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Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: The epitome of a business-first smartphone

jason-cipriani-author.jpg
Written by Jason Cipriani on
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9.0/10

Samsung Galaxy Note8 - SM-N950U - midnight black - 4G LTE - 64 GB - GSM - smartphone

Outstanding
Pros
  • New software features add value
  • Solid camera
  • Quick, responsive performance
Cons
  • Battery life could be a bit better
  • Price is steep
  • Editors' Review
  • Specs

The first thing most people think of when the topic of Samsung's Note line comes up is last year's recall of the Note 7. Exploding batteries have a way taking over the conversation, and rightfully so.

After detailing the flaw that lead to the Note 7's demise, apologizing for it time and time again, Samsung is ready to put the Note 7 behind it. Of course, it will need customer's help to do just that.

CNET Review: Galaxy Note 8 is pricey, powerful and does it all | Also: See the Note 8 from every angle | Note 8 display sports record-breaking brightness

Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 looks similar to the S8 Plus, and has similar specs to the S8, but has a few tricks up its sleeve. The S-Pen is improved, new software features add useful functionality, and there are now two rear-facing cameras.

For the past 10 days or so, I've been using the Note 8 as my main phone. And without spoiling the fun, this is one darn good phone.

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 US, Exynos elsewhere
Memory 6 GB
Storage 64 GB in US, 128GB/256 GB 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 auto-focus (F1.7)
Battery 3,300 milliamp-hour
Connectivity 802.11 ac Wi-Fi, NFC, MST, USB-C, Bluetooth 5.0
Colors Black or Gray in US. Blue and Gold elsewhere

Similar design

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

The Note 8 looks like a boxier Galaxy S8 Plus, but only ever so slightly. The front of the phone is nearly all screen, and no longer has a home button with an embedded fingerprint sensor. The right side is where you'll find the power button, and the left side is home to a dedicated Bixby button and the volume controls. On the bottom is the headphone jack, a USB-C port, and the S-Pen that pops out with a press.

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Samsung also kept the same fingerprint sensor placement as the S8, on the back of the phone next to the dual camera setup. With the S8, I didn't have much issue with its placement due to the size of the phone and not having to stretch my finger up to the sensor to use it. With the Note 8, my view of the placement has changed. The Note 8 is much taller, and it's far more awkward to reach the sensor when holding the phone with one hand. Often times I found myself using my left hand just to touch the fingerprint sensor while holding the phone in my right hand. The point of a fingerprint sensor for unlocking the phone is to streamline the process, not complicate them.

Face recognition and iris scanning are available, however, due to wearing glasses the experience with either feature is less than ideal. Actually, I don't suggest using face unlock due to the fact it can be tricked with a photo of your face.

The first week or so of use, I felt as if the Note 8 was too big. But the longer I've used it, the more I've adjusted. I'd truly love a Note device the same size as the Galaxy S8, or I guess I should say a Galaxy S8 with S-Pen support, but that's not likely to happen.

Dual-camera

As the trend of adding a secondary camera to smartphones continues, the Note 8 is joining in on the fun. Instead of simply saying me too!, Samsung has included some new features that set it apart from how Apple or OnePlus has implemented a second camera.

Hands-on with the Samsung Galaxy Note 8: In pictures

Both cameras have Optical Image Stabilization (OIS), whereas the standard thus far has been for only the main camera module to have OIS. For instance, the standard wide-angle camera on the iPhone 7 Plus has OIS, while the telephoto camera does not. By adding OIS to both cameras, the Note 8 should capture clearer photos and videos regardless of which camera was used.

Live Focus is the name of Samsung's depth-of-field feature. With a subject roughly four feet away from the camera, the Note 8 uses both cameras to capture depth information and then blur the background, commonly referred to as bokeh. When done right, a bokeh can turn a standard picture into something you're proud of.

With more expensive cameras, the bokeh is reliant on hardware. For smartphones, the same feature relies on a mix of hardware and software. Because of that, results can be mixed.

With Samsung's Live Focus feature, you can adjust the amount of blur used on a photo before and after it is captured. This is handy, especially in situations where the software has a hard time identifying the edges of the subject - most common when the subject and the background share similar colors. Adjusting the blur can make up for the software's struggles, and leave you with a photo that's still usable.

I've captured really, really good photos with the Note 8's dual camera setup, and I've captured some pretty bad photos. The same can be said about my use of the iPhone 7 Plus or the OnePlus 5.

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A sample photo taken with the Note 8's Live Focus feature.

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

The above photo was captured on a whim, without much time taken for proper composition or framing, and it looks fantastic.

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Left: Close up with option to adjust blur. Right: Dual capture mode.

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Another neat feature Samsung has added thanks to the dual cameras is called Dual Capture. When taking a Live Focus photo, both lenses capture a photo and save it. Instead of having just the close-up photo to share, you also have a wide-angle shot you can use.

