Samsung’s Galaxy Note series phones have set benchmarks for the company, featuring the absolute best it has to offer in terms of mobile technology. The big differentiating factor from the S series has been bigger screens and the S-Pen stylus, and this formula has worked well for Samsung for years now. However, ever since the Galaxy S6 Edge+, the company has been fragmenting its S series too, offering multiple sizes, thereby slowly bridging the gap between the S and the Note series.
The Note brand took a hit because of the fiasco that was the Galaxy Note 7, but clearly, Samsung loyalists weren’t going to let it fade into the history books. According to the company, The Note 8 has seen a record number of pre-orders and that demand has been equally strong in South Africa too.
The Galaxy Note 8 is more than just a slightly stretched Galaxy S8+. Its body is more rectangular and the curves at the corners are less pronounced. The metal frame on the sides is also thicker, with overall width rising to 8.6mm. This phone is also heavier at around 195 grams. However, the weight aside, we found it to be surprisingly easier to manage than the S8+. We’ve been using the latter for a long time now, and even with a silicone case, it’s still easy to handle. The Note 8’s dimensions make it feel better to hold, and even without a case, we’ve yet to accidentally drop it.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 feels robust and solid, but be prepared to the wipe the back every few minutes as the glass doesn’t seem to have the same level of smudge resistance as the front. Dominating the front is a 6.3-inch QHD+ Super AMOLED display, with narrow bezels on the top and bottom and nothing on the sides, so the glass is free to blend in with the metal frame. Button placement is good if you’re right-handed, as the power and volume buttons line up nicely.
The hybrid dual-SIM tray is placed on the top, which can accommodate either two Nano-SIMs or a single SIM and a microSD card (up to 256GB). At the bottom, we have the 3.5-mm headphone socket, USB Type-C connector, speaker grille, and a slot for the S-Pen. The Super AMOLED display is gorgeous and looks its best when you use it at its native resolution of 1440×2960. You’ll have to manually bump up the resolution as the default setting is Full-HD+. However, keep in mind that running games at the native resolution will cause a slight dip in performance, and the battery tends to drain a bit quicker as well. You can decide whether you want to pay this price.
One thing we wish the phone did was automatically switch to ‘Game Mode’ when you launch a game from the Game Launcher app. That way, you could have everything else running at the highest resolution and have the phone automatically drop to Full-HD+ when you run a game. Currently, Game Mode needs to be triggered manually, which isn’t very ideal.
The S-Pen that comes with the Galaxy Note 8 looks and feels a lot more premium than before. It weighs a mere 2.8 grams and features a finer tip. It’s also IP68 certified, just like the Note 8, and supports 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity. The S-Pen clicks in and out of its silo, and unlike the Note 5, it only goes in the right way so there’s no chance of it getting stuck or breaking the mechanism inside. We’ll cover all the functions of the S-Pen in just a bit.
Around the back, we have the dual 12-megapixel cameras, which is a big deal because it’s Samsung’s first-ever phone with this feature. Both cameras have optical stabilisation, which again, is quite rare. The heart-rate sensor and fingerprint sensor are placed beside the lenses.
The Galaxy Note 8 ships with a Type-C cable, power adapter, AKG earphones, SIM ejector tool, extra pen nibs and a tweezer to insert them, a clear plastic case, a Micro-USB to Type-C adapter, and a USB Type-C to Type-A adapter. The bundled accessories are of very good quality, especially the headset. We didn’t find the case to be very useful as it diminishes the look of the phone, but your mileage may vary.
The phone is also loaded with an iris sensor in addition to the barometer and RGB light sensor. You also get dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 5, IP68 dust and water resistance, Cat 16 LTE, NFC, and GPS, though FM radio is missing. Just like the S8 series, the Note 8 also supports Samsung Pay for both, NFC and MST terminals.
Part of the reason that the Galaxy Note 8 feels so speedy is its software. This phone runs a more recent version of Samsung Experience (8.5 vs 8.1 on the S8+) which is based on a more current version of Android Nougat (7.1.1). It’s strange that Samsung hasn’t updated the software on the S8 and S8+ yet. We’ve covered all the features at great length in our S8+ review, so we’ll just skim over them here and focus on the S-Pen instead.
Swiping right on the home screen takes you to Bixby, while Edge Panels give you quick access to contacts, music, apps, etc. You can even group two apps together add a combined shortcut to the Apps Edge so that they both open at the same time, in split-screen mode.
The only noticeable change in the Settings app is the addition of a section for the S-Pen features. Here you can toggle different functions like Air View, which gives you a pop-up or preview of images, extra menu information, etc. You can choose what action to take when the S-Pen is removed from its silo. By default, a little carousel automatically pops up from the edge of the phone giving you shortcuts to core S-Pen features. You can also add up to 10 of your own app shortcuts (like for drawing apps) to the carousel.
Create Note gives you a blank canvas with basic writing tools, and your creations are saved in the Samsung Notes app. However, using the Samsung Notes app directly gives you added functionality such as a ruled sheet, and the ability to add images and voice memos to your notes. Glance minimises any opened app to a small window; Bixby Vision lets you search for information about any object on the screen by hovering the S-Pen over it; Magnify does exactly what the name suggests. Smart Select lets you create a custom crop for anything on the screen, which can then be modified, saved as a note, or searched for online with Bixby Vision. Screen Write takes a screenshot and lets you scribble on it; Live Message lets you draw or write custom messages and save them as animated GIFs; and finally, Translate lets you select words to translate from one language to another.
