The Galaxy Note8 has big shoes to fill, but can it accomplish this simply by being bigger? Samsung 'next big thing' will stretch pockets, and budgets, but for some this will be worth the wait after handing in their Note7 handset last year.
What we love
- Awesome screen
- New S Pen features are great
- Zoom camera lens is really useful
- First-rate performance
What could be improved
- Single day battery life
- It's a bit too big
- It's not the Galaxy Note7, and I loved that phone
What is it?
At about this time last year, I fell in love with a phone. The Galaxy Note7 was a near-perfect phone in my books. It was powerful and high-tech, but the design was smooth and ergonomic. Most importantly, it was the right size; a perfectly pocketable phablet.
It also had a killer battery, which ultimately proved to be its downfall. The Note7 was capable of a solid two-days of battery life. I could go for entire weekends without charge the Note7. And then these batteries begun exploding, along with my heart.
Which is to say, I've been looking forward to the chance to review the Galaxy Note8. It has big shoes to fill, which Samsung attempts to accomplish in typical Samsung style, but making the phone bigger all around. The screen is bigger, up from 5.7-inches to 6.3-inches; the camera is bigger, with two lenses rather than one. The handset in general is bigger, at nearly a centimetre taller and you can really feel it. The price tag, as you might expect, involves larger numbers.
In fact, the only element of the Galaxy Note8 than is smaller than the Note7 is the battery, and while some may say that this is a prudent move, it may also be the Archille's Heel of this year's model.
What's good about it
Those in the know, know that the Note handsets are Samsung true flagships each year. The Galaxy S series phones get most of the attention, but all of Samsung's big, new ideas find their way into Note phones first.
The Note8 is no exception, and while it has a lot in common with the Galaxy S8, it also has a number of enhancements that you'd miss out on if you didn't choose the Note.
The new dual-camera lens array is a great example of this. Like Apple offers in its most expensive models, the two cameras on the Note8 have identical 12-megapixel image sensors, but two different lenses: a wide-angle lens (as you'd find on the Galaxy S8), and a telephoto lens for capturing your subject with a 2x zoom.
I had been sceptical about how useful a second lens would actually be, especially when the zoom distance is just 2-times, but I find myself switching it all the time. In fact, I tend to take a shot with both lenses; one with the wide-angle, then a second with the zoom lens immediately after.
It can also be used to simulate depth-of-field in your photos (as in, a blurry background behind your subject) and while the effect works most of the time, it's not something I think that you'll use all of the time. The real advantage of using what Samsung calls 'Live Focus' is that it takes a photo with both lenses at the same time. Ostensibly this is to apply the blur effect, but it means you can choose which of the photos turns out best and save it, after the fact.
As a Samsung Note phone, you also get the S Pen stylus accessory which clicks into a sheath at the bottom of the phone. It has a few neat tricks this year, like the ability to write an unending note on the lock-screen of the phone, without turning the phone on. You can also create and send Live Messages, which capture your pen strokes as an animation that can be attached to SMS, or sent as images in emails or through social media.
To be honest, I find the S Pen a nice to have, but I rarely take full advantage of having it. When I use a smartphone, I tend to be a consumer of information, rather than a creator of it. I do send a lot of text-based messages, but the stylus still isn't faster than a keyboard, for me.
What's not so good
As I hinted at above, there is a general issue with the balance of size and performance across the core elements of the Note8. Samsung's advertising focuses on the word 'bigger', but the Note8 is a good example of how bigger isn't always better.
Battery life is a key instance of this. With a screen that is significantly larger than its predecessor, but a small battery to power it, the Note8 is a single day phone. In fact, it is the first phone I've used in a while that has had me hunting around for a charging before I go to bed.
The phone reports that about 25% of power use is attributed to the display, and this is with the display set to Full HD resolution, rather than its super sharp maximum setting, qHD. Which makes me wonder what part of this equation is most important to most people. For someone like me, I'd prefer a smaller screen and longer battery life.
The general size of the Note8 also stretches the friendship, and the pockets on my jeans. Every single person who has seen and held the Note8 during this review period has made a comment about the size and weight of the handset. The fingerprint scanner, on the back of the phone next to the camera lens, is harder to reach than it is on the Galaxy S8, and we didn't much like the position of the fingerprint scanner on the S8 either.
This is an entirely subjective measure, but for me, the Note8 is too big.
I usually avoid being too nit-picky, but the engineering on the Note8 isn't the Samsung team's finest work. Like the S8, the glass on the front and back curve around towards each other, with a thin strip which connects them. Unlike the S8, this strip juts out, creating an annoying lip around the phone that you can feel constantly when you hold it.
And of course, there's Bixby -- Samsung's nascent Artificial Intelligence assistant which feels embryonic compared with the competition. If Samsung keeps developing Bixby, it has the hallmarks of being an incredibly useful piece of software, but I find it hard to not use Google Assitant, which is also installed on the Note8. I'll confess too that when Samsung added an option in the Settings to turn off the dedicated Bixby button on the side of the phone, I rushed in to toggle it off.
Who is it for?
If you were in love with the Note7, like I was, and you'd like a new Samsung phone, I'd say you have a tough decision on your hands. The Note8 is Samsung's most advanced phone yet, but most of the good stuff is in the smaller, cheaper Galaxy S8. In fact, the S8 is almost exactly the same size as the Note7, which is a big plus in my books.
But then you'd miss out of the excellent new dual-cameras and the always impressive S Pen stylus, and these are great additions. You pay a pretty premium for these extras, but for some it will be worth it.
What else can you buy?
Apple's take on the phablet has a smaller screen, and is slightly cheaper, but it is nonetheless power and feature-packed. You also get a similar dual-camera setup, so you can take the zoomed in photos we like so much.
Google's 'big' phone is a year old now (and about to be superseded) but is still a favourite in the WhistleOut office. It gets the basics right, has a class-leading camera, and guarantees that you are the first to download new version of the Android OS.
Samsung Galaxy S8
If the thought of a giant Samsung phone doesn't ring your bell, the Galaxy S8 is a superb alternative. You'll forgo the S Pen and dual-cameras, but you get get the best of the rest, and you'll save a fair bit of money in making this decision.