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Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review
PRICE WHEN REVIEWED
  • $930
Both beauty and the beast, the gorgeous Note 8 has an extraordinary feature set and magnificent performance. It's expensive, but can you really afford not to consider it? Find out what we made of Samsung's brand-new flagship, which is now on sale. 


UK PRICE AND AVAILABILITY 
The Galaxy Note 8 was announced in a special Unpacked event on 23 August 2017. It became available to pre-order the next day at £869 inc VAT, and began shipping on 15 September. 

That’s really quite expensive for a smartphone even by today’s standards - it’s £180 more than the £689 Galaxy S8 (which is now available for as little as £550), for example. 

It's cheaper than the iPhone X, which starts at £999 and is likely to be one of the Note 8's biggest rivals.

However, based on previous Samsung pricing, we’d expect the RRP to quickly fall in the first few months following the launch, so if you can’t afford it just now then it might be worth waiting a little while. The same can't be said about the iPhone: Apple doesn't reduce prices until a new model is on sale.


BUILD AND DESIGN 
Samsung's Note 7 was a gorgeous handset, but the Note 8 is in a different league with its Infinity Display. It's not entirely bezel-less, but it's close enough, with a screen-to-body ratio of 83 percent and an 18.5:9 aspect ratio. 

In real terms, there's about a centimetre of frame visible above and below the display, but the rest is all immaculately polished and largely fingerprint-free glass, with a load more space for enjoying media and games, and for working with multiple apps at once. 

On either side the panel curves right round to the frame edge, leaving only a minimal bezel top and bottom in which to house the selfie camera, speaker and various sensors. It's a different - and much preferred - design to the first 'bezel-less' phone we saw, the Xiaomi Mi Mix, which has only a bottom bezel and requires you to turn it upside down to use the bizarrely placed selfie camera. 

To achieve these slim bezels Samsung has removed the physical home button, moving the fingerprint scanner round to the rear beside the camera, and incorporating a pressure-sensitive home button within the display itself. 

The latter takes a little getting used to, but you can always wake up the phone using the power button (don't get it confused with the dedicated Bixby button, as we often did) or popping out the S Pen stylus. 

Samsung has come a very long way from the days of dimpled plastic covers, and it does not compromise on design. 

You'll have heard all about the 'awkward' positioning of the fingerprint scanner on the Galaxy S8, and people will no doubt be concerned by the fact this has not changed for the Note 8. But while we'd one day like to see this functionality embedded into the Note's panel itself, for now it's not at all as bad as you may have heard. 

The main concern with the Galaxy S8 was that those reaching for the scanner would accidentally smudge the camera, but the heart-rate scanner and flash now separate the two and make it unlikely that this will be the case. 

We found reaching for the scanner is not too much of a stretch for the finger, and we've quickly got used to it on the Galaxy S8. Of course there's also an iris scanner, should you want to bypass the fingerprint scanner altogether. 

Despite having so much going on at the rear - two cameras, a flash, a heart-rate scanner and a fingerprint sensor - it all lies completely flush with the phone's chassis, and that is evidence of the company's meticulous design. Even with the addition of the Samsung logo - pleasingly low-key in grey text - it doesn't look at all overcrowded here. 

Our only real criticism from this angle is the legal info slapped on the bottom, which is virtually invisible on the Midnight Black option unless you catch it in the right light, but more obvious on the Maple Gold version we saw ahead of the launch. 

Screen 
By increasing the room available for the panel Samsung has been able to increase its size. Previously 5.7in, which is no longer considered huge for a smartphone, the Note 8 now has a 6.3in panel. That's only 0.1in larger than that on the Galaxy S8+, but there are other differences such as the stylus and dual-camera, too. 

It has also added the best part of a centimetre to the phone's height, and the most obvious difference when viewing the Note 8 next to the Galaxy S8 is how much taller is this handset. Both phones are narrower than you would expect, given the curved edges, which makes them surprisingly comfortable to use in a single hand. But the Note 8 towers over the Galaxy S8. 

The screen has the same technology as Samsung's Galaxy S series, with a super-high resolution Quad-HD+ Super AMOLED display (though in common with the Galaxy S8 it's set to full-HD by default to preserve battery life). Some people prefer the more realistic colours of IPS, but we love the saturated, vibrant colours and deep, rich blacks of AMOLED. 

It is impossible to fault this display, which is crazy bright at a maximum 1200 nits (the iPhone 7, for example, is 'just' 705 nits), guaranteeing outdoor visibility in all conditions. According to DisplayMate it's 22 percent brighter than the 1000-nit panel on the Galaxy S8. 

