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Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Phone review: Galaxy Note 8 is powerful, pricey and soon-to-be-replaced

  • Instituted an eight-point battery safety check
  • Reduced battery size and capacity from 3,500mAh to 3,300mAh to leave more room in the phone's cavity
  • Partnered with UL, an independent certification organization, to endorse the Note 8

Read more about Samsung's efforts to keep the Note 8 battery from overheating.

For the record, the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus batteries graduated from the same enhanced battery test without reports of widespread problems. However, if you're wary, it doesn't hurt to watch and wait.

During my testing, the phone got plenty warm, but not dangerously hot, and not hotter than other phones I've tested.

Despite having a smaller capacity than the Note 7, battery life was great. The Note 8 lasted a little over 17 hours in our looping video drain tests. (Compare that to 16 hours for the S8 and 18 for the S8 Plus). It also kept enough charge to get through a busy day, even when used for navigation and endless photos at back-to-back wedding weekends. Some activities and settings will drain the battery faster, like streaming music, navigating with Google Maps and setting the iris scanner to read your eyeballs without swiping first on the lock screen.

Dual cameras give portrait mode a boost

I used the two rear cameras to take beautiful, memorable portraits of two weddings and some gorgeous mountain scenery (see some in the gallery below).

Live Focus, what Samsung calls its portrait mode, does come with some rules. You have to be at least 4 feet (1.2 meters) away from your subject, and the lighting has to be right. If it's not, the phone will say so, and won't take the shot. Indoor Live Focus shots were sometimes (unintentionally) out of focus.

This is what Live Focus is made for. 

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

You can adjust the blur intensity before you take the photo, and even afterwards in edit mode, which is a great feature. In addition, the Note 8 automatically saves a wide-angle version of the picture as well as the artistic portrait, so you can hop back and forth between the two. Let's say the portrait of you in front of forestry becomes your new profile pic and the wide-angle version goes into your photo book. You can easily turn this dual capture mode off with a tap.

Even with variable slider controls, the processing around edges can be harsh and imperfect, but that's hardly unique to the Note 8. The same issues plague the iPhone 7 Plus, too. The technology will get better with each generation, but it might take some time.

Despite some clunkers, photos were excellent on the whole, with sharp detail and Samsung's standard color reproduction that's so vibrant, it borders on gaudy. Low-light and night shots can look brighter than you'd expect them to be; not entirely natural, but highly usable.

Samsung stuffed a ton of new tools into the camera app, which makes filters and menus harder to find. You have to swipe left and right to pull them up. It's easy to forget which way to swipe, confusing to find controls for things like beauty mode, and easy to get stuck in the stickers menu. It's good to see Samsung adding dual capture and portrait mode sliders, just not when it makes the camera app harder to use.

Note that Google says the new Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL can accomplish some of these dual-camera tricks, including Live Focus (also known as portrait mode on Apple phones), with just one camera and software. Stay tuned for a full photo shootout against the Pixels and the iPhone X in the coming days. For now, you can read a breakdown of how the Note 8 stacks up against the iPhone 8 Plus for video and photos, and a comparison of the Note 8's camera specs versus those of the iPhone 7 Plus.

The S Pen is mightier than the tap alone

I'm so Type A, I practically write lists in my sleep. So the act of writing with a pen calls to me. It's fun to whip out the stylus and chicken-scratch away, finding new hidden tricks and quietly raging at nitpicky problems when I can't figure out how to do exactly what I want. The S Pen keeps the screen cleaner and helps relieve cramped hands. Naturally, I spent my review period writing notes on the Note.

There's one other current phone you can buy today that has a stylus, and it costs a lot less than the Note 8: the LG Stylo 3. However, it's every ounce a midrange device, so don't expect it to match up to the monumentally more powerful Note 8. 

Live message

Here's something fun you can do: write a message with the S Pen in glowing or glittering text, turn it into an animated GIF in a few taps and share it with friends on any platform that accepts GIFs. I wrote my favorite Live Messages over photos for that personal touch.

