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Samsung's big, beautiful Galaxy Note 7 lands August 19th

A close look at the company's latest phablet before it goes on sale later this month.
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Another year, another Galaxy Note. Samsung just unveiled its new Galaxy Note 7 in New York this morning, and you'll be able to get one for yourself in the US starting August 19th. We got the chance to take one for a test drive prior to the show, and one thing quickly became clear: Samsung might not have revamped the Note formula, but the Note 7 is a testament to the quality that can come from years of gradual change.

The broad strokes

The US version of the Note 7 packs a quad-core, Snapdragon 820 chipset, an Adreno 530 GPU and 4GB of RAM. Good on you if that sounds familiar: The Note 7 actually has the same internals as this year's Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge. I spent about 45 minutes playing with the Note 7 and it's an incredibly fast, responsive little machine. We're just about to get the first batch of games that lean on the high-performance Vulkan API too, so it won't be long until we see what the Note 7 and its ilk can really do.

The similarities don't end there, either. The Note 7 has the same 12-megapixel, DualPixel camera as the S7 family, so it should join them as one of the top cameraphones, especially in low-light conditions. Samsung also made the Note 7 IP68 water-resistant like its smaller cousins, a feature that should really be standard on flagship phones by now. The Note 7's gorgeous 5.7-inch, Super AMOLED is curved on the left and right sides too, and it makes use of the same Edge interface we know and tolerate for quick access to contacts and apps. Oh, and there's a spot to fit up to a 256GB microSD card if the 64GB of built-in storage isn't enough.

Gallery: Say hello to the Galaxy Note 7 | 26 Photos

Those similarities aren't all that surprising, but the overall package is nonetheless first rate. I'm calling it now: the Galaxy Note 7 is the most comfortable Note ever made and is even nicer to hold than either of the S7's. Samsung went with a symmetrical build this year, so the front and back of the Note 7 have the same amount of curviness -- that helps the phone fit into your palm more easily and gives your fingers more of a place to rest. Samsung's improved design might have given us one drawback, though: The Note 7 has a 3,500mAh battery, which is actually a bit smaller than the one inside the S7 Edge.

We'll see how long that battery actually lasts once we get a device in to really review, but there's one more design decision worth appreciating in the meantime. While the industry seems to have it out for the standard headphone jack, Samsung didn't pull a Motorola here. Though the Note 7 ditches micro-USB in favor of USB Type-C, you can still plug in a regular pair of headphones when the mood strikes.

So, what else is new?

For starters, you can now get a blue Note 7 with vaguely copper-looking metal trim. It's a sort of robin's egg blue and looks pretty charming (though I'd argue the black Note 7 is the best-looking of the bunch).

Beyond that, the rumors were true: That iris sensor is here, sitting just above the Note 7's screen. You can use it to unlock the phone or access content you've secured (more on that in a bit). The sensor takes a minute to set up, and works pretty well even with big glasses like mine. (Samsung admits that glasses with certain coatings might make things tricky.) As neat as the technology is, it doesn't actually seem that useful right at first blush. When I was trying to unlock a Note 7 with my gaze, getting my eyes lined up correctly took more time than a fingerprint scan normally would. This will probably get easier with time, but be sure to keep your expectations in check all the same. More importantly, there's simply not much to do with that iris sensor right now. Samsung says we'll eventually be able to use our eyes to log into accounts and authenticate Samsung Pay transactions, but neither of those features are ready just yet.

Now, about that secured content. In a nod to the business customers who seem to have flocked to the Note line, Samsung added a "secure folder" in which you can store files and even app instances to which you want to restrict access. Samsung also cleaned up its TouchWiz interface a bit (yes!), bringing it ever-so-slightly more in line with Google's "Material Design" language. This cleaning-up approach goes beyond just looks too: The camera interface has been stripped of its rows of shooting modes and settings. Swiping back and forth on the camera display brings back those familiar shooting modes in case you need them. Oh, and the Note 7 now supports streaming HDR video too. So, you know, have at it.

Additionally, Samsung combined four of its S Pen-friendly apps into a one-stop shop called "Samsung Notes" where you can capture your handwritten notes and drawings, not to mention edit photos. Speaking of the S Pen...

S Pen, take 7

The updated S Pen doesn't look much different from the one we got last year, but this year it's water-resistant, just like the phone itself. Because the handset and pen can now withstand liquid, you can actually write things on the Note 7's screen while underwater, though I'm not sure when anyone would ever actually need to. Writing and sketching with the S Pen feels a little more natural this time too, partially because Samsung dropped the size of its nib to 0.7mm -- the same size as a standard ballpoint pen or mechanical pencil.

New commands are also available when you pull the S Pen from its hidey-hole -- you can use it to magnify anything you see on the screen up to 3X and translate words on-screen from one language to another. (Pretty helpful if you want to try reading Engadget Spanish, for instance.) That translation isn't as elegant as I'd hoped, though. The feature uses Google Translate and is therefore as smart as Google's own technology. Unfortunately, you're stuck translating one word at a time -- I was hoping to highlight entire sentences and paragraphs for Google to interpret, but a Samsung spokesperson was quick to break the bad news.

The best (or at least most viral) new feature is the ability to select parts of the screen with the pen, record them and turn them into GIFs. This part of the process is dead-simple, but you can customize those GIFs further by tweaking how they loop and drawing all over them. One of the Note 5's best features has been updated for the Note 7 too: You can still draw pictures or jot things down while the Note's screen is off, but you can pin them to the always-on display in case you need to refer to them later.

At the end of the day, though, is it worth ditching a Note 5 for a Note 7? Unclear. Innovation comes in fits and starts, and I'm left wondering what else can be done to make the long-standing Galaxy Note formula indispensable. Anyone looking for dramatic change here might be disappointed, but at this early stage, the Note 7's overall package is still impressive. Stay tuned for our full review to see how Samsung's new phablet really stacks up.

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