The Always-On Display has been enhanced since its original implementation in the Note series, and not only can you now create, edit and pin notes on it using the S Pen, but you can configure it to be active only during certain time periods. This feature is great for letting you see the time, date and whether you have any notifications at a glance, potentially saving battery life as you won’t need to wake the display. It also means the pressure-sensitive home button is always on. 

The software has some features that take advantage of the curved edge. A thin white tab is always visible on the far right of this display, and you simply tap this to pull in various quick access options. By default you'll be able to see your most frequently used apps and contacts, but you can also switch on Edge panels for tasks, clipboard, reminders, device maintenance, weather, quick tools, Samsung internet, sports, finance, smart select and calendar. 

Samsung's two flagship phone families look incredibly similar, and it's only the extra height, squarer edges and the dual-camera on the rear that differentiate the Note 8 from the Galaxy S8. The buttons, ports and sensors are all in the same places, though of course on the bottom right corner of the Note 8 there's also the S Pen stylus, which given a little tap pops out just enough to make it accessible but not enough you might easily lose it. (An alarm is activated if you try to walk away without the stylus in any case.) 

S Pen stylus 
You really won't appreciate how useful is this stylus until you've tried it. Tap the button on its side to open the S Pen menu, which can optionally appear onscreen at all times via a floating icon. You can pin up to 10 features or apps to this menu, giving you quick access to the tools you are most likely to want to use with the stylus. 
There are some features people might argue are gimmicky, such as the new Live Message feature that lets you create and share animated GIFs, but actually we love that feature and were we able to keep the handset a little longer our friends would be well and truly fed up with all the GIFs we'd sent them over WhatsApp. 

The stylus can also be used to draw notes, even when the screen is in standby, which can then be pinned to the Always-on Display. With the screen active popping out the stylus will launch Screen Memo, which can now support up to 100 pages. 

The S Pen can also be used to specify just a section of the screen before taking a screenshot, rather than you cropping it later, and you can add notes right on top of those screenshots. 

Hover over the screen and it can magnify text, which will be useful if you've purposely chosen the Note 8 for its larger screen to make text easier to read. 

You can also now select entire passages either to copy and paste elsewhere or translate from another language. The S Pen stylus can convert units and currency, too. 

We like the ability to handwrite a URL in a web browser and scrawl over other text fields, while the Air View feature is useful for scrolling down long web pages and previewing links. 

Air View can also expand a thumbnail in the gallery, or show you Calendar events in greater detail. 

Bixby Vision is directly integrated with the S Pen, allowing you to draw over an area of an image you want to search online for. 

Samsung says it has enhanced the pressure sensitivity of the S Pen for the Note 8, and refined the nib - it's just 0.7mm and can recognise 4,096 levels of pressure. It's impossible for us to compare it to the Note 7's S Pen without one to hand, but in use we can say it feels smooth and accurate, with no lag, friction or other annoyances. 

Durability 
The Note 8 is possibly the classiest-looking phone we've ever clapped eyes on, and our Midnight Black review sample is stunning. But the majority of its surface is glass, and that is a worry. 

Though it features Gorilla Glass 5 protection front and back, which is Corning's toughest yet, it is not infallible. 

iFixit has taken apart the Galaxy Note 8 (as shown in the video below) and found it will be difficult to repair given that all access is through the glass rear, so to replace the screen you would have to remove both pieces of glass. It gave the Note 8 a repairability score of just 4/10. 

So, this is one smartphone you will want to do your best to look after and keep it safe . 

The Galaxy Note 8 is also waterproof, rated IP68. That means it can survive in up to 1.5m of water for up to 30 minutes, and is also dustproof. Should you want to take it swimming you can, but more than anything it serves as peace of mind - a phone of this size could easily slip out of your pocket and into somewhere you'd rather it hadn't. 

The other concern you might have regards the battery, following the misfortune of the explosive Note 7. But the battery used here has gone through significant testing to ensure it's up to scratch, and Samsung has also adjusted the Note 8's design to help ensure things don't get too hot. 

The frame is 0.7mm thicker than it was on the Note 7 - which in smartphone terms is actually rather a lot - and the battery's capacity has been reduced from 3,500mAh to 3,300mAh. That means it is lower in capacity than the 3,500mAh Galaxy S8+, but it's unlikely that the 200mAh loss will make a huge difference to battery life, especially when you also factor in the savings afforded by the new 10nm processor. 

We've not spent enough time with the Note 8 yet to accurately assess its battery life, though it should get you through a full day with moderate- to heavy use. 

As previously the battery supports fast wired- and wireless charging, though a wireless charging pad is not supplied. There are some nice touches in the box, though, including a Micro-USB to USB-C adaptor, an OTG adaptor, some spare S Pen nibs, and some AKG-branded earbuds. (You'll be pleased to know the Note 8 retains the 3.5mm headphone jack.)

