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Galaxy Note 8 review: Is the Note’s comeback worth the wait?

by Brandon Russell | September 5, 2017September 5, 2017 8:00 am PDT

When the Note 7 went under, the entire Note brand almost went with it. But shortly after the fallout, Samsung executives discovered something interesting: Note fans are a passionate bunch. Encouraged by what it heard from past and present Note owners (some of whom were affected by the recall), the company decided not to ditch the Note brand after all, and instead repent for past sins.

The Note 7’s legendary failure won’t soon be forgotten. But after releasing a device that came a hair within perfection, Samsung is returning to the Note line with a vengeance. The Note 8 features a beautiful Infinity Display, dual-lens camera, and the Note’s signature stylus, an accessory that’s more important to the lineup’s future than ever. It’s easily Samsung’s most advanced device to date.

But does that automatically make the Note 8 Samsung’s best? It depends on your preference. If you’re an S8 owner, there’s no compelling reason to trade up (unless the S Pen is a must). And for folks upgrading from a device like the Note 5—a phone released in 2015, mind you—the Note 8’s $930 price tag might be a turn-off.

However, there’s no denying the Note 8 is one hell of a device. With so many hardcore Note fans out there, the handset is already destined for greatness, so long as it can suppress its pyrotechnic tendencies.

Note: Samsung said the Note 8 underwent Samsung’s 8-point Battery Safety Check process, along with testing from Underwriters Laboratories (UL), a third-party company. Basically, the Note 8’s battery should not catch fire.

Don’t be a square

The Galaxy Note 8 takes a lot of inspiration from the Galaxy S8 Plus, landing at just a hair larger with an 6.3-inch display. But even though they look almost identical, they feel distinctly different. I’m as surprised about that as you are.

Where Samsung’s S line of phones feature rounded, sloped edges, the Note series is more square and flat. While I wouldn’t say the device’s design is bad, the more squared look doesn’t quite work.

The Infinity Display’s rounded corners don’t visually match with the square design, making it look a little awkward and ungainly, like the display is wearing a case that’s not meant to fit. It just looks… off. The phone feels as tall and narrow as it looks, which means it’s not quite as manageable as the 6.2-inch Galaxy S8 Plus, and downright gargantuan next to the Galaxy S8.

Otherwise, the Note 8 is patented Samsung; all-glass design, elegant lines, minimal bezel, and a fingerprint sensor that sits right next to the camera. The sensor’s placement isn’t the biggest deal in the world, but considering the Note 8’s size, reaching it can be tricky, especially if you’re left-handed.

That’s just a small inconvenience, however, considering the Note 8 offers such a beautiful display. In fact, the screen (2960 x1440 resolution) has been crowned the best mobile display on the market, usurping the Galaxy S8 from its throne. Samsung has upped the ante by achieving 1200 nits brightness, which is fantastic for outdoor viewing. And it’s also certified by the UHD Alliance as a Mobile HDR Premium device, making content on Netflix pop.

Some of the phone’s other specs include a Snapdragon 835 chip, 6GB of RAM, 64GB of expandable storage, and two 12-megapixel rear cameras, both of which feature optical image stabilization. The Note 8 also features IP68 water and dust resistance, wireless charging, plenty of biometric options, and a 3,300mAh battery, which will get you through a heavy day of use without issue.

Write that down

Since its inception, the Note’s defining feature has been its S Pen, an accessory that greatly expands the device’s capabilities. This time around, it supports new functionality like Live Messages, which is similar to Apple’s Digital Touch feature, and instant translation of entire sentences when hovering over text.

But the coolest new S Pen feature is its expanded support of Screen Off Memo. The feature works like it did in the Note 7, allowing users to take notes without powering the Note 8’s screen on. Now, however, users can create up to 100 pages of notes—and messages can be pinned to the Always On Display.

If you need to jot something down in a hurry, Screen Off Memo is incredibly convenient, and a perfect example of why the S Pen is so important to the Note series. The stylus still feels a little odd when writing on the glass display—that’s just how it is—but Note owners will feel right at home using it to doodle and navigate the software.

Which, by the way, now offers a fantastic App Pair feature that allows users to launch two apps in multi-window mode. It’s one of those features you didn’t know you needed. My favorite setup was YouTube and Chrome, making it super simple to browse the web while watching trending videos. App Pair combinations live in the Note 8’s Apps Edge panel, so they can easily be accessed with a simple swipe from the edge.

The rest of the software (Android 7.1.1) looks and behaves much the same way it did in the Galaxy S8. The experience is fast, fluid, and very enjoyable. Bixby is, well, Bixby, while the Note 8 features DeX support (dock required). And with the Snapdragon 835 and 6GB of RAM, everything is zippy and smooth.

Double vision

Like the iPhone 7 Plus, the Note 8 features a dual-camera setup, each of which is 12 megapixels. The wide-angle lens features an f/1.7 aperture and the telephoto features an f/2.4 aperture; both offer optical image stabilization. With the two lenses working in conjunction, you get 2x optical and 10x digital zooming.

Of course, you can’t have two rear-facing cameras (which don’t protrude!) without also introducing more software features. The most obvious new addition is Live Focus, which is Samsung’s version of portrait mode. What’s cool about Samsung’s software is you can adjust the background blur after an image is taken; it’s not an all or nothing thing like it is with Apple’s portrait mode.

The good news is Samsung’s portrait mode is pretty great. With further enhancements to the software, no doubt Samsung’s dual-camera system will become the best on the market. As it is, the Note 8 snaps some of the best images you’ll get from a smartphone—photos are vibrant, sharp, and nicely exposed.

There’s also a Dual Capture mode, which snaps photos with both cameras at the same time, stitching them together for one mega photo. The feature is best used when you want both your subject and background in perfect focus.

Operating the camera software is also a breeze. Not only does the Note 8 offer plenty of pro-level settings, but the camera operates quickly. Auto focus is fast, while pictures are snapped in the blink of an eye. Having a camera that is fast cannot be understated; if you hope to snap photos of your wiggling toddler, than the Note 8 is absolutely top of its class.

Should you Note?

Samsung is pretty confident current Note owners will upgrade to the newest iteration. Compared to a device like the Note 5, the differences are pretty massive. But what about Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8 Plus owners? Unless you absolutely need the S Pen, it’s not worth the upgrade, especially considering the Note 8 starts at $930.

A few months ago, I asked if the Note series was still relevant. Based on the Note 8’s level of polish and features, it very much has a place in Samsung’s lineup. Put it this way: The Note helped spark Samsung’s reputation as the anti-Apple, so it’s not about to abandon its most distinctive, innovative device.

That being said, the Note 8 is arriving against some really tough competition, including its Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8 Plus. The iPhone X will be announced on September 12, while Google is close to unveiling the Pixel 2 XL.

With so much to offer, it’s just a matter of the Note series appealing to a wider audience outside of the existing Note fanbase. Thanks to its beautiful Infinity Display, dual-camera setup, and fantastic S Pen capabilities, it’s certainly poised to be a huge hit. Just remember that you’ll have to pay over $900 to get one.

Samsung provided TechoBuffalo with a Galaxy Note 8 for the purposes of this review. Jon Rettinger used it for four days for the video portion, and Brandon Russell used it for a further four days for the written portion.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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