Samsung’s Galaxy Note has been the best big phone since the beginning of big phones. While some of us crowed about how silly we looked holding it up to our faces, millions of people found they liked using a stylus, appreciated the bigger battery, and enjoyed all that extra screen space. The Note’s grown in size and popularity with every model; there are millions of Note People now, and they love their monstrous slabs of smartphone.
There was one small blip along the Note’s journey—OK, more like one huge epic disaster. The Note 7 had an inconvenient tendency to catch fire. Samsung spent the last year trying to rehabilitate its image, and make sure its phones never exploded again. That may explain why, even though the Note 8 is Samsung’s largest and most powerful Note to date, it has almost nothing you’ve never seen before. Samsung had bigger things to worry about.
Even without flashy gimmicks, the Note 8 has a more complete feature set than virtually any of its competitors. Fast performance, nice design, waterproof, good camera, wireless charging, mobile payments, pen input, fingerprint reader, VR support, and so much more. Most phones lack a few things on that list; the Note 8 has them all and then some. The only tradeoffs come from Samsung’s overwrought software, and having to shove a surfboard into your pocket. That, and the price tag: The Note costs just shy of $1,000. You can get it for less by trading in your old phone, or with any number of strange Samsung bundle deals. Even still, it’s seriously expensive.
I’ve been using the Note 8 for a week and a half. It joined me on a weekend trip to the middle of nowhere, took the brunt of a spilled cup of coffee, clanged around in my pocket and bag through long workdays, train rides, bike trips, and seasons-long binges of 30 Rock. There are a few things about it that drive me crazy, and one that might be a deal-breaker, but for the Note 8 is mostly a terrific phone. It’s probably still too big and unwieldy to convert the phablet non-believers, but it’ll make Note People really happy. And mine, at least, doesn’t explode.
Big & Tall
The Note 8 is so big it’ll give you an inferiority complex. It’s so big it makes Dwayne Johnson look like Peter Dinklage. And yet, it’s the same size as lots of other phones. The last time Samsung made a phone with a 6.3-inch screen, they called it the Galaxy Mega and everyone made fun of it. This time, the Note’s only slightly larger than the iPhone 7 Plusand effectively the same size as the Galaxy S8 Plus. It’s still a really big phone—tall and narrow, like someone smashed your last phone with a steamroller—but so are most phones now.
All 6.3 inches of the Note 8’s display look fantastic. Samsung’s OLED displays always show rich blacks and vibrant colors, and this is so big and high-res that you can’t help but admire it. A toothpick-thin bezel surrounds the Note’s sides; the Infinity Display looks every bit as impressive here as it does on the Galaxy S8.
Inside, we get a slight upgrade to the S8. Samsung has always been good about checking off the whole spec list and making really powerful phones. Done and done. Outside, it’s very much a Galaxy: glass on all sides, logos on the back, more monolith than machine. It’s not quite as cleanly designed as the S8: The seams on the sides are a little more pronounced, and the squared-off corners don’t fit quite as snugly in my palm. The fingerprint reader remains tucked up near the camera on the back, where my finger never ever finds it on the first try. The phone withstands submersion in a swimming pool, but I’m still deathly afraid of dropping this precious glass box on the sidewalk.
In case you number among the doubters, let me explain the delights of a big phone. More screen means more room for keyboards, which makes typing far easier (and before you say, “well, what about one-handed,” I’ll add that voice typing and swipe-typing both work great). On a phone this big, you can watch a YouTube video or TV show without squinting. My Note shows me more tweets than your iPhone, and plays games more immersively. Big phones rule because phones aren’t for holding up to your face and making calls. They’re for getting work done, filming vlogs, and playing Minecraft. All those things are better when they’re bigger.
