Over the years I’ve grown accustomed to Samsung’s incremental improvements and steadily found less and less to complain about in its devices. Never has that slow and steady improvement been more evident than in the Galaxy Note 8, a phone as wonderful as it is uninteresting.
As good as this phone admittedly is, it’s far from revolutionary. The most exciting thing about it is that it’s a Note and it exists. Here are five things I wish Samsung had done differently with the Galaxy Note 8.
Finger scanner location
Come on Samsung. I know the S Pen housing and battery guardrails create issues with available internal space. I know a dual camera takes up more space than one. Still, I’m simply not convinced the world’s largest Android phone manufacturer couldn’t have figured out how to center the finger scanner below the camera if it really wanted to.
For whatever reason, Samsung felt compelled to double down on its comically bad finger scanner location. This phone is even taller than the Galaxy S8 Plus, which only exacerbates the difficulty of reaching it comfortably. Sure, Samsung wants you using its iris scanner first and foremost, but that technology still has its limitations as a primary unlocking mechanism.
The company clearly heard at least some criticism leveled at the S8, because the scanner is now slightly recessed to make it easier to find by touch. The flash sits between the scanner and camera lens now, so you’re less likely to smudge the glass. However, the loudest and most frequently heard complaint about the S8 was the fingerprint scanner location, not that it wasn’t sufficiently recessed.
With a decade in between Samsung’s first dual camera smartphone (a slider phone with a dual lens 3D camera of all things) and the Note 8, you’d think the company would have learned up a thing or two. But rather than a game-changing “debut” on the Note 8, Samsung’s dual camera limped onto the stage with a whimper. Don’t get me wrong, the camera is good, great even, but the dual lens system fails to add much of note to the Note. Don’t even get me started on the lack of 4K recording at 60 or 120 fps for feature parity reasons (the Exynos models support it, the Snapdragon does not).
For a company with an R&D budget the size of some small countries’ GDP, I expected more. While it may be unfair to criticize a company for what you think it should’ve done, there’s no getting around the fact that Samsung didn’t really do much with the dual camera on the Note 8 either. Huawei has the monochrome sensor, LG the wide-angle lens, Apple the Portrait Lighting effects, but what does the Note 8’s dual camera deliver we haven’t already seen before? Like the Note 8 itself, it just kind of exists. In a few short years Samsung has gone from the unparalleled champion of Android cameras to one among many with a “me too” dual camera that fails to do anything remarkably different.
Samsung is now just one among many with a me-too dual camera that fails to do anything remarkably different.
Most first generation dual cameras are due a degree of forgiveness, but other companies with comparatively microscopic budgets have managed equally “meh” dual cameras on their first try. They’ve got a much better excuse for not being able to knock it out of the park. It’s almost as if Samsung didn’t care to develop an exciting new feature on its dual cam, just catch up to everyone else. The Note 8 camera itself is fine, and Live Focus is cool enough, but, far from a class-leading experience, the Note 8’s dual camera feels like Samsung arriving late to the party without a bottle of wine.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: stereo speakers are better. I know not everyone cares for front-facing speakers, especially if they come at the cost of larger bezels, but given the choice between a single weak mono speaker and a fuller-sounding stereo pair, I doubt many folks would opt for the single.
Apple and HTC have managed just fine with a bottom-firing speaker and earpiece combo, and stereo speakers in this orientation don’t necessarily require larger screen bezels either. And if those freshly leaked Pixel 2 XL display panels are anything to go by, we might just get small bezels and front-facing stereo speakers in Google’s next swing at bat. I like minimal bezels as much as the next guy, but I prefer stereo speakers.
The Bixby button
The dedicated Bixby button was always going to make a comeback and Samsung was always going to force us to use Bixby over Google Assistant. Given a choice between them, most would obviously flock to Assistant (or even Alexa) and Samsung’s voice assistant would be dead in the water.
Forcing the Bixby button on us feels like cruel and unusual punishment. Android is supposed to be open and free. Yet Samsung won’t even let us re-map the Bixby button. We can’t fully disable it, and we only recently got the ability to turn off Bixby Home.
The Bixby button, more than Bixby itself, has done the most damage to Samsung's voice assistant.
If Samsung was smart it would’ve kept Bixby under wraps until it was ready. It didn’t. If it was nice it would’ve let us remap that button into a convenience key of sorts, an easy PR win. It isn’t. An ounce of compassion would at least allow us to disable a feature we don’t want. We can’t. That button, more than Bixby itself, has done the most damage to Samsung’s voice assistant.
A bigger battery
Just because Samsung is committed to producing safer batteries these days doesn’t mean you can’t still have a big battery. Sure, give it plenty of ceiling. Put it through a rigorous testing procedure. Why not make the phone a few millimeters thicker and give Note 8 buyers the thing all smartphone buyers want: longer battery life?
I know battery life is extended by more efficient chipsets. I know AMOLED helps. I know optimizations and background process management does too. I know shipping a phone that defaults to Full HD+ instead of QHD+ is all about extending the battery life. You know what else helps with that? A bigger battery.
If the Galaxy Note 8 had come with a larger battery than either the Note 7 or S8 Plus, complete with Samsung’s well-earned assurances about safety, Note fans could justifiably rejoice. The Note would be back, bigger and better than ever with unrivaled battery life. But instead we got a cautious Note; a safe Note; an uninspiring Note.
As I said at the beginning, the Galaxy Note 8 is a great phone and easily one of the best of the year. It’s fast, reliable, capable. But it doesn’t get the pulse racing like Galaxy Notes of the past (except when you look at its price tag). Samsung can afford to just slide one by every now and then, but if the Note 8 is representative of what we can expect from future Notes, then it’s unlikely to remain one of the most hotly anticipated phone releases of the year for long.