The latest Note is an outstanding business phone, but is it good enough to justify its premium price?
The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 has finally arrived, and with it confirmation that Samsung has shaken off the Galaxy Note 7's disastrous launch last year.
The new Note 8 comes out swinging with a big, beautiful screen, meaty internal hardware and a sleek, professional design.
The Note 8 presents a strong offering, combining all the best parts of the Galaxy S8 with the business-focused productivity features long-time Note fans love. But it does fall short of perfection. Let's start with the good first, however.
The Note 8 uses Samsung's trademark curved-edge screen, with a 6.3in display dominating the entire front face of the phone. With a display that big, you'd expect the Note 8 to feel like a monolithic slab, but thanks to the edge-to-edge 'Infinity Display' borrowed from the Galaxy S8, all that screen real-estate is packed into a device that barely feels any bigger than the S8 in the hand.
While it's definitely on the larger end of the smartphone spectrum, Samsung's latest offering doesn't feel especially unwieldy – if you're already accustomed to using big, phablet-style devices, you'll be right at home with the Note 8.
At 8.6mm thick and 195g, it's fractionally thicker and heavier than its predecessor, and it's larger than both the Galaxy S8 and the S8+. It feels like a formidable, utilitarian phone, designed for functionality rather than form.
That's not to say it's unattractive, though – in fact, it's one of the best-looking phones around. Despite a sensible, businesslike aesthetic (particularly on the Midnight Black model we reviewed) Samsung's unparalleled design skills mean that the Note 8 also looks effortlessly cool. This is every bit as attractive as the S8, and the gargantuan display is instantly eye-catching.
The screen is unquestionably the centrepiece of the Note 8, and it should come as no surprise that it's absolutely phenomenal. Samsung's AMOLED displays are the best in the business, with near-perfect contrast and colour accuracy.
The Note 8 continues this trend, with a virtually flawless QHD+ panel and a retina-searing maximum brightness of 981cd/m2 – the highest result we've ever seen. Colours are rich and vivid, and it even supports mobile HDR to ensure that video is packed with range and detail.
The large-format screen is a perfect canvas for whatever you're doing on your phone, whether it's watching video, editing documents, composing emails or even just scrolling through your social media feeds - the edge-to-edge display makes it all look absolutely gorgeous and gives you maximum room to work in.
This brings us to the Note range's main draw – Samsung's S Pen stylus. As usual, the S Pen is housed in its own dedicated slot within the Note 8's chassis, allowing you to securely store it when it's not in use. Not much has changed since the Note 7 with regards to the S Pen. Samsung has made some subtle improvements, including a finer nib and increased pressure sensitivity, but otherwise it's business as usual.
While the S Pen is an excellent stylus, chances are you're not really going to get a huge amount of use out of it unless you're the kind of person who regularly uses pen and paper to sketch or make notes.
We found the Note 8 was too small to comfortably write on without laying it on a flat surface (although this may be due to our terrible penmanship). So unless you're planning on using it for tasks which can't be done in a text editor – such as writing shorthand or marking up documents – you're probably not going to get all that much use out of the S Pen.
Aside from the S Pen, all the normal features you'd expect to see on a Samsung flagship make an appearance; IP-68 waterproofing is here, expandable storage is included via a microSD card slot, and it's compatible with Samsung's adaptive and wireless fast-charging standards.
The Edge panels are back, as seen on Samsung devices since the Galaxy S6, and the same biometric security features offered by the Galaxy S8 are present as well, including iris-scanning, facial recognition and a fingerprint reader.
As always, Samsung's Knox platform is built into the Note 8 at the silicon level, offering secure boot and hardware root of trust, kernel protections and app-level encryption. There's also a wealth of enterprise device and mobility management options on offer, allowing administrators to remotely track, lock and wipe devices should the need arise.
The Note 8 is also compatible with DeX, Samsung's desktop docking solution, which allows you to turn the company's flagship phones into (almost) fully-fledged desktop PCs. Slide the phone into the DeX dock, and you can take advantage of an external monitor, keyboard and mouse, and even a wired Ethernet connection.
This is great news for enterprise customers, as it gives them a wider variety of devices to choose from and indicates that the company isn't planning to stop supporting DeX any time soon. DeX itself is getting an upgrade or two in the form of some new software partners (including Citrix's GoToMeeting).
Another interesting feature that Samsung has debuted with the Note 8 is the 'app pair' feature, which allows users to designate certain apps to launch simultaneously. For example, you could open your email and calendar apps in tandem for maximum productivity, or open Twitter and Facebook at the same time, so you never miss out on any of the latest trending news. We found that the need to open two apps simultaneously wasn't pressing enough to justify using it that much, but it's a neat customisation option that many may find useful.
Just like the S8, Samsung has integrated its digital assistant Bixby into the Note 8, launched via a similar physical button on the side of the handset. Voice interaction with Bixby is now available for English users, so it's more useful that it was when the S8 launched. It functions much like Siri or the Google Assistant, allowing users to ask questions and perform tasks with vocal commands.
It's still not quite as fleshed out as other examples of this technology, however, and we didn't find ourselves using it a huge amount. Voice recognition is a little off, and we had to enunciate much more clearly and deliberately when giving Bixby commands than we do with other digital assistants.
One interesting thing Samsung has done with Bixby is integrate it into the camera – point it at an object or landmark, and Bixby will do a quick web search to tell you more about it. There's also a cool feature that uses AR technology to tell you where points of interest are in relation to your location.
