As the trailblazer for what we know as a phablet today, Samsung’s Galaxy Note series defined what a big phone was all about with its large display, huge battery and its signature stylus. The Galaxy Note8 is the latest successor to its illustrious lineage and is bigger, larger and more powerful than its predecessors in almost every way. It also has a whole lot more to live up to seeing the ill-fated outcome of its predecessor the Note 7 though seeing how the Note8 has fared when we put it to the test as our primary phone over the course of the last two weeks, it’s a concern that is easily put to rest as it is easily one of the best phablets that we’ve ever had the privilege of field testing.
While pundits will have the Galaxy Note8 as a larger Galaxy S8+ with a bigger display, an S Pen stylus and a smaller battery, that’s tantamount to saying a Dali painting is a bunch of coloured squiggles on canvas. The Note8 has several subtle but notable differences that make it a different beast altogether. For starters, it’s slightly longer and heavier by 22g at 195g than S8+ though that’s imperceptible unless you have both side by side for comparison.
Up front, the Note8’s 6.3-inch WQHD+ display is 0.1 inches larger than the display used on the S8+ on top of boasting of a flatter design with flatter, less curved edges; this is intentional seeing as the Note8 will see more use with its stylus. Akin to the S8+, the Note8 retains a similarly rectangular Infinity display with an 18:5.9 aspect ratio and eschews a home button for a haptic one under the glass. The sides of the display stretch all the way to the edges of the phone with just a tiny smidgen on the top for the selfie camera, speaker grille and iris sensor and on the bottom.
Unlike Apple’s efforts, the Note8 pragmatically includes a 3.5mm audio jack alongside a USB Type C port and its signature S Pen stylus well at the base of the phone. Getting the stylus out requires you to give a firm click to release the spring. The rest of the buttonry on offer includes a power button on the right of the phone, a volume rocker and Bixby shortcut button on the left and a fingerprint reader on the rear.
The almost nonexistent side bezels mean that the Note8 has a fairly narrow and slim profile, allowing for it to be very grippable one-handed despite its large display. Those with smaller hands may have to end up shifting their grip to access the rear fingerprint reader and the home button on the base of the phone but several lads who wielded the Note8 found it ergonomically sound.
Of particular note on the Note8 is its rear dual camera array setup. This is Samsung’s first dual camera setup, and they’ve gone to bat as both of its 12-MP cameras sport independent optical image stabilisation with one camera boasting of an F/1.7 aperture for macro shots and the other an F/2.4 telephoto zoom lens to handle the vast majority of image capturing scenarios on top of snagging 4K video. What makes it an impressive achievement is that the camera housing is almost entirely flush with the entire casing which significantly minimises chances of scratching the lens. The front camera consists of a respectable 8-MP with an F/1.7 aperture for selfies.
One pickle though is that the Note8’s glass-backed front and rear makes it a fingerprint magnet on top of being somewhat slippery to hold. This complication was solved nicely with the bundled rigid polycarbonate case though we opted for an Otterbox Commuter instead.
The pocketability of the Note8 is somewhat challenging though as it is taller than many phones and its height means that some part of it will usually poke out from your jeans or slacks unless you (literally) have deep pockets. Fortunately, the phone is rated IP68 so it’s water resistant for up to 30 minutes tops in up to 1.5 meters of water enabling it to shrug off the odd deluge of water or two.This protection also extends to its stylus. What is impressive is that they’ve managed to do this without having to plonk in any clunky rubber ports to protect the 3.5mm audio jack and USB Type C port from water. Size notwithstanding, this is easily the best looking phone that Samsung has ever rolled out from their foundries.
Performance and Display
Seeing the Galaxy Note8’s ambit as the definitive go-to phone for power users, Samsung has packed every square inch of its casing with their best hardware starting with the display. Up front, the Galaxy Note8’s 6.3-inch Super AMOLED, 1,440 x 2,960 pixel resolution Infinity display that incorporates support for High Dynamic Range content. The display also covers 141% of the sRGB colour gamut and 112% of DCI-P3, making it ideal for HDR content and making it one of the few phones currently capable of doing so though there’s a dearth of such content at the moment. Added to this is a rather novel Video Enhancer option in the firmware that upscales non-HDR videos to simulate dynamic range akin to HDR content.
