Introducing its Galaxy Note 8 today, Samsung emphasized the new features that will make the Note 8 stand out in an increasingly crowded market, while acknowledging and trying to move beyond the battery issues that led to the recall of last year’s Note 7.
Samsung Mobile Communications Business President DJ Koh said the company will “never forget what happened last year” but expressed gratitude to the Note community for sticking with them.
This year’s device takes most of the features from previous Note phones and from the Galaxy S8 and S8+ phones introduced this spring, and puts them together in a new, somewhat larger package with a few extra features, including a great-looking dual camera system.
The device itself is somewhat larger than previous models at 162.5 by 74.8 by 8.6 mm, in part so that it can accommodate a larger 6.3-inch Super AMOLED display at what Samsung calls Quad HD+ resolution (2960-by-1400, though the default is set to a 1080p width to save battery, again like the S8+). The screen looks great, pretty much just like the S8, and has a 18.5:9 ratio, making it long and narrow, like the S8. Because of the “infinity display”—a curved display that wraps around the side of the phone, with almost no bezel on the side and rather small bezels on the top and bottom—the phone isn’t as wide as you might expect. I was surprised that it didn’t feel all that much larger than the S8+.
I’ve been a big fan of large phones since the original Note came out 6 years ago. Not everyone likes large phones—PCMag’s Sascha Segan and I have disagreed on this for years. I’m sure the width won’t be a problem on this phone, but I’ll try carrying one for a while to see if the height is an issue when in jeans’ pockets.
The large screen is particularly good for multitasking, and I like a new feature that lets you set two applications to go side-by-side when you click on an icon on the edge of the display.
Other than the large screen, the big defining feature of the Note series has been the “S-Pen,” a stylus for drawing on the screen that easily fits within the device. This year’s model doesn’t look much different than last year’s, and has the same theoretical 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity. It remains great if you have artistic talent or for writing in non-Western languages. It now offers a couple of new options that look quite intriguing: the option of writing on the screen when it is “off” so you can keep a to-do list; and, more impressively, for selecting part of a web page for automatic translation.
The feature that got the most attention was called “Live Message,” which captures your handwriting as an animated GIF that you can send via MMS or email—I doubt I’d use it much, but others might.
To me, the biggest improvement is the camera system. Samsung is the last of the big vendors to use two rear cameras instead of one, but its dual camera system looks quite good. Like the LG G6, the Note 8 has both a wide-angle lens and a “telephoto” (2X optical) lines, both at 12 megapixels. Samsung did add some important features such as including optical image stabilization for both cameras.
Samsung made a big deal about what it calls “Live Focus” which uses the two cameras to produce a photo in which the subject of the photo is in focus, while the background is out of focus. This isn’t a new idea—Apple does a similar thing with the iPhone 7 Plus and I’ve been particularly impressed by the Huawei P10 in this regard. Live Focus lets you change the amount of background blur when you take the photo or after you’ve saved it, and in a quick test this seemed to work quite well when taking a picture of someone about three or four feet away. It also should let you save both the wide angle and telephoto photos taken at the same time.
In quick testing at the introduction event, the camera seemed to work quite well, with the wide-angle camera taking most of the photos, and having a brighter F.17 aperture (and also having a slightly larger sensor). It also has an 8-megapixel front-facing camera for wide selfies, a feature I don’t use much but that others do.
On the hardware front, it appears to use the same processors as the S8 and S8+, which had the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 in U.S. models and the Samsung Exynos 8895—each are 10nm processors made by Samsung’s foundry group. But the Note 8 has 6GB of DRAM, compared with 4 in the S8. The U.S. version has 64GB of flash storage (other models supposedly will have 128 and 256 available), plus support for a microSD card with additional storage. It has a 3300mAh battery, which is larger than the battery on the S8 but not as big as the one that caused all the trouble on last year’s Note 7.
Samsung made a big deal about how it has had features such as offering water resistance (IP68) and wireless charging (basically just touching the screen in a dock) for years, while other makers are just now rumored to be adding it. Not surprisingly, it didn’t point out other areas where other vendors have been earlier- such as the dual rear camera set up.
On the software front, Samsung talked about its own assistant Bixby and how it was getting new features, including the ability to set common phrases that set off a chain of events, such as taking a “food photo” or performing a change of settings when you are going to sleep.
The DeX docking capabilities look like they continue to improve as well, with more software that takes advantage of the larger screen when it is plugged in to a dock; and then to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. This was demoed with both the Zoom video conferencing software and with Adobe Lightroom.
Other features include the firm’s Knox security layer, and support for a fingerprint reader, face recognition, and iris scanning. One good change from the S8 series is that the fingerprint reader is now positioned on the opposite side of the phone from the camera lens, so you’re less likely to smudge the lens every time you try to unlock the device.
Overall, the device looks great, and I’m really looking forward to getting a chance to try it out. For now, it looks like the top-of-the-line smartphone in many ways—from the screen to the camera to the pen. Now the question is, can Samsung make people forget about last year’s battery problems and move forward? We will see.
For Sascha Segan’s take, read his preview of the Galaxy Note 8.
Michael J. Miller is chief information officer at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Miller, who was editor-in-chief of PC Magazine from 1991 to 2005, authors this blog for PCMag.com to share his thoughts on PC-related products. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Miller works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.