Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review: Samsung’s best handset yet

Alex Kidman 19 September 2017 NEWS

Quick Verdict
Galaxy Note 8 is Samsung's best phone to date without a doubt, but its asking price is likely to be a sticking point for many.

The Good

  • Excellent Dual cameras
  • S-Pen works well
  • Solid app performance

The Bad

  • Big and tall in your pockets
  • Terrible fingerprint sensor placement
  • Expensive


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The Galaxy Note 8 is Samsung's best phone yet, but it's curiously still a phone best suited for a niche of pen-centric users.

Samsung very much needs the Galaxy Note 8 to succeed. Not just because of the colossal failure of the Galaxy Note 7 and whatever damage that has done to the brand, but also because it has set itself a very ambitious target with the Note 8.

The Galaxy Note 8 is the most expensive Android handset to go on sale in Australia to date, although it's rather easily eclipsed by the pricing of the upcoming iPhone X in overall smartphone price points.

Still, pricing any smartphone at $1499 outright is a bold move that speaks to what Samsung expects the Note 8 to do for consumers, especially considering that 2017 has been an exceptional year for premium smartphone handsets.

The Note 8 even has to compete in-house with Samsung's own, less expensive but still premium Galaxy S8+ and Galaxy S8 handsets. So how does it compare?

Buy the Samsung Galaxy Note8 today

Buy the Samsung Galaxy Note8 today from Samsung

The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 combines a powerful processor with Samsung's curved Infinity Display and innovative S-Pen to create a handset that's ideal for both productivity work and personal entertainment purposes.

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Design

You couldn't mistake the Galaxy Note 8 for any other handset on the market as its design is clearly the same design used on the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+, right down to the curved "infinity display". That infinity display means there's precious little in the way of bezels on this particular handset.

Naturally, being a Note device, it packs a large screen – 6.3 inches with a resolution of 2960x1440 to be precise. Conforming to the style of Samsung's other 2017 handsets, it's using a 18:5:9 display, which means it's extra high rather than being both extra high and wide.

For the purposes of comparison, here's how the Galaxy Note 8 compares to its predecessor, the Galaxy Note 5:

GalaxyNote8vsNote5_738

And here's how it visually compares to the Samsung Galaxy S8:

GalaxyNote8vsS8_738

The aspect ratio of the Note 8's display doesn't make it any harder to hold in the hand than the Galaxy Note 5, but there's a slight downside to that additional height. That downside comes when you drop it into your pants pocket.

The Note 8 provides a lot of phone height to have in your pocket. If I was wearing any kind of mildly tight or hip-hugging pants, I was nervous every time I sat down because I thought I was going to break either the handset or myself. If you're still rocking your 90s' Hammer pants you'll be fine, but those of us with tighter pockets may find it a challenge.

One aspect of the Note 8's design, borrowed from the Galaxy S8, that I can't say I'm a fan of is the rear-mounted fingerprint sensor. It now has the flash between the sensor and the twin rear lenses, but it's still an annoying placement for quick fingerprint verification.

As with the Galaxy S8, a case with ridged sides might make it easier to find in a pinch, but this is still a poor design. Other rear-mounted readers are placed under the lens, not right next to it, and that's a huge advantage for them. Testing with a Tech21 case did help with the fingerprint sensor issue, at the cost of making the Galaxy Note 8 even larger.

SamsungGalaxyNote8_case_738

Like the Galaxy S8 series, the glossy black of the Note 8's design is truly eye catching, but it's also very good at picking up fingerprints along the way. It's also a rather slippery design, so again a case would be advisable. The Note 8 is at least durable, with an IP68 rating for water resistance that means immersion in clean water is fine. Although it's slightly alarming to remove and insert the S-Pen while underwater because it forces air bubbles out the side of the handset itself.

I'd still suggest a case for this or any premium smartphone. To its credit, Samsung will provide one free screen repair with its "Samsung Assure" program in Australia within the first 12 months, but that will still involve being without your handset while repairs are made.
GalaxyNote8_2_738

Camera

The Galaxy S8 has a fine camera, but it's one that left me somewhat wanting because it was only a minor upgrade from the Galaxy S7 in a year where some exceptional dual lens cameras have emerged. Even the single-lens game is stepping up by way of phones such as Sony's Xperia XZ Premium.

