Galaxy Note8 hands-on: A flagship that feels a bit like a footnote
After spending some time with the new Note, I can tell you it is exactly the phone we would all expect Samsung to build using the Galaxy S8 and S8+ as a starting point. It is the most undifferentiated Note device relative to its S siblings yet, and predictable to a fault. Were the Note7 disaster to never have happened, I have little doubt the Note8 would look just as it does today. Anyone spinning a comeback narrative here is probably seeing things that don't exist.
That's not to say there's something wrong with it. But it does make me wonder if there's much of a practical reason for the Note series to be a thing anymore. And to immediately answer my own question: Yes, there is – to make Samsung lots and lots of money. But beyond that? Samsung's case for the Note as a distinct product line seems to be a losing one, and there's less than ever to help the Note stand out from the company's other premium handsets with this newest iteration. To put it another way, the Note8 just doesn't seem very noteworthy.
Samsung really hasn't strayed far from the design language of the Galaxy S8 and S8+ with the new Note, though the signature squared-off corners do give it a distinct – if only subtly so – visual identity. You still have the very minimal bezel, but the Note8's 6.3" display is a barely-matters 0.1" larger diagonally than the S8+'s, and so really doesn't net you much more in the way of screen area. The speaker, USB-C port, and headphone jack are all still on the bottom, along with the stylus.
The subtle differences between the S8+ and Note8 are noticeable, but probably not to anyone but an enthusiast.
The Note8's stylus hasn't changed significantly from the Note7's, which didn't change significantly from the Note 5's. While it now supports an impressive 4096 pressure levels, it's still the same passive design, and physically all but identical to the one in last year's phone. As usual, new S Pen features are in tow. Now you can create animated GIFs of short drawings to share in messages (neat… I guess).
Inside the Note, you'll find the same Snapdragon 835 processor as the S8 and S8+ in the US, a 3300mAh battery – because of the stylus, the Note8 has less battery capacity than the S8+, by 200mAh – and 64GB of storage. The Note does get a RAM boost over the S phones, offering 6GB, the benefits of which in Android are dubious at best.
The Note8 uses essentially the same absolutely amazing display panel as the S8 and S8+, albeit with a sharper edge curve (to maximize writing surface area), it has the same front-facing camera, the same old Quick Charge 2.0, the same fingerprint reader in the same location (ugh), and the same hardware button layout, including a Bixby key. Are you noticing a pattern here?
The tiny bezels and amazing Super AMOLED display still impress
The one thing that is very noticeably different is around back, where we find a new dual camera array. Samsung has opted to include a second telephoto lens on the Note8 that has an effective 2x zoom factor versus the standard, wide-angle lens.
I didn't have a chance to take any meaningful sample photos with the cameras. Switching between them seemed snappy enough, but I'll have to wait until our review unit arrives to really see what Samsung's done here. Interestingly, like the OnePlus 5, when light conditions become too challenging, the primary camera sensor will be used to take photos even when the telephoto lens is selected, with no indication to the user this is occurring.
One potentially useful feature is something called dual photo – when you're shooting with the telephoto lens, this option appears up at the top of the camera UI and will capture a second, full-resolution image using the wide lens every time you take a photo. This allows you to do two things. First, you can manipulate the intensity of Samsung's artificial bokeh effect in editing after the fact, and second, you can actually pull out the wide angle shot and save it separate of the telephoto one. That's pretty cool.
The Note8 runs on Android 7.1.1, versus 7.0 on the Galaxy S8 and S8+, but it's basically the same version of TouchWiz you'll find on the latter phones. Obviously, it has some extra stuff for the stylus and second camera, with a few other small tweaks here and there. One such tweak allows you to set up two apps to launch in split screen mode automatically via the apps edge, which I actually do think could be pretty handy if you use splitscreening frequently. For example, you could set up a shortcut to launch your calendar and the dialer at the same time, or Google Maps and a messaging app to streamline copying and pasting an address. While I don't use splitscreen mode pretty much ever, this is one of those things that would probably make sense in stock Android (as a new type of shortcut). I wouldn't be surprised if Google apes it.
Dual app shortcuts let you quickly launch two apps in splitscreen mode – not a bad idea
But really, for all the digging I did, I couldn't find much in the way of new stuff that Samsung has included on the Note8. I'll have to compare to my Galaxy S8+ more closely when I get a review unit, but right now, this is nearly a carbon copy of the S8's software as far as I can tell. That's to say if you didn't like TouchWiz on the S8, you won't like it here. And if you did, you probably will.
The 45 minutes or so I spent with the Note8 in a controlled environment felt surprisingly sufficient to form an opinion of the phone, but it probably helps having been Android Police's reviewer of the various Notes since the third generation (and though I didn't review the Note7, I spent plenty of time with it). I feel like I'm slowly watching Samsung converge the Galaxy Note and S lines so completely that they're barely appreciably different anymore. Yes, there's the stylus, but if you think that's what sells Galaxy Notes, you're not really paying attention to what made these phones popular.
The Note was notable because it was a big phone at a time when most flagship phones were small (by today's standards). In 2013, the Galaxy S4 had a 5" display, while the Note 3 had one that was 5.7" across – there weren't any other premium phones anywhere near that big that you could buy on a major carrier in the US. The Note stood alone.
But when the Galaxy S6 edge+ came along, something changed: Samsung realized it could sell a boatload of big phones sans the stylus entirely. Then, the Galaxy S7 edge introduced a large-display flagship alongside the "normal" S7. The Note7 (RIP) was little more than a stretched S7 edge with a stylus and an iris scanner, but did act as the launch device for Samsung's new Grace UX software, and was novel for that – at least until Samsung's other phones got it.
The Note8, though? The dual cameras are certainly a nice upgrade for those who want a telephoto lens, but this phone is going to cost a lot of money, and it's going to be very hard for me to wrap my head around paying that kind of money for it when the basically-the-same S8+ is discounted left and right, and soon likely will be even more so with a new iPhone coming. Samsung has put itself in an awkward position with the Note line after years of increasingly hard-to-ignore product overlap. And if the S series and the Note are going to be so thoroughly similar, why release them nearly half a year apart?
I guess I'll have to see how things go after spending some more time with the newest Note. For now, this seems like a perfectly good Samsung phone (which is to say, and I should highlight this point, an excellent smartphone overall), but one that will have a hard time standing out in a meaningful way from Samsung's other, cheaper perfectly good phones.
The Note8 is clearly built first and foremost for Note fans, some of whom I can already predict will be showing up in the comments here to evangelize the stylus and my ignorance of its massive utility, or of that extra tenth-of-an-inch of display. And for them, maybe the Note8 is perfect – exactly what they'd been waiting for. But for me, as someone looking for Samsung to innovate and differentiate? It's a little boring.