Samsung has arguably done more than any other manufacturer to push the limits of the tablet format. Its Galaxy Note, a 5-inch smartphone/pen-based tablet, now on its second iteration, has established the "phablet" form factor, for example, while the 10.1-inch Galaxy Note 10.1 also supports pen input and sits alongside the standard touch-only Galaxy Tab.
Samsung has now added an intermediate device to the Note range, the 8-inch Galaxy Note 8. It comes in two versions, one with wi-fi and mobile (3G) broadband and the other with wi-fi only. We were sent the wi-fi-only model, which costs £282.50 (ex. VAT; £339 inc. VAT).
Samsung could be accused of confusing the market with its wide array of different sized smartphones, tablets and "phablets" and the use of pen input on some of these devices. Alternatively, you could say that this diversity of products reflects the wide range of user requirements.
One thing you can't accuse Samsung of is lacking a strong brand image. For a while now, the physical design of devices like the Galaxy Note has been very similar. That consistency continues with the Galaxy Note 8.
The Galaxy Note 8 has a distinctive bright white chassis and a shiny backplate. It feels good in the hand, but the backplate's shininess makes the device a little slippery to hold. It's secure if your hands are big enough to cradle it one-handed in portrait mode, but the fingers can slide around a little when you're holding it in landscape mode. That said, it's nothing we haven't come across before with Samsung's larger devices, and isn't a deal breaker.
The physical home button that's so familiar from the Galaxy S4 smartphone and its predecessors is here, as are the two touch-sensitive Menu and Back buttons that flank it. The Note 8's edges have a silver trim, which houses its various buttons and connectors.
The build is reasonably solid, though the all-plastic chassis does bend if you exert a bit of pressure. The weight of 340g makes the Galaxy Note 8 an easy device to hold for extended periods. Its overall dimensions of 135.9mm wide by 210.8mm deep by 7.95mm thick make the Galaxy Note 8 slightly too large for most coat pockets, but it compares well with the competition. For example, it's only slightly bigger than the iPad mini, whose dimensions are 134.7mm by 200 by 7.2mm.
Measuring 8-inches across the diagonal, the Galaxy Note 8's screen delivers a shade more viewing area than the 7.9-inch iPad mini, and betters Apple's device on resolution too, with 1,280 by 800 pixels compared to the iPad mini's 1,024 by 768. We may hanker for higher resolution, and would prefer more pixels in this case, but found the screen perfectly usable for a range of activities from web browsing and e-book reading to the all-important pen-based note-taking that's a key feature of this device.
Running a 1.6GHz quad-core Samsung Exynos 4 Quad processor with 2GB of RAM, the Galaxy Note 8 is an extremely smooth performer. The touchscreen is also responsive. With GPS, Bluetooth 4.0, DLNA, MHL, dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n, Wi-Fi Direct, 5-megapixel and 1.3-megapixel cameras at the rear and front respectively, along with stereo speakers, the technical features are generally impressive. There's no flash on either camera, and no NFC (Samsung prefers its own S-Beam), but these are minor niggles. Moreover, the 4,600mAh battery got us through a day's worth of fairly intensive use that involved streaming, GPS and browsing.
The Galaxy Note 8 runs Android 4.1, putting it just behind the leading edge, and there are two models, one with wi-fi and mobile (3G) broadband and one with wi-fi only. If you get the 3G model you can use Android's phone features — we'd have liked to test this, but Samsung sent us the wi-fi-only version to review.
Don't be fooled by that headline 16GB of internal storage. Much of it is occupied out of the box, and our review sample reported just 9.7GB free. The device supports microSD cards, and the covered slot is on the left edge where it's easily accessible. A key reason for the difference between the headline and available storage is the huge amount of bundled software Samsung has crammed in.
First off, Samsung has included its TouchWiz Android skin and a range of the add ons we have come to associate with its top end devices. So, for example, there's Samsung's Smart Stay feature which uses the front-facing camera to detect whether you're looking at the device and keeps the screen on if you are, as well as a range of palm-based gestures such sweeping the screen to take a screen grab. There's also a "reading mode" screen setting that helps make the screen less harsh when reading an e-book, and more.
The familiar dual app display system is here too, although it only works for a small number of apps. One useful implementation of this feature is the ability to be in an app and make jottings at the same time — taking notes from a web page, for example.
There's also a variety of apps for use with the pen, plus a number of other extras. The latter include Dropbox, with a generous 50GB of cloud-based storage, Flipboard, Samsung's Music Hub, Music Player, WatchON and Polaris Office. There's even built-in infrared support, plus an app to help you control various devices with it.
Pen-based apps include S Planner for diary management, S Note for brief notes — both written and drawn — and Paper Artist, a rather nice drawing app. That's a lot of apps — but it doesn't cover everything that consumes the headline 16GB of storage out of the box.
The pen input is the star of the show. The Wacom digitiser stylus lives in a housing on the edge of the chassis. It's pressure sensitive, so that while ordinary handwriting recognition is possible (and works well), you can also use it to good effect for freehand drawing. It can even hover over items to call up more information. The bundled apps are only the start, and Samsung's app store highlights plenty more available for download.
We found that it quickly became quite intuitive to pull out the stylus and start taking notes for all manner of things — in fact, we preferred using the Galaxy Note 8 to the 5-inch Galaxy Note II.
The Galaxy Note 8 is a delight to use. It feels the perfect size for a pen-based tablet, simply because it's so close to an A5 paper notebook. If anything, it betters the 5-inch Samsung Galaxy Note in this respect. It's reasonably comfortable to hold one-handed in portrait mode to make jottings, while the pen input benefits from pressure sensitivity.
Still, you'll need to really want the added features that pen input brings to the Galaxy Note 8, because it's relatively expensive at £339 (inc. VAT; £282.50 ex. VAT) for the wi-fi-only model. Compare that to £269 for the 16GB wi-fi-only iPad mini or the similarly-specified Google Nexus 7 at £159.