Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review
Although the Note range is newer than the Tab range, it's also more complete. After all, the Note is a phone, as well as a tablet, and there are now three sizes to choose from. It's also, we think, a more exciting range in terms of features and designs. In fact, we'd say that as a phone, the Note 2 is slightly more exciting that the Galaxy S4.
But the new Note 8 is in an interesting place. Not really a phone - although 3G and 4G versions are available - it's too big to fit in a pocket, but hardly large enough to justify being carried in a bag. But Samsung 7 and 8-inch devices are hardy and great to use, and we still adore our original 3G Galaxy Tab.
So, what does the Note 8 have to persuade pounds out of our pocket, and has Samsung created the best set of features in the best-sized device?
While the Note 8 certainly looks similar to the Note 10.1, the design is a little different in some ways. The 8-inch tablet looks more like a large phone than it does a small tablet. The silver bezel that was prominent on the 10-inch model is reduced here, and looks - strangely - a little more like a large Galaxy S than a Note device. That might seem a strange thing to say, but the Note 8 looks more like the SGS 3 and 4 than it does the Note 2 and 10.1.
Unlike the Note 10.1, the Note 8 has a home button and runs the "phone" UI for Android. That means you don't get the tablet layout with a notifications bar along the bottom. Instead, we keep the dropdown tray at the top of the screen. We have mixed feelings about this, but on the whole we prefer having a hardware button, so the Note 8 feels better to us - your mileage may vary.
The camera on the back causes a little bump in the rear case. We could live without this. We don't like it as a design concept, and we still can't really see the point of rear-mounted cameras on tablets. We're sure some use it, but for us the devices are too large, and the quality simply not good enough to justify their existence, especially not when they affect the design like this.
As you would expect, there's a headphone socket at the top of the Note 8, along with power and volume controls on the right and some capacitive buttons at the bottom, along with that home key.
Samsung also sticks with the phone-style USB connector too, rather than going for the proprietary tablet connector that we don't have much love for. No doubt this is justified by the more modest power requirements of this tablet, but we still prefer to see standard connectors on devices, so this gets a thumbs-up from us.
We have never been drawn into the resolution battle that seems to occupy phone and tablet manufacturers. Apple's devices with their high-resolution displays look great, but they also looked great before they had high-resolution displays. That said, we think the Note 8 needs more resolution. Literally the first thing we thought when we turned on the Note 8 was, "This hasn't got a high enough resolution." The numbers are 1280 x 800, which equates to about 189ppi, compare this to the Note 2, which has 1280 x 720 and 267ppi and you can see that things are a bit less than ideal.
When we checked, we noted that it's actually only got slightly more than the 5.5 Note 2, and that's a device that's a good bit smaller - and which we think would look amazing with a 1080p display. Of course, the worst thing you can say about a display like this is that it looks a bit soft. It's not especially distracting, and it honestly won't worry you at all. Text will look a little less crisp, so if you use your tablet to read eBooks, then you might want to consider your options here - Apple and Asus both have very high-resolution panels available.
When it comes to video though, the Note 8 still looks fabulous. We suspect that people will mostly watch 720p video, or streaming content from Netflix, YouTube and iPlayer. For this, it's actually very well placed to produce nice-looking video. Certainly, images aren't the sharpest we've seen - although Samsung, by default, does some artificial image sharpening - but it's a very watchable device, and about perfect in size.
As with the other Note devices, the pen input is very good indeed. There's something very satisfying about writing on a bit of glass with a pen, but it feels good and works quite well. There's a bit of lag, but it's not the end of the world for most uses.
What we loved most about the sound on the Note 10.1 was the forward-facing speakers. On the Note 8, those are gone, replaced instead by two speakers on the bottom of the device. There's plenty of power here - in a quiet, but large room there was enough volume to reach several people - and if you watch your hand placement, or use a stand, then you should have no worries.
The sound quality is predictable. Voices can be heard easily, so dialogue is nice and clear. Low-end sounds don't really exist on speakers this small, and at times there was a slightly tinny, high-end sound. But, on devices like this, there's really not a massive amount you can do to increase the frequency response.
We would say this is still not optimal speaker placement, but we'd also need to remember that the vast majority of people will prefer to use headphones to listen to TV shows and music than some smallish speakers.
S this, S that
Samsung's current feeling seems to be that every tech in its devices must have an S in front of it. S for Samsung. Get it? While we find this massively stupid - try saying S Pen 10 times and keeping a straight face - we can see why the branding is desirable to the firm.
