Review: Samsung Galaxy Note 8

Samsung’s new Galaxy Note 8 (GN8) stands alone as the only flagship smartphone with ‘everything’ including its trademark S Pen stylus, which offers a very convenient and useful handwriting interface.

Before the Note 8, I’ve enjoyed using the 6.2 inch Samsung Galaxy S8+, which is of a similar size. I also have a better appreciation for Samsung’s flawless new Grace 8.5 User Interface, which is overlaid on Android 7.1.1

I now truly understand where and how Grace adds value after using a very competent pure Android 7.1.1 flagship for a couple of months. It works intuitively, beautifully tying together disparate, sometimes clunky Android apps and paving over its cracks. Samsung’s highly refined versions of mail, contacts, phone, calendar, photo, camera and more exceed stock Android apps – and they work well and allow you to avoid Google if you need to.

Don’t get me wrong – pure Android is like driving a manual car and Grace is like the best automatic. Give me an auto any day.

No review would be complete without mention of the ill-fated Note 7, where faulty batteries were responsible for a quick, decisive and exceedingly expensive global recall – and you should expect nothing less of a major company. Until now it was the best stylus-based smartphone I nearly owned. But the GN8 is a very different handset and resembles the Galaxy S8+ with an added stylus, as the internal workings are very similar.

Unpacking – SM-N950F

It comes in a big black box – big enough for the proverbial kitchen sink. But wait, it is not the massive, thick monster I expected – but only marginally longer and very slightly thicker than the 6.2” GS8+ to house the huge 6.3”, near bezel-less 18.5:9 ratio, beautiful AMOLED screen and S Pen.

Size matters

The Galaxy Note 8 measures 162.5 x 74.8 x 8.6 mm x 195g. It fits easily in your hand  (for a meaty bloke like me), and I can use it one-handed for most tasks. The multi-window split-screen feature that shows two apps is growing on me. It is the biggest Note screen ever and aficionados will appreciate just how much it displaces a tablet for browsing. It is the right sized device if you want one to do all.

The Galaxy Note 8 on the right, compared to the Galaxy S8 and S8+ on the left.

That kitchen sink!

Apple made a big thing of its new iPhone X having for the first time (in an iPhone) wireless charging; dual 12MP cameras; neural A11 engine; 5.8”, 2436 x 1125, 458-pixel, HDR10 OLED display (made by Samsung); and IP67 water and dust resistance, but let’s not forget it has no 3.5mm audio socket, no fingerprint reader, and no SD memory expansion. The iPhone X costs A$1579 for the base model with 64GB of memory, plus, you are locked into Apple’s typically more expensive ecosystem.

The GN8 adds a unique S Pen, enabling on-screen handwriting and sketching, 3.5mm audio, micro SD card, and more – and it has largely done so since the Note 4 in 2014! This is the most advanced, open system, Android smartphone ever.

The box contains a premium set of headphones tuned by AKG (Samsung owns parent company harman/kardon) and has separated the driver from the in-ear-canal ‘buds’ to give a very clean, pure, distortion-free sound, with good bass and clear mids via a separate woofer and tweeter. If in doubt, simply plug in any other buds and make the comparison yourself. The AKG sounds ‘alive’ – not at all like the tinny sounds from most buds. They can be purchased separately for A$141 and are compatible with any smartphone.

The out-of-the-box earbuds are surprisingly good.

Also in the box is  Samsung’s fast charger, USB-C to USB-A cable, two data transfer adaptors, spare pen tips, and a clear buffer case.

Setup

It is a typical Android setup – a no-brainer. While you can completely avoid Google (important for any Asian-based users and those with healthy paranoia) you will need to establish and sign into a Samsung account. Fortunately, this is more about device management and it is pretty benign.

Samsung’s Smart switch migration tool just keeps getting better and it seamlessly brings over any Android device (most supports wireless file transfers) and will suck everything from an Apple including iTunes music, bringing it into the open Android environment.

Camera

Dual lens configurations are here to stay with Huawei, Apple, LG and others following suit on their flagship devices. Huawei uses a Lecia developed separate monochrome and colour lens – the rest use a wide angle (standard) and telephoto lens.

The GN8 scored 94 on the industry standard photo benchmark – DXOMark. This is the same score Apple iPhone 8 Plus, although the jury is still out on the iPhone X.

Technology-wise, the difference between the two brands is not so much in camera hardware (lens, sensors, OIS etc) but in post-processing – Apple’s A11 dual image signal processors versus GN8 dual ISP (image signal processors) on Qualcomm/Exynos – the latter appears to be superior.

The dual-lens assembly on the Note 8.

The Galaxy Note 8 actually achieved 100 points for still photography (the highest ever) in all conditions and 84 for video, hence lowering the overall average score. But enough of DXOMark – what is it like in the real world?

Well for starters dual lenses are not the panacea to curing smartphone photo quality issues as Google has proven with its single lens Pixel 2 scoring the top DXOMark at 98!

