Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review

The Galaxy Note 8 is the biggest reimagining of Samsung’s best smartphones for productivity, and more than enough to right the major wrongs of the recalled Note 7. This is a mega-sized mea culpa.

Two weeks of testing has us convinced: this is a true redesign of your average smartphone from top-to-bottom, edge-to-edge, and rear camera to, well, rear camera. There are now two cameras on the back, a first for a Samsung flagship smartphone. It takes brilliant portrait photos, and you can even edit them post-capture to adjust the depth of field.

The S Pen stylus returns, and it has a larger 6.3-inch ‘Infinity Display’ to work with – but one that doesn’t increase the dimensions of the actual phone too much. The Note 8 acts like a big, borderless glass canvas for your important handwritten notes and masterpiece doodles.

Why buy this instead of the 6.2-inch Galaxy S8 Plus? The extra tenth of an inch doesn’t really matter, but loyal Note fans adore the S Pen functionality, power users are going to benefit from the 6GB of RAM, and we loved the superior dual-lens camera in our tests – you will too.

This is the most powerful Samsung phone yet. It does, however, cost you in three ways. It’s too big for some – it’s technically Samsung’s best, but not the best for everyone. You’re going to need a Note 8 case to confidently hold this unwieldy glass beast, and two hands to operate it.

The big screen also comes at the cost of the Note’s usual oval-shaped fingerprint sensor home button. It’s gone. The on-screen button that replaces it works fine, but the fingerprint sensor is located on the back of the device and off-center – it’s a textbook flawed design, and the alternative iris scanner doesn’t always work when you want to unlock the phone.

Then there’s the Note 8 price. If you want top-of-the-line specs, the most advanced camera, a stunning display, and streamlined multitasking on a phone, you’re really going to pay for them. The Note 8 costs more than the S8 Plus, although if you’re going to sink a lot of money into a device that you use everyday, you may as well go all the way.

Can your wallet, and the extent of your grip, handle the Note 8? That’s pretty much all that you – if you have faith in Samsung again – need to ask yourself before buying this phone.

Price and release date

  • At $929 (£869, AU$1,499), it's the most expensive phone you'll buy
  • Pre-order deals are legitimately good and help alleviate the high price
  • Release date: September 15 in US and UK, September 22 in Australia

The Galaxy Note 8 release date is Friday, September 15 in the US and UK, while Australia will get the new phone on September 22. Pre-orders are open now, and some users are getting the phone early – as soon as this week.

Note 8 on the right

The Note 8 price is $929 (£869, AU$1,499), and US carriers have it for as much as $40 a month for 24 months, though we’d suggest getting the unlocked carrier-agnostic version. Either way, it’s going to be the most expensive smartphone you’ve ever bought. The Galaxy S8 Plus, for comparison, cost $829 (£779, AU$1,349) at launch, but you can now get it for $679 in the US, while Galaxy S8 deals make the smaller version almost half the price of the Note 8.

Good news, though: you can already find Galaxy Note 8 deals in the US and also in the UK. In the US it comes with either a free Gear 360 camera or a 128GB memory card and fast wireless charger. 

In the UK the freebie is a DeX docking station, and there’s a dual-SIM version available. Best Buy is also offering $150 off the phone, and T-Mobile has a Buy One Get One Free Note 8 offer.

Design and display

  • 6.3-inch 'Infinity Display redefines the Note look and feel
  • But it's 9mm taller than any Note phone – it's the new big
  • Water-resistant up to 1.5m (5ft) for 30 minutes
  • The best color, Deep Sea Blue, won't launch right away

The Note 8 maximizes Samsung’s dual curved edge and nearly bezel-less Infinity Display to the point where this phone feels like a mini tablet from the future. It’s impressive-looking, but also big and heavy – 9mm taller than any previous Note phone, and 195g.

Stretching your is well worth if you can physically manage it. Its expansive 6.3-inch display – now without a physical home button – has an unheard-of 83% screen-to-body ratio. The iPhones have a 67% screen-to-body ratio for comparison – a lot less screen for such big phones. 

Samsung keeps topping itself, launching phones with the world’s best display every six months. Its maximum brightness, 3K resolution with Mobile HDR Premium, and wider color gamut are hard for anyone else to compete with. It's Always-On Display continues to be an appealing feature in a smartphone.

Lit up, the all-screen Note 8 feels like we’re carrying around a piece of light when we’re out and about. 

The entire front glows with unimpeded information – as long as you don’t drop and crack it, and you’ll need to be extra careful as the entire phone is enveloped in glass wrapped around an aluminum frame. Combined with its size, this makes for one slippery smartphone.

While we spent most of the time using this phone naked (that’s without a case), we did test several Note 8 cases and instantly felt more confident carrying it around. Why? The added grip (and peace of mind) let us operate it with one hand, whereas we struggled with the pure glass body at such tall and wide dimensions. Sorry – you’re going to need a case with this phone.