Thankfully, Samsung has stepped up with the Note 8, which features the company's first entry into the dual lens camera space. Specifically, the Note 8 packs dual 12Mp cameras at the rear, which can be used for wide, telephoto and bokeh-style portrait effects. Samsung refers to that latter functionality as "live focus", and it's the default camera mode when you open up the app.

As with other virtual bokeh effects, there are limitations on distance and lighting that come into play, so if you're too far away or it's too dim, it won't be available. One nice factor here is that it's also adjustable after the fact. I quickly defaulted to using that method for all my live focus shots because it's easier to take the shot and edit later than messing around with sliders when you're also trying to frame and light a shot.

The Dual Capture mode, where both lenses fire so you end up with a wide- and close-angle shot of your subject, also has some utility for those instances where your framing isn't quite right but you want the best possible resolution for your photo. It's also worth noting that the Note 8 will allow you to shoot in RAW mode if lots of post-production is your thing.

The Note 8's rear cameras do feature different apertures, with the wide angle F/1.7 sensor being notably more sensitive than the telephoto F/2.4 camera. If you use the dual capture mode a lot, you'll quickly notice this because while it's possible to get some fine telephoto shots, the wide angle version is almost always going to be a little nicer. As such, if you're not averse to cropping for zoom, you can sometimes get better photos that way.

The Note 8's camera array does deliver on Samsung's promises of top quality, even in low lighting situations. Here are some straight sample photos taken from the Note 8:

Note8_SampleShot5Note8_SampleShot4Note8_SampleShot3Note8_SampleShot2Note8_SampleShot1

Here's a low light shot taken on the Note 8:

Note8_sample_night_738

And by way of comparison, the same shot taken on the Galaxy S8:

S8_sample_night_738

It's an interesting example because while the Note 8 has picked up more light, in doing so it's slightly washed out the image in a way the S8 didn't. That being said, you could easily modify the image within the Note 8's Gallery app to adjust for this.

Here's a wide angle zoom lens shot of the Sydney Harbour:

Note8sample1x_738

And here's the same shot through the telephoto lens:

Note8Sample2x_738

The front facing camera is also entirely suitable for selfie work, including a range of comedy sticker effects to give your photos that extra bit of oomph at the cost of whatever dignity you might have once had:

Alex_Rabbit_Note8_738

They're not quite animoji, but the effort is there.

S-Pen

A Note simply isn't a Note without its stylus. Years after the original Note's debut, very few competitor brands have even opted for an included stylus with their large screen phones. The S-Pen that comes with the Note 8 has been subtly refined with what Samsung claims is a more responsive and accurate stylus tip as well as with a few software tweaks to make it a better productivity tool.

GalaxyNote8_S-Pen_738

Note users, in my experience, either fall into the camp of always using the S-Pen or the camp of never even giving it a second thought beyond clicking it out once to make sure it's there when they unpack their shiny new handsets.

Obviously, if you're in the latter camp you won't care, but the former should find the new S-Pen quite workable for annotations, sketching and taking multiple notes on the Note 8's always-on display. This includes animated messages, which aren't massively productivity centric, but they're fun for a limited while. Something tells me the more serious Note users will take a glance once and never return.

Samsung has also beefed up the Note 8's translate ability. Where the Note 7 could manage language translations with a tap, this was one word at a time, which is a horribly clumsy way to parse any sentence. You now have the option to capture whole paragraphs at once and have them run through Google Translate into a wide variety of languages.

As always, that needs a present data connection to work, and it's operating as mechanical translation so some nuances of language won't always come through. Still, in a pinch it should suffice to order you a taxi or a meal in foreign climes. It would still be unwise to sign a legally binding contract based on its translation, however.

GalaxyNote8_3_738

Performance

The Galaxy Note 8 runs on the same essential core as found in the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+, which is to say either a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 or Samsung's own Exynos 8995 CPU, with 6GB of RAM. Most benchmarks tend to suggest that the Exynos (which is the version we get in Australia) is a little better at power management, while the Snapdragon might offer slightly better performance, chewing up more juice as it goes.