Truth be known 99.9% of photos you take will use the ‘standard’ lens. This lens is the same as the GS8/+ and has optical image stabilisation (reduces shake blur), a brighter f/1.7 aperture (lets in more light), large 1.4µm pixels (extracts the most from that light), HDR (captures rich colours and details even in bright and dark areas) and dual stacked pixel phase detection autofocus. The second lens is a 52mm, f/2.4, 1.0µm pixel size, telephoto (zoom) mainly for tourist style ‘long shots and broad vistas’.

You don’t need to select which lens to use – camera smarts look at zoom, available light etc. However, if you know what you are doing, you can you can manually select either or both lenses. The live focus feature (for bokeh) uses the dual lens to capture both the foreground and background in focus (which is not possible with the depth of field issues of a single lens). The real magic is performed in the post-processing dual ISP.

The camera app is quickly launched by pressing the power button twice or via icons on the lock or home screen. The app is intuitive and uses swipe up/down and left/right to change cameras or effects.

You will notice a Bixby Vision icon – more on that later but you can use the camera to recognise objects or locations and search for products online or nearby places. You can also translate text. For the kiddies, there are stickers, effects, and more to make taking a photo more fun.

All reference shots were taken in idiot mode – auto everything – exposure, focus, HDR, flash etc. There is a pro mode (for RAW output as well as JPEG), panorama, food mode, slow motion and a new 360° virtual mode (think panorama around an object). Here’s a quick summary of shooting conditions:

Outdoors, normal lighting: Impossible to take a bad shot. HDR was spectacularly good in shots comprising a partially shaded object, or a bright sky background.

Outdoors, early evening: Brilliant colours (perhaps over-saturated but that is what we want) with HDR working its magic. I noticed a slight hesitation as the camera decided whether to use HDR and/or flash. HDR usually wins and optical image stabilisation (OIS) ensures crisp pictures for any longer exposure times.

Indoors office light (500 lux): Excellent detail, colour and it even compensates for moving objects.

Indoors, very low light (1-5 lux): Flash obviously comes into play and objects up to three metres away are good, sharp, and accurate with a little corner shading evident.

Panorama: Excellent, no visible stitching artefacts and even handles moving objects (like a car zooming away) quite well.

Selfies:   With auto HDR and fill light, selfies are great. Voice capture activates the shot or you can press the volume key. Night selfies were impressive. There is a setting for wide group selfies. It also has motion photo that animates the first/last few seconds of a shot. Its beautify mode does just that as well as:

  • Skin Tone: Make your skin appear brighter and clearer.
  • Spotlight: Adjust the brightness and location of the spotlight. To set the location of the spot to highlight or to adjust the brightness, drag the adjustment bar towards the desired level.
  • Slim Face: Adjust the face shape and make your face appear slimmer.
  • Large Eyes: Make your eyes appear bigger.
  • Shape correction: When your face is at the edges of the preview screen, it will appear distorted. Enable this option to correct your face shape.
  • Still no double chin correction – damn

Video

When it comes to video, in limited testing, I found up to 4K video flawless in daylight but a little less so in low light where HD resolution produced the best results. Video stabilisation was effective and 2X optical zoom was amazing.

A note on zoom: 2x optical zoom is pure, lossless zoom. Above that, the zoom is digitally handled by the ISP, which takes a portion of the total image (the zoomed bit) and fills in any missing pixels from neighbouring ones (lossy).

I found that up to 4X (2X optical and 2X digital) did not impact picture quality. Even the 8X zoom was acceptable in normal light conditions but in low light, don’t venture above 4X.

Overall, the Note 8’s camera system features of the best still cameras with a true 2X optical zoom that produces lossless images in all light conditions. Its colours are punchy and vivid and detail excellent – what most of us want.

I have not used the iPhone X yet, however, we’ll be writing up a comparison shortly.

S Pen and Samsung Notes

The aim is to make writing with a stylus on glass as natural as a pen or pencil on paper. Samsung has largely achieved that from the Note 7 onwards with a .7mm tip (ballpoint/rollerball size) and 4096 pressure levels, courtesy of a Wacom Digitiser collaboration. It is a delight to use, especially for a leftie like me, and palm rejection is superb.

And that is important as I suspect that no other maker has a viable stylus option because Samsung is so far ahead in research and development. Conversely, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Amazon Alexa’s are ahead of Bixby.

S Pen can create shareable notes containing texts, images with footnotes, art, voice recordings, and music.

