Hands-on: Samsung Galaxy Note8

Overview

With the display on Samsung's Galaxy S8+ growing to 6.2-inches, the Note series is no longer Samsung's only flagship phablet. So what makes the Note8 different from the S8+? Well, there's the S Pen and its suite of productivity and creativity features of course. And for the first time on a Samsung phone, you also get a dual rear camera setup with OIS on both lenses. Here's a quick video overview before we dive into the details:-


 

 

Design

As expected, the Note8 uses basically the same Infinity Display design as the S series, with the display curving at both edges and cascading over the sides like an infinity pool. There are no physical buttons on the front and only tiny bezels at the top and bottom. I absolutely loved this design when I reviewed the S8, saying that "it really feels like you're holding just a display in your hand" and that's just as true with the Note8.

There are some subtle differences between the Note8 and the S8 but they're hard to spot. First of all, the corners of the display aren't as rounded as they are on the S8. According to Samsung, the more squarish corners is to give the Note8 a more professional look. Secondly, the curved edges on the side of the display are steeper than they are on the S8.

The Note8 has a 6.3-inch display, making it just 0.1-inches bigger than the S8+. In hand it feels almost identical to the S8+, except that it's slightly thicker. The phone measures 162.5 x 74.8 x 8.6mm making it a tiny bit longer and wider, and 0.5mm thicker than the S8+. At 195g, it's also 22g heavier than the S8+. Compared to last year's Note7, the Note8 is also slightly longer and wider, but also quite a bit thicker and heavier. Of course, like the S8 it's IP68 dust and water resistant, which means it can withstand up to 1.5 meters of water submersion for up to 30 minutes at a time. 

Like the S8 and S8+, there's a dedicated Bixby button on the left-side of the phone, just below the volume rocker. Unfortunately, it seems like there's still no option to remap this button for another purpose.

The power button is once again on the right side, while the 3.5mm headphone jack and USB Type-C port and single speaker remain on the bottom. The S Pen port is also tucked away here.

On the rear of the phone, there's a glass panel that also curves at both sides, mirroring the design of the front display. Back here, you'll also find the Note8's standout new feature: a dual rear camera setup that pairs a 12-megapixel telephoto f/2.4 lens with a 12-megapixel wide-angle f/1.7 lens. The setup works almost exactly the same as Apple's iPhone 7 Plus, giving you 2x optical zoom and a background blurring mode that Samsung calls Live Focus (more on that below).

Unlike the S8, which had each of the rear camera's individual elements embedded separately into the rear of the phone, all of the Note8's camera elements, as well as the fingerprint scanner (yes, unfortunately, it's still awkwardly positioned back here), sit inside a black rectangular module. This arrangement looks fine on the Midnight Black color but the big black box is a bit of an eyesore on the rest of the colors, especially with the box inside a box design to include the fingerprint scanner.

Speaking of colors, the Note8 will be available in four colors: Midnight Black, Orchid Grey, Maple Gold and the new Deepsea Blue, which is a darker version of the S8's Coral Blue, and probably my favorite color - if not for the unsightly black camera box. Personally I'd probably buy the Midnight Black color just because the camera box blends in so much better. It's unknown yet if Samsung Singapore will be bringing in the Deepsea Blue color at launch, but if previous phone launches are anything to go by, prepare for disappointment.

 

Display

Like the S8, the Note8 has an always-on QHD Super AMOLED panel, with a 18.5:9 aspect ratio and a 2,960 x 1,440 pixels resolution (~522ppi). Like the S8 and S8+ the unusual ultra wide screen ratio means that the total screen size isn't actually as large as a traditional 16:9 screen. When viewing regular 16:9 content on the Note8, it looks about the same size as a 5.7-inch screen.

The unusual screen ratio also means that many apps will display with black bars at the edges, as they're made with a 16:9 ratio in mind. Having said that, since the S8's launch, quite a few apps have been updated to support 18.5:9 ratio so the problem isn't quite as bad as it was before.

One of the best uses of the S8's ultra wide screen display is using Multi-Window to show two apps side-by-side. For added convenience, the Note8 now includes a new feature called App Pair that lets you pair two apps together and launch them simultaneous in Multi-Window mode from the Apps Edge screen. For example, if you always have Google Maps and Spotify open together while driving, you can use App Pair to automatically launch them both at the same time.

Dual Rear Cameras

The Note8 sports Samsung's first attempt at a dual-camera setup, and for the most part, it's played it fairly safe. Like Apple (and many others), you get a telephoto lens paired with a wide-angle lens, giving you 2x optical zoom and a slider that lets you select anything between that. Both lenses are 12-megapixel sensors, with the telephoto lens equipped with an f/2.4 aperture and the 'wide-angle' lens equipped with an f/1.7 aperture. The setup works exactly like the iPhone 7 Plus. The cameras are also capable of 10x digital zoom.

The biggest difference between Samsung's dual-camera setup and every other dual-camera phone on the market, is that both lenses boast OIS (optical image stabilization). Almost every other dual camera phone out there (including the iPhone 7 Plus) has OIS on only the 'wide-angle' lens, so using 2x zoom sometimes results in a blurry image.

