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Galaxy Note 8 review: more than a Galaxy S8 with an S Pen

When designing the successor to the ill-fated Galaxy Note 7, Samsung had two choices: come up with something entirely new that pushes the boundaries, or play it safe by taking something it knows works—cough, cough, the Galaxy S8, cough—and adding to it. The firm took the latter approach.

The result is the Galaxy Note 8, a handset that's been dubbed a "Galaxy S8+ with an S Pen" by various members of the Android community; however, that's not strictly true. It's actually a unique, powerful, plus-sized smartphone that brings a number of fantastic features to the table.

But is it worth your hard-earned cash? Let's find out.

Design

Galaxy Note 8 review: More than just a Galaxy S8+ with an S Pen

Samsung has adopted a tall, but narrow, boxy design aesthetic for the Galaxy Note 8. The handset sports slightly sharper edges and a larger 6.3-inch edge-to-edge Infinity Display (18.5:9) than both the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+, making it impossible to use with one hand, even with the dedicated one-handed operation mode turned on.

The rest of the design is not dissimilar to what we’ve seen in the past: There’s a sheet of glass on the front, a slab of aluminium in the middle and a sheet of glass on the black, which, when combined with the omission of Samsung’s branding beneath the speaker grill, makes for one of the best-looking smartphones to hit the shelves in 2017.

To prevent the huge area of glass from shattering into a million pieces should the device happen to take a tumble, Samsung’s coated it with Corning’s Gorilla Glass 5. Fortunately, we’re still yet to drop our unit, so we can’t comment on its effectiveness, but we’ll let you know how it fairs up when we inevitably do.

Galaxy Note 8 review: More than just a Galaxy S8+ with an S Pen

It probably won’t come as a surprise to hear that the Galaxy Note 8 is prone to fingerprint smudges. Actually, scratch that. Prone is too loose of a word. The handset is a fingerprint magnet. If you’re a clean freak, we’d recommend leaving a microfiber cloth in your backpack.. and on your nightstand… and one in your office. You get the picture.

Fun Fact: The Galaxy Note 8 is 9 millimeters taller and 26 grams heavier than the ill-fated Galaxy Note 7.

As for features, there’s an 8-megapixel front-facing camera, an iris scanner, an earpiece and an LED notification light tucked away in the top bezel. There’s nothing visible on the bottom bezel, though the lower portion of the Infinity Display acts as a pressure sensitive home button that can be used to wake the unit and return to the home screen.

Galaxy Note 8 review: More than just a Galaxy S8+ with an S Pen

On the left edge, you’ll find a volume rocker and a dedicated Bixby button. Pressing it toggles Bixby Home, a feature that can be disabled while holding it toggles Bixby Voice. The right side is home to a traditional power key, which doubles as a shortcut to the camera when tapped twice.

The bottom of the unit houses a USB-C connector, a 3.5mm headphone jack, a retractable S Pen and a loudspeaker. Finally, on the top, there’s a SIM/microSD slot and a microphone that’s used to detect and eliminate ambient sound when a telephone call—or even a WhatsApp call, for that matter—is placed.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: More than just a Galaxy S8+ with an S Pen

Now for the part you’ve all been waiting for. The camera module, positioned on the rear of the device, comprises of two lenses—a 12MP telephoto lens and a 12MP wide-angle lens, both equipped with Optical Image Stabilization (OIS)—a heart-rate monitor, an LED flash and a super-fast fingerprint reader.

We have to say, we’re a little disappointed that: a) Samsung was unable to perfect its in-screen fingerprint reader for the Galaxy Note 8, b) it didn’t follow Google’s lead by mounting the sensor in the center of the handset, because it’s a mission to reach when pulling the phone out of your pocket, unless you have overly-large hands.

(Infinity) Display

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: More than just a Galaxy S8+ with an S Pen

As we’re sure you’re aware, the Galaxy Note 8 features a 6.3-inch near bezel-less Infinity Display, which is a mere 0.1-inches larger than the panel found on board the plus-sized model of the Galaxy S8, but it feels a lot bigger in the hand—likely a result of the shaper edges we mentioned earlier.

By default, the resolution is set to Full HD+ (2,200 x 1,080), though it can be upscaled to WQHD+ (2,960 x 1,440) by enabling Performance Mode and downscaled to HD+ (1,480 x 720) by switching on Power Saving. You also have the facility to alter the resolution as and when you please by navigating into the Settings menu.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: More than just a Galaxy S8+ with an S Pen

But to be honest, you shouldn’t really need to take the reins. Samsung’s software does a fantastic job at switching between the different resolutions—it will upscale when you start playing a 4K UHD video, for example—and unless you’re viewing multimedia, the difference in pixel density isn’t recognizable to the untrained eye.