Audio 
We were impressed with not only how loud the Note 8's speaker could go, but also how little it was distorted at maximum volume. It handled lows, mids and highs admirably in our testing, with clear vocals and promising bass. 

The speaker pumps out audio from the bottom edge of the handset, but given the Note 8's height it's unlikely that this will be in any way obscured by the palm of your hand. 

CORE HARDWARE AND PERFORMANCE
Samsung’s new Note flagship traditionally arrives with enough power to blow all other contenders out the water. But in 2017 phones are already insanely fast, and the market is no longer the drag race it once was. While the Note 8 is a very strong addition to a competitive playing field, it outpaces all onlookers in only one of our benchmarks: Geekbench 4 multi-core. 

This is likely down to its inclusion of 6GB of LPDDR4 RAM, because in other respects performance is very much on par with the 4GB RAM Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+. These phones use the same processor as the Note 8 - in the UK you’ll get the octa-core Exynos 8895 with integrated ARM Mali-G71 GPU but in other areas Samsung specifies the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, the same chip that has featured in multiple 2017 flagships. 

Both are 10nm chips, which promise large performance and efficiency gains over last year’s 14nm chips - as much as a 30 percent increase in efficiency, 27 percent increase in performance, and 40 percent decrease in power consumption. These figures suggest you needn’t be overly concerned by the decrease in battery capacity from 3,500mAh to 3,300mAh. 

In specification it’s perhaps closest to the 6GB OnePlus 5, which uses the Snapdragon 835 chip. In our tests it outperformed the OP5 in Geekbench 4, which looks at sheer processing power, but in the benchmarks that include graphics components the OP5 took the lead. This is likely because of the Note 8’s larger screen - and the fact we use the onscreen variants of GFXBench tests. 

The OP5 also outpaced the Note 8 in the JetStream JavaScript benchmark. You can check its performance against all key 2017 flagships in the chart below.

The Note 8 has plenty of storage for all your files, with 64GB internal as standard and expansion up to 256GB posible via microSD. That’s before you take into account any cloud storage - the Note 8 comes with OneDrive and Google Drive preinstalled.

Connectivity wise all the bases are covered with dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, Cat 16 4G LTE, NFC, GPS and GLONASS, OTG and USB-C. There’s also the aforementioned heart-rate scanner, fingerprint scanner and iris scanner.

DeX support means the Note 8 is compatible with the DeX docking station (an optional extra), allowing you to use it like a PC with a monitor, keyboard and mouse. The DeX adds two USB ports, ethernet, HDMI and a cooling fan.

PHOTOGRAPHY
One of the key new features in the Note 8 is its dual-camera. This is the first Samsung flagship to feature such a setup, and it’s also the first dual-camera to feature 2x optical image stabilisation on each lens.

Whereas the Note 7 had one 12Mp f/1.7 ‘Dual-Pixel’ wide-angle camera at the rear, the Note 8 adds a second 12Mp f/2.4 telephoto lens. You can use the new pairing to play around with the bokeh effect (in essence blurring the background and thereby focusing in on the subject), or to simply capture two images at once with Dual Capture - one close-up, the other not so much.

The Camera app is therefore a little different to what you get on the Galaxy S8, now showing options for Bixby Vision, Live Focus and Stickers directly below the composition window.

Take a photo with Bixby Vision and it can serve up information about the product or place in view. Samsung says it can find products online, search for similar images, show notable locations nearby, translate text, read QR codes and more.

We pointed the camera at a bottle of Evian, for example, and it was able to show us photos of other bottles of water when we selected Images. However, when we selected Shopping it offered us links to some Wahl clippers, a set of fabric marker pens, some chrome and silver wallpaper, and a Brabantia Food Warmer, all of which we’re sure you will agree are a bit random.

Live Focus requires you to stand at least 1.2m from your subject, and you can adjust the effect using a slider. You can see our test image here focusing on a Coke can.

Stickers is also present in the Galaxy S8, but less obvious. It’s a bit like adding Snapchat live filters to your selfies, except they aren’t as good. Some people will appreciate the addition of the feature, though we can’t say it’s something we would use - they just don’t work as seamlessly as they do on Snapchat.

Above the composition window you have options to toggle on Dual Capture and Full-screen Capture (18.5:9 rather than the Note 8’s default 4:3). Be warned that the camera will not shoot at the maximum resolution in Full-screen Capture mode, limiting your snaps to 7.9Mp.

This is the same for video, which is captured at 2224x1080 pixels in this mode. By default video is shot in full-HD (1920x1080), but you can alternatively configure UHD (3840x2160), QHD (2560x1440) and full-HD at 60fps. The selfie camera maxes out on video at QHD. Video stabilisation is available for all modes except 1:1 and VGA.

