The Great Galaxy Experiment: Day 1

Admit it, you were tempted too. But why wade into uncharted waters alone when you can watch me do it in a series of posts instead?

Going into this, I’m setting aside my beloved iPhone 6s Plus for a while to see what life is like on the edge. The Galaxy S7 Edge, to be precise. Thanks to a fortuitous set of circumstances involving a company phone plan and some port-in credits, I found myself with an opportunity to try out Samsung’s latest and greatest. Long-time readers will remember that my last encounter with Samsung was, uh, not great.

But things change, products improve, and oh my god have you seen that screen?

 First Impressions

Apparently, this is the first time Samsung has provided a premium box for its flagship. I wouldn’t know, but either way the unboxing experience is quite satisfying.

The box is compact, made of thick cardboard with magnetic latches holding it shut. The phone greets you as soon as you open the box, and beneath it is the usual assortment of cables, headphones, and paperwork, along with one unfamiliar item. More on that later.

In Canada, our only colour option is black, which is thankfully the one I wanted. Unlike some of the competition’s interpretation of “black”, this phone is actually a deep inky colour, not just grey. Paired with the edge screen, it makes for a handsome appearance that’s a real far cry from the plastic chocolate bars of Samsung’s past.

Mercifully free of carrier branding, antenna lines, and side bezels, it’s without a doubt the most beautiful smartphone I’ve ever seen.

Looks are one thing, but Samsung’s triumph continues in the tactile experience. Though it shares the same screen size with my iPhone 6s Plus, the S7 Edge feels noticeably smaller, and the revised curves make it significantly more comfortable to hold than its predecessor.

Like most glass-heavy phones, it’s slippery, but I have a good track record of not dropping phones (hold it with both hands, people) so I’m not too worried about that.

 That Screen

This will be old news to users of previous generations of Galaxy phone, but to my fellow iPhone users: the hype is real. This screen is remarkable. Seeing the Always On calendar on it earlier today, my partner poked at it thinking it was a sticker. As she put it: “it doesn’t even look like a screen!”

Besides the extremely high pixel density, there are three aspects to this display that I love: the brightness, the learning auto mode, and the customization.

Yesterday was an unseasonably warm and sunny day here, so Shannon and I went out for a long walk. Typically, I’ve found my phone difficult to read in direct sunlight, but the S7 Edge managed to pump out enough brightness to retain its readability even in harsh sun.

Not only that, but the auto brightness isn’t like the dumb versions on every other phone; as you adjust the slider, the phone learns your brightness preferences for each measured light level, intelligently customizing its results to you. Obvious, useful, and well-executed.

Finally, for those who fear AMOLED’s history of over-saturating colours, it’s important to note that you can choose a colour profile for your screen. The one called “basic” rivals any iPhone for colour accuracy, while the others optimize for more pleasing imagery at the expense of absolute clinical precision.

So far, I’ve kept it on “Adaptive” and am perfectly happy with it. The simple fact that I have the choice is appreciated.

 A Few Scattered Hardware Notes

I’ve not yet tested the audio capabilities in any detail, but phone calls, notifications, and alarms all sound full-bodied and loud for a one-speaker setup.

I also noticed that the vibration engine is quite strong. Perhaps not as precise as the iPhone’s adapted “Taptic Engine”, but whatever’s in the Galaxy is doing a great job of getting my attention when it’s in my pocket.

Speaking of which, this is the first big phone I’ve used that passes the Pocket-Shoe Test. This is a personal metric of mine that refers to whether or not I’m able to kneel down and comfortably tie my shoe while the phone is in my pocket. Every phone I’ve owned since the iPhone 5S has failed this test, but not anymore: I can tie my shoes with the Galaxy S7 Edge in my pocket. Maybe not comfortably, but I don’t have to remove it or stick my leg out at an awkward angle.

 Not-So-SmartSwitch

In the box with the phone is a small, unassuming white dongle of uncertain functionality. Plugging it into the S7 summons an app called SmartSwitch, which allows for easy transfer of data from your old phone.

