Samsung Galaxy Note 8 hands-on: The upgrade Note users are clamoring for

We went hands-on with the Galaxy Note 8 shortly before Samsung announced its latest phablet.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is now official.

Samsung unveiled its latest phablet at its Unpacked event in New York City on Aug. 23. The successor to the defunct Note 7 follows the company's previously formula of implementing new features on the Note line, which then cascade throughout the Galaxy lineup over the next year.

CNET: Shiny Galaxy Note 8 gets dual cameras, but plays it safe | Everything you need to know about the Galaxy Note 8 launch

With the Note 8, Samsung is launching its first smartphone with a dual-camera setup similar to what's found on the OnePlus 5 and Apple's iPhone 7 Plus.

Before Samsung announced the Note 8, we had a chance to spend some time with one of the most anticipated phones in 2017. With all eyes on the newest Note, let's take a look at what it has to offer.

First, let's get the technical details out of the way:

Specifications

Operating System Android 7.1.1 with Samsung Experience 8.5
Size 162.5 x 74.8 x 8.6 mm, 195g
Display 6.3-inch Super AMOLED QHD+ (2960x1440, 521ppi)
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 in the US; Exynos elsewhere
Memory 6GB
Storage 64GB in US, 128GB/256GB available elsewhere
Rear camera 1x 12-megapixel wide angle (F1.7), 1x 12-megapixel telephoto (F2.4). Both with Optical Image Stabilization
Front camera 8-megapixel autofocus (F1.7)
Battery 3,300mAh
Connectivity 802.11 ac Wi-Fi, NFC, MST, USB-C, Bluetooth 5.0
Colors Black orgGray in the US; Blue and gold elsewhere

Taller is better?

I'll need to spend a lot more time with the Note 8 before I can say for certain if the overall size is too big for me, but my initial impression was that the added height will take a lot of adjustments if you're accustomed to holding a smaller phone.

For example, reaching the fingerprint sensor, located next to the dual cameras on the back of the phone, is already a bit of a stretch on the S8 Plus, and now it's that much further up on the Note 8's back.

Face unlock and iris scanning is a possibility on the Note 8, but I struggle with the latter due to glasses and don't trust face unlock as a secure lock method.

With the Note 8, the amount of screen real-estate for viewing two apps at once, watching a video, or going through a spreadsheet is unmatched. Not only is the screen plentiful, Samsung still makes the best smartphone displays on the market, and the Note 8's is no exception.

Other than being tall, the Note 8 is still thin and easy to hold. The slightly curved edges on screen and again on the back are something Samsung has perfected as a means to make the device feel thinner than it actually is.

New dual camera tricks

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(Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet)

With two lenses on the back of the Note 8, Samsung has implemented a depth shooting mode -- dubbed Live Focus -- in the Camera app. With a subject roughly four feet away, the Note 8 will use both lenses to capture depth information along with the photo. You can adjust the amount of blur, also referred to as bokeh, surrounding the subject before or after pressing the shutter button.

Similar features from Apple or OnePlus don't allow you to adjust the level of blur applied in a photo; you're stuck with whatever the phone decides to apply. Sometimes this leads to a superb-looking photo, other times the added level of blurriness around the edges of a subject is distracting. In theory, being able to adjust the amount of blur in less-than-stellar conditions could be a handy way to make up for a poorly rendered shot.

Another unique feature Samsung has to its claim is called Dual Capture. Essentially, whenever you take a Live Focus photo, the wide-angle lens captures a wide-angle shot. Instead of gathering depth information and throwing away the photo, the Note 8 saves both photos. You can then switch between the close-up Live Focus shot, or view the wider angle shot that captured the scene and its surroundings. For those worried about the amount of storage a Dual Capture photo will require, the feature is optional, and it shouldn't use a significant amount of storage when in use.

Lastly, both camera modules on the back of the Note 8 have optical image stabilization. Typically, only the wide-angle lens boasts OIS. Image stabilization will reduce blurry photos captured with an unsteady hand or while moving.

My hands-on time with Live Focus and Dual Capture was in a controlled environment with well-lit subjects, and it seemed to work as expected. I can't help but think the requirement of a subject being roughly four feet away from the camera is bound to cause some frustration, but perhaps in real world use, it won't matter all that much.

S-Pen to the rescue

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(Image: Jason Cipriani/ZDNet)

For the Note 8, the S-Pen is receiving some hardware and software changes. The 0.7mm tip is the same size as most ballpoint pens, and the Note 8 is now capable of recognizing up to 4,096 different pressure points.

On the software front, one of the new features Samsung demoed is called Live Message. Users can open Live Message at any time using Air Command. You can then draw or write a note, and Live Message will remember every stroke. Once you're finished, it will play back exactly how you drew or wrote on the Note 8's display. You can then share the animated image (GIF format) with friends or loved ones through any of the normal means.

On a more productive note, screen off memos are no longer capped at just a few pages. In fact, you can write up to 100 pages worth of notes without ever unlocking the Note 8. The S-Pen's translate feature can now translate entire sentences, instead of single words.

Writing with the S-Pen on the Note 8 will be familiar if you've previously owned a Note device.

The elephant in the room

After last year's Note 7 fiasco, Samsung was forced to take a step back and rethink its approach to batteries, safety precautions, and, frankly, whether the Note line should continue.

Was damage to the brand too much to recover from? Would customers trust the company again? Would they want a smartphone with the Note brand?

Obviously, with the Note 8 announcement, it's clear Samsung has determined customers are ready to move on from the double-recall.

Seventy-six percent of current Note owners, according to a Samsung survey, are ready to upgrade to the Note 8 as soon as it comes out. That says a lot about the faith Note users have in Samsung.

As for safety precautions with the battery in the Note 8, Samsung has added guard rails around the battery to further protect it from drops. Additionally, the battery is slightly smaller, giving it more room within the phone's housing, and new software algorithms will better monitor rapid charging and severe use cases of constant charging.

Of course, Samsung can tout any number of precautions and steps it has taken to ensure the Note 8's battery is safe, but until the phone begins shipping and zero incidents are reported, it's fair to have some reservations. But don't let them stop you from buying one if it's the device is you want, the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus have yet to have any issues.

Availability

The Galaxy Note 8 is available for pre-order starting Aug. 24 and will be available from all major US carriers, as well as an unlocked variant directly from Samsung. Pricing ranges from $930 to $950, depending on the carrier in the US. It's not cheap.

Those who preorder the Note 8 can choose between a free Gear 360 camera or a 128GB microSD card and a fast charging wireless pad. The Note 8 will be available in stores starting Sept. 15.

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