It seems almost unavoidable we should mention the ill-fated Note 7 within a breath of the new Note 8. A worldwide recall makes for quite the talking point and tends to stick in the mind.
But while many wondered if such a setback would cause the death of the company’s much-loved large-screen family, the Note 8 is here, bang (ahem) on time - just under a year after the Note 7’s demise. And it’s got a point to prove.
That point? That it isn’t about to sit quietly in the shadow of its predecessor. With valuable lessons learnt, this is business as usual - and in the Note 8, the Note brand is stronger than ever.
The Note family has always been aimed at a more professional audience – business people and creatives looking for bigger screens and more innovative ways to do things on the go. In the Note 8, that message has never been clearer.
With the stylish design of the S8 and S8+ to contend with, it’s chosen the smart route: it's the geekier choice next to its trendier siblings.
It does this with more angular corners, a slightly chunkier design (by modern standards) and a more subtly curved screen. It’s not as seamless either – there’s a more pronounced ridge where the front and back of the phone meet.
MORE: Samsung Galaxy S8 review
There are similarities, though. The Note 8 continues the mostly glass design and taller 18.5:9 aspect ratio of the S8 and S8+.
Though this aspect ratio might make it easier to hold such a large phone in one hand, thanks to its relative narrowness, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to use it with just one.
It’s just a bit too tall, so you’ll struggle to reach anything at the top of the screen without readjusting your grip first. There is a one-handed mode that allows you to shrink the screen with a diagonal swipe, but it’s fiddly and hit-and-miss in use.
Even more annoying is the fingerprint scanner, which has been moved from the now non-existent home button placed all the way up at the top, next to the camera.
Not only does this make it tricky to use, it also makes smearing the camera lens with misplaced finger a real possibility.
Of course, that 6.3in AMOLED display is the hero feature of the Note 8, in all its 2960 x 1440 resolution/522 pixels per inch (ppi) glory.
If it sounds impressive, that’s because it is - and it makes for a beautifully bright, sharp, near bezel-less display that makes everything from browsing to watching movies a dream.
There’s the usual struggle of trying to get Samsung’s colour balance just right. The default Adaptive Display, which changes settings depending on what’s on the screen, now has advanced colour balance controls to help tone down its tendency towards over-vibrancy.
However, even on the warmest setting, whites are still slightly tinged with blue. We find ourselves choosing between the muted hues of the 'basic' screen and the (now much improved) 'AMOLED Cinema' setting, opting for the latter for its extra punch.
Whites are a little on the warm side, but we’ll take that in exchange for a more natural overall handling of colour.
Watch out for the ‘video enhancer’ feature in the settings menu though, which claims to boost colour and brightness. We prefer it stay off – you’ll lose picture detail and introduce some noise with it turned on.
You should also consider the screen resolution setting, too. While the Note 8’s screen is capable of 2960 x 1440 Wide Quad High Definition (WQHD+), by default it sets to 2220 x 1080 Full High Definition (FHD+).
The difference isn’t huge when streaming videos on Netflix, but it does deliver some extra insight when pushed up to maximum - albeit with extra drain on your battery.
For a phone so focused on its screen, it’s worth spending some time in the settings to see which balance suits your tastes best. Once you do, you’ll find a picture that’s crisp and detailed, with a strong handle on contrast thanks to the inky deep blacks of AMOLED.
There’s a whole lot of brightness available here too, which is good for outdoor viewing and beneficial once Netflix begins streaming in HDR to mobile devices. The Note 8 is listed as a compatible device on its website.
More after the break
The audio quality on the Note 8 is remarkably similar to that of the S8 and S8+, which is no bad thing. It even comes with the same bundled AKG headphones in the box.
They’re better than most bundled freebies, with a clean, clear midrange and decently controlled treble, but they're a little bass-heavy for our tastes. If your budget stretches to it, you’ll get a more balanced listen from a £40 upgrade to the SoundMagic E10S.
The Note 8 sounds solid and controlled with all music, from Spotify streams up to 24-bit/192kHz native files. It’s a confident, full-bodied sound with decent handling of rhythms, and a good amount of space and detail.
It doesn’t pull a track together with quite as much cohesion as the iPhone 7, though, which pips it for absolute organisation under pressure. Dynamically the Apple is a touch more expressive too.
A single mono speaker handles all external sound, pushing it out through the bottom right of the chassis. Considering the size of the handset, stereo speakers would be nice.
It does a fine job with voices, but anything more involved – such as an action scene – sounds cluttered. You’re better off sticking with headphones for that.
The big added feature to the Note 8 is, of course, its S Pen stylus, neatly tucked away in a holder on the base of the device.
Pop the S Pen out and the S Pen menu wakes immediately to give you some specific options, including note-taking, screengrabbing and the ability to write a live animated message.
