Galaxy Note 8: The revival of Samsung's poster child

From battery fires to the ensuing jokes, Samsung's Note series has survived it all, and this year's Galaxy Note 8 continues to be at the bleeding edge of what Samsung can offer, says its development team.

Last year's Galaxy Note 7 debacle felt like "rising up to the heavens and abruptly falling into hell without warning," one Samsung senior executive has said. Multiple units around the world had caught fire, and the company was forced to recall and kill the phone. The mood was severe at Samsung's mobile division. No one spoke of it directly outside of meetings, which were intense, because there were many, many things up for review.

After deciding to keep the Note brand -- a decision which was hotly debated -- there was no choice but to move forward. Last October, DJ Koh, president of Samsung Mobile, stood in front of a large group of Samsung Mobile employees. It was the first time that the mobile chief had explained the Note 7 situation in person. The auditorium was completely silent and the atmosphere heavy. After Koh finished his talk, one by one, employees started to ask questions. Then, one employee asked the president on his health. He replied that it was more important than ever to keep healthy, and asked everybody to do the same. Some employees recollect that they were in tears and almost cried at that moment.

"We were determined. We reset everything. I mean everything. There wasn't a thing that we didn't review again; it was back to the basics," BJ Kang -- part of both the product strategy team for the Note 8 and of the Note team from the series' inception -- told ZDNet. Though the Galaxy S8 series -- which broke pre-order records in South Korea -- redeemed the division somewhat, the mood was intense up to the launch of its Note sibling.

The Galaxy Note 8 was very well received. It became the highest pre-ordered Note in South Korea and the US. Samsung expects its highest ever quarterly profit of 14.5 trillion won for the third quarter; about a third will likely be from its mobile division, thanks to strong initial sales of the Note 8 and profits from the S8 series. "After the past year, it was just an emotional moment," said Cue Kim, also of the product strategy team.

The unlikely flagship

The history of the Galaxy Note series reflects Samsung's trajectory in smartphones more than any other product. In terms of sales, it lags behind the Galaxy S series, which is designed more for mass appeal, but the Note series began with a very heavy chip on its shoulders.

Launched in 2011, reception for the first Note was largely negative. Its 5.3-inch screen was considered too big and the accompanying stylus was considered a relic from the pre-smartphone era. The late Apple founder Steve Jobs was famously against both. The lawsuits with its archrival were also in full swing; Samsung was still an underdog to Cupertino's iPhone.

The Note didn't just spring out from a vacuum. Prior to launch, Samsung conducted a worldwide survey with teams going around with papercut and woodcut models of the yet-to-be-named phone to people of all ages, gender, backgrounds, and geographies.

The South Korean tech giant found that consumers carried multiple devices but wanted simply to have an on-the-go device. The product needed to beat and have the benefits of the "incumbents": It needed the portability and apps of phones; the large and immersive display and minimum scrolling of tablets; quick capturing of ideas and memos of the good old notepad.

The chief concern, said Kang and Kim, was how large a screen would be accepted. Consumers' willingness to accept size and form varied by trade-offs, but as long as it was portable with additional benefits, they were willing to have a large screen, the company found. An "extensive analysis" of all possible screen sizes between 5 to 6 inches was conducted. "It's funny now looking back, because almost all phones have screens between those sizes today," Kang said with a laugh. "No one would consider them enormous. But we had no benchmark back then. We measured pocket depths of men's pants. We weighed women's bags." They settled on 5.3 inches, relatively normal now, but huge then.

The stylus was also no easy feat; engineers balked at the challenge. Stylus technology then was clunky; conventional resistive screens for styluses didn't handle the touch of a finger well.. The break came with Wacom's digitizer technology. Its touch-sensitive graphics tablet was popular among graphic designers; Samsung's UX team had known of it for some time but didn't have a use case.

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Evolution of the Note series.

Image: Samsung

"All-in-all, it was an experimental phone, it was an experimental launch," said Kang. "But we were responding to a consumer demand to do in one device what a tablet, smartphone, e-book, and gaming console could do. There were mixed-reviews, yes, but for us it was a confirmation that it worked, and we set to improve the series."

Art thou phone or tablet?

The Note's identity was still fragile then; it had the best up-to-date hardware and software Samsung offered, but that was about it. Stylus use was limited to note-taking, and other vendors were also beginning to experiment with "super-sized" screens. Tablets were launched smaller, such as the Nexus 7, which was popular in 2012.

"Admittedly, different vendors were trying different sizes for smartphones and tablets," said Kim. "But I don't think they were as ambitious as ours. In terms of concept, we were the only ones willing to really do the all-in-one."

The big break was the 5.5-inch Galaxy Note 2. With an upgraded design and more app tools for the stylus for creators, the phone basically started the trend of calling big phones "phablets". "The point was to combine all-in-one with creativity with the pen," said Kang. As for the "big" screen, that was locked-in; there was no going back to a smaller one.

