Design and materials
The Note8 hews closely to the Galaxy S8 and S8+’s design language, and uses essentially identical materials. While the corners of the phone are more squared-off – in keeping with Note tradition – most people would have a rather difficult time identifying a Note8 next to an S8+. While slightly larger, the Note really only differs in very minor ways visually from that phone, and feels basically the same.
That means you have a fairly slippery, long glass and metal brick with extremely refined seams and edges. The Note8 is one of the nicest smartphones I’ve ever used from a perspective of sheer quality of materials and manufacturing, and the same could be said of the S8. While I hardly find the $930 price point palatable, I would argue there’s not a smartphone out there you can buy that is going to look and feel nicer than a Note8 – Samsung is at the top of its game right now, and very few phones even come close to exhibiting this level of polish and fit and finish.
The Note is, however, quite a large phone. It’s longer, wider, thicker, and heavier than the Galaxy S8+, which I already found precarious to manage in-hand. While some of that is down to the slightly-enlarged display, the Note8’s also had to make room for that stylus and dual camera module, adding half a millimeter of thickness and a full 22g of mass to the phone over its slightly-smaller sibling. It’s also 1.4mm wider than the S8+, making it a bit more difficult to use one-handed.
The ergonomic complaints don’t end there. Samsung has kept the fingerprint scanner on the Note8 next to the camera module, which continues to be roughly as practical as a car with door handles on the roof. I understand there are S8 owners out there who don’t find the placement especially bothersome – particularly when using a case – but I just cannot abide it. It’s a bad place for a fingerprint scanner, easily the worst of any high-end smartphone on sale right now, and it makes for a needlessly difficult phone unlocking experience. And no, iris scan and face unlock aren’t just as fast – I have to turn on the screen first to use those, and that will never be as quick as just using my finger to do both at the same time. And because the scanner is right next to the camera module, you’ll still end up accidentally smudging your lens at least once a day.
On the bottom of the phone you’ll find the S Pen, speaker, USB-C port, and headphone jack. The stylus pops up with a quick press, revealing a design essentially identical to that of the S Pen on the Note7. There are some fresh software features for the pen this year, but physically, there’s really nothing new about it. It’s the same lightweight plastic passive stylus as it’s always been, with a single button and super fine tip.
As far as other buttons are concerned, the power key is on the right side of the phone, with the volume rocker and Bixby key on the left. The Bixby key is at an exactly convenient height to constantly accidentally press every time you pick up the phone to unlock it, and so one of the first things I did to “personalize” my Note8 experience was download a package disabler app so I could render the button inoperative. Bixby itself doesn’t bother me, but unintentionally activating it several times a day does. The buttons themselves are nice, offering good feedback with minimal mush.
Because of its large size and glass-heavy construction, it would be difficult for me to recommend using the Note8 without a case.
As usual, Samsung has equipped its very best phone with its very best screen, and the Note8’s is absolutely fantastic. While not significantly upgraded compared to those found in the S8 and S8+, if you believe DisplayMate, it does get a bit brighter. Granted, any improvement upon excellence is worth pointing out, and with the Note8 Samsung continues to set the gold standard for smartphone displays.
Viewing angles are outstanding, colors can be anywhere from extremely saturated and vivid to exceptionally accurate depending on the display mode selected, and black levels are positively inky. This is the best screen on any smartphone – there really isn’t any doubt of that at this point. You also get support for HDR in apps such as Netflix, and Samsung’s built-in “video enhancer” will do its best to apply an artificially widened color gamut to any non-HDR videos you view.
At 6.3″ diagonally, this is also quite a large display, the largest ever fitted in a Galaxy Note phone. Because of the 18.5:9 aspect ratio, the Note8 isn’t completely unmanageable in hand, even though it’s still the widest and tallest Note yet. But, here’s some perspective: the Note8 is a full 3mm narrower than an iPhone 7 Plus, something I was rather surprised to learn, meaning Samsung could probably make the next Note even larger if it really wanted to.
But as a canvas for content, the Note8 reigns supreme in the world of smartphones. You get a tremendous amount of screen area, very minimal bezel, and packaging that pushes the boundaries of what is possible with current technologies. Even if not significantly larger or better than the screen on the S8+, the Note8 is a reminder that Samsung is at the very forefront of smartphone display technology, and it’s extremely impressive.
Like the S8 and S8+, the Note8 does have a curved edge display, but Samsung has given it a steeper, sharper curve to increase the amount of fully-flat display area on the Note. Samsung says this is to maximize the amount of available writing space for the S Pen, but given that amounts to fractions of a millimeter, I’m more convinced this is a stylistic choice than anything. I do prefer the sharper curve, regardless, as it minimizes interface distortions (i.e., the melty edge effect).
