Galaxy Note 8 review: Don't call it a comeback, call it the phone of the year

Come for the incredible 6.3-inch screen, stay for the dual cameras.

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A second camera makes all the difference

Even with all the above changes, the Note 8 might simply be an OK upgrade, but probably not one worth nearly $1,000. The camera makes all the difference.

galaxy note8 camera full Doug Duvall/IDG

For the first time, the Note 8 has a dual camera—and the results are awesome.

It might not be all that technically superior to the S8’s—in fact, it has the same 12MP Dual Pixel, f/1.7 main camera—but it adds a couple of key features that bring it over the top. Most notably, the Note 8 has a second 12MP lens with a f/2.4 aperture, and in tandem, the two cameras offer 2x optical zoom. Plus, there’s optical image stabilization in both cameras. That makes the Note 8’s camera more versatile than what came in earlier Galaxy phones, letting you capture clearer photos from farther way and take far better portraits than the selective focus mode on the S8.

galaxy note 8 low light IDG

The Galaxy Note 8’s optical image stabalization (left) really came into play when the lights were turned way down, capturing more clarity and detail than the Galaxy S8+ (center) and the Pixel (right).

Faux bokeh on smartphones is hardly a new concept, but Samsung has clearly done its homework. Tapping the Live Focus button activates a mode similar to Apple’s Portrait mode. The images I was able to get were as good as the ones on the iPhone 7 Plus.

We tested the Note 8’s Live Focus against the iPhone 7 Plus’ Portrait Mode:

But the processing magic on the Note 8 isn’t just behind the scenes: Both before and after you take your photo, you can adjust the intensity of the background blur with a software slider. It might sound like a party trick, but it’s way more than that. The adjustments I was able to make with the Note 8 regularly turned bland portraits into excellent ones, and it’s a feature every dual-camera phone should copy.

galaxy note 8 portrait test IDG

I consistently captured remarkable portraits using the Note 8’s Live Focus mode.

The Note 8 took fantastic non-portrait shots too. While it didn’t pack quite enough technical prowess to take down the LG G6 in our in-depth camera showdown, the pictures I took with the Note 8 were sharp and rich, with even better color accuracy than the S8’s. In low-light situations, the OIS really shined, capturing superb details in the harshest of light.

galaxy note 8 camera app IDG

The camera app in the Galaxy Note 8, left, has made things easier to find compared to the one on the S8 (center). But the killer feature is the slider to adjust blur after snapping a Live Focus shot (right).

Samsung has also cleaned up its camera app to make things easier to find. The buttons for Bixby and stickers are clearly labeled, and the download button, which lets you add new shooting modes, is placed with the rest of the other options, so more people are likely to use it.

Does the Note 8 stack up against the LG G6? Find out in our shootout:

There’s also a new full-screen icon to use the whole display as a viewfinder—much easier to find than digging into the settings and figuring out which picture size to select. Around the front, the Note 8 has the same 8MP, f/1.7 aperture camera with auto focus, and the app is loaded with stickers and filters to jazz up your selfies.

Nougat’s new tricks, Bixby’s old ones

The Note 8 is running the Samsung Experience based on Android Nougat 7.1.2, a newer version than the 7.0 one on the S8. It doesn’t bring any visual changes that I could see, but there is at least one new feature worth mentioning. It’s called App Pair, and it’s a perfect match for the Note 8’s giant screen.

galaxy note 8 app pair IDG

The new App Pair feature on the Note 8 lets you select two apps to automatically launch together into Multi-window.

It’s a little tricky to find, but App Pair is worth seeking out. It lives in the Edge Panel, and lets you pick two apps to launch at the same time. You can set it up the same way you select apps icons, but instead of one shortcut, you’ll put two together. When you tap the icon, both apps will automatically launch into Multi-window. It’s probably not a feature I’d use every day (and during this review, I didn’t), but taking away the need to fiddle with the Recents screen to activate Multi-window is a welcome change.

I can’t finish this review without mentioning Bixby. Unlike at the S8’s launch, it’s now a fully-formed assistant, with voice recognition and multi-step commands at the ready. As Bixby matures, it’s becoming clear that Samsung wants it to be more of an on-phone tool than a knowledge database, and Bixby does come in handy every now and again. That said, it just doesn’t need to have a dedicated hardware button. I accidentally launch Bixby way more often than I deliberately summon it. I’m hoping Samsung adds the Bixby button to the list of things it needs to rethink in next year’s phones.

Should you buy it?

If you’ve gotten this far in the review, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve given the Note 8 a 5-star rating. It’s not a score PCWorld hands out lightly—I’ve personally never given one until now—but there’s no denying what Samsung has delivered here. The reasons why the Galaxy S8+ lost a half-star in my review were primarily Bixby’s half-baked launch and the location of the fingerprint sensor, and both have been fixed to the point where they’re much less consequential to the experience. The Note 8’s improvements far outweigh the remaining negative points.

galaxy note8 main Doug Duvall/IDG

It’s like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey... if it had a 6.3-inch screen and a stylus.

But there’s no denying that the Note 8 is an expensive phone. In fact, if you use the 64GB storage option as the comparison point, it’s the most expensive phone you can buy.

But as the 5-star rating attests, it’s also the best phone you can buy. Sure, the iPhone 8 and the Pixel 2 are right around the corner, and LG has made a real contender with the V30. But because the Note has so many things going for it, it’s safe to say it’ll be able to hold its own against any of them. The S Pen alone delivers such unique functionality.

If price is your only sticking point, know that Samsung is offering the choice of either a Gear 360 camera or a 128GB microSD card with a fast wireless charger for orders through Sept. 24. And if the S8 is any indication, there will be other offers to follow.

galaxy note8 full with pen Doug Duvall/IDG

The Galaxy Note 8 and the S Pen, perfect together.

Even if you pay full price, you won’t regret it. The Note 8 is nothing less than a brilliant return to form, with an industry-leading screen, stylus, and camera, and a simply stunning design. It’s so good, you won’t even mind all the bad exploding battery jokes you’ll have to endure from your friends.

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At a Glance
  • The Galaxy Note 8 is nothing less than a triumphant return for Samsung's flagship phablet and the best phone it has ever rmade.

    Pros

    • Bright, brilliant 6.3-inch screen is a stunner in any light.
    • Dual camera is a big step up from the S8 and Live Focus is a winner.
    • The S Pen is better than ever and truly complements the Note's screen.
    • Battery life in excellent despite a decrease in size.

    Cons

    • Bixby button and fingerprint sensor are a nuisance.
    • It might be a bit too big and heavy for some users.
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