Out of the box, the Note8’s Super AMOLED display is preset at Full HD+ (2,280 x 1080 pixel) resolution though you can pop into the settings to unleash its full glory at its native 2,960 x 1,440 pixel resolution; this however comes at a commensurate reduction in battery life. First seen on the S7, the display also has an Always On mode that displays notifications even when the screen is off along with the nifty ability to take down notes once you pop the stylus out of the screen. Handy, that.
Paired with this is Samsung’s own Exynos 8895 octacore processor that combines a quartet of 2.3GHz cores to handle the heavy lifting and a quartet of 1.7GHz cores to handle basic day-to-day grunt work. Added to this is an impressive 6GB RAM and 64GB of expandable storage. Running under the hood of the Note8 is Android Nougat 7.1.1 overlaid with their latest incarnation of the TouchWiz UI optimised for the phone. What this means is that it has a bunch of extra features designed to work with the provided S Pen stylus.
On the surface, the Note8’s user interface is largely similar to the S8 and S8+ with otherwise identical icons and their clean, white menu layout and vibrant colour scheme. Where it differs is when you pop out the S Pen. If the display is off, you can immediately jot down notes in mono on the screen in their Screen-Off memo mode which are then saved for later reference. With the S Pen stylus out and the screen on, you can select text for translation or for interpretation by Bixby, doodle a Live Message and do a screen capture of whatever is onscreen along with annotation on whatever you screen-capped as needed. Live Message mode is a whimsical affair that lets you doodle animated glowing text onscreen which is handy for sharing on social media though it’s of less utility when you’re in the boardroom.
Another feature that comes in handy on the Note8 is its ability to run two accounts of the same social media app in Dual Messenger mode so you can have, for example, two Whatsapp or Facebook accounts running on the phone. This is useful if you have both work and personal social media accounts.
The most innovative feature on the Note8 that takes advantage of its massive screen real estate is its App Pair mode that fires up two apps simultaneously onscreen at the same time. With the proviso that both apps are compatible in split screen mode, the Note8 launches both apps and lets you use both in windowed mode. This comes in handy when you’re browsing the web and jotting down notes which is what we did with a paired Chrome browser and Google Docs together though what else you can do is limited by your creativity.
When subjected to benchmarks the Note8 did not disappoint. In Geekbench, it score an impressive 2028 points on a single core compute score while it score 6,669 on the multicore test which outpaced its last generation predecessor the Note 7 by a significant margin. In PC Mark, it scored 5,864 points in the Work performance test while in Antutu it scored 174,672 points, outpacing the Galaxy S8 and S8+ among others.
In field tests, the Galaxy Note8 performed like a champ. The Super AMOLED WQHD+ display on the Note8 served up vibrant, crisp and beautiful imagery onscreen for movies, gaming and pin-sharp text with exquisitely deep blacks and breathtakingly gorgeous dynamic range; no surprise as it’s ‘Mobile HDR Premium’ certified. Taking it on YouTube’s HDR playlist served up an amazing visual feast for the eyes.
The unusual 18.5:9 aspect ratio means many visuals end up with black bars on the sides until it becomes more mainstream but many apps work well with the new screen dimensions which come in especially handy for scrolling through websites and long-form content. Its performance in benchmarks is borne out in field tests as it handled everything thrown at it without faltering. Graphically demanding websites, HDR videos and intensive gaming were handled with nary a glitch in a swift fashion. Audio from the speaker at the base of the Note8 was loud and serviceable though it worked best with the provided AKG earphones which served up a treat and proved to be surprisingly good as stock bundled earbuds go with good detail and decent bass.
While we were not able to source them in time for the review, the Note8 is compatible with the Gear VR for virtual reality jaunts and also their Gear DeX dock so that you can get a desktop environment via a monitor, a keyboard and a mouse.
The S Pen did not disappoint with its responsiveness and pressure sensitivity mimicking a real pen though our lack of artistic skill meant that it saw more use to annotate notes than as an actual means for artistic expression. Like Samsung phones of recent vintage, the Note8 also supports their Samsung Pay mobile wallet solution.
A feature that Samsung has been proud to emphasise on the Note8 is the inclusion of their Bixby AI assistant that even comes with a dedicated button to summon it on the side of the phone just underneath the volume rocker; there’s no option to remap it at the moment though it can be disabled. It exists alongside Google Assistant, which means you’ll be having two AI assistants taking up residence on your phone though Bixby has more direct interactivity with the Note8’s hardware such as verbally tweaking your camera settings. Summoning Bixby was simply a matter of pressing a button though it also responds to voice commands with a gamified interface that lets it gain experience points the more you interact with it. Unfortunately, it only accepts commands in Korean or English at the moment though more languages are slated to be added later on. You can have both AI assistants on though it’s best to just stick with one.