The S Pen is the same as on the Note 10.1 and Note 2. You can use the pen from the phone with this tablet, and vice versa. It's a nice enough piece of kit, although pressing the buttons on the pen is still a little tedious, if we're honest. But using it is mostly a lot of fun. S Note, the app for writing and producing documents with clippings from the web, is really usable. Once you get into it, you can make notes on the fly, snapping photos of things and making notes to help you remember facts.
The calendar is called S Planner, and you'll spend hours looking for the calendar, before you realise you should be looking for the S Planner. S Planner is meaningless, and this is the most annoying of the S-prefixed technologies.
S Voice is Samsung's personal assistant. Double tap the home key, and up she pops with her unrefined voice to ask you what you want. It actually works well enough, but we simply don't really find ourselves desperate to give our phones and tablets orders vocally. In fact, when you do use it, it's decent enough, and using the "Hi Galaxy" to wake it up seems to work well, although it no doubt has a big impact on battery life. While S Voice works solidly, it doesn't have the visual flair of Siri or Google Now.
We did the usual tests, like asking S Voice to create us an alarm, tell us about the weather in various global cities and navigate us home. It passed all in our office environment, and it's reasonably speedy doing what you ask.
Smart remote is a great idea
Universal remote controls are rotten, for the most part. Cleverly, Samsung has worked out that most people use their tablets while they watch TV, and that means that what you have in your hand is not just for tweeting your urbane comments on Breaking Bad, but also potentially a very powerful remote control.
Thus, an app is included which allows you to add the components of your AV system, and control them from an app. But there's more to it than that, because you're also able to tell it what TV services you have access to. It's then able to show you what's on, graphically, and give you recommendations about what to watch.
So what it becomes is a discovery system that allows you to find programmes of interest and watch them without searching various EPGs or remembering what's on the 500 channels you have access to at any one time.
We really liked this idea. Graphically, it needs a little work, it's a bit rough around the edges at times - some of the cover art is bad - but in terms of functionality, it's really second to none.
Performance and tricks
As with all the Note devices, there's enough power here to power either full-screen video, or to have a little pop-up box with your video playing. We like this, because it means you can browse the web while watching a video at the same time. It's not the most useful feature, but it's something you don't see on every device, at least not out of the box.
Video decoding is as you'd expect with a Samsung device: top-notch. HD video plays brilliantly, and reliably, at 720p. In most cases, 1080p should be fine too, but a lot will depend on the complexity of the video. As always, the Samsung is one of few devices with comprehensive media playback support. MKV containers, which cause strife for some, despite being no more than a simple file container, work brilliantly here.
We played Real Racing 3 with no problems either. The tablet is a bit big, but it's workable. Certainly, the processor in here is decent enough to handle most things you can throw at it. As you'd hope, swishing around home screens and using Chrome to browse the web present no real problems.
As with all Note devices, the rear-mounted camera is okay. It's not going to be one to capture weddings, birthdays and your bar or bat mitzvahs. It's easy enough to use, but you're still holding up a massive tablet and the quality isn't so good it makes you forget about all other cameras.
It's hard to say if the Note 8 lives up to the eight hours of battery life quoted by Samsung. We think it will, but you need to use it a normal amount, and in our testing we just don't do that. We think it's good though, and it lasted for several days in our use, which involves periods of very heavy messing about, and then long periods of not being used at all.
With no 3G on our model either, it's impossible to say how that version handles itself, or even the 4G version. Expect less battery on both though. It's also possibly worth noting that, while we complained about the screen resolution on this tablet, keeping that number realistic means it uses much less power.
The Note range remains a solid favourite of ours. The Note 10.1 and Note II are devices we adore. The Note 8 is a solid performer too, but we can't help think it's stuck in the middle of two giants. But it's a brilliant size for a tablet, it's less chunky than the 10.1-inch device, and more usable with the S-Pen than the Note II.
Happily, the build quality of the Note 8 - the thing we love about the Note II and 10.1 - is as solid as you would hope. The big letdown is the display resolution. While it's enough to get by, it's not what we think the device needs to be standout. Even the Note 2 could, arguably, do with a few more pixels on its 5.5-inch screen, so here, on an 8-inch screen, with only a modest boost in PPI, things are starting to look a bit ropey. It was one of the first things we noticed on the device, and that means it's very obvious.
There's a lot going for this design though. The size, we felt, was the perfect blend of portable and practical. There's enough space to use the S-Pen, but it will still fit in a winter coat pocket, just about. It is a well-built device and in the time we've spent with it, we've found ourselves thinking, "I could really enjoy owning one of these" far more than we thought "eugh".