The differences will become more apparent as you start digging a little deeper, and you'll wonder why some of these changes haven't been in TouchWiz from the start. Pulling down the notification shade, for instance, reveals a search bar, brightness slider and a distinct lack of circular icons -- Samsung ditched them for a cleaner grid of quick-settings icons. The app launcher has a search bar sitting up top too, making it easier to find the app you're looking for. That sure beats the clumsy search button on the S7 and S7 Edge. This streamlined approach carries over into the Note 7's settings page, where Samsung excised the circular icons and trademark teal in favor of a much simpler list of options. (Don't worry, the interface is still punctuated with blue here and there, in case you're not great with change.) And if you hate those rounded white frames encasing your app icons, you can turn them off. One word: hallelujah.
Naturally, there's more going here beyond the Note 7's clean new look. Let's say you're trying to keep your Tinder habits on the down low -- you have the option to download the app directly into Samsung's new secure folder, keeping it perpetually hidden from prying eyes. But what if it's already installed? Easy. You can add the app to the secure folder and then uninstall the original instance, leaving an independent, fully functional copy hidden from the rest of the world. You can lock down this digital storehouse with a PIN, password, a fingerprint or an iris scan, but the latter two require you to set up a password just in case your biometric signature doesn't pass muster. What you use the secure folder for is your business, but regardless, Samsung's implementation is both clever and useful.
Samsung's browser is also more useful thanks to its support for extensions, including a QR-code reader and an "Amazon assistant" that's meant to "get instant product matches while you shop across the web." I'd love to tell you more about how Amazon is removing barriers between you and your darkest buying impulses, but this extension wasn't live as of this writing. Then there are the updated power-saving modes. In addition to dialing down the screen's brightness and throttling performance, they'll also reduce the Note 7's screen resolution (down to as low as 720p) to conserve even more juice. Huawei adopted this trick first, but it's remarkably handy for keeping your Note 7 alive when its battery level gets grim.
Thankfully, there aren't a ton of pointlessly preloaded apps. We have the usual slew of Google apps, plus Samsung's email client, browser, file manager and S Health app, along with all the Note-specific stuff, which I'll get to in a second. My review unit is a T-Mobile model, and Legere's crew thankfully didn't go too crazy with the bloatware. All told, this version of the Note 7 comes with eight carrier apps pre-installed, ranging from the pretty useful (SlingTV was handy for following the Olympics on the move) to the irritating (I can manage my security fine, Lookout, but thanks).
Another year, another S Pen
Weird as it sounds, the Note 7 is so well put together and pleasant to use that it's sometimes easy to forget there's a stylus hidden inside. This year's S Pen doesn't look dramatically different from the Note 5's but the changes are there if you look closely enough. As mentioned earlier, the nib is smaller for more fluid writing and sketching, and the S Pen's body is ever so slightly narrower and lighter. You wouldn't think a change this minute would be apparent, but it sort of is -- despite near-identical dimensions, this S Pen feels a little flimsier than the one we got last year. Funny how big a difference this stuff makes.
Still, the Note 7's S Pen still has few clear advantages. For one, it's water-resistant, just like the phone itself. Because the entire package is IP68-rated, 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. (Getting phone numbers at the beach? Who knows.) Speaking of the screen, the Note 7's can now recognize up to 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity, or double what the Note 5 was capable of. It's one of those differences that's only really noticeable when you have the two devices side by side: Light strokes that didn't register on the Note 5's display showed up just fine on the Note 7, making it a better choice for artsy types who value precision. If all you're going to do is dash off notes and reminders, though, you probably won't notice the change much.
While we're talking about the screen, I'm pleased that one of the Note 5's best features has made it over to the Note 7. Removing the S Pen while the display is off brings up a dark interface for (appropriately enough) screen-off memos. Here, you can draw or leave yourself a note, and then pin it to the always-on display for easy reference throughout the day. The inherent lack of friction in this process means anyone who picks up your phone can pin doodles to your display, which in my case led to lots of juvenile drawings all over my sleeping screen. Thanks, guys.
Samsung is all too aware that the S Pen isn't for everyone, so it cooked up a few new Air Command features to make its stylus more versatile. My eyes are pretty terrible, so it was neat being able to magnify anything on the screen up to 300 percent when pinching-to-zoom wasn't an option. Cool? Sure. Consistently useful? Eh.
You can now translate words on-screen from one language to another too, though the translations aren't as elegant as I'd wanted. Here's the thing: The feature only lets you translate one word at a time, rather than sentences or paragraphs. As such, it's handy for picking up bits of a language you don't know, and lousy for interpreting lots of information.
And then there are the GIFs. The "smart select" feature has been updated to let you choose parts of the screen with the pen, record them and turn them into GIFs. I didn't have high hopes for this process because making GIFs on a regular computer is sort of a pain, but it turned out to be surprisingly elegant. Once the recording is done (you can capture up to 15 seconds), it's simple enough to doodle on top of them, change how they loop and share them everywhere. Meanwhile, Samsung's software cleaning spree continues with S Pen stuff: Four(!) separate S Pen-specific applications have been combined into a single one called Samsung Notes. This is where you'll do most of your note-taking and doodling, and it's perfectly serviceable; it's good enough that I didn't miss any of the old standalone S Pen apps.
All of these tweaks are steps in the right direction, but I wonder whether they'll actually change anyone's mind about the S Pen. The fact that Samsung keeps churning these devices out must mean a lot of people out there dig using a stylus, but if you weren't sold before, you probably won't be now.
We can keep this part brief: Both of the Note 7's cameras are identical to the ones in the S7 and S7 Edge, and are therefore really damned good. The photos I shot over the course of a week were almost uniformly well-exposed, with lots of detail (they really pop on this AMOLED screen) and vibrant, accurate colors. It's damned fast at focusing too, thanks to the camera's DualPixel setup. If you'll pardon the extremely unscientific explanation, every 1.4 µm pixel on that 12-megapixel sensor is split into two photodiodes that are used to gauge the distance between the camera and the subject. Since every single pixel is used for these focus calculations, the Note 7 is superfast at locking onto whatever's in front of it, even when the subject is a finicky, adorable toddler celebrating her second birthday.
It goes without saying that smartphone cameras tend to suck in the dark, but the Note 7 fares well thanks to the size of the pixels on its sensor. There's surprisingly little noise, even in shots taken outside at night, and the always-there exposure controls help reduce the influence of extra light that could otherwise soften a shot's sharpness. In short, the Note 7 is a very impressive all-around shooter, ranking alongside the S7 and S7 Edge as one of Android-powered cameras to beat. Meanwhile, the 5-megapixel camera up front takes respectable selfies with enough verve to please all the but the most terminally vain. I just wish Samsung had bumped up the resolution a bit this time around.