A year after the disastrous Galaxy Note7, Samsung is back with another Note, its flagship big-screen smartphone that is the best it'll build in 2017. Welcome to the Note8 -- it's a masterpiece, an agenda-setting phone that's the first of a new breed of devices that could well replace your entire PC.
The Galaxy Note8 faces stronger competition than ever, but that's a great thing for you, the customer. It catches up to Apple and its competitors with an excellent dual camera, and it streaks ahead with the best screen of any phone ever. If this is the benchmark for top-end phones, I'm really excited to see what this forces everyone else to come up with.
What Is It?
The $1499 Samsung Galaxy Note8 is the latest and greatest phone from the world's most prolific smartphone builder. It's a big phone, too -- built around a new 6.3-inch 2960x1440pixel 18.5:9 ratio Infinity Display, the Note8 is 163x75x8.6mm and weighs 195g. But from the front, it's all screen. Like the S8 before it, the Note8 has a home button that's actually hidden underneath the lower edge of its extended display, responding to a light press to power on the screen from sleep or to pop you back to the home screen while you're using it.
Apart from that screen, the standout new hardware feature of Samsung's new Galaxy Note8 is its dual camera module. As well as the same existing 12-megapixel f/1.7 optically stabilised wide-angle (26mm equivalent) lens that the S8 has, the Galaxy Note8 is the first Samsung phone to have dual rear-facing cameras, and the first phone ever with dual optical image stabilised cameras. That's right, the Note8's second sensor-and-lens module, another 12-megapixel one (although lacking the dual pixel autofocus of the wide lens) with a f/2.4 lens at a 52mm equivalent field of view.
On top of that, Samsung uses both lenses simultaneously in its camera app for a new Live Focus software feature that blurs the background, using the wide-angle lens to determine the foreground and background of shots. It'll also save both a wide-angle and portrait shot, and let you adjust the background blur before or after. It works pretty damn well, too, but more on that later. You can also share these photos with other Galaxy Note8 users, by the way, and they can do all the same photo re-jiggery in their own Gallery app.
Under the hood, the Note8 has similar hardware to the S8 from earlier in the year. In Australia we get a 64GB storage variant with microSD support for 256GB more, with Samsung's octa-core Exynos 8895 CPU and 6GB of RAM supporting all the usual 4G network bands at all the usual blazing fast speeds. You also get a Bixby button under the volume ones, and Bixby now works a little better in Australia too.
What's It Good At?
The Note8's Live Focus photos are just about the best that I've taken with a smartphone. If you've got an iPhone 7 Plus you'll know just how good Portrait Mode can be, and Samsung's come up with something that's equally good. Both the cameras are just fantastic. Case in point the small gallery below -- that squirrel snap is definitely the best photo I've ever taken with a phone, and those eggs on toast look as good as they taste. The ability to share the adjustable photos, albeit only with other Note8 users, is a nice bonus.
The camera in general is just really really nicely done. Both sensors snap photos that are very close in white balance and exposure, so there's no obvious difference in quality between the two even in difficult lighting. And that's a good thing for the consistency of your photos! I can confidently say that the Note8's camera is the best I've used on any Android phone, and is easily the equal of the iPhone 7 Plus. If you like taking great photos with your phone, you won't be disappointed with the Note8.
The software updates that the Note8 launches with, that revolve around the S-Pen, are actually pretty cool. For a gimmick, Samsung's Live Message feature -- which turns your S-Pen stylus scribbles into GIFs that you can send through any messaging service or social network you might care to name -- is pretty fun. It's not going to set the world on fire in terms of how amazing it is, but being able to jot down an animated birthday message is a little bit more wholesome than just typing one out. In that, and a few other scenarios, it might just come in handy and it might actually influence me to use the S-Pen more.
Ditto the stylus's live translation and currency conversion features, which make the Note8 a smart traveller's phone. App Pair is another software feature that just makes so much sense, especially considering the massive vertical screen real estate that you have with the Note8. Imagine getting into the car, swiping and tapping the App Pair to open Spotify and Maps while you're putting the Note8 into your car's phone cradle. Or sitting on the train with YouTube and Twitter open on your commute. Of course, you can do all these things already on a Note or a S8, but you have to multi-task manually, and honestly I just forget. Once I had some App Pair icons set up, I actually started to use them.
What's It Not Good At?
The Note8's battery life is OK, but not incredible. It's better than the Note5's life from its identically sized battery, it's better than the Note4, but anecdotally it's a little inferior to the Galaxy S8+ that I was carrying around alongside it. That's likely due to the combination of bigger, brighter screen and more high-tech stylus components sucking up power. It's still enough for all-day use, but I doubt you'd get more than a full day's enjoyment out of the Note8 unless you switched on Samsung's power saving mode early on in the day. Thankfully fast wired and wireless charging are both close at hand.
It's also expensive, very much so. The Galaxy Note8 is the most expensive smartphone that Samsung has released into Australia, and it's one of the most expensive smartphones period -- eclipsed only by the ridiculous storage 256GB variant of the iPhone 7 Plus that will still set you back the same $1569 RRP a year after the phone's launch. A Galaxy S8+, sans dual cameras and stylus but with a bigger battery, will set you back $1349 at RRP or significantly less if you shop around. It's not necessarily that the Note8 is expensive that's the sticking point; it's that it's more expensive than other very good phones at the same time.
Apart from the dual camera, the main drawcards of the Samsung Galaxy Note8 are predominantly software features. And that's a point of concern because, with time and effort, software features can be replicated on other phones, either by manufacturers or enterprising third-party users. The fun Live Message feature? That doesn't need a stylus; it just needs an app developer to put a similar feature together and release it on the Play Store.
If you wanted to focus criticism on the Galaxy Note8, you'd say it's not hugely different to the Galaxy S8 and S8+. Its screen size is similar enough to the S8+ that it's really no different in the real world, it's just as powerful in terms of the processing under the hood and the internal modem and the software version that it's running. The years of the Note line having a more powerful CPU than the S line are over; you'll have to want that stylus and Samsung's Note-specific software features to justify the extra cost of a Note8 over the significantly cheaper S8+ or even the smaller S8.
Should You Buy It?
It's hard to argue that, right now, the $1499 Samsung Galaxy Note8 is not the best Android phone that you can buy, and perhaps the best phone you can buy. That might change with the imminent announcement of new Apple and new Google phones some time in the next month, but for now, and into 2018, the Note8 will remain one of the most powerful and versatile smartphones on the market. It has tremendous power, but so does the Galaxy S8 -- the Note8 sets itself apart with that excellent dual camera, an even better display, and the actually useful S-Pen.
The Note8 is not hugely different to the recent Samsung Galaxies and Galaxies Note that have come before it. It's solid iterative change rather than revolution. But in the recent climate of the Note7, that's not necessarily a bad thing. The improvements that it makes are real and substantial and will change the way in which you use your phone. The dual camera especially, and the actually useful Live Focus mode, allows for the most creative photos to come out of any Samsung Galaxy yet. It's a mix of new and familiar, but it's all good.
The Galaxy Note8 is phenomenally expensive -- the most expensive Galaxy, more expensive than all but the most capacious iPhone, more expensive than any other Android phone. $1499 is a lot of money: enough for a laptop, for one of Samsung's own 4K TVs, for a cheap second-hand car. But, with that said, you use your phone probably more than any other piece of technology, and you're probably going to buy it on a plan that splits that four-figure sum up into more palatable monthly chunks.
But most importantly, the Samsung Galaxy Note8 is a true Note. It's a worthy successor to the Note7 and Note5 before it. It's a phone that can do just about anything you ask of it.