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Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: A big, expensive monster of a smartphone

This time last year we were singing the praises of the fantastic, larger-than-life Galaxy Note 7. We awarded it top honours and, were it not for the small matter of a worldwide recall – following the emergence of a potentially dangerous battery flaw – we’d probably still be recommending it now. The good news for phablet fans is that its successor, the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, is finally here. You can bet that Samsung has fixed the battery problem, but that’s not the only thing that’s been upgraded.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: Design

The first change is obvious as soon as you look at it: the Note 8 introduces a bezel-less design cribbed from the Galaxy S8. The screen is slightly larger at 6.3in across and it dominates the entire front of the handset with only the slimmest of strips at the top and the bottom of the screen to get in the way of your viewing pleasure.

It’s available in four colours, which Samsung has given rather silly names to as usual – there’s “Midnight Black, Orchid Grey, Deep Sea Blue, and Maple Gold – and, as usual, it employs Samsung’s Super AMOLED technology for incredibly deep black level response and incredibly vibrant colours. At this scale, it looks amazing, with a 1,440 x 2,960 WQHD+ resolution that equates to an impeccably sharp 522ppi.

Last year, DisplayMate awarded the Samsung Galaxy S8’s display the first-ever A+ grade and the Note 8’s screen is even better this time around. The website says the display on the Galaxy Note 8 is the best performing smartphone screen it’s ever seen, awarding it the top grade. In our tests, it performs just as well.

The Note 8’s 6.3in AMOLED display is even brighter than the Galaxy S8s, which was no slouch itself. I measured maximum brightness at 331cd/m2 with auto-brightness disabled, which doesn’t sound all that impressive but in line with what you’d expect from this type of display technology.

Samsung’s smartphones do have a trick up their sleeves when it comes to peak brightness, however, and go much brighter – in auto-brightness mode. Here, the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 reaches 514cd/m2 with the screen flooded in white pixels in bright ambient conditions and, when the screen is mostly dark, peak brightness rises even further. With a small patch of white displayed against a black background, I measured the screen at mind-boggling 991cd/m2.

The Samsung Galaxy S8, for reference, was able to reach 912cd/m2 in the same test, so this is an improvement of 9%. That’s phenomenal. It’s the brightest phone screen we’ve ever measured and it means it should be readable anytime, anywhere, even in the Sahara desert at midday in mid-summer on a really hot day.

This is no one-trick pony of a screen, though. It’s also highly colour accurate and covers the sRGB colour gamut precisely, too, as long as you select the phone’s slightly less in-your-face “Basic” colour profiles. If you stick to the default Adaptive mode, you’ll find it, largely, more pleasing to the eye, but some onscreen colours won’t reflect reality – important if you’re buying clothes online or paint.

If you found previous Note devices a little on the large side, be warned that the Note 8 is larger still, measuring 162.5 x 74.8mm versus the Note 7’s 153.5 x 73.9mm. It’s a bit thicker too, having swollen from 7.9mm to 8.6mm, and heavier at 195g. Despite its generous dimensions, though, it feels remarkably comfortable in the hand, with a design that tapers off at the sides and perfectly rounded edges that enables it to slide into a pocket without catching on the lining.

Other aspects of the Samsung Galaxy Note 8’s design are on par with the S8 and S8 Plus. There’s dust- and waterproofing to IP68, which means you can submerge it in up to 1.5m of water for up to 30 minutes. There’s also that rectangular panel at the rear housing the camera, flash, and the heart-rate and fingerprint sensors.

It’s a carbuncle and the positioning of the fingerprint sensor right next to the camera means it’s not only difficult to locate with any kind of accuracy and regularity, but you run the risk of smearing the camera lens with your fingers, potentially ruining your next shot. There’s also no dual-SIM capability, which in a phone that has every other feature known to mankind, is a bit of an irritating omission. Those who travel frequently might want to bear this in mind.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: Dual cameras

You might not complain too much about the components housed in that ugly black panel: dual 12-megapixel cameras. This is hardly an original idea, but it’s a first for Samsung, and the company has really gone to town with it, combining an f/1.7 wide-angle lens with an f/2.4 telephoto lens with up to 10x digital zoom, 2x optical zoom and optical image stabilisation on both.

