Samsung Galaxy Note8 Smartphone Review
Cutting edge tech, sloping edge design
What is the Samsung Galaxy Note8?Unlike most phone manufacturers, Samsung has two big launches each year. In the spring, it’s the turn of the Galaxy S range, currently up to S8. And the autumn sees the reveal of its phone-tablet hybrid, the Note. Last year’s Note7 (Samsung squeezes its model number right up against the range for both phones, for example, S8 and Note8) turned out to be rather notorious because, beautiful and powerful though it was, the Note7 kept catching fire which, on the whole, is not what you want in a mobile phone.
So this year Samsung has had to make clear that its latest phone is both cutting-edge and not prone to spontaneous combustion. We'll hold them to that as we put the Note8 through its paces.
DesignThis phone looks spectacular. The shape is the oblong with curved edges we expect from a mobile phone, with a sleek, slick back which is also composed of glass in this case, thus allowing the phone to be charged wirelessly.
The Note8 looks superficially similar to the S8, that is, classy, glossy and impressive. But it adds one extra design tweak which is splendid: the sloping edges of the screen, a Samsung speciality for the last few years, is much steeper than on the S8. That means the stylus, that other Note series speciality, doesn’t slide off the edge of the screen as you get towards the edges. More importantly, the steep but curved edging means that the phone fits in the hand like a dream. The scramble to create bigger phones has stretched many a mitt. This is the most comfortable phone of this size, or anywhere near, I’ve ever felt.
The phone’s front is nearly all screen, which is fantastic, but has an important downside. There’s no room for a physical home button. Samsung has cleverly built a virtual one under the display. There’s even a sensor underneath it so when you press there’s a haptic response so you know you’ve hit it. But there was no way to squeeze a functioning fingerprint sensor on to the front of the phone. Rumour has it that both Samsung and Apple have been trying to figure out how to put that sensor behind the screen so touching the display identifies you, but Samsung didn’t manage it. Nor, probably, did Apple.Which leads us to the biggest design disappointment on the phone: the fingerprint sensor sits on the back of the handset, up next to the camera. There are two cameras on this phone which means that the fingerprint sensor isn’t quite as near to the snapper as on the S8 but the truth is it’s all too easy to smudge the lens with your finger as you blindly reach round from the front.
Samsung would say that the other security precautions in place, such as facial recognition and iris scanning, mean you may never touch the fingerprint sensor anyway. Let’s be clear, both these sensors work, but in my tests neither was fast or reliable enough to be the way I’d routinely unlock my phone in the way that the fingerprint sensor has become.
There’s an immediacy and intimacy to the fingerprint sensor which makes it a pleasure to use. I found both other unlock systems were disappointing. For iris scanning, despite the cute cartoon face I could make appear onscreen so I knew I was looking in the right place, I found myself having to open my eyes unnaturally wide to be sure of success. Which can be embarrassing in public. And the facial recognition system is great, but for me it only worked about 80 per cent of the time, which isn’t enough.
Other design elements include the headphone jack – there is one – and the camera which, as mentioned above comes with two lenses as is the latest photographic fashion. Oh, and like the Galaxy S8, this phone is waterproof and the S Pen stylus, which pops out of the bottom corner of the phone, is also waterproof.
The design looks spectacular but the front is nearly all screen so the fingerprint sensor is on the back
DisplayThe display on this phone is huge – 6.3 inches in an 18.5:9 aspect ratio – though again the sides make it feel like something much more manageable in the hand. This is a high-resolution Super AMOLED display. No surprise there, it’s been Samsung’s speciality for a long time. So the vivid, rich, amazingly colourful screen is almost ho-hum these days, it’s so familiar. Because it’s AMOLED instead of LCD, the black shades are truly deep and the contrast levels dialled up to the max.
And the cliff-like edges have another benefit: the 'infinity' display itself has less distortion as a result. Even so, the special features of earlier Edge phones are still here. The initial use was pretty niche: if you’re in a meeting and your phone rings, you can surreptitiously see a visual notification peeping out even if the phone is face down. Colour coding of close contacts would reveal who it was.
Since then, the edge display has had more capabilities. So, for instance, swiping in from the extreme edge of the display reveals a series of app shortcuts, or quick connections to important contacts or even useful extras like a ruler or compass. These are simple functions but I have to say they work well and are a real distinguishing feature from most other manufacturers. Samsung’s S8 and Note8 both benefit from this, but in terms of a simple but effective interface mechanic, the slope-edged screen is very good.
