Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 hits store shelves Sept. 15 — at a whopping starting price of $930, though carrier plans may soften the blow. The premium phone is Samsung's latest after its predecessor, the Note 7, was pulled from shelves after a rash of battery fires. So the Note 8 faces not only high expectations but also a lot of scrutiny. Here's what I've learned from a little over a week with the phone.
Let's get this out of the way first: There were no fires or explosions. In fact, I never even registered a moment when the Note 8 was running hot.
What did register was the Note 8's size. It measures in at 6.3 inches to the iPhone 7 Plus’s 5.7 inches, and is truly a phablet.
That has its drawbacks: When making voice calls, the phone looks a little ridiculous held up to your face; I found myself using headphones for comfort’s sake. It’s definitely a two-handed device; while Samsung does have a one-handed mode on offer, most of the time I was defaulting to using both hands.
Yet despite its size, the Note 8 was surprisingly easy to hold, thanks to a taller, thinner design that felt solid in my hand without making me worry about dropping it — even without a case.
In terms of overall performance, the Note 8 was noticeably zippy even when running multiple apps, including streaming video. Samsung has marketed and priced this as a top-of-the-line phone, and it fits that bill in every way.
Battery, of course, is a major focus of the Note 8, given what came before. Samsung didn't pack the Note 8 with a larger-capacity battery. In fact, its battery holds less of a charge than the Galaxy S8 Plus. As a result, it has decent but not groundbreaking battery life. If you’re a light smartphone user, the charge could last you for more than a day. But chances are that if you’re a light smartphone user you aren’t looking at the Note 8.
On days of heavy use — with constant emailing, movie streaming, music streaming, social media check-ins, etc. — the Note 8 still got me through a day without prompting any panic about finding an outlet. Practically speaking, that experience was similar to the iPhone 7 Plus, though the Note 8 generally had more battery left over at the end of the day.
The screen was the most striking thing about the Note 8 right off the bat, and my impressions of it have only improved on further acquaintance. The serious real estate makes multitasking on this phone a joy. Samsung has long had a split-screen option, but the Note 8’s screen makes it easy to use two apps at once, and users can even bookmark app pairs so that you can have a shortcut to your favorite set.
Samsung also made a big deal about its camera, particularly as compared with the iPhone 7 Plus. It does generally live up to its own hype in low light and in terms of stability. Other software features also let you cover a multitude of sins — for example, being able to refocus a picture to blur or sharpen the background.
As for the rest of the phone, Samsung often packs its devices with features — some useful, some not. On the Note 8, the most useful additions I found all relate to the S Pen, which again nestles into the bottom of the phone. The screen-off memo, which lets you jot down notes without unlocking your screen, proved particularly useful for me, especially when I didn't have a pen on hand.
Other features make a reappearance: The Note 8 is still waterproof and (if you're worried) still has a headphone jack.
Other features aren't quite so useful. The phone comes with Samsung’s voice assistant, Bixby, which has more promise than practical application at the moment. Bixby is smart and, for example, can recognize images in a photo and put them in a particular folder if asked. But it doesn't work with enough apps outside of the Samsung universe to capitalize fully on those advanced features.
All in all, the Galaxy Note 8 is a phone for a very particular type of person: one who’s happy to spend to get the most out of their smartphone. The phone's $930 price tag is a big investment, even when spread over a number of monthly payments.
For those evaluating the Note 8 against its competitors, I'd say that I like it better than the iPhone 7 Plus in terms of design and usability. But the iPhone 7 Plus isn't going to be the Note 8's primary iPhone competition. That will fall to whatever Apple releases on Sept. 12.
But until then, at least, the Note 8 can claim victory in the top tier of smartphones.