Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Re/code by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an executive editor at The Verge and editor at large of Re/code.
For this week’s column, I’ve been testing two new smartphones from a big handset maker that are pretty much gorgeous. They’re metal and glass, and are premium-priced. They have very good cameras and feel great in the hand. You won’t go wrong buying them.
I’ve written similar sentiments many times with reference to Apple’s iPhones, which are famous for meticulous design and high-quality hardware. But this week, I’m referring to the latest models from Apple’s arch-rival Samsung — the 5.1-inch Galaxy S7 and the 5.5-inch Galaxy S7 Edge, which run the latest version of Google’s Android operating system.
Unfortunately, the beautiful hardware is undercut by software issues, some of it due to interference from carriers.
Both models go on sale on Friday at all major U.S. carriers and many retailers. The full, unsubsidized price for the mainstream S7 is about $670 at two carriers I checked, Verizon and T-Mobile. For the fancier S7 Edge, you’ll pay $792 and $780, respectively, at those two carriers. Of course, the carriers are happy to offer you installment plans, but these are still costly devices, slightly pricier than the latest iPhones that are now six months old.
Hardware and design
For years, even as it became a global smartphone power, Samsung made cheap-feeling plastic models. That changed last year with the Galaxy S6 line, which was built of metal and glass. But this year’s models are even better. They are solid and refined. They are fast and fluid. They have good battery life.
The design of the costlier and larger Edge model is especially impressive. Its screen’s curved edges seem to melt into the aluminum case, and the bezel is so thin as to be almost invisible. Partly for that reason, it is noticeably narrower and shorter than the rival iPhone 6s Plus, though both have the same-sized screen. All told, the S7 Edge has a footprint that’s about 11 percent smaller than Apple’s 6s Plus.
That means that people who found the big iPhone too large to hold comfortably may feel differently about the Edge. I personally still found the Edge a bit too large for my taste, but your mileage may vary.
The standard S7 isn’t quite as dramatic. But it packs a 5.1-inch display into a phone that, while larger than the 4.7-inch iPhone 6s in every dimension, is still reasonably sized. I found it fit well in hand and pocket, and suspect that iPhone 6s users wouldn’t notice much difference.
Both displays are Quad HD Super AMOLED, and they are sharp and vivid without the somewhat garish quality that Samsung has offered in the past. Everything looked crisp and colors were pleasing.
Battery life on both phones was more than good enough to get me through a day of moderate to heavy use. While I didn’t do a formal test, I hammered the standard S7 by streaming the long movie "Inception" twice one day, streaming hours of music, and conducting lots of other normal phone tasks. I got about 10.5 hours of battery life. While I didn’t try that on the Edge, it never even got into the red on the battery indicator while doing normal tasks all day.
The company’s existing fast charger comes in the box, and when I plugged the S7 in with the battery drained, it restored a full charge in well under two hours. For comparison, in my experience, it takes about 2.5 hours to fully charge an iPhone 6s with the included charger.
Both phones are also the first I’ve seen with an always-on display of limited, but useful, information, like the date, time, battery life and simple notifications. These appear in a large, easily readable text block that moves around the screen. You can turn this off, but it doesn’t appear to drain battery life much, and I like it a lot. I am especially glad that Samsung showed unusual restraint and didn’t try to add a million items and options to this feature.
For these new models, Samsung brought back two features that its loyal users had griped were missing from the S6 duo: Water resistance and a slot for a MicroSD card to expand memory. In fact, in the U.S., it’s limiting internal memory to 32 gigabytes for both phones.
Both phones have the necessary hardware to use Google’s Android Pay tap-to-pay service and Samsung’s own Samsung Pay, which has the added advantage of working at many older terminals built only for swipe cards. I didn’t test these functions for this review, but have done so in the past and they worked well.
I had three hardware problems. First, the standard S7 ran hot, sometimes uncomfortably so. Second, the backs of both new Galaxies were slippery. I almost dropped each once.
My worst hardware problem — and it’s quite annoying — is that the fingerprint reader, built into the rectangular physical home button, failed on me. On both models, I kept getting a message to wipe off the home button and try again, even though the button and my thumb were each bone-dry. If I left my thumb on the reader a bit longer, or pressed harder, it would work, but this was still a fail, because it made unlocking the phone with my thumb a chore. Oddly, this didn’t happen with a second finger. Samsung had no explanation, but that same thumb has unlocked several other brands of handsets quickly and reliably.
