The ultimate way to test a new phone? Travel with it. When you’re seeing sights and losing yourself to the moment, there’s no room to tolerate a poor camera or buggy software, slow speed or short battery life. If there’s a flaw, you’ll find it.
So I tested the Samsung Galaxy S7 in London and Berlin, while colleagues also took it for a spin in San Francisco and Sydney. And you know what? It did great. Better than great. In fact, the S7 was an awesome phone that never cracked under the pressure of being the only way I take pictures and navigate completely unfamiliar terrain, all while keeping battery life going during long days out. And it did so with more finesse than existing phones. I’d call it the best all-around phone out there, better even than the excellent Google Nexus 6P and iPhone 6S. (But not quite as sexy as its fraternal twin, the larger curvy-screen S7 Edge, my top pick if you want to splurge.)
Here’s what I found (along with fellow S7-testers) while using the S7 around Europe. You can also scroll to the end for a specs comparison chart.
Perfect for pockets, but smudgy as hell
I began my testing on London’s crowded, bagpipe-festooned bridges and streets. Since I constantly mashed the S7 into my jeans and jacket pockets only to retrieve it again for a weather check, photo, digital payment or to navigate around, its approachable size was a much better fit for me than a larger phone. “Medium” by today’s bonkers standards, it has a 5.1-inch screen.
Throughout all this nonstop handling, the S7’s curved back and sides made it comfortable to hold, and the one time I dropped it it didn’t dent or break. That was only a few feet off the floor inside a pub, mind you – I’m sure it’d sustain more damage if it had clattered onto pavement.
I spent a good, long time staring at the S7. That curve-back design I mentioned and some very slight rounding on the edges around the display are damn nice, giving the phone a far more luxe and contoured appearance than most, including last year’s ramrod-straight Galaxy S6. In fact, look closely at the details and you can see that this S7 is built better than previous Galaxy phones.
One downside to the S7’s shiny metal-and-glass backing is that smudges pile up on smudges, leaving a semi-permanent sheen of finger grease all over your expensive property. It’s gross, and a pain to constantly clean, which always fails anyway. But like all beautiful phones, you’re bound to slap a case on it anyway, so it’s almost a moot point — just not an excuse.
Camera, camera, camera!
I took a boatload of photos in London while testing the phone, but when my sister and I went to Berlin for the weekend, all hell broke loose. Every pastry and pretzel, imposing museum, graceful river crossing; every glorious kebab and lip-smacking beer became an opportunity for dutiful documentation.
What was confirmed again and again is that crisp photos from the 12-megapixel camera countered low-light interference in every darkened cocktail bar, moodily lit restaurant and dusk-dimmed park. Although this camera has fewer megapixels than last year’s S6, it takes better photos. Scenes are brighter, which makes the action easier to see.
Even in low-light scenes, such as a Berlin speakeasy, the S7 trumps the iPhone 6S, yielding brighter, more usable photos. Digital noise was still there, just diminished; those small speckles of color that infiltrate the picture are an inevitability in low-light digital camera shots.
Whip-quick autofocus was also a winner, grabbing clear shots of moving objects, like swaying flowers (yes, I really do take photos of flowers) and my sister lunging like a lightsaber-wielding Jedi in front of a mural (fear her!).
Photos didn’t just look great on the S7’s sharp screen; they also stood up to enlarged views on my laptop and an even larger monitor back in London.
I also really liked using the new, optional preview mode that lets you delete or share photos immediately after taking them. Oh yes, the S7 has optical image stabilization (OIS), which helped keep my photos from blurring after all those jetlag-fighting coffees.
I’m still less sure of the 5-megapixel front-facing camera, which now has even more “beautification” filters than before. I never liked these, even though I’m vain enough that I don’t want to see every line and wrinkle. To me, they make skin appear plastic and dull; maybe the uncanny valley of too-perfect skin, but I know plenty of people who love the youthening effect. At any rate, I turned all of these filters to zero, but still found that selfies either looked fake or overly harsh. Something in the processing seems off, but this isn’t a dealbreaker by any means.
I did use the S7’s front-facing screen “flash” to light dark selfie scenes, which basically means the phone screen whites-out before the camera fires. This came in handy, since my sister basically selfie-documented every move we made for her husband and kids, especially at dinner and the bar. The flash…it’s blinding. Toning down the brightness would make it more useful, especially if I could pick a warmer color temperature or lower brightness setting to make it all less intense. The iPhone 6S’ similar selfie-flash did better in the same scenes.
Less bloatware is a very, very good thing
Back in London, my appreciation for Samsung’s more restrained customizations to the Android 6.0 software settled in. The S7 slims down the bloatware considerably, while leaving plenty of advanced settings for customizing everything from the lock screen to phone themes — you just have to dig a little deeper now to find everything. Samsung also added a few nice-but-subtle optional touches, like a new “tray” to help you easily move app icons from one screen to another.
Speaking of extra touches, I really like the idea of the Game Launcher, a set of tools you can turn on to trigger some quick actions, like recording the screen or minimizing your game so you can do something else. I’m not the kind of active gamer who would immediately benefit from these features, so trying it out on the subway threw off my movements when playing more precision-based games, like the Riptide 2 racer.
My colleague Jason Parker in San Francisco liked being able to turn off all alerts (with the exception of actual incoming phone calls), but pointed out that the notification for an incoming call still covers most of the screen — so this particular feature doesn’t go far enough.
During my week away from San Francisco (aka home), I fell in love with the S7’s new always-on display, which shows you either the clock, a calendar or an image. It was immediately useful for checking the time and the phone’s battery levels, a constant worry, without actually having to take the phone out of standby. I also set up a clock for the local timezone and the one at home, so I knew when it was too early to call or text.
Battery life is long, performance swift
Other than the camera quality, battery life was my No. 1 concern when using the S7 while Euro-tripping. I was often out from 9 a.m. until midnight, and didn’t always carry a bulky charger or heavy external battery pack, because that gets annoying. Luckily, I didn’t need to. The battery lasted through a full day of heavy use.
Over in San Francisco, my colleagues ran the S7 through our standard CNET lab tests, a looping video downloaded to the phone, played in airplane mode. The S7 averaged 16 hours in three tests, which is one of the longest-running results we’ve seen for any phone. In comparison, the iPhone 6S scored 10.5 hours on the exact same test. I’d still expect to charge it once a day, but would be more confident making it through a late night without dying. If you want a larger battery, there’s always the S7 Edge.