All images: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo

Forgive me for passing up the chance to beat the exploding battery joke into the ground. Let’s get straight to the point: Samsung’s once dominant flagship phablet is back after a two year hiatus. Sporting a stunning extra-widescreen 18.5:9 display, the new Galaxy Note 8 is bigger and more engaging than ever before, and it packs a larger power pack than any Note besides the ill-fated Galaxy Note 7 too. But a lot has changed since 2015—especially when you consider that starting at $930, the new Note 8 is now more expensive than ever. That means there are two questions it needs to answer: Does the Galaxy Note 8 still make sense in 2017, and can it possibly be worth damn near $1,000?

At first glance, the answer might be no. The Note 8’s 6.3-inch 2960 x 1440 super AMOLED display is insignificantly larger than the 6.2-inch screen on the S8 Plus (though that bezel-less design remains strikingly pretty), and its Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, 64GB of storage and built-in microSD card reader aren’t any different either. Aside from slightly boxier corners, the Note 8’s luscious glass and aluminum body is pretty much the same too. You even get the same annoying Bixby Button below the volume rocker, which still can’t be remapped to something useful.

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The one small improvement is that Samsung has upped the Note 8's RAM from 4GB to 6GB, which is nice nod to the Galaxy Note’s traditional fan base of power users. However, on a day-to-day basis, it’s an improvement that isn’t always that noticeable (despite benchmarks that put the Note 8 a tiny bit ahead of its smaller siblings). That means the decision really hedges on Samsung’s signature S Pen stylus and the company’s first-ever dual camera module.

Now I’ll be the first person to say that after years of improvements to mobile operating systems, we’ve gotten to a point where UIs are properly designed for touch-based navigation. Across both iOS and Android, there’s never a time when you’re screaming out for a mouse or something more precise. Which, for me, softens the allure of a stylus. But after over a week using the Note 8, the S Pen is starting to win me over. There’s just so much you can do, whether it’s jotting down notes without even unlocking the phone, or using the new full sentence translation feature to make up for my shoddy Mandarin reading comprehension. But strangely, the best part about the S Pen is the multiple methods it has for goofing off by making your own homegrown gifs.

The S Pen features list gets longer every year.

Option one is to whip out the S Pen, hit Smart Select and put a rectangle over any video you can see on the screen. Boom. gif made. Option two, the Live Messages feature, is new for 2017. Live Messages lets you make animated drawings on a background color of your choosing or even on top of pictures you’ve taken. It’s a virtual meme-making machine, and a joyful addition to a phone that’s so often seen in the hands of no-fun allowed corporate execs. But that’s still only answering half the question of why you should get a Note 8 over the cheaper S8.

Like the iPhone 7 Plus, when you want to zoom in, all you have to do is hit the little button to switch from a 1x to a 2x view.

The other part of the equation are Samsung’s new dual rear cams, which pairs the S8 and S8 Plus’ camera with a second 12-megapixel sensor with doubles the focal length. It’s a camera set up we’ve already seen in last year’s iPhone 7 Plus. The little special sauce Samsung adds to the mix is the presence of optical image stabilization on both cameras. This is a welcome improvement, because as things get farther away, camera shake tends to becomes a much bigger nuisance. Unfortunately, even with this new addition, the Note 8’s camera performance isn’t flawless.

Having a zoom lens on your phone turns a mediocre picture into something exciting...sometimes.

The first issue is that like on the iPhone 7 Plus, you don’t actually have full control over which lens you’re using. Sometimes in low-light environments, hitting the 2x button to zoom results in digital enhancement instead of optical. That means you are just cropping in and getting a lower resolution final image, instead of using the lens with double the focal length.

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At least it’s not a problem unique to the Note 8. Sometimes when the Note 8 opted for digital zoom instead of optical, the iPhone didn’t. While other times, the situation was reversed. And the really frustrating part is that neither phone offers an override for when you might know better than the silicon nanny holding your hand.

When you look at a 100 percent crop from each phone’s 2x lens, the iPhone 7 Plus’ pic just looks better. Check out the detail on the lines of the batters box and the pin striping on the uniform.

