Review: Samsung Galaxy Note 8

For a number of years now, the Galaxy Note 8 has been the formidable foe of the smartphone world. For those who like everything to be bigger, faster, and top of the charts, Samsung’s Note brand has striven to cater just that. And then there was a setback, possibly major one could say. Last year Samsung had not one, but two recalls on the Note 7 because it had a higher than normal problem with… exploding. Without beating a dead horse (because it’s definitely long been beaten), let’s just say that *that* problem shouldn’t happen again. Samsung has presumably learned their lesson at least with the specific issue that led to last year’s great recall of 2016.

For 2017 however, the Note 8 is the king to beat for the likes of Google, HTC, LG, et. all. But there’s only so many ways you can create a black rectangle, right?

If we take a look at the specs, on paper, it appears to be right at the top of the Android market. The octo-core processor (4 + 4), 6 GB of RAM, and 6.3″ QHD screen are some of the chief bragging points. Bolstering the pillars of the Note 8’s feature set are things like an Adreno 540 GPU, dual 12 megapixel cameras on the rear plus an 8 megapixel shooter on the front, Iris/face/fingerprint biometrics, and more. Needless to say, we’ve really gotten to the point now where paper specs are less and less meaningful. The worst software can bring the best hardware to its knees – which is something Samsung has long been accused of doing. The Note 8, however, is beginning an upward trend towards improvement I might add.

Yes, I’ve only had the device about a week and a half, so there is time for that dreaded 6-month “Samsung bloat” to bring the performance down a notch or two. But so far, it seems better than say, Note 5 and earlier devices. Performance improvements are completely separate though to gripes with their Touch Wiz UI at its core. For that, you either accept it or hate it. (Does anyone really love it?)

On the software side, the biggest thing to talk about (or not) is Bixby. Bixby is Samsung’s “me too” smart assistant. And let’s just be blunt about it – it’s at best terrible. Not only is Bixby a giant waste of time for Samsung, especially since they’re coming from so far behind and just about anyone would rather have real teams of AI experts working on their AI assistant, you can’t even control this intrusion on your device. Samsung makes Bixby almost impossible to hide completely. What’s worse, an entire physical button is dedicated to Bixby that also cannot be reprogrammed for any other app or function. Talk about useless and clueless. For every small step Samsung may take forward, they do something completely stupid and idiotic such as this. Gripes aside, Bixby really isn’t that unique outside of a few unique instances when Bixby workflows come into play. Think of ifttt (but not as robust) for your phone at the system level, and controlled by voice.

Strong words aside, the rest of the software experience on the Note 8 is good to great. It’s fast, powerful, and despite it’s large size, surprisingly manageable even one handed. The Touch Wiz gripes of years past are mostly gone these days with UI and UX decisions generally consistent and tasteful. Sure, stock Android would be ideal but it’s close enough and not terrible. Plus, you can always slap your own theme of choice on top thanks to Samsung’s built in theming.

For the photographers of the bunch, you’ll be pleased to know that you’ve now officially joined the dual-camera bandwagon with two 12 megapixel lenses on the back featuring 1.7 and 2.4 apertures for your normal and “telephoto” 2x shooting. The selfie takers meanwhile have an upgraded 8 megapixel f/1.7 lens to capture all of life’s self incriminating moments. On the software side of things you’ve got the pretty standard Samsung UI slapped across a camera software you’re not doubt familiar with at this point if you’ve used any Samsung device in the last couple of years. The options are quite vast (especially if you flip it into full manual mode) and navigation of said app is pretty quick and painless thanks to swipe based navigation for the different camera modes.

One other nifty little differentiating feature of the Note’s dual-camera layout is that while it does have a similar bokeh creating effect like the iPhone 7 Plus, Samsung goes a tad further and actually lets you control the strength of the bokeh (read: background blur effect) after the fact. With Apple you get whatever you get – small but potentially super helpful. That said, while the bokeh effect was generally good to great, I did notice the Note 8 having a bit more difficulty more often than my iPhone 7 Plus in focusing on the right thing – nothing a software update can’t fix.

Overall, photo quality is very good. While current mobile camera aficionados, DxO mark have not posted their Note 8 camera impressions, I’d wager the Note 8 would be at the top of the list – maybe not class leading but definitely keeping up. Colors are generally good though tend to skew a tad saturated. Also, in HDR type situations where there’s a lot of contrast between the darkest and lightest areas of the image, you’ll find the Note 8 struggling a bit keeping the bright areas from getting completely blown out if the focus is on the darker areas. Not a unique problem mind you but it is something that the latest iPhone 8 and 8 Plus handle quite well. Simply put, if you’re looking for a good mobile camera, the Note 8 won’t disappoint.

For those looking for a more in-depth foray into the Note 8’s photo and video chops, I will redirect you to DxO Mark’s recently published review. TL;DR – they rank it at the same level as the new iPhone 8 Plus – DxO Mark Galaxy Note 8 Review 

The gigantic elephant in the room that everyone is really interested about however is will it explode? I mean, we all know that in the end, Samsung bit off a bit more than they could chew in terms of pushing phone HW design to its limits so much so that it impacted battery functionality quite negatively. For the Note 8 Samsung has both designed a bit more room for the battery inside the case so that it can expand safely as well as downsized it from 3500 mAh to 3300 mAh. No self-respecting power user ever likes to see their batteries made smaller. In this case though it seems to have a negligible effect on run time (explosive tendencies still up in the air). Most days I’m taking the phone off the charger between 7-8am and then using it throughout the day to check social media (twitter/instagram/facebook) as well as constantly remaining paired to a 2nd-gen Moto 360 and AirDroid on a Mac laptop and I’m looking at 65-75% by the time I leave work at 5:30pm. Battery shrinkage withstanding, even in a normal context the Note 8’s battery is solid for an Android device as packed as it is.

So as awesome as the Note 8 seems to be in retaining it’s “King of the smartphones” crown, should you actually get it. Here’s the thing. The Note 8 is one of a few things to people:

  1. Too Epensive ($900+ at it’s cheapest point)
  2. Too big (6.3″ screen is no Palm Pre)
  3. Too similar to S8 (It’s a big S8)

For me, I was coming from an iPhone 7 and 7 Plus and haven’t had an Android daily driver in at least a year. The price stung a bit, sure. The size is a tad larger than I would prefer. And I didn’t have an S8. So I ordered my own even (Shout out to Verizon for hooking me up with this review unit.) Rational thought, right? If you’re a current Note 5/S7/S8 user there’s really not too much reason to upgrade (more-so for the S7/8 users). It’s really just a larger version of those devices with a second rear facing camera. Some would disagree, citing the S-Pen and all it’s perks for what it’s worth.

The king is still the king, but less assuredly. LG’s V30, Google’s Pixel 2, and of course the iPhone X are just a few of the flagship contenders worthy of your attention going into the holiday season this year. Look for my LG V30 impressions in the near future.

 

Galaxy Note 8 on Verizon

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