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Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review:

Impressive tablet tripped up by $400 price tag

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The Good The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is comfortable to hold and has the best-looking small tablet screen yet. Writing with the S Pen feels natural and is preferred over typing on a tablet screen. Storage can be expanded via microSD, and the Watch On feature has potential as a universal remote/video content hub.

The Bad The $399 price is a lot for a small tablet, no matter its features. It's not as thin or as light as the iPad Mini, and some people won't appreciate the highly saturated look of the OS. Also, its face buttons sometimes get in the way and there are occasional performance hangs.

The Bottom Line The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is a stunning tablet with a truly useful stylus, but it's not worth $400 unless you're an artist or prefer pen input.

CNET Editors' Rating

7.3 Overall
  • Design 7.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 7.0

Editors' note: Because of recent increased competition in the small-tablet space, we've lowered the Note 8's performance score from 8 to 7. The overall score was also lowered from 7.8 to 7.7. Its star rating is unaffected.

The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is an 8-inch tablet that costs $399. In a world where the 7-inch Nexus 7 exists for $200 and even the 7.9-inch iPad Mini starts at $330 or lower, $399 is a tough sell. If you're looking for a simple small tablet, the Nexus 7 is still your best bet and the iPad Mini provides Apple's still unbeatable app ecosystem in a smaller, lighter, and cheaper package than the Note 8.

The Note 8 is arguably Samsung's best tablet yet, but depending on your experience with the company's offerings, the weight of such an acknowledgement will vary dramatically. If you're a stylus devotee that liked what you saw in the Note 10.1, you'll be happy to know that thanks to some software upgrades, the Note 8 integrates the stylus, or S Pen, in a smaller package with fewer seams and a more impressive screen. Still, if you're not an artist and have no interest in coming near a stylus anytime soon, go for one of the many cheaper options.

At $300, this would be an easy recommendation; however, the $400 price means you'll have to decide for yourself if the inclusion of the stylus and its integration into the OS is worth it to you.

Design
Like the iPad Mini, the Note 8's larger-than-typical screen necessitates a wider body -- by about an inch -- than, say, the Nexus 7. So, depending on how you're holding the tablet, its more expansive frame may feel a bit awkward, especially if your hands are of the wee variety. The Note 8 feels to be made of the same stuff as the Note 10.1, with a bit more metal along its edges thrown in for durability's sake. Its corners are smoothly rounded, but its more corpulent profile yields a slightly heavier device than the iPad Mini; however, you'd probably have to be holding one in each hand to notice the difference.

Tested specSamsung Galaxy Note 8Apple iPad MiniGoogle Nexus 7Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9
Weight in pounds0.760.680.741.25
Width in inches (landscape)8.27.87.86.4
Height in inches5.35.34.79.4
Depth in inches0.310.280.40.35
Side bezel width in inches (landscape)0.70.250.81.0

The Note 8's design isn't as simple or as elegant as the Mini's, but what it lacks in simplicity, it attempts to make up for in utility. On the bottom bezel sit three buttons: a menu key, home key, and the back key. Samsung has also added the ability to use the S Pen with the three buttons, something that was missing on the Note 2.

The Note 8's back doesn't appear to be reinforced with anything but plastic. As is the case with most Samsung tablets.

Josh Miller/CNET

The 5-megapixel rear-facing camera is located directly in the top middle of the back, and although the placement feels natural when holding the camera in portrait, my fingers were constantly getting in the way of shots when holding it in landscape. The back button as well can be a nuisance with the tablet held this way. There were several times when trying to take a picture or playing Riptide GP that I accidentally hit it. As a result of these buttons, we get back a small percentage of screen real estate that would otherwise be occupied by the Android nav bar. I'm thankful to have this space back, but making accommodations for the physical buttons' placement will take some getting used to. Somewhat inverse to that, while the physical home button is a very welcome addition, its convex nature makes it difficult to press with the stylus.

The S Pen of course returns with its pressure sensitivity in tow and writing with it felt a lot less cumbersome here compared with on the 10.1-inch Note. Though of identical length, the S Pen has a smaller radius than the Note 10.1's, and thanks to its flatter design is even less likely to roll away. The grooved pen button is a bit smaller than before, making it less likely to elicit accidental presses. The tablet includes palm rejection tech; however, if the skin on the knife edge of your hand folds in just the right way, making a "point," the tablet will, much to my frustration, mistakenly believe you're trying to write with it and accept inputs from it.

