Samsung Galaxy Note 8 - Hands on review

The much-awaited Galaxy Note 8 is finally here. With a pre-order date of 5th September, and an official launch date of 22nd September (in Australia), consumers will be scrambling to get their hands on the latest flagship in Samsung's lineup - despite being the successor to the DIY hand grenade that was the Note 7.  I'm going to blow right past the Note 7 - except to say that I truly believe Samsung handled that in the best way they could, and I respect their decision to push on with the Note series - because the Note 7 had appeared to get it all right. 

Before the battery issues that plagued the Note 7 became apparent, it was unanimously regarded as a piece of engineering brilliance wrapped in a gorgeous, ergonomic exterior. It's fair to say that many Note 7 customers who were forced to return the phone after Samsung disabled charging altogether were disappointed, and not just because they had to return a phone in general - but because they really, really liked their Note 7's. 

Fast forward a year and Samsung have had a flurry of successes with their new A-series lineup and of course, the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+. It remains to be seen how the Note 8 will fair commercially yet, but Samsung have worked extremely hard to ensure it doesn't suffer the same ill-fated end that the Note 7 did by implementing an 8-point battery check for each model. And Samsung at least learnt a lot from the Note 7, as lot of the design characteristics that people loved so much about it are clearly influential in the next model up. 

So then - how does the Note 8 look, perform and function? Let's dive in.

1 - Design

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Let's begin with the truly unique aspect which broke the S8 apart from the competition- the infinity display. The same display, in all it's OLED Adaptive QWHD glory, is present in the Note 8 - albeit at a behemoth 6.3" corner to corner. The sides of the screen melt away into the composite glass edges much like the S8, although not as ergonomically. This gives the (probably unnoticeable) appearance of a slightly flatter edge to the phone, and allows for slightly wider viewing. The drawback is that, with the same ratio, the phone is ever-so-slightly wider to hold - though with the almost entire absence of bezels on each side, we hardly think it's a noticeable difference.

It's still a fantastic screen to body ratio, and impressively comfortable to hold for such a huge surface area. The back is almost identical to the S8+ with composite glass (necessary for wireless charging) covering the back and a now-flush camera (dual-lens, we'll get to that) and fingerprint sensor that has had its location moved in order to reduce people smudging the camera sensors with their grubby little fingers. In short - for someone with small hands - it's still an awkward place for the fingerprint sensor to be, reach-wise. Samsung did include multiple other ways to securely lock and/or unlock the phone, though. 

Whlist the Note 8 retains the same 18.5:9 ratio that the Samsung S8 and S8+ have, the rounded corners on the Note 8 are far more defined with a smaller radius. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, given it allows for more viewing space without losing some of the definition out of the corners when a typical 16:9 video is scaled up - however it feels a little to me, as an average consumer, like it loses some of the 'grace' (for lack of a better word) of it's little brethren in comparison. But the Note 8 is not designed for average consumers; it's a pro device for prosumers who want the absolute best with no compromises. And on that front, it succeeds masterfully. The screen's colour and clarity, as usual from Samsung, is brilliant. After all, they were making TV's before they were making phones, and it's a natural transition.

One important differentiation: The Note 8 is HDR compliant, and P3 photographic standard certified. That means it can both view a wider range of dynamic colours, and displays more accurate image reproduction. Whilst that would be hard to notice in a Note 8 vs an S8 - it's worth noting as a significant technical hurdle overcome. HDR will become standardised in the future in content - and streamable content on mobile devices is rapidly becoming mainstream -so it's good to know the hardware is catching up in that respect. 

All in all, the Note 8 has an enormous display yet is wonderfully ergonomic to hold, and doesn't feel out of place in a pocket or being used one-handed. It is a little heavier, at 195g versus the 169g of the Note7, but that's a good thing in my book, and to be expected from an additional 0.6" of screen space. The screen is excellent, and if I were to implore any other manufacturer on one thing to copy from Samsung, it would be screen quality. Other than the slightly clunky feeling on-screen corners (again, a personal preference issue) I'd give an A+ to Samsung for design.

2 - Performance.

