour. They're the first Galaxy S models to attain that distinction without requiring you to plug up the USB port with a little rubber stopper. (Apple, meanwhile, has bolstered the current iPhones’ level of protection against liquids without promoting the fact or making specific claims.)
A couple of other features the phones share are intriguing, but don't feel fully baked. Samsung’s new always-on display technology is in the same general ballpark as features offered by existing phones, such as Motorola’s Moto X and Google’s Nexus 5X and 6P. Instead of turning the screen entirely off when you’re not actively using the phone, the Galaxies go into a simple black-background mode, which can display the current time, a monthly calendar, or one of a few simple graphic designs. The penalty in battery life is negligible, and if you use your phone as a watch, it’s a boon to be able to peek at the current time without so much as having to press a button. But Samsung’s initial take on the concept is pretty darn bare bones. For instance, it doesn’t show individual notifications from specific apps or appointments on your calendar. Maybe it will, in some future version.
Then there's Samsung Pay, a feature that the company began rolling out last fall. Like Apple Pay and Google's Android Pay, it lets you store credit cards, and then use the fingerprint scanner built into the phone's home button to pay at retailers with appropriately equipped payment terminals. That works well. But unlike the competition, Samsung Pay is also designed to let you pay at stores that have old-school terminals where you expect to swipe a card. Doing so involves touching your phone to the terminal near the swiper. In my experience, that task often requires so much futzing that it doesn't seem like an advance over paying with plastic. I sometimes gave up rather than trying the patience of cashiers and the customers in line behind me.
With smartphone cameras, improved specs and even promises of technological breakthroughs sometimes translate into improvements that are barely detectable. Not so in the case of the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. Their rear cameras promise major advances, and I noticed the difference the moment I began to snap photos.
Samsung knocked the resolution down from 16 megapixels to 12 megapixels—nothing to stress over, since megapixel counts alone tell you absolutely nothing about image quality—and upgraded the lens to an f/1.7 aperture, which lets in more of the light you need to avoid blurry pics. (The front-facing camera also has an f/1.7 lens.) But the biggest deal is a technology called dual-pixel autofocus. Like some fancy Canon SLR cameras—but unlike any other phone on the market—Samsung's rear-camera image sensor has two photodiodes for each pixel, a technique designed to let it perform phase-detection autofocus very quickly, in all environments.
With plenty of light, the S7 and S7's Edge's cameras focused quickly and captured terrific images—but then again, so do the current iPhones and last year's Galaxy models. What makes the new Galaxy camera different is that it's barely fazed by nighttime scenes and murky interiors that flummox most phone cameras. Instead of visibly struggling to focus, it does so quickly and confidently, and captures pleasing snapshots in the most challenging of circumstances.
In this comparison, for instance, the Galaxy S7 camera (left) knew how to make this scene look good with no work on my part, while the iPhone 6s Plus version blacked out unless I adjusted the exposure manually.
And in these shots I took in a dimly lit restaurant, the Galaxy S7 camera (top) preserved details that the iPhone 6s Plus turned into fuzz.
No smartphone camera can work wonders in every environment. But I've never used one that performed as well under pressure as the one on the new Galaxy models. Herewith, some more of my shots:
By taking on the iPhone at the high end of the smartphone market, at similar pricing, Samsung's Galaxy S models are becoming outliers. Lately, much of the action in the Android phone market has been at much lower price points, where companies from Motorola to OnePlus to even Google itself have been offering models that, though not ultra-luxurious, deliver impressive value for the money.
Part of Samsung's game plan for setting itself apart from the economy-class crowd involves offering complementary gizmos—such as a virtual reality headset and 360-degree camera—with the aim of building out a portfolio of Samsung products that add up to a seamless ecosystem. Even though Apple is unlikely to unveil a VR headset or a camera anytime soon, that overarching goal is certainly Apple-like.
However, Samsung is still hamstrung by the fact that it gets its operating system from Google, then tweaks it in various ways to bring it in line with its own preferences and goals. If you want to use Samsung Pay from your phone's lock screen, for instance, you need to disable Android Pay—a fact that the Samsung Pay setup addresses without explaining the tradeoffs. (Briefly: Samsung Pay works with ancient payment terminals; Android Pay lets you store your loyalty cards.) There are still enough examples like that to leave these phones feeling like they're offspring burdened by uneasy joint custody between two parents.
Or, in some cases, three parents. The phones I tried were the versions that will be sold by Verizon. The carrier plasters its logo on the phones' backsides and has its fingerprints on certain features, such as an online photo-sharing service, grafted on to the Gallery app and rendered superfluous by the splendid Google Photos, which also comes on the phone.
With Android phones, the only way to avoid this mishmosh entirely is to buy a model that offers Android exactly as Google intended it, such as the Nexus 6P or 5X. But even though the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge suffer from a certain impurity of vision, they've still got plenty going for them. From industrial design to technological innards, they're at the front of the Android pack—and those darkness-defying cameras are really something special.