Don't get us wrong—for plenty of users, the Galaxy Note 8 will represent the pinnacle of mobile phones, especially if users are looking for a more premium, more productive device than the S8 and S8+. With its larger screen—one of the largest phones you can purchase on the market today, in fact—and the included S Pen, it's obvious that the phone is designed with creation in mind. But the screen isn't actually that much bigger than the Plus model of the S8, and the only major design change between the two devices comes in the form of squared-off edges and the inclusion of a dual-lens camera. Some readers may be a bit surprised to see the Note 8 hasn't taken the place of the S8 family in our top recommendation for T-Mobile customers. Unfortunately, handling issues and an exorbitant price tag have prevented the Note 8 from grabbing the throne, but anyone looking for a large phone with some near included features will absolutely want to take Samsung's newest into consideration.
If you've held a Galaxy S8+, you'll know what you're getting into with Samsung's newest hardware. The two devices are incredibly similar in size, if not in shape: the Note 8 measures a few millimeters larger in every dimension, featuring a .1" larger display and those squared-off corners. Some folks will find those corners to look a lot better than the "pebble" shape offered by the S8+, but we should mention that, when holding the device in one hand, the sharper corner may dig into your palm. You'll want to hold the device in your hand before committing to your purchase, especially considering the size of the phone. Though it doesn't seem much larger than the 6.2" S8+, that extra screen real estate is truly felt in the height of the phone, and even the simplest of gestures, including reaching to the top of the device to view notifications or access the shortcuts panel, will require two hands to do.
But since most Note users already consider the device a two-handed phone anyway, this is unlikely to scare anyone off altogether. And indeed, the Note is an incredibly enjoyable phone to both use and hold, especially since the legion of Note fans were forced to wait an entire additional year for a true follow up to 2015's Note 5 following the Note7 debacle last September. A review of the Note 8 hardware wouldn't be complete without mentioning that the phone has, so far, managed to avoid any explosive qualities, something also accomplished by the S8 and S8+ earlier this year. Samsung has gotten pretty serious about their battery testing in the past year, attempting to demonstrate to journalists and consumers alike that their phones are safe to use. Part of the sacrifice for ensuring an explosion-free devices comes in the form of reduced battery life, but we'll touch on that in a moment. For now, just know that you can reliably purchase this device in an AT&T store today and not worry about the phone bursting into flames while you're driving home.
Really, when it comes to hardware, there isn't much more to say that wasn't already covered in the S8 review above. The Note series used to differ from the S-series of devices in some major ways, not only in size but in build material (the faux-leather on the Note 3, for example, something that was brought back for the Note 4 before being dropped altogether). The Note 5 began a process of making the two device lines begin to merge in terms of design language, and with the Note 8, the two series are more alike than ever. Both devices have large, nearly bezel-less displays, IP68 water resistance, and a combination of metal frames and glass panels along the device. The only major design difference between the S8 and the Note 8, besides from the squared corners, comes in the camera module, which is now recessed into the phone and uses two different 12MP lenses to capture images. Samsung has also moved the heart rate sensor in between the camera and the fingerprint sensor to better separate the two units. That fingerprint sensor is still in a poor position compared to its Android counterparts, and it's more difficult than ever to press on the taller body of the Not 8, but at least it's still there. Here's looking at you, Apple.
SOFTWARE AND S-PEN
At its core, the Note 8 is running on Android 7.1.2, with an upgrade to Android 8.0 Oreo coming somewhere down the line, but if we're being honest, the software experience is so similar to what we've seen from the S8 and S8+ that there's no real reason to dive deep into the software again. Samsung's software has gotten solid over the past two years or so, far from the mess it used to be on phones like the S3 and S4, and while it's still not perfect, the company has done a good job in tightening both performance and overall bloat. Instead of rehashing the software already covered with the S8, it's worth turning our attention towards the S-Pen and its assorted software tricks, since that's really the differentiating factor.
There are two big software features exclusive to the Note this year. The first, a return from last year's Note 7, allows you to take notes on the display with the screen off by ejecting the S-Pen and writing on the screen. This was an awesome feature when it rolled out last year, and the Note 8 ups the benefits by allowing you to take multiple pages of notes while your display is off. It's a really cool idea, making the Note feel almost like a small notepad, and a great use of the AMOLED display. New to the Note this year is "Live Messages," possibly the coolest new idea to come from Samsung's Note line in a couple years. This allows you to create a doodle or note in real time using special writing effects, which are then saved as a GIF to be sent to anyone in any messaging application. Finally, in terms of hardware, the S-Pen now has a finer tip than the Note 5 and Note 7, and matches the same IP68 water resistance that Samsung has made on the rest of the device. The pen can even be removed from the device while still supporting water resistance.
