The Galaxy Note 7 was poised to be one of 2016’s best phones, but when a dangerous hardware defect sent some models up in flames, Samsung was quickly forced to pull it from the market. It was eventually revived in the form of the Galaxy Note Fan Edition, but limited availability and an aging design kept it from being the resurgence to the Note brand Samsung needed. Enter the Galaxy Note 8.
Samsung modernized its latest flagship by bringing over design elements of its hugely popular Galaxy S8 and S8+, creating a new Note that feels fit for 2017. At a starting price of nearly $1000, however, it’s the priciest Note yet, and with so many new competing flagships on the horizon, it’s putting longtime fans and power users in a tough spot.
The Galaxy Note 8 can best be described as excessive. Its Snapdragon 835 chipset (Exynos 8895 in some markets) is top of the line, and though it doesn’t have quite as much RAM as the OnePlus 5, its 6 GB should be plenty for even desktop performance through Samsung Dex.
There’s no shortage of features packed in either; Samsung crammed in everything from wireless charging and Qualcomm Quick Charge to IP68 dust and water resistance, Bluetooth 5.0, and MST for mobile payments. The only missing hardware feature that I wish were included is a high-end DAC like the one LG has been putting in its flagships lately — the Note 8’s headphone output is nothing special, though Samsung at least includes nice AKG-branded headphones in the box.
The Note 8’s metal and glass design is absolutely gorgeous and screams of top-notch build quality, though you’ll definitely want to carry around a cleaning cloth at all times, as its high-gloss coating is terribly quick to show fingerprints and oils. The phone is also physically massive; it’s relatively thin at 8.6 mm, but its 195 grams feel weighty compared to the Galaxy S8+ (173g), and the enormous 6.3-inch AMOLED panel gives it the largest footprint of any Galaxy Note to date.
That display is made significantly more manageable thanks to Samsung’s Infinity Display design borrowed from the Galaxy S8 and S8+, with an 18.5:9 aspect ratio and curved glass on the sides, and it’s easily one of the best screens on the market. It’s incredibly sharp at WQHD+ resolution (2960 x 1440), and Samsung’s signature rich contrast and vivid colors look phenomenal on such a large display. It’s also one of the brightest panels we’ve seen, reaching up to 1200 nits, making it easily viewable in even direct sunlight.
Having such a large display can be incredibly useful for multitasking and watching videos (especially now that streaming sites like YouTube and Netflix offer HDR support on the Galaxy Note 8, which looks absolutely stunning), but it does introduce some issues with usability. I loved the Infinity Display on the Galaxy S8 for making a 5.8-inch screen so manageable, but while the Galaxy Note 8 is certainly easier to use than 2013’s 6.3-inch Galaxy Mega, it’s still a bit much.
Because the display is so tall, it’s a challenge to reach the top of the screen when using the phone with one hand. Samsung tries to mitigate this with a fingerprint sensor gesture that lets you swipe down to access the notification shade, but just like on the Galaxy S8, the fingerprint sensor is inconveniently placed next to the camera hardware on the back of the phone. Thanks to the Note 8’s extra height, it’s even further up than the sensor on the Galaxy S8, making it harder to reach. It’s not impossible to reach, and the fingerprint sensor is fast and accurate when you can find it, but just like on the Galaxy S8, this is a compromise that could’ve been avoided by moving the fingerprint sensor lower down the back of the phone.
If you’re familiar with the Galaxy Note brand, you already know that one-handed usability isn’t a top priority for this phone anyway. From the very beginning, Samsung’s vision has been a two-handed operation, holding the S Pen in your dominant hand and the Note in the other. Coming at the Note 8 with this approach fundamentally changes the experience of using it; worries about reaching the notification panel fade away, and at least in my experience, you focus more on the task at hand.
The S Pen is as versatile as ever, with thousands of levels of pressure sensitivity and an IP68 rating just like the phone itself. As with previous generations, pulling the S Pen out of its silo reveals the Air Command floating window containing shortcuts to related apps, including new features like instant translation and Live Message, which lets you animate your drawings into GIFs to send to friends. Screen-Off Memo is still here as well, allowing you to quickly jot down notes without having to wake the display.
If you had told me a few years ago that I’d be writing about Samsung’s software being one of the best experiences on Android, I’d have laughed in your face — but I said the same thing of the company’s build quality until it put out the Galaxy S6, and well … here we are. The Galaxy Note 8 runs Android 7.1.1 Nougat, with The Artist Formerly Known As TouchWiz, otherwise referred to as Samsung Experience 8.5.
Stock Android purists will have the same complaints of Samsung’s software as ever; it isn’t as clean and polished as the software on a Google Pixel, nor is it as fluid. Still, while many prefer a more minimal approach to Android, the Galaxy Note 8 simply does more.
When I reviewed the OnePlus 5 earlier this year, I found myself preferring Oxygen OS over stock Android for allowing me a little more customization, and the Galaxy Note 8 is similarly flexible. There’s no app drawer icon on the home screen by default, as you can simply swipe up or down to view all of your apps, but if you prefer having one, you can just turn it on in the settings.
