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23 August 2017

The Galaxy Note 8 finally competes with the iPhone where it counts

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It feels like only yesterday that Samsung was forced to recall and discontinue the Galaxy Note 7 because of exploding batteries.

Experts and analysts had doubts about whether the Korean electronics giant would ever recover from what is arguably the most devastating smartphone launch in history. 

But following the successful release of its flagship device, the Galaxy S8, last spring, Samsung is now ready to bring the Galaxy Note back from the dead with the safer — but still feature packed — Note 8

The road to the Note 8 has been a bumpy one and filled with plenty of lessons learned. Following the Note 7 nightmare, Samsung’s U.S. smartphone marketshare was around 20 percent according to data collected by research firm Strategy Analytics. But after the Galaxy S8’s launch, it’s now closer to 40 percent says Justin Denison, Senior Vice President of Samsung Electronics of America.

“The proof point through this process of recovery — the brand, the business, etc. — is really manifested in the Galaxy S8 devices,” Denison told Mashable. “These devices have been extremely well-received with the near flawless launch. We’ve grown sales year over year — both in the U.S. and globally. ” 

That’s reassuring to hear as a phone buyer, and it’s exactly what Samsung needs ahead of the Note 8 launch. The phone itself will be officially available for pre-order from all of the U.S. carriers starting on Aug. 24 and begin shipping on Sept. 15. 

And for the first time, the unlocked versions (without all the bloatware) will also be also be available on launch day. Samsung is also sweetening the deal for anyone who buys a Note 8 between Aug. 24 and Sept. 24 by including a free Gear 360 camera or “Galaxy Foundation” kit which includes a 128GB memory card and fast wireless charging cradle.

The launch of the Galaxy S8 and S8+ earlier this year was Samsung’s first real test at winning back consumers who feared the company’s phones were unsafe. While the Note 7’s faulty batteries are still concerns for many consumers, Samsung says it’s going the extra mile to make sure the Note 8 will not blow up. That includes putting the phone’s batteries through the same new 8-point battery safety check introduced with the S8. 

It also means not cramming every new technology into the Note 8, but adding in advancements that are meaningful without being over the top. The Note 8 has plenty of new features for power users, but it’s also quite conservative. 

Signature Samsung design 

The Note 8's screen is as gorgeous as ever.

The Note 8’s screen is as gorgeous as ever.

Image: lili sams/mashable

If you’ve seen a S8 or S8+ you already know what the Note 8 looks like. It’s got the same glass and metal sandwich design Samsung’s been fine-tuning for years and it still looks damn slick. Just like on the S8, the glass front and back edges curve to meet the metal frame.

The Super AMOLED, HDR-ready “infinity display” is a little larger at 6.3 inches compared to the S8+’s 6.2 inches, but it looks much larger. Whereas the S8 has more pronounced curved edges, the Note 8’s are gentler. Samsung says this was intentional to allow for more screen surface area for using the S Pen stylus — makes sense. 

The screen's also HDR-certified so HDR content pops right off.

The screen’s also HDR-certified so HDR content pops right off.

Image: lili sams/mashable

The Essential Phone and upcoming iPhone 8’s screens will herald in a new era of displays with “notches,” but that’s fine by me because the Note 8’s display is still best-in-class. The crisp 2,960 x 1,440 resolution is as bright as ever and the vibrant colors and deep blacks are just as you’d expect from a Samsung phone. 

I also detected no noticeable lag during my brief hands on with the Note 8. It’s powered by the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip as the S8. But instead of 4GB of RAM, Samsung’s bumped it up to 6GB. There’s 64GB of internal storage with a microSD card slot for expansion up to 256GB.

Still has a headphone jack! And charges via USB-C.

Still has a headphone jack! And charges via USB-C.

Image: lili sams/mashable

The Note 8 also comes with all the Samsung pillars you’ve come to love, like fast charging via USB-C, wireless charging that’s as fast as wired, IP68 water and dust resistance, and a headphone jack. The speaker’s only mono, but still sounds fine. 

It’s still a little disappointing to see the fingerprint sensor on the back, next to the camera, but at least it’s now separated by the dual LED flash. The Note 8’s also equipped with the same biometrics found on the S8, including the iris scanner and face recognition.

Powerful dual cameras

Dual 12 megapixel cameras. One wide angle and one 2x zoom. Both with OIS. Fingerprint scanner is still next to the camera, which is too bad but better than nothing.

Dual 12 megapixel cameras. One wide angle and one 2x zoom. Both with OIS. Fingerprint scanner is still next to the camera, which is too bad but better than nothing.

Image: Lili sams/mashable

While the S Pen is what differentiates the Note from the Galaxy S series, the Note 8’s dual cameras (finally) are even more exciting. 

Rumors suggested Samsung’s second rear camera would offer 3x optical zoom or limp behind the iPhone with a secondary monochrome sensor, but they were wrong. Both cameras are 12 megapixel sensors — one’s a regular wide-angle lens with f/1.7 aperture and the other’s a 2x telephoto with f/2.4 aperture. 

People are gonna say Samsung copied the iPhone 7 Plus, and that’s true and false. First, everyone’s copying the iPhone 7 Plus’ dual cameras (Hi OnePlus 5!). And second, the Note 8’s dual cameras might actually be better. 

