In part one
of our feature pitting the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge against the iPhone 6s Plus, we took a look at the design, displays and performance of the two devices. Although the Galaxy S7 Edge has arguably the better design aesthetic when compared with the iPhone 6s Plus, its vaunted double-curved edge display has questionable practical value. Similarly, the S7 Edge's excellent high resolution quad-HD display offers a great VR experience, thanks to its additional pixel density -- but in general use, the still-decent 1080p resolution of the iPhone 6s Plus is going to deliver much better overall efficiency and frame rates in games. Samsung might have also taken a lead in multi-core performance, but the iPhone still has an substantial advantage in the key single-core performance metric. So how do the two stack up when it comes to cameras, software, ecosystems and the overall end-to-end user experience?
One area that Samsung has really gone all out on is with the Galaxy S7 Edge camera. This has often been a key point of difference between the iPhone and the competition -- with Apple, more often than not, holding an edge over the competition. Although as we know, raw specs aren't everything, the raw specs of the Galaxy S7 Edge are certainly impressive. It has an extra-large f/1.7 aperture, a large 1/2.6-inch 12-megapixel sensor with large 1.4µm pixels that have two photodiodes per pixel, for fast autofocus. Optical image stabilization is also part of the package, as is phase detection.. However, all is not quite what it seems. Samsung actually has two suppliers for its camera sensor (which it has not disclosed to customers on its website), and while they might be both made to equivalent specifications, the technologies used to make them are going to inevitably vary. They might produce similar results, but they are certainly not the same.
Galaxy S7 Edge
iPhone 6s Plus
Galaxy S7 Edge
iPhone 6s Plus
Samsung itself is one of the suppliers, with those sensors featuring its Isocell technology. The other supplier is Sony, which also supplies its Exmor sensors to Apple, among other vendors. Comparisons by Android-oriented publications have shown, unsurprisingly, that there are indeed differences between the photos as a result. The photos taken with Galaxy S7 devices featuring the Samsung sensor appear to be truer in tone compared to those with the Sony sensor, which come across as having a slightly yellow, or warmer, tinge.
Although Apple also uses a 12-megapixel Sony Exmor sensor in the iPhone 6s range, it is a different package, from the sensor right through to the aperture. The Sony sensor used in the iPhone 6s Plus iSight camera is a 1/3-inch size, with smaller 1.22µm pixels engineered to prevent cross-talk and phase detection auto focus (Focus Pixels). To this, Apple has added a custom digital image signaling processor, which it has added to help reduce image noise.
Galaxy S7 Edge
iPhone 6s Plus
Galaxy S7 Edge
iPhone 6s Plus
The sensor in our test unit of the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge is, as it turns out, one of Samsung's own Isocell units, which we were able to determine by running an app from the Google Play Store. In each of the photo sequences below, the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge picture is on top, and the iPhone 6s Plus photo is below. As you can see from the results, the GS 7 Edge photos do appear to benefit noticeably from the larger aperture, sensor and pixel size. Its photos appear sharper than on the 6s Plus, and also truer to life in tone and color. The photos taken with iPhone 6s Plus, while still very good, are less sharp, and also have what appears to be a signature yellow, or warmer, tone. This is consistent with what reviewers have found with the Sony Exmor sensor in the S7 models fitted with it.
Galaxy S7 Edge
iPhone 6s Plus
The benefit of the larger aperture, sensor, and pixel sizes is that the S7 Edge can take a faster shot -- in comparison, the iPhone 6s Plus photos don't look quite as sharp, as the shutter needs to remain open that much longer, which permits movement to have more of an impact on the final shot, despite optical image stabilization. This is more noticeable in close-up shots. Shots taken with a longer depth of field look much closer in overall quality, though the S7 still produces the excellent balance between contrast, brightness and color. So while, in isolation, an iPhone 6s Plus owner won't have a lot to grumble about with the quality of the photos their smartphone takes, the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge -- at least the ones fitted with the Samsung Isocell sensor -- takes better overall photos.
While there can be little question that Samsung has made substantial gains in recent times with its hardware design and overall hardware features, the one area that it still struggles somewhat is with its software. Unlike Apple, which controls both the hardware and software development for its iPhones, Samsung relies heavily on Google to do the legwork with the development of Android. That said, its internal software teams have done a very good job advancing the features available on its custom TouchWiz versions of Android, where Google hasn't. For example, Google is only now adding native split screen support in the beta build of its Android 6.0 Marshmallow sequel, the yet-to-be-officially-named Android 'L', while Samsung has had this feature on its own devices for the past couple of years or more.
Where Samsung's internal software teams have come up short though, is in the general look and feel of TouchWiz, which has tended to be overly-cluttered, loaded with useless features, and has carried a very gaudy appearance. It fixed this somewhat in the version of TouchWiz running on last year's Galaxy S6 models, but has really got it about right on the Galaxy S7 models, which run Marshmallow out of the box. That said, while its design is much cleaner and refined, we still prefer to run the free Google Now launcher available in the Play Store, which gives a Nexus-like stock Android look and feel. This is, of course, one of the great pluses about Android -- users have much greater freedom to customize their devices to look and work the way that they want them to look and work.