If you're an enterprise user, there are a few things that might attract you about the Galaxy Note 8. For one thing, the act of making notes with a stylus rather than a keyboard still remains more natural to many people, particularly those who may have used PalmPilots and other PDAs in years gone by.
There's also a wealth of security and management options thanks to Samsung's Knox security platform, which make administrating a fleet of Samsung devices much easier than trying to wrangle phones from multiple different manufacturers.
Last but not least, the Note 8 is compatible with Samsung DeX, the company's desktop docking solution that was introduced alongside the Galaxy S8. If you've already adopted DeX as part of your business IT setup, then the Note 8 will slip seamlessly into your existing deployment - and if not, it's an excellent opportunity to do so.
Next: specs, performance, battery, camera and verdict.
Specs and performance
One of the main selling-points of the Galaxy Note range in years past was that it was more powerful that Samsung's flagship Galaxy S range, offering more grunt for power-users who wanted to multitask. While that's still true, it's somewhat redundant in this day and age, as the Galaxy S8 already offers more power than most users will ever need.
Nevertheless, if you're the kind of person that needs to squeeze every last drop of horsepower from your phone, then the Galaxy Note 8 will suit you – it carries the same octa-core as the Galaxy S8 and has 6GB of RAM compared to the S8’s 4GB. The Note 8 scored very capably in our benchmarks, with a result of 2,008 for single-core operations and 6,614 for multi-core tasks – pretty much the same result as the Galaxy S8 (6,629 for multi-core) and Galaxy S8+ (6,598), and better than the likes of the iPhone 7 (5,652).
It's more than powerful enough to run as many apps as you can reasonably throw at it without slowing down, including Adobe's mobile photo editing apps. The added power will also come in handy for anyone looking to use the Note 8 with DeX, as it'll be even better at desktop-style multitasking than the S8.
After what happened with the Note 7, Samsung made a huge point of mentioning the eight-point battery safety test that it put the Galaxy S8 through when it launched, and the Note 8 is no different. The company is keen to emphasise how rigorously it tested the Note 8's safety, and is trying to put its previous woes far behind it.
However, it appears that the company may have sacrificed some of the Galaxy S8's impressively long battery life in the name of safety. In our battery tests, the Note 8 managed a score of just 13 hours 38 minutes, which lags roughly three hours behind the S8's result, and almost seven hours behind the S8+.
Although the battery has to do some fairly heavy lifting, this is still a rather disappointing result from a flagship device in 2017. It's possible that Samsung is artificially throttling the battery's performance for the first few months of the Note 8's life, in case the Note 7's battery problems look like they're going to repeat themselves; if this is the case, a software update could fix this issue overnight.
As it stands, however, the current result is something of a let-down, but we'll be conducting more extensive testing in the coming weeks to confirm its authenticity.
Aside from the brand-new Infinity Display, the other big innovation that the Note 8 is bringing to the table is a new dual-lens camera. This is not just the first Note device to feature such a setup, but the first Samsung phone ever, with an f/1.7 wide-angle lens twinned with an f/2.4 telephoto lens with 10x digital and 2x optical zoom. Both use a 12-megapixel sensor, and both feature optical image stabilisation.
The results are truly stunning to behold. The Note 8's camera is one of the best smartphone cameras we've ever seen, with crystal-clear detail and excellent low-light performance to boot. This isn't hugely surprising, given that it uses the same basic technology as the S8's excellent camera, and in fact, the results are nearly identical.
The HDR has a tendency to be somewhat hit-and-miss, but when it does kick in the effects are superb, with minimal ghosting and haloing visible.
As with virtually all the latest major smartphones, you can shoot in 4K and 60fps, and there's also a number of additional shooting modes including slow-motion and timelapse. Samsung has also built in a number of Snapchat-style AR masks to the camera, should you wish to jazz up your selfies.
It’s clear that the Galaxy Note 8 is primarily targeted at business users, with powerful multi-tasking capabilities, support for Samsung's robust device management plans and the S Pen's business-friendly note-taking features.
Bear in mind, though, that with these professional-grade capabilities comes a decidedly professional-grade price. Priced at a hefty $1,499, it's more expensive than the Galaxy S8 ($1,199), Galaxy S8 Plus ($1,349) and the 128GB iPhone Plus ($1,419).
With this outright price, it’s likely most will opt to buy on a plan. At the time writing Vodafone had the cheapest monthly Galaxy Note 8 plan, with handset repayments starting at $41.63 per month over three years, plus its cheapest Red Plan (with 2GB of data), for a total of $71.63 per month. By comparison, Vodafone’s same plan with the Galaxy S8 is $63.30 per month, while Telstra’s cheapest Note 8 plan is $109 per month for 2GB of data and a two-year contract.
Overall, we feel that most people will be better off with one of Samsung’s other flagship phones. In most ways that count, the Note 8 is indistinguishable from the Galaxy S8+; the design is near-identical, the performance is neck-and-neck, and the screen is just as impressive. The Galaxy S8 is also much the same, apart from the display – which is still a generous 5.8in.
There are a few differentiators, the Note 8’s signature S Pen being the most obvious one, along with the dual-lens camera – a first for Samsung, and one that has paid off with a truly excellent snapper. However, there's also the Note 8’s disappointing battery life.
The Note 8 is a truly excellent device, but you’re better off with the Galaxy S8 unless a stylus is an absolute must-have.
The Galaxy Note 8 is available for pre-order from Samsung, all major telcos and retailers, and if you pre-order before 22 September, you can get a free wireless charger worth $119.
This review is based on an article that originally appeared at IT Pro.