There are very few Note 8 colors. It comes in muted tones of Midnight Black and Orchid Gray, while the Maple Gold and Deep Sea Blue colors will launch in other regions, which will likely come out later this year or early next year if you don’t see them yet; Samsung, annoyingly, refreshes its phones with new colors after a few months, much to the chagrin of loyal early adopters.

You also won’t get the best sound from the Note 8. It's a multimedia powerhouse visually, but its bottom-firing speaker still had us cupping the bottom of the phone to get better audio. Samsung has yet to deliver dual front-facing speakers like the Sony Xperia XZ Premium, or customizable Hi-Fi audio like the LG V30. Maybe next year.

The Note 8 is IP68 water-resistant, so it can survive up to 1.5m (5ft) underwater for 30 minutes, and it uses the reversible USB-C standard. Both are new perks for most Note fans. There’s also no camera bump, and that gaudy Samsung logo has been moved to the rear, no longer staring you in the face. Unfortunately, the fingerprint sensor has moved there, too.

The fingerprint sensor has marginally improved

  • No physical home button means a rear fingerprint sensor
  • It's further away from the camera vs the S8 and S8 Plus sensor
  • Iris scanner and face unlock are poor substitutes 

We hate the fingerprint sensor on the Galaxy Note 8, just as we did on the S8 and S8 Plus. Maybe a tiny bit less, but we still don’t like its off-center rear location for the same reason: we keep blindly smudging the far-too-close dual-lens camera. It’s really difficult to unlock the phone.

Still awkward

What’s improved – slightly? The offset fingerprint sensor and center-aligned camera are a few milimeters further away from each other. Samsung wisely moved the flash and heart rate monitor in between the sensor (which requires your fingerprints) and the camera (which always gets fingerprint smudges all over it). That built-in heart rate monitor you forget still existed on Samsung phones now serves a purpose again.

Samsung’s unlocking alternatives don’t work as advertised. Face unlock has proven to be less secure, so much so that we don’t even suggest using it. And while you won’t fool the iris scanner, it won’t recognize you wearing sunglasses, or walking and holding the phone at the improper distance.

It’s ironic that we have a phone that looks like it comes from the future, yet it’s been designed with a fingerprint sensor that’s become a textbook design misfire on smartphones. Samsung could fix this issue with an in-glass front fingerprint sensor, but the technology isn’t ready yet. Expect this to be a grand announcement for the Galaxy S9 or Note 9 – please act surprised.

The S Pen is full of new and old tricks

  • Easy to sign documents and write directly on screenshots
  • Note-taking expands with convenient off-screen memos
  • Live Messages, GIF Capture add fun to this productivity tool

There are two types of people in the world – those who will use the Note 8’s S Pen, and those who think they’re going to use it, but will stop taking it out of its holster after about a week. It’s like everyone’s desire to own a Fitbit – you had good intentions when you set out to buy it.

Anyone who sticks with the S Pen, however, will get their money’s worth from the Note 8. We signed a PDF contract last week without having to print or scan it – in fact, we didn’t even have to leave the email app. We also jotted down handwritten notes and took screenshots that we were instantly able to mark up.

These features – usually reserved for pro-level tablets or 2-in-1 computers – are even handier on a phone. After all, the best note-taking device is the one you have with you all the time.

Frequent note-takers will love the off-screen memo feature, which lets you jot down white-ink notes on the turned-off black screen as soon as you eject the S Pen. Off-screen memos, introduced with the doomed Note 7, enable you to capture your thoughts without having to unlock the phone first.

The Note 7 also debuted S Pen features like GIF Capture and Translate, but these will be new to most Note 8 users. And new to the Note 8 is the ability to write out ‘Live Messages’, creating sparkly animations that you can send to anyone in GIF form. 

If the S Pen lets you skip a few archaic steps – like printing, finding a working pen, and scanning a document – the Note 8 may be worth the extra $105 over the similarly sized S8 Plus.

Specs and performance

  • Impossible to slow down thanks to the new 6GB of RAM
  • The Snapdragon 835 chip is fast. The Exynos chip is faster
  • 64GB, but includes a microSD card slot for extra storage

The Galaxy Note 8 is the fastest Samsung phone you can buy thanks to its souped-up internal specs, including the all-new 6GB of RAM and latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset. In the UK and other regions it’s even faster, courtesy of Samsung’s Exynos chipsets.

We couldn’t slow this phone down if we tried – and we did try. Running Geekbench software, the Note 8 CPU averaged a 6,524 multi-core score under normal use.

We couldn’t even get below the 6,000 mark when weighing it down by downloading a ridiculous number of apps, running Google Maps and playing music in the background all at the same time (6,164 was the lowest we hit).