Tools let you preview your GIF and undo a stroke if you've made a mistake, and you can save your finished masterpiece to use again later. I just wish you could easily go back in again to edit when genius strikes. 

Write notes on the lock screen

Called Screen-off Memo, you can now write up to 100 pages in a single note (without unlocking your phone) and pin it to the lock screen. It's useful, but would be better if Samsung made pages scroll smoothly instead of jerk, and if the Note 8 automatically repinned notes you edit. As it stands now, if you make changes to a pinned note, you have to save and pin again. If you don't do that, you lose your changes. Not a big deal, but irksome nonetheless.

Notes app needs a refresh

The Notes app is pretty versatile: You can add text, your own handwriting and drawing, an image and a voice note. But a refresh is long overdue. The app just isn't as intuitive as it should be for Samsung's eighth Note phone (Notes 1, 2, 3, 4, Edge, 5, 7, 8). It isn't always easy to figure out how to do exactly what you want, including how to get in and out of tools.

The S Pen can:

  • Erase mistakes when you press the S Pen button (very convenient, except when you accidentally press it)
  • Create two types of notes, which is especially confusing for novices; seems pointless
  • Add a quick note from the Air Command navigation wheel, can minimize this to turn into an icon that floats around the screen. (You can also add a quick note by pressing the S Pen button and double-tapping the display)
  • Write on the screen
  • Take a screenshot of a small portion, not the whole screen (this keeps you from having  to crop to the part you want)
  • Annotate everything from images to screenshots
  • Hover to preview and share or edit images and surface hidden menus

The 8-megapixel front-facing camera squeezes much of the background into into selfies.

Josh Miller/CNET

13 other things to know (not all of it new)

  • Design: More squared-off corners than the Galaxy S8 phones
  • 8-megapixel front-facing camera
  • S Pen is water-resistant, too (we tested the IP68 rating by submerging the Note 8 in a bucket of water twice for almost 30 minutes, the maximum rated threshold)
  • Bixby Voice button calls up Samsung's digital assistant; you can't reprogram this
  • You can launch two apps for split-screen mode at once (called App Pair)
  • Edge screen is like a speed dial for your favorite apps and people
  • Translate complete sentences (not just one word at a time); this uses Google Translate
  • Samsung Pay mobile payment works with NFC and any credit card reader; it's pretty great
  • Google Assistant on board
  • Make an animated GIF from a video
  • Launch the camera by double-pressing the power button
  • OIS on both rear lenses helps keeps videos smoother than they otherwise would be when you're walking, jogging and driving a car
  • VR compatible with the addition of the Samsung Gear VR headset

Galaxy Note 8 versus…

Galaxy Note 5: If you're rocking a Note 5, it's time for an upgrade. Feel confident buying the Note 8. You'll love the improved speed, sleek shape, doubled S Pen sensitivity and fun new stylus tricks.

Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus: The Note 8 is the Galaxy S8 with the S Pen and a second camera. Really, that's it. The Note 8's screen is only one-tenth of an inch larger than the Plus (6.3-inch versus 6.2), and the core hardware is exactly the same. If you want to save some cash, are iffy on the S Pen and can live with a single camera, the S8 Plus is your no-brainer choice. Save more by buying the slightly smaller S8 (a 5.8-inch screen).

iPhone X: Apple's 10th anniversary iPhone is so expensive, it makes the Note 8 look like a bargain. It takes a number of design cues from Android phones like the Note 8, including a larger OLED screen and slimmer bezels. The iPhone X also won't sell until November and comes with a controversial feature, an unproven Face ID that unlocks the phone; the Note 8 gives you a greater number of options if you don't feel like raising the phone to your face. It could wind up being a great phone; we'll let you know after our testing period is compete. The iPhone-curious should also look at the iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus.

