Published:  03:12 PM, 11 September 2017

Review: Has Samsung extinguished a fiery memory?

Review: Has Samsung extinguished a fiery memory?

Last night, the company finally gave Dubai and the UAE its first glimpse of one of the most anticipated smartphones in recent history.

And all because it was indeed a tough past year for Samsung, bannered by the doomed Galaxy Note 7.

And how exactly did Samsung respond to that debacle?

"This, the Galaxy Note 8, is our response to that," Tarek Sabbagh, head of IT and mobile division at Samsung Gulf Electronics, told Khaleej Times.

"We believe that we've done a very good job at giving customers the most powerful device... and we thank those who have kept their faith in us."

Also, Sabbagh confirmed that Note 8s will be flying off UAE shelves on September 22. He is also confident that those who pre-ordered will get them this week. Its price tag is Dh3,399.

Some have described the Note 8 to be just an enlarged Galaxy S8/S8+ with a dual camera and a stylus. However, it may not be fair to compare a Note to an S: you have to stack a new Note against the old Note.

So let's forget about everything else we know about the Note 8, because we probably already know all about that. Let's focus on the opportunity accorded to us by Samsung for making us among the privileged few here to get a headstart in reviewing it.

Form

Well, that Infinity Display thing did make quite an impression in the S8 series, so it was expected that that edge-to-edge screen would make a splash with the Note 8; personally, I think it would've been great to see the latter at 6.5 inches, because imagine all the glory of digital real estate bursting from your hand.

Anyway, as always, this Samsung device doesn't fall short in the screen area. It's silky-smooth and it really complements the Infinity Display. And we have to remember that every Note and S device launched tops its predecessor in this area - regardless of series. That's crucial to another key are that we'll get into right after this section.

And while indeed the taller form does make it look slimmer, it could be an issue for those who already have a beef with big phones.

Overall, this form factor just reinvented the way we look at the Note devices - I personally feel that the previous Notes were too "blocky". Looks like the game of the biggies is becoming a contest for slimmer, taller devices. One last note (no pun intended) before we leave this behind: the Note 8 has an 83 per cent screen-to-body ratio, compared to the iPhones' 67 per cent. Let's put that in layman's terms: the Note 8 is slimmer and a practically a hairline taller than the iPhone 7 Plus - but it gives 16 per cent more display. Insane.

As for the rest of its body, you've got the power button to the right; volume rocker and some dedicated key to the left (we'll get to that later); SIM tray on top; and the USB Type-C port, speaker and what was jokingly dubbed the "big announcement" during the event, the 3.5mm audio jack. The home button, as we've seen in the S8, is also buried underneath the screen.

And - promise, this is really the last one - that ratio also knocks off the Samsung logo from the front of the Note series, which makes it look even better. (Don't worry, it's still there, but on the rear.)


Camera

Samsung has held back slapping on a dual-lens shooter into its devices when others have tried to make it a standard. They sure came out with all guns blazing when they finally did.

They decided to bless both lenses - one a wide-angle, the other a telephoto, just like the rest - with optical image stabilisation in each, a first on a smartphone. That means both lenses will help cancel out the effects of those shaky hands, especially when taking a video.

I spoke to some folks at Samsung and they said that the Note 8's camera is the best out there right now. So, to prove that, let's look at some head-to-head shots with their biggest frenemy.
The Note 8 also has an advantage in the maximum zoom you can perform in if you want to see more detail.

You be the judge.

By the way, you can fire up the camera by quickly pressing the power button twice - a departure from the previous double-tap on the screen in its locked state - and you can switch between main and front snappers by just swiping up or down the screen.
And speaking of front camera, here's the result of a little selfie tests:

And Samsung has its own answer to Apple's Portrait Mode: Live Focus. Simply put, it allows you to add a bokeh (AKA blur) effect to your subject before and after you've taken the shot. Basically, the camera saves both the original image and the blurred one, allowing you to tinker with it after you've taken a shot. It just hit me right now: this is perfect in eliminating photobombers, don't you agree? This unique thing is one of the things I like here.

To be fair, the iPhone 7 Plus - strictly speaking in the fast-paced world of tech - is "old". But it made great strides in its camera compared to the 6s, so this is just for showing the improvements Samsung has made (most likely the result of studying everyone else with a dual-lens mobile, the reason they held off for this long). I haven't received the Sony Xperia XZ1 and LG V30 yet, which they say have powerful cameras in their own right, so for now the Note 8 rules this part. Oh, how could I forget, the next iPhone is coming out this week... so looks like we'll have a rematch pretty soon.


'S' in the S Pen is for 'souped-up'

I've never been a fan of styluses because I believe fingers are more versatile (though ironically, I do miss my HTC TyTN II from eons ago). Well, added features on the Note series' signature accessory may just do the trick.

Aside from its usual Air View and doodling capabilities, Samsung decided to add some more stuff that'll entice to you do more with it. So whisk out the S Pen from its slot below, bring up the menu and start seeing what's new.

With Translate, you can simply hover over words - "words"; there's an option to select multiple ones - and translate them. As I write, there are 29 languages supported. Similarly, using this same function allows you to convert currencies into the one used in the country you've selected as your location (for example, if you have the UAE as your location, then you'll have everything converted into dirhams).