In any case, in a benchmark sense, it's interesting to note that while it's close, the Note 8 is edged out by both the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ as well as by a number of other Snapdragon 835-equipped handsets.

Handset Geekbench 4 CPU Single Core (higher is better) Geekbench 4 CPU Multi Core (higher is better)
Samsung Galaxy S8+ 2020 6690
Samsung Galaxy S8 1989 6628
Huawei P10 Plus 1863 6544
Nokia 8 1932 6529
OnePlus 5 1976 6506
Samsung Galaxy Note 8 2024 6490
HTC U11 1919 6362
Sony Xperia XZ Premium 1908 6324
Apple iPhone 7 Plus 3374 5649
Huawei P10 1922 5633
Apple iPhone 7 3452 5599
Apple iPhone SE 2449 4171
Google Pixel XL 1629 4051

The Note 8 did outclass its siblings in 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited test, however:

Handset 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited Result
HTC U11 40239
Sony Xperia XZ Premium 40086
OnePlus 5 39497
Apple iPhone 7 Plus 37956
Apple iPhone 7 37717
Samsung Galaxy Note 8 32277
HTC U Ultra 29968
Apple iPhone SE 29276
Huawei P10 Plus 28491
Google Pixel XL 28458
Samsung Galaxy S8 28409
LG G6 28344
Samsung Galaxy S8+ 28120
Huawei P10 25168

Benchmarks are never the only measure of a phone's performance, but they're an interesting indicator of likely performance in a relative sense. There's little doubt that the Note 8 is a powerful phone, and at its asking price it should be, but that price is also something of a deterrent, simply because you don't have to cover its asking price to get similar, or in some cases better performance than the Note 8. If you're keen on the other aspects of the Note 8, that may not matter, but it does mean that the Note 8 isn't quite the must-have premium device that other Notes have been relative to the market in previous years.

Performance isn't just a matter of raw specifications, however. I've been critical in the past of Samsung's "Edge Display" feature, which lets you put common shortcuts onto a slide-out display for quick access. It's not a terrible feature, but it's always been a bit hit and miss for accurately sliding out, and it essentially adds steps to shortcuts you could place on your home screen anyway.

The Galaxy Note 8's new party piece here is what Samsung calls "App pairing", which uses Android 7.1.1's dual screen multitasking capability to launch any two apps you choose simultaneously. It's not a must-have feature, but it does at least make sense of that larger display screen. I suspect over time, as I've done with the Galaxy S8, I'll disable the Edge Display entirely, but your experience may vary.

The Note 8 is launching with Android 7.1.1, rather than the newer Android 8.0 (Oreo) as well as Samsung's own TouchWiz UI. Samsung has generally toned down TouchWiz as the years have gone by, but in the current climate where many handset makers barely alter stock Android at all, it stands out as still having more of its own in-house software than most.

Samsung Pay is obviously present via NFC, but there's also Samsung Health as well as the Galaxy Apps and the specific S-Pen apps that pop into view when you take the S-Pen out. As with any Android handset, you can customise the experience to suit your own style, whether it's heavy on the widgets or simply app shortcuts. Here the Galaxy Note 8's larger display helps a lot simply because it gives you more space to personalise the Android experience to suit your desires.

GalaxyNote8_4_738

Battery

Samsung had to tread very carefully with the battery in the Galaxy Note 8 simply due to what happened with the Galaxy Note 7 battery. It's taken the interesting step of walking battery capacity backwards a little, with a sealed 3,300mAh battery inside the Note 8. That means that for the first time ever, a member of the Galaxy S series has a larger battery because the Galaxy S8+ sports a 3,500mAh battery pack.