Battery life and charging
I’ve had quite a good experience with the Note8 in regard to battery life, despite the fact that it has both a smaller battery and a larger screen than the S8+. 3300mAh and a 6.3″ display sound like a recipe for range anxiety, but I’ve found the Note’s battery life to be as good or even possibly better than the S8+ I tested earlier this year.
For me, six hours of screen time was readily achievable in a single day of heavy use with Wi-Fi. Off Wi-Fi, that number is going to decrease, especially if you’re spending a lot of time with the phone at high brightness levels, but that’s true of any device. The Snapdragon 835 really does seem to be quite an efficient chipset, and Samsung may have found the right balance of performance and power consumption to make the most of it. The Note8’s battery has not left me at all wanting during my test period, and I’m genuinely pleased with its staying power.
Charging is achieved via Samsung’s Quick Charge 2.0-based Adaptive Fast Charging which, despite being a bit long in the tooth, is still fast, at a maximum output of 15 watts. That’s not as quick as what you’ll get from Moto’s TurboPower or OnePlus’ ridiculously speedy Dash Charge, though, so there is room for improvement here, and I’d argue it’s time for Samsung to step up its game in the charging department. Even the Pixel XL can charge at 18 watts.
You can also charge the Note8 wirelessly using Samsung’s wireless fast charging pad or any Qi-compatible surface, a feature it’s nice to see Samsung remaining committed to.
Storage, wireless, and call quality
The Galaxy Note8 is only available with 64GB of storage here in the US. Some regions may get 128GB and 256GB models, as well. That’s plenty for most of us, but if you do need the extra capacity, a microSD slot is there to augment what Samsung provides out of the box, though it should be noted that Samsung does not support Android’s adoptable storage feature.
Wireless performance during my testing has been strong on Verizon, and that’s not unexpected – the Galaxy Note8 packs a suite of advanced radio features, owing to its Snapdragon 835’s X16 LTE modem. That’s means MIMO, 256-bit QAM, 4x carrier aggregation, and more. The Note8, like the S8 and S8+ before it, is probably the most advanced smartphone on the planet in terms of raw connectivity. Wi-Fi support includes 2.4 and 5GHz with everything including 802.11ac and MIMO.
Bluetooth 5.0 is in tow, and while I’ve had no issues getting the Note8 to work well with my various wireless headphones, I’m frustrated to report I’ve had difficulties with it in the car. My strong suspicion is that this is due to some software change in Android 7.1.1 (the S8 and S8+ have 7.0), because Samsung’s phones have previously never given me problems with my vehicle’s Bluetooth (it’s a ’16 Mazda, so it’s plenty modern). In particular, the Note8 has a very hard time successfully connecting media audio on vehicle startup, necessitating a few manual disconnects and reconnects before it finally pairs up fully. Hopefully this gets sorted out in a bug fix release some point soon.
Call quality was great, and the Note8 should support voice over LTE on all the major US carriers.
Audio and speakers
The Note8, thankfully, does feature a headphone jack. Audio quality is on par with what I experienced from the Snapdragon variants of the S8 and S8+, which I would call excellent. Output is incrementally better than last year’s Snapdragon 820-series phones, and especially seems to have improved responsiveness at the low end, with bass being very noticeably fuller.
Samsung’s extremely irritating volume warning still makes an appearance on this phone, and I’m going to keep on complaining until this is finally abolished (or at least can be disabled after the first warning). I get it, Samsung: you’re worried about our ears. Letting us know more than once that turning up the volume really high might damage them is excessive (and despite any regulations in some countries about this, there are no such laws in the US – and this is a US model phone).
The bottom-firing speaker seems basically the same as the one you got on the S8 and S8+, with respectable output and reasonably good quality. It’s not the best smartphone speaker out there, not by a long shot, but it generally gets the job done. With Samsung so focused on the reduction of display bezel and making room for its S Pen, it’s hard to see the speaker being much of a priority these days.
This may be the big story for the Note8: Samsung’s first-ever dual-camera array in a smartphone. It’s not terribly hard to believe, but Samsung’s gone the Apple route and equipped the Note8 with a standard camera and a second, narrower-angle “telephoto” system for portrait shots and close-ups. There is a permanent button in the camera UI to quickly switch between the two, though I find it rather confusing. Samsung has labeled it by the effective “zoom” factor of each lens relative to the standard camera, displaying either a “x1” or “x2” on the button to switch between the two. When on the telephoto lens, “x2” is displayed – meaning that to switch to the standard camera, you tap on a button that says “x2.” This seems a little counterintuitive. I only linger here because I’ve found myself launching the camera with the telephoto lens selected (it remembers what you last used) without realizing it. I feel like a symbolic aid would be a lot better than a textual one here.
