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Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review: No smoke, just fire

4.5

The Good

  • Outstanding display
  • Rich S Pen integration
  • Excellent performance
  • Impressive camera

The Bad

  • Prohibitively expensive
  • Fingerprint magnet

The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 offers up a powerful blend of top-tier smartphone software and hardware but is it enough to erase last year’s Note 7 scandal from people’s minds and is it worth its steep asking price?

After one of the most public fiascos the mobile world has ever seen, for the most part, Samsung handled the exploding Note 7 crisis pretty well and has gone on to release a pair of the slickest and smartest flagship phones on the market, now joined by a super-sized new sibling in the Galaxy Note 8.

Samsung’s new phablet trades in the conventional 16:9 aspect ratio display of its predecessors for the eye-catching edge-to-edge Infinity Display of the S8 and S8+. It also shares many of the same top-notch internals, reintroduces S Pen stylus functionality and for the first time on a Samsung handset, packs in a dual-lens primary camera.

On the flip side, it also happens to be the most expensive phone in the mainstream market by some margin. So despite all that power and potential, we have to establish whether it warrants its notable £869 (sim-free) price tag.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review: Design

Samsung arguably makes some of the most beautiful smartphones on the market today, not least because its latest flagships all serve as notable departures from the status quo with their impressive screen-to-body ratios. Having an expansive 6.3-inch display dominate the Note 8’s front gives it a suitable cutting-edge appearance as a result.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: Front Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: Back

It features curved Gorilla Glass on the front and back, with a metal frame running the phone’s edge that plays host to a volume rocker, power button and the Bixby button - a hardware key locked to summoning Samsung’s new digital assistant. Whilst it isn’t elegant, despite Samsung’s efforts you can still circumvent this button’s intended use with third-party applications, something we cover in our Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Tips and Tricks feature.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review: Always-On Display

Although the formula appears, for the most part, to be practically unchanged from the S8 twins, there are some slight design variations, excluding its larger overall size. For one, that metal frame protrudes ever so slightly, giving you better grip but a less seamless feel in-hand, whilst the placement of new, larger dual camera arrangement, paired to the dimensions of the 8 mean that the rear fingerprint sensor is a struggle to reach without readjusting your grip - one of the trade-offs that come with that Infinity Display.

The Note also adopts sharper corners than the S8, giving it a harder overall appearance, as a result of the S Pen stylus, which as ever, pops out from the bottom right side of the phone. The S Pen itself is thin but comfortable to hold for jotting down notes or more intensive artworking tasks in short bursts and like the phone itself, it too enjoys IP68 dust and water resistance.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review: S Pen 3

Samsung’s also squeezed in the loudspeaker, USB-C port and a headphone jack along the bottom edge, which pairs nicely with the tuned AKG earbuds that come in-box, serving as a nice upgrade the more typical own-brand buds we’ve seen in the past.

What works?

Another stunning smartphone from Samsung that blends conventional Note tropes with the cutting-edge design language established by the Galaxy S8 and S8+. IP68 dust and water resistance applies not only to the phone but the S Pen stylus too and Samsung's even thrown in some quality AKG buds to make good use of that headphone jack from the off.

What doesn't?

That curved glass form looks great until you touch it, after which it becomes fingerprint smudge central. The rear-mounted fingerprint sensor is even more difficult to reach than on the S8+ and the overall fit and finish is a little boxier and less elegant in order to accommodate the S Pen.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review: Screen and media

Large screens are fundamental to the Note formula but the 6.3-inch Quad HD+ Super AMOLED panel on the Note 8 moves things up a gear. Such a big screen is unsurprisingly, great for enjoying photos and movies outright but add in the insanely sharp resolution, excellent viewing angles, brightness, contrast and colour of the AMOLED technology at play, as well as HDR10 support and it is a force to be reckoned with.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: Screen

That expansive, almost bezel-free surface also means more room to sketch and write with the S Pen and easier productivity chops along with multitasking by way of either the split-screen or pop-up app modes. One-handed use is also covered thanks to a customisable gesture that shrinks the UI so that it’s easier to swipe around with a single mitt.

As for audio, whilst we appreciate the included headphones, the single loudspeaker is clear but doesn’t exactly stir the soul.

What works?

The Note 8 packs in a 6.3-inch display on a phone with a footprint barely larger than an iPhone 7 Plus. That size paired with AMOLED tech, a crisp resolution and HDR10 support make it the perfect fit for productivity and media junkies looking to enjoy the latest supported content from the likes of Amazon, Netflix and most recently YouTube.