Even though the device shares the same tall 18.5:9 aspect ratio as the Galaxy S8, the screen itself is a little different. It’s actually the brightest display Samsung’s ever produced, capable of achieving over 1,200 nits when pushed to the limit (22 percent brighter than the Galaxy S8), so it's a pleasure to use in direct sunlight. In fact, it even made it easier for us to capture the photos of the phone you see in this review.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: More than just a Galaxy S8+ with an S Pen

Like the rest of the firm’s flagship lineup, the Galaxy Note 8 boasts impressive viewing angles, accurate color representation, a Blue Light Filter to avoid eye-strain and an Always-On Display Mode (AoD) that provides instant access to both incoming notifications and important information, including the time in different regions.

Camera

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: More than just a Galaxy S8+ with an S Pen

The Galaxy Note 8 is Samsung’s first smartphone to ship with a dual-camera setup. It’s made up of a 12MP telephoto lens (f/2.4) and a 12MP wide-angle lens (f/1.7), both of which are equipped with Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), a feature that allows the lenses to move to compensate for shaky hands—and it works surprisingly well.

During our testing, we found that the handset continuously snapped high-quality pictures, complete with vibrant colors, in daylight environments, while images recorded in low-light bared the warm color temperature and slightly over-softened edges typically associated with Samsung’s smartphones.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: More than just a Galaxy S8+ with an S Pen

Something we’re a big fan of is the new Live Focus mode. Using a slider, you have the facility to add a bokeh effect to your photograph either while you’re shooting it or in post-production; however, the tool has a long way to go before it’s perfect, as it regularly blurs the edges of the subject—so if you're going to use it, best stick to photographing people.

In line with the Galaxy S8, the Galaxy Note 8 ships with a slew of shooting modes—Auto, Food, Panorama and Pro—and Snapchat-like masks, in addition to a new Full View option, which caters to the dimensions of Instagram Stories. Those features, paired with the most intuitive interface on the market, create a truly enjoyable camera experience.

The 8MP front-facing camera, on the other hand, isn’t revolutionary. That’s not to say it isn’t good though, because it is, regularly capturing sharp, clear images. But with other manufacturers pushing the boundaries when it comes to selfie technology (think: 3D-sensing), it would have been nice to see Samsung follow suit.

Performance

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: More than just a Galaxy S8+ with an S Pen

Under the hood, the Galaxy Note 8 isn’t all that different to the Galaxy S8. It sports the same Exynos 8895/Snapdragon 835 processor (market dependent), though it comes with 6GB of RAM as standard and has 3,300mAh Li-Ion battery, which is 200mAh smaller than the cell that ships on board the Galaxy S8+.

Remarkably, we couldn’t slow the handset down—and believe us, we tried. Hard. Even with a plethora of power-hungry applications running simultaneously, the Galaxy Note 8 handled multitasking with ease and was able to run both Google Maps and Slack in Multi-Window Mode, with Spotify open in the background, without stuttering at all.

Not a great deal has changed with regards to face recognition and iris scanning. The former is relatively fast, but struggles to identify faces in poorly-lit environments, while the latter is freakishly accurate and works superbly at night—and no, you can’t use them in unison. It’s either one or the other.

Related: [Poll] Should your handset switch to the iris scanner when face recognition doesn’t work?

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: More than just a Galaxy S8+ with an S Pen

As the Galaxy Note 8 is… well… a Galaxy Note, it comes equipped with Samsung’s trusty S Pen. The stylus can be used on any part of the Infinity Display, even when it’s soaking wet, and offers 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity, making it the perfect tool for jotting down a quick note, signing a PDF, or sketching the Mona Lisa in The Louvre.

Once again, no matter what you’re doing with the S Pen, or how many applications you’re doing it in, you’re going to have a tough time slowing down the Galaxy Note 8. We’re honestly blown away by how graciously it handles even the most strenuous of tasks (rendering a short mobile-edited movie, for example).

Sound Quality

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: More than just a Galaxy S8+ with an S Pen

Much to our dismay, the Galaxy Note 8 doesn’t feature stereo speakers; there’s a single loudspeaker at the bottom next to the USB Type-C port, which is often blocked by your hand when watching videos or playing games. The sound it generates (when it isn’t covered, of course) is rich, bassy and most importantly, loud.

