Considering the S7

Above: Samsung has returned waterproofing to the feature list of its flagship S series smartphones with the S7. Photo courtesy Samsung.

BitDepth#1039 for May 03, 2016

At this point, it’s difficult to evaluate the newest entry in the line of Samsung’s premium smartphones, the S7, without considering everything that the company has brought to market before.

Samsung has sensibly chosen a path of user-driven iteration and incremental improvement in its line of premium mobile phones, and the changes between successive models tend to be subtle.

I’ve been able to examine every model of these devices since the introduction of the S1 and it’s sometimes been difficult to identify enough features to justify an upgrade, but if you skip one version, the feature aggregation becomes more compelling.

That’s no different for the S7 which builds on the improvements and mistakes of its predecessor, but also boasts several key improvements as well as two critical regressions that might be enough to lure an S6 user.

The new phone ships with the newest Android version, Marshallow and a camera with a fixed effective aperture of f1.7, which will mean little to the average cellphone user, but is likely to cause a photographer to be a bit bug-eyed.

The S6 broke new smartphone ground with a fixed aperture of f1.9, a number usually associated with hunks of glass in the 26mm range that weigh nearly a pound.

The S7 improves on that achievement by offering an aperture that’s roughly a quarter of an f-stop wider, a feat of engineering in such a tiny device that’s truly impressive, particularly given that most smartphone cameras are yet to break the f2 barrier.

In practical terms, the S7 is more likely to capture usable photographs in low light than either its predecessor or its competitors.

The new phone also drops the pixel count from 16MP to 12MP and introduces something called dual-pixel technology, which is supposed to improve low-light performance and focusing speed.

There has been a trend in smaller cameras to drop pixel count and increase the size of individual pixels on a sensor, which improves light gathering capability, and it’s unclear what the new technology adds to that particular equation.

Samsung has a very technical explanation of the feature here.

Two retrograde steps bring distinct improvements over the S6.

With the new device, Samsung reintroduces its waterproofing from the S5 and rates the S7 as capable of surviving a dunking in five feet of water for 30 minutes.

I did not test this.

The S7 also returns space for a MicroSD card to a Samsung S series phone, an unforgiveable lapse in the design of the S6, though making this tray capable of supporting cards of up to 200GB is a gracious acceptance of the utility of this particular feature.

If you have used or currently use a Samsung smartphone, the S7 will be immediately familiar.

The Gameloft game demos that infest Android systems can actually be deleted this time around.

The S7 features a subtly tweaked version of the company’s TouchWiz interface that’s only incrementally different from the one you’ll find on previous Samsung devices.

The company also continues to include a central and quite physical home button and two haptic buttons to its right and left that appear when your finger brushes them. It’s a bit of continuity that’s comforting, though it’s also a bit outdated.

Most competitors have moved on to software controllers that disappear, freeing valuable screen real estate when they aren’t in use.

The S7 is a sleek, well-designed device that fits well in the hand and, like its immediate predecessors, attracts fingerprints and smears like wood woos termites. You’re going to need a case to protect all that glass from smearing as well as from percussive accidents.

The work that Samsung has done on the camera marks this as an aspect of the camera that’s likely to get even more attention in the future, so a head-to-head with Huawei’s similarly positioned P9 is up next week.