Galaxy Note 8 review: Don't call it a comeback, call it the phone of the year

Come for the incredible 6.3-inch screen, stay for the dual cameras.

Credit: Doug Duvall/IDG

No one would have blamed Samsung if the Note 8 were never released. After a global recall halted sales of the Note 7 in their tracks, some execs at Samsung probably floated the idea of retiring the Note brand altogether.

It’s good they didn’t. The Note 8 isn’t just a return to form, it’s the best phone Samsung has ever made, bar none. And until the iPhone 8 and Pixel 2 make their appearances—and maybe even after—it’s simply the best phone money can buy.

galaxy note8 on table Doug Duvall/IDG

The Galaxy Note 8 has beauty and brains to spare.

Mind you, the best phone money can buy doesn’t come cheap. At $930, it’s $100 more expensive than last year’s model and inches ever closer to that psychological $1,000 barrier. But if you don’t have any qualms about dropping a small fortune on something with such a high probability of cracking, you’ll be plenty happy with your purchase (unless, of course, it cracks). Everything about the Note 8 improves upon both the Note 7 and the Galaxy S8+ (even the fingerprint sensor). Barring another catastrophic roll-out, the Note 8 should once again set the standard for productivity phablets.

A familiar design with a twist

Put the Note 8 and the Galaxy S8+ side by side on a table and you’ll barely see any difference. The Note 8 has the same gorgeous Infinity Display as the S8+, and at 6.3 inches, the screen is a barely perceptible 0.1 inches larger. It also has all the same ports and buttons—power, volume, Bixby, 3.5mm, and the off-center USB-C—and delivers the same fast wireless charging and IP68 water resistance.

galaxy note8 comparison Doug Duvall/IDG

The Galaxy Note 8 (right), is a little bigger than the Galaxy S8+ (center), and a lot bigger than the Galaxy S8 (left).

But the Note 8 isn’t identical to the S8+. Along with the addition of an S Pen slot on the bottom edge, the main difference is the shape. While the S8 has rounded corners on the case, the Note 8 is more squared-off, making the phone appear even taller than it is. It’s a weird optical illusion that eventually faded after a few days, and I ultimately learned to like the design even more than the S8’s.

It’s surprisingly functional, too. I dropped the S8+ almost immediately after I opened up its box (and numerous times thereafter), but the squared-off edges on the Note 8 help me keep a firmer grip. The Note 8 is, however, about 20 grams heavier than the S8+, and the extra weight is definitely noticeable, making the Note 8 feel significantly more substantial.

Flip it over and you’ll find the same horizontal camera array, except this time around there are two lenses. The fingerprint sensor is in the same position to the right of the array, though it’s not nearly as terrible to use as it is on the S8.

A big, bold screen

Like the S8, the Note 8 is all about the screen. It’s essentially the same as the one on the S8+: Super AMOLED WQHD+ (1440x2960), though the extra tenth of an inch means the pixel density is slightly reduced (521 PPI vs. 529 PPI on the S8+). Also, the corners of the screen match the squarer edges of the phone, making for nice symmetry.

galaxy note8 in hand Doug Duvall/IDG

There isn’t much to complain about when it comes to the Note 8’s screen.

It’s also a good deal brighter than the S8+. At more than 1,200 nits, the Note 8 is nearly blinding in a dark room, but that makes it eminently readable in direct sunlight. It’s straight-up the best phone I’ve ever used outdoors, and I was able to comfortably read and browse in super sunny spots once I cranked up the brightness. Also, it’s been mobile HDR certified, so it’s ready to play high-dynamic range movies. And there's already some great content, as Netflix has added the Note 8 to its list of supported devices, even before the Galaxy S8 and S8+.

It’s worth noting that if you have even the newest Gear VR unit, the Note 8 won’t fit in it. Samsung is selling a new version of the headset that’s identical in every way to the old model, but just a little bigger to accommodate the larger Note 8 screen. That probably won’t affect too many people, because would-be Note 8 buyers likely haven’t purchased one of the new USB-C headsets released alongside the S8. But it’s still strange that Samsung didn’t account for future handsets.

galaxy note8 screen full Doug Duvall/IDG

Hopefully Netflix will let Note 8 users watch Stranger Things in HDR this Halloween.

Speaking of size, it seems that Samsung has hit a ceiling when it comes to the Note’s display. While most everyone will be able to hold the phone with one hand, using it is another story. I pretty much need two hands to do just about anything on the Note 8, and even with extra fingers at my disposal, I still have to continuously adjust my grip to reach the upper half of the screen. So... Good thing this phone comes with an S Pen!

