Update: Our ongoing Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review has been updated to reflect the newly announced prices in the US and UK. Here are our thoughts so far.
Let’s get this out the way now: if the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 hadn’t been so prone to explosions the Note 8 would have been a slam dunk of a phone, so impressive is this new handset at first sight.
Well, it very much still is – there’s very little wrong with the Note 8 if you’re a fan of the phablet – but the spectre of last year’s debacle is still hanging over its shiny body.
As with the Galaxy S8, Samsung has promised that its rigorous battery checks will prevent such incendiary incidents from happening again – and that’s clearly the case with the Note 8 too.
As such, you can disregard the issues from last year if you go for this new and powerful handset from Samsung… apart from the inevitable questions / mocking you’ll have to put up with when you pull it out for the first time.
As mentioned, you’ll have to be a fan of Samsung’s phablets specifically to be drawn towards the Note 8 over the Galaxy S8 Plus, for instance, because despite having more power and a larger and sharper screen than anything Samsung has launched before, it’s got a smaller battery than the S8 Plus and is more expensive too.
Samsung Galaxy Note 8 release date and price
The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is available to pre-order on August 23 in the UK, and Thursday, August 24 in the US. It’ll be in US stores on Friday, September 15, and likely the same date around the world in key territories such as the UK.
In terms of price – get ready for a very expensive phone. In the UK it’s going to be £869 SIM-free, and Note 8 deals will start at around £60 per month if you want a free phone – very much at the pricey end of the scale.
In the US, it costs $930 for a Note 8 unlocked through Samsung, while carrier like Verizon are charging a hefty $40 a month. T-Mobile is only charging $30 a month… with a $210 downpayment. Luckily, there will be Note 8 deals in the US.
You can order the Note 8 in the US through Samsung, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint as well as smaller carriers like C Spire, Cricket Wireless, Straight Talk, US Cellular and Xfinity Mobile. Best Buy, Walmart and Target will also carry it.
More screen than ever before
The big thing about the ‘8’ series of Samsung phones is the Infinity Display, which is Samsung’s name for the edge-to-edge, bezel-less display that adorns the front of the handset.
And the Galaxy Note 8 has the biggest version of this display yet seen, with a 6.3-inch QHD+ offering that just looks sublime. You’re really just picking up a screen with the phone attached somewhere on the back.
The quality of the screen hasn’t been updated a huge amount from the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus – it’s still the same Super AMOLED technology with HDR support baked in, but that’s no issue, as we consider Samsung to be making the best phone displays in the world right now.
It’s brighter and more colorful than anything we’ve seen before – although we’re awaiting the lab tests to confirm this – making it the best phone to watch movies on again if so.
The design of the phone complements the display well, with the slightly rounded edges on the back having a touch of sharpness about them to make the phone easier to grip.
It was interesting to note (sorry…) that we tended to pick up the phone more in the middle of the display, rather than cradling it from the bottom – this made finding the buttons and the rear fingerprint scanner easier to hit (more on that later).
The buttons all protrude well enough to be easily clicked, and weirdly for a phone of this size it didn’t feel too cumbersome in the palm. It was even possible to reach the full width of the screen with a thumb, although you can forget hitting the corners.
It’s got three flavors of internal storage: 64GB, 128GB and 256GB. On top of that there’s a microSD slot (up to 256GB supported) and with an S Pen port too, there’s a lot to pack into the Galaxy Note 8, and Samsung has done well to put it all together in a package like this (especially as it’s IP68-rated for water and dust resistance).
However, the Gorilla Glass 5 still feels lightweight, and still borders on feeling a little like plastic. This does save weight, and the overall construction feels premium, but there’s a tactility to metal – or even ceramic – that we miss here.
Fingerprint mistakes are repeated
However, when it comes to design choices, we’re disappointed that Samsung has maintained its stance of putting the fingerprint scanner on the back next to the camera.
We’d assumed that last-minute design changes had meant the Galaxy S8 had to have the biometric unlocking method put on the rear, and that this issue would be solved with the Note 8.
However, Samsung has maintained the placement, and it’s still annoying. Yes, the scanner is easier to hit thanks to being more pronounced, and the way you hold the Note 8 means your finger falls more naturally on it; but it’s not comfortable, and there are far better examples of scanners on the back of phones out there (the Google Pixel springs to mind).
Samsung’s executives will tell you that they use iris scanning to unlock their phones most of the time, but in our testing of the Galaxy S8 we didn’t find this accurate enough… and that still seems to be the case here.
The camera on the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is probably one of the biggest upgrades over anything else in the South Korean brand’s range, with dual 12MP sensors on the rear.
As on Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus, one of these is telephoto, so you can zoom in 2x to your subject with no loss in clarity. You can also use the two sensors together to create a background blur effect, either when taking a photo or after you’ve shot it.
However, this feature needs some work. In our testing we noted (dammit, again…) that the Note 8 didn’t do a very good job of working out which elements to blur in the live preview very well, with subjects with detailed outlines, such as plants, proving especially problematic.
We’d also question whether being able to blur the image post-shot is a good idea. What Apple does well is keep things simple, and a ‘background defocus’ mode that did just that would have been a better idea here.
