Samsung Galaxy Note8 Review: A Fine Phone, But The Pen Should Be Mightier
Samsung’s Galaxy Note line of smartphones used to stand for two things: an oversized display, and a stylus for digital notes. Those qualities made the Note a trailblazer, even if it wasn’t for everyone.
Both attributes seem compromised in the Samsung Galaxy Note8, which ships this week for $930 and up. Although the display is still huge at 6.3 inches diagonal, it’s only a smidge larger than the Galaxy S8+ from earlier this year. And because the Note8 uses the same tall-and-narrow aspect ratio as the S8 line, there’s not much room to write with the included S Pen stylus.
The Galaxy Note8 is by no means a bad phone. The display is gorgeous, the new dual-lens camera takes flawless photos, and the S Pen feels closer than ever to a pen on paper. But in positioning itself as the premium Android phone to get instead of a new top-of-the-line iPhone, the Note8 waters down its namesake features.
Curved And Narrow
Like the Galaxy S8 and S8+ before it, the Samsung Note8 has a curved display with no physical navigation buttons underneath it. Android’s standard home, back, and recent apps buttons appear directly on the screen instead, and they can slide away to reveal more content within apps. The Samsung logo that sullied the front of previous Notes is also gone, leaving only a small earpiece slot and camera holes to distract from an otherwise monolithic glass slab.
That’s where the S8’s and Note8’s physical similarities should have ended. But in addition to retaining the S8’s striking aesthetics, Samsung also carried over its 18.5:9 aspect ratio, which is tall and narrow in portrait mode and, in landscape mode, resembles the ultra-wide proportions of a movie theater screen.
This feels more suited for a jack-of-all-trades smartphone than for one that emphasizes note-taking. Because the Note8 is so narrow in portrait mode, handwriting can be tricky without a table or desk to lean on. My hand always began to slip off the Note8’s curved edges whenever my pen reached the screen’s halfway point, leading to slower, sloppier writing. Eventually I resigned myself to leaving half the screen unused for notes.
While space constraints would be inherent to any phone, the Galaxy Note series used to be roomier. The original Note had a 16:10 aspect ratio, and because of its thicker bezels, the phone’s body was almost a third of an inch broader than the Note8. Later models prior to the Note8 adopted a slightly skinner 16:9 ratio. If Samsung wanted to continue to embrace the Note’s notation features, it could have gone with a wider display, especially given the efficiencies gained by its edge-to-edge display tech.
A wider display would bring trade-offs, making the phone harder to use with one hand. But Samsung already has a jumbo phone optimized for that purpose in the Galaxy S8+, whose display is only 0.1 inches smaller than that of the Note8. (Samsung did reduce the curvature on the Note8, which adds about 5 mm of horizontal space.) A more spacious Note would not only help with handwriting, it would also create a greater distinction between the two lines and continue to push the envelope on ginormously large phones.
The S Pen Evolves–And Distracts
That’s not to say Samsung is neglecting the Galaxy Note’s stylus. If anything, the Note8’s new handwriting features underscore the need for a larger surface to write on. (Some of these improvements also appeared in the Galaxy Note7, which Samsung pulled from the market last year after batteries started exploding.)
The S Pen itself supports 4,096 levels of pressure, on par with Microsoft’s stellar Surface Pen, and it has a soft tip that helps emulate the feel of writing on paper. Broad strokes still produced some noticeable input lag, but that’s been also been the case with other digital writing tools such as the Surface Pen and Apple Pencil. Also, it’s no longer possible to get the S Pen stuck in its holster.
The Note8 offers a couple of neat pen-enabled software features as well. You can start writing on the screen while it’s off, and then pin whatever you’ve written to the lock screen like a temporary sticky note. You also can draw fun little “Live Messages” over a photo or blank background, then send them to friends as animated GIFs.
The S Pen falls short, however, when Samsung tries to sell it as more than just a writing tool. Although the stylus can be useful for desktop-optimized websites that expect the hover-over functionality of a mouse, most of the S Pen’s non-writing features come off as gimmicks. Being able to translate text and convert currency with the stylus makes sense in theory, but requires enabling a translation mode in the S Pen menu first, then carefully hovering the over the relevant text. This is too time-consuming and finicky in practice, and it’s unclear why the S Pen is even necessary to make it work. The same is true with the way the Note8 uses Bixby Vision to recognize on-screen text and images, and the “Glance” feature that lets you quickly open and close apps.
In lieu of these features, Samsung ought to work on improving its core note-taking service. Samsung’s built-in Notes app still doesn’t synchronize to other platforms, so the only way to access handwritten notes on iOS, Windows, or Mac is to export them as PDF or image files. A way to convert entire documents to text would also be helpful, and I’m still hoping Samsung–or anyone, really–will duplicate the notes with synced audio functionality of Livescribe.
I only lament the S Pen’s missed opportunities because in other ways, the Samsung Galaxy Note8 won me over.
From a raw power standpoint, this phone is as good as it gets, with an octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor and a luxurious 6 GB of RAM. The display supports HDR video, which makes a treat out of watching newer Netflix originals. The 3,300 mAh battery is slightly smaller than that of the Galaxy S8+, but I’ve been getting through each day without about 50% left in the tank.
The Note8 is also the first Samsung phone with a dual-lens camera to take on Apple’s Plus-size iPhones. Tap the “2X” button the screen, and the secondary telephoto lens takes over, offering an optical zoom effect with image stabilization and no noticeable drop in image quality. Videos are also shake-free, even when zoomed in, and in general the camera starts up and snap photos quickly. Looking back on my camera roll from the past week and a half doesn’t bring up any moments I missed due to bad shots.
The phone does include some typical Samsung weirdness. Its fingerprint sensor is in the same hard-to-reach place as the S8 line, right next to the camera lenses, and even Samsung warns that its face unlock feature is susceptible to photo and video spoofing unless you opt to slow down the recognition. It also ships without the brand-new Android 8.0 Oreo, and Samsung won’t commit to a time frame for updating its software.
But even these flaws are counterbalanced by the Note8’s nerdy levels of customization and features for power users. The Note8’s face unlock feature, for instance, became considerably more useful once I’d enabled unlocking the phone by long-pressing the software home button. I wasn’t crazy about the always-on display’s distractions, so I set it to display a clock along the edge of the screen instead. And after mapping Samsung’s one-handed mode to a triple-tap of the home button, it became my favorite crutch for reaching buttons atop of the oversized display.
Samsung is even a step ahead of Google with side-by-side multitasking, with a shortcut bar for quickly launching customizable pairs of apps. This removes the hassle from taking notes from web pages and listening to music while getting driving directions.
Despite all these upsides, though, there isn’t any one feature that really sells the Galaxy Note8 as the best premium phone. The Galaxy S8+ has nearly all the same capabilities for a lot less money–its biggest omission is the dual-lens camera–and Google’s upcoming Pixel phones will probably be more appealing to Android purists. Meanwhile, the next iPhone looms large for anyone who’s not bound to the Android ecosystem.
A larger screen and better notation features might not make the Galaxy Note8 more appealing to massive numbers of consumers. But they would help the phone stand out against its competitors, and preserve what made the Note such a unique, risk-taking phone in the first place.