If Samsung fully eliminated the top and bottom bezels, it could probably squeeze out a 6.5-inch display for the Note 9, but anything beyond that will start to look comically tall and be difficult to use.

Power, RAM, and biometrics

The Note 8 includes the same Snapdragon 835 chip as the S8 and adds an extra 2GB of RAM to bring the total to 6GB. But even with that, the two phones are neck-and-neck in the performance department, whether you’re measuring with benchmarks or real-world use.

galaxy note8 side Doug Duvall/IDG

Inside that slim enclosure is a ton of power and RAM.

Over time, the extra RAM will probably help keep the Samsung Experience system running smoother than in previous phones, but I didn’t notice much of a difference between the Note 8 and my 5-month-old S8+. Apps opened and switched quickly, and PCMark scores were in the high 6,000s, as expected. It’s safe to say the Note 8 is at least as fast as any Android phone I’ve used, and even stood up to the iPhone 7 Plus. So until the Snapdragon 836 and Apple’s A11 chips make their appearance, the Note 8 will be among the most powerful phones around, and I suspect it’ll hold its own against those next-generation processors, too.

As far as unlocking goes, the Note 8 includes the same bevy of biometrics as the S8: fingers, eyes, and face. I still prefer iris unlocking as the most secure and convenient, but the usability of the fingerprint scanner has been improved. While Samsung unfortunately didn’t relocate it from its inconvenient spot on the rear panel, it did switch things up some by putting the LED flash between the fingerprint sensor and the camera, and by adding a thicker border around the sensor. These changes make it somewhat easier to nail the sensor on the first try while also cutting down on camera lens smudges. Still, I’m hoping the next generation of flagship Samsung phones rethinks the position of the fingerprint sensor altogether.

A battery that lasts and lasts

Much ink will be spilled on the Note 8’s battery. While the S8 was the first major phone from Samsung following the global recall, the Note name will forever be synonymous with battery explosions. Samsung has taken major steps to make sure Note 8s won’t catch fire.

Samsung blamed the explosions on a “flaw in the manufacturing process (that) resulted in the negative electrodes and positive electrodes coming together.” One interpretation says the battery was just too big for its allotted space. In response, the Note 8’s battery is just 3,300mAh, which is smaller than the 3,500mAh batteries in both the Note 7 and the S8+. I’m no engineer, but my guess is that the S Pen slot, the extra rear camera, and an abundance of caution necessitated the downgrade. But fear not, because in my real-world testing, the difference was pretty negligible.

galaxy note8 battery chart Rob Schultz/IDG

Even with a smaller battery, the Galaxy Note 8 lasts just as long as the Galaxy S8+.

The Note 8 easily lasted through a full day of heavy use, and benchmarks hit the 9-hour mark, running circles around the Note 7 and even besting the Galaxy S8+. Samsung has clearly spent considerable effort optimizing the Note 8’s battery for the chip and the OS, so there’s no need to risk another disaster by squeezing in a too-large battery just to fill out a spec sheet. Simply put, the battery on the Note 8 shouldn’t be a concern, whether you’re worried about it lasting or exploding.

The productivity differentiator

The very existence of a stylus on the Note 8 is enough to set it apart from nearly every other smartphone, but the S Pen isn’t just for comfort and precision. It gives the Note a level of productivity that just isn’t available on other handsets. Aside from a couple of small snags with the springy slot on the bottom of the phone, I loved using the S Pen, and I miss having one on every other handset I pick up now. The pen itself has the same 0.7mm tip and 4,096 pressure levels as the Note 7’s, but it brings a new set of tricks.

galaxy note8 pen eject Doug Duvall/IDG

The S Pen is the Note 8’s secret weapon.

And you don’t even have to turn on the screen to enjoy it. Screen-off memos isn’t technically a new feature, but Samsung has upgraded it with the ability to write up to 100 pages of notes, so it could actually replace your notebook, if you’re the kind of person who carries one. The Air Command menu has gotten a few upgrades, with the ability to translate not just words but full sentences. There’s also a Live Message option that lets you send hand-drawn GIFs to your friends.

galaxy note8 stylus Doug Duvall/IDG

The Note 8 will convince you to love the stylus again.

But as good as the S Pen is, what really gives the Note its productivity cred is the DeX dock. Introduced alongside the S8, the $150 accessory turns your phone into a full-fledged desktop computer. The Note 8 fixes a few of the biggest annoyances with the first version. For one, you don’t need to pair your Bluetooth mouse and keyboard before you plug it in anymore. For another, apps are better optimized to take advantage of the desktop format, with many able to continue running seamlessly once it’s plugged in. It might very well be the world’s first phone that can legitimately replace your tablet and your laptop.

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