I have issues with a lot of Samsung’s ideas about software, specifically whatever ideas led the company to make an app called “Internet” when Chrome exists, and to sort all the phone’s settings into inscrutable categories. Samsung does know how to take advantage of big screens, though. I’ve constantly found myself dragging my calendar and phone apps into view at the same time, or researching stories in the browser on the top half of the screen with Evernote open on the bottom half. In a gesture to conference-call-passcode-hunters everywhere, the Note 8 even lets you save these apps in pairs and open them together with a tap.
Ordinarily, bigger phones also mean better battery life, since there’s just more room in the body. Despite its size, the Note 8 has a smaller battery than the Note 7 or the Galaxy S8 Plus (3000mAh rather than 3500), probably to avoid cramming the body too tightly and running into last year’s fiasco all over again. With relatively light use, it still lasts a 15-hour day. But when the screen’s on, I’ve never seen a battery die like this one. I lopped off 40 percent during a two-hour drive just by using Google Maps; a little Netflix and some light Twittering killed the entire battery in less than eight hours. The screen alone usually accounts for upwards of 50 percent of my battery spend—and that’s with the display at its default setting, not even the highest-res it can be. Every time I turn on the Note, I try to minimize my time with it so as not to kill the battery. I don’t like feeling afraid to use my phone.
Notes on Notes
Two things separate the Note 8 from the rest of the Galaxy lineup. First, Samsung’s tiny S Pen stylus, which appears unchanged from last year’s Note 7. It’s a nice, simple tool. Samsung created lots of software for the S Pen: write a note, turn it into a GIF, send it to your friends; select some text to translate; take a screenshot just by drawing a rectangle. Pop the pen out of its hiding spot in the bottom right corner of the phone and it’ll open a note, so you can jot down your thoughts without turning on the screen. But I’m not a pen user, honestly. Mostly I like the S Pen because it’s a great thing to fiddle with.
Big phones rule because phones aren’t for holding up to your face and making calls. They’re for getting work done, filming vlogs, and playing Minecraft.
The other advantage? The Note 8 marks the first Samsung phone to ever have a dual camera rig. Two 12-megapixel sensors work together or separately, one about where you’d expect and another zoomed in. They both take beautiful pictures! I just wish there were more to do in the camera app. You can use Bixby Vision to identify objects in the frame, or put some stickers on the pictures… and that’s about it. Next to the LG V30’s inexhaustible library of tools, Samsung’s setup feels lacking.
That said, I’m blown away by how good the Note 8’s camera can be. For instance: On a hike, I picked up my tiny, perpetually moving dog, and stuck him on top of a huge tree stump. He did not enjoy this maneuver. I had a few seconds to get a shot, and no chance of stillness, but the Note 8’s camera captured the moment perfectly. Virtually all of my photos came out clear, sharp, and well-focused. The app is fast, the image stabilization works wonders on videos or at super-high zoom levels, even the burst mode’s as fast as any phone I’ve tried. I trust this camera completely, which doesn’t happen often.
You know what I don’t trust? The Live Focus mode, which uses both cameras to approximate a soft-background portrait, a la the iPhone’s Portrait Mode. Sometimes it works great, and my photo looks like I shot it on a DSLR. Sometimes it decides that part of my subject should be in focus and part of her should be really, really blurry. Sometimes, it looks like someone went over the photo on their first ever attempt at blurring in Photoshop, and you just get a weird rectangle of focus. You can tweak the amount of background blur after taking your photo, which helps, but only because you’ll want to remove the effect a lot.
The Live Focus feature actually perfectly encapsulates my feelings about the Note 8. It’s a great idea, with all the right hardware behind it, but Samsung didn’t quite finish the feature. Job number one was clearly safety, which was of course the right call. The Note 8 is a great phone with potential to be an exceptional one, once Samsung has more time to work on it. Some battery optimization would be nice, and there’s so much more those two cameras could do. Other than the battery I had zero actual problems with the Note 8, and it’ll make lots of Note People really happy this upgrade cycle. But Samsung missed a couple of opportunities to blow everyone else out of the water. Metaphorically, of course.