The earpiece speaker that's used for traditional telephone calls is clear and loud—what you'd expect from any modern-day smartphone—though the dedicated loudspeaker function is a little too tinny for our liking, often rending the person on the other end of the line inaudible.

Just like the Galaxy S8, the Galaxy Note 8 comes bundled with a pair of AKG-tuned earphones. They're well-balanced, loud and comfortable. They also aren't too boomy; something that surprised me, considering AKG is notorious for jacking up the bass on its headphones.

Software

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: More than just a Galaxy S8+ with an S Pen

The bulk of software on the Galaxy Note 8 was lifted directly from the Galaxy S8, so it should come as no surprise to hear that the handset ships running Android 7.1.1 Nougat skinned with Samsung’s Experience—formerly known as TouchWiz—user interface, and has a set of on-screen navigation buttons, which are a breeze to use.

Samsung has, however, whipped up an updated build (8.5) of Experience for the Galaxy Note 8. It's a lot smoother and more stable than the version (8.1) found on the Galaxy S8, and comes with a couple of interesting new features: App Pair and Dual Messenger.

App Pair: A utility that allows you to simultaneously launch two applications in Multi-Window from the Edge Panel.

Dual Messenger: A tool that lets you sign into more than one account on messaging applications, like Snapchat.

There are also a number of fresh S Pen features. Our favorite is tucked away in Air Command, the small window that opens when you detach your handset’s stylus. It’s called Live Message and works in a similar way to Apple’s Digital Touch handwriting tool, allowing you to send personalized animated messages (as GIFs) using any platform. Should you fire up Live Message inside a messaging app like WhatsApp, the phone will automatically add the resulting GIF image in the app's share feature, which is neat.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: More than just a Galaxy S8+ with an S Pen

It wouldn't be right to discuss software and not touch on Bixby. Truth be told, it's not all that useful, and it's a feature that's good to have but not ultimately something everyone would use often. Both Bixby Vision and Bixby Voice also take an eternity to process requests at times; Bixby Voice even throws in connectivity errors at times, despite a strong Wi-Fi or LTE signal. Bixby Home is a little more functional but takes far too long to load to be our go-to source of important information. For now, we're sticking to Google Assistant.

Bixby Voice review: A story of unfulfilled potential

We think that Samsung's hit the nail on the head when it comes to software. Sure, Experience isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, but the most important thing is it's fast. Really fast. If you aren't a fan of its appearance, you can always slap on a theme or download one of the hundreds of launchers available on the Play Store.

Battery

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: More than just a Galaxy S8+ with an S Pen

Understandably, Samsung played it safe when it came to selecting a battery for the Galaxy Note 8. The device sports a 3,300mAh cell—smaller than the Galaxy Note 7 and Galaxy S8+—which has not only been subjected to its rigorous in-house eight-point battery safety check, but also put through its paces by a third-party company.

When we first heard that the firm had opted for a 3,300mAh battery, we were a little worried. The Galaxy S8+ doesn't have fantastic battery life and the Galaxy Note 8, with its larger Infinity Display, is aimed at professionals who—put plainly—are glued to their smartphones. How could it possibly last the same amount of time, we wondered?

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: More than just a Galaxy S8+ with an S Pen

But much to our surprise, the Galaxy Note 8 actually lasts longer. Samsung's clever combination of an efficient processor and some software optimization resulted in us consistently having around 25 percent of battery in the evening, when our trusty Galaxy S8+ would usually be as dead as a dodo.

We used our Galaxy Note 8 at its full WQHD+ resolution, left all applications running and had the Always-On Display turned on and were getting around four to five hours "screen on" time, much of which was spent responding to emails, scrolling through Twitter and watching videos on YouTube over an LTE connection.

Should you happen to find yourself running low on battery, a quick 30-minute charge using the included Adaptive Fast Charge (AFC) adapter will give you around 35 percent more juice, while a fairly lengthy 105-minute charge will propel you from 0 to 100 percent.

Conclusion

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: More than just a Galaxy S8+ with an S Pen

Priced at $929.99 in the United States (and at comparable prices in other countries), the Galaxy Note 8 certainly isn't for everyone. But if you're in the market for a powerful, plus-sized, stylus-toting smartphone, which pushes the envelope when it comes to multitasking, snaps truly breathtaking photographs and can handle any task you throw its way with ease, then look no further.

ProsCons
Stunning displayPoor fingerprint reader placement
Industry-leading performanceBixby is too temperamental
Best-in-class camera setupPremium price tag
Great battery life
S Pen is extremely precise
IP68 water resistance
AKG-tuned earphones in the box

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