Perhaps give users a ‘geek-out’ mode where they can enable tuning, but the average user is presented with a lot of options on the Note 8 camera, which always feels like something of a danger.
That said, it is a Note device, and its fans are often more technically-minded than the average phone user, so maybe it won’t be an issue.
We also really liked the ability so still see the wide-angle ‘normal’ photo when you’ve shot a snap in Live Focus, as it gives you the chance to find a better picture in what you’ve pictured.
What you won’t find an issue with is the picture quality. It’s as excellent as ever, and combined with the Super AMOLED screen your snaps always look brilliant – even if taken quickly, such is the speed of autofocus.
With one sensor on the rear taking wide-angle, f/1.7 images and one taking zoomed f/2.4, you should be able to get good low-light performance from the Note 8, as well as being able to take a wide range of styles of photo.
That said, in our low-light comparison with the iPhone 7 Plus, the results from Apple’s setup looked brighter, albeit with more noise. We’re not going to pass judgement on that though, as it needs more of a look.
A key upgrade has been missed
We’re sad to see that Samsung still isn’t choosing to offer dual speakers on the Galaxy Note 8, as this would be a brilliant addition to a phone that’s so great for media playback.
There’s only a single speaker at the bottom of the phone, and while this has some grunt to it and is capable of making loud noises, it lacks the clarity of a dual-speaker system that can create a more immersive audio experience.
This won’t be a huge issue much of the time, given that you can still use headphones (and through the headphone jack, with AKG-tuned headphones in the box) but it would be nice to see Samsung getting on board with this feature.
The most useful S Pen ever made
The S Pen is – along with the raw power inside – the thing that defines the Note series, and the new version of the stylus is better than ever. Its 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity, a more flexible tip and nice weight make it a pleasure to use.
Samsung, once again, has wheeled out the idea that ‘this feels like writing on paper’ and while it utterly doesn’t (because this is rubber on glass) it’s closer than ever before, and highly accurate.
The new features offered, such as the option to create an animated GIF from your doodles, and to translate more words in a single swipe, are among the most useful that Samsung has offered with the S Pen.
We never felt that being able to snip out parts of pictures was a great tool to have, but the Galaxy Note 8 feels more useful to the millennial generation than ever.
Bixby bursts forth
The Galaxy Note 8 should really be known as the phone that brings Bixby, Samsung’s digital assistant, to the fore, with the full suite of features enabled from launch.
That means that alongside the Bixby Home screen (which is still more perfunctory than amazing as a feature) and Bixby Vision (which has a long way to go to convince us it’s any use) we’ll have Bixby Voice on board, offering the full range of ways to interact with your phone.
It’ll mean you’ll be able to press the physical Bixby button and have the phone perform all manner of tasks – and in the demo we’ve seen, it’s incredibly accurate and powerful for a voice assistant.
It won’t mean a lot right now, even to Samsung phones, but where we derided Bixby’s presence on the Galaxy S8 at launch, the Note 8 will offer far more functionality.
There’s always a worry with any phone when you don’t see an industry-leading number in the battery spec column, and that’s the case with the Samsung Galaxy Note 8.
The 3300mAh power pack just feels too small for a phone that has these specs. More RAM (6GB), a powerful CPU (either the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 or the Exynos 8895), and a wider range of functionality means people will be using the Note 8 a heckuva lot.
It’s a smaller battery than the Galaxy S8 Plus (which offered a 3500mAh option), and this could be an issue for Note users.
Yes, Samsung has optimized its software well, and yes, there needs to be space for the S Pen – but we expect the best of the best from the Note range, so we’ll have to wait and see how well the device performs in our usual battery (sorry, again, sorry…) of tests.
Anything else I need to know?
One of the things Samsung is keen to promote in its new range of phones is the DeX desktop experience, where you plug the phone into the dock and have a full desktop experience if there’s a monitor, mouse and keyboard handy.
This seems more in keeping with the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 than the Galaxy S8, as the Note is designed to be more of a productivity tool.
The demo we were shown did show off an improved DeX, with a more fluid desktop experience and more full-screen Android apps that can be used effectively with a keyboard and mouse, but we saw nothing to convince us that this was a complete desktop replacement.
Biometrics still need sorting
Samsung still hasn’t solved the issues around the biometric unlocking of its phones – at least going on what we could see in our limited testing.
The iris scanner failed on a couple of occasions, despite being in the right lighting conditions, and while we didn’t test out facial recognition we didn’t see anything that suggested Samsung has solved the issue of these options being slightly inaccurate and erratic.
Samsung didn’t have to do much to make a decent Note 8, such was the impressive nature of the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus.
Essentially, this is just a beefed-up version of those phones with a fancier camera – more options, but overall still the same quality underneath.
The power will attract some users who want 6GB of RAM alongside the latest CPUs on the market, but they won’t really change the performance for most users.
In reality we can see people buying this phone for the larger display and improved S Pen – and despite the higher price, that could attract a large audience indeed.
As long as the Note 8 doesn’t run into any similar issues to last year, we’re going to be treated to an epic battle between Samsung and Apple this year to see which brand can offer the most impressive handset.