(Pocket-lint) - If you're a Samsung Galaxy Note user, then you'll know there's been a trend for the stylus-wielding series to take what the latest Galaxy S smartphone has started and to enhance upon it, while also debuting some new features.
However, when the Note 7 hit a bump and fell over - only to be recalled in its entirety back in 2016 due to potentially faulty batteries - it wasn't clear if that process was going to continue, or in what fashion. Samsung's immediate mobile future seemed to be in question for a brief time.
Samsung started 2018 by updating its flagship with the Galaxy S9 and S9+, before launching the device that supplants the Note 8, the new Galaxy Note 9. So is the older Samsung Galaxy Note 8 still a shining star in Samsung's smartphone galaxy?
Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: Design and build
- 6.3-inch AMOLED 18.5:9 display
- 162.5 x 74.8 x 8.6mm; 195g
- Metal and glass design
- Integrated S Pen stylus
- IP68 water- and dust-proofing protection
Glance at the Note 8 and you'll see the hallmarks of Samsung's recent design: a metal core, with curved glass front and back, for a tight and seamless finish.
It's an obvious evolution of the Note 7 design, one that incorporates the Galaxy S8's biggest design shift - that the display aspect ratio is 18.5:9, for a taller panel. This brings the Note 8 a similarity to the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+, which launched earlier in 2017, with the Note only eking out a fraction of an inch more to expand to 6.3-inches. The Note is still the largest Galaxy model, although only fractionally.
Those who aren't savvy with the shift in screen aspect may think this results in a huge phone, but the Note 8 is not. At 162.5mm tall, it's 4mm taller than the iPhone 7 Plus. But what it gains in height it more than trims by comparison in width: at 74.8mm wide, the Note 8 isn't as wide as the larger iPhone model's 77.9mm girth. Which is really important.
Samsung's aim is to deliver screen space without expanding the width, making for a phone that's easy to grip and manageable one-handed. And it's mission accomplished.
That shift in aspect sees some big changes for the face. With dual curved edges to the display there's no bezel as such to the edges, but at the top and bottom of the phone the forehead and chin have shrunk, seeing the loss of the home button and Samsung logo. The front still means business, squeezing in the speaker, iris sensor, camera, and little else.
As it's all "screen, screen, screen", the fingerprint scanner is positioned on the back, sitting alongside the expanded dual-camera unit in a location that's not very convenient. The fingerprint scanner is fast enough, but with the increased size of this phone and very little to distinguish the scanner from the camera, it's slightly tricky to use. It needs a rethink, which arrived in the Galaxy Note 9.
Samsung's aim seems to have been tidiness, because this could have been solved by adopting a position like in the Huawei Mate 10 Pro or the Google Pixel 2 XL, separated and below the cameras, within easier reach. Still, with the Note 8 supporting iris scanning, face recognition and voice unlocking through Bixby, fingerprint isn't the only biometric unlock option you have.
Waterproofing comes in the form of IP68 protection - that's both water and dust protection - and this extends to the S Pen stylus too, meaning that you can use your Note 8 in the rain without concern. On a phone this big and expensive, you'd expect nothing less.
The looks are very close to the new Note 9, in fact at a glance you'd think they were the same phone. The Note 9 refines the edges slightly, but saves its extravagance for the new S Pen - on the Ocean Blue Note 9, the S Pen is yellow. There's no such extravagance on the Note 8.
Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: Display with HDR skills
- 6.3-inch AMOLED display (18.5:9 ratio)
- 2960 x 1440 pixel resolution (521ppi)
- Dual curved edges
- Mobile HDR Premium
The Galaxy Note is very much about its big display. That's been one of its main features since its 2011 debut and Samsung's displays have continued to dominate.
The QHD+ display of the Note 8 is excellent, offering deep blacks, vibrant colours and the brightness to punch through the brightest of days. Samsung has even got the polarising layer organised so those wearing polarising sunglasses won't experience any dimming.