This is much faster than our S8 Plus tests, which finally did break the 6,000 barrier, but under ideal conditions.

All of this is awesome news for multitaskers and power-users who want to fully take advantage of this S Pen-equipped device and harness the productivity benefits of the plug-and-play DeX docking station. And while the Note 8 comes with just the one storage option – 64GB of internal storage – it includes a microSD card slot for expansion. It’s not lacking in any way productivity-wise.

Interface and apps

  • Streamlined menus makes for the best Samsung interface yet
  • App Pairing opens up multitasking windows more quickly
  • No timetable on the Android 8.0 Oreo update

While everyone waits for Google’s Android Nougat update, Samsung’s software is just as good, and in some cases even better. It’s steadily been burying its TouchWiz menu complexities and app bloatware; you shouldn’t dismiss Samsung anymore for its past software mistakes.

The Note 8 showcases the best of its ‘Samsung Experience’ software, touting a finely balanced interface that’s streamlined, yet with more options than stock Android 7.0 Nougat. Its menus are laid out logically and, when you can’t find something, there’s always a helpful suggestion.

Bixby was great that one time it worked right

  • Bixby could be better than Siri and Assistant, but isn't
  • It can fully execute commands,  replacing the need for touch 
  • The biggest problem? It'll have trouble understanding you

“Blow the pooper app” is what Bixby heard. What we actually said was “Download the Uber app”, on a New York City street that wasn’t particularly loud. We were 80% amused and 20% annoyed at its mistake, but those percentages flipped after about five ill-fated attempts.

This is Samsung’s voice-powered virtual assistant in a nutshell. It has a lot of potential, and is leagues smarter than the company’s S Voice software, but the execution isn’t as smooth as Apple’s Siri or Google’s Assistant just yet. It would be better than its rivals if it could just understand us.

When it did finally nail “Download the Uber app”, it fulfilled Samsung’s promise of “Anything you can do with touch, you can do with Bixby.” How? It navigated to Google’s app store, downloaded the Uber app and I was ready to go. Siri and Assistant both were a stop short by comparison, requiring you to hit buttons to install the app.

Samsung is so invested in Bixby that it’s included a ‘Bixby button’ on the left side of Note 8, below the volume rocker. It can’t be remapped and, oddly, you have to press and hold this button in while talking to Bixby, as if this was the world’s most expensive walkie talkie. Worrying about holding in this button is a difficult ask when you’re on foot or in a car.

Bixby doesn’t have trouble hearing – just hearing things correctly. While running our battery life test, it constantly interrupted (forcing a do-over), thinking the news channel I was watching was talking about Bixby every minute. Sorry, Bixby, you’re not that popular or newsworthy just yet.

Camera

  • Two 12MP cameras with optical image stabilization best iPhone 7 Plus
  • We loved its 2x optical zoom for telephoto pictures, portrait photos
  • Its 4K video quality and OIS are great, but LG offers more controls

The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 camera is the best on any phone we’ve tested for three reasons: it captures clear, colorful photos, has a brilliant new bokeh (background blur) effect, and it sets you up with an easy-to-use, yet full-featured camera app.

Having two rear cameras makes a world of difference for bokeh-rich ‘Live Focus’ photos. This is Samsung’s answer to the iPhone 7S Plus portrait mode. It too blurs photo backgrounds, which reduces photobombing distractions and lets your important subject stand out. Don’t worry though, it saves both the zoomed-in Live Focus photo and the wider original photo by default, which is a unique and welcome touch.

What’s different is that Samsung lets you adjust the depth of field blur. A bokeh slider bar is displayed when you’re taking the photo, and it doesn’t go away after you’ve snapped the picture. Having more control over this background blur effect further highlights the power of two cameras.

Samsung’s telephoto lens is also better. Its second rear camera’s 2x optical zoom benefits from optical image stabilization (OIS). OIS means the internal lens actually moves to compensate for your shaky hands, and it’s something the iPhone’s telephoto camera lacks. The Note 8 makes great strides in reducing photographer’s remorse.

Samsung’s quick camera launch feature (previously ‘double-tap the home button’ on the Note series) has moved to the power button, and it’s nearly as convenient. We also appreciate the ability to quickly flip between the rear and selfie cameras by simply flicking the screen up or down. No more hunting for that pesky camera flip button.

The Note 8 has no shortage of photo modes: Auto, Pro, Panorama and Food, while missing favorites can be downloaded from the Galaxy App Store. There’s also a new Full View camera option, which caters to the dimensions of Snapchat and Instagram Stories.

The only thing we dislike? The fact that the timer is now hidden in the settings menu. You can activate the camera timer with a hand gesture, but it doesn’t always work immediately, and often makes you look like an idiot in public.

