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With Galaxy Note 8, Samsung hopes to smother battery debacle

The company is ready to get past last year's controversy with an upgraded phone that packs some new tricks.

Josh Miller/CNET
Now playing: Watch this: Cool new tricks to try with Galaxy Note 8's stylus

Less than a year ago, Samsung's Galaxy Note brand was radioactive.

At that point, the Galaxy Note 7, which had the unhealthy tendency to overheat and catch fire, had endured two recalls before Samsung scrapped the line. Travelers got used to hearing airline attendants read a warning before every flight that the phone was banned from all planes.

I assumed the Note brand was irreversibly tainted, and even suggested Samsung kill the line off (or at least rename it). I wasn't the only one.

Yet here I was Wednesday at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, its massive, hangar-like interior converted into a square stage for what Samsung hopes is the resolution to its "painful crisis," as Samsung mobile chief D.J. Koh called the incident in an interview in January.


The Galaxy Note was a tainted name last year. 


Today marks the debut of the Galaxy Note 8, the official follow-up to 2016's ill-fated phone. More importantly, if Samsung has its way, it will represent the final chapter to the highly unusual saga that was the Galaxy Note 7 debacle. From the initial reports of phones catching fire to the recalls and apology tour and comeback with the Galaxy S8, it's been a surreal year for the Korean consumer electronics giant.

That Samsung opted to keep the name -- which for a while was synonymous with exploding phones -- is testament to the loyalty of its customer base. While the Note 7 was a massive embarrassment for Samsung, it did little to deter diehard Note fans, some of whom stubbornly clung to that device.

"They continue to be excited about Note. They want us to bring a Note to market," said Justin Denison, senior vice president of product marketing and strategy for Samsung's US business. "The brand health is very high."

But Samsung didn't sweep the issue under the rug on Wednesday. It kicked off the event with a video that acknowledged the Note 7 issue and the disappointment its users felt. But the company quickly followed that with clips of people expressing their support for the Note line. 

"None of us will forget what happened last year," Koh said at the event Wednesday. "I know I won't."

Koh said he was humbled by the loyalty of Samsung's customers, and bowed on stage as thanks for their continued support. 

A focus on safety

Samsung did the heavy lifting to sell the idea of a safer product earlier this year ahead of the launch of the Galaxy S8, unveiling its eight-point battery check and detailing the reasons behind the Note 7 problems.

The Galaxy Note 8 goes even further. One of the testing labs that certified the new battery check process, UL, is also endorsing the Note 8 itself -- the first time it has done so for a phone, according to Samsung.


The Galaxy Note is back.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Not wanting to take any risks, Samsung used a 3,300 mAh battery in the Note 8, smaller than the 3,500 mAh battery in the Galaxy S8 Plus. Last year's Note 7 also had a 3,500 mAh battery.

The phone is expected to last all day thanks to the more power-efficient Qualcomm Snapdragon processor -- which also powers the Galaxy S8, according to Drew Blackard, senior director of smartphone product marketing and strategy at Samsung's US unit.

The company carved more space out around the battery and added "guardrails" for extra protection, Blackard said.

There may even be an advantage of sorts to sticking with the Note name, a suggestion that last year's model was a fluke. 

"By keeping the brand name, they're saying the Note line is fine," said Avi Greengart, an analyst at Global Data.

Evolutionary upgrade

After Wednesday's opening discussion of last year's incident, Samsung focused on the new bells and whistles.

The Note line has been notable for taking risks that the more mainstream Galaxy S line doesn't, whether it's the introduction of curved displays or its S-Pen stylus. The original premise of the Note -- its jumbo screen -- went against phone conventions at the time.

With the Note 8, there is no new standout feature, unless you count Samsung following some of its competitors and adding a dual rear camera setup for enhanced "Portrait Mode"-style photos like that found on the iPhone. Samsung's twist: You'll be able to adjust that background blur effect both before and after you take the shot, as well as choose just how much blurriness you want.

Another feature is Live Message, which turns your S-Pen sketch into an animated GIF, replaying your pen strokes in an image you can send to your friends via most messaging services.


The Galaxy Note 8 finally adds a dual-camera set-up -- something that companies like Apple and LG already offer. 

Josh Miller/CNET

The design, meanwhile, is consistent with that of the Galaxy S8, removing the frame on the side to pack in more screen -- 6.3 inches -- in a longer body. Also unchanged: the annoying placement of the fingerprint sensor that's right next to the camera. 

Samsung argues the upgrade will be a massive change for Note users, since many of them are stuck on the Note 5 or Galaxy S7.

"Is it revolutionary? No, it's evolutionary," Greengart said. "But there's been a missing link in the evolution of the Note line for the Note 7. This corrects for that."

While consumers may recall the Note 7 incident, it hasn't affected how they spend their money.

"It does seem that Samsung was able to isolate the damage to the Note 7. The S8 has done very well, and its reputation hasn't been tainted by the Note 7," said Forrester analyst J.P. Gownder.

If the Note 8 follows the same pattern as the Galaxy S8, Samsung will have closed the book on the battery concerns. The company's executives hope it'll be able to win over a larger share of the projected 50 million US customers who are due to upgrade their phones this year -- many of them iPhone users -- suggesting some of its swagger is back.

Unless the phones start catching fire. Then all bets are off.

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