The Note8 (center) flanked by the iPhone 7 Plus (left) and Galaxy S8 (right)

Samsung Galaxy Note8 Review

An analyst’s take

Along with a number of reporters and other analysts, I’ve been given a review unit of the new Note8 phone by Samsung to test for the past week or so. This is my review. Please note that I have a separate piece also up today which focuses in some depth on the cameras in the phone, since that’s something I care a lot about as someone who uses my smartphone camera a lot.

First, some context

I think it’s worth starting with some context. Firstly, I’m not a gadget reviewer by profession — the big tech sites do that very well, and they’ll give you a more thorough review of specs and all the rest — Techmeme will likely have a great roundup of the reviews later today. I’m looking at this phone mostly as an analyst, and therefore am as interested in who this phone is for, how it might affect market dynamics, and also what it might teach us about a couple of current trends: the push towards super premium phones, and the death of the bezel.

I’m also not one of the Note family’s many fans — though I frequently try different phones, my daily driver is an iPhone, and I’ve never regularly used a phone with a stylus. That’s important because this phone is aimed largely at the loyal base of Note users who make good use of the stylus day in and day out. I certainly don’t have any objections to the stylus, as you’ll see below, but as it hasn’t been part of my usual workflow or habits, my reaction to it in this phone won’t be nearly the same as it would for someone who’s been using Note devices for years.

Thirdly, the last bit of context has nothing to do with me but everything to do with the consumer market into which this phone will be launched, and that’s really my main focus as an analyst. This phone is launching to the public in the last weeks before new iPhones come out — this review will be published precisely a week before those new iPhones are announced, and the Note8 won’t be in US stores until three days later (though preorders have been available for a while).

Likely timing of Samsung Note8 and new iPhone launches

As such, though I’ve naturally compared the Note8 in my review to the iPhone 7 Plus, Apple’s current top of the line, the phones it will actually compete against in the coming months are the successors to the 7 line and arguably even more so the new premium iPhone, which will be priced similarly to this phone, in the $900-plus range. As such, this review has an expiration date, and I’ll likely write a follow-up when I’ve had a chance to try the new iPhones. For now, there’s a semi-detailed review below, a much more detailed look at the cameras here, and my conclusions and thoughts on the phone and the related issues at the end of this piece if you want to skip to the end.

The Note8 and its target market

The Note8 is first and foremost a phone for the Note base — that loyal base of users who have owned previous Note devices from Samsung and who love the combination of size, power, and stylus that it offers, the latter uniquely among today’s flagships. The phone is intended to drive a big upgrade cycle after the initially well-reviewed but fatally flawed Note7 forced many users to wait a year longer than they would have liked. But it’s also Samsung’s entry in what’s emerging as the super-premium smartphone space, alongside Apple’s new top-of-the-line iPhone and phones like the LG V30.

To compete effectively against the other phones in that nascent segment, then, the Note8 has to be powerful, have phenomenal cameras, and offer something unique and distinct to justify the roughly $950 retail price it will command (or its equivalent in monthly installments).

This is a high performance phone

Speed and smoothness

On the performance side, this thing certainly hits all the right notes. It feels quick and smooth in pretty much everything you do with it. Apps open and load right away, scrolling and swiping around is smooth, and there are few of the glitches and hangs that sometimes hamper Android performance. The main glitch I encountered was a recurring issue while trying to enter a PIN for Samsung Pay, where the app would simply hang partway through that process. But essentially everything else worked as it should. I’m not sure there’s anything here relative to the Galaxy S8 that would make enough difference to justify the price differential by itself, but in conjunction with the stylus and the camera, it might be a compelling enough package.

A fantastic screen

The screen, which features the same type of “Infinity Display” as the recent Galaxy S8, is fantastic — wonderfully crisp, bright, and big, taking up almost the entirety of the front of the device. The sides are handled a little differently from the sides of the S8’s screen, with a slightly different curvature, which makes for a somewhat more angular and therefore less comfortable grip but more usable flat screen size, which Samsung clearly feels is a priority on a device with a stylus. I did find that tapping on items at the edge of the screen sometimes went awry as the curvature either made me tap on the wrong thing or interpreted my taps differently from what I intended. But the screen is almost all usable for scribbling with the S-Pen.

The actual screen size is almost identical to this year’s larger Galaxy S phone, as was last year’s short-lived version — sheer size is no longer an important differentiator for the Note line, the “Do Bigger Things” tagline notwithstanding.