Hit the 2x button to get twice as close.

Hit the 2x button to get twice as close.

Image: lili sams/mashable

Both come with optical image stabilization (OIS) so that your photos are sharp even when you’ve zoomed in 10x digitally on a subject. The iPhone only has OIS in its regular camera. 

And unlike OnePlus, who just shamelessly copied the “Portrait mode” name and all, the feature’s called “Live Focus” on the Note 8, with good reason. When the mode is switched on, the camera focuses in on a subject and blurs out the background. But unlike Portrait mode, you can actually adjust the intensity of the background blur in real-time or after you’ve taken the shot. 

You can adjust the intensity of the background blur (bokeh) with the Note 8's Live Focus mode.

You can adjust the intensity of the background blur (bokeh) with the Note 8’s Live Focus mode.

Image: lili sams/mashable

But the Note 8’s camera tricks don’t stop there. While you’re shooting a DSLR-quality photo with the background all de-focused, the regular wide-angle camera also takes a normal photo so you also capture the entire scene.

I only got to try the dual cameras in a controlled indoor lighting situation, but from what I saw, it looked pretty darn good. Live Focus still sometimes fails to isolate the background from, say, a person’s hair or transparent and reflective things like glass and metal, but it’s to be expected from phone cameras.

No upgrade to the Note 8's selfie camera. It's the same 8-megapixel shooter as on the S8.

No upgrade to the Note 8’s selfie camera. It’s the same 8-megapixel shooter as on the S8.

Image: lili sams/mashable

The selfie camera didn’t get an upgrade. It’s the same 8-megapixel shooter as on the S8. Honestly, I’m not sure if selfies need to get sharper, so I’m fine with it. 

Smarter productivity[

There are a few new Air Command features like Live Messages and full sentence translation.

There are a few new Air Command features like Live Messages and full sentence translation.

Image: lili sams/mashable

Samsung earned a bad reputation for piling on gimmicky software features into its Android phones that nobody wants, but it really has dialed it way down in recent years.

The Note 8 still runs Android 7.1.1 Nougat with Samsung’s own TouchWiz, but like on the S8, it no longer makes you want to pull your hair out. The UI still feels fresh and modern and the company says it’ll be one of the first phones to get updated to Android 8.0 Oreo.

People buy Note phones to get more stuff done. Split-window and the Apps Edge shortcuts have helped push the Note’s productivity features and now Samsung’s adding a couple more useful ones.

Apps Edge now lets you create shortcuts that'll simultaneously launch two apps in split-window

Apps Edge now lets you create shortcuts that’ll simultaneously launch two apps in split-window

Image: lili sams/mashable

Here we've got Google Maps and Google Play Music programmed to open up together

Here we’ve got Google Maps and Google Play Music programmed to open up together

Image: lili sams/mashable

Apps Edge has a new pairing feature that lets you create a shortcut that’ll open up two apps in split-window. For example, if you always use Chrome and Notes, you can program a shortcut that’ll open them both together.

The useful Screen Off Memo, which lets you start jotting notes on the display as soon as pull out the S Pen now supports up to 100 pages.

The S Pen also now translates full sentences as opposed to just words. It’s still a little wonky to use compared to just using Google Translate, though.

Live Messages is pretty cool. Write or draw your message and it'll save it as an animated GIF.

Live Messages is pretty cool. Write or draw your message and it’ll save it as an animated GIF.

Image: lili sams/mashable

And there’s a Live Message feature that lets you handwrite and draw animated messages just like iOS’s own Digital Touch. But whereas Digital Touch is a special format, Live Messages are saved as GIFs so you can share them anywhere.

As you can see, these software features are not groundbreaking by any means, but they’re practical. With the Note 8, Samsung’s building on top of the software blocks it already set down with its previous flagships instead of flinging a dozen new silly ideas at the wall.

Bixby still lags behind Siri and Google Assistant

Bixby still lags behind Siri and Google Assistant

Image: lili sams/mashable

The one big part of the software on the Note 8 that I’m still not feeling is Bixby, and that’s because it has a dedicated physical button just like on the S8. It’s only been about a month since Bixby launched on the S8 and Samsung says 30 percent of owners have registered to try it. Utterances to Bixby are reportedly in the “tens of millions” according to the company.

Samsung’s extremely ambitious with Bixby, but compared to other digital assistants like Siri and Google Assistant, it still falls short — really short.

Return of the Note

Glass back for wireless charging.

Glass back for wireless charging.

Image: lili sams/mashable

“I will bring back a better, safer and very innovative Note 8,” DJ Koh, Samsung’s mobile chief, told CNET following the company’s press conference that detailed what went wrong with the Note 7’s batteries.

The Note 8 appears to be safer and the dual cameras and the new productivity features are a little more innovative, but they’re still modest improvements. I’m not sure if that’s enough to compete with the upcoming iPhone 8 and Google Pixel 2, but maybe that’s fine. 

Samsung will still likely sell tons of Note 8’s — assuming people really trust them again. Last year, I boldly proclaimed the Note 7 the best smartphone on the planet before they started exploding globally. Will Samsung be able to reclaim the title? We’ll have to wait until we get to test the Note 8 IRL. But so far, it looks pretty sweet.

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