So here it is: the sequel you weren’t expecting to a smartphone that wouldn’t stop exploding. And yet Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8 isn’t all that different from its pyromaniacal predecessor.
A big, supercharged handset with a jaw-dropping display, it’s every bit the kick-ass flagship phablet you’d expect. The headline change for 2017? This Note really, really shouldn’t go ‘boom’ anytime soon. That’s what Samsung promises, and it has thankfully proved true in my time with the phone so far.
What you’re left with, then, is a slightly bigger Galaxy S8, with a built-in stylus and a dual lens camera. Or your favourite old productivity powerhouse, now with a few new bells and whistles. That means most people are still gonna be best off with the standard S8, but for a select few, this is the ultimate Galaxy phone.
Design & build: bigger is a beast
Samsung’s Note phones have always been enormous, and the Note 8 is no exception. With a 6.3in AMOLED panel, it’s got the biggest screen ever seen in a Galaxy.
Thanks to a skinny 18:9 aspect ratio and metal frame, you won’t need the hands of a giant to grip this phone, but you’re still gonna struggle to bash out a one-handed WhatsApp message. Just trying to grab a few snaps while holding an umbrella this rainy London weekend was enough to bring me out in a cold sweat. Such is it’s expense, I’d be inclined to get a case for the Note 8 for sheer peace of mind.
Given just how lovely this phone is to behold, that’d be a shame. While the Galaxy S8 is smooth, soft, and almost pebble-like, the Note 8 specialises in angular edges and a screen that curves at a much steeper incline. It means business, and gives you the maximum amount of real estate to daub with your S Pen stylus scribblings. So yeah, you can draw some extra large cartoon genitalia this time around.
Generally speaking, this is a tweaked edition of the already excellent Galaxy S8. The one downside? With those gloriously slim bezels, there’s no room for a fingerprint sensor up front, so it’s been bumped to the back in an awkward spot next to the Note’s dual camera lenses.
Most of the time this isn’t a problem, as facial recognition is built-in to pick up the slack and unlock the phone instead. In dim conditions, this often won’t be the case, and you’ll have to strain for the fingerprint scanner - possibly smudging those camera lenses in the process. It’s a poorly thought-out solution for an such an otherwise elegant phone, and honestly proves routinely annoying enough to be the Note 8’s greatest shortcoming.
Still, that only speaks to how good the rest of its build is. The whole thing is water-resistant, retains a 3.5mm headphone jack, and offers USB-C charging at the bottom. That’s the full gamut of flagship smartphone essentials, and there’s a button for Samsung’s Bixby voice assistant as well… which is rather less necessary.
CAMERA: SEEING DOUBLE
Sure, dual cameras have been around for yonks now, but this is the first time it has cropped up on a properly top-tier Samsung phone - and unlike Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus, the Note 8 gives both of ‘em optical image stabilisation. This helps the two 12MP snappers cut down on any unwanted blurriness in your shots.
It’s an interesting approach, with the main sensor getting the same f/1.7 aperture and dual-pixel autofocus as the Galaxy S8, and the secondary telephoto lens sticking with f/2.4 and phase-detect AF only.
What does this all mean? Basically, you can toggle between 1x and 2x ‘optical zoom’ to get closer to your subjects without actually moving. And unlike phones with single lens cameras, the Note 8 will do this without chucking any nasty digital noise or compression into the mix.
I know this might not sound like a big deal, but being able to quickly grab a close up without risking a hot mess of a photo is a proper revelation. And the dual lenses allow for dreamy bokeh-blurring portraits too. Samsung calls this Live Focus, because you can tweak the amount of blur before you press the shutter button and every possible feature in the Galaxy smartphone universe must seemingly be trademarked. It saves two shots, allowing you to go back and adjust the effect whenever you like.
So not only is the Galaxy Note 8’s camera a fine smartphone snapper, it’s also supremely versatile too. The pics I got with it were perfectly focused, with well-judged exposure levels and typically Samsung colours. By which I mean everything looks a little more vibrant than it does in real life. On a rainy Sunday, a turquoise bandstand is as bright and gleaming as though you’ve shot it at the height of midsummer.
Personally, I don’t have an issue with this processing; the photos still look good. If natural colours are absolutely essential then you can always get an iPhone instead. What’s important is that everything here is quick, responsive and offers up plenty of detail.
The same goes for the Note’s 8MP selfie cam, which is probably using the same snapper as the Galaxy S8, seeing how both have f/1.7 apertures and autofocus. Either way, it takes a good gurnface shot - so you can happily make an idiot out of yourself on Instagram.
SCREEN & SOUND: BIGGER IS BETTER
If you’ve seen a Galaxy S8 or S8+ in the wild, you’ll know just why the Note 8 makes such a great first impression: it’s got an absolute stunner of a screen.
Samsung has been running the show in this smartphone arena for some time now, and a super-high 2960x1440 resolution AMOLED panel ensures the Note doesn’t let the side down. Since it’s stretched out over 6.3in, you’re technically getting lower pixel density than the S8 but, honestly, who cares? This is still an impeccable screen for Netflix, gaming and all manner of day-to-day undertakings.
As much as this makes for a bigger phone to hold, the upshot of all the Note 8’s real estate is all for the good. Whether you’re firing off an email or catching up on the day’s headlines, there’s something luxurious about having a so much space to play with. Given the Galaxy S8+ already has a 6.2in display, though, this isn’t quite the novelty that it would have been in years gone by.
As with the S8, the Note 8 is capable of ludicrous brightness levels when you step outside. You won’t ever have a problem seeing what’s onscreen, and the contrast we’ve come to expect from OLED screens gives movies and games a gorgeous, cinematic look with deep blacks and vibrant colours. Usually, I’m minded to stick to YouTube on my phone and save big TV shows for home viewing, but the Note 8 had me squeezing a spot of Marvel’s The Defenders on my train into work.
Even though this phone’s speakers are fine for razzing through your podcast backlog, you’ll want to stick in a pair of headphones when catching up with anything that requires a greater sense of audio nuance. Luckily enough, Samsung does a tasty bundle a tasty pair of AKG ‘buds in the box with the Note.