As usual, Samsung crushes the performance game. To be honest though, most current generation phones sporting a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 do. The Exynos 8895 chipset available in Australian models and developed in house by Samsung is, on most fronts, far superior still - and I find it strange it's not more widely distributed. It may be due to manufacturing limitations of the kind of volumes that Samsung require. That being said - neither chipset is realistically a bottleneck for the kind of performance that phones require these days, though that could rapidly change with imminent revolution of AR. That said - there are important differences in the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 that make it stand out from the crowd of Android's and even the Galaxy S8 and S8+. 

For one, it's a 10nm architecture chipset. Without going into hyper-geekmode here, 10nm architecture allows for significantly improved transistor density and efficiency. This allows the same amount of commands/processes/calculations to be processed through the CPU whilst losing less time on travel (yes, information needs to travel through transistors too) and taking less power and space. Side note: due to the technical change in dual dummy gate vs single dummy gate models, this will have an even bigger impact in future hyperscaling applications. For more on that, read this.

The highlight of this category though, is it's additional 2GB of RAM, to bring it up to a whopping 6GB. Personally, I'm sceptical of the need or benefits of having that much RAM crammed into a phone - but it's nice to know it's there in the advent of AR use going forward. 

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I will mention one negative aspect of Android at this point though, and that's the use of Vulkan API as the graphics engine adopted by Android. Whilst it may (and it's a big may) be the second best graphics engine on the mobile market, it is still a profoundly inferior engine to that of Metal, Apple's own Graphic engine. And whilst I realise this is not a Samsung-specific issue - it irks me that they have advertised faster "graphics gameplay" with Vulkan API on their website. To me, and most people truly aware of the difference, that essentially spells out "well, we're stuck with Vulkan API - but we'll damn well be the best with it". Again, not a Samsung issue - but it's a weird thing to advertise. 

3 - The 'Notiness' of it - S Pen

The mainstay genius of the Note series has always been the exclusive inclusion of the S-Pen. Personally, I love the adoption of this in the Note 8. In fact, it's enough for me to kinda want one. How do you make the inclusion of an S-Pen genuinely useful? Easy - to make it react like an actual notebook and be ready for you, as soon as you pull the pen out. 

Let me paint a picture: You need to write some useful info down in the middle of nowhere, and you live in 2017 so you don't have a pen and paper handy. No worries. You're a prosumer, so you're already on a set of bluetooth headphones, or you can just pull the phone away from your ear, hit loudspeaker, and press the s-pen square in. The perfectly balanced spring-loaded release pushes the S-Pen out invitingly, and you quickly grab it and put pen to screen and voila - it automatically starts writing - no unlocking or awkward opening of a note app required. This is actually something Apple have done on iOS 11 with their iPad Pro series for months - but there is literally no other phone on the market with this capability. 

Still not convinced? With that note you can then convert it to fractions, mathematical equations, proper 'typed' text (if your writing isn't too messy) and for multiple pages. You can also add that as a background with the always-on display, so if you need to pick up milk you can jot it down, and when you look at your phone on the way home it'll hit you in the face that you need to pick up milk. 

Beyond this, there are various applications where the S-Pen is excellent - though they are too vast to get into in great depth here. However one feature that immediately struck me as a genius combination of software and hardware was the ability to intelligently crop photo's using excellent Bixby AI and S-Pen technology. Anybody who has done photo editing for a long time would know that cutting out specific objects from photo's without the use of a green screen and poor image has always been a challenge to do well. Taking this example, I was able to get a photo, crop out the head, and put it on another image with surprising accuracy in literally 60 seconds.

 First we get a photo of someone doing a boring speech.

First we get a photo of someone doing a boring speech.

 Then we crop out his head using the S-Pen and Bixby on the default app built into the Note 8

Then we crop out his head using the S-Pen and Bixby on the default app built into the Note 8

 And we stick him on a duck. Because we can. Go S-Pen. 

And we stick him on a duck. Because we can. Go S-Pen. 

Okay, it's mostly AI here - but the S-Pen certainly adds precision. 

Whilst the S-Pen will remain as a gimmicky toy to a lot of Note 8 owners/users - and possibly as a stubborn refusal to adopt modern notetaking techniques to tech-heads - it certainly has its place in the prosumer community and I, for one, would love to have that functionality on my future phone.

