Last year I spent two straight hours in a Sprint store on the day before I had to board a flight home for Thanksgiving. The Galaxy Note 7 had just been deemed contraband; to take one on a flight was a federal offense. Some payment issue had made exchanging the device an unmitigated headache. What’s worse, the Note 7 was the first phone to ever inspire my unrestrained enthusiasm — and the s7 Edge that replaced my Note 7 received no such praise from me. I had a phone I didn’t want, and I was back to keeping a well-loved but poorly organized collection of pocket notebooks.
So, I’ll level with you and say that there is an inherent bias to this review. Which is to say, despite my post-traumatic skepticism, a week with this phone brought me crawling back to Samsung.
I know that the Note line, with its S Pen, is tailor made for my somewhat specific needs. I love jotting down notes without having to unlock and navigate to a specific app; I love having a dynamic reading tool with pixel-perfect precision for highlighting and engaging with passages; I love having a powerhouse processor that lets me not just multitask, but pair apps that work together as a seamless unit. Other Note loyalists with particular needs will likely follow suit, here, as no other phone on the market offers precisely what Samsung does with the Note line — and, no other Samsung phone has a dual-lens camera, which lets the Note 8 match the iPhone 7 Plus in quality and surpass it in editing functionality (adjustable bokeh FTW). But, other than the camera, if you’ve never had anything beyond a passing interest in a phone with a stylus, your opinion likely remains the same — probably because you can’t honestly think of anything you’d use it for, at least not consistently. And that’s perfectly fair.
The uses for the S Pen are small and numerous. So are the criticisms.
On the other hand, maybe it’s a lack of imagination, or you simply can’t fathom what you’d use a stylus for without having ever owned a phone that had one. When I have to answer some notification on my phone while I’m on the computer, I much prefer to do it with a stylus than to clumsily pick the phone up off my desk. When I want to take notes on a YouTube video I’m watching (s/o to John Green’s Crash Course series), doing so with the S Pen is the only thing that makes sense. When there’s a particular detail in a picture I’m looking at that I want my friends to see, I draw an arrow and a note with the S Pen before sending it to them. (The Note 8’s best-in-its-class AMOLED display makes the case for this kind of functionality all on its own; the ample room it provides makes me wonder how I’ve ever used split-screen view on anything else, and this is the first time I’ve used a Samsung phone without immediately installing a replacement for Samsung’s chunky TouchWiz app launcher.) It’s not that you need to have that One Big Thing you’ll definitely use the S Pen for; it’s that the uses for it are small and numerous.
Granted, that does mean that most of the criticisms (aside from a couple big ones) will be equally small and numerous pet peeves unique to your experience. For example, while the S Pen’s Translate function is satisfying and easy to use, in my experience, it couldn’t seem to single out individual words. When one word tripped me up while reading a blog in Spanish, I’d have to sift through the entire translated paragraph to find its analogue. Elsewhere, while making GIFs with Smart Select is, hands down, one of my favorite features on any phone, ever, Smart Select isn’t a particularly effective GIF editor, where GIF length and cropping are concerned. The people who share these specific criticisms may be few and far between — but with the number of features on this thing, everybody’s bound to have something they wish were different.
Screen Dimensions: 162.5 x 74.8 x 8.6 mm
Resolution: Quad HD+ Super AMOLED (2960 x 1440)
Front Camera: 8MP AF; f/17 aperture
Rear Camera: dual telephoto/wide-angle lenses; 12MP; 4K video @ 30 fps
Memory 6GB RAM
Storage: 64GB / 128GB / 256GB
Water Resistance: IP68
Battery 3,300mAH; max 74 hours
Additional Features: S Pen; Bixby Virtual Assistant; Fast Charging (wired and wireless); dual Bluetooth pairing; Iris sensor
And when it comes to the bigger stuff — well, there are a few things, although most of them are applicable to the S8 generation as a whole. Bixby, as the general consensus states, is utterly pointless, and, as Dan Seifert notes over at The Verge, it’s a shame that Samsung is dead set on preventing the dedicated Bixby button from being used for anything that isn’t the company’s shiny Google Assistant knockoff. Reaching for the rear-situated fingerprint scanner can also take some getting used to — doubly so here than with the S8, because that gorgeous dual-lens camera (with which I shot some beautiful pics of my cat) takes up close to an inch of space. One wonders why it couldn’t be in the center, as with the Google Pixel; it’s a bummer to think aesthetics may have been the sole factor, there.
Speaking of the Pixel: just like Google’s flagship smartphone, the Note 8 has a fingerprint scanner that can do so much more than it is right now. Currently, beyond unlocking your phone, all the fingerprint scanner can do is expand your Notifications panel and open Samsung Pay, which I don’t use. The phone is pretty big and heavy, making it a little clumsy to hold and use with one hand at times; what with the phone’s signature feature, it’s easy to assume single-handed use was a second priority in its design. With that in mind, though, scrolling via fingerprint scanner — rather than using the same thumb that you’d use to support the device in your one hand — would be a saving grace. Alongside the Bixby button, that makes two major hardware decisions that would be better off as tools for user customization — which is all the more frustrating given how customizer-friendly the software is. If history is any indication, Samsung’s unlikely to budge.
But, to reiterate: None of that matters worth a shit to me, because I can scribble notes to my heart’s content, and because I can head to a coffee shop with nothing but a phone in my pocket and have just as productive an afternoon as I might have with my laptop, and with a fraction of total schlepping weight. Yes, like every Samsung device before it, the Note 8 has some features I will never use. But so do most other phones on the market, other than the Pixel — and they don’t have that One Big Thing that I absolutely know I will use every chance I get.