However, many of the traditional Android pitfalls remain. Android as a platform is still much more vulnerable to security threats than is iOS. The reason for this is that the vast majority of Android devices are running older versions, that don't receive security updates that come with newer versions. Android manufacturers, and Google, don't put much emphasis at all on ensuring older devices continue to receive patches, certainly beyond 12-24 months into their lifecycle.
Added to this, when OEM's like Samsung start issuing customized versions of Android, these are even less likely to get any kind of long-term support. Google's Android, as an ad and services supported platform, is also much more interested in your personal data and usage patterns than is Apple -- Google Now, for example, might do a reasonable of job of providing you with timely information, but it is only really useful if you are prepared to trade off your privacy, which includes your location data at all times.
Beyond wider fragmentation issues, perhaps the biggest issue we have with manufacturer versions of Android is the bloatware. Again, while improvements have been made in this regard, it is really annoying to have at least two parallel universes living on your device. Many of the major Google apps and services that are a mandatory part of the licensing agreements for Android also have duplicate apps and services provided by the OEM.
In the case of the Galaxy S7 Edge, there are duplicate cloud apps, clock apps, calendar apps, mail apps, productivity apps, voice control apps and other services, as Samsung seeks to monetize the software platform it purveys to its users as much as Google does. No such issues with the iPhone -- although like Samsung, Apple won't let you uninstall default apps either.
Overall though, Android is still a more complicated operating system to use, and is much less user-friendly than iOS, despite Google's attempts to simplify the experience. Its greatest strength is its customizability, but this is really only going to appeal to power-users and the tech-heads among us. While iOS has grown in power and sophistication over the years, Apple has always worked very hard to keep the fundamental user experience intact. You can still use an iPhone today, pretty much like you could always use it since its inception.
For example, even though 3D Touch advances the iOS platform by making numerous processes speedier, you can still go about getting things done on your iPhone like you have always done without ever using it. The same could be said for the Control Center, and other newer features. They make using your iPhone faster and easier if you want to start using them, or you can still get things done as you always have.
Ecosystem, and end-to-end user experience
Perhaps the greatest advantage that Apple has long held over the competition is the absolute comprehensiveness of its content ecosystem. Sure, people may have gripes about iTunes and the curation of the same content and discoverability, but there is still not a platform that has surpassed it. The Google Play Store is certainly very good, and offers plenty of excellent content to Android users as well, but it certainly has its own issues with pushing content to users in a way that is easy to navigate as well. Still, developers continue to develop for iOS first, as its users remain much more likely to spend money on their apps than are Android customers. The best games often come to iOS first as well, and some don't even get Android ports. Apple also has plenty of exclusive content deals with various studios and artists as well, so it still holds a significant overall edge in this regard.
The end-to-end user experience is also an area that Apple has held a lead in for a long time. Right from the beginning, Apple went all out with customer service and support for the iPhone. If something ever goes wrong with your device and it is under warranty, you know you can attend an Apple Store with the utmost confidence that you will get the best customer service experience in the industry. Samsung and the competition still lag well behind in this regard. When you listen to customers who have bought devices from other manufacturers tell you about the nightmares that they have had trying to get a device repaired or replaced, you will be glad that you opted for an iPhone.
Samsung has made a compelling device in the form of the Galaxy S7 Edge, and it is not surprising to see that it has seemingly won back some of its following, with better-than-expected early sales. It is certainly the best Galaxy series smartphone that Samsung has made, and corrects a couple of the notable omissions from the Galaxy S6 range, including that model's lack of microSD support and water resistance. Overall, despite a certain inelegance about the way the system internals have been engineered, it provides a competitive level of performance, and will churn through demanding workloads comfortably, in either Snapdragon 820 or Exynos 8890 trim. Its software experience is much improved, and its camera is excellent. It is the most complete Android smartphone yet made.
Apple certainly owns the lion's share of high-end smartphone profits, taking about 80 percent of all smartphone industry profits with substantially less than half the total market share. The iPhone 6s Plus is perhaps flawed only in that it is a little on the large and bulky side, compared to what Samsung has been able to achieve with the Galaxy S7 Edge. Further, its camera has been surpassed by what Samsung offers on the Galaxy S7 (at least if fitted with the Samsung Isocell sensor). Otherwise, just about everything else that Apple has baked into the iPhone still keeps it ahead of Samsung, as it offers an overall more consistent and cohesive end-to-end user experience. This is where stacking up the two devices head-to-head on specs alone starts to fall apart, as the sum of the end user total experience is much more than this.
Judged in isolation, the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge is the closest Samsung has come to creating a truly compelling smartphone. When judged against what Apple is offering customers holistically, Samsung and other Android competitors are truly up against it. That said, Apple cannot afford to rest on its laurels, as this is a battle for market and mindshare without end. Apple must continue to evolve and improve every aspect of what it is offering with the iPhone as a device, and with the quality of its software and overall user experience, as the competition will not rest. As Apple itself showed the likes of BlackBerry and Nokia, if you cease to constantly innovate and evolve, you can very quickly go from being on top to near-obscurity.
-- Sanjiv Sathiah