Review: The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 – A Big Phone for Big Bucks

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Galaxy Note 8It’s been a long time since I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing either a Samsung phone or a phone on the Sprint network. Sprint was kind enough to lend me a Galaxy Note 8 to review. I know the real phone geeks in the room are drooling over the just announced Galaxy S9, but let’s focus on the attainable here, ok?

It’s important to remember the failure that was the Galaxy Note 7. Stories of exploding batteries engulfed news sites and sales dropped. A recall was had, and Samsung lost precious market and mind share.

Is the S8 enough to win that back?

As this phone was provided by Sprint, I want to start with a note that the service on the Galaxy Note 8 was great. Sprint in the NY Metro area can sometimes be spotty. Not with the Note 8. Clear calls, fast data, and just a happy little device. OK, not little.

The Samsung Note 8 Is Quite Big.

Samsung popularized the “phablet” phone. So much so that other companies have copied it with “Plus” sized phones. Heck, even Samsung has a Samsung Galaxy S8+ phone with a 6.2″ display. My Note 8’s screen? 6.3″. They both have the same edge-to-edge “Infinity Display”, and both render things stunningly. They also have the same annoying, non-mappable Bixby button, for calling up Samsung’s virtual assistant. I’m not enthused about that, can you tell? By the way, the screen runs at Full HD+ but can actually go higher resolution if you hit settings! Yup, you can go up to 2,960 x 1440 pixels, aka WQHD+. I don’t know that you’ll notice a difference, but it’s fun that you can.

Sadly, the sound is not as “big.” The audio on the Note 8 is basically typical smartphone audio. Thankfully, Samsung has bucked trends and included both a headphone jack on the device and a pair of decent earbuds in the box. Once you plug those in, sound gets quite good.

Samsung also put a large amount of RAM in, 6 GB vs 8 GB in the S8 and S8+. In tests, other people don’t see a difference, but I suspect over time it will be helpful with more demanding apps and games. The battery, on the other hand, is technically smaller than the one in the S8+. Can you blame Samsung for playing it safe on the latest Note battery? Still, even with that minor difference, battery life is insane. You get a full day’s use. And I do mean a full day. Oh, and standby times are fantastic. It lasted days at one point, while I was distracted by other reviews.

Let’s Talk Camera

Where the Note differs from the Plus is in two ways – the included S-Pen stylus and the dual-camera setup. This is the first Samsung phone with a dual-camera rig, and it’s impressive.  I’ve been a fan of dual-camera setups since I first used one on the Honor 8. Other reviewers are calling the Samsung camera the best dual system they’ve used yet. The two lenses are a wide angle and a telephoto, but that 12 MP. Sadly for shutterbugs, there’s no manual way to control what camera you’re using. Instead, the Note 8 auto-senses and switches. So it’s a perfect phone for someone like me, who doesn’t crave as much control over his camera. If you are a serious photographer though, this may frustrate you.

Since I’m not so gifted with a camera, I thought I would let the below sample images speak for themselves. Also? I am kicking myself for not bringing this review unit to Toy Fair 2018.

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In the hands of a real photographer, I can see the Note 8 camera making some fantastic pictures. Then that picture of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was so great till I had to resize it.

Note that while the newly-announced Galaxy S9+ will indeed have a dual-camera too, the normal S9 won’t. So the Note 8 is still a fairly rare thing in the Samsung ecosystem.

One Stylin’ Stylus.

While the camera may be trickling down, you can be sure the S-Pen stylus will not. The pen itself is comfortable and easier to use than past versions. The software aspects are cleverly baked in too. The ability to write up to 100 pages of memos on the locked screen is clever. Everything else is cool too. I’m still not a pen guy, but I can see the argument.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8
Yes, I know my handwriting is garbage.

Writing that above note felt exactly like taking notes on paper. That’s just cool.

Speaking of Software

I am constantly harping on how much I hate custom skins on Android. I may be softening in my old age, because I didn’t find the skinned version of Android Nougat that annoying (Oreo will come to Samsung at some point). I particularly enjoyed the “edge” menus: you can swipe in from the right and see a favorite apps and people menu.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8
No lie, this is crazy handy.

I like the long-press contextual menus for apps, and that the app drawer is just done by swiping up. I don’t like that you then swipe to the side for more apps; it would make more sense to keep swiping up like on the Pixel.

It’s still some very busy software, and with duplicate functionality. But it’s tolerable. Installing an alternative launcher might be something you want to consider, but I don’t know if it’s a must.

Also, I still hate Bloatware and there’s plenty on board. Hulu, Lookout, My Sprint, Tidal, a bunch of Samsung apps and a whole bunch more Sprint ones sit in the phone. Sure, you have 64 GB storage and a MicroSD slot, but ugh! At least all the junk can be deleted by hand. Still, what a waste of time.

To Bixby or Not to Bixby?

I have to be honest with you guys – I did not want to test Bixby. Signing up for yet another account (Samsung) for yet another smart assistant, was just too much. I’ve yet to see a good case argument for Bixby over Google Assistant. However, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I ignored it.

Setting Bixby up was a bit annoying, and I don’t appreciate how Samsung buried some toggles where you agree to share marketing data and go on email lists. I noticed them, but someone in a rush might not. That’s some shoddy work, Samsung. Class it up.

After setup, it was just kind of… there. Bixby offered no compelling reason swipe right to enter it. So my review is basically that Bixby is a thing, it exists, and I can’t think of anything special or unique about it. Still, this is Samsung – I said the same thing about the Edge edition phones, and over time look what amazing screens that brought us.

File Bixby under “wait and see.”

But Wait, There’s More.

Samsung curiously bundled a blood oxygen tester. It works with Samsung health which is (interestingly enough) not one of the bundled apps. It’s also a heart-rate sensor, by the way. Samsung curiously put it on the camera “stripe,” between the fingerprint sensor and the cameras. It felt weird putting my finger over the camera area, but the results were in line with other fitness sensors I had around.

Galaxy Note 8
I’m healthy-ish.

The fingerprint sensor worked great when it worked, but the placement on the back was annoying. I kept hitting the wrong spot. This is a muscle memory issue, not a tech issue, though.

Cost

We reviewed the Sprint edition, which costs $960 full price. That’s quite a bit. Meanwhile the S8+ costs $750.

Wait, Why Pay That?!?

I’ll be honest: I see very few compelling reasons to get the Note 8 over the Galaxy S8+. The camera is neat, but not worth a $210 difference! One could argue you’d be better served waiting for the S9+. As a parent, I can also see situations where the Note 8 is good for school and for a student. Yes, the price is steep, but it’s cheaper than a phone and a tablet. The thing is, it’s not cheaper than an S8+ and a standalone stylus.

I can see one person who this is absolutely for, though. If you were someone impacted by the S7 recall, someone who simply must have the S-Pen? Yeah, go for this. You’re going to pay a premium but I get the idea of not changing your workflow or at least changing it as little as possible. It’s an investment.

It’s not that the Note 8 is a bad phone at all. It’s that even within the immediate range of Samsung handsets, there are phones just as good. How amazing is that?

Note: A huge thank you to Sprint for making this review possible by loaning us a Note 8. Have you looked at Sprint lately? And I don’t just mean at their deliciously snarky ads.

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