In this same top line is an icon for switching to the selfie camera, which is also achieved buy flicking up from the bottom of the screen, and an option to access the Settings menu. It’s here that you can alter the HDR settings - auto by default, on all three cameras, but it can also be set to off or on.

Other shooting modes are accessible by swiping in from the left side of the screen. Samsung offers Auto, Pro, Panorama, Slow motion, Hyperlapse, Food, Virtual shot and an option to download more. Real-time filters sweep in from the right side of the display.

It’s worth pointing out that the majority of these features are also available to the front-facing camera, which is an 8Mp f/1.7 model - exactly the same as what you get in the Galaxy S8, though an upgrade over the Note 7. It additionally features a display flash and a face beauty mode.

So the app itself is pretty good, but what of the pictures it captures? The Note 8, in our experience, has a smashing camera.

In our test shots of St Pancras from our seventh-floor roof terrace the Note 8 managed to capture every little detail, right down to the individual bricks and street names at ground level. Colours are natural and true to live, and there’s no evidence of blurring even at the extreme edges of the image.

In low light the Note 8 also did a great job of picking out the details on our scene of random objects. The various shades of black and grey on our digger were clearly defined, the text on the bottle label easily readable, and colours again very true to life.

SOFTWARE
Running TouchWiz on Android 7.1.1 Nougat (with Oreo coming soon) the Note 8 has almost exactly the same software setup as the Galaxy S8, with the addition of some S Pen features. The difference here is the larger screen makes features such as Multi Window - whereby you can use two apps onscreen at once - much more useful.

App Pairs is a helpful addition and an extension of Multi Window, allowing you to display two apps on the screen at the same time, but by tapping a single icon.

A new feature introduced in December is Secure Wi-Fi. In essence Samsung has added a VPN to the Galaxy Note 8 in order to set up encrypted connections that don't give away the user's IP address. VPNs are also attractive to those who want to fool a service (in particular streaming services) into thinking they are in a different country. You get just 250MB free with Samsung's service, however, so if this isn't enough.

All the usual Samsung features are present, including: Smart Stay, which keeps the screen switched on while you're looking at it; One-handed mode, which reduces the size of the display to make use in one hand easier; fingerprint sensor gestures; the ability to quick launch the camera with a double-tap of the home button; Smart capture, which offers additional options such as crop and extended capture after taking a screenshot; Easy mode; and Dual Messenger, which lets you use two accounts on apps such as Facebook.

Microsoft apps for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneDrive are preinstalled, along with various Google apps and some Samsung utilities. There's a Themes app and a dedicated Samsung Apps store, for instance.

Perhaps the most interesting of all, though, is Bixby. Samsung's own voice assistant was introduced with the Galaxy S8, although it wasn't until the day before the Note 8 announcement that an English version of Bixby Voice became available. So it feels much more like a new Note 8 feature than a Galaxy S8 one.

We had feared Bixby would be an unnecessary extra feature, given that the Note 8 also supports the Google Assistant, but it is arguably easier to invoke with the press of a dedicated button rather than having to say "Okay Google." Unfortunately we have found that button rather annoying, since we're often accidentally pressing it and calling up Bixby when we don't want to.

Bixby is capable of handling more than 3,000 commands, which include things like setting reminders, sending text messages and initiating video calls, showing you the weather and playing videos. It is also integrated with the phone's settings so you can turn on larger font size or a mobile hotspot, or bring up data from the heart-rate scanner, for instance.

In our brief experience with Bixby it seems to be much like the Google Assistant or Siri, and is happy to answer random questions and offer up funny responses. It understands natural language as well as those services do, and arguably better than Alexa. It doesn't have Alexa's Skills, of course, but Bixby does tie into all Samsung's services and devices such as TVs.

And as we mentioned in the photography section, as well as accepting a vocal- or text command Samsung’s assistant differs from Google Assistant in that it can also accept image input from the camera or gallery through Bixby Vision.

SPECS
  • Android 7.1 Nougat
  • 6.3in Quad HD display (2960x1440), 521ppi
  • Dual curved edge Infinity Display
  • Exynos 8895 octa-core processor (Snapdragon 835 in some markets)
  • 6GB RAM
  • 64GB internal storage
  • Micro-SD card slot (up to 256GB)
  • Dual 12Mp rear-facing cameras with OIS
  • 8Mp front camera
  • Pressure sensitive home button
  • Fingerprint scanner
  • Iris scanner
  • Heart rate monitor
  • 11ac dual-band Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 5.0
  • GPS
  • NFC
  • 4G LTE Cat 16
  • Headphone jack
  • USB-C
  • 3300mAh non-removable battery
  • Wireless charging
  • IP68 dust & waterproof rating
  • 75x163x8.6mm
  • 195g

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