If someone sets fire to your pants once, are you ever really going to trust them with a box of matches again?
That’s just how big a deal the Galaxy Note 8 is for Samsung. Last year’s explosive Note 7 launch (and subsequent recall) was nothing short of calamitous, so its successor absolutely has to restore confidence in the battered sub-brand.
The good news? It’s every bit the kick-ass flagship phablet you’d expect it to be.
With design and display smarts borrowed from the Galaxy S8, software tweaks that give productivity a boost, and an upgraded S Pen that’s learned a few extra tricks, the Note 8 shouldn’t have any trouble shooting straight to the top of Samsung’s smartphone offerings.
And that’s before you start playing with the dual rear cameras – marking the first time the tech has appeared on a Samsung phone.
We got to try one out ahead of launch to bring you some early hands-on impressions. And we didn’t even need oven gloves.
DESIGN & BUILD: TIME TO GET SERIOUS
The Galaxy S8 is smooth, soft, and almost pebble-like, but this feels like it means business – even in the jazzy new Maple Gold colour. Some countries will get the choice of gold or Midnight Black colours, while others will get Deep Sea Blue and Orchid Grey.
The metal frame still gives you something meaty to get your mitts around, and the skinny 18:9 aspect ratio screen means you don’t need the hands of a giant to grip it – even with a whopping 6.3in AMOLED panel squeezed in there.
A lot of features have been ported across from the Galaxy S8, including the digital home button – with the screen taking up so much space, there’s no room for a fingerprint sensor up front.
It gets moved to the back, right next to those dual cameras. There’s the smallest of bumps to let you know you’re fondling the fingerprint sensor and not the camera lenses, but it’s still awkward to reach – maybe even more so here because of the sheer size of the phone. Samsung is clearly hoping you’ll use iris or face recognition instead.
The whole thing is water-resistant, you still get a 3.5mm headphone jack, and there’s USB-C charging at the bottom – so the full package, basically.
There’s also the ever-present Bixby button on the left, just below the volume controls. Samsung’s live-in butler still hasn’t found his voice, but it is apparently due to arrive shortly after the Note 8 launches.
CAMERA: SEEING DOUBLE
Dual cameras have been doing the rounds for a while now, but this is the first time Samsung has joined the fray. The Note 8 has two 12MP snappers, and is the first phone to give ‘em both optical image stabilisation.
It’s an interesting approach, with the main sensor getting the same f/1.7 aperture and dual-pixel autofocus as the Galaxy S8, but the secondary telephoto lens sticking with f/2.4 and phase-detect AF only.
That means you can toggle between 1x and 2x ‘optical zoom’, to get closer to your subjects without actually moving, only without any nasty digital noise or compression.
Naturally there’s a bokeh-blurring portrait mode, too: Samsung calls it Live Focus, because you can tweak the amount of blur before you press the shutter button. It saves two shots, so you can go back and adjust the effect (or delete it altogether) whenever you like.
The 8MP selfie cam up front is probably using the same snapper as the Galaxy S8, seeing how both have f/1.7 apertures and autofocus.
Everything felt quick and responsive, but how the Note 8 compares to the rest of the dual camera-toting world will boil down to pure image quality. Samsung isn’t really doing anything different from what we’ve seen before, even if it is the first with dual OIS, so we’ll only be excited if it takes fantastic photos.
Of course, the Galaxy S8 is one of the best smartphone snappers around, so that feels like a pretty safe bet.
SCREEN & SOUND: BIGGER IS BETTER
The AMOLED panel has the same super-high 2960×1440 resolution, only here it’s stretched out over 6.3in. That means pixel density isn’t quite as high as the S8, but that’s still loads more pixels than you’ll be able to make out without the help of a microscope.
That extra screen space isn’t wasted with cutesy curves, either. The screen sides still bend around the edge of the phone, but at a much sharper angle, leaving more space to doodle onscreen with the S Pen.
It can crank the brightness up to ridiculous levels when you step outside, so you won’t ever have a problem seeing what’s onscreen, and the contrast we’ve come to expect from OLED screens gives movies and games a gorgeous, cinematic look with deep blacks and vibrant colours.
We didn’t get a chance to properly test out the built-in speakers, so we can’t speak for quality just yet, but if the Galaxy S8 is any indication, the Note will be plenty loud enough to catch up on Podcasts and YouTube videos without reaching for a pair of headphones – even if Samsung does bundle a tasty pair of AKG ‘buds in the box.
OS & SOFTWARE: THE WRITE STUFF
Give the S Pen a poke and it pops out of its sheath with a satisfying, spring-loaded pop. This is when Samsung’s Android customisations spring into life, letting you pick from a whole host of different abilities and tools.
All the old favourites return, but new for 2017 are Live Message, a cute way to draw doodles or annotate images for livening up your Whatsapp chats; PENUP, a social hub for sharing your S Pen sketches; and live translation of whole sentences, instead of just single words. The Pen’s 4096 levels of pressure should come in pretty handy for digital artists looking to get their creativity flowing, too.
Beyond the S Pen, Samsung’s spin on Android is a lot more minimal than in previous years. Sure, the icons look a little different, but Touchwiz really is massively improved. You can even swap the Back and Recents keys, if you don’t like the Galaxy way of doing things.
The only real flourish is the Edge panel, which lets you swipe between app shortcuts, contacts and widgets from any screen. App Pairs can be pinned here too, opening two apps simultaneously with a single tap. Think maps and music whenever you get in the car, or YouTube and a web browser for a soundtrack while you browse.
Samsung has also tweaked the software that kicks in when you slam a Note 8 into the DEX docking station, too. A lot more of the keyboard shortcuts that come as second nature on a Mac or PC work here now, and you can finally run certain troublesome apps on the big screen at full-size, instead of in a window. It’ll even play nicely with games now, too.
DeX makes a lot more sense for the Note than it did for the Galaxy, because it’s so focused on productivity. That’s probably why Samsung is bundling the two together, at least for people that pre-order the phone.
PERFORMANCE & BATTERY LIFE: NO SURPRISES
As if there was ever any doubt: The Note 8 absolutely flies. With the same octa-core Exynos 8895 CPU as the Galaxy S8 (at least here in South Africa) there’s nothing that won’t run smoothly on that super-high resolution screen.
With an even bigger emphasis on multi-tasking this year, it makes sense that Samsung would stuff 6GB of RAM inside it, too. Using two apps in Multi Window won’t be a problem, and the S Pen integration pops in and out without any slowdown or stutter.
There’s an ample 64GB of on-board storage for all your apps, plus a microSD card slot should you need more room later down the line.
How long you’ll be able to go between charges is the biggest mystery right now. A 3300mAh battery feels like Samsung playing it safe, but that’s understandable. We’re expecting it to comfortably last a day, but need topping up overnight – at least if you’re using it as more than a glorified MP3 player, anyway.
SAMSUNG GALAXY NOTE 8 INITIAL VERDICT
Sure, the iPhone might have won over a few ex-Galaxy owners when the Note 7 disappeared from shelves last year, but with nothing truly taking its place, it wasn’t going to be too tricky for Samsung to waltz back in and reclaim the throne it had just vacated. The S Pen really is that damn good.
The Note 8 feels like every bit the superphone, with plenty of power, a gorgeous design, and productivity boosts that should keep it the king of stylus-toting smartphones. We can’t wait to get one and give it a full review, to see if those dual cameras can deliver.