Much to my surprise, this works even if your old phone was an iPhone.

Unfortunately, my hopes of a seamless transfer were dashed soon after. To make transfers possible, you first have to decrypt your iPhone by syncing with iTunes and deselecting the “Encrypt iPhone Backup” option. Unhappy but determined, I figured it only takes a moment to revert so I went ahead and did this.

This is where hurdle number two emerged: you have to log into your iCloud account to allow the transfer to proceed. No problem, I thought, and off I went to 1Password (which works great on Android now, by the way) to grab my iCloud credentials.

Didn’t work.

Remembering that I have 2-factor authentication active (like any sane citizen of the modern web), I created an app-specific password, tried logging in again, and…nope.

Samsung, I’m willing to temporarily decrypt my phone to perform this switch, but I am absolutely not willing to downgrade security on my entire Apple ID just to transfer data between phones. Even if I were leaving Apple’s ecosystem behind, there’s a lot of data locked up in there that I don’t want to leave vulnerable. Tempting iOS users to switch, providing a tool for it, and then dropping the ball in the home stretch is bad form. Make SmartSwitch work with 2-Factor protected accounts—this is low-hanging fruit.

SmartSwitch is probably an easy and robust way to transfer from iPhone to Galaxy…but only if you don’t have your iPhone encrypted and don’t have your iCloud account protected. To be fair, this probably accounts for the majority of the active iOS population, but it leaves tech-savvy folks with no all-in-one transfer solution.

It also looks bad in light of Apple’s extremely good Move to iOS app, which I’ve used on several transitions going the other way with no hassle and total success. In fact, even transferring from Android phone to Android phone seems needlessly complicated. While SmartSwitch and direct NFC-style transfer options exist, there’s nothing as effortless as setting up a new iOS device by just selecting the right backup and waiting for it to restore to your new device—messages, photos, apps, settings, and all.

For all the hate Apple gets these days for its poor cloud services, this is one aspect where they’ve managed to outdo the king of cloud services. It’s a bit embarrassing, really, and I expect Google to leapfrog or at least catch up this summer.

This leads me to the software side of my early experiences.

 Marshmallow

I’ve kept up with Android indirectly over the years, never quite committing to it as a daily driver since the Moto X days and a brief stint with the Nexus 6.

Today’s Android bears little resemblance to its early ancestors, and thank goodness for that. For the most part, it’s now clean, beautiful, adaptable, and extremely clever. In exchange for a lot of my data, Google is able to provide a software experience that seems almost prescient, and certainly intuitive.

Earlier today, I drove to an all-day shoot. After arriving at the location and helping to unload the gear, I checked Google Now and saw a card reminding me of where I parked the car. I didn’t use my phone to navigate, nor did I do anything in particular to indicate that I had started or stopped driving, yet Google was able to use the information from the phone’s sensors to extrapolate the necessary details and provide me with a useful convenience.

As far as apps go, all my essentials are present, and my heavy use of Google services for personal and work accounts made transferring key data easier than it might otherwise have been, even though I opted to set this phone up as new.

Inbox, Todoist, Basecamp, Twitter, Slack, Instagram, Instapaper, 1Password, Apple Music, Feedly, Lightroom, OneNote, etc. are all present and accounted for.

Overcast, iMessage, and iCloud Photo Library are not. For podcasts, I’ve reverted to Pocket Casts, the faithful cross-platform giant. Telegram and Wire are currently vying for supremacy in the race to replace iMessage for me, though I admit that I’m lucky to have relatively few people who rely on iMessage to reach me.

As for photos, I’ve been backing everything up to Google Photos in parallel on iOS, so all my photos were right there waiting for me as soon as I logged in.

The elephant in the software room is TouchWiz, but I’m going to leave some stuff for future instalments of this report, including the frustratingly stupid Always On functionality, and of course the camera.

 The Crash

Worth mentioning: it crashed. And when I say crashed, I mean crashed hard.