Dual Camera Delight
The rear camera array on the Galaxy Note8 is a first for Samsung. Both cameras have 12-MP resolution, 1.4 um pixels and independent optical image stabilisation which is a first for any phone. One camera comes with their Dual Pixel imaging tech and an F/1.7 aperture for up close work. The other camera has a telephoto lens with an F/2.4 aperture and 2x optical zoom for ranged work and for the Note8’s new Live Portrait mode. Shots can be captured in JPG or RAW format and the phone also offers 4K video capture as well.
Like many competing devices, Live Focus mode uses imaging data from both cameras, allowing you to create a blurred bokeh background much like a higher-end DSLR camera. Tapping Live Focus mode gives you a slider that allows you to select the level of defocus needed though you need to be 1.2 meters from the subject for the mode to kick in. Live Focus mode is occasionally finicky and insists on a precise distance from the subject before it kicks in.
Shots on taken on the rear camera were excellent with scads of detail, good dynamic range and rich colours. The front selfie mode was a competent affair with equally good details and swift autofocus.The Live Focus mode for the rear cameras did as advertised with beautifully defocused backgrounds albeit with the occasional hair or two inadvertently defocused as well as part of the background though for the most part, results are excellent.
You can also opt for a Dual Capture mode that covers your bases by capturing both shots both in Live Focus and the shot from the wide angle camera. One whimsical addition is a series of stickers that you can plonk on a subject to give them cat ears or some other such contrivance for kicks and if you find what is preloaded not to your tastes, you can download more.
Minor quibbles notwithstanding, the Note8 served up some truly excellent shots in our time with it. What is outstanding is that you’re able to do so without having to fiddle about with a slew of features. All you need to do is to thumb the trigger to get some very shareworthy shots.
Battery Life, Price and Conclusion
Despite the size of the Galaxy Note8, it packs a smaller 3,300mAh battery than last year’s Note 7, presumably for safety issues. When subjected to the usual usage scenario over the course of a day, with calls, a few minutes of the Grab app to get a ride, some web browsing, social media use, emails and modest usage of Google docs, the Note8 managed to easily last the course of an average day with enough to make it home though it needed a charge come sundown. While its endurance is about par, the S8+ still has a larger battery and slightly longer endurance. Charging the Note8 is a swift affair with the provided fast charger giving you a good 50% charge in about 40 or so minutes and it also has wireless charging as well.
After being a daily companion for close to two weeks, it’s easy to see why the Note8 is a power user’s delight. On the surface, it has a fantastic HDR-ready display, beefy hardware and a powerful dual rear camera which is more than enough to entice most people. Dig deeper and you’ll discover the possibilities that the S Pen stylus is able to offer and the functionality that Dual Messenger and App Pair mode delivers to make it a real portable productivity platform but this is contrasted with its middling battery life and it’s somewhat vexing placement of the fingerprint sensor right next to the rear dual camera array. The fact that it’s also one of the priciest phones that Samsung has ever made may give users pause but seeing the potential price of what the boys from Cupertino are slating for the iPhone X, the RM3,999 asking price for the Note8 sounds downright reasonable. If you are looking for one of the most powerful Android big phones that money can currently buy, look no further.
What We Liked Beautifully large and crisp touchscreen, powerful specifications, excellent rear camera, useful stylus, IP68 water resistance
What We Didn’t Middling battery life, not cheap, dual front facing speakers would be nice
We Say Samsung has knocked the concept of a phablet out of the ballpark with the Galaxy Note8. An amazing display, powerful hardware, a genuinely useful stylus and an impressive rear dual camera make it the best phone they have ever made.
Display 6.3-inch Super AMOLED, 1,440 x 2,960 pixels, 521 ppi
Processor Exynos 8895 2.3GHz octacore processor
OS Android Nougat 7.1.1
Camera Dual 12-MP w/ F/1.7 & F/2.4 2x optical zoom and dual OIS (rear) | 8-MP w/ F/1.7 (front)
Size/Weight 162.5 x 74.8 x 8.6 mm /195g
* Review unit courtesy of Samsung Malaysia