Wide-angle

 

Telephoto

One of the big features of dual-camera phones is a background blurring bokeh mode. Apple calls it Portrait mode, while Samsung's version is called Live Focus. A nice feature of Live Focus is that it lets you adjust the amount of background blur through a slider that pops up just above the on-screen shutter button, with real time adjustments showing any changes. You can even make adjustments to the bokeh after the shot has already been taken by going into the Gallery. Click on the image and the same slider will pop up. On iOS 11 you can only disable or enable the depth effect of a photo taken in Portrait mode - there's no in between option.

 

There's also a Dual Capture setting, which can be turned on when shooting in any mode and uses both rear cameras to take two pictures simultaneously - one close-up shot from the telephoto lens and one wide-angle shot that shows the entire background. You can toggle dual camera mode on and off by pressing the double square icon in the top row of the camera app.

On the front of the Note8 is the same 8-megapixel, f/1.7 selfie camera as the S8.

 

S Pen

This year's S Pen appears to be almost identical to the one we saw with last year's Note7. If you missed last year's S Pen, Samsung completely redesigned it to be more responsive and easier to use, with a thinner tip that has a radius of just 0.7mm (down from 1.6m on the Note 5's S Pen), to make it feel more like a ballpoint pen. Like last year's model, the Note8's S Pen recognizes 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity, twice that of the Note 5.

A new feature for the S Pen this year is Live Message, which lets you create an animated gif of your handwriting with animated effects around the words to send to your friends. You can use a blank background or you can choose a photo from your gallery to write on. Once you've made a Live Message, you can save it as a custom emoji to send again.

Other than Live Message, you'll mostly find improvements to the Note7's S Pen features, rather than new features. Translate will now translate entire sentences at once, instead of just individual words, and there's even a built in currency and unit converter whenever you translate something.

Screen off memo has also been improved, and you can now write up to a 100 pages of notes in Screen off memo mode. You can also edit and save any screen off memos.

 

Dex Support

Like the S8, the Note8 is compatible with Samsung's Dex dock, which lets you turn your phone into a chromebook-like desktop PC by connecting it to a monitor and a wireless keyboard and mouse. There are also some nice new features on Dex that are currently unique to the Note8, but will likely be added to the S8 and S8+ in a later software update.

The first is Game Launcher, which lets you play compatible Android games in a full screen mode with your keyboard and mouse.

There's also a new music creation app called Soundcamp that lets you plug a USB instrument like a mini-keyboard into the Dex dock and record your own music. You can also edit music in the app.

 

Performance & Security

Like the S8, the Note8 will come in two variants, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835-powered version for the US, and a Samsung Exynos 8895-powered version for the rest of the world. Samsung has bumped the RAM to 6GB RAM (up from 4GB on the S8) and inside you get 64GB internal storage, with a microSD card slot providing up to 256GB expandable storage. It's a little disappointing that the Note8's storage controller only accepts cards up to 256GB in capacity, as many other phones will now take cards up to 2TB in size. 

Unsurprisingly, Samsung is playing it safe with the Note8's battery. In fact, it's taking absolutely no chances, and has put a 3,300mAh battery inside the Note8, making it smaller than the S8+'s 3,500mAh battery, despite the Note8's larger size. Samsung has also stressed that the Note8’s battery has undergone its 8-Point Battery Safety Check, which is apparently the most rigorous in the industry.

The Note8 boasts the same security features as the S8, including dual biometrics in the form of fingerprint and iris scanner, Samsung Knox, and Secure Folder. Like the S8, you can also use the less secure - but way more convenient - face recognition to unlock your phone. 

 

Final Thoughts

The Note8 is a fantastic phone packed full of flagship features like an IP68 build, wireless charging, and QHD always-on display. The addition of a dual rear camera setup makes the Note8 by far the most feature packed smartphone on the market - not only that, it's probably the best dual rear camera setup I've seen to date.

However, as good as the Note8 is, it just doesn't fill me with the same level of excitement I had when Samsung launched the S8 or the Note7. Samsung seems to have reached the limit of things it can do with the S-Pen, and the dual rear camera setup, while very well done, is nothing new - we've had dual rear camera phones since HTC's One M8 back in 2014. While all of the Note8's combined features are excellent, there's actually nothing groundbreaking.

The Note series used to be the go-to phone for phablet users, but with only a 0.1-inch difference in screen size between the S8+ and Note8, that's not the case anymore. Phablet-users also tend to care a lot more about battery life (because bigger screens drain battery faster) but the Note8's smaller battery capacity means that it will very likely have a shorter battery life than the S8+.

The lines between the S and Note series have never been blurrier; for now, the dual rear camera setup is enough to differentiate the Note8 from the S8, but we're almost certain to see a very similar camera setup on next year's S9. At that point, the only difference between the S and Note series will be the S Pen, which makes me wonder if Samsung should just retire the Note line and incorporate S Pen functionality into the S series.

The Galaxy Note8 will be available in retail from   15th September