Read next: How to watch 4K HDR Netflix on your phone

What doesn’t?

The audio experience is fine but nothing special in the competitive world of flagship smartphones. It’s a toss-up between HTC and LG for that crown.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review: OS and features

The Note 8’s Android Nougat-based TouchWiz experience is markedly similar to the one found on Samsung’s other 2017 flagships. The UI is clean and simple - a significant improvement over previous iterations, with a swipe up or down to access the apps drawer, customisable quick settings and a distinctive look that you can swap out using Samsung’s Theme store if it’s not to your tastes.

The two biggest talking points for the Note 8’s abilities are Bixby and that all-important S Pen functionality. Bixby can be summoned with a wake word, even from sleep, or by pressing that key on the phone’s left side.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: Screenshots 1, 2 and 3

The Bixby screen collates news headlines, fitness data, upcoming calendar appointments and other information it deems pertinent to you but in terms of the assistant’s capabilities it claims to offer up somewhere in the region of 3000 different actions - in essence, anything you can do by swiping around on the Note 8, you can probably pull off using Bixby. The main thing to understand is when to use Bixby and when to use the other integrated offering, Google Assistant.

Bixby is ideal for opening up applications or carrying out actions local to the phone; like displaying pictures from a specific date for example but it prefers to show you things, rather than reading them out, something Google’s Assistant is far more accomplished at, making it the better option for eyes-free use.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: Screenshots 4, 5 and 6

Read next: Best voice-controlled AI assistant

As for the S Pen, the hardware is rock-solid, not only as a result of its surprising resilience but by way of the 4096 levels of pressure sensitivity the little pen supports. The software, meanwhile, is impressively varied and robust. It, of course, allows for handwriting recognition in place of typing but note-taking is possible not only when the phone is unlocked but you can also write directly on the lockscreen using the Always-On Display.

There are smart utilities like screen annotation, real-time translation and Bixby Vision integration for object recognition but also more fun stuff, like the new iOS-esq Live Message feature, letting you share simple animated scribbles to social media and Smart Select to crop out on-screen areas to save or turn into animated GIFs.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: Screenshots 7, 8 and 9

PEN.UP is Samsung’s own S Pen-centric artwork sharing platform and third-parties like Autodesk have supported apps too, you just need to hunt around to find experiences that let the S Pen really show off what it can do.

What works?

A clean, customisable interface that’s fast and easy-to-use with impressive levels of depth and functionality should you go looking for it. Bixby is a robust virtual assistant and the S Pen’s functionality is more diverse than ever.

What doesn’t

Bixby is a specific type of assistant that’s only really good for certain types of requests. Third-party S Pen-related apps are hard to come by, good quality ones are even harder to find.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review: Performance and battery

Pick up a flagship Android phone in 2017 and chances are it features Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 chipset or in certain markets where Samsung is concerned, the similarly-structured Exynos 8895. Either way, you’re getting one of the fastest chipsets available right now and one of the only smartphone-ready processors built around an impressively efficient 10nm process.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review: Front camera

In the case of the Note 8 it’s tied to 6GB of RAM (two more than the S8) and as you might expect, ensures that the phone feels suitably fast and befitting of its flagship-status. In tests like AnTuTu it, rather surprisingly, falls short of the mark, landing somewhere above the iPhone 7 but beneath the iPhone 7 Plus and Samsung’s own S8, and yet in real-world use it won’t pose you any problems, with regards to fluidity, for years.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review: Bixby

Samsung’s also graced the Note with a gesture-support capable fingerprint sensor, face recognition and an iris scanner to complement Android’s more conventional pattern or PIN unlock methods; all of which are respectively responsive, even if that fingerprint sensor is a little awkward and the iris recognition takes a longer to work then any official demo would have you believe.

Samsung isn’t taking any chances when it comes to the battery inside of the 8. It’s dropped the capacity compared to last year’s more combustible Note down to 3300mAh, resulting in around a day and a half of use, on-par with the equally capacious cell in the S8. Thankfully, the phone also includes fast wired and wireless charging, the latter of which continues to be a rarity in the current smartphone scene, even if it’s unquestionably convenient for those willing to embrace the technology.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review: Base

Storage-wise the 64GB of internal space seems more than respectable for a current-generation flagship that few will even come close to filling and if that does become a concern, the Note also accepts microSD cards up to 256GB.

