Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: one for the fans

The new Note is the best Note ever

A year ago, I wrote that the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was the best big phone ever made. It had excellent performance, a great camera, and a refined design that was surprisingly manageable for a device with a large screen. But that glory was short-lived: as everyone knows, the Note 7 had a defective internal battery design that caused it to randomly catch fire. In the most embarrassing episode of modern tech history, Samsung was forced to recall the phone, not once, but twice, and pull it from the market.

The upshot of all of this is Samsung was also forced to reevaluate how it designed and manufactured phone batteries, and it now uses different processes and chemistries that produce more durable batteries that also degrade less over time.

That’s good, because now we have the Galaxy Note 8 and Samsung wants it to permanently put the Note 7 fiasco in the rearview mirror. The new Note is much like its predecessor in that it’s an exceptional large-screened device with few obvious faults. In fact, in all of the important areas, the Note 8 is a better device than even the Note 7 was.

But the climate around big phones has changed dramatically since last year. While the Note 7 was head and shoulders above everything else before its fall from grace, the Note 8 isn’t obviously better than many of the other big phones out this year, including Samsung’s own Galaxy S8 Plus. Further, the Note 8 is one of the most expensive phones you can buy, starting at $930 for a model with 64GB of storage.

Ask Samsung, though, and it will say Galaxy Note fans don’t care about any of those things. They don’t want just any big phone, they want a Note, complete with its over-the-top size, top-of-the-line specs, and, of course, its stylus. And because of what happened with the Note 7, these fans have been waiting a long time for this.

The Galaxy Note 8 wasn’t built for everyone. It was built for them.

The Galaxy Note has always been an unapologetically big phone, but the Note 8 takes big to new dimensions.

It starts with its 6.3-inch Infinity Display that stretches to the very edges of the phone’s frame, leaving just a small bezel above and below the screen. This HDR-capable display is everything you’d expect from a high-end Samsung panel: it’s crisp, vibrant, and super bright, so it’s visible outdoors in direct sunlight. The sheer size of it sucks you in when watching video, and the 18.5:9 aspect ratio lets it display lots of content at once or easily run two apps at the same time in split-screen multitasking mode.

Samsung has done everything it can to make this giant screen fit in something that resembles a phone — shrinking the bezels, elongating its shape, curving the sides — but there’s no avoiding the fact that the Note 8 is a giant phone that comes with giant phone problems. It’s almost impossible to use in one hand and it doesn’t fit comfortably in any of my pants pockets.

In addition, the Note 8’s larger size make its fingerprint scanner even more frustrating to use than it is on the S8. Like the S8, the scanner is on the back of the phone, to the right of the camera module. And like the S8, it takes some dedicated finger gymnastics to reach it. I’ve been using an S8 Plus for months and I’ve become somewhat accustomed to the annoying fingerprint scanner placement. That could happen with the Note 8 as well, but it’d have been easier for everyone if Samsung just put the scanner below the camera like every other phone maker does.

Samsung offers both iris-scanning and face-scanning unlock systems on the Note 8, so you don’t necessarily have to rely on the fingerprint scanner as much. The face unlock feature is still not as secure as other means, but Samsung has improved it since the S8’s launch, so it works faster and more reliably now. The iris scanner is quick and as secure as fingerprint methods, but it still requires holding the phone up awkwardly close to my face and dramatically opening my eyes for it to work.

What’s most interesting is how much bigger the Note 8 feels compared to the almost-as-large Galaxy S8 Plus. The Note’s 6.3-inch screen is only scantly larger than the S8 Plus’ 6.2-inch panel, but it has a more rectangular shape and the sides aren’t curved as aggressively, which makes it noticeably less comfortable to handle. The Note 8 also tips the scales at 195g, about 22g more than the S8 Plus. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s evident, especially when the phone is already this large.

Otherwise, the Note 8’s fit and finish are exactly the same as the S8, with glass panels that elegantly curve into a metal frame. It has the same virtual, pressure-sensitive home button at the bottom of the display, and it’s also IP68 water resistant, so getting it wet isn’t a worry, whether you’re stuck in a rainstorm, washing dishes at home, or concerned about someone spilling a drink while out on the town.

The Note 8 does have a headphone jack (in the correct position: on the bottom of the phone, to the left of the charging port), and Samsung bundles in a set of decent AKG wired headphones in the box. It also has a dedicated button to launch the Bixby virtual assistant located just below the volume rocker on the left side of the phone. It’s just as annoying and easy to hit here as it is on the S8, and it’s still not easily customized to do something more useful. Bixby itself hasn’t changed greatly from when it debuted on the S8, and the dedicated hardware button for it feels more like an unnecessary appendage than anything particularly helpful.

Internally, the Note 8 also has very similar specs compared to the S8 Plus. There’s Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 processor, 64GB of storage (in the US; other markets will see 128GB and even 256GB options), and a microSD card slot. The Note does have 6GB of RAM versus the S8’s 4, but I haven’t seen an appreciable difference in performance because of it. Both of these phones are fast and fluid, and performance was not a concern in my day-to-day use. It’s possible that the extra RAM aids in using the DeX desktop docking system Samsung sells, but I did not test that with the Note 8 for this review.