Here's the thing about the S-Pen: it and the Note have been on the market for years now, which means you probably already know whether or not you'll benefit from the S-Pen in any real way. If you're a graphic design or artist, a constant note-taker, or anyone else who is typically looking for something to write with, you'll probably enjoy using the S-Pen. If you fall outside that category, however, the Note represents a decrease in battery life and an increase in price over the similarly-sized S8+ for a feature you aren't going to use. Live Messages are really cool, but whether or not you're really going to use the stylus is something you should think about before committing to purchasing this year's Note.
CAMERA, PERFORMANCE, AND BATTERY LIFE
This is the first time Samsung has gone in on the double-camera feature, making them one of the last OEMs to do so (following behind, in no particular order, HTC, Huawei, Motorola, LG, Essential, OnePlus, and even Apple). We've seen dual-cameras done a few different ways, including featuring different focal lengths, grayscale and color lenses, and even three-dimensional cameras on older phones like the Evo 3D. Samsung's particular setup here follows what we've seen from Apple, using a different focal length on each lens to offer wide-angle and telephoto options, allowing for a "zoom" option that should theoretically operate better than a digital zoom. Also included is "Live Focus" mode, a faux-bokeh effect that's incredibly similar to what we've seen from Apple's Portrait mode on the iPhone 7 Plus.
There are a few differences here between the Note 8 and both the iPhone 7 Plus and 8 Plus. First, both 12 megapixel sensors on the Note 8 feature optical image stabilization (OIS), compared to both of Apple's dual-cameras, where only the primary lens has OIS (the upcoming iPhone X does have OIS in both lenses). This helps with the shake from your device when you're zoomed in using the telephoto lens, though it isn't a groundbreaking change over what we've seen from Apple's lenses. Secondly, when using the Live Focus mode, you can control the amount of blur after the fact within the options of each photo. The Note 8 also lets you save photos from both the wide-angle and telephoto lenses at once. Overall, the telephoto lens is a nice addition, but the increased amount of noise and digital artifacts in photos taken with that sensor means you're probably just better off zooming and cropping photos taken with the standard 12-megapixel lens, the same one we saw in the S8 (albeit with improved software processing).
Performance-wise, the Note 8 provides exactly what you would expect from a 2017 flagship device. It's fast, multitasking is solid, and the Snapdragon 835 performs well. International users can grab an Exynos version of the device, which should provide better performance and better battery life than the Snapdragon model; it has us wishing Samsung would find a way to bring Exynos to the United States, but it seems some of Qualcomm's patents are preventing that from ever happening. Apple's newest chip, the A11 Bionic, is running circles around Qualcomm's processors (and even some Intel laptop processors), and competition in the Android ecosystem would really help close that performance gap. The Note 8's biggest performance upgrade from the S8 comes with an additional 2GB of RAM for a total of 6GB. Theoretically, this should help with multitasking, but you probably aren't going to see any major performance difference with this over a device with 4GB of RAM.
Finally, battery life is acceptable, but consider this: the Note used to be a device you bought for large displays and even larger batteries. Now, however, the inclusion of the S-Pen means Samsung has had to slim the battery down over the S8+, from 3500mAh to 3300mAh. This doesn't make a huge difference in day to day usage, but that extra battery capacity could buy power users some extra time before having to charge up the device. Luckily, the Note 8 supports fast charging over wired and wireless options, just as the S8 and S7 before it.
The Note 8 is a great phone. It's obvious that Samsung has gotten excellent at building devices that meet and exceed expectations. Their design is overall excellent, despite small quirks like the placement of the fingerprint sensor, and Note devotees will be more than pleased to have the option to purchase a new device once again, after a full year off the market. All that said, there's also more reasons than ever not to buy the Note. The size increase over the S8+ in terms of screen is negligible, and is more likely to cause you to drop the phone while trying to access the top of the display than actually benefitting you in any real way. The sharper corners look a bit more professional than the S8's rounded design, but that might also dig into the palm of your hand while using the phone. As for the S-Pen? It's a great addition as always, but plenty of people buy the Note for the larger screen, not the stylus, and the decrease in battery capacity over the S8+ means you should really consider whether the Note is the right device for you. Finally, the camera is solid as always, but that second lens doesn't add a whole lot new to the device over the camera on the S8 and S8+.
And of course, there's the price. At $930 upfront, or a down payment of $210 and $30 per month for 24 months, this is potentially the most expensive Android phone we've ever seen, and one of the most expensive phones on the market (at least until the iPhone X launches later this year). It's a lot of money to ask for when you'll be replacing this device in as little as two years, and possibly less. If you need (or want) the additional Note-based features, by all means, the Note 8 is an excellent option. But the reason the Note 8 is demoted to our runner-up position behind the S8+ is because, for most people, that money is better spent on an S8+, with a larger battery, a more-compact design, and nearly the same large display Note users have come to love. Choosing between an S-series device and a Note-series device has never been harder, and each consumer is going to have to make their own independent decision.
- Best display on the market
- Beautiful design
- Great cameras
- Very expensive
- Decrease in battery life over the S8 Plus
- S Pen might not be used by everyone