Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: the phablet you’ve always wanted – Hardware reviews

Samsung has brought back the Galaxy Note. After the Galaxy Note 7’s unflattering saga, many feared that the handset’s woes would mark the end of the series, but far from it. The Galaxy Note 8 sees the Korean tech giant bidding to get back on top in the XXL smartphone market. In this review, you’ll see why the Galaxy Note 8 highlights this claim, but there are also some sore points that deserve a good dose of criticism.

Good

  • Excellent display
  • Fast performance
  • Fantastic dual camera with lightning-fast autofocus
  • S-Pen

Bad

  • Large, heavy and awkward to hold
  • Battery is just average
  • Biometric unlocking options not stable enough for daily use

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 (US-version) release date and price

The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 has been available for purchase in the US since September 15, going for a hefty $929.99 for the 64 GB version. Anyone who pre-ordered the Galaxy Note 8 received the DeX station, which basically aims to transform your smartphone into a PC – for free. An interesting tidbit for travel aficionados: Samsung is already selling the Galaxy Note 8 as a dual-SIM Duos version in the Samsung online store. The phone is already available in Midnight Black everywhere while Orchid Gray, Maple Gold, and Deep Sea Blue colorways’ availability will vary depending on your region

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 (US-version) design and build quality

If you’ve seen the Galaxy S8, then you’ll already find the Galaxy Note 8 familiar, at least from a design standpoint as it’s consistent with the Galaxy smartphones’ current design. This is great because the curved glass surface and the sleek aluminum bezel truly give the Galaxy Note 8 a great figure. It has excellent craftsmanship that matches the same high quality as the other phones in the Galaxy S series. At 8.6 mm, the Note 8 is not particularly sleek. Furthermore, it weighs in at 195 grams – something you will notice in your hand and in your pocket.

The Note 8’s controls are arranged a lot like on the Galaxy S8. There is no longer a home button, but there is a fingerprint scanner just to the right of the rear camera’s LED flash. Much like on the Galaxy S8+, the scanner is also awkwardly placed on the Note 8 for my large hands and not really comfortable to reach so unless Samsung is expecting Note users to have bigger than average hands, there’s some work to do here. The power button and volume controls are responsive and feel great.

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The Galaxy Note 8 looks deceptively similar to the S8. / © AndroidPIT

The Bixby button is located on the left side of the Note 8, and it currently doesn’t do anything other than display the Bixby home screen or initiate voice input for it. You can now deactivate the button too though, in order to prevent accidental pressing. Although Bixby began with a lot of hype, the digital assistant’s lack of reliable voice recognition among other kinks in the face of better virtual assistants has made it an unappealing feature for the Galaxy Note 8.

Something important for us clumsy folk: The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and accompanying S-Pen is IP68 dust and waterproof, and the same goes for the S-Pen, which is placed in a cavity in the housing as usual.

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The USB Type-C port and headphone jack are located on the bottom of the Galaxy Note 8. / © AndroidPIT

The Samsung Galaxy Note 8’s design is all-around harmonious and the smartphone looks both elegant and modern. The new Note looks good and is pleasant to hold in your hand, although it doesn’t really knock my socks off in the looks department. To me, the black version looks quite plain, and the blue version is a bit on the monochrome side, although I know a lot of people who go for this. If I had to choose though, I would probably opt for Maple Gold.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 (US-version) display

The Samsung Galaxy Note 8’s display is a record-breaking 6.3 inches – a big jump from its predecessor the Galaxy Note 7 that measured 5.7 inches. Thanks to the new, nearly bezel-less design and the Infinity Display, the display hardly affects the overall size; only its increased length of roughly one centimeter is noticeable. The Super AMOLED panel display in the new Galaxy Note has a 2960 x 1440-pixel resolution. Oddly though, you need to enter the system settings and enable it manually, since Samsung only selects FHD+ by default.

While testing, the images on the Galaxy Note 8’s display left me speechless. Its Super AMOLED panel is among the best displays that money can buy. It offers those deep blacks, rich vivid colors, and incredible viewing angle stability. By default, the Galaxy Note 8 displays a starry black ‘sky’ on its always-on display, which always looks striking even after weeks with the phone. Its widescreen format also delivers when watching films if you set the picture to fullscreen format. Otherwise, you’ll be viewing with two dreary black bars on the sides. The Galaxy Note 8’s elongated 18.5:9 aspect ratio may take some getting used to, but it really shines when reading websites and using multi-window mode with two applications running in parallel.