The Galaxy Note 8 ships with many several apps like Samsung’s Galaxy app store and Microsoft’s suite of Office apps. However, you can uninstall some redundant ones like Samsung’s custom Calendar app. You can also sign in to Samsung Cloud, which gives you 15GB of cloud storage for backing up contacts, photos, etc.
The iris scanner is very quick at authentication, no matter the ambient lighting. In terms of day to day performance of the Galaxy Note 8, we didn’t face any performance lags, and multitasking was very speedy. Apps also loaded quickly. We hope that the large amount of RAM will help sustain this fluid experience over the long run since we’ve heard first-hand reports of the 4GB version of the Galaxy S8+ developing slight lag and stutters after months of use.
The Galaxy Note 8 gets warm quickly when apps use GPS or the cameras, or when gaming, but not excessively so, not even after prolonged intensive usage. It also cools down just as fast. The S-Pen is a useful tool to have, even if you’re not really into any serious sketching. Samsung’s own Notes app is quite versatile, allowing you to take advantage of the pressure sensitivity of the stylus. Games like Scribble Racer are also more fun with the S-Pen. Your mileage will vary depending on your usage patterns. It can be a bit awkward at first to write comfortably when you’re holding the phone, due to its taller proportions, but you get used to it after a bit.
The large screen is ideal for watching videos. Colours are vivid and blacks are deep, which means that images and videos have very good contrast. You can also enable a video enhancer feature, which boosts brightness and colours for apps capable of video playback. High-resolution videos play flawlessly and the Note 8 is now officially supported by Netflix for HDR 10.
The speaker gets loud but the stereo experience is missing. Thankfully, audio performance with the bundled AKG headset is superb. The earphones handle voice calls well and have a balanced sonic signature. Mids and highs are very detailed with ample kick in the low-end frequencies. They’re also extremely comfortable to wear even for long periods. Thanks to Bluetooth 5, the Note 8 can stream the same audio track to two wireless speakers at the same time. There’s also something called Separate App Sound, which can, for example, play music from Apple Music on a Bluetooth speaker, but make sure that other app alerts are heard only through the phone’s speaker.
On paper, the primary camera is identical to the one on the Galaxy S8 models, and all shooting modes like Pro, Panorama, Slow Motion, Hyperlapse and Food are handled by this sensor. The second camera also has a 12-megapixel sensor but with smaller pixels and aperture (f/2.4). You get 2x optical zoom and a Live Focus feature. Thankfully, this sensor also gets OIS, so your zoomed-in shots don’t appear blurry.
Image quality with the main sensor is nothing short of amazing. Samsung seems to have dialled down the colours with this new firmware, so landscapes and close-ups don’t have exaggerated colours like they do with the S8 series. However, the colour tone is still on the warmer side. Focusing is extremely quick, even at night. The main sensor manages extremely detailed landscapes and detailed macros, with good natural depth of field thanks to the f/1.7 aperture. Even in low light, it manages excellent details and accurate colours.
The 2x zoom is only available in the Auto shooting mode and standard video recording mode. Like most phones with dual cameras, the second sensor only kicks in if there’s sufficient light; otherwise you just get a digital zoom through the primary sensor and lens. The Live Focus feature works best on people. An onscreen message tells you when it is available. If there’s not enough light or something blocking the main sensor, you get alerts about this. In this mode, you can enable Dual Capture, which takes photos from both cameras so you can choose which frame you prefer later on. Video recording maxes out at 4K at 30fps, and there are other options like 1080p at 60fps and 720p at 240fps.
Stabilisation is very good as long as you’re stationary and just panning around. However, if you begin walking, videos tend to have a slight ‘jelly’ effect around the edges of the frame. The same goes for the telephoto sensor too. The front 8-megapixel selfie camera also gets a f/1.7 aperture so low-light shots are pretty detailed.
Battery capacity is reduced a bit compared to the Galaxy S8+, to 3300mAh. The smaller capacity battery could be due to the fact that Samsung had to make room for the S-Pen, and had to keep its size and weight manageable. The results were as expected. In our HD video loop test, we managed 12 hours and 43 minutes, which is slightly lower than what we got with the S8+. With regular use, the Note 8 nearly makes it a full day on a single charge but it’s tough to get anything more, even with frugal use. There’s fast charging which takes the phone from zero to about 37 percent in half an hour, and up to 79 percent in an hour.
The Note 8 is yet another winner from Samsung. The S-Pen and the new dual camera system offer enough benefits to justify the premium over the S8+. This does come at a small cost of weight but honestly, that’s just a matter of getting used to.
The Note 8 also gives you the added benefit of having the latest version of Samsung’s UI, over its S8 sibling. While this could change going ahead, the way we see it, the Note 8 might continue to get preferential treatment since it is a matter of prestige for Samsung. It will also give the company a chance to show its commitment to devoted fans. The only thing slightly disappointed about is battery life. We would typically expect a top-end phone to last an entire day at the very least, but that’s tough to achieve here.
Let’s not forget the competition… Apple’s iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X have also arrived, and are abit more expensive but will have their fans!
The Galaxy Note 8 will not disappoint. It’s got fantastic build quality, excellent cameras, a gorgeous display, and a useful stylus that only Note devices can boast of.