4 - Camera(s)

Here's where I really feel Samsung caught up, and one of the key differences from the Galaxy S8+: The dual-OIS x2 optical zoom cameras. This allows for some awesome features. First, optical zoom, which has begun creeping into a few phones, but was first introduced with the Apple iPhone 7 Plus. Now the Note 8 can also optically zoom up to 2x without any image degradation, but it also takes it a step further and actually stabilises that image optically (as opposed to digitally) - something the iPhone 7 Plus telephoto camera does not do. 

But more importantly (in my mind) the introduction of proper, true blue depth-of-field. Depth of field, or 'Bokeh' in Apple language, is outstanding. To me, it has been a far stronger argument in the camera debate than 0.1 aperture here or a few megapixels there. It allows John Doe walking down the street to snap near-professional quality pictures at a moments notice with absolutely no expertise, and for it to look damn, damn good. And Samsung have nailed this. With some intelligence of the artificial kind, you are also able to adjust the background 'depth-of-field' blur for all photo's taken in that mode, which can provide some interesting effects and excellent options. For example you can blur out the background, save + duplicate that, and then bring the background back into focus and save that too - and use them as comparison pics. True, the iPhone 7 Plus allows you to save the original and bokeh-mode photo too, but it's only off or on, there's no varying degree of background blur. With the Note 8, you can decide the degree of that on a sliding scale. 

I'm not exaggerating when I say that, despite owning both an iPhone 7 and an iPhone 7 Plus, I would never have given up my depth-of-field camera for the smaller model despite having small hands and probably preferring that for daily use. That's the level of importance I place in a portrait mode camera, and I am certainly not alone. So with this inclusion, Samsung have ticked a major box that was conspicuously absent from every Android flagship available in Australia thus far (the notable exception being the Huawei P10 plus and the OPPO R11 - if you want to call that a flagship). And despite rattling off specs such as an excellent f1.7 aperture lens, dual 12MP sensors, 1/2.55" main sensor etc - none of that has really placed any phone camera in it's own category besides incremental improvements. Bokeh mode is necessary in 2017 and thank god the Note 8 has nailed that too.

Notable other inclusions are Slow-mo recording at a 720p, 240fps. A full 'pro-mode' suite of manual camera setting options, and the ability to record with both front-facing and rear camera's simultaneously and with Picture-In-Picture - a nice touch for those conducting interviews or reaction video's with their Note 8.

5 - Everything else. 

So there's a few other features to tick off here. 

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  • Waterproofing - IP68. All the more impressive given it houses a removable S-Pen and yes, it's waterproof even without that in it's holster. 
  • Battery life - With a 10nm chip the Note 8 is more efficient than most phones and thus is able to sacrifice a bit of battery space (200mAh compared to the s8+, to be exact) and still retain a good battery life. This is necessary to include the S-Pen where the battery would otherwise be. That being said - initial reviews and benchmarks have the Note 8 at sitting slightly below the Galaxy S8 and S8+ in terms of overall longevity. That sounds bad - but the reality is that the added screen sensors and digitisation for the S-Pen as well as powering all those extra pixels for its monster 6.3" screen were always going to take more power. The Note 8 will comfortably last a full day with heavy use and have some juice leftover for tomorrow - and in my mind, that's the only 'benchmark' that any flagship phone needs to reach in this age. After all - these things are essentially out-processing many mid-range laptops these days.
  • Sound - the Achilles heel. I've tested a few different Note 8's now, and I must say - they sound absolutely terrible. That's okay though, because no phone sounds good anyway, and Samsung have been nice enough to include some freaking awesome AKG headphones in with the phone (in most countries - not all - check with your retailer). The lack of stereo speakers is getting annoying, as it is rather easy to accidentally cover the one speaker jack on the bottom if you're naturally holding the phone in landscape to consume your daily dose of YouTube or Netflix. For me, and most other techies, we've made the transition to full bluetooth so this is of no concern. But for the select few among you readers who listen to the phone as is, this might be of concern. But that bring's me to my next point...
  • Bluetooth 5 - Again present in the Note 8, as it was introduced in the S8. Brilliantly allows you to listen to two streams of audio on two separate bluetooth headphones, from one device. And what is REALLY cool, is that the Note 8 is able to easily handle 2 separate split window video streams (something the Note 7 could not do) and now you can add unique audio to those 2 different video streams. Bluetooth 5 is the key to this, enabling up to 2mbps of audio to one device (which is more than lossless) or 384kbps audio to two devices (which is still pretty much lossless, to my ear). 
  • "Toughness" - Gorilla Glass 5 as standard, and as expected. Whilst there have been reports of Galaxy S8's being a touch on the fragile side, my answer to that is stop dropping your multi-thousand dollar devices or, if you're prone to doing so, cover it up with a case. Whilst accidents happen and you do want to be able to have a phone that can survive the odd small drop or two - I have no sympathy for people who drop a phone from chest height onto concrete or (as some exasperated people state) onto concrete with a thin layer of carpet over the top of it. Grow up. That all being said - it's waterproof, dust resistant and about as fragile as your average 6.3" smartphone - which is pretty fragile with no case on it. That's a lot of surface area, and not much thickness to reinforce it. 
  • Memory - 64GB internal + expandable up to an extra 256gb. 
  • Headphone Jack - Yes. It still has it. If only they had used the space that's taking up for more battery, 'eh? 
  • 12 month screen assure - definitely a nice little touch. Purchase the Note 8 by 31st Oct and register the phone with Samsung, and your screen repair will be complimentary within the first 12 months (one time). That's not bad, given screen repairs can range from $200 to $800 - and this phone would likely be more towards the latter. 