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The Galaxy Note 8 has an always-on display. / © AndroidPIT

On another note, many still find themselves asking “what’s the point of having the curved display edges?” On the Galaxy Note 8, the display panel is designed to bend only slightly around the edges in order not to hinder stylus usage. But unfortunately that’s just what it does when you want to use the S-pen on the very edge of the display. In addition, the color distortion produced by the curved glass on the display edge are quite noticeable. It’s obvious the Edge Sense auxiliary menu would work just as well on a normal, fully-flat display so at this point, Samsung should be asking itself what’s really the point of these slightly rounded edges on the Galaxy Note 8. Though sleek, this design feature has yet to bring any real advantages so it still has much to learn in the way of “form follows function”.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 (US-version) special features

One thing that sets the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 apart from all other smartphones is the S-Pen. The stylus has its place in the discrete housing, always handy when you need it. Like the smartphone itself, the S-Pen is also protected from water and dust as per IP68. Some fun facts: The S-Pen can still distinguish between 4096 different pressure points and thankfully can no longer be inserted into the smartphone the wrong way.

Samsung has once again expanded the stylus’ functions with the Galaxy Note 8. Now you can write and save notes of up to 100-pages directly on the lock screen. You can also pin a note to the lock screen to keep things like a shopping list in view, or keep an important piece of information handy. Furthermore, the stylus can be used to create animated GIF pictures, take screenshots, translate text and more. The S-Pen definitely sees Samsung emphasizing the Note 8’s character as a true workhorse.

The Galaxy Note 8 provides three unlocking options using biometrics: Iris scan, face recognition, and fingerprints. None of these three options were able to fully impress me though. The iris scan is the most secure but by far the slowest way to unlock the smartphone. There are occasional detection problems for people who wear glasses, and whenever sunglasses are on. Sunglasses in particular prove to be troublesome for face recognition. The optional quick face recognition can even be fooled with a photo, so although quick, it’s not always the safest way to access your phone. While testing, the Galaxy Note 8 consistently failed to detect a registered face, and the sensor was generally pushed to its limits in bad lighting conditions.

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Animated GIFs can be created using the S-Pen. / © AndroidPIT

So what about using your fingerprint? Well, for starters, the sensor is hard to reach. It’s positioned too far to the top, barely recessed, hard to feel and it’s generally outside of your index finger’s reach, making it necessary to do some hand gymnastics. But even when your finger finds the sensor, detection is neither reliable nor quick. The Note 8 constantly complains about the finger not being completely on the sensor, or just not being recognized. Nearly every competing flagship offers better and quicker unlocking solutions in this respect so it actually makes you wish you had that good old home button with the fingerprint sensor that unlocks your smartphone in one click. In spite of all these fancy sensors, you’ll almost inevitably fall back on using the reliable PIN route to unlock the Galaxy Note 8.

But apart from the awkward placement of the fingerprint sensor and the weaknesses in the face recognition system, there are just problems with the Galaxy Note 8’s ergonomics mainly due to the smartphone’s dimensions. Even people with large hands find it hard to get any one-handed usage with the Galaxy Note 8. Despite the long display, the smartphone is quite wide, making it pretty uncomfortable in one hand. The slippery casing and sheer weight of the device alone increase the risk of dropping the Galaxy Note 8.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 (US-version) software

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8 comes with Android 7.1.1 Nougat out of the box and of course, this flagship model will receive an update to Android 8.0 Oreo although there is still no timeline available as yet. As usual, Samsung’s skin is laid over Google’s Android architecture. Formerly called Touchwiz now it’s just called the Samsung Experience. The latest version, 8.5, also runs on the Galaxy S8 and S8+ and visually alters Android in almost every way. The good thing is, if you’re not a fan of Samsung’s pre-installed appearance, you can adapt icons, fonts and the entire design to your own taste.

Samsung has introduced a new feature to the Galaxy Note 8 that makes it easier to use two apps at the same time. On the Edge Menu, the user can swipe inwards from the right side to pair apps in packs of two, which are then simultaneously launched in split-screen mode. This can be really amazing for moving information back and forth between apps. As Huawei has previously done, Samsung also supports double installation so you can for example, use two instances of WhatsApp on one device.