Air command activates by removing the S Pen and hovering it above the screen. You can:

  • Create notes in a pop-up window without launching Samsung Notes.
  • View all notes in the app. Will also work with apps like OneNote.
  • Smart select uses the S Pen to select an area and perform actions, such as sharing or saving.
  • Screen write – captures screenshots to write or draw on them or crop an area from the captured image. You can also capture the current content and the hidden content on an elongated page, such as a webpage.
  • Live message instead of a plain text message, create and send a unique message by recording your actions while handwriting or drawing a live message and saving it as an animated file.
  • Translate by hovering the S Pen over a word to translate it.
  • Bixby Vision to search for similar images, locations, or wine information, translate text and even currency conversion.
  • Magnify – hover the S Pen over an area of the screen to enlarge it.
  • Glance – reduce an app to a thumbnail and hover the S Pen over the thumbnail to open the app in full-screen
  • Colouring – add colours to images provided by PENUP using the S Pen.
  • Add shortcuts to frequently used apps to the Air command panel.
  • Screen off memo – no need to turn on the phone to jot a message

Is it useful? More to the point is do you have a real use for it? As a journalist, I believe it will replace the A6 paper notebooks I use to scribble down interviews. And I love the screen-off write feature.

Bixby – so much promise, so little delivery but getting better

To be frank I gave up on Bixby, Samsung’s voice assistant, however, I am wont to be impatient so let me take some of that blame. I suspect using it for a few weeks is mandatory to get used to its voice interface but I can’t help feeling this was designed by programmers, not end-users!

Bixby is a new interface that can communicate with you and it provides services that help you to use your smartphone more conveniently. Some of the things it can do include:

  • Bixby Home: You can view recommended services and information that Bixby provides by analysing your usage patterns and your routine. Sort of like a super-curated notification screen
  • Bixby Voice: You can use voice commands to request what you want with Bixby Voice. It works best with system commands and the list of apps that support it is growing.
  • Bixby Vision: You can easily search for relevant information about objects or locations using the Bixby Vision features. Sorry but the results here were too vague. For example, a shot of a Toyota Corolla returned nothing more than objects with the same colour as the car!
  • Reminder: You can create reminders to schedule to-do items or to view content later. Works well.
  • To use the Bixby feature, you must be connected to a Wi-Fi or mobile network.

On the positive side, its integration with system commands and a growing range of apps makes it useful. I found Bixby’s ‘write down’ voice-to-text a great feature.

Let’s just say that you don’t buy a GN8 for Bixby at this time, and I will persevere and update readers in the near future.

Battery

The 3300maAh is smaller than the GS8+ 3500mAh yet it scores one hour more endurance rating at 89 hours – it is an all day and much of the night phone, but heavy users will need to keep a fast charger handy or like me, have a wireless charger on my desk and one beside the bed. Samsung has looked closely at background apps and battery draining causes. The Grace UX now manages this, so it will flow on to the GS8 devices too.

In my continuous HD video loop test at 50% screen brightness, it lasted over 15 hours.

The Note 8 will wirelessly charge using a 5 watt or greater QI charger.  Samsung also supports PMA adaptive wireless fast charging that is allegedly kinder to the battery.

USB-C cable fast charge from zero to 100% took 90 minutes. A standard 5V/2A charger takes about two hours.

PMA and Qualcomm Fast Charge 2.0 took 120 minutes and standard Qi 10W charging about 180 minutes.

Phone/contacts

Special mention must go to the highly intuitive way Samsung identifies phone numbers buried in plain text in contacts, messages, email or web pages and allows easy dialling. After two months with pure Android that does not do this well – it’s the feature I welcomed most.

Samsung Pay

Supports NFC and MST (mag stripe) and an ever-increasing number of banks and cards.

Samsung DeX (desktop experience)

DeX is a hardware dock for Samsung 8 series that allows you to connect a 16:9, 1920 x 1080p monitor, Ethernet or Wi-Fi connection, USB keyboard/mouse/dongle and USB-C power/charge.

It is idiot proof – the first time you connect all the items together it will check for DeX software, update it, and access the screen – it is that easy. It supports Windows networking finding printers and more.

It is impressive and may be very useful for the right user. Its Microsoft Office support is brilliant – but I don’t know the extent of other support for other apps.

At $199 it is not a wallet breaker and even if you use it as a dock just to play media or movies or as a lightweight PC then that it is not bad value.

I think DeX is a game changer for pocket computing. Note that the GN8 supports USB-C to HDMI connections as well.

Wi-Fi/Wi-Di/Bluetooth

On paper, it supports Gigabit Wi-Fi (1000 Mbps) but on a Wi-Fi test with a D-Link DIR-895L router (tri-band, MU-MIMO AC5300), it obtained speeds from a low of 368 to 656Mbps – still much higher than most smartphones tested to date.

Bluetooth allows for two separate devices to be paired – two speakers etc. It supports Android auto too.

Summary

This Note departs from the past models as Samsung’s uber flagship smartphone in that the GS8 and 8+ are so similarly specified that the main reason to buy it is the S Pen and slightly larger screen. The dual camera is great, but Joe Average will be happy with a single lens that is used 99.9% of the time anyway.

Samsung is focusing on vertical markets that can use the S Pen – writers, creatives, compulsive note takers etc. If you are a Note 4/5 user or think an S Pen could useful, then this is the only device for you and rates a 10 out 0f 10!

Me – I use the S Pen for interviews and notes – I look forward to mastering it and handwriting/speech to text conversion.