Samsung really did it.
After last year’s virtually perfect Galaxy Note 7 burst into flames worldwide and threatened to destroy the company, Samsung has returned with the Note 8, a larger, safer, and feature-packed phablet that embarrasses all other big phones.
Samsung’s latest flagship phone proves once again that nobody makes better phablets.
Many words have been spilled on the Note 7’s defective batteries and whether Samsung would be able to recover from the disaster. I won’t waste your time retreading old ground. If you don’t trust the Note 8 is safe, then you’ll never trust any Samsung phone and you should stop reading now.
Samsung spent the last year preparing for the successful launch of the Note 8, primarily with the Galaxy S8 and S8+ where there have been no reports of them exploding.
From a new 8-point battery safety check that involves machine and human inspection to new battery chemistry that better manages energy usage and extends their life cycle, Samsung’s pulling out all the stops to make sure the Note 7’s unfortunate launch never repeats.
A small huge phone
Calling something “small” and “huge” at the same time sounds like a contradiction, but it’s the perfect definition for what a phablet should be in 2017. If you’re going to push a huge display, it’d better have extremely narrow bezels that make it smaller to hold and use.
The Note 8 shows Samsung’s mastery of the “big screen, small body.” Its 6.3-inch 18:9.5 aspect ratio Super AMOLED “infinity” display absolutely dwarfs the iPhone 7 Plus’ 5.5-inch screen, and yet both phones have roughly the same dimensions.
Just a few years ago, a 6-inch screen was considered too large, stretching into mini tablet territory, but now it’s no longer ridiculous to whip out a monster like the Note 8.
The Note 8’s huge screen gives you more room for reading, more space to draw with the S Pen, a more expansive window for watching videos. But it still says nothing about the quality of the screen itself.
It’s the best screen I’ve ever used on a phone, period.
It’s the best screen I’ve ever used on a phone, period.
The OLED display has a resolution of 2,960 x 1,440 resolution, and the panel is unbelievably bright — 22 percent brighter than the S8/S8+’s already blinding screen — and a full 100 percent of the DCI-P3 Color Gamut means HDR content will blow you away with greater dynamic range and more visible colors.
Samsung’s phone screens never cease to amaze me and the Note 8’s is no different. Even at around 60 percent brightness, the screen is perfectly visible in direct sunlight. Photos and videos look sharper than on most people’s laptop and computer screens, and the black levels are so dark only Darth Vader’s armor could match it.
When I reviewed the Note 7, I said the it was “stunning from every angle” and the same goes for the Note 8. Samsung’s been honing its “glass and metal sandwich” design since the S6 and I challenge you to find one that’s sleeker.
The curved glass edges melt into the metal frame, which is just skinny enough to house the power button, volume rocker, and Bixby button. And speaking of curved edges — the Note 8’s are less pronounced than those on the S8/S8+. That means you have more flat surface area to use the S Pen for handwritten notes and doodles.
Even the back of the Note 8 looks great (when it’s not covered in fingerprints). Samsung’s flattened the camera bump to the point where it’s nearly flush with the body and doesn’t rock at all on a flat surface. And while not ideal, I’m really happy to see there’s more separation between the rear-mounted fingerprint sensor and the cameras. The fingerprint scanner is still a little difficult to reach with your finger, but I almost never accidentally smudged the cameras like I did on the S8.
Like the S8, if you don’t like the fingerprint scanner, you can set up the iris scanner or face recognition to secure and unlock your phone. The latter is faster and more convenient, but less secure than the iris scanner.
And, of course, the Note 8 has all of the other trims you expect from a Samsung phone: IP68 water and dust resistance, fast wireless charging, fast charging via USB-C, a microSD card slot, and a headphone jack (you also get a really nice pair of AKG earbuds with braided cables). The speaker’s still mono and not stereo, though.
The best dual cameras
Apple might have done the fake blurred background (bokeh) trick the best with the dual cameras on the iPhone 7 Plus, but Samsung just leapfrogged it with the Note 8.
Just like the that phone, the Note has a pair of 12-megapixel rear cameras — a regular wide-angle lens (f/1.7) and a secondary 2x telephoto (f/2.4 lens).
As expected, the Note 8 takes excellent regular photos and selfies with the wide-angle camera in daylight, outdoors and low-light. The shutter is fast and colors are still classic Samsung-saturated: They look vibrant and crisp, and details in the photos are a little different than the same pics taken by an iPhone.
But it’s the Note 8’s “Live Focus” mode (a.k.a. Samsung’s answer to the Apple’s “Portrait mode”) that really impresses and leaves the iPhone 7 Plus in its dust.
Live Focus does two things better than the iPhone’s Portrait mode. First, it takes a photo at 2x zoom and blurs out the background so it looks like you used a big, beefy DSLR to take the shot. It’s just like Portrait mode, except you can adjust the intensity of the background blur in real-time or after you’ve taken the photo using a simple slider.
As you can see in the sample photos, the ability to adjust how blurred you want the background really makes a world of difference and is the equivalent of adjusting the aperture on a real camera. In the photo of my watch, cranking the blur to 100% really brings out the details while isolating the background. Just look at how creamy the bokeh is.
Second, when you take a Live Focus photo, the wide-angle camera also takes a second, larger photo at the same time, and you get both.
