It’s time to talk about the Samsung Galaxy Note 8. I was quiet about it on launch day, only live-Tweeting the event on the Popular Mechanics account. Now that I have a review unit and the device had some time to impress me, I can be more vocal about a few things.
Samsung delivered arguably the best phone of the year with every feature you could possibly crave in 2017. That phone was the Galaxy S8. Before the Note debuted, “S” was the flagship device. Now that Samsung decided to introduce Plus variants of these former flagships, people like me expect even more from the Note.
The Note 8 is merely a larger S8 Plus that adds in the admittedly stellar S Pen and a very gimmicky portrait mode feature along with the additional telephoto lens. I say gimmicky because “Live Focus” suffers from the same fear of poor conditions as the iPhone portrait mode. Also, an f/1.7 aperture combined with one of the larger camera sensors among smartphones makes for great natural bokeh without any software intervention.
More telling, though, is just how far down the pecking order that legendary Samsung camera has fallen. Recent releases like the Pixel 2 and iPhone 8 harness the power of machine learning and AI to produce better pictures. Older devices like the Huawei P10 Plus are simply better at reproducing a scene in its original glory. Frankly, if you care about photography enough to value realistic imagery, Samsung aren’t making phones for you.
Writing on the lock screen is still the best S Pen feature
On the other end of the spectrum is the silicon. Apple have already unleashed the all-conquering A11 Bionic processor with built in neural processing circutry. Huawei used IFA as its platform to take the wraps off of the neural processing unit-toting Kirin 970 and when the Mate 10 launches with it later this month, it’ll surely kick more dust at the Korean giant. Samsung has its own silicon division so the mind boggles about why the Exynos 8895 stuck so closely to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 reference. Huawei has similar licensing restrictions with ARM cores, but skirted around it by adding in the NPU on top.
So now the Note 8 doesn’t have the best camera or the best processor, what’s left for Samsung to impress consumers with? That screen.
Yes, this Infinity Display malarky is the best on the market by some distance. No one does OLED on mobile as good as big blue. And that 18,5:9 aspect ratio is the perfect compromise between now standard 16:9 and the more cinematic 21:9. But for a phone that is pitched as a productivity tool for power users, its not the greatest solution.
The tall and narrow proportions are just fine for perusing your social media feed, but not for reviewing spreadsheets and reading emails if you have your screen zoom settings a bit too small. There’s also the problem of Google Maps not showing enough of the route ahead when in landscape mode and you opted to fill the entire screen.
Another point about the immersive nature of video content in landscape: completely ruined by the single speaker set-up that Samsung persists with.
On the positive side the 2017 iteration of Samsung’s user interface is definitely the prettiest I’ve tested this year. Iconography is great and the Samsung-designed high contrast themes are excellent for OLED panels and something that the likes of LG and Apple should definitely look into replicating. Bumping the Ram up to 6GB was also a breathe of fresh air for the already stellar DeX integration; things seem just that much more snappy as compared to on the S8.
The full review of the Note 8 is still to come, but the first impressions are that Samsung better come with something stellar in 2018 or else the company will be left behind in the game of phones.