Theoretically, Galaxy phones have a failsafe that detects hangs and automatically reboots, but that helpful mechanism was nowhere to be found when, out of nowhere this afternoon, my phone froze while browsing for an answer to something.

Thinking it was lag, I let it think for a few minutes, but the phone didn’t un-freeze and didn’t go to sleep. The buttons were unresponsive and the screen wasn’t registering touches. Holding down the power button did nothing.

Eventually, I had to hold down Power + Volume Down to initiate a hard reboot, which worked but seems a little…antiquated. And difficult to explain given the nearly-stock nature of my current setup (nothing but Nova Launcher).

I have no idea what caused it, which makes it even more frustrating. Anecdotal evidence is flimsy no matter what side it contributes to, but it remains true that I’ve never had a crash this terminal on my iPhones. Yet I managed to encounter this one on the first day of using the Galaxy S7 Edge as my daily driver.

Make of that what you will.

 Watch Out

This might not be surprising to those who’ve experienced it, but the thing I miss most so far is actually not my iPhone but my Apple Watch.

Or perhaps not my Apple Watch specifically, but the experience of having a smart watch paired to my phone. I had almost forgotten how annoying life with beeping, buzzing phones is.

I never bothered to write an Apple Watch review—it’s too personal a device for that, I think—but whenever people ask me how I like mine, I tell them I love it. They ask why, and I explain that it’s not because it’s particularly smart or fast, but because it brought peace to my digital life.

If it did nothing but tell the time and handle my notifications, I would be 100% satisfied with my purchase. The fact that it also lets me see the weather, my next appointment, and a few other things at a glance is a bonus. plus, it’s actually an attractive watch, especially since I picked up a black Milanese Loop knock-off for it.

Without it, I don’t just feel somewhat naked, but I also have to contend with looking at my phone more often again. It helps that it’s got such a lovely screen now, but I want my notification zen back.

If I keep this phone, I’m going to have to get an Android Wear watch or Galaxy Gear S2 with it or I’m just not going to be happy with the experience long-term.

 Battery Report

Being the first day of actual use (after the initial setup day, which is always unreliable for battery metrics), it’s still early to tell for certain, but I’m pretty sure the Galaxy S7 Edge isn’t going to hold a candle to my iPhone 6s Plus for battery life.

I took it off the (very quick) charger at 6am today and, as I look at it beside me now at 8pm, the battery is at 42%. That’s after a little over two hours of reported screen-on time, which is frankly not great. The rest of the breakdown belongs to Internet (Samsung’s excellent browser), Android OS, Maps, Cell standby, and Android System. Since I was busy with the shoot, today was what I’d consider a day of light use, with no video watching, heavy Reddit time, gaming, or any other strenuous activity.

Having been away from serious Android use for a while, I have no sense of whether or not that’s to be expected, but it’s categorically worse than the iPhone so far. To put things in perspective, my iPhone regularly lasts me two full days of normal-to-heavy usage.

Granted, that’s with the Apple Watch keeping me from wasting too much time looking at it and constantly waking it up, and the Galaxy S7 Edge is pushing four times the pixels to bring this miraculous screen to life, but there’s still a gap, and I’m feeling twinges of battery anxiety again. Not necessarily because I don’t think it can last the day (it seems like it definitely can) but because I’m not certain of it.

There’s an unreliability to Android battery life that inspires a lot less confidence than its iOS rival. The worst part is that it seems to be entirely the fault of software optimization rather than hardware limitation.

I look forward to developing this opinion over the next little while as I get a better sense of what’s affecting my battery life and how.

 Early Days

Since we didn’t get our pre-orders early here in Canada, I’ve only had my S7 Edge since yesterday.

That’s not a lot of time to form any conclusive opinions, but in the interest of shaking things up I wanted to try sharing my thoughts episodically, as they develop, rather than presenting nothing but the distilled essence long after the hype has died down.

So far, despite some rocky moments, I’m very happy with this phone. I might even keep it as my daily driver, replacing an iPhone for the first time in years.

Time will tell.

 
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