Smartphones with large screens have become increasingly popular over the years — a trend that Samsung is largely responsible for thanks to its Galaxy Note phones. But last year, the company was forced to recall and discontinue the Note 7 after reports that the phone overheated and, in some cases, caught fire. The stain on Samsung's reputation was so severe it was unclear whether the company, or more specifically the Note line, would ever recover.
Nevertheless, Samsung is pushing ahead with the Note family of big-screened phones it first introduced in 2011. On Wednesday, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Note 8, which brings a critical and much-needed update to the Note family. The phone has a new design with sharper corners and an expansive screen that's effectively borderless, similar to the Galaxy S8. That means the Note 8's screen now measures 6.3 inches diagonally, an increase from the Note 7 and Note 5's 5.7-inch display.
Preorders for the Note 8 start on August 24 ahead of the phone's September 15 release.
Design aside, the most noticeable changes are in the Note 8's photo capabilities: It now includes two 12-megapixel color cameras— one wide-angle and one telephoto—that enables a new feature called Live Focus. With this capability, users can partially blur the background of a photo in order to make the subject in the foreground appear sharper, an effect Apple added to the iPhone 7 Plus' camera last year. But unlike Apple's phone, which also comes with two cameras, Samsung's device includes a slider for adjusting the amount of blur in the photo's background. Both cameras also come with optical image stabilization for reducing unwanted fuzziness that may occur from shaky hands. Another new trick Samsung added to the Note 8 lets users snap two separate photos with the telephoto lens and wide-angle lens simultaneously to get one close up shot and another that includes the background.
Samsung is also adding some subtle improvements to the Note's software, including a tweak to its multi-window mode. Rather than having to manually launch two apps to view them on the screen simultaneously, users will be able to save their most frequently used app pairings to open them both at the same time. It's similar to a new feature Apple will bring to the iPad when iOS 11 debuts this fall. Samsung hasn't said whether this will also be available for the S8 in the future, but the company has previously brought features from its Note phones to its flagship line.
Like many tech firms, including Apple and Google, Samsung is also making an effort to enhance the text messaging experience on its new phone. A new feature called Live Message lets users handwrite a note or sketch and then send it to the recipient as a GIF.
Otherwise, the phone's hardware and software are similar to that of the Galaxy S8 and S8+, except for the amount of memory and the size of the battery. The Note 8 runs on the same processor as those phones, but has 6GB of RAM instead of 4GB, and comes with a 3,300 mAh battery. That's could give it slightly longer battery life than the Galaxy S8, which has a 3,000 mAh battery, but perhaps not quite as much as the Galaxy S8+'s 3,500 mAh battery.
Samsung also says the battery for its new Note has been independently verified by the Underwriters Laboratories to ensure that it meets safety standards, a crucial step in winning over consumer trust after the mishap with the Galaxy Note 7. Samsung also implemented a new eight-point battery safety check during its manufacturing process following the Note 7 recall, which involves checking all batteries for leaks and subjecting the batteries to stress tests designed to see how they perform when overcharged or are operating in extreme temperatures.
The Galaxy Note 8 also inherits some other characteristics from its Galaxy S siblings, including iris and fingerprint recognition for unlocking the phone without entering a passcode, dust and water resistance, support for Samsung's Bixby virtual voice assistant that lets owners use the phone hands-free, and compatibility with Samsung's DeX dock. This accessory effectively uses the phone as the brains for a desktop computer, making it possible to plug in a keyboard, monitor, and mouse so that users can answer emails and play games on a larger screen.
Those who want to continue using their legacy wired headphones without using an adapter won't have to worry about the Note 8, as it will include a 3.5mm headphone jack. That's unlike Apple's latest iPhones and certain Android phones, such as the Moto Z2 Force and Essential phone, which require owners to use the included earbuds or attach their own wired headphones with an adapter.
The Note 8 will certainly please Android fans who are looking for a large-screened phone. And thanks to its edge-to-edge display, it feels more compact and manageable than any other Note the company has introduced. It's also the culmination of a trend we've seen from Samsung over the past couple of years: the slow merging of its Galaxy S family with the Note line. That's precisely why Samsung named its last phablet the Note 7—skipping over the Note 6 name that was next in line—as it wanted smartphone shoppers to more closely associate the two devices.
Now that the Note 8 is just about the same size as Samsung's newest Galaxy S phone, the most important factors differentiating the two devices are the Note 8's stylus and dual camera (the Galaxy S8 and S8+ lack both). It's unclear whether those two features alone will be enough to convince shoppers to opt for the Note 8 over its flagship line, especially since pricing has yet to be announced.
Samsung's Note used to be a phone made for those who wanted a screen that was larger than what most other companies offered at the time. But now that big displays have become increasingly common, especially among Android phones, Samsung will have to search for new ways to make the Note stand out from the company's other devices—and the competition.
Pre-order now: Samsung Galaxy Note 8, $929.99 and up, Samsung.com