It's an AMOLED panel, as is typical of Samsung's flagship devices, with a 2960 x 1440 pixel resolution making it sharp and detailed - although the power saving modes will drop the resolution to FHD+ (2220 x 1080 pixels) to preserve battery life (or even lower to HD+). In reality, for daily use, the drop to FHD+ makes only a minor difference, so it's not a huge sacrifice should you choose that option, but the HD+ is noticeably softer.
The phone's edges don't curve off as much as they do on the Galaxy S9 models, with the aim here to give a slightly wider, flatter surface to make it more practical to use with the S Pen. That makes things a little more conservative in terms of display design - there's less wow factor as we said - but less of your content rolls over the edge of the Infinity Display.
It's not a complete solution, however. Go to copy and paste text that's filling the width of the display and you'll find the edges get fiddly as it rolls over the corner. It's a downside of design and might mean you need to zoom out a touch to get that text copied, as the curves don't respond well to touch.
The final thing of note is the Mobile HDR Premium badge. High Dynamic Range is very much the talking point of TV and entertainment at the moment. The Note 7 was the first HDR compatible device (even if that promise was never fulfilled), but Mobile HDR is now very much a mainstream thing - even the iPhone offers it.
HDR Mobile sources are fairly limited, but fire up Netflix and you'll find support: Marvel's The Defenders has added contrast and looks stunning with wonderful colours and lighting, but as can't say that mobile HDR is really a game changer. It doesn't have the same huge shift that your TV does.
Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: Performance and hardware
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 or Exynos 8895, 6GB RAM
- 64GB storage, microSD card slot
- Cat 16 network support
There's long been a debate about which hardware platform is better, with people generally falling behind Qualcomm as the preferred choice. All the Snapdragon 835 devices we experienced in 2017 were great performers - the OnePlus 5T or Pixel 2 XL to name a couple.
However, we've no complaints about the power of Exynos 8895 either. The platform you'll get in the Note 8 depends on your region (and Samsung doesn't detail too much about how that breaks down). In reality, it doesn't need to, as it's unlikely to cause you any concerns whichever is to be found under the hood - although with the launch of the Note 9, there's now a more powerful set of hardware in play. If you're a gamer, newer devices will give you more graphical power, but otherwise, day-to-day running isn't likely to be that different.
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With 6GB of RAM, the Note 8 emerges as one of 2017's most powerful devices, although the day-to-day experience of having more RAM seems little different to the more common 4GB of other devices. This might be different when it comes to intensive AR and VR applications, and its certainly nice to know that there's the hardware backup if you're an intensive multi-tasker, something that the Note 8 does with aplomb.
Importantly, the refinement that Samsung puts into its software these days is evident throughout the Note 8. Some manufacturers say they are stripping away the additions they make to Android to speed things up: Samsung Experience UX is a more comprehensive skin than any other and it still flies, which is testament to Samsung's experience and attention to detail.
There's 64GB of storage as standard with the option for microSD for expansion, plus there's a dual SIM Note 8 variant available in some regions.
One of the minor details on the spec sheet is Gigabit LTE, or Cat 16 support. This means that the mobile connection on this phone has the potential to be really fast, if you have network support for it. In the UK that falls to EE, with the company rolling out support in big cities first. We've found the Note 8 to offer good, solid, network reception, as well as excellent Wi-Fi performance.
The long and short of it is that the Galaxy Note 8 performs like the flagship phone that it launched as. There's little that makes it stumble and it can compete with if not exceed the performance of most other devices of 2017 and some of 2018. Moving into 2018 it's now bettered, but it still stands-up as a leading device.
But then we come to battery life.
Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: Battery life
- 3300mAh battery
- Quick charge support
- WPC and PMA wireless charging support
Glance over the Note 8's spec sheet and there's little that will cause concern, but you might raise an eyebrow at the 3300mAh battery capacity. This is a lower capacity than the slightly smaller Galaxy S8+ and S9+ and, in our experience, the performance is slightly worse.
We typically managed to get into early evening with the Note 8 under fairly intensive use, but this doesn't feel like the Note of old that would easily get through the day. In our use, it doesn't match the endurance of the Galaxy S8+ or S9+ - and it's no where near the performance of the Huawei Mate 10 Pro for example.
