Samsung Galaxy Note 8 full review: top-of-the-line specs and great dual-lens camera – but how much do you need them?
Korean giant’s first dual-lens camera is the second best out there and the display is gorgeous, but battery life is below average; unless you’ll be using the stylus a lot, you’re better off with very similar-looking Galaxy S8+
When Samsung introduced the first Galaxy Note handset in 2011, it was mocked by reporters for its (at the time) overly large 5.3-inch display and its stylus – the latter something Steve Jobs had dismissed as outdated when he unveiled the first iPhone. But the Note ended up being a huge hit with consumers, effectively starting the “phablet” trend that peaked between 2014 and 2016. Even Apple would eventually back away from Job’s declaration by releasing a stylus for the iPad.
Samsung found itself in a bind over what to do with the Note this year, and not just because it has to rebound from last year’s fiasco of exploding Note 7 batteries.
The question facing the Note 8 was how it would maintain its phablet identity when the recent trend of shrinking screen bezels and changing display aspect ratios has effectively killed giant phones. Every important release in 2017, from the iPhone X to the LG V30 to the Xiaomi Mi Mix 2, is smaller than last year’s counterpart. Would the Note 8 go the same route?
First impressions of Samsung Galaxy Note 8 – a formidable phablet with giant memory and fun camera features
Not quite, but the Note designers’ “go bigger” mentality has clearly been compromised. While the Note 8 is slightly larger than the Note 7, it is barely any bigger than the Galaxy S8+ smartphone released earlier this year. This is the first time in Samsung’s history that a Note device doesn’t tower over its S counterpart. In fact, as noted in our first look, the Note 8 is essentially an S8+ with a stylus. Will this be enough to satisfy consumers?
Design and hardware
The Note 8, just like the S8+, has a gorgeous AMOLED Quad HD panel with an unusually long 18.5:9 aspect ratio; the screen takes up the entire front of the device except for a slim forehead and chin. The Note 8’s screen is slightly larger than that of the S8+ (6.3 inches versus 6.2 inches), but otherwise the two phones’ fronts look identical.
It’s the first Samsung handset with dual cameras, and Samsung’s set-up is very similar to Apple’s – one lens is a “normal” lens, while the second is a “telephoto” shooter that offers a more close-up image.
At the bottom of the device is a slot for the stylus, officially named the S Pen. The stylus is made of plastic and feels a bit flimsy, but the 0.7mm tip is fine enough for a superior annotating experience.
Software and features
The Note 8 is powered by a Snapdragon 835 processor in Hong Kong, China, and the United States. The rest of the world gets Samsung’s own Exynos 8895 chip set (this is due to some American and Chinese mobile carriers using CDMA bands). Both chipsets perform similarly and are among the most powerful on the market. RAM has been upgraded to 6GB from the Galaxy S8’s 4GB.
The Note 8 runs Android 7.1.1 with Samsung’s own software skin on top. The UI is almost identical to what’s found on the Galaxy S8, except for additional S Pen features.
The Note 8 reacts as soon as the stylus is removed from its slot. When the screen is off, the phone goes into “screen off memo”, which allows the user to jot down notes that can be pinned to the Always On Display so they become a constant reminder.
If the S Pen is pulled out while the phone is in action, a floating S Pen menu takes over the screen, offering a host of features ranging from text translation (simply hover the stylus over a string of words) to screen memo, or “live message”, which lets users create an animated GIF of their writing/drawing, which can then be sent through most chat services.
This all sounds really cool in theory, but almost all of those features can be done on another phone with your finger. Samsung has spent years trying to make the S Pen seem like a necessity for most, but at the end of the day the stylus is only crucial if you annotate documents or sign virtual contracts often.
Moving back to Samsung’s Android skin, I am not a fan. To Samsung’s credit, it has cleaned up the UI a lot since its early days when the software was widely mocked, but there are still too many things that are not intuitive.
Bringing up the app drawer in stock Android, for example, is done by swiping up from the dock. Once the drawer has been pulled up, users can continue scrolling vertically with their thumbs to cycle through the rows of apps.
Samsung’s app tray is also triggered by swiping up, but once the drawer is available you have to scroll horizontally to browse through apps. Why? This is change for the sake of change that sacrifices the fluid up-and-down motion carefully designed by Google’s software engineers. Samsung’s UI is full of annoying things like this.
The good news is that Android devices, unlike iPhones, are highly customisable, so I was able to replace Samsung’s UI with Nova Launcher, whose aesthetics and behaviour is more in line with stock Android.
Performance and battery life
Performance has been smooth throughout my week of testing, but Samsung devices are known to become laggy after a few months of use due to that heavy-handed software (my Galaxy S8 is suffering from that now). That AMOLED display is a stunner to look at, as usual, but the single speaker grille at the bottom is weak, especially for a phone with this price tag.
Face-off: which smartphone takes the best photos – Samsung Galaxy S8+ or Huawei P10 Plus? Our photo editor’s verdict
The main 12-megapixel camera of the Note 8 is excellent; it is fast to focus and is probably the second best low-light shooter on the market right now behind the LG V30. But that second telephoto lens is a bit disappointing. I conducted dozens of test shots comparing the Note 8’s dedicated 2X zoom with the supposedly inferior digital 2X zoom of the LG V30, and the Note 8’s images did not appear more clear or detailed, even when viewing the photos in full size on a 32-inch monitor.
The second lens is much more useful when applying the artificial depth-of-field effect (aka bokeh) that almost every phone has tried to do in 2017. Samsung’s take, which the company calls “Live Focus”, can pump out some impressive portraits, but then so can the iPhone 7 Plus, OnePlus 5 and Huawei P10.
Moving on to the area that no doubt gave Samsung engineers some headaches: the battery. The engineers obviously didn’t want to push the battery limits too much, which explains the smaller than usual 3,300 mAh cell packed inside. Unfortunately, that means battery life is below average. In my week of use, the phone never once made it through an entire day without needing a top-up.
The Galaxy Note 8 is a beautifully crafted handset with top-of-the-line specs, but unless you really need the stylus it’s hard to recommend this over the Galaxy S8+, considering the Note 8 costs significantly more (HK$6,998 [US$897] for the cheapest configuration) than the S8+ (which can be had now for HK$5,000).
Dimensions: 162.5 x 74.8 x 8.6mm
Weight: 195 grams
Display: 6.3-inch 1440 X 2960 (Quad HD) AMOLED panel
OS (version reviewed): Samsung Experience 8.5 on top of Android 7.1.1
Processor: Snapdragon 835 or Exynos 8895
Cameras: 12-megapixel main lens with f/1.7 aperture and 12-megapixel “telephoto” lens with f/2.4 aperture (rear); 8-megapixel f/1.7 front-facing camera
Memory: 64/128/256GB ROM; 6GB RAM
Colours: black, blue, grey