The 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 3 was arguably when the Note series sealed its identity as a big-screened multi-tasker with a productivity-increasing stylus, aimed at professionals and creators. Those who were buying the series for the high specs wanted more features from the S Pen in various areas as it increased in productivity. The stylus could used to command apps to load though "action memo" and markings on internet and YouTube content could be collected in a scrapbook. The company added multi-window for the first time: two screens on the display.

"We really upped the stylus game with the third one," said Kang. No one was complaining about the big screen or calling the stylus a relic anymore.

"I think that is when the Note really settled as a separate category."

At the bleeding edge of experiments

In 2014, Samsung made a big splash with the 5.7-inch Galaxy Note 4. It adopted metal frames for the first time -- Samsung went "full-metal" the following year with the S6 -- on a plastic body. The S Pen had its own pattern design, and writing on it felt more realistic thanks to an improved pen pressure and speed reader. Calligraphy was added, as was wireless charging for the first time.

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The Note series help popularize "phablets" and made the use of the stylus respectable.

The firm also launched the Galaxy Note Edge, the conglomerate's first edged-display phone, though only on one side. "The Galaxy Note series, I think to us as well as consumers, represented the best that Samsung could offer in that year," said Kang. "In terms of flexible technology, we weren't quite there yet. And the edge design worked best with a big screen. It just made the best sense."

It was trickier in 2015. The 5.-7 inch Galaxy Note 5 was launched with the Galaxy S6 Edge Plus. Samsung launched the two together because it expected the demand for large screen to be limited compared to demand for the smaller S6 and S6 Edge, its first dual edged phones, earlier that year. It led to the controversial decision to only launch the Galaxy S6 Edge Plus in Europe, and there were many complaints from European consumers on why the Note series wasn't coming.

"Of course we knew Note had its own fan base by then," said Kang. "But it helped us confirm that it wasn't just about the large screen anymore. It was about the particular experience with the stylus and multitasking features." The S Plus models were paired with the S model in prior launches.

The Galaxy Note 5 didn't have edged screens, but it did have a curved back that improved the grip from previous models. PDF annotating and scroll capture features were added. Clicking the S Pen to pull it out -- which got stuck for some first-time users -- was established and was carried on to today.

Seventh time's the charm: The Galaxy Note 8

The entire Note series has sold a total of 50 million units so far. Except for the first Note, which sold around 8 million units, all have surpassed the 10 million mark, according to analysts. It is highly likely that the Galaxy Note 8 will be the best-selling of the series.

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The Galaxy Note 8 brings Samsung's mojo back; it may be the series' bestseller.

Despite its name, the Note 8 is the seventh generation of the phone -- eighth if you count phone by phone including the Note Edge, but not including Galaxy Note 3 Neo, a mid-tier phone, and Galaxy Note FE, a reassembled Note 7. The Note 8 boasts a 6.3-inch screen, the biggest yet in the series. And simply put, it's the best that Samsung could offer, according to Kim.

"The Note 8 retains many of the features introduced in the Note 7 that were received well," he said. "One of the saddest things for us was that, when the recall was going on, we received so many requests to just keep their Note 7s, and these features were not fully used. We are glad that they are back."

The tip of the S Pen used a new material to enhance the sense of writing, Kim said, with its shape being tailored to resemble the analogue pen more than any previous model. "Consumers were using the S Pen not just for the writing and drawing, but as a navigation tool," Kim said. "So we really wanted to increase its touch accuracy. Basically more and more features were being used through the stylus, or they wanted it that way." Live Message, another feature for the Note 8, allows consumers to draw or write messages using the pen and send them via messengers.

The Note 8 is, simply put, for professionals and creators, Kang said, and many of the features of the phone are for "work and play". Multitasking features play a key role for Note users.

"It's an established identity at this point, and our consumers want more," he added. "One of our goals was to allow users to seamlessly switch back and forth between work and play, and to incorporate more media, more creativity [this time] round. That is how we came up with the App Pair."

Users can "pair" two apps and place them a side bar that can be dragged out. When the user clicks on one of them, the screen automatically divides into two. "The main inspiration came from drivers," Kang said. "One member of the product strategy team said they wanted navigation and music loaded at the same time. Pressing them separately was such a hassle."

Another influence was the rise of media viewing, and the fact that consumers wanted to use social media while watching content. The Note 8 also sports a dual-camera for the first time in a Samsung flagship. It has OIS, or optical image stabilization, for each one.

"It's not just about zoom and picture quality," he added. "We made sure there was a purpose to the dual camera. The editing is ramped up -- users can blur the background as much as they want compared to the subject of a photo. Our video is best so far." Users are then able to edit after they take the photo before sharing in social media.

"We hope consumers are satisfied with the Note 8 experience and look forward to improving it further," Kang added.

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