Yesterday, Samsung announced the latest Galaxy Note. As has become the custom, with smartphones in an era of maturity that does not lend itself well to innovation, the brand new Note 7 offers little in the way of excitement.
If you’re a diehard Note fan, the latest installment has enough of the line’s core features to entice you. It’s a handsome device with a large, gorgeous QHD Super AMOLED display, a super fast processor, healthy 4GB of RAM and, of course, the S Pen stylus.
It is also nearly identical to the Galaxy S7 Edge. Which begs the question: do we still need the Galaxy Note?
This year, the Note 7 does not offer the usual bump in specifications that has become synonymous with the line since the Note 2. Generally, Samsung releases the latest S phone in the Spring, and the newest Note in the Fall. The latter of the two brings a bigger screen, more RAM, a better processor.
Over the years, the Note has been considered the phone for “power-users,” but at this point in the life of the smartphone, nearly every flagship has enough on board to satisfy every type of user. Many expected the Note 7 to come with a Snapdragon 823 processor and 6GB of RAM, but Samsung opted not to juice up its specs.
Thus, while it is still a phone with enough power to satisfy the heaviest of users, the Note 7 has taken a clear step back in Samsung’s lineup. As Forbes states, the Note used to be the top-of-the-line offering from Samsung, giving the company two definite flagships with their own set of appealing features. New Samsung mobile chief DJ Koh seems intent on making one clear flagship for the company, and having the rest of the portfolio exist in support of the premiere line.
That is evident when you place the Note 7 and S7 Edge side-by-side. Save for a slight difference in size and internal memory, the two devices are largely the same. They have the same resolution, same camera system, same curved display, same processor and RAM.
Besides one other new feature that we’ll get to in a moment, the S Pen is the biggest draw the Note 7 has. The stylus always offered users a wholly distinct set of features not found on other smartphones, but are those features enough to warrant a completely separate line? There are some entrenched users, but many employ it only occasionally, or hardly ever at all. Instead, people often find their use of the S Pen diminishes after the initial excitement wears off.
The pen is better than ever on the Note 7, with a significantly finer point (just 0.7mm), water resistance and a host of new features including a clever GIF creation tool. You also can no longer stick it in backwards and ruin everything. Still, even with the host of improvements, the S Pen is not the kind of killer feature that alone can make the case for keeping the Note alive.
We don’t need the Note. If Samsung were to end the line after this year, little would be lost. Some would mourn the S Pen, but the majority of users wouldn’t miss it. Samsung, now that it’s moved the S line to two phones every year, with the Edge variant the larger of the two in 2016, could easily kill the Note and just offer the S Edge as the largest phone in its portfolio.
But the Note is too big a brand to go away quietly, and with the company’s mobile devices in a renaissance after struggling the last few years, the death is unlikely to come for some time, if ever. So what should the device represent, now that’s its standing as the “power user” phone has been taken away?
From the beginning, the Note has been experimental. The first was, itself, an experiment to see if users wanted or could handle a phone with an absurdly large screen. It was also the first phone to come with a stylus built in, an idea few other companies have even dared to run with. The Note continued to be about experimentation with its overpowered specs and, in 2014, the line introduced the first Samsung device with a bent display, the Note Edge (the 2013 Galaxy Round was the company’s first curved display phone).
The latest also has experimental flair. The phone features an iris scanner, which can be used in lieu of the fingerprint scanner to unlock your phone. Early reports are the feature, while a bit awkward to use, works as advertised. The iris scanner isn’t a top-notch feature, but it does keep Samsung’s spirit of experimentation and innovation alive.
The South Korean company has always been one of the bravest on the market, packing its phones with various features other companies wouldn’t dare put into production. Many of them have been gimmicks or half-baked ideas that annoyed droves of critics, but I’ve appreciated Samsung’s willingness to try something different, even if it didn’t fully come together. In the current state of smartphone boredom, where every device from every manufacturer feel related to one another, we could use some of Samsung’s nutty forward thinking.
The Note would be a perfect spot for Samsung to put its experimental energy. If it’s going to play second fiddle to the S line from now on, why not at least be on the cutting edge of smartphone technology? Even if it means a few swings and misses, it’ll give the storied phablet a renewed sense of excitement rather than a destiny of spending years as a larger version of the S Edge with a stylus.
It’s been a barometer for what the S line may be in past with the Note Edge, and could slide into that role easily for the future. In fact, two main features of the Note 7, the iris scanner and USB-C for charging, will likely show up in the Galaxy S8.
The Note 7 is certain to be an excellent phone. The S7 and S7 Edge are already two of the best phones money can buy, and the Note 7 will likely offer much the same experience with a few distinct features. But it can’t be denied the latest Note is also boring.
Samsung has positioned the once powerful Note to be a clear secondary player to the premiere S line, leaving the former with little to hang its hat on. The South Korean company could spice things up again by funneling its experimental tendencies into the phablet. Otherwise, it may be time to hang up the S Pen for good.