Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review, 3 months later: A polarizing powerhouse

You can’t ignore the power of this company.

Samsung retains a massive influence in the smartphone world, holding an outsized mind share even relative to its legitimately massive market share. The Galaxy Note 8 is a perfect example of this — it doesn’t sell nearly as well as the Galaxy S line, yet it’s held up as the pinnacle of what Samsung is capable of on account of its bigger size, extra features and super-high price.

We published our Galaxy Note 8 review over three months ago, back on September 5. In that time we’ve continued to use other phones, watch the industry evolve and let the “new phone” honeymoon phase fully wear out on the Note 8. Now that we have more time under our belt with the phone, it’s time for a revisit and a fresh review. Here’s our new take on the Galaxy Note 8 after over three months of use.

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Just gorgeous

Galaxy Note 8 What I still love

My interest in the latest Samsung phones primarily centers around their hardware. All aspects of it. And the Note 8 has a whole lot of room to show off Samsung’s quality. Yes this is a somewhat derivative design from all the way back to the Galaxy S6 edge, but that shouldn’t take away from the fact that Samsung has continued to refine its processes to make something wonderful. The huge panes of curved glass just fit so perfectly with the metal sides, and everything has a great feel to it. Though the Note 8 is a bit bulbous and kind of bursting at the seams compared to the Galaxy S8+, I still can’t find an angle where it doesn’t look great.

The Note 8 is beautiful from every angle, and concerns over fragility are overblown.

I continually hear complaints about the fragility of the last few generations of Samsung phones, but I have yet to experience any such issues. Yes the back is glass, and yes glass will pick up scratches over time. That’s just the tradeoff we have to deal with in order to get this striking design and wireless charging. I feel like I could easily enjoy a Note 8 with a flat display rather than a curved one, but once again it’s just a tradeoff in terms of making the phone a bit narrower and more striking. Both decisions are worth it in my view.

And it all wraps around this ridiculously great display. It’s massive. It’s bright. It’s just beautiful in every aspect. When you crank it all the way up this display can reach eye-searing brightness levels, which you immediately miss when using any other phone. Viewing angles are great, colors are punchy and everything is super crisp. Samsung has its displays locked in, and this is one of the Note 8’s strongest features. You just can’t complain about anything here.

Pixel 2 hype aside, the Note 8 has a great pair of cameras.

It turns out that even though the Pixel and Pixel 2 have taken over the largest portion of camera hype in the last year, Samsung still knows how to do great things with its cameras. The “Live Focus” portrait mode may have been a bit of a gimmick (I still forget about it regularly), but the core fundamentals and shots you can get from the Note 8 are still top-notch.

Samsung knows how to produce eye-pleasing images with just a little bit of extra punch and without a bunch of unnatural over-sharpening. It was tough to take a bad photo, and leaving HDR set to automatic mode and snapping quick shots so often yielded great results. The 2x lens, while hardly ever used for Live Focus, still found its place for more dramatic shots with a tighter field of view.

As ever, the one area where I missed my Pixel 2’s camera was in some low light shots, where things get a little grainy and blotchy as the camera tries to process things and you really notice the lack of fine detail. It’s particularly apparent in scenes that require a very wide dynamic range, as the dark parts of the scene seem smooth or out of focus as lighter areas are tack-sharp. This is where Google’s HDR+ processing absolutely leads the industry.

Size and software

Galaxy Note 8 What I don’t like

On the opposite side of things, my biggest issues with the Galaxy Note 8 come from the practicality of using it every day. Once I get past the lust of the hardware and “potential” it exudes, I run into a couple usability issues that significantly reduce my positivity. I just can’t get around the size of this thing, and how frustrating it is to try and operate with one hand. Reaching the top of the screen is impossible without using the one-handed mode (triple tap the home button!), and the overall width and screen curves make it near-impossible to do edge swipe-in gestures. This is a two-handed phone. That may be fine for you, but it doesn’t work for me in any way.

I need to use my phone in one hand, and the Note 8 just isn’t compatible with that.

And yes, I still can’t stand the fingerprint sensor placement. It’s not personal preference of front vs. back vs. side … I legitimately can’t reach it. I’ve learned to deal with its location on the much smaller Galaxy S8, but it just isn’t possible to gracefully reach and use the fingerprint sensor on the larger phone. I use a good half-dozen apps multiple times a day that require fingerprint authentication, and every single time I open one I start that awkward shuffle of the phone in my hand to reach the fingerprint sensor. And in doing so, I regularly gunk up my camera lens. It sucks. It will never not suck. And no matter how good iris scanning works for the lock screen (which is perhaps 85% of the time), it can’t be used for these apps that only work with a fingerprint sensor.