Dual Capture is an optional feature and can be enabled or disabled with each photo.

With the Note 8, Samsung took the already superb camera of the S8 line and gave it a healthy upgrade. I have no complaints about the camera's capabilities on the Note 8.

I will offer some sage advice, however, for those using a dual camera smartphone for the first time. Don't expect a magical experience each and every photo you take with it. There's a learning curve to the ins and outs of which photos will take advantage of Live Focus.

Performance

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

The spec sheet of the Note 8 is more or less the same spec sheet you'll find for the Galaxy S8 line. The most notable changes outside of overall size, involve the additional camera (see above), battery size, and increased RAM. The Note 8 uses the same processor, same 64GB of storage, and same resolution display.

As for the battery, the Note 8 is equipped with a 3300 milliamp-hour battery, which is smaller than the Galaxy S8 Plus's 3500 milliamp-hour battery despite having a bigger housing. Samsung claims the size reduction is due to software optimizations to still achieve all day battery life. While I believe that's definitely part of it, the Note 7 recall also comes into play here.

In perhaps an overabundance of caution, Samsung used a smaller battery and added guard rails around the battery to better protect it from drops, and new software algorithms will better monitor rapid charging and depletion.

All of that said, battery life on the Note 8 is just enough to get through a full day of use. It's not quite on par with what I can get from my Galaxy S8, but it's close. Odds are after a few months of use, you're going to need to charge it at some point during the day if you plan on going out after work or happen to be traveling.

With an extra 6GB of RAM, I noticed apps weren't stopped in the background as often as on the S8 which has 4GB of RAM.

Overall, performance is just as I expected - the same as the S8, only with slightly worse battery life.

Software tweaks

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Samsung made it a point to kill off the TouchWiz name after it gained a reputation as bloated software layered atop Android. Replacing it with a new name you'd be hard pressed to hear a Samsung spokesperson say, Samsung Experience version 8.5 is installed on the Note 8. (At the time of this review, the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus have Samsung Experience 8.1 installed.)

With the latest software tweaks, the Note 8 has some features that are exclusive due to the S-Pen, while others will eventually make their way to the rest of the Galaxy line. Samsung couldn't provide a timetable on when features like App Pair or Live Messages would show up on other Samsung devices.

App Pair is one of those features that make you ask why no one else has implemented it yet. With multi-window mode now standard across all Android 7.0 devices, a variation of Samsung's App Pair feature only makes sense.

With App Pair, users create a shortcut containing two apps, that when activated will launch in multi-window support. For example, Chrome and YouTube, or Calendar and Gmail, make sense as an App Pair.

I don't use Samsung's Edge Panel all that often, which is where App Pair shortcuts are stored and wish I could create a home screen shortcut instead. During my testing, however, I found App Pairs useful.

Live Messages, another new feature, is found after removing the S-Pen in the Air Command menu. Using the pen, you can draw or write messages that you can then share through any messaging app. The Note 8 records the drawing in real time, then converts it to an animated image, or GIF, the recipient can view. The feature is very similar to Apple's Digital Touch messaging feature in iOS. Only instead of being limited to sharing only with Apple users, Live Messages works more or less everywhere.

Screen-off memos have been on of my favorite features of the Galaxy Tab S3, and, yes, even the Note 7. With the Note 8, Samsung expanded its capabilities, by adding a 100-page limit.

Instead of having to carry an extra notebook to jot notes, a quick removal of the S-Pen when the Note 8 is locked and start writing. During a recent home brewing session, I took notes throughout the entire process, noting temperatures, amount of time elapsed between steps, and other observations all on the Note 8 without having to worry about where I placed my notebook or if one of my kids ran off with my pen.

A big upgrade

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

The Note line has long been designed for creative and business users, and the Note 8 is the epitome of both. It has a large bright display, and the S-Pen, combined with software features to maximize both. I can't think of a better-equipped business oriented smartphone, and I don't see that changing anytime soon. What once felt like a gimmick, and scoffed at by yours truly, the S-Pen has become an indispensable tool when using the Note.

Current users of the Note 5 are in for a significant upgrade to the Note 8. Note fans have a device to be excited about, and rightfully so. Samsung has already passed the test of releasing phones that don't catch fire with the S8 line, so there should be little concern about the Note 8 following the same path as the Note 7.

I think the biggest hurdle potential Note 8 customers will have to overcome is the price tag. The Note 8 is priced between $930 and $960, depending on carrier. Even with the balance split up in a carrier payment plan, it's an expensive smartphone. With rumors circulating that Apple will soon release a phone around the same price, the near-$1000 smartphone may soon become the norm. Still, it's tough to justify spending that much on a phone.

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