Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review: A powerful flagship
After the unfortunate debacle of the Galaxy Note 7 last year, there were rumors that Samsung may ditch the Note series altogether, and that the Galaxy Note 8 may never happen. On the contrary, even after the Galaxy Note 7 battery fiasco, Samsung’s image hasn’t been dented much, and people seem to have forgotten it as if it were a bad dream. Fast forward to 2017; the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ turned out to be the most attractive premium Android smartphones. And that brings us to the Galaxy Note 8 that was recently launched in India.
Priced at Rs 67,900, the Galaxy Note 8 brings the best features of the Galaxy S8, along with a few new additions such as the dual-camera setup at the back, improved S Pen and more. When I first got my hands on the Galaxy S8, within a couple of hours I was sure that I’m buying it, and I did just that. There are just three things I wish the Galaxy S8 had – a dual-camera setup, better battery life and the S Pen. Samsung has offered all three with the Galaxy Note 8. After using the smartphone for some time now, here’s my review.
Familiar design, with a slightly larger display
With the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+, Samsung introduced the ‘Infinity Display’ with thin bezels along the top and the bottom, and curved edges along the sides. It has helped Samsung to add a bigger, taller display, while maintaining a compact form factor. The Galaxy S8 comes with a 5.8-inch display, the Galaxy S8+ comes with a 6.2-inch display, whereas the Galaxy Note 8 comes with slightly bigger 6.3-inch display.
The display panel on all three smartphones is a Super AMOLED one, running at QHD resolution with an aspect ratio of 18.5:9. The Galaxy Note 8’s display is crisp, vivid and color reproduction is more lifelike. The screen is also adequately bright, and viewing under direct sunlight is no issue either. It also supports HDR video, with content from Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube compatible with the phone’s screen.
Design wise, you get a metal frame with rounded edges, sandwiched between front and back glass. And the glass is protected with Corning Gorilla Glass 5 protection. With the relatively compact form factor, the Galaxy Note 8 is easy to hold, but single-handed operation is not possible. And no matter how attractive the Galaxy Note 8 looks, the front and back glass has a couple of drawbacks. Firstly, it attracts a lot of smudges and you will often find yourself cleaning it. Secondly, the glass also makes the phone slippery, especially if you have sweaty palms. Samsung has bundled a free clear skin case with the smartphone, but that adds bulk to the device.
The buttons and ports placement is similar to the Galaxy S8 duo. The hybrid dual-SIM card slot is at the top, whereas the bottom houses the 3.5mm audio jack and USB Type-C port. The power button is on the right, while the volume rocker and dedicated Bixby button is placed on the left.
The S Pen stylus is placed at the bottom right corner, and you just need to press it once to eject the stylus. With the Galaxy Note 5, a lot of users complained about the S Pen getting stuck inside the slot if accidentally inserted upside down. The issue was fixed with the Note 7, and same continues with the Galaxy Note 8 too. You can no longer insert the S Pen any way except the correct way, which means it won’t get stuck inside.
Also, a lot of users had complained about the odd placement of fingerprint scanner at the back on the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+. Samsung has fixed that too. While the placement below the camera modules would have been perfect, Samsung has placed it besides the flash module, meaning you are less likely to accidentally touch your finger on the dual-camera module. The Iris scanner on the Galaxy Note 8 works flawlessly, irrespective of the lighting conditions, and I barely found myself using the fingerprint scanner, so the placement didn’t matter much.
Dual cameras – the best gets even better
The Galaxy S7 duo and Galaxy S8 duo are equipped with what is considered among the best camera systems on smartphones. And while a lot of users were expecting the Galaxy S8 duo to ship with the dual-camera setup, Samsung had reserved it for the Galaxy Note 8. The setup includes a pair of 12-megapixel sensors – one is a wide-angle lens of aperture f/1.7 for your regular and wide-angle photos, whereas the other is a telephoto lens of aperture f/2.4 for 2X optical zoom and portrait mode to add DSLR-like blur effects to your photos. The Galaxy Note 8 is the first smartphone to house dual optical image stabilization (OIS) on both cameras.
The camera app is easy to use, and has a lot of tricks up its sleeve. Ever since I bought the Galaxy S8, I have completely ditched my DSLR, and have only been using the smartphone to capture photos. On my recent trip to Malaysia and Singapore, I again ditched my DSLR and went with the Galaxy Note 8, and I don’t regret the decision at all. Let me first talk about the portrait mode, which Samsung calls Live Focus.
Just above the camera shutter button, you have the option to switch to the Live Focus mode. Once the mode is activated, ensure that you are about four meters away from the subject. You can tap on the subject to focus, and once the frame is perfect, the app will highlight ‘live focus available’ in yellow.
You may have to move around a bit front and back to get properly in focus and make the feature work. You also get a slider beside the shutter button allowing you to adjust the blur intensity. What’s more, you can also adjust the intensity after the photo has been taken. I tried the mode in different conditions, and found it works best in daylight. It does to some extent work at night too, but the picture turns out to be a bit grainy too. Below are some camera samples I shot on the Galaxy Note 8 with live focus mode, and I’m sure you’ll agree that the results are excellent.
Samsung has also added dual-capture mode which lets you click portrait shots along with wide-angle ones. Unlike other smartphones where the wide-angle lens has a lower resolution, which results in a drop of quality, that isn’t the case with the Galaxy Note 8. Below are some sample shots of the above photos in wide-angle mode.
The secondary telephoto lens allows for 2X optical zoom, without losing quality, and the mode works very well. You can check the samples below.
The Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S8 duo featured some excellent low-light capabilities, and the same continues with the Galaxy Note 8 too. I extensively used the Galaxy Note 8 in low-light conditions as well, and it was able to capture good photos with minimal noise. Below are some low-light samples.