What works?

The Note 8 is as fast and as powerful as you could hope for from a phone of its stature and standing. It also includes plenty of storage space and competent battery life, complete with multiple fast-charging solutions.

What doesn’t?

Last year’s Note 7 debacle forced Samsung’s hand into reducing the battery capacity of this year’s Note, meaning it’s sufficient but not class-leading. Some of the more unique unlock methods offered up by the Note 8 aren’t quite as convenient as Samsung would have you believe.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review: Cameras

Take the Galaxy S8’s class-leading f/1.7 aperture-laden 12-megapixel primary snapper and pair it with the ingenuity of a secondary telephoto lens module like the one seen on LG’s G5 and you get Samsung’s first dual-lens camera on a smartphone.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review: Dual cameras

The Note 8 takes outstanding pictures, that shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s used the company’s previous flagship phones in the last few years but the dual-sensor arrangement adds another dimension to the imaging experience.

As both cameras sport the same resolution you have the option of lossless x2 optical zoom and as both feature optical image stabilisation (OIS), you get some of the cleanest, noise-free photos around, even in low light.

Similarly to the iPhone 7 Plus’ portrait mode, the Note can also use both sensors simultaneously with Live Focus, which adds real-time background blur to subjects, the amount of which can be adjusted before or after capture. The results are pretty good but not always perfect, meaning that, whilst effective, your phone still can’t replace a true DSLR when it comes to achieving that delicious bokeh effect.

As for functionality, you have a host of modes including manual control, a food capture option, filters and even Snapchat-style overlays that operate in real-time. Bixby Vision integrates machine-learning-based object recognition into the Note’s camera and you can download more filters and modes as you need them.

You can shoot up to 4K resolution video that renders footage in amazing clarity and captures motion extremely well too, whilst the OIS again works wonders to smooth out footage and offers up respectable audio capture too.

What works?

The Note 8 improves on one of (if not the) best smartphone cameras on the market with a secondary telephoto lens that’s used to great effect. Photo and video quality appear second to none, whilst the breadth of useful features and fun overlays out-the-box is only trumped by the fact that you can add more if you so choose.

What doesn’t?

Audio recording isn’t the best in the business (even though it’s still good) and the Live Focus feature, whilst impressive, doesn’t truly replicate the effect it’s trying to emulate perfectly.

Read next: Samsung Galaxy Note 8 camera tips and tricks

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review: Verdict

The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is unquestionably one of those devices that is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s not just a powerful tool or a capable multimedia machine, it’s a joy to use and it can do anything you’d expect any top-tier smartphone to do and so much more.

The dual camera is arguably the biggest standout feature here, as it renders the Note as Samsung’s first phone able to take on competitors like the iPhone 7 Plus, OnePlus 5 and LG G6 feature-for-feature.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Review: S Pen 2

Interestingly, the Note 8’s biggest competition isn’t any of these rivals; it’s its own smartphones - namely the Galaxy S8 and the S8+. Samsung’s other 2017 flagships clearly served as the jumping-off point for the Note’s underlying design, hardware and software, and aside from the larger size, dual camera and S Pen, there’s not a huge difference between the three phones.

The time since the S8 duo’s launch has helped push their respective prices down significantly, with the S8 available for as little as £550 and the S8+ less than £100 more. At £869 the Note 8 is unforgivingly expensive by comparison, so unless the three unique aspects of the phone mentioned earlier are absolutely essential to your needs, do yourself a favour and leave this Note alone.

You can pre-order the Galaxy Note 8 from O2 right now, from £63 per month on contract. Samsung's mighty mobile can be picked up in Midnight Black or Maple Gold, with a selection of tariffs rising to 50GB of monthly data. You'll enjoy free O2 WiFi and daily offers with the O2 Priority scheme.

Key Specs

  • 6.3-inches
  • Quad HD+ (2960x1440)
  • 195 grams
  • Android 7.1.1 Nougat
  • 12-megapixel dual sensor w/ OIS
  • 8-megapixels
  • 2.3GHz/1.7GHz octa-core Samsung Exynos 8895
  • 6GB RAM
  • 64GB. Expandable via microSD up to 256GB
  • Yes
  • IP68-certification (dust & water resistance), always-on display, HDR10 support, fast charging/fast wireless charging, Bixby virtual assistant, S Pen stylus, Samsung Connect, iris scanner, facial recognition, Bluetooth 5.0, Game Launcher

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