There is a lot you can do to extend the life of the battery, however, thanks to power-saving modes. Customising the "mid" level mode is a good starting point, with options to change the screen resolution, throttle the hardware and reduce the peak brightness, all of which make a difference (and all of which wind back what makes the Note 8 more special than much of the competition).
There are also options to manage background activity to make sure there aren't apps using power they don't need.
However, this battery performance needs to be put into context of the 8.6mm thick design of the Note 8. A bigger battery would undoubtedly mean a thicker phone and, for obvious reasons, we suspect that Samsung is erring on the side of caution here. The Note 7 battery was larger in a phone that was a little thinner, but we know how that turned out.
Is this a critical failing? Not really, but it's the weakest aspect of the Note 8's otherwise premier offering. The battery life of the Note 8 means that this isn't a superstar performer, but at the same time it's not debilitating. But it's also here that the Galaxy Note 9 will tempt you - it has a 4000mAh battery and boy, does it show it. The newer phone easily outlasts the Note 8.
With support for fast wireless charging of both standards, the Note 8 is the phone you can drop onto the charging mat in your car or at Starbucks, as well as getting a full boost from a short time on a quick charger.
Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: S Pen skills
- Increased pressure sensitivity (4,096 levels)
For many the S Pen is what the Note is all about. It is, without a doubt, the best stylus-equipped device out there, which is an easy statement to make, because there are few others. What's most important is the functionality that the S Pen offers and the innovation and practicality that comes with it.
Firstly, the S Pen is perfectly integrated into the body of the Note 8, clicking neatly into the bottom right corner just as the Note 7's S Pen did. This new version increases the pressure sensitivity and expands the feature set offered, so it now does a little more.
Using Wacom technology, the S Pen gives a lovely feel when using it to write or draw. Our favourite feature is off-screen memo, which allows you to walk into a meeting and start gathering handwritten notes without having to turn your phone screen on - simply scrawl on the front of it. You can collect up to 100 pages of these notes, with the ability to save, pin and share them. People always talk about replicating the feel of pen and paper and off-screen memo gives you that easy practicality in much the same way.
But what the S Pen is really good at is using information around the device. Smart select is excellent, letting you capture a piece of information and extract the text that you can share or save. You can now also use this to share with Bixby Vision, so you can identify an image, which is all clever stuff.
Then there's translate. This is potentially more useful for those receiving documents (as Chrome users will know that Google will translate websites on the fly) where you hover the S Pen over the word or phrase you want translated. It's really very simple and it's the S Pen feature we've used the most.
The question remains whether you're an S Pen person or not. Previously we'd say that the Note 8 should appeal to everyone because of its large display and full portfolio of skills, but with the cheaper Galaxy S9+ sitting so close in terms of feature set and specs, much of the appeal of the Note 8 now hinges on your desire to have, and use, the S Pen.
This is also something that the Note 9 better realises too - with remote control features on the S Pen that the Note 8 will never offer. Again, the newer phone is better equipped if you are an S Pen fan.
Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: Dual camera shooting
- Main: 12-megapixel Dual Pixel AF, f/1.7, OIS
- Zoom: 12-megapixel AF, f/2.4, OIS
- Front: 8-megapixel AF, f/1.7
There is one other thing that marks the Note 8 aside from its siblings: the introduction of a dual camera. It's the first dual-camera Samsung phone, walking the same line as Apple with the iPhone 7 Plus in turning to zoom as the skill to offer. This has now found its way to the Galaxy S9+ too, as well as the Huawei P20 Pro.
There's a standard main camera on the Note 8 that's essentially the same as the Galaxy S8, but it's joined by a second 12-megapixel camera sitting behind a telephoto lens.
In the real world this offers 2x optical zoom like that iPhone, letting you switch from 1x zoom to 2x zoom. One important addition on the Samsung is that the telephoto camera has optical image stabilisation to keep things stable and sharp.
The idea behind this setup is to get you closer to the action using optics rather than digital zoom (the latter of which uses sensor cropping and causes a loss of quality). The 2x zoom giving great results quickly and easily, but it's worth glancing at the specs to guide your usage here: the telephoto lens is f/2.4, so the aperture isn't as wide as the main camera, meaning it's not as good in low-light conditions.