Encryption isn’t something I have usually included in my reviews, but given the titanic Apple-FBI battle now under way over the issue, I asked Samsung if these new phones were encrypted, like the iPhone (most Android phones aren’t.) Referring to both models, the company said: "Default encryption is turned on for Galaxy S7. Samsung cannot decrypt the user’s encrypted phones. The encryption key is randomly generated for each user and the key is protected with the user’s password."
However, Samsung conceded that its own out-of-the-box texting app merely handles phone carrier SMS; the company lacks a proprietary, end-to-end encrypted messaging service like Apple’s iMessage. For that, you’d have to download a third-party messaging app that offers encryption.
I’m not a photo enthusiast, and wouldn’t pass myself off as an expert. But the S7’s 12-megapixel rear camera — the same on both models — took very good pictures, even in low light. Samsung has sped up the focusing process by making all the sensor’s pixels capable of helping the camera to focus (something called "dual pixels"), and it has also increased the aperture. That makes low-light photos both brighter and less blurry.
In tests both inside and outside, of both videos and stills, the S7 models showed a softer, more realistic palette than some earlier Samsung models, and I liked that. I found the S7 cameras to be notably better than the iPhone’s in low light, but a bit worse outdoors. For instance, Samsung did very well at bringing out people and objects in a poorly lit room in my house, but Apple picked up water droplets on shrubbery that Samsung only hinted at.
Your mileage will vary, but I’d rate these cameras as quite good.
As has happened so often in the past, Samsung’s best efforts at hardware are let down by software. The company told me it had stopped trying half-baked software ideas, and reduced duplication of Samsung and Android apps by about 30 percent.
I agree that the S7s have the cleanest software build of any Galaxy I’ve tested, and that Samsung’s TouchWiz interface has been toned down. But there’s still too much duplicate software for my taste. For instance, out of the box, there are still two email apps, two music services, two photo-viewing apps, two messaging apps and, except on Verizon, two browsers and dueling wireless payment services. (Samsung says Verizon barred including Samsung’s browser and Samsung Pay out of the box.) And Verizon builds in a third messaging app.
Speaking of Verizon, my test unit running on that carrier had a folder with eight of the carrier’s apps in it. The setup process also guided me to using Verizon’s messaging app rather than Samsung’s and a Verizon backup service. It even warned me I might lose important stuff if I didn’t sign up for the Verizon service. At one point, I received a gaudy, jarring full-screen Verizon ad urging me to send retail gift cards via messaging. I also received a notification urging me to let Verizon show me how to speed up visits to its stores.
Samsung said other U.S. carriers are less aggressive than Verizon, and defended the company’s practice of maintaining "close" relations with its carriers. But these kinds of premium devices shouldn’t be vehicles for carrier come-ons. And Samsung says that there isn’t an unlocked S7 model available that lacks carrier software.
Somehow, my iPhones running on Verizon have never had any of this carrier bloatware. Apple seems to be able to maintain good relations with carriers without kowtowing to them. One wonders why Samsung, which is a huge global company, can’t do the same.
Worse, despite Samsung’s newfound software restraint, the company couldn’t stop itself from offering a complex new system of software shortcuts on the larger S7 Edge model. This is the new iteration of a useless feature from last year’s Edge model, and it is better. But it’s the kind of thing that just strikes me as a gimmick. You can swipe in from a small area of the right edge to see various different vertical rows of supposedly quick-action icons: Frequent contacts, favorite apps, news, automated tasks and more. Some of these actually can be expanded to two vertical rows.
It sounds at first glance like a time-saving idea, but I found it to be a sort of competing user interface, which I frequently forgot about.
Overall, the new Galaxy S7 models are excellent phones for buyers who can afford them. Their build quality, design and cameras put them in the same ballpark as the iPhone. But the needlessly confusing software bloat and the clumsy Edge settings I found on the Samsung devices still leaves Apple in the lead, in my opinion. And that’s despite what I perceive to be a gradual decline in the quality of Apple’s software.
Still, everyone shopping for a premium smartphone should consider the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. And for premium shoppers who are already Android or Samsung fans, choosing them is a no-brainer.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.