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Samsung's big Note 8 challenge: Making it stand out

The Galaxy S line keeps getting bigger. How can Samsung make the Note 8 feel different than the rest?

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The invitation for Samsung's next Unpacked event, which will take place Aug. 23 in New York. 

Samsung

Samsung's facing a big challenge with the upcoming Galaxy Note 8 -- and it has nothing to do with exploding batteries.

It's got to figure out how to make its new phablet stand out from its Galaxy S8 devices.

The Note has always been Samsung's jumbo phone, the one with a screen so large it's almost a tablet. When the first such device hit the market in late 2011, it sported a 5.3-inch display -- monstrous for the time, a previously unheard-of size that elicited skepticism.

Nowadays that size is normal. Apple's iPhone 7, for instance, has a 4.7-inch display, while the screen of the iPhone 7 Plus measures 5.5 inches. And it's not just phones from rivals that have gotten bigger. Samsung's Galaxy S8 screen is 5.8 inches, while the Galaxy S8 Plus is 6.2 inches. The Galaxy Note 8 screen is rumored to be 6.4 inches, just a smidge bigger than the S8 Plus.

That minor difference highlights one of the biggest challenges that Samsung faces with the Note 8: convincing us that this phone is a significant enough upgrade over the S8 or S8 Plus. Perhaps the benefits will come from new ways to use the S Pen stylus, the other big differentiating factor for the Note line. But it's clear size doesn't matter like it used to.

"What's in this Note that's going to blow people away and is going to be very different from a Galaxy S?" Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. "I don't what that is."

The company will show off the device at an Unpacked event Wednesday in New York. Samsung declined to comment ahead of the launch. 

Notes on the Note

When Samsung's first Note hit the market, it was mocked and dubbed a niche product. Over time, though, the phone became popular. Samsung used the device's larger screen to set itself apart from other Android vendors and from Apple -- until everyone else followed suit with bigger phones.

The introduction of Apple's first large-screen iPhones in 2014, the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, caused Samsung's market share to drop.

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Since size alone wasn't enough to differentiate itself from rivals, Samsung started experimenting with flashy new hardware and software in its Note lineup. Because the phablet isn't as vital to Samsung as its Galaxy S line (Strategy Analytics estimates Note sales will make up just 5 percent of its total shipments), it has the freedom to try out riskier features.

The result is some features that trickle down to the more accessible Galaxy S line. The Galaxy Note Edge was the first mainstream Samsung phone with a curved edge, which is now the marquee feature on all of its flagship phones. The recalled Note 7 sported features like an iris scanner, which made its way to the Galaxy S8.

What will this year's big step forward be?

No risky business

As it waits for the memory of the prone-to-overheat Note 7 to fade, Samsung may not take many risks with the Note 8. That's despite DJ Koh, head of Samsung's mobile business, promising a "better, safer and very innovative Note 8."

Adding flashy but untested new features might make buyers rush to buy the phone, but any battery or other major issues would be disastrous for Samsung.

"It's fair to assume that Samsung is pulling out all the stops in terms of quality control to ensure that the next version of the Note has no battery issues," GlobalData analyst Avi Greengart said.

The latest rumors expect the Note 8 to include Samsung's new Infinity Display that features very thin bezels and crams a larger screen into a smaller package. Samsung could make tweaks to the fingerprint reader, whose placement next to the camera lens on the back of the Galaxy S8 annoyed many people. And it could include a second camera lens as on the iPhone 7 Plus.

Another expected new feature: a higher price tag. The Note has always been Samsung's pricier, more exclusive phone, and the company could position the Note 8 as its super premium phone, much as Apple is expected to introduce an "iPhone Pro." The Note 7 came in at about $850, £750 or AU$1,350, and some market watchers believe the Note 8 could cost $900.

"There are some people who care about status and will buy it just for that," Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson said.

But if the Note 8 costs significantly more than its S8 siblings, it can't be just about the stylus, he added, even if the S Pen has a built-in speaker, as has been rumored.

Killing off the Note line after the Note 7's troubles would have been an easy way to quash the battery debacle. On Wednesday, we should find out why Samsung decided to keep it -- and whether that's enough to get you looking at the Note again. 

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