Anyway, let’s talk about those cameras. The standard “x1” system is basically similar to what you’d get on a Galaxy S8 or S8+. That is to say, this is one of the very best smartphone cameras on the market, and takes truly wonderful photos in a wide variety of lighting conditions. Samsung’s wide f/1.7 aperture lens really shines in low light, and its HDR performance is second only to the Pixel’s. Unlike Samsung’s phones in 2016, this year the processing is substantially less aggressive, making photos look more natural and balanced versus the often contrast and saturation-heavy output on the S7 and S7 edge.
The second camera, though, is the one you’re likely interested in. Is it any good? In short: kinda. The telephoto lens does have its uses, and can be a great way to change up your framing technique. I got some shots with the telephoto camera that I’m really pleased with, but none of them were “portraits.” First, let’s look at samples from the main camera, though.
Now, let’s move on to the secondary, telephoto system (I ensured the secondary camera actually took all of these by checking the aperture in the EXIF data).
The thing is, this second camera is clearly not as good as the primary one. Colors are noticeably more subdued, details oversharpened, and processing just a bit harsh overall. It gives photos a cold, digital feel that smartphone cameras a few years ago tended to suffer from. That’s not to say it’s bad. But given what you can achieve with the primary camera, the secondary one feels a bit shortchanged. I’m genuinely curious if there is a particular reason Samsung couldn’t have used the same sensor for both. It is nice to know it has optical image stabilization, though (the iPhone 7 Plus, by contrast, does not).
My guess here is that Samsung sourced cheaper parts for the telephoto system because it anticipated people wouldn’t use it for much but the portrait mode (which Samsung calls Live Focus), which tends to mask that harsh processing with a whole lot of artificial bokeh. Speaking of, I found this feature to be kind of half-baked. Like most software-based bokeh systems, there’s always going to be some guesswork involved in determining what is in the background versus the foreground. As a result, you may get bokeh bleeding into edges or causing distortions upon close examination of photos. It’s probably significantly better than the Pixel’s artificial blur effect, given it’s working with two camera outputs, but it’s definitely not magic. I have a feeling there’s still some fine-tuning to be done here.
Of note when comparing to Apple’s portrait mode, live focus allows you to continue manipulating the intensity of the bokeh effect after shooting. As long as dual capture mode is enabled (which it is by default in live focus mode), you can tweak the amount of blur in your live focus photos at any time. Dual capture also has a second benefit, in that you can extract the primary camera’s output from the live focus photo and save it separately on your device. If you’re not happy with how a live focus photo turned out, maybe the output from the primary camera would be preferable. But this feature – perplexingly – is only available in live focus mode. Personally, I’d love to be able to capture every one of my telephoto shots with the primary camera also taking a wider angle photo.
Finally, when using the telephoto camera, you have to be cognizant of the lighting situation you’re in, because if the phone determines there isn’t enough, it’ll switch back to using the primary camera in digital zoom mode instead. That is to say, the secondary telephoto lens isn’t available for use in dark environments at all. The telephoto camera also is not available in Samsung’s semi-manual “pro” mode, which is kind of frustrating. While I can understand this behavior in auto mode, locking the user out of the second camera entirely in what is supposed to be a “professional” shooting mode is confounding.
Overall, the Note8’s second rear camera technically makes for an upgrade over the single shooter on the S8 and S8+, but it’s not a huge one, and not one I think I’d really miss were I to go back to using those phones. It’s nice to have, but it’s far from a game-changer. It was developed to provide feature parity with the iPhone, and it shows. But the S8’s primary camera is still absolutely fantastic, and that’s worth commending. There’s no harm in having the second camera, either, obviously – I’m just unsure it was worth whatever price Samsung paid to put it there.
The Note8 feels largely similar to the S8 and S8+ in regard to performance, and that’s not at all surprising. It runs at the same resolution (1080p) using the same chipset. I was a bit concerned it might be a little slower to make up for the smaller battery and larger display (to even out battery life), but those concerns have largely been allayed after using it for nearly two weeks.