Remove the S Pen when the screen is locked and you can even write directly onto the lock screen. With 4000+ pressure points, writing on it feels, and looks, natural.
Bixby Vision is one of the new options on the S Pen menu, and is part of Samsung’s suite of Bixby smart functionality.
It’s hit-and-miss – hover over a picture you’ve seen and it aims to show you where you can buy it, similar images like it or, with text, the ability to extract or translate it.
It’s the latter we find most useful (and effective - the shopping functionality doesn’t work for us at all), and the ability to translate huge chunks of text rather than individual words (as you could with the Note 7) is very handy indeed.
The voice assistant strand of Bixby is also a work in progress. It currently understands US English only, with some UK English words and pronunciations not always recognised.
It’s activated by pressing a dedicated button on the side, or by saying the command “Hi Bixby”, but it occasionally activates itself during video playback – sometimes when sat on a table in a quiet room – with no explanation.
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But it shows promise, offering deeper functionality than the (also included) Google Assistant.
Tell Bixby to open up the camera and take a selfie, open settings and change brightness, or even open Facebook and update your status - and it does.
Bixby currently understands over 3,000 commands, and there are already a few Easter Eggs to be found if you fancy asking it some silly questions too.
As for security features, the Note 8 introduces facial scanning as a back-up to its rather awkward fingerprint scanner and the vague iris scanner of the Note 7.
It’s quick to track your face, and the phone usually unlocks as soon as we look at it - as long as the light is good. At night, we often find ourselves looking directly towards a light for the phone to register us correctly, which isn’t quite as fluid.
It has also thrown up some security concerns- can the phone could be unlocked with a photo? We try many, many times and manage it once - which is once too many.
Ultimately, using a PIN or (annoyingly) scrambling for the fingerprint scanner is still your most foolproof bet for now.
The camera on the Note 8 has had a boost, with the addition of a second lens to allow for more advanced photography effects.
The main camera is a wide-angle 12MP f/1.7 option, with the support of a 12MP telephoto lens offering 2x optical zoom and an f/2.4 aperture.
This means you can get closer in on subjects without the drop in picture quality digital zoom can cause. And unlike the iPhone 7 Plus (or forthcoming 8 Plus), which has a similar setup, both lenses feature optical image stabilisation for steadier shots.
As well as zooming, the two cameras can also work together to create a fake bokeh effect which Samsung calls Live Focus. Select it and it’ll take two photos of anything at least 1.2m away – a standard wide shot and a zoomed-in option.
You can add some background blur on the latter, for an arty effect. It’s pretty good as far as these effects go, though variable lighting can catch it out on some outlines.
Taken in good light, regular pictures are sharp, bright and detailed, with good colour balance and fast autofocus - so you can fire off shot after shot.
Variable light can trip up the exposure on occasion, but it’s rare, and the auto HDR mode works well to lighten up darker elements and cling on to the detail in any highlights.
Low-light shots fare pretty well too, with the built-in Optical Image Stabiliser (OIS) allowing in more light to keep them as low-noise as possible.
The Galaxy Note 8 is a monster of a performer, packing the same octa-core Exynos 8895 processor as the Galaxy S8 alongside a whopping 6GB RAM.
As you might imagine, there’s little that trips up this powerful pairing. We find everything from games to browsing to multitasking (you can make the most of that big screen with the Multi Window split-screen functionality) is taken in stride.
Its battery is of 3300mAh capacity, which perhaps seems a conservative choice considering the 3500mAh in the S8+. But with the cause of the Note 7’s woes being put down to an overly ambitious battery overheating, Samsung has understandably erred on the side of caution.
That does leave us with a few battery concerns for power users. Even using it as a secondary phone for a full day saw the battery drop by more than half – upgrade it to your main phone and you’re likely to be looking for a charger before the day is out.
Streaming a Netflix video at full resolution, over wi-fi and at half brightness, sees a 10 per cent drop in battery within an hour (9 per cent on FHD+ resolution) – the same results as we saw on the S8+.
That big screen certainly needs some power, but it comes with a fast charger in the box (we managed to get from 2 per cent to full in just over an hour), and there’s wireless charging built in too.
The Note 8 is arguably not a phone for everyone, but that doesn’t make it any less brilliant. It’s been built from the ground up after a tricky year, and is all the better for it.
There’s little to take issue with for that reason, though its battery life should be better. It’s not a deal-breaker (as any iPhone user will attest to), but for a phone as powerful as this, it would be good to have a battery with longevity to match.
Perhaps the biggest problem for the Note 8, though, is its price. At almost £900 SIM-free, it’s no small outlay - especially when the equally excellent 6.2in Galaxy S8+ is £100 less.
But after a year of waiting, the addition of the dual camera, more advanced S Pen functionality and an even bigger screen are sure to have Note fans chomping at the pre-order bit.
If you’re looking for a big-screen phone, this has to be very high on the shortlist.
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