The Note 8's camera is super-fast in launching, jumping open with a double tap of the power button and giving a fairly clutter-free interface. The performance in normal auto shooting is very much a repeat of the Galaxy S8's camera skills. Consistency and good all-round performance makes it one of the most agreeable cameras on a smartphone, whether you're shooting in perfect conditions, dull days or in lower light - although the new dual-aperture Galaxy S9+ is notably better in low light performance.
The zoom function is useful, if not as dramatic as the wide-angle offering you'll find on the LG V30, the latter giving a little more creative opportunity. At the moment, it's difficult to really swallow the Huawei or Nokia line of using the dual camera to pursue quality alone (or true mono). Of course, when it comes to straight shooting, you can't really beat the Pixel 2 XL's performance.
The zoom camera gives good performance too, as a tap can give you an instant reframing of an image for a second shot, which is great for those fleeting moments where you want to focus on the subject a little more.
One of Samsung's new additions is "live focus". This is essentially a mode that will let you change the background blur on your photos, capturing data from both cameras and using the depth map to pick out foreground from background. It's easy to use and well designed for portraits, letting you slide the controller to change the bokeh effect.
It's digitally created, just like the aforementioned Apple, Huawei and Nokia options, but we like the style. There's a couple of added advantages offered in the Samsung too. Firstly, when you've shot in "live focus" you can change the level of blur in the Gallery; secondly, there's the option of "dual capture" where you get both the zoomed and wide-angle photos.
These functions are well implemented and the results can be really good. It's not a new technique - the HTC One M8 did exactly the same thing in 2014 - but it will see you using Samsung's Gallery app rather than Google Photos. If you use Google's app, you lose those editing functions, only getting the final image, not the wide-angle version too. Just make sure you save versions you want after edits if you're using Google Photos as your photo backup option.
Moving onto video capture, the Galaxy Note 8 offers very effective stabilisation on video right up to Ultra HD resolution and there's the added option to capture either through the wide-angle or the zoom lens. We're impressed with how motion is smoothed when walking around too. This was once an area that Sony dominated, but no more - Samsung is on the case too.
Turning to the front camera, the Note 8 offers autofocus here, as well as an f/1.7 aperture lens. The results are consistently good too. It's a great selfie camera, carrying over those features like wide selfie that we've seen previously in Samsung devices.
We're impressed with the performance of the Galaxy Note 8 when it comes to photography. It's fast to launch and fast to focus, packed with fun features like hyperlapse and live focus that will bring variety to the content you capture. But it's the easy consistency that we like the most: pull out the Note 8 and snap a photo and you'll get good results, which is exactly what you need in a smartphone camera.
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Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: Experience UX refinement and a bit of Bixby
- Android Oreo with Samsung Experience UX
- Bixby Voice
- Google Assistant
There was a time when we baulked at the level of change that Samsung brought to its phones. Duplication was rife and performance was bad as Samsung walked its own path through Android. In the past few years, Samsung's user interface has really come into its own, adding the refinement that reflects the company's long experience (plus a heap of feedback data, we should think). Samsung now calls it Experience UX, rather than TouchWiz, but for us, old habits die hard.
The Galaxy Note 8 evolves beyond the Galaxy S8, and following an update to Android Oreo it now mostly mirrors the offering of the Galaxy S9, but there are notable exceptions, like no AR Emoji.
There is still some duplication with Galaxy Apps running as a parallel app store alongside Google Play. Some, like the Gallery, are now more essential to support those advanced camera functions. Others, like Samsung Internet, are a harder sell, especially for those within Google's system with syncing across Chrome browsers. Some we think Samsung should abandon some, like the Calendar which in terms of usability isn't a patch on Google's stock Android calendar.
There are some clever features, however, like the ability to double install messenger apps so you can login with different credentials (irrelevant of single or double SIM). Anyone who needs a work account as well as a personal account will be happy with these options. It's a similar idea to what Huawei offers in its P10, or EMUI 5.1 software.