The aspect ratio of the screen is an interesting one — as with other shrunken-bezel phones launched this year, it’s longer and thinner than most previous smartphones, which makes it less well suited to videos in standard HD or 4K ratios. To solve that problem, you can either watch the videos with black bars at the side or zoom in slightly, losing some of the top and bottom of the picture. Pictures, too, have to make the same tradeoffs. For all other apps, though, it means there’s more content to fit on a screen, whether that’s additional Facebook or Instagram posts, more of a long document or web article, or simply more apps on a screen. The main benefit of the new screen, though, is simply that the same screen size fits in a much smaller body, as shown in the comparison with the iPhone 7 Plus and Galaxy S8 below:

As you can see, the overall footprint of the three phones is similar, with the iPhone slightly wider, while the usable screen size is much greater on the two Samsung devices. Here’s another pair of shots more directly comparing the available screen size on the iPhone and Note8 (note that the iPhone has a thin case on in this shot):

iPhone 7 Plus (left) and Samsung Note8 (right) showing usable screen size relative to body size

That vastly different ratio makes the screen much larger while the footprint is actually slightly smaller. Reaching items at the top of the screen when held upright is certainly tougher than on earlier devices, and unfortunately little seems to have been done in most cases to adjust the UI for this. That reflects the fact that Samsung doesn’t control the UI, which is designed for generic Android devices rather than Samsung’s aspect ratio and screen size specifically, and that’s an advantage that Apple will have when it announces its smaller-bezel phone, because it will likely also tweak the UI to put more navigation elements at the bottom rather than the top of the screen.

Eight random app screenshots — Instagram, Chrome, Netflix, Messages, IMDB, Hulu, SoundCloud, and Twitter — showing that most have navigation elements at the top and some have nothing at the bottom, within reach of the user’s thumbs.

Great battery life and fast charging is useful but limited

The battery got me easily through the day every day, and in general I was very impressed with the battery life on the Note8. It seemed to last really well even when I was using the screen a bunch, including watching videos, which is impressive given the size and quality of the screen. Samsung’s power management feature popped up a couple of times to flag apps using disproportionate amounts of power and suggesting tweaks, so that may have helped a little.

The Note8, like all of Samsung’s recent flagships, comes with fast charging, including fast wireless charging. Under the right conditions, that allows you to charge the device fully very quickly. I was able to power a completely dead device up to 70% in an hour with the power off and using the provided USB adapter and cable. However, powering the device on while charging can slow it down quite a bit, and on at least one occasion I got this error message while charging using the provided adapter and cable with everything properly connected:

Error message received when attempting to fast charge using the provided adapter and cable

Further, the device also offers fast wireless (inductive) charging using a separate charging pad, but that’s quite a bit slower than charging with the cable, taking an hour to reach 50% while powered on. That’s not bad, but it’s only about the same speed as charging an iPhone 7 Plus with an iPad charger. So while it may be faster than most other wireless charging, it’s not particularly fast compared with charging using a standard cable-based charger, which highlights the limitations of wireless charging in general.

The stylus is a nice feature but will require habit changes for most

As I mentioned at the outset, I haven’t been a regular user of a phone with a stylus in the past, and so using one with the Note8 requires a change in habits. I’d say the single most useful feature is the ability to write on the locked screen — even while putting together this review, I scribbled some notes on the screen in this way and it was a great way to keep track of things I didn’t want to forget without having to fire up a notes app every time.

The Note faithful, as shown at Samsung’s launch event

But this is one of those features that’s mostly aimed at the Note faithful, who are obviously the key audience for this device. Samsung says around two thirds of Note users make use of the stylus for taking notes, and given that the difference in screen size versus the larger Galaxy S8 is minimal, this is a major selling point for them. Many of those, in turn, use their phones for their work, so this likely won’t be as big a selling point for those who use some other company-issued phone separately from a personal device.

Most people who haven’t used a phone with a stylus in the past will obviously need to learn new habits. The stylus is hidden away inside the body of the phone and it’s easy to forget it’s there at all. And some of the uses feel a little gimmicky — the Live Message feature, for example. That allows the user to create a quick drawing using the S-Pen to send as a message. That feels like one of those things that sounds really nice in principle but which I wouldn’t think I or most users would make use of regularly in practice. That’s certainly been my experience with other similar features.