For obvious reasons, Samsung shrunk the battery capacity in the Note 8 compared to last year’s Note 7. This time it has a 3,300mAh battery that supports both fast wired and wireless charging. That’s a little smaller than the 3,500mAh cell in the S8 Plus, but in practical terms, the two phones have similar endurance. Most people will be able to go a full day between charges without worry; heavy power users might have to take advantage of those fast charging options of they plan on going out in the evening and don’t want to worry about running out of steam.

With so many similarities between the Note 8 and Galaxy S8 Plus, the few differences become more important.

The biggest difference is the Note’s signature feature: the S Pen stylus. The stylus is what truly sets the Note 8 apart from any other big phone you can get, and the Note 8 is basically the only premium phone you can buy that has one. Samsung says that its Note customers love the thing, and it’s a big reason why they stick with the phone, even after what happened with the Note 7.

The S Pen can be used to take notes, mark up screenshots, doodle, select text, or just navigate the phone’s software with a finer point than your finger. You can even take notes on the lock screen without unlocking the phone, and then pin them there for easy access later on.

New for the S Pen this year are a finer point and more levels of pressure sensitivity (compared to the Note 5’s stylus from 2015) and the same level of IP68 water resistance as the rest of the phone. Samsung has added new coloring book features in its S Pen software, as well as the ability to take even longer notes on the lock screen than before.

The most fun new feature is Live Message, which lets you record animated GIFs of handwritten messages or drawings and then share them through your app of choice. It reminds me a lot of the handwritten messages you can send in Apple’s iMessage, but compatible with any app that supports standard animated GIFs.

Despite its thin diameter and short length, the S Pen is nice to write and doodle with, and it’s clear that Samsung’s refinements on this experience over the years are paying off. But that doesn’t mean the S Pen will automatically become part of your routine. Most of the time, I forgot about using the pen and used the Note 8 just like I would any other phone.

In short, you either know you want the Note 8 for the S Pen, or you don’t. And if you’re not sure, you’ll probably never use it and could be just as happy with some other phone.

But I can weigh in on the Note 8’s other standout feature, the new dual camera. The Note’s two 12-megapixel camera setup is a first for Samsung, and it’s very similar to the system that Apple put in the iPhone 7 Plus. One of the cameras has a standard wide-angle lens, like you’ll find on any other smartphone, while the other provides a short “telephoto” option that gets you a little bit closer to your subject. Both cameras have optical image stabilization, which Samsung claims provides better images than the non-stabilized telephoto lens on the iPhone 7 Plus. But in practice, it doesn’t make much of a difference, at least not for stills.

In addition to letting you zoom in a little, the dual-camera system also lets you take images with an artificially blurred background to mimic what is possible with a DLSR and a bright lens. This mode, which Samsung calls “Live Focus,” is a lot like the iPhone 7 Plus’ portrait mode, both in how it works and its results. It can produce some cool-looking images in good lighting. But indoors, or in poor light, image quality is bad, with lots of noise and blur and little in terms of detail. Even in good light, it never quite fooled me into thinking the image was taken with a larger camera. The effect can easily make your subject look like a cardboard cutout and it struggles to maintain fine detail around hair, which is important for a portrait.

Samsung’s version of this is basically not any worse or better than the iPhone’s portrait mode. Both of these feel like first-generation attempts at this kind of thing, and there is a lot of headroom for improvements to come in later iterations.

Samsung does offer a little more control than Apple, however. On the Note 8, it’s possible to adjust the blur effect before or after you’ve taken the picture, so if the blur is too strong or fake looking, you can dial it back. I found the best results were when I had the blur slider rolled back a tad from its maximum. In addition, Samsung doesn’t require a face to be in the frame to trigger the effect, so I was able to use it on inanimate subjects, such as flowers or cups of coffee.

The Note 8 also has the ability to save both a wide angle and telephoto image at the same time. If the portrait quality sucks, you can fall back to the wide-angle camera, which has a higher-quality sensor and brighter lens. This definitely feels like a safety net to make up for the poor quality of the telephoto camera, but I’m glad it’s there. The downside is it will eat up more of your storage with each shot you take, so you’ll probably want to use a microSD card to store your images if you use this feature a lot.

Otherwise, the wide-angle camera is the same as the one found on the S8. It’s fast focusing, has a bright aperture, and takes lovely photos. It’s one of the best phone cameras you can get this year. It’s disappointing that the telephoto camera doesn’t match up to the same standard.

There was a time when if you wanted a big phone, the Note was the king of the hill. It had the biggest screen and the best tech and it didn’t matter that it cost more than other phones. It was the obvious choice. But that’s not the case anymore. Now there are a lot of great big phones available, including other options from Samsung, that provide most of the Note’s experience at lower prices.

That means this year, the Note 8’s value all comes down to how important the S Pen and the second camera are to you. In my experience, the camera doesn’t do enough to justify its existence. It needs more work before it’s truly great and worth the cost of admission.

If you’re an S Pen diehard, though, this is the phone you’ve been waiting for, the one that can finally replace that creaky old Galaxy Note 5. You’ll like almost everything about the Note 8.

But I can’t call the Note 8 the best big phone, because the rest of us will likely be just as happy with an S8 Plus, LG V30, iPhone Plus, or any one of the other big-screened phones available this fall.

The Note used to be the best and only truly great big phone. Now it has company.

Video by Phil Esposito, Christian Mazza, William Joel, Andrew Marino, and Garret Beard.

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