But the biggest positive is just how slick the experience of using the device is. As we mooted in the section on performance, everything runs smooth and fast, from the glory of Netflix in HDR to the smooth running of demanding games. Where the really difference lies is in the details of the settings.
There are so many options on the Note 8 to get the experience you want, you'd be forgiven for never finding many of these things, but you can change a lot of the little details, like how the password entry works, what the edges will do, whether it vibrates when you remove the S Pen, or the order of the navigation controls at the bottom of the display (yes, Samsung was long criticised for having navigation controls the opposite way round to every other device, but now you can switch them, if you want).
We won't detail every detail of Samsung's software here (see our epically extensive tips and tricks for the full rundown), but suffice to say that the Note 8 feels highly accomplished.
There is the occasional hiccup however, which prolonged use of this phone highlights and sometimes it will benefit from a restart to keep it running cleanly.
One newcomer to the scene is Bixby, Samsung's universal assistant designed to work across all Samsung products and things. Bixby supports Korean and US English and is available on a press of a button, with Bixby Voice offering command and control of your device.
Bixby's ambitions are far reaching - it wants to be everything that Siri, Cortana, Google Assistant and Alexa already are. In some cases it does very well. Its ability to offer granular control over your device is interesting, but you need to know what you're asking it to do.
In other cases, Bixby is a little hit and miss. We found it would often be activated by ambient talking (even with the sensitivity on low) and try to help us when we hadn't asked for it. In one case, it managed to activate and launch into the accessibility mode for the visually impaired, which took us some time to unpick, after which we turned the voice wake option off entirely.
Bixby is still rather new and while activities like dictating messages or having Bixby read your messages to you are accomplished with little effort, it sort of falls into the same bucket as Google Assistant. On your phone, it isn't always a natural activity when searching or just opening apps is so quick and easy. Maybe Bixby's day will come - we just don't see it as an essential quite yet.
One of the big complaints about Bixby was the dedicated button on the side of the phone. With many seeing Bixby as superfluous to the experience, Samsung did release an update that enabled the button to be disabled and not launch Bixby with a press. We can't say we've missed out by not using Bixby - while Google Assistant and Alexa have both increased their offerings on mobile devices, we still struggle to see how Bixby will fit in.
There's no doubt that the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is one of the best phones of 2017 and still has appeal in 2018. It takes everything that the Galaxy S8+ offers and pushes it a little further. This is bigger, a touch more powerful, packs in more camera and adds the S Pen, as well as offering Mobile HDR support for better entertainment.
The cost, however, is that this isn't the strongest performer when it comes to battery life, beaten by its older competitive sibling the Galaxy S8+ and the new S9+. We also think that the S9+ has the edge in design: it offers move curves for a more striking profile and it's cheaper.
That might cause a buying headache for some, because these devices are closer than ever. If you're a die hard S Pen fan, burnt by the Note 7's demise and patiently waiting, then yes, go for the Note 8 because it's everything you wanted and more. But if you're a big screen fan wanting the best experience out there, then the Galaxy S9+ is a serious consideration.
Putting price to one side, if you were waiting for the comeback kid then look no further. The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is a pleasure to use, packed full of innovative features and practical functionality. Regardless of price, it hits the ball out of the court with power, camera performance and its customisation options.
First published in August 2017.
Alternatives to consider...
Samsung Galaxy S9+
Samsung's latest big screen phone is the Galaxy S9+. While it lacks the skills of the S Pen, it essentially updates everything else the Note has to offer. The screen is slightly smaller, but the design is close, the camera a little better, there's a little more power at the heart and the battery life is better. It's also the same price. While there will be the Note 9 incoming later in the year, if you're after a big Samsung phone, it might be the S9+ that steals your attention.
Read the full article: Samsung Galaxy S9+ review
Huawei P20 Pro
Taking 2018 by the horns is Huawei, with its best phone yet. The Huawei P20 Pro leaves no stone unturned as it guns for smartphone glory. It has a long battery life, excellent performance and a huge battery, as well as a smartphone camera that's leaving others in its dust. The EMUI software doesn't quite have the refinement that Samsung offers and there's no S Pen, but it's a seriously good phone and cheaper too.
Read the full article: Huawei P20 Pro review