Multitasking

Another power feature the Note line has long featured is split screen multitasking. The Note8 has an App Pair feature which allows the user to preconfigure pairs of apps which they want to use together. The UI for setting this up is a little tricky but once it’s configured it works well. I used it to pair the Sling TV app for watching a football game with a web browser to look something up at the same time. The long aspect ratio of the screen on the Note8 is actually particularly well suited to this feature because it allows you to run two nearly square apps one on top of the other, making each of them large enough to remain usable.

Samsung’s Android customizations are a mixed bag

As with other Android phones, the Note8 features various customizations from Samsung, in the form of both UI tweaks and its own additional apps. This ends up being something of a mixed bag, with some adding value and others seemingly different only for the sake of it. With most apps where Google has a default version, I tend to favor those — I’ve always found them to be pretty good, usable apps — and as such I tended to either install those myself or default to them where they were preinstalled.

Lots and lots of Samsung apps

There are lots of Samsung apps on this device, and one of my complaints is that these often pop up when you’re trying to do something else and ask for various permissions without explaining what they are, why you’d want to give those permissions, or how any of this will improve your experience. Too often it just feels like unnecessary cruft and overlay which detracts from rather than enhancing the experience.

Samsung’s camera has lots of hidden power features

Samsung’s camera app is an example of where Samsung has actually built quite a bit of functionality beyond what the stock Android app offers. That functionality, though, is largely hidden — it takes some swiping around to find it, and the main camera viewer feels extremely simple, overly so until you discover the rest of the features. Things like the panorama mode, slow motion, filters, and so on are all hidden away without any obvious visual affordances to find them. I’ll talk about the performance of the camera in far more detail later.

Bixby is the same limited feature as on the Galaxy S8

I almost left Bixby out of this review entirely because I simply didn’t use it much, invoking it accidentally more times than I did so deliberately. I’ve tested it quite a bit on the S8, and it’s the same thing here: it’s pretty limited in what it can do, it makes lots of mistakes, and the Google Assistant that comes baked in too is also available on the device and far more capable. As such, I just didn’t see the need to use Bixby – it needs more work, but you can just ignore it and/or turn it off and the quality of the phone is utterly unaffected, with the one exception being using it from the lock screen, where the Bixby button can’t be reprogrammed easily.

The always-on display and unlocking both have quirks

Samsung’s AMOLED technology enables it to provide what it calls an always-on display, which shows certain information semi-permanently on the lock screen, including the time and small icons representing notifications from apps. I found those little icons relatively useless because they didn’t really convey any useful information — for a Twitter app, for example, they didn’t let me know whether there was a mention, a DM, or a new follower; and for the Outlook app, I had no way to know from the AOD whether the icon represented a calendar notification or a new email.

Behind the AOD is a more standard lock screen with more detailed notifications, where that information does appear. But the AOD by itself is mostly useful as a clock and for knowing that you have some kind of notification. It presumably works the way it does to minimize the amount of the screen that needs to be lit up when in this mode, but it ends up being a little useless.

When it comes to unlocking the device, the only method that works from the AOD is the fingerprint unlock method, which requires placing the finger on the sensor well up the back of the device, where it’s a little awkward to reach. To invoke the iris recognition feature you have to swipe on the screen or push a button, so that two actions are required from sleep to get to this point. Once there, though, the iris recognition feature typically tends to work very quickly, which is just as it needs to be to become a useful way to unlock the device. But it’s a little inconsistent based on the angle at which I’m holding the phone and the ambient lighting. It’s also a little odd to have to hold my phone up to my face to be able to unlock it (something that’s particularly awkward when trying to use Samsung Pay). In general, the unlocking features on both of this year’s Samsung flagships feel inferior to the home button fingerprint unlock feature, something I come back to at the end of this review. And Samsung still doesn’t communicate very clearly during setup how secure the various features are, even if it will tell you privately that face unlock is mostly for convenience and not security.

The cameras are fantastic

As I mentioned at the top, the cameras on the Note8 are something I dived into in quite a bit of detail, but I didn’t want to clog up this review with extensive details, so I’ve put all that in a separate piece which you can find here if you’re interested. Suffice it to say that Samsung’s cameras are now very good, head and shoulders above most other Android flagships, and on par with Apple’s iPhone cameras. And the dual cameras are put to good use, especially with regard to the Live Focus mode, which I found very effective.

Final Thoughts

A great device

Having spent a week or so with the Note8, and mostly using it as my primary device, I’ve come away largely really impressed. The performance is great, from the screen to the power to the cameras, and for those who can make them part of their workflows the S-Pen and multitasking features add quite a bit of additional value. There are some frustrations, notably the unlocking features and multiple lock screen layers, and perhaps Bixby.