Using Geekbench 3's older battery test showed the Note 8 to be a capable performer for a device with a screen this large, ending up in the top echelon of battery performance for phones we've tested. Here's how it compares against the leading flagship phones:

Handset Geekbench 3 Battery Test Duration Geekbench 3 Battery Score
Galaxy S8+ 14:55:30 8955
Nokia 8 12:22:10 7421
Sony Xperia XZ Premium 12:06:40 7266
BlackBerry KEYone 12:05:00 DNF
Samsung Galaxy Note 8 12:00:50 7208
Motorola Moto Play Z 2 11:50:50 7107
Samsung Galaxy S8 11:47:50 7078
HTC U11 11:42:40 7026
Apple iPhone 7 Plus 11:11:20 6713
Huawei P10 Plus 10:39:50 6218
OnePlus 5 9:33:30 5735
Huawei P10 9:31:30 5523
Google Pixel XL 9:14:20 5543
LG G6 9:09:30 5495
Oppo R11 7:52:30 4725
Apple iPhone 7 7:50:10 4701
Apple iPhone SE 4:27:10 2671

The Galaxy Note 8 has a pretty easy claim on all-day battery life, given Geekbench 3's test is a linear test, and my own anecdotal testing backs this up. It's not quite up there with the Galaxy S8+, but it's still good.

GalaxyNote8_5_738

Verdict

The challenge that the Note 8 has to face isn't, as some may put it, overcoming any issues related to battery fires because Samsung's more or less proven its battery technology with the Galaxy S8, and the Note 8 is essentially a larger, stylus-equipped version of those handsets. I can offer no personal guarantees, but Samsung appears to have learned its lesson there, at least on surface examination.

The Note 8 does have to face the challenge of justifying its $1,499 purchase price, however, and that's a big challenge that, despite its very evident quality, will decide whether this is the phone you should buy.

Firstly, if you're enamoured of the S-Pen and its approach, then it's not only an obvious choice, but your only choice outside of tracking down a now-ageing Galaxy Note 5. While the improvements to the S-Pen aren't immense, this is still the finest stylus-based phone on the market bar none...but then there aren't any others to compare against anyway!

Take the S-Pen out of the equation, however, and it's a tougher call.

I'm genuinely conflicted on this point because the Note 8 is undeniably Samsung's best smartphone to date as a complete package, but it's also its most expensive.

In straight line performance and battery life terms, it's comparable (and in some cases a little below) the performance of the far more pocket-friendly Samsung Galaxy S8 or Samsung Galaxy S8+, both of which are cheaper handsets on either outright or contract terms.

There's no shortage of quality Android performers in the market right now, from the bargain position of the OnePlus 5 up through to the Nokia 8, LG G6, HTC U11 or Sony Xperia XZ Premium. Any of those phones could be in your pocket along with a fair chunk of change against the purchase price of the Note 8 because they're all markedly cheaper.

That, to me, suggests that the Note 8 is a niche play for a specific set of users.

If you love the whole Note ecosystem with the S-Pen, it's for you, especially as your Note 5 or earlier will easily be eclipsed by its performance. If you're performance-centric, it's a solid option, especially paired with the DeX dock, but as noted in its review, that's not quite the desktop solution Samsung thinks it is. If you're in the wider market for Android handsets, I'd compare carefully, even if you want to stay within the Samsung family of Galaxy handsets.

The Galaxy Note 8 is available from 22 September 2017 for $1,499 outright, or on contract terms with most carriers. Pre-orders have already commenced, and some pre-orders have already started shipping at the time of writing.

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Galaxy Note 8 Specifications

Product Name
Galaxy Note 8
Display Size
6.3 inches
Resolution
2960x1440.
PPI
521ppi
Processor
Octa core (2.3GHz Quad + 1.7GHz Quad) or Octa core (2.35GHz Quad + 1.9GHz Quad)
RAM
6GB
Storage
64GB
Operating System
Android 7.1.1
Front camera
8MP AF, F1.7
Rear camera
Dual 12MP: Wide-angle: 12MP Dual Pixel AF, F1.7, OIS Telephoto: 12MP AF, F2.4, OIS 2X optical zoom, 10X digital zoom
Battery
3,300mAh
Dimensions
162.5 x 74.8 x 8.6mm
Weight
195g
Price
$1,499 or on contract

Samsung Galaxy Note 8: Pricing and availability

The Galaxy Note 8 is available from 22 September 2017 for $1,499 outright, or on contract terms with most carriers. Pre-orders have already commenced, and some pre-orders have already started shipping at the time of writing.

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