There's also this Smart Select feature, which allows you to select a portion of the screen and save it using Photoshop-esque options including rectangle, oval and lasso. And guess what, you can even save 15-second GIFs; if there's a particular portion of a video that you like and want to loop that ad infinitum, you'll find this to be a very good buddy.
Fact: both Translate and GIF capture both debuted in the ill-fated Note 7. But since we all know how that device "flamed" out, we won't be surprised if most of would-be Note 8 users will see this as something new.

Live Message, meanwhile, allows you to jot down some animated stuff on screenshots and everything else. It's more of an aesthetic for me, but hey, the social-media buffs would like this one.

And for good measure, you can take down offline notes - also first introduced in the Note 7. How? From the lock screen, simply bring out the S Pen and start scribbling; you can then save what you've written afterwards - all without having to unlock the screen.


Bixby

Remember that dedicated button we mentioned earlier? Well, that's for Bixby, Siri and Google Assistant's newest playmate (Alexa and Cortana may have something to say about that). However, you can't reassign that button to anything else. That's how serious Samsung is about Bixby.

Bixby finally speaks English (funny how it took so long for him, er, her, er it to learn anything other than Korean) and is available in a lot of markets and regions already. This time, it's smarter and more intuitive: for example, you can put multiple commands together, or make a long command easier for it to understand by adding a quick command. One example is "open Gallery and Remove the most recent picture in the family Album from Favorites". Whew.

You can also unlock your phone with Bixby: press the button and say "unlock phone", and Bixby will ask for your voice password, which you should set before being able to use it.
If you swipe from the left on the home screen, it'll reveal the Hello Bixby area, in which you can view your schedules, reminders, activities, most visited Web pages and so on.

Here's a little added bonus: on the My Bixby tab, you'll notice that the Note 8 is rewarding you XP (experience points, in gaming parlance, for the uninitiated) each time you use it. More XP means you'll level-up, and the higher you go, the more features will apparently be unlocked. Clever.

The only thing I've noticed is that there are times that even if you know that you've spoken correctly - intonation, pronunciation and all - Bixby still seems to miss sometimes. There's no particular situation I can point a finger at, because it happens both in quiet and not-so-quiet situations (except, of course, those really noisy times).

One thing to remember when using Bixby: unlike others in which you just have to tap once, you have to keep your finger pressed on the button as you speak and release it only when you're done issuing your command, walkie-talkie-style, otherwise Bixby won't get it. I don't like that extra action.

And don't forget about Bixby Vision in the camera app: point it at something and it'll help you out with stuff like finding similar images or shopping. Honestly, I don't see any urgent need for that now.


The rest of it

Here's something interesting: the Note 8 comes with a 3300mAh battery, smaller than the Note 7's 3500mAh. Looks like Samsung played it safe here by shaving off that much capability in its battery, though there should be nothing to worry about: Samsung has guaranteed that its eight-point battery check will ensure the safety of its batteries on all devices after the Note 7 (the S8 devices use 3500mAh ones, BTW).

The Note 8, just like its recent predecessors in the Note and S series, comes with wireless charging, though apparently it's slower compared to the Note 7 (I haven't received a wireless charger yet so I can't comment on this further). Also, the fast-charging capability also isn't as fast as before; clearly, we're seeing Samsung taking it to the safer side of things here.

As for how long it lasts, it's still good for a a whole day's worth of mixed heavy use, though you will save a lot if you hold back on watching videos and playing games. And don't be surprised if you see your juice dry up faster than what you've been used to in previous Notes: the combination of its humongous display, bright screen and up to WQHD+ resolution is a recipe for a power-drainer.

As for security, we have the (now) usual suspects: PIN, password, pattern, fingerprint, face recognition and iris scanning. And I have specific beefs with the biometric parts of this.

First, the fingerprint scanner is - again - at an odd place just like the S8s, at the rear to the right of the camera window. While it does work well, this means that arguably the most comfortable option for you to use it is your index finger (on either hand). Next, the iris scanner is a bit inconsistent, though maybe with good reason: in bright conditions you may not even see your eyes on the screen because it unlocks immediately (that fast), but if the lights go down a bit or more, you could end up having eyes wide open as if saying I'm here!. Finally, about face recognition, let's just put what's written on the disclaimer: "Your phone could be unlocked by someone or something that looks like your image. Face recognition is less secure than pattern, PIN or password." I'm not looking at that, er, touching that.


Technically speaking, the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is the South Korean giant's most powerful device so far. Its design combined with top-of-the-line features - and guarantee that it won't explode - make it the perfect in-your-face, back-from-the-infernos-of-tech-hell offering for its loyal fans and is sure to shut up the naysayers. Going back to the earlier argument though, some people may just opt for the cheaper, practically-the-same Galaxy S8+ - but that S Pen should be enough to sway those decisions. I still question parts of the biometrics, and at least the Bixby button should've been given the option to be remapped. And the price tag is also welcome; looks like we're not ready yet for that dreaded $1,000 threshold - unless some other company decides to do so.

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