So then - one item intentionally left off this review of what is otherwise a stellar phone, is price. $1,499AUD, or $929.99USD; the biggest price-tag ever put onto a mainstream android phone, only surpassed by the iPhone 7 Plus 256GB model at $1,519. That's a big price tag, but it's a big phone. Inside and out. Remember the Pixel was trying charge $1419 for its top-of-the-line, constantly faulty, outdated Pixel XL 128GB when it launched - and it sold like hotcakes. Still is (somehow).  That's without waterproofing, stereo speakers, expandable memory, a poorly placed (and present) headphone jack and a bizarrely huge amount of wasted 'face' space with the chins on the bottom and top.

The Galaxy S8+ is $1,349 AUD still, and given where it sits in terms of features and performance vs other phones, I would say that's a fair price. Certainly the market seems to think so, with S8 and S8+ sales well exceeding expectations - and that's the ultimate tick of approval. Add to that even more screen space (albeit not much more), 2 GB of extra RAM, the S-Pen and a second ever-so-important camera to the back, I'd say there's more than $150 worth of value in there. 

Some consumers would argue that $1,499 is too big a price tag for any phone - I generally call that an illogical and antiquated way of looking at it. There's a strong argument to be said that the phone we all have is the single-most used device that any of us need in our daily lives. We use it for emailing, maps, cameras (that are rapidly becoming genuinely professional), social media, browsing, home automation, reminders, notes, calendar appointments, memo's, recording, text messages and hell - some of us even still use it as a phone. If the price tag matches the quality and performance of the device we consistently use the most, every day, of our entire lives going forward - then it's worth a pretty penny. Given this is the undisputed king of the Android world right now - I'd say $1,499 is cheap, especially with free screen assure.

If you're tossing up between a Note 8 and an S8, should you pony up the extra dough? Maybe. Both are excellent android phones. The size and ergonomics of the S8 is a strong influencer of purchasers (as I've experienced in my retail life) - so the sheer vastness of the Note 8 might turn you off. That being said, if you value an unparalleled media consumption experience, S-Pen functionality or, as I would, the bokeh camera mode - then it is absolutely worth it. And when AR arrives - the extra 2GB of RAM may prove extremely useful too. 

The iPhone 8 announcement is 5 days away (as of writing this), and people are expecting the Pixel 2 announcement very soon as well - so it remains to be seen how much competition the Note 8 really has. Right now I predict it will be the ultimate prosumer device, and there will be a loyal fanbase determined to get their hands on one for power-use life. For the average consumer I think it will depend if people aren't too deterred by the price. If you, like me, just want the latest and greatest - the Note 8 won't disappoint. 

- Tom

Edit: I incorrectly stated the Note 8 had 500mAh less than the S8+. It is in fact 200mAh - the s8+ has 3500mAh and the Note 8 has 3300mAh.

Edit 2: Apparently real live photo's has been around since the Galaxy S7 - a fact I completely missed. This was brought up to me by a Samsung employee directly - so I will take it as gospel.

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