Phones with an optical zoom lens are a novelty, but people want flexibility, so add-on lenses were born. There are plenty, but since the Galaxy S7 Samsung has been making its own first-party product - the Lens cover.
Naturally, there's a version for the Samsung Galaxy Note7 and we got to spend a day with it.
The Lens cover itself makes for a high-quality back cover. It's made of a soft, rubberized material with a leather texture, so it looks good and feels good in the hand. It's thick and the inside is covered with soft cloth so it will protect the phone from falls (as long as it doesn't land face-first).
The rubberized leather texture surface is very grippy and there's a small hump at the bottom, which serves as a minimal camera grip.
What makes the Lens cover special are the two lenses that come with it - Wide-angle and Telephoto. You get both as part of the complete package.
The lenses screw in at the back (the hole for the camera is threaded). This locks them securely in place and in the optimal position too (some third-party lenses use a clip, but that's less sturdy and can be difficult to align). The lenses themselves are made of stainless steel and have a premium feel to them.
You pack away the two lenses in a plastic cylinder, which has a cap on both ends - one for each lens. You can twist the cylinder apart, into two smaller ones. This way you can carry only one lens if you think you won't need the other one.
The Wide-angle promises 110° Field of View (FoV), while the Telephoto lens offers 2x magnification over the bare Note7. Here's what that looks like in person.
The Galaxy Note7 camera is relatively wide, but adding the Wide-angle lens captures much more of the scene. It's great if you don't have room to step back.
The Telephoto lens saves you from having to use the digital zoom, which noticeably impacts the image quality.
The Samsung Galaxy Note7 borrows S7's camera and it offers some of the best image quality on a mobile device.
With the Wide-angle lens, the camera loses some sharpness and it stretches the 12MP resolution to cover a lot more of the scene. A small halo is visible where bright areas meet dark ones. If you're shooting from really close, you'll notice geometric distortion. There's some corner softness, but very little.
We shot with HDR set to auto, this is the only scene where it actually went on.
We shot our ISO chart to make the geometric distortion easier to see. We had to stand really close to the wall to take this shot. The bulging is less noticeable in natural scenes.
The Telephoto lens offers 2x magnification, which solves the opposite problem - when you can't get close enough. The difference in quality between the optical lens and digital zoom is striking.
The image quality in the center of the frame is excellent. There's more corner softness than the wide-angle lens, but if you shoot 16:9 photos much of that will be cropped out. You'll notice purple fringing around light-colored objects lit by the sun.
We also tried using the Telephoto lens for macro. It creates a softer bokeh than the Galaxy Note7 camera by itself. The depth of field is small and things further away and closer than the focus point go soft quickly.
The Lens cover can also be used for videos, of course. While some phones (including the Galaxy Note7) offer high-quality digital zoom when shooting 1080p video, with these lenses you can zoom in with 4K video too. And no amount of digital trickery can fit more into the scene like the Wide-angle lens can (there's no panorama for videos).
Here are three videos we shot. They start with the Wide-angle lens, then it's the Note7 by itself and the third video was shot with the Telephoto lens.
Again, the Wide-angle videos aren't quite as sharp as videos shot with no add-on lens, but they still look great on a high-res screen. Be careful when using the Telephoto lens as it magnifies handshake too, making it much harder for the Optical Image Stabilization to do its job. We used a tripod for this shot, but passing cars still managed to nudge the phone.
Optical zoom is one of the few reasons you might consider a point-and-shoot camera (a xenon flash too, perhaps). And while Samsung's Galaxy Camera devices seem to have perished, a Lens cover for your Galaxy Note7 (or S7/S7 edge) is a good substitute.
You get the excellent photo and image quality of Samsung's camera, the manual settings and effects, any Android app too (be it Instagram or Prisma), combined with the added flexibility of the lens.
You'll appreciate the Wide-angle lens in tight spaces where you can't take a step back or when shooting landscapes. Some phones have resorted to adding a second camera to get such a wide-angle view, but this lens does better in terms of quality.
Most of the time, the Telephoto lens will save you from having to use digital zoom. As you saw above, the difference in quality is massive. These lenses work well with any mode of the Samsung camera - Pro mode, video, panorama, you name it. The Telephoto lens even makes for a nicer bokeh.
Now, the Samsung Lens cover is a pricey accessory. The S7 version has fallen in price considerably since launch but we're not sure this will carry over to the Note7 version and you can't buy the cover and lens separately (both versions use the same lenses).
But these lenses will earn their keep and improve the photos you post on social media. It's all about the followers and likes, isn't it?
One thing this review does not cover is how this affects the flash, as the lenses apparently block it somewhat. This will cause the flash to be thrown off to one side and may wash out half of the object/person. Otherwise it's a great post/review...
Where can I purchase lens cover and lens?
I'm curious to find out if the clip works if you've skinned the back of the phone (dbrand, specifically). Or, for that matter, whether that extra little gap wreaks havoc with the focus. I've written the company. We'll see if they know.