Unlike HTC though, Samsung still opts to keep its own apps instead of favoring Google’s which are pre-installed anyway. As a result, there are basically two apps for the calendar, contacts, photo gallery and a few other things. It shouldn’t be this way. The Samsung camera app still has some neat special functions though, such as adjusting the bokeh effect.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 (US-version) performance

Samsung has equipped the Galaxy Note 8 with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 in the US and China, and its own in-house  Exynos 8895 chip for the international version. Both chips sport a staggering eight cores, run at up to at least 2.3 GHz, and manufactured using a 10-nanometer process. In the US and China, an Adreno 540 takes care of the graphics, while in the rest of world, the Note 8 comes with a Mali-G71 MP20. The Galaxy Note 8 also packs in a whopping 6 GB of RAM, and storage is quite fast thanks to UFS 2.1.

When looking at common benchmarks, you notice that the Samsung chip cannot always keep up with Qualcomm’s in every aspect. The OnePlus 5, HTC U11 or LG V30 – all equipped with a Snapdragon 835 – are faster in graphics-intensive tests and achieve higher benchmark numbers. However, the performance of the individual cores is at least equal, as per the Geekbench test.

Benchmark comparison of the Galaxy Note 8

 
Samsung Galaxy Note 8 LG V30 OnePlus 5
3DMark Sling Shot Extreme 2591 3420 3341
3DMark Sling Shot39.153 3449 4136 4337
3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited 32670 39153 39419
Geekbench 4 Single-Core 2018 1921 1944
Geekbench 4 Multi-Core 6816 6293 6665
PCMark Work 2.0 5151 6297 6545
PCMark Storage 4449 4952 5044

The chip differences however, are rather negligible weaknesses. As far as performance, the Galaxy Note 8 always comes out on top and no task is too taxing for it. Conversely, you can’t help but think that the Exynos 8895 still has all sorts of power to go around. Even in a few years’ time, the Galaxy Note 8 may be a safe bet in terms of computational and graphical performance—even if newer chips such as the Kirin 970 with KI technology, and Apple’s A11 with a bionic chip could continue raising the bar. 6 GB of RAM are also help in making it future-proof, even if there are currently no clear advantages to having it.

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Elegant looks, but a lot of power under the hood. / © AndroidPIT

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 (US-version) audio

The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 does not have any exceptional quality to offer with regard to the loudspeakers so you won’t find a counterpart to HTC’s BoomSound here. The sound is actually quite run-of-the-mill and not very exciting. On the other hand, the included AKG headset has a bit more to offer and produces a very balanced sound with decent punch and zero need for amplification. I would choose my headset wisely though because if the headphones do not fit your ears well, it will easily leak out all the bass. It’s also worth noting that AKG headphones are not known to be good for use during physical activities either, since they do not hold on to your ear as securely.

In-call voice quality is one of the Galaxy Note 8’s highlights. You can fully understand the other person at the other end of the line, language sounds natural and ambient noise suppression works extraordinarily well. There’s nothing to complain about here

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 (US-version) camera

The rear side of the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 sports a true novelty. For the first time, Samsung has fit in a dual camera, and it packs quite a punch. Both cameras are equipped with an optical image stabilizer and a 12-megapixel sensor, but differ in aperture and focal length. The wide-angle camera has a f/1.7 aperture and dual-pixel autofocus, and a tele lens with double focal length has an aperture of f/2.4. The front camera also has a fast f/1.7 aperture and takes pictures at a resolution of 8 megapixels.

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The dual camera on the Galaxy Note 8 is a first for Samsung. / © AndroidPIT

The Galaxy Note 8’s camera image quality is excellent. Colors are depicted realistically, with only the reds being a bit overemphasized on occasion. Sharpness, image dynamics and lighting are generally handled very well by the Galaxy Note 8. If you are a do-it-yourselfer, you can use manual mode to edit RAW images afterwards too. Image noise moderately increases at first when the light dims, but the noise becomes quite prominent with increasing darkness. The optional double zoom of Samsung’s autofocus furthermore works blazingly fast and makes the Galaxy Note 8 an excellent snapshot camera. Selfies with the front camera are also fun, even if the quality significantly drops here.

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Less light, less image noise – this also holds true for the Galaxy Note 8. / © AndroidPIT

The bokeh effect, which Samsung calculates in the image using the live focus function, greatly depends on the scenery being photographed, and the software does not always manage to prevent errors. Shots using that beautiful shallow depth of field (when done right) are always done with the tele lens, but you may have to move away from the subject to get the detail right. As a bonus, the Galaxy Note 8 also saves the normal wide-angle photo, giving the user a choice.