Video options include recording in 4K with smooth OIS, but while the Note 8 crisply captures everything directly in front of you, the LG V30 outclasses it with more manual and cinematic video controls. LG’s new Point Zoom ability lets you choose where to zoom in, while on the Note 8, you can just zoom into the center of the screen. Samsung’s video options include the more usual modes, like Slow Motion and Hyperlapse.

Battery life

  • Smaller 3,300mAh battery has Samsung going conservative
  • All-day battery life, but depletes faster and charges slower
  • Best new feature: didn't explode in our rigerous tests!

The Note 8 battery doesn’t explode – or at least it hasn’t after about two weeks of extensive testing. We even tried to overclock it by cycling through many power-hungry apps. No dice.

Everything is safer, according to Samsung. Its eight-point battery safety check, introduced in the wake of the Note 7 debacle, set strict rules for the S8, S8 Plus and Note 8 battery review process.

What’s more obvious is that Samsung isn’t pushing the battery life boundaries of the sizable Note 8. It has a 3,300mAh battery, while the Note 7 and S8 Plus have a 3,500mAh power pack.

You’ll still get all-day battery life, and Samsung’s power-saving software tricks can can extend that to slightly over 24 hours. However, our on-screen tests showed a noticeable drop in the Note 8’s ability to hold onto power, partly due to its intense brightness and wider 18.5:9 screen.

For once, Samsung isn’t pushing the envelope on battery life with the Note 8. Instead, the Asus Zenfone 3 Zoom is the one touting a 5,000mAh battery behind a 5.5-inch screen. That’s a shame – but in Samsung’s embattled eyes it’s a case of better safe than sorry.

The Note 8 also dials back on rapid charging. It’s still a ‘Fast Charging’ device, but during our tests it took longer (115 mins) to charge with the included USB-C cable. And, remember, it has a smaller battery so it technically should be faster than S8 Plus (101 mins) and Note 7 (98 mins) charge times. Clearly Samsung doesn’t want to make the same mistake twice. 

Fact: wireless charging is great – but it’s never fast. Testing Samsung’s newest Fast Charge Wireless Convertible pad, it brought the Note 8 to 100% after two hours and 35 minutes (155 minutes). You should know this before buying a wireless charging pad if you want it for anything other than convenience.

Big battery sizes used to be a defining Note phone feature until the Note 7 became defined by its disastrous battery. All-day battery life is good enough, but the Note does feels like it’s missing a hallmark feature. We’re paying here for the sins of the 7.

Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is the best big phone you can buy. For once, it’s more than just the size of the screen and the power of the S Pen that count. It also captures superior telephoto and bokeh-rich photos with its new dual-lens array, and it clocks in faster with 6GB of RAM.

There a price to pay, however. It’s a taller phone with a steeper price tag. It takes a lot of finger-stretching to reach the outer edges of the screen, and costs more money than any previous Note phone. You’re also only getting all-day battery life that’s lower than expected, probably thanks to last year’s recall. It’s less, shall we say, Note-worthy.

The Note 8 is Samsung’s big phone homecoming, its dual-lens camera debut and its 6GB of RAM premier wrapped into one. It makes quite an entrance. Let’s just hope it doesn’t make another quick exit.

Who’s it for?

Can you handle the Note 8 size and price? Yes? Then this phone is for you. There’s more screen than ever, it has the best camera on a phone and you can’t slow it down. It’s Samsung’s best – but it can’t be recommended to everyone.

Upgrading from an old Note? It’s a big jump from 2015’s Note 5, the last Note with more than a two-month lifespan. And for those in the UK, it’s the first Note since the plastic-clad Note 4. It’s going to be like upgrading to the future – and sorry, futuristic inflation rates apply.

Competition

Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus

We liked the S8 Plus six months ago and still do, but we’re in favor of you buying the Note 8. Why? Because if you’re going to spend this much money on a Samsung phone, you might as well get the very best. They both have sizable all-screen displays, fast chipsets and stunning cameras, but only the Note 8 has the dual-lens camera, 6GB of RAM and the S Pen. For the extra $105, you’re more futureproofed.

iPhone 7 Plus

Apple is about to retire the iPhone 7 Plus as its flagship, but it features a dual-lens camera with a similar telephoto lens and bokeh-rich portrait photos. There’s no optical image stabilization on the telephoto lens, and we just plain like the Samsung camera more these days. But Apple’s phone is – and this is shocking – a lot cheaper at $769, and current iPhone 7 Plus deals make it even less expensive. Plus, once iMessages and Apple’s streamlined ecosystem get a hold of you, it’s hard to leave.

LG V30

Hear me out. This LG smartphone is worth looking into for one reason, even if you’re a lifelong camp Samsung supporter: the V30 has more robust video features. It may not take better photos in the end, but we dig its wide dual-lens camera, and LG finally put an OLED display inside second all-screen phone. It doesn’t have a stylus, but will launch with a lower price tag than the Note 8 at the end of this month.

Matt Swider
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