I said Live Focus was literally a little rough around the edges when I tried it out in August, but now that I’ve shot with it in all conditions, I can confidently say it’s really great except for in low-light situations (it either doesn’t work, or your photo will look like crap). Live Focus doesn’t isolate backgrounds as well as a DSLR, but neither does the iPhone 7 Plus. I have hopes Live Focus gets better with time as Portrait mode did.
In addition to the fantastic Live Focus mode, both rear cameras come with optical image stabilization to combat shaky hands, even at 10x digital zoom. Nobody should be shooting photos or videos at 10x digital zoom, but if you really must, at least everything is optically stabilized.
Selfies aren’t too shabby from the phone’s 8-megapixel front-facing camera. Like on all Samsung phones, the beauty settings that airbrush your face are a little too intense for my liking, but thankfully you can dial them down.
If you’ve stuck with me this far, you’re probably wondering about the Note 8’s performance. There’s a reason why it’s buried down here instead of up top, and that’s because it not really, uh, noteworthy.
Not because the iPhone 7 Plus’s custom A10 Fusion chip still smokes the Note 8’s Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip, but because it doesn’t matter that much. Like the S8/S8+, the Note 8 is incredibly speedy. Sure, it’s got 6GB of RAM (two more than the S8) and the 64GB of storage is sweet, but you won’t notice any significant leaps in power.
The fact is, the Note 8 is really smooth with virtually no lag, apps open and load quickly, and Samsung’s trademark Android skin, TouchWiz, is the least offensive it’s been in years. It’s the same as on the S8 and it’s Samsung’s finest tuning yet. I could complain about TouchWiz not being stock Android like on the Google Pixel or the Essential Phone, or how there are duplicate Samsung apps like the Internet browser or Gallery, but I honestly don’t hate them. (You need Samsung’s Gallery app in order to adjust Live Focus photos because Google Photos doesn’t support Samsung’s camera tech.)
I got a full day of battery life during my week-long testing
And despite having a smaller 3,300 mAh battery compared to the Galaxy S8’s 3,500 mAh, stamina wasn’t an issue. I got a full day of battery life during my week-long testing and could squeeze out even more by dropping the default resolution down to full HD, lowering the brightness, and temporarily turning off other features.
Samsung sent me an unlocked Note 8 to try out, which didn’t come with any carrier bloatware. If you really can’t stand the sight of that kind of crap (I can’t), this is the one to buy.
While performance wasn’t something that I worried about, I did wonder if the Note’s new productivity and S Pen features would be more gimmick than must-have. My concerns immediately disappeared as soon as I started using them.
A new feature called “App pair” lets you create a one-tap shortcut within the Apps Edge (the menu that appears when you swipe from the right edge) to launch two apps in split-window. Samsung phones have had split-window features for years and I’ve never used them because opening two apps simultaneously was annoying, but I found myself using it more after setting shortcuts for pairs like Feedly and Google Keep. Most apps can be paired, but not all of them (like the Voice recorder) work with split-window for some reason.
My favorite new S Pen feature, “Live Messages,” lets you write or draw a message (just like iOS’s Digital Touch) and send and save them as GIFs. I showed the feature to my mom over dim sum and she just thought it was wonderful. And thanks to her, I discovered there’s a limit to the number of strokes each Live Message can animate. Once you reach the limit, you can’t write anymore, so keep them short!
One of my all-time favorite Note features, “Screen-off memo,” which lets you write on the display as soon as you pull out the stylus now supports 100 pages. And of course, you’ll find all of the sweet S Pen features from previous Note devices, including the awesome “Scroll Capture” (creates longer screenshots for things like websites) and the awesome GIF maker.
Still the phablet king
Yeah, yeah, I get it: the Note 7 blew up last year and everyone should be cautious of the Note 8. Lulz, insert hand grenade jokes, but it’s been a whole year. Grow up, and get over it.
The battery problems that ended the Note 7’s life have been identified and resolved. Of course, I personally can’t promise that there will be no Note 8 explosions. But still, I’m giving the phone our Mashable Choice award — my review unit didn’t explode and neither did my two Note 7 devices when I had them — because I don’t think you’ll be disappointed if you buy one. Yes, $930 is a lot of money to spend on a phone, but there’s so much in it (especially the really impressive dual cameras) that make it worth it.
The Note 8 excels in all the areas a $1,000 phone should
Bixby is the only part of the Note 8 that I don’t like. I know that AI and digital assistants will play a much larger role in our phones in the coming years, but Bixby is so half-baked that it’s jarring it has its own physical button. Similar to Siri, Bixby is so hit-and-miss when it comes to identifying objects or completing a series or tasks like “Take a photo, and then post it to my Facebook” that I often never used it. Worst of all, Bixby is just slow — like frustratingly slow.
Disappointing Bixby aside, the Note 8 excels in all the areas a $1,000 phone should. The phone’s screen is best-in-class, the dual cameras embarrass the reigning champ’s, and the new S Pen and productivity features are actually useful. Plus the design is just stunning.
Every company under the sun now makes a phablet, but that doesn’t change the fact that Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8 is still the best phablet ever created. You can scoff at 6-inch phones being too big, but just you wait, they’ll be the norm soon enough and Samsung’s leading the charge.
Samsung Galaxy Note 8
Best, brightest phone screen ever • Fast, lag-free performance • All-day battery life • App pair and Live Messages are so much fun • Beautiful, perfected glass and metal design • Dual camera system is best in class (sorry, iPhone)
Bixby is still slow • $930-950 price tag
The Bottom Line
Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8 is the company’s best smartphone and the best phablet ever made.