Before Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Note8 phablet phone last month, a Samsung customer told me that if the company merely brought out the Note 7 and called it the 8, he’d be just as excited to buy it. Such is the steadfast loyalty exhibited by many Note customers willing to stick with Samsung even after the Note 7s infamously caught fire last fall, leading to an expensive and embarrassing series of recalls.
As it happens, Samsung didn’t clone the Note 7, though it didn’t go overboard by adding a ton of new features either, probably smart after last year’s flame out. But I was fan of the Note 7, at least before its battery issues surfaced. And I can say the same about Note8.
Along those lines, let me quickly address the question that still must be top of mind for some of you: after a week of testing, not only did my Note8 not combust, it didn’t even get the slightest bit warm.
With only subtle design differences, the new Note8 bears a striking resemblance to another Samsung flagship, the Galaxy S8+ smartphone that along with the Galaxy S8, went on sale in the spring. It retains staple features from Samsung’s other recent models, including water and dust resistance, fast charging, and the ability to unlock the screen with your iris (a hit or miss in my experience). Samsung’s upstart digital assistant Bixby, which is still playing catch-up to other vocal digital assistants, is a holdover feature too.
The Note8 is only slightly taller than the S8+ and has a beautiful edge-to-edge 6.3-inch Quad HD+ Super AMOLED display that isn’t much bigger than the similar 6.2-inch screen on the S8+. Indeed, the large phablet-size screens on Note devices have always been a strong draw for some Samsung buyers, a reason they choose Notes over the S-series handsets. But when you compare the Note8 to the S8+ anyway, that’s no longer as big a factor.
Still, the screen on the Note8 is the largest display yet for the Note series, and in fact, is considerably larger than the 5.7-inch display on Note 7. The home button is embedded, the overall handset is thin, and I never felt as if I were holding a monster-sized device.
For its part, Apple’s current largest iPhone, the 7 Plus, has a 5.5-inch display, though the new iPhone that is expected to be announced next Tuesday, is also likely to have a large, nearly bezel-free display of a size yet to be revealed, with a home button that may also be embedded.
As with other Samsung devices, you can drag your finger along the display to summon a secondary screen. You might, for example, use it for quick access to key contacts or certain apps you frequently use. New with the Note 8 is the ability to open an app pairing from the edge screen, that is two apps at once that would share the main display. YouTube and the Internet browser were already paired on my device. You might choose to pair Facebook with your photo Gallery app.
There are other reasons some of you will want to still choose the Note 8 over the Galaxy S devices. The former has dual rear cameras compared to a single rear camera on the S8s; and the Note 8, as with prior Notes, sports the special stylus Samsung calls the S Pen.
The presence of dual-rear 12-megapixel cameras, both with optical image stabilization, lets you capture both wide-angle or portrait images off a single shot, meaning you won’t have to think about which kind of picture to take before you snap away. That's nice.
So is a live depth of field camera feature that lets you adjust the level of blur in the background while keeping the main subject of a photograph in focus. Apple has a similar “Portrait” feature on the iPhone 7 Plus. The difference with Samsung's version is that you can preview and alter the background blurring effect prior to shooting, and if still not satisfied change the blur after the fact.
I was generally quite pleased with the pictures that I shot with the phone, including some taken in dim lighting. Selfies (with a front 8-megapixel) camera looked fine too.
Note owners typically wield the pressure-sensitive S Pen to jot down notes or draw. Samsung added a few new pen experiences. A fun Live Message features lets you draw animations and emojis. Samsung has improved a note-taking feature in which you can write memos on the display even when the screen is off—you can now save up to 100 pages of such notes.
Last year’s Note let you translate words from a foreign language into English (or other languages) by hovering over the words with the S Pen. The Note 8 is supposed to bolster the feature by letting you translate complete sentences. I got it to work, but not always.
While I’m nitpicking, Samsung repeated a design flaw that was on the S8—the fingerprint sensor—yes, still another way to unlock the device—was moved to the back. That doesn’t bother me. What does though is off-center placement of the fingerprint sensor next to the cameras, which meant my fingers sometimes landed on the camera instead of the fingerprint sensor.
Folks who preordered Note 8s will start to receive the devices on Wednesday; it’ll be available more widely on Sept. 15. The price range is around $930 to $960, with some variation tied to your carrier. The version sold in the U.S. (in black or gray) comes with 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage.
Samsung has gone to great pains to apologize for and describe what went wrong with the Note 7s and has since implemented a stringent 8-point battery safety test. Indeed, no major battery issues surfaced since the S8+ or its sibling, the S8, have been released, and the Note 8 shows no such signs either. While some customers may have have wanted to stick with the Note 7, they'll be equally happy that the battery woes last year's phablet no longer appear to be an issue.
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