The Note 8's 1,280x800 resolution screen is one of the best I've seen on any tablet. Writing with the Stylus while holding the tablet will take some getting used to.

Josh Miller/CNET

The front-facing camera sits off to the top-right corner on the front. On the bottom edge are two speaker grills, a Micro-USB port, and a slot for the S Pen. On the right edge sits a microSD card slot with an IR blaster, volume rocker, and power/sleep button on the left edge. The top edge holds the headphone jack.

Software features
Since the release of the Note 10.1, Samsung has been working to improve the user experience in its Note family of tablets, adding software enhancements that probably should have been there from the get-go. The Note 8 reaps the benefit of the company's hindsight as it includes not only the additions we've seen added to the Note 10.1, but a few unique additions of its own.

Android 4.1.2 is a capable OS, but hopefully we see and update to 4.2.2 soon. The performance increases in that version appear to have been dramatic.

Josh Miller/CNET

The Note 8 ships with Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean and includes Samsung's TouchWiz UI skin. I personally have never had a problem with the colorful, somewhat Fisher-Price-ian look of the interface, but if you've never liked its more gaudy presentation, there's nothing new here that'll change your mind.

Samsung's multi-windows feature, which allows for two simultaneous apps to run on the screen, has been thankfully enhanced. A deeper pool of apps is now compatible, including Twitter, Facebook, and Chrome, and each window can be easily resized, Windows 8 style. The feature feels more at home here on the Note 8 with the S Pen compared with on the Note 10.1, where it's more difficult to hold the tablet in one hand and use the stylus in the other.

S Note now feels like an app I'd actually want to spend some time in.

Josh Miller/CNET

S Note gets some notable improvements as well, and the veil of inhospitable-ness that greeted me in the first version of the app has thankfully largely dissipated. The app now includes a brief text tutorial to make jumping in a bit less confusing, and the interface has been tweaked slightly -- you can now easily load a completely blank sheet of "paper" -- toward the same purpose. Icons now present their functionality much more clearly when tapping them and can be further clarified by the new AirView feature, which lets users hover the point of the S Pen over a menu option, which in turn displays a text bubble of each option's functionality.

Typing in a Web site URL, composing an e-mail, searching for an app in Google Play, or doing pretty much any action that would normally cause a software keyboard to pop up at the bottom on the screen, instead triggers a notepad to appear. And instead of pecking away at each letter with the pen, you can simply write your entry directly into the text field. However, this feature must be enabled within each app by holding down on the settings button on the software keyboard and selecting the "T" icon. The pen-to-text translation software still misinterprets from time to time, however, and could use some better prediction software. Still, once enabled, it's an incredibly useful feature that gives using the interface a nice flow when using the pen.

Chicken scratch quickly translated into legible text, right before your very eyes.

Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Reading mode is unique to the Note 8 and simply alters page backgrounds in e-book apps to look more like paper rather than a stark, white background. It also uses the ambient light sensor to adjust the brightness to best fit the environment you're reading in.

The Note 8 also comes with an exclusive version of Awesome Note HD. While the app has been available on iOS, the Note 8 is currently the only place you'll find it on Android. Not surprisingly, it's fully compatible with the S Pen. With a purchase of the Note 8, you also get 50GB of free space on Dropbox and a full version of Polaris Office.

Watch On
Watch On is Samsung's new universal remote/video hub app that integrates streaming-video content and OTA and cable TV. It includes typical social sharing "this is what I'm watching" options and seems like a pretty effective and accurate TV guide, but the real standout feature is its powerful and potentially very useful search.

Watch On is a better version of Peel's Smart Remote and then some.

Screenshot: Eric Franklin/CNET

Searching for a particular piece of video content returns results sorted by delivery system. In other words, if you search for "Thor," Watch On returns a number of matching options. Choosing the "Thor (2011)" movie option takes you to an information page with its Rotten Tomatoes score, sharing options, IMDb info, and related content. Tapping the "Watch Now" button shows a list of video delivery services like Samsung's Media Hub and Blockbuster Video. You then choose through which service to watch the movie, and that service's app will launch and take you directly to the "Thor" page, where you can choose to stream, purchase, or rent the video.