Yet even in ideal conditions, the Note 8 didn’t always nail it. Take, for example, photos I got when I tried to snap a picture of New York’s favorite large adult son at a recent Yankee’s game. At first I was absolutely thrilled that the Note 8’s zoom let me get up close and personal like not many phone cameras can. But when looking at pics side-by-side from the Note 8 and the iPhone 7 Plus, things were close, but the iPhone’s pic was sharper and less blown out.

There’s no doubt which picture I’d rather have. Click to enlarge if you need some extra convincing.

But when you put a little effort in, the Note 8 can still absolutely dazzle. I was blown away by a shot I took of the nighttime New York skyline with Samsung’s new camera module. I’ve taken this exact shot with a budget DSLR and not gotten something this good. Not only did it let me get everything out of that zoom lens, its photo is sharper, less noisy, and way more colorful than the best I could get from the iPhone 7 Plus.

See all those little icons with two apps smashed together? That’s the app pair feature.

On top of all that, Samsung has a new live focus mode that lets you adjust depth of field similar to how you might on a big DSLR or mirrorless camera. That lets you choose between backgrounds with the creamy blurriness portrait shooters love, or sharpness all the way from front to back depending on what you’re going for. And you still get the super saturated colors and razor sharp focus that Samsung’s cameras have become known for.

There’s something clunky looking about the way Samsung designed its dual-camera module.

Camera and stylus aside, there are a few other little Samsung surprises like the new app pair feature, which lets you create combos that launch two apps in multi-window mode with a single touch—perfect for anyone who’s ever wanted to find an address from an email or text while keeping an eye on the map. And despite a battery that’s actually smaller in capacity than the one in the S8 Plus (3,300 mAh versus 3,500 mAh), the Note 8’s time of 10 hours and 21 minutes on our rundown test was only 20 minutes shorter than the S8 Plus’s 10:44. With stuff like this, the Galaxy Note 8 is starting to make a pretty good case, but I’m still not sure.

Props to Samsung for not dropping the headphone jack.

The Galaxy Note 8 is supposed to be a phone of excess. It’s supposed to have all the most outrageous tech while simultaneously pushing boundaries that other companies wouldn’t dream about touching. Yet its screen is only marginally bigger than the S8 Plus’ and it doesn’t look that much different either. And even though I like many of the S Pen’s new features like Live Messages and full sentence translation, they really aren’t much more than a collection of handy software tricks.

The Note 8 has IP-68 water-resistance likes its smaller siblings too, including the S Pen.

Samsung’s new dual camera module isn’t even a clear-cut winner against last year’s iPhone 7 Plus, not to mention whatever new handsets Apple is planning on announcing next week. So despite sporting best-in-class components from its screen to its stylus, Samsung’s phablet still seems a bit tame. The only thing about the Note 8 that’s really excessive these days is its price.

Now, I’m not saying people shouldn’t get one, that would be ridiculous! I just mean that you really need to find a deal if you want to feel like you’re getting your money’s worth. Carriers are already hocking buy one get one promos that would make getting two Note 8’s feel like stealing. Samsung is even offering its own pre-order bonuses with your choice of either a Gear 360 or a 128GB microSD card and a wireless charger. But shelling out a full $930 or more is foolish. The Note 8 is a great device (especially that screen) and I think Samsung has rightfully regained its spot back on top of the Android dogpile. But for a phone that this expensive, I still want more.

README

  • Samsung’s dual rear cameras are a great, and necessary addition to its flagship phone.
  • The S Pen still sets the Note 8 apart from other big phones, but its new features are largely just iterative software tricks.
  • The Note 8 isn’t that much bigger or more powerful than an S8 Plus, you’re paying for the stylus and the dual cameras.
  • Its suggested retail price is $930, so you better look for a deal.

SPEC DUMP

Android Nougat 7.1.1 Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor 6GB of RAM
64GB of storage microSD card slot 6.3-inch 2960 x 1440 super AMOLED display headphone jack USB-C wireless charging fingerprint sensor iris sensor face scanner f/1.7 12-MP main rear camera with OIS f/2.4 12-MP secondary camera with 2x zoom and OIS 8-MP front camera 3,300 mAh battery.

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