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The camera also works well in backlighting. / © AndroidPIT
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The autofocus on the Galaxy S8 is lightning fast. / © AndroidPIT

During our review of the Galaxy Note 8, one such shot with live focus consistently failed. The smartphone notifies you that the distance to the object is not far enough. Every now and then, the gallery also displays the “invalid image file” error message and refuses to process the photo. In other dual-camera smartphones, such as the current Huawei models, the Bokeh function makes less errors and often produces more beautiful results, too. Samsung still has a lot to learn here. However, the manufacturer can take care of this via future software updates.

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The Galaxy Note 8 is also excellent at selfies. / © AndroidPIT
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The bokeh effect worked well here. / © AndroidPIT

When it comes to video recording, the Galaxy Note 8 is capable of recording 30-fps video at 4K resolution, and 60 frames per second is possible with full HD. Thanks to optical image stabilization, you can view the shots with relative ease and are also pleasing thanks to the beautiful picture and rich colors. On the other hand, the image tone comes out somewhat flat, but that’s a problem many smartphones have.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 (US-version) battery

For Samsung, the Galaxy Note’s new battery is the most cared-for part of the entire smartphone, and with good reason given the exploding cell debacle of its unfortunate predecessor. Thus, it is only logical that Samsung takes a conservative approach with the Note 8’s battery and refrains from somehow cramming the most power possible into the housing. A radically designed battery would have surely held more than the 3300 mAh it contains, which even makes the Galaxy Note 8’s power supply a bit weaker than the 3500 mAh battery in the Galaxy S8+.

Previous generations of Note smartphones had the reputation of being true endurance marvels—Note smartphones were always large pieces of equipment with ample room for strong batteries after all. In our review, the Note 8 never died-out before the evening, although most smartphones are now capable of this. With an activated always-on display, the battery level is generally between 30 and 40 percent. And getting a second day out of a single charge is basically possible due to the fact, among other things, that the Galaxy Note 8 has really high standby consumption. Generally, the smartphone lost between 12 and 15 percent overnight. It can last until your next office visit, which is when you would have to plug it in for charging. In our review, the Galaxy Note 8 was not particularly endurant.

Thanks to Quick Charge and integrated Qi technology for wirelessly charging the battery, the Galaxy Note 8 can indeed reach 100% again quickly though. Nonetheless, the new Galaxy smartphone’s battery is a bit disappointing. Of course, you can turn off the always-on display and activate some other power-saving options, but then you limit the Galaxy Note 8’s sparkle in a way, and that is not ideal for a smartphone that is designed for power users.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 (US-version) technical specifications

Dimensions: 162.5 x 74.8 x 8.6 mm
Weight: 195 g
Battery size: 3300 mAh
Screen size: 6.3 in
Display technology: AMOLED
Screen: 2960 x 1440 pixels (522 ppi)
Front camera: 8 megapixels
Rear camera: 12 megapixels
Flashlight: LED
Android version: 7.1.1 – Nougat
User interface: TouchWiz
RAM: 6 GB
Internal storage: 64 GB
Removable storage: microSD
Chipset: Qualcomm Snapdragon 835
Number of cores: 8
Max. clock speed: 2.45 GHz
Connectivity: HSPA, LTE, NFC, Bluetooth 5.0

Final verdict

The Samsung Galaxy Note is an excellent smartphone. It has one of the best displays and the fastest camera on the market, a powerful processor, up-to-date software and perfect craftsmanship. Samsung uses an elegant design, high-quality materials and has no need to feel threatened by Apple and the latest iPhones. Furthermore, the S-Pen gives the Galaxy Note 8 a totally unique fun factor that the competition lacks and for many fans, that makes all  the difference when put up against other large smartphones. When it comes to the S-Pen’s special functions, Samsung has once again usefully upped the ante with the Note 8.

But where there is light, there is also shadow, and the Galaxy Note 8’s battery was not very impressive during testing. The smartphone is quite large, heavy and expensive. And out of all three biometric unlock methods, none work flawlessly, plus the position and quality of the fingerprint sensor are not suitable for everyday use.

All things considered though, the Galaxy Note 8 remains one of the best large smartphones on the market. However, the iPhone 8 Plus, the upcoming Google Pixel XL 2, the LG V30 and Huawei Mate 10 will soon bring exciting competition to the market. Nevertheless, I’m sure Samsung will not give up the phablet crown without a fight.

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