On the Galaxy Note 8’s 6.3-inch screen, the benefits of OLED are pronounced. Photos looked amazing. They popped out with vivid colors and nice shadow detail. For reading, web articles looked great, with crisp, clear text that was easy on the eyes — a boon for anyone with less-than-perfect vision. The roomy screen, which has roughly the same dimensions as a pocket notepad, is a nice size for taking notes with the digital pen; I used it to outline this review in a coffee shop.
Raymond Soneira, president of DisplayMate, a consulting firm that studies displays, also tested the Note 8 and gave it an A+, his highest rating. He praised the screen for its exceptional brightness and wide color gamut, among other features.
“It is the most innovative and high performance smartphone display that we have ever lab tested,” he wrote in his review.
The downside is that OLED is an expensive screen technology, which is reflected in the Note 8’s price tag. Apple’s next premium iPhone, which is also expected to have an OLED screen, will cost upward of $999.
The Note 8 also has an exceptional camera. Similar to Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus, the Note 8 has a dual-lens system. The two lenses work together to produce a so-called bokeh effect: You can show the photo’s main subject clearly while gently blurring the background.
The Note 8 calls this feature Live Focus, which worked quickly and proficiently in my tests. In the end, the Note 8’s photos looked clear and vibrant but oversaturated to me — though some people prefer that their photos appear exaggerated.
Stronger Safety Checks
The Galaxy Note 8’s top-notch screen and fast camera would become moot if the phone is unsafe like last year’s infamous Galaxy Note 7, which had to be discontinued because some burst into flames. There’s no way to be certain that the Note 8 will not also explode, but Samsung has shown that people can reasonably expect these phones to be safe.
For one, Samsung said the Galaxy Note 8’s battery underwent a series of safety checks. The company also for the first time brought in a reputable product safety consultant, Underwriters Laboratories, to perform additional tests. And the Galaxy S8, the smaller version of the Note 8, has been on the market for a few months now, and so far there have been no similar reports of explosions.
Long story short: You can buy the Galaxy Note 8 with a fair amount of confidence. Unlike its predecessor, the Galaxy Note 8 is unlikely to burn down your house, be banned from use on airplanes or explode in your ear.
“What is important is they’ve done the right things,” Carolina Milanesi, a consumer technology analyst for Creative Strategies, said about the safety checks. “But the proof will be in the pudding, which would be selling these and not having an issue of any kind.”
Poor Biometrics and a Subpar Assistant
That brings us to what stinks about the Note 8. Some of the biometrics, including the ability to unlock your phone by scanning your face or irises, are so poorly executed that they feel like marketing gimmicks as opposed to actual security features.
The iris scanner shines infrared light in your eyes to identify you and unlock the phone. That sounds futuristic, but when you set up the feature, it is laden with disclaimers from Samsung. The caveats include: Iris scanning might not work well if you are wearing glasses or contact lenses; it might not work in direct sunlight; it might not work if there is dirt on the sensor.
I don’t wear glasses or contact lenses and could only get the iris scanner to scan my eyes properly one out of five times I tried it.
When you set up the face scanner, Samsung displays another disclaimer, including a warning that your phone could be unlocked by “someone or something” that looks like you. (Hopefully you don’t have a doppelgänger in the primate kingdom.) In addition, face recognition is less secure than using a passcode. So why would you even use it?
As a result, you will probably continue to use the phone’s fingerprint scanner, a feature that has been available on many smartphones for several years. Unfortunately, the fingerprint scanner is located on the back of the phone, adjacent to the camera flash, which is next to the lenses. In my tests, I accidentally touched the camera lenses multiple times, leaving smudges. If you eventually own a Note 8, make it a regular habit to wipe the camera lenses with a cloth.
I’m not that fond of virtual assistants in general, but I especially do not like Bixby. Setting it up is awkward: You have to sign up for a Samsung account, agree to a long list of terms-of-service conditions and speak several sentences in order for Bixby to understand your pronunciation.
At the end of the setup, Bixby explicitly says it is not perfect and it is working to improve all the time. So why should anyone use it? Nobody wants their time wasted by an assistant who is insecure and incompetent.
In my tests, Bixby failed to dictate my latest email, provide traffic data for a commute, bring up a map to the gym and order delivery food, among many other tasks. The upshot: Bixby is an unfinished product and it should not be a reason to consider buying the Note 8.
Who Should Buy It?
Shopping for a smartphone is becoming a lot like buying a TV. The best televisions with cutting-edge screen technology cost upward of $2,500. But the average person would be happy with a $500 or $600 TV with older, mature features.
Similarly, with its hefty price tag of nearly $1,000, the Note 8 is part of a new category of high-end phones. You should buy it today if you want the best screen right now.
But just know that in a year or two, phones that cost a fraction of the price will be just as good.
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