For users already committed to the Android ecosystem and potentially Samsung’s flavor of it specifically, this is a great option alongside the Galaxy S8. Which of those users choose will depend on how much they value the S-Pen, the dual cameras and the photography features they enable, and the slightly beefed up performance that the Note8 offers. For at least some keen photographers, the dual cameras will be enough to push them into the Note line for the first time from the Galaxy S line, and now that the size difference is minimal, that may well be a more palatable change than in the past. Conversely, if those things are not that appealing, either of the Galaxy S8 models will serve users very well too.

On the death of bezels

This isn’t the first phone we’ve seen without the big bezels we were all accustomed to for so long, but doing a more formal review of this one, and the impending launch of Apple’s first phone to embrace this trend, has made me think a little more deeply about it. At root, this is a great change, one which gives users far more usable screen space while shrinking the footprint of the device — the best of both worlds. I’ve no doubt that over the next couple of years all flagship phones will embrace the trend, and lower-end phones eventually too.

But the shift is mostly a hardware one, while many apps have yet to catch up to it. Navigation is too often still at the top of the screen, where the new dimensions make it even harder to reach than before. Apps will need to embrace the shift too if we’re to make these phones as usable as past smaller phones were. This isn’t a brand new issue — larger phones have created usability problems for a while now – but the new form factors exacerbate them. Apple should have the power to push this change faster within its ecosystem than Samsung will within the broader Android ecosystem, and could use the space where the home button used to be for some interesting navigation tweaks. We’ll see how it manages this next week. The other thing is that for viewing videos and pictures the extra real estate afforded by the new aspect ratios is rather wasted – it’s mostly useful for other things.

The other thing is that, once you’ve used a phone like this, going back to a phone with big bezels is a bit disheartening, and as bezel-less phones start to spread, those that still have large bezels will look more and more old-fashioned. That’s going to be a really interesting challenge for Apple to manage if it — as widely expected — launches new phones in the more traditional form factor alongside a new premium phone without big bezels.

On the super premium market

Flagship phones across both major ecosystems have long been priced fairly similarly — at around $650. Within the last couple of years we’ve seen an additional tier emerge above that in the $750–800 range based largely on size. But what we’re witnessing now is the creation of a super-premium category where the pricing is based more on features than on size, above the current large flagship size bracket. These phones are hitting the $900–1000 price point, and that’s very much where the premium iPhone is expected to hit too. We’re seeing phone lines like the Note and LG’s V series morph from being specialist phones for particular types of people (stylus users and videographers respectively) shift to being first and foremost the best phones their manufacturers offer, and that’s going to be the positioning around the new iPhone too.

That creates some interesting challenges. The one everyone has focused on is whether anyone wants to pay $900–1000 for a phone, but in many markets that’s the wrong question: in reality, the vast majority of us in the US and other countries pay on a monthly not a one-off basis for our phones, so the difference will be measured in dollars and not hundreds of dollars. Secondly, much of the questioning has been done in the abstract, in the absence of a concrete device to point to, but we’re now seeing the phones that will command those prices, and we’ll see Apple’s next week, and that’s a very different proposition. Asking the theoretical question about whether someone will pay $1000 for a phone they know nothing about is very different from asking them whether they’ll pay a few extra dollars per month for the compelling new flagship from their favorite manufacturer, with all the new bells and whistles it offers.

The other challenge is what this positioning of a super premium bracket does to the rest of the market, those who will resist the pull of the ultra high end for affordability or other reasons. Will they happily settle for the next best — what used to be the high end—or will they rebel against the whole thing and stick with their older devices for longer out of frustration that they can no longer own the best out there? There are so many interesting questions to consider here and I don’t think any of us really knows how this will go.

On unlocking without a home button

The last thing that’s worth mentioning is unlocking the device, because that operates fundamentally differently on a device without a home button, which the Note8 is, and which the premium iPhone will be too. That leaves you with various other options, none of which is quite easy to use, flexible, and simultaneously secure as the home button fingerprint sensor. The fingerprint sensor on the back offers the same security and speed, but it’s awkward to reach. Face unlock is simple to implement and quick but easily fooled and doesn’t work in the dark. Iris unlock is pretty secure for most of us not being targeted by determined hackers, but requires you to look at the phone at a pretty set distance and angle. Unlocking was my one frustration with the Note8 and I’m very curious to see how Apple manages this transition on the new iPhone — it’s a really tough challenge without an easy or entirely satisfactory answer so far.

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