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Samsung Galaxy Note 8 tablet (AT&T) review:

A 4G tablet in need of a price cut

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The Good The AT&T version of the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is a comfortably-designed tablet with a an excellently implemented stylus interface. Its myriad software features are both useful and unique.

The Bad Off- and on-contract prices are too high and as good as the stylus is, I'd still rather use my fingers for most tasks. Gaming performance is a step back from the latest and greatest 2013 tablets.

The Bottom Line The AT&T version of the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is a quality tablet, but the Nexus 7 offers contract-free 4G LTE support with better performance at a much better price.

CNET Editors' Rating

7.0 Overall
  • Design 7.0
  • Features 7.0
  • Performance 7.0

Let me cut right to the chase: The AT&T version of the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is as good as the Wi-Fi-only version, but it's overpriced for what you can get in the second half of 2013.

Unfortunately, even in a more hypercompetitive tablet market, AT&T follows Samsung's lead too closely and charges an arm and a leg for its version of the Note 8 -- $500 contract free (with a $25 monthly charge) or $400 when you sign up for a two year deal (and that doesn't even include the monthly service fees). You read that right: Those opting into the two-year contract pay the same initial price as the Wi-Fi-only contract-free version. Not exactly what I'd call a deal.

The Note 8's combination of features and price just doesn't compete with the newly released Nexus 7, which remains our No. 1 small tablet choice. That unit delivers 4G LTE compatibility (the Wi-Fi version is available now; the 4G model, "coming soon", according to Google) on AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile -- contract-free -- for a mere $350 (with 32GB of storage, no less). And even with its premium pricing, the iPad Mini (with a larger, but lower-resolution screen than the Nexus 7's) is competitive to the AT&T Note 8 -- $429 for 16GB or $529 for 32GB, both contract-free.

All of that's too bad, because the Galaxy Note 8 is actually a solid tablet. Indeed, if you have need for both a stylus and a 4G connection, the Note 8 is your best option. (The 10.1-inch Note is available for about $100 more and isn't as good a tablet as the Note 8.) You just might want to hold out for a price cut.

Design
Like the iPad Mini, the Note 8's larger-than-typical screen necessitates about an inch worth of body width. 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, and definitely when compared with the Nexus 7 (2013). The Note 8 feels as though it's 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 8 (AT&T)Apple iPad MiniGoogle Nexus 7Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9
Weight in pounds0.760.680.661.25
Width in inches (landscape)8.27.87.86.4
Height in inches5.35.34.59.4
Depth in inches0.310.280.340.35
Side bezel width in inches (landscape)0.70.251.01.0

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 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. Thanks to the inclusion of these buttons, we get back a small percentage of screen real estate that would otherwise be occupied by the Android nav bar. 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 5-megapixel back camera is one of the better tablet cameras around; however, that's really not saying much.

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.

The AT&T version of the Note 8 ships with Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean and includes Samsung's TouchWiz UI skin. Though some take issue with the somewhat Fisher-Price-ian look of the interface, Samsung of late has added a number of useful features to balance out the overuse of pastels. The most useful feature is the easily accessible shortcut tray that lets you turn off features like Smart Stay, Multi Window, Mobile Data, Wi-Fi, Reading Mode, and GPS among others by simply swiping down from the top of the screen and tapping the feature on or off.

The S Pen and its thoughtful implementation into the OS is the reason the Note 8 is more than just another tablet.

Josh Miller/CNET

Samsung's multiwindow feature allows for two select apps to run simultaneously onscreen with a fairly deep pool of compatible apps, including Twitter, Facebook, and Chrome and each window can be easily resized to support virtually any ratio. 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 gets some notable improvements as well, and the dark 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 purpose 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.

The physical home, back, and menu buttons free up a bit of actual screen real estate.

Josh Miller/CNET

Reading mode 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 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 is a pretty effective and accurate TV guide, but the real standout feature is its powerful and potentially very useful search.

Hey look kids! It's a Samsung tablet with an IR blaster!

Josh Miller/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. Then, 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.

The service requires that you've both created and signed in with your Samsung account. Unfortunately, it's not yet compatible with all media apps. After searching an episode of the original "Star Trek," I only had the option to watch it via Samsung's own Media Hub service or Hulu Plus. Not Netflix, despite its availability there. The app also doesn't appear to be compatible with TV shows and movies available on the Google Play store.

Hardware features
The S Pen makes 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 to tap 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.

The Note 8 features one of the more pleasantly colorful tablet screens around.

Josh Miller/CNET

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.

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. The AT&T version of the tablet includes 4G LTE support.

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. The Note 8's screen isn't as clear as the 323 ppi screen on the Nexus 7, but the Note 8 delivers more accurate and vibrant color.

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 8 (AT&T)Apple iPad MiniGoogle Nexus 7Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9
Maximum brightness458 cd/m2399 cd/m2570 cd/m2394 cd/m2
Maximum black level0.47 cd/m20.49 cd/m20.44 cd/m20.41 cd/m2
Maximum contrast ratio974:1814:11,295:1960:1

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 GP2 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 large color palette.

Just to give you an idea of its 3D performance, here are a few 3DMark test results I conducted. Notice that while the Note 8 trails far behind the Nexus 7 in GPU prowess, it more than holds its own on the CPU front. Unfortunately, 3DMark has so far yet to be released on iOS. Once it is, I'll update this review with iPad Mini results.

DeviceCPUGPURAMOS tested
Samsung Galaxy Note 8 (AT&T)1.6GHz quad-core Exynos 4 Quad (4412)Mali T400MP4 (quad-core)2GBAndroid 4.1.2
Google Nexus 71.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 ProAdreno 320 (single-core)2GBAndroid 4.3
Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 (8-inch)1.5GHz quad-core Exynos 4 Dual (4212)Mali T400MP4 (quad-core)1.5GBAndroid 4.2.2

3DMark (Normal)

(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Google Nexus 7
11601

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