There are issues, though. For one, the fingerprint scanner, while I think fast enough, is pretty miserable in most other regards. Compared to phones like the Moto Z2 Play or the OnePlus 5, the Note8 takes only a bit longer to unlock, but oftentimes the scanner won’t even respond with a failed read buzz if it doesn’t think you actually meant to touch it. Compared to the LG V30, I found the Note8 simply failed to recognize I was touching the scanner at all by a factor of five times or more. You have to get your finger on there just so, and with a phone this large, that’s not an easy ask. The placement, obviously, is the primary culprit here, and I’m not about to let it go – this was really, really dumb, Samsung.
In other regards, performance ranges from “acceptable” to “very good.” I found animations in the OS to be very smooth, and generally speaking, apps ran well. I rarely encountered any unusual stutters or strange hangs, something I cannot say of last year’s S7 and S7 edge. There are ragged edges, though. For one, Samsung’s notification bar feels almost comically clunky when compared to the effortlessly smooth Pixel’s, and the home button can feel a bit slow to respond, too. Touch latency generally feels very good, and this generation of Samsung’s phones doesn’t seem prone to unusual throttling behavior under the vast majority of normal circumstances (get it very hot, though, and this phone will slow down). While not as smooth as the Pixel or as rapid and manic as the OnePlus 5, the Note8 cuts a good slice between the two in terms of overall performance.
The changes in software between the Galaxy S8 and the Note8 are essentially imperceptible. While the Note8 does run on a newer version of Android (7.1.1 to the S8’s 7.0), Samsung really hasn’t bothered implementing any new features here. Note devices have often acted as platforms on which Samsung can experiment a little more freely with power user features and advanced capabilities, perhaps because your average Note owner is a little more interested in such things. This year, though, Samsung seems content to relegate changes to the two areas that currently make the Note unique in its lineup – the camera and the stylus.
We’ve gone over the changes to the camera app, so there’s no point in retreading there. As to the S Pen, Samsung has added a new “live message” feature that’s pretty fun, as well as expanded the capabilities of the instant note-taking feature. Both might be useful to hardcore stylus lovers, neither is going to up the appeal of the Note to those who aren’t.
Honestly, I am loathe to review Samsung’s latest iteration of TouchWiz a second time – and so I won’t. If you want a complete breakdown of what makes Samsung’s Android Nougat ROM distinct from the TouchWiz of years past, please head over to our Galaxy S8 review. I’ll do you the favor of not just copying and pasting the whole thing here for the sake of filling up the page.
As I did six months ago, I find Samsung’s current software skin largely livable. Yes, the settings menus can be labyrinthine, and yes, the phone still annoyingly “sleeps” apps that it deems you don’t use very often. This unlocked Note8 will even serve up notifications if a third-party app is using certain permissions frequently (shocker: my 3rd party SMS app uses the SMS permission A LOT – thanks, Samsung). There remain years of legacy features lurking in the various menus, and Samsung seems more content to bury rarely-used settings rather than do away with them, lest they upset a single customer who continues to utilize Smart Stay.
I would be the first in line to suggest Samsung’s skin is due for a real culling of complexity, because it could make discovering the actually-useful features – the blue light filter, always-on display, dual messenger – a lot easier for your average user. But, fan service really does seem to be the name of the game with the latest Note, and many people would suggest that you’re not “hurting” anything by leaving these old and largely unused gimmicks in there. After all, someone might be using them (in my opinion, hardly a compelling justification for all this TouchWiz-era kludge).
This remains the most usable, best-performing Samsung software skin yet, and there’s no denying that Samsung does add some legitimately useful things to Android on occasion – things which Google even occasionally appropriates for use in the stock OS. I don’t begrudge Samsung for trying new things, I just wish they’d be a little more proactive about getting rid of the ones that don’t really stick.
Samsung has among the poorest track record for a major Android manufacturer in regard to the speed at which OS-level updates arrive. However, the company has been quite good about providing monthly security patches to its phones in the last year or so, and that’s worth commending.
Still, we know our audience: most of you are concerned with when this phone will be getting Android 8.0, and that’s a fair thing to wonder given it will launch after Oreo has been available as part of AOSP for nearly a month. I don’t have an answer, but if history is any guide, I’d be decidedly surprised if the Note8 receives Oreo before early 2018. Samsung typically takes anywhere from five or six months to a year in the US to issue Android platform updates depending on how old a particular phone is and what carrier it’s on, though it does a considerably better job in terms of releasing maintenance updates and bug fixes.
A lot of this in the US is down to the carriers, as I’ve said, but Samsung itself is still pretty slow. While Project Treble may hold promise for phones going forward, I have a feeling the Note8 may have come just a little too soon to really benefit from it. We’ll see, of course, but I wouldn’t buy a Note8 today on the hope that Samsung is suddenly going to change its tune about OS updates – that would be wishful thinking.