Selfies have become something we can’t avoid, and with a lot of people also using their smartphones for making face-to-face video calls, Samsung has added an 8-megapixel front-camera with auto-focus and on-screen flash. I clicked a lot of selfies and once again, was impressed with the quality. The skin tones look natural, and the photos look detailed too. Even low-light photos look good with less grain.
Samsung has also added selective focus mode, which uses the auto-focus to sense the depth between subject and background to add portrait mode like blur effect to your selfies, and it works very well too. But ensure that you capture photos with selective focus mode in daylight, as the module cannot detect the subject and background under low-light scenarios. Below are some front-camera samples with selective focus mode at work.
S Pen – mightier than a sword
There are some improvements to the S Pen stylus on the new Galaxy Note 8. To begin with, the stylus can now sense up to 4,096 levels of pressure, and the ultra-thin 7mm nib is designed to offer an experience of writing on a paper using a pen. The S Pen is also water resistant and I’ve used it underwater too, and it works flawlessly.
Samsung has added some tricks to the S Pen. When you eject the stylus, the notes taking screen pops up, and you can start jotting down notes without even unlocking the smartphone. You can even pin these notes to the ‘always on’ display, which will be available even without unlocking the smartphone.
In terms of air command, you get new options such as live message, where you can use the S Pen to write on solid background or over a photo, and it can be saved as a GIF and then send it to your friends on social networks. Next is the ‘smart select’ option where you can record a GIF from the video that is playing, or select a portion of the screen to save as a screenshot. You can also doodle over it.
There is translate feature where you can select a word or paragraph, and translate it from source language to the destination. The other is a magnify feature, which lets you zoom into the photo or text or maps app by up to 300 percent, to read things crystal-clear. Lastly, you also have a glance feature, more like a picture-in-picture (PIP), where you can continue working while a small window is at the bottom. Simply hovering over the window will open it, and then close it too. So if you are following live sports, it can be refreshing in the window, while you continue working on the main screen.
Faster hardware, improved software and reliable performance
With the Samsung Exynos 8895 SoC on board paired with 6GB of RAM, the Galaxy Note 8’s performance is smooth as butter. Apps open and close smoothly, and multitasking is a breeze. In fact, after using the Galaxy Note 8 for a week, my Galaxy S8 feels a bit slow in comparison. Of course, having that 2GB of extra RAM does the trick, and I never came across a moment where I felt that the phablet underperformed.
The Galaxy Note 8 ships with Android 7.1.1 Nougat out-of-the-box, layered with Samsung’s TouchWiz UX on top. The security patch level is of August 2017. The UI is smooth and there is nothing to complain about here. The Galaxy Note 8 is also due to get Android 8.0 Oreo update in the coming months.
In terms of software additions, you get ‘Edge Panels’ where you can add quick shortcuts for apps, people, you can add sports updates for live scores, weather, reminders and more. Samsung has also included ‘apps pair’ which lets you pair two apps and run them at once. So, for instance, you are on some banking website, you will need a browser and SMS app for OTP, you can pair these apps, and they will open in multitasking mode. And because the smartphone is a dual-SIM device, you also get to add two WhatsApp accounts to have the right balance between work and personal life.
Samsung is also betting on its virtual personal assistant, Bixby. As of now, you only get a Google Now-style cards interface, bringing you information from your mails, calendar, reminders, and other compatible apps. Bixby will soon be getting voice functionality too. And unlike your usual assistants out there, Bixby can do a lot of things with voice commands.
You can summon the voice assistant by saying ‘Hi Bixby’ followed by voice commands. For instance, you can say, ‘Hi Bixby, send a WhatsApp message to Sambit, I’m on leave for 10 days, let’s catch-up after that’. It will send it, and while Google Assistant also does that Bixby is a bit more advanced. You can ask Bixby to show your notifications, clear background apps, open Facebook Messenger and show messages from a particular person, send your last photo to a contact on WhatsApp / Messenger. You can also ask the voice assistant to delete your last photos, move all your photos from last week to a new album and more.
Lastly, we come to the battery life. Having a feature-packed and powerful smartphone is good, but there is no point if the battery cannot last long enough. Honestly, the battery life on the Galaxy Note 8 could have been slightly better. Not that it is bad, especially considering the raw power it has, and the massive display it has to cater to.
On a single charge, I could barely get through half a day with heavy usage. This includes a few phone calls, 4G internet connected all the time, as well as clicking a lot of photos and videos through the day, Bluetooth connected and listening to music nearly all the time. With all this, I could get about three hours of screen-on time. After turning the battery saver on, I could stretch the screen-on-time for close to four hours. On a more moderate usage, I could get one full day worth of usage, but there is no improvement in screen-on-time.
Verdict – Is it worth the premium?
The Galaxy Note 8 is a beast of a smartphone, and is arguably the best that Samsung has ever made. It looks beautiful, has one of the best displays, has powerful hardware under the hood, and offers smooth and reliable performance. The dual-camera setup, which is the highlight impresses all the way, whether it is daylight or low light. The live focus (portrait mode) and wide-angle modes are bonuses.
The neat tricks of the S Pen help you be as productive as you can. Other features such as water and dust-resistance, wireless fast charging, and support for DeX accessories make the Galaxy Note 8 one of the best Android smartphones available today. My only problem is that the battery life could have been a little better.
If you are looking for the best and most powerful Android smartphone in the market, and can compromise a bit on the battery, the Galaxy Note 8 is a hands-down winner. If budget is a constraint, there are other options out there in the form of OnePlus 5, Honor 8 Pro and LG G6. And if you can compromise on the S Pen functionality and dual-camera setup, the Galaxy S8 or Galaxy S8+ are other excellent alternatives.
The article originally appeared on BGR India