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The Galaxy Note 8 is a curious smartphone

The Galaxy Note 8 comes hot on the heels of the Note 7 but after a month with it, it intrigues me. Is it a Note? Or is it just a Galaxy S? Let's take a look.

Published onOctober 19, 2017

Rising from the ashes of the Galaxy Note 7, this year’s Galaxy Note has a lot to live up to. After a few weeks with Samsung’s flagship, one thing is perfectly clear to me: the Galaxy Note 8 is a curious smartphone.

With an illustrious history of devices that helped usher in the big screen smartphone trend, each new addition to the Galaxy Note range comes with expectations that it’ll live up to the example of its predecessors. The Galaxy Note 7 was Samsung’s biggest breakout handset in the US market, but it unfortunately proved to be a short-lived affair.

High expectations

The Galaxy S8 was the first flagship to follow the Galaxy Note 7, albeit under a different product line, with minimal negative reactions. The Galaxy Note 8 arrived soon after to much aplomb. With record pre-orders and sales, it certainly looks to have delivered the follow-up superstar the Galaxy Note 7 deserved.

The Galaxy Note 8 somehow doesn’t feel the same as previous Galaxy Note devices.

Yet it somehow doesn’t feel the same as previous Galaxy Note devices. I’ve used every Galaxy S and Galaxy Note flagship released – including the Galaxy Note 5 which I had to import into Europe – and the Galaxy Note 8 elicits very different feelings than previous devices.

It could be because past Galaxy Note devices have often launched when the smartphone industry was looking for something new and shiny to fawn over. This year, the smartphone industry has so much competitive choice that the allure of a shiny new Galaxy Note doesn’t have quite the same appeal.

Almost-flawless fundamentals

Fundamentally, the Galaxy Note 8 is almost flawless as a smartphone. With a few tweaks over the Galaxy Note 7, it offers a lot of the same refinement and polish as its popular predecessor and brings an experience that is mature in many ways.

Six weeks in, it can get a little hot, especially around the camera area, but there are no safety concerns with the Galaxy Note 8.

The 3,300 mAh battery shows that Samsung is playing it safe, much like with the Galaxy S8. I’m happy that they’re not taking risks like in the Galaxy Note 7, but sadly the battery doesn’t last as long as I’d like. Average battery life is in the 18 to 24 hours range, with around 4 to 5 hours of screen-on time. Given the screen size, a larger battery would have been welcome but the old adage that advancements in batteries haven’t kept up with advancements in other technology is certainly apparent.

The biggest criticism of the Galaxy S8 was the odd choice of fingerprint placement, and the Note 8 somewhat addresses this with a slightly rearranged order of the camera and sensors. The Note 8 features the dual cameras on the left, with the heart rate sensor and flash in the middle and the fingerprint sensor on the right. The sensor itself is slightly recessed, which makes it easier to find than the Galaxy S8 – with fewer fingerprints on the camera lenses.

Five reasons why the LG V30 is better than the Galaxy Note 8

The S-Pen delivers exactly what you expect – an excellent life-like writing experience, lots of customization, and plenty of legitimate uses. The screen-off memo now supports 100 pages of editable text that can be pinned to your Always On Display (AOD). I use it a lot to jot down notes, shopping lists, and reminders while walking down the street or when I just want to scribble something, and then pin them to the AOD.

At the launch of the Note 8, Live Message was the most interesting app tweaked for the S-Pen. Like most gimmicky features, I barely actually use it. This is more than likely down to the lack of an iMessage-like single messaging system, although it works pretty well as a GIF inside WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. It would be great for Samsung – or most likely Google as it would need Android-wide support – to develop a single messaging system. Unfortunately it’s unlikely to happen as attempts like Google Talk, Hangouts and Allo have all fallen by the wayside.

The new software feature that makes this the king of productivity is App Pairing, which allows you to set up two apps to launch side-by-side in multi-window, in a single shortcut. I use Asana and Slack a lot, as well as Twitter and YouTube and having both these shortcuts easily accessible definitely made things easier. I prefer to have them on my home screen though as I still don’t use the Edge Screen features, even several generations after they were first launched.

Bereft of innovation

It has taken weeks to figure out exactly why the Galaxy Note 8 makes me feel this way. With an almost-perfect overall experience, you’d expect it to be a firm favorite. It was a few days ago that it came to me; the Galaxy Note 8 doesn’t feel like a Galaxy Note at all, it feels like a Galaxy S8 Plus with an S-Pen.