Google Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL: The new Pixels are nearly identical except for size, battery and price. Speaking of which, the $649 Pixel 2 is much less expensive than the Note 8. The 64GB Pixel 2 XL costs $849 -- about $100 less than the Note 8 -- and the 128GB version delivers twice the storage for the same price. Otherwise, the new Pixels have some interesting new features including squeezable sides and Google's new Lens AR technology, which is similar to the Note 8's Bixby Vision app, in addition to faster processors and an updated operating system. They lack dual cameras and headphone jacks, however. Check out how the phones' specs stack up.

If you missed itiPhone X didn't crush the Galaxy Note 8

The Note 8 and the iPhone 7 Plus, right.

Josh Miller/CNET

OnePlus 5: CNET's Editors' Choice phone earned its title for the sheer value it brings for a cost that slides in significantly lower than premium-priced phones like the S8. They share a top-of-the-line processor and portrait mode. The Note 8 overpowers the OnePlus 5 with wireless charging, water resistance and of course, the S Pen. If those things don't matter much to you, consider the 5.5-inch OnePlus 5.

LG V30: LG's heavy-hitter isn't out yet, but we did get a good look at it and so far, so good. The dual-camera V30 bets it all on advanced audio and video features. You won't find the Note 8's S Pen and wireless charging skills, but it matches Samsung's phone on water-resistance and the headphone jack. We don't have an official price yet, but LG phones typically save you some dough compared to Samsung devices.

Galaxy Note 8 specs versus S8 Plus, iPhone 7 Plus, OnePlus 5

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus Apple iPhone 7 Plus OnePlus 5
Display size, resolution 6.3-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels 6.2-inch; 2960x1440 pixels 5.5-inch; 1,920x1080 pixels 5.5-inch; 1,920x1080 pixels
Pixel density 522ppi 529ppi 401ppi 401ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6.4x2.9x0.34 in 6.3x2.9x0.32 in 6.2x 3.1x0.29 in 6.07x2.92x0.29 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 162.5x74.8x8.6mm 159.5x73.4x8.1 mm 158.2x77.9x7.3 mm 154.2x74.1x7.25 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6.9 oz, 195g 6.1 oz; 173g 6.63 oz; 188g 5.4 oz; 153g
Mobile software Android 7.1.1 Nougat Android 7.0 Nougat Apple iOS 10 Android 7.1.1 Nougat
Camera Dual 12-megapixel 12-megapixel 12-megapixel (telephoto), 12-megapixel (wide) 16-megapixel standard; 20-megapixel telephoto
Front-facing camera 8-megapixel 8-megapixel 7-megapixel 16-megapixel
Video capture 4K 4K 4K 4K
Processor Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (2.35GHz+1.9GHz) or octa-core Samsung Exynos 8895 (2.35GHz+1.7GHz) Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (2.35GHz+1.9GHz) or octa-core Samsung Exynos 8895 (2.35GHz+1.7GHz) Apple A10 chip (64-bit) 2.45GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 835
Storage 64GB 64GB 32GB, 128GB, 256GB 64GB, 128GB
Expandable storage Up to 2TB Up to 2TB None None
Battery 3,300mAh 3,500mAh 21 hours talk time on 3G, 16 days standby, 13 hours internet use LTE 3,300mAh
Fingerprint sensor Back cover Back cover Home button Home button
Connector USB-C USB-C Lightning USB-C
Special features S Pen stylus, water-resistant, wireless charging Water-resistant (IP68), wireless charging, Gigabit LTE-ready Water and dust-resistant; portrait image mode Portrait mode, notifications toggle, dual-SIM, Dash Charging
Price off-contract (USD) $900-$960 (varies by seller) AT&T: $850; Verizon: $840; T-Mobile: $850; Sprint: $850; US Cellular: $785 $769 (32GB); $869 (128GB); $969 (256GB) $479 (64GB), $539 (128GB)
Price (GBP) £869 £779 £719 (32GB); £819 (128GB); £919 (256GB) £449 (64GB), £499 (128GB)
Price (AUD) AU$1,499 AU$1,349 AU$1269 (32GB); AU$1419 (128GB); AU$1569 (256GB) Converts to AU$636 (64GB), AU$715 (128GB)

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