Since the Note 8 came out I’ve spent considerable time using phones like the Google Pixel 2, OnePlus 5T and Android One Moto X4. I easily slot Samsung’s take on Nougat underneath this group. There isn’t anything functionally wrong with “Samsung Experience” version 8.5, but the company is still fighting a battle against bloat and a lack of overall design direction. Too much of the way you interact with the interface feels tied back to the time of KitKat and Lollipop. So even though the software looks more modern now it sure doesn’t act accordingly.

The light colors, subtle shadows and use of transparency is great, but the function isn’t — the lock screen is a calamitous combination of ideas, the launcher is clunky (those folders …), the settings go down into deep rabbit holes of untold depths, some buttons just aren’t intuitive, and there are features tucked away in every little corner. On one hand this has certainly made the Note 8 a lot easier to pick up and use its basic functions without all of the extras getting in the way, but when all of that legacy cruft is still there to find and simply hidden from initial view it’s frustrating. Samsung is selling tons of phones, has a massive user base that’s used to how it does things, and has software that’s super-powerful. But I don’t see how you can use a Note 8 and say it’s more delightful and pleasing to interact with than a Pixel 2 XL. Sorry, not sorry.

Design is one thing, but this $ 940 phone shouldn’t be stuttering or dropping frames after three months.

The styling and features not jiving with my personal tastes are one thing, but I’ve been seriously underwhelmed once again with how the Note 8’s speed has held up after a few months of installing apps and loading it up with data. Precisely as I experienced after three months with my Galaxy S8, the Note 8’s daily performance has started to slow. Most things I do are quick and smooth, but there are still far too many instances now where apps hang up just a few beats before launching or scrolling, or animations stutter and drop frames.

If the script from my Galaxy S8 plays out the same way here, a factory reset should be the cure. But why am I factory resetting my $ 940 phone to get it to perform after three months like it did after three days? I’m growing even less tolerant of this behavior. It just shouldn’t be a thing now, particularly in a company’s super-high-end phone. (For what it’s worth, our own Alex Dobie’s Exynos-powered UK Galaxy Note 8 doesn’t exhibit such sluggishness. Annoying, to say the least.)

Polarizing powerhouse

Galaxy Note 8 Three months on

Time has only generated more respect for the quality of the Note 8’s hardware — in the materials, design and build quality all around. It’s gorgeous from every angle, feels great when you pick it up and has aged as well as you can expect from a phone with this much exposed curved glass. I’m still in awe over how wonderful the display is and suspect I’ll feel the same another three, six or nine months from now. Battery life is still good, and wireless charging is a treat. And oh yeah, it has a headphone jack!

The old saying of ‘time heals all wounds’ doesn’t apply here. The Note 8 has shortcomings.

And yet, the old saying of “time heals all wounds” doesn’t apply here. Samsung’s fingerprint sensor placement is just as bad today as it was on day one — my finger hasn’t gotten any longer in three months. Its iris scanning has proven to be adequate, but far from a quality fingerprint sensor. The phone is also just way too big for me to use in one hand — and it just doesn’t offer much of a unique experience, aside from the S Pen, to show for these poor ergonomics.

Samsung’s software is indeed an acquired taste, and three months on I do have a better understanding of how to get around its quirks and make it work how I want. Turning off Bixby is a great start, as is replacing the launcher and clearing out some default apps. But since the Note 8 came out I have also spent weeks using Android 8.0 Oreo on a Pixel 2 — and Samsung’s software experience just doesn’t come close to Google’s in terms of speed, fluidity, ease of use, consistency and overall delight. And the way the phone now exhibits inconsistent performance stutters is disheartening.

The biggest issue with the Note 8 may be that you can get a Galaxy S8 for over $ 200 less.

My complaints about the unwieldy size and extreme price are pretty well mitigated by the fact that Samsung sells the Galaxy S8 and S8+. Just going down to the Galaxy S8+ you instantly save over $ 100, improve ergonomics just a bit, and get a larger battery while only losing the fringe features of dual cameras and the S Pen. Save another $ 100 and you get the Galaxy S8, which offers the same core experience as the Note 8 in a size you can actually manage in one hand while retaining most of the features and hardware quality. Samsung’s own great Galaxy S8 and S8+ make the Note 8 feel a bit less … valuable.

For someone who has to have the absolute best phone a company offers, and doesn’t care about the sheer impracticality of what that entails, the Note 8 is a great phone today just as it was three months ago. It does just about everything anyone could ask for. But three months after first reviewing the Note 8, it’s even clearer that in pursuit of being the biggest and baddest, it doesn’t offer a well-rounded smartphone experience that other phones — including those from Samsung — can. It’s just a bit too big, a bit too expensive and overall a bit too compromised to be a go-to recommendation.

It’s a flagship. A halo device. But not the best phone Samsung sells today.

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