The big new headline feature on the Note 7 is the iris scanner, which uses a special front-facing camera array to scan your eyes and unlock your phone. It provides an alternative to using a password, PIN, pattern, or fingerprint for authentication.
The iris scanner works as advertised, often quickly scanning my eyes and unlocking the phone. It uses infrared technology, so it can work in low light. But it’s clumsier to use than the already very quick fingerprint scanner, as I have to turn on the display, swipe up, and then bring the phone awkwardly close to my face to trigger it. It’s a fun party trick, but I ended up just forgetting about it and using the fingerprint scanner instead.
The second most important thing that separates the Note 7 from Samsung’s other devices and every other big phone is the updated S Pen. The S Pen has been a hallmark feature of the Note line since its inception — it’s really what makes a Note a Note, and not just another phone with a big screen. The S Pen can be used to jot down notes, draw pictures, or navigate the phone’s interface.
The S Pen is mightier
But by far the coolest new S Pen feature is the ability to create GIFs from any video in just a few taps. In a matter of seconds, I can create a GIF from a YouTube video, add notes or stickers to it, and then share it right from my phone. It’s not something I’d have guessed the S Pen would be able to do, but it’s fun and easy to use. Further, the S Pen has the same level of water resistance as the phone itself, and it can even work when the phone is wet, making it the most over-the-top way to jot down ideas in the shower.
Samsung has tweaked the hardware of the S Pen this go around, too. The pen tip itself is narrower and has twice as many levels of pressure sensitivity for a more natural writing feel. And, unlike with last year’s Note 5, it’s impossible to put it in backwards and damage the phone.
I like that I can now use the S Pen to magnify parts of the screen, multitask between two apps, or instantly translate text using Google’s Translate services. Artists might appreciate the new color blending features available when drawing in Samsung’s app. The four disparate apps that Samsung used to package on the Note have been combined into a single Samsung Notes app that’s easier to use and simpler to navigate. The ability to take notes right on the phone’s lock screen that debuted with last year’s Note 5 has been expanded with the ability to “pin” notes there for quick access. My only complaint with Samsung Notes is that it doesn’t easily sync with other services, such as Evernote or OneNote, instead relying on Samsung’s own proprietary backup and sync. (You can share notes to other apps, but that can only be done one note at a time and is rather tedious.)
Earlier versions of the Note weren’t able to convince me that the S Pen was a necessary tool, and I’m not sure that the Note 7 does the job either. But its enhanced features at least have me thinking about it more.