If you don’t care for Samsung’s use of white and bright colors in its UI, you can apply a darker theme and even replace the icons. If you just can’t stand Samsung’s habit of doubling features that already exist on Android (eg. Samsung Internet and Google Chrome, Galaxy Apps and the Google Play Store, Samsung and Google calendars, etc), you can decide which apps you like and hide the rest.
When you’re done cleaning house, you’ll find a myriad of well thought-out software features on the Note 8. I wasn’t a fan of Apps Edge on last year’s Note 7, but the new app pairing feature allows you to pin two apps together to instantly launch into split-screen view — a much quicker and easier process than fiddling with the Recent Apps screen. Secure Folder is great too, allowing you to safely keep your private information and even duplicate apps hidden away. And while I may not be a fan of Samsung’s fingerprint sensor placement, I appreciate the efforts made in other forms of security, including iris scanning and facial recognition.
After years of experimental and gimmicky features, it finally feels like Samsung is taking the time to refine its software into a cohesive and truly useful experience. While there are still some minor annoyances here and there (Bluetooth 5.0 is great, but Samsung’s constant volume warnings when using Bluetooth aren’t), using a Samsung phone as a fan of stock Android no longer feels like pulling teeth.
Love it or hate it, Bixby is alive and well on the Galaxy Note 8. Just like on the Galaxy S8 and S8+, Bixby Home lives to the left of the main home screen, acting as a news aggregator and feed for things you might find useful like alarms, weather, and social media. The Bixby Voice assistant eagerly awaits your (accidental) press of the Bixby Key, allowing you to perform various tasks on the phone with your voice.
If all this sounds familiar, that’s because Android already has Google Assistant built-in, and many phones have the Google Now feed next to the home screen. In all fairness, Bixby Voice can actually outperform Google Assistant in a lot of ways, carrying out far more detailed commands (one of its provided examples is “Open Samsung Notes and Search for notes containing the word meeting and add meeting rescheduled to 10 am to the first one”).
I’ve never been a huge user of voice assistants, so accidentally pressing the Bixby Key when trying to adjust volume was easily the most frustrating part of using the Note 8. At first, I took to an app called Package Disabler to simply deactivate Bixby, but in a recent software update, Samsung finally added a native option to disable single-press actions on the Bixby Key, while retaining Bixby Home and the ability to launch Bixby Voice with a long press of the button.
The elongated display isn’t the only 2017 trend embraced by the Galaxy Note 8. It’s also Samsung’s first phone to offer dual cameras, pairing a 12 MP 26mm f/1.7 lens with a 12 MP 52mm f/2.4. The difference in focal lengths translates to a native 2x zoom, much like what you’d find on the iPhone 7 Plus or OnePlus 5.
Unlike on either of those phones, however, both lenses on the Galaxy Note 8 are optically stabilized, making the zoom lens far less likely to show motion blur. Both cameras are top-notch, and the Note 8 is capable of taking absolutely stunning photos, regardless of lighting conditions.
Like the iPhone 7 Plus and OnePlus 5, the Galaxy Note 8 can use both lenses in tandem to create an artificial bokeh effect. Called Live Focus, it works fairly well in brightly lit environments, and it’s a great way to take quick, professional-looking shots for sharing on social media.
Most of the time, it’s obvious that the cameras aren’t quite able to fully separate the subject from the background, and it certainly won’t replace a dedicated DSLR or mirrorless camera, but I love shooting with Live Focus. You can adjust the focus with a slider after the photo has already been taken, and best of all if you just don’t like the result, the Note 8 also saves the original image from both cameras, so you always have a fallback.
When final specs were confirmed for the Galaxy Note 8, I was immediately concerned about its battery life. Before it went up in flames, last year’s Galaxy Note 7 already had disappointing longevity, and the Note 8 shed 200 mAh (for a total 3300 mAh) and includes a larger, brighter screen.
Thankfully, the more power-efficient Snapdragon 835 chipset, combined with Android 7.1.1, help the Note 8 last throughout a full work day without a problem. Over the course of nearly two weeks of testing, I only managed to kill the phone before midnight once, after pulling it off the charger at about 9 AM.
It’s fast to top up over USB-C with Quick Charge 2.0 on board, and you can get reasonably fast speeds using Samsung’s Quick Charge Wireless Charger, as well. On average, you can expect to see a respectable four to five hours of screen-on time.
After the widely publicized troubles of the Note 7, the Galaxy Note 8 is a refreshing and triumphant victory for Samsung. It combines the new hardware standards of 2017 with a familiar design and refined software, and the result is an easy shoo-in for one of the best phones of the year.
All that praise begins to fade when you start to look at the price, however. $930 is a lot to spend on any phone, especially when there’s such fierce competition. The LG V30 and Pixel 2 are just weeks away, and while we don’t have official pricing on either phone just yet, neither is expected to bare such a high starting price.
Furthermore, despite the Note 8’s manual controls for photography, the V30 boasts much more expansive video capabilities, a more expressive wide-angle lens, and far better audio output through the headphone jack. Whether your priorities lie deeper in A/V, the S Pen, or something else entirely will likely deeply influence your next smartphone upgrade.
Where to buy
Learn more about the Samsung Galaxy Note 8
- Friday 5: Getting started with and setting up the Galaxy Note 8 [Video]