Unfortunately, neither Netflix nor Hulu will be integrated in time for launch, but I'm very interested in revisiting this app once they have. Having this kind of inter-service video hub is something I've been hoping Peel would implement since it debuted its Smart Remote app a couple of years ago.

Hardware features
The S Pen returns with its useful cache of shortcut gestures, making tasks like screen capture, calling up an app's menu, and going back to the previous screen a simple act of holding down the pen button and swiping or tapping the screen in the appropriate way. After using the Note 8 for a couple of days, I came to the conclusion that I'd much rather write on a tablet screen than attempt to type on one. A quick e-mail reply or entering a search query just feels much more natural to scribble than tab out. The interpretation software isn't perfect so making an attempt to write legibly is a must, but it was usually able parse out the vast majority of my writings.

With the S Pen you can also take a screenshot of pretty much anything by holding down the button and circling whatever it is you want to capture. A menu of apps then pops up at the bottom of the screen, and choosing one drops your screenshot into the app where you can then edit it as you see fit. It's in thoughtful moments like these -- where the interaction feels natural and intuitive -- that the S Pen really earns its keep.

With the S Pen you can circle anything on the screen and capture it in a screenshot.

Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

The Note 8 houses a 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos Dual (4410) CPU and 2GB of RAM, and includes support for 802.11 a/b/g/n (2.4GHz and 5GHz) Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, and GPS, as well as gyroscope, accelerometer, a digital compass.

Performance
The Note 8 houses an 8-inch screen with a 1,280x800-pixel-resolution screen. That's 189 pixels-per-inch (ppi) compared with 163 on the iPad Mini, and the relative difference in clarity is immediate and dramatic, especially with fonts. Fonts on the Note 8 lack the jaggy, unpolished look they deliver on the iPad Mini. Note 8 fonts are clear and sharp, and the screen's sharpness is only buoyed by its extremely bright and colorful Plane Line Switching (PLS) panel. Three screen presets are included: Dynamic, Standard, and Movie. Each adjusts the screen's contrast to be more appropriate to the setting.

Tested specSamsung Galaxy Note 8Apple iPad MiniGoogle Nexus 7Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9
Maximum brightness458 cd/m2399 cd/m2288 cd/m2394 cd/m2
Maximum black level0.47 cd/m20.49 cd/m20.28 cd/m20.41 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio974:1814:11,028:1960:1

The screen responds quickly to swipe requests and delivers page turns smoothly at 60 frames per second; however, there is a second long, but still noticeable, delay after pressing the home button as the tablet sometimes appears to stall for a split second.

The Mali T400MP4 GPU is a capable if unimpressive chip for gaming. Riptide GP ran at a very playable frame rate, but never came anywhere near the 60fps smoothness I look for and have only seen rarely in tablets. 2D games like Angry Birds, however, look beautiful thanks to the screen's high ppi and large color palette.

Just to give you an idea of the its 3D performance, here are a few 3DMark test results I conducted. Notice that while the Note 8 trails far behind the Nexus 10 in GPU prowess, it more than holds its own on the CPU front. Unfortunately, 3DMark has so far yet to be released on the iOS. Once it is, I'll update this review with iPad Mini results.

DeviceCPUGPURAMOS tested
Samsung Galaxy Note 81.6GHz quad-core Exynos 4 Quad (4412)Mali T400MP4 (quad-core)2GBAndroid 4.1.2
Samsung Galaxy Note 10.11.4GHz quad-core Exynos 4 Quad (4412)Mali T400MP4 (quad-core)2GBAndroid 4.1.2
Samsung Galaxy Note 21.6GHz quad-core Exynos 4 Quad (4412)Mali T400MP4 (quad-core)2GBAndroid 4.1.2
Nexus 71.2GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3ULP GeFOrce (12-core)1GBAndroid 4.2.2
Google Nexus 101.7GHz Dual-core Samsung Exynos 5 Dual (5250)Mali-T604 (quad-core)2GBAndroid 4.2.2

3DMark performance score

(Longer bars indicate better performance)

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