The high resolution Super AMOLED display is huge at 6.3 inches and looks fantastic
CameraThis is the first dual camera on a Samsung flagship. Unlike the Nokia 8 or recent Huawei and Honor phones which have one colour and one monochrome sensor, this phone has two colour 12-megapixel ones. One is a wide-angle lens and the other telephoto.
In other words, this dual camera set-up, like on the iPhone 7 Plus, is about getting round the absence of an optical zoom. Now, with one tap you can flip from one lens to the other, and the telephoto is an effective 2x optical zoom. You can also zoom from one to the other and the result is smooth and effective.
And, like the iPhone 7 Plus, you can shoot with both cameras simultaneously for special effects. For instance, you have two images to choose from afterwards, one close-up, one wider angle. You can also use the two cameras for that elegant depth-of-field bokeh effect that’s all the rage.This works extremely well, with the artful blurring of the background delicately and persuasively done. Bokeh is one of those effects that become mandatory very quickly. Before you see it, I think you automatically ignore the background. As soon as you’ve seen it, you want it all the time. The dual lens setup also improves the camera's performance in low light, which is handy.
This phone has another Samsung first: Full View mode. Since the screen covers almost the entire front of the phone, it makes sense to maximise what you see when you shoot. So, by tapping the Full View button, the camera screen suddenly fills the entire screen, with sliders or shutter buttons now floating in the midst instead of on a separate part of the display.
It looks glorious and makes you feel you have an outstanding camera viewfinder at your disposal. Both the rear cameras also have optical image stabilisation built in, too. I’ve only tried it briefly but this is a terrific camera that is fast and accurate, full of useful features, with a decent range of manual overrides for enthusiasts and a competent automatic mode for the rest of us.
The dual camera setup works in a similar fashion to the iPhone 7 Plus and is terrific in operation
PerformanceThe Samsung Galaxy Note8 uses a 10nm mobile processor and 6GB of RAM, which means it’s super-quick and very responsive. Everything moves fast. This phone never keeps you waiting, whatever you ask of it.
The S Pen is part of the phone’s performance and the handset works brilliantly with it. Press on the stylus when it’s installed in its cubby hole and it pops out, alerting the phone that it’s being used and replacing whatever’s on screen with a series of stylus-friendly options.
You can scribble on the Note8 to make notes, for instance, using Samsung Notes and you can also use it for live messaging. And this doesn’t just work in normal usage, it is also effective on the lock screen. On the Note8, what is called the Always-On Display which can show the time, for instance, when the screen is otherwise mostly blank, can also be accessed by the S Pen for 'screen off memos'. And in this latest version of the software, you can write for up to 100 pages. Which is quite a long shopping list.
The large screen also allows for other Samsung specialities like App Pairs which let you have two apps onscreen at the same time, pairs which you can save together as well as putting two ad hoc apps together as you choose. It’s a neat use of the display.
The phone is also powerful enough to work well with Bixby, Samsung’s answer to Siri and Google Assistant. Though it’s worth noting that Google Assistant is also on this phone. Bixby is activated by a side button on the phone and aims to be capable of helping you do anything on the phone by voice, which makes it handy for those with accessibility issues. Bixby is also becoming an effective virtual assistant which will grow but it does beg the question, do you really need multiple voice-activated assistants on one phone?
The performance is fast and responsive, although it's debatable whether you need two voice assistants
Battery LifeBattery life was good, though I sometimes think that phone batteries take a week or more to settle down so you never know. This cell has been deliberately downsized after the Note7’s problems. That’s even though the display is bigger than last year’s model. Even so, the phone kept going happily for a full day with no problem. It’s boring to say this again as it’s a common theme with phones, but providing you recharge each night, you are unlikely to have problems.
- Lovely design and build quality
- Impressive dual camera
- Excellent display
- Good performance
- Plenty of useful features
- Location of fingerprint sensor
- Very expensive
Samsung Galaxy Note8 Smartphone ReviewThere’s one element of this phone that has to be mentioned. It’s very expensive. Sure, most people will be getting it on contract so that extra cost is gently spread out but there’s no getting away from the fact that this phone is pricey. Part of that is because of the Note specialities like the S Pen. If you don’t need that stylus, the S8+ has a marginally smaller screen but is otherwise powerful and effective.
Then there’s that fingerprint sensor which has been placed too near the cameras for comfort, which is a big negative. But if the price isn’t an issue and you can get used to that sensor, there’s not much else wrong with the Note8. It’s fast, punchy, has a brilliant pair of cameras and it looks terrific. With the next iPhone just around the corner, Samsung has got its reply in first. As replies go, it’s a pretty convincing one.
Call and Signal Quality9
Email, Browsing, Calandar, Contacts7
App support and functionality8
Value for Money6
Our Review Ethos
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