Last year, the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge offered a lot of the same design features as the Galaxy Note 7, but there were a number changes which made it feel like a different smartphone. The Iris Scanner was new. The wider body and overall feel were new. The S-Pen had several new features. Overall the handset felt a lot more polished than either of the earlier devices.

The problem for the Note 8 however, is the mere existence of the Galaxy S8 Plus

Samsung has had the benefit of an extra year, as well as the lessons of the Galaxy Note 7, to give the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8 Plus a little extra finesse. The result is two smartphones that, like the Note 8, were almost perfect. The problem for the Note 8 however, is the mere existence of the Galaxy S8 Plus. Samsung’s super-sized Galaxy S flagship has a similar screen size, near-identical design, and almost identical specs sheet.

Aside from the S-Pen, dual camera, additional RAM and a few minor tweaks, the Galaxy Note 8 and Galaxy S8 Plus are essentially the same device. This is a product differentiation problem. The Galaxy Note always brought big new features to the Galaxy family, and the Note 8 has only a handful. If anything, Samsung is relying on the minor updates to the S-Pen and the addition of a dual camera to appeal to would-be Galaxy Note users, which simply doesn’t fit the mold of previous Galaxy Note devices.

The dual camera itself is definitely able to hold its own against any other smartphone but Samsung hasn’t innovated here. Rather, the company is playing catch up to rivals who have offered dual cameras for years. The addition of OIS in the second lens – a first for smartphone cameras – offers something unique and the camera performs incredibly, but it’s not exactly the groundbreaking innovation we’ve come to expect from the Galaxy Note line.

The success of the Galaxy Note 8 may simply be because, for the first time in three years, it’s a widely available Galaxy Note device.

Lost in translation

A thought that’s been going through my mind since the launch of the Galaxy Note 8, is that it feels like Samsung has forgotten what the Galaxy Note means. After the failures of the Note 5 global availability and the Note 7 recall, the success of the Galaxy Note 8 may simply be because, for the first time in three years, it’s a widely available Galaxy Note device.

The Galaxy Note has always represented the best of smartphones, but the homogenization of Samsung’s smartphone range seems to have substituted iteration for innovation. Updates make already-great smartphones even better, but nothing that truly wows us.

The homogenization of Samsung’s smartphone range seems to have substituted iteration for innovation.

Maybe this is where the meaning of the Samsung Galaxy Note name has changed. Instead of innovation, maybe we can now only expect these devices to offer a slightly upgraded and better experience than the Galaxy S flagship.

Sure, the Galaxy Note may continue to be where Samsung offers its new features first, but these are no longer a guarantee with each device. The switch to the all-screen Infinity Display and taller aspect ratio for the Galaxy S8 family, coupled with it being a global hit every year, may mean this has now become Samsung’s focus. Even the new chipsets arrive in the Galaxy S line first.

Despite it all… a blockbuster

The Galaxy Note 8 is a fantastic smartphone and one that I still recommend. If you haven’t had a Galaxy Note in a few years, this is definitely a device worthy of your money. However, if you have the Galaxy S8 Plus – or even the Galaxy S8 – it’s just not worth spending more and upgrading to the Galaxy Note 8.

It’s not the only device worth buying this year. The LG V30 is one of the standout devices of the year. Google’s new Pixel 2 XL takes a more holistic approach to the smartphone. HUAWEI’s new flagships focus on an AI-first world. And there’s more to come.

Make the Note… note-worthy again!

The Galaxy Note always stood out from the crowd for so many reasons. The Galaxy Note 8 continues this trend, just, but the lack of truly groundbreaking innovation means it doesn’t feel as much a Note as past Notes have.

I’d love to see Samsung go back to the Note’s roots and make innovation a focus of the device again. Why not further explore what is possible with the S-Pen? Add truly original dual camera software? Offer design features you can’t get anywhere else?

As the only mainstream smartphone with an inbuilt stylus, Samsung has the ability to push the boundaries for the S-Pen and set a standard for productivity that doesn’t exist in smartphones today. But if the only thing separating the Note 9 from the S9 Plus is the S Pen, then we have a problem.

Will the company bring innovation back to the Galaxy Note range? Will we see a Galaxy Note that’s really a Note again? Is the Galaxy Note 8 a sign of things to come? Personally, I don’t know.

The Galaxy Note 8 is definitely an excellent smartphone, despite the lack of groundbreaking innovation. When I ordered one, it was mostly due to the nostalgia of having a Galaxy Note again, rather than because the Note 8 itself offers something groundbreaking. But nostalgia can only carry you so far.

What do you think of the Galaxy Note 8? Did you buy one? Did you pick another device? Which one and why? Let us know in the comments below!