As well as giving you a wider range of composition options, the two can create a simulated bokeh effect for lovely soft-focus backgrounds. Samsung calls this “Live Focus” and it produces much the same effect as the iPhone 7’s Portrait mode, the major difference being that here you can adjust the amount of blur both while taking the picture and in the gallery app, after you’ve taken the shot.

It’s a decent addition to the camera on the Galaxy S8 and the telephoto camera is a corker, producing shots that are both detailed and free from artefacts or noise. It isn’t quite as good in low light as the main f/1.7 snapper, producing slightly grainier pictures, but it’s a lot better than the OnePlus 5’s telephoto shooter which produces more mottled, noisier snaps in marginal light.

The quality of the wide-angle camera is the same as with the regular S8 and S8 Plus, which is to say it’s still absolutely superb in all lighting conditions and only a smidge behind the Google Pixel.

I’m a huge fan of the Note 8’s video camera, too. It can, of course, capture in up to 4K resolution, but it’s the smoothness of the electronic stabilisation (EIS) that wins the day with footage looking like it’s come from a camera mounted on a Steadicam rig instead of a smartphone held in your hand.

For good measure, the front-facing camera has been upgraded too, from 5 megapixels to 7 megapixels and the resulting shots are seriously impressive, packed with detail and decent colour, even in poor lighting.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: S Pen stylus

The third big improvement is less conspicuous, but still potentially useful. Samsung’s S Pen stylus – the handy pointing device which inspires the Note’s name – can now be used to jot things down even with the screen off, for the ultimate in quick-and-dirty note-taking.

Handwriting and doodles can also now be automatically converted into text and emoji, and you can hover the S Pen over online text for translation and currency conversions, but the note-taking app still lacks the facility to record audio at the same time as your jottings.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: Specifications and performance

Inside there are upgrades over the Note 7, although nothing particularly surprising. The CPU has been bumped up to the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor for US customers, while we Europeans get Samsung’s own Exynos 8895 – the same as inside the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus, in fact. RAM is up from 4GB to 6GB and, while storage remains at 64GB, the microSD slot hasn’t gone anywhere, so you can upgrade it to a total of 320GB.

It’s just as quick as its brethren as well. Check out the graphs below to see exactly how quick:

One interesting aspect of performance is that out of the box the phone is set to only render at FHD+ resolution (2,220 x 1,080), not the fully native WQHD+ (2,960 x 1,440).
This, to my mind, is a sensible move because it improves performance in games (the figure in the graph above is for WQHD+; it rises to around 54fps at FHD+) and boosts battery life fractionally as well. That, and most people would never be able to tell the difference anyway. It’s slightly cheeky, however, that Samsung publicises the fact that the phone’s screen runs at a resolution of 1,440 x 2,960 when the default is so much lower.

Slightly disappointingly, the battery in the Note 8 has actually shrunk slightly, from 3,500mAh to 3,300mAh over the Note 7 but, hopefully, that will mean no flammability issues. Initial results indicate poorer stamina than both the S8 and S8 Plus and the OnePlus 5, but a time of 16hrs 38mins in our video rundown test still isn’t bad at all, and it’s better than the results achieved by the Sony Xperia XZ Premium and HTC U11.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review: Early verdict

The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is a simply excellent smartphone, but then we expected no less. Samsung has taken the best plus-sized smartphone ever and made it even better with a slightly bigger display, a superb dual camera that sets a new standard for smartphones and an even better stylus implementation.

The battery life is slightly disappointing, though, but fattest fly in the ointment is the price. At £869 inc VAT SIM free you’ll not get much change from £50 per month if you’re looking at purchasing on contract. That, to my mind, is far too much for a phone, even one as good as this and, even you wait a month or two for the price to fall, it’s probably still going to be ludicrously expensive.

Good as it is, then, the Note 8 is a phone only for those who don’t care about the price and want the very best. For everyone else, there’s the 5.7in Samsung Galaxy S8 which is very, very nearly as good and now around £300 cheaper.

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