After testing it from San Francisco to Los Angeles and up to Lake Tahoe, I can confidently say that the Galaxy Note 8 is without a doubt Samsung's best, most feature-packed phone.
But it's also deeply burdened. Does it scrub away the bad taste of last year's disastrous Note 7 double-recall? Is the battery safe? Does it offer enough over the cheaper Galaxy S8 and S8 Plusto make it worth the sky-high price? (See prices below.)
Finally, we have answers. Samsung has amped up its safety testing and reduced the Note 8's battery size to avoid repeating last year's fatal battery mistake, though we won't know if it's truly safe until weeks have gone by without a reported incident.
Buyers of the Galaxy Note 7 -- who had to relinquish their flame-prone apple screen repair -- and 2015's Galaxy Note 5 -- until now, the "best" Note phone you could buy -- will find the Note 8 to be the high-end handset they should have gotten last year, and then some. It largely merges the Note 7 with the S8 and S8 Plus. The upshot: It's really good, but feels rehashed instead of truly fresh. Samsung played it safe.
One bright star is the presence of a dual camera setup on the Note 8's back. Samsung's first twin-lens phone can create pretty depth-effect portraits that finally catch it up to the hottest trend in phones. There's also the Note 8's vibrant 6.3-inch OLED screen, and a tall, slim design that goes lean on bezels. Battery life here goes on and on. You'll find a welcome repeat of the Galaxy S8's top-of-the-line processor, water resistance, expandable storage and wireless charging, plus fun ways to create animated GIFs that belong to the Note 8 alone. The S Pen stylus has some real efficiencies you don't get on any other phone.
See the Galaxy Note 8 from every angleEveryone who saw me whip out the Note to write down numerous Starbucks orders on the lock screen, create cute animated GIFs of our silly photos, and take depth-effect portraits of wedding guests in their finest was immediately impressed. "Take our picture with the good camera," one friend said. "That pen looks so useful," said another. "I think I want that instead of the iPhone."
Despite the Note 8's undeniable excellence as an Android device, however, I'm split on whether or not it's worth the hefty price, especially when it's so similar to the single-lens Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus. Throw out the stylus, and your key benefit versus the S8 Plus is… portrait mode (which Samsung calls Live Focus). On its own, that's not a very compelling reason to level up.
I need to also point out the Note 8's most grating imperfection. The placement of the fingerprint reader off to the side of those two rear cameras drives me bananas. It's plain inconvenient: too high and too off-centered. Even if muscle memory takes over and you get used to it, and even if you use the hit-or-miss iris scanner instead, there's no good reason it shouldn't be in the center of the Note's back like it is on so many other phones. There's no excuse for the world's dominating Android brand to falter on something the rest of the industry has already mastered.
If you're using a Note 5, feel good taking the Note 8 plunge. If you've never owned a Note but can truly make the S Pen part of your daily life, you won't find any other phone that goes as far (though there are rumors that the next iPhone may support an unembedded Apple Pencil; we shall see).
If you're contemplating the Note 8 for the second camera alone, I say wait to see how the LG V30, Apple's next iPhone and Google's next Pixel perform -- they will certainly have dual cameras, too. At the end of the day, dreamy portraits and a pressure-sensitive pen are niceties, not necessities. And that's what the Note 8 is: a beautiful splurge for people who want to do everything they can on an Android phone, or at least have the option.
Everyone but Note die-hards should wait until we see how those three rival phones fare. Once those devices arrive -- likely by mid-October -- we'll revisit this review.
Read on for pricing and an in-depth look at the Galaxy Note 8's key features. You'll find a full specs list and a comparison with other top phones at the end.
Galaxy Note 8 price
Preorders started Aug. 24, and the phone goes on sale Sept. 15 in the US, UK, South Korea and other select countries. It'll roll out globally through October.
Until Sept. 30, Samsung will grant original Note 7 owners a discount on the Note 8 as an apology for the hassle of having returned your last phone. The big catch? It's only for US buyers so far and you can only get it through Samsung.com, not through your carrier. There's plenty of fine print; I summarize it here.
All US buyers who preorder the phone will get a fast wireless charger and a 128GB microSD card or a Gear 360. This has nothing to do with being a Note 7 owner, it's available to everyone. More details here.
You'll be able to buy the phone through carriers, Samsung.com and other retailers. Samsung is also doing something different and immediately selling the Galaxy Note 8 unlocked rather than waiting weeks or months to offer an unlocked option.
In the US, you can pick up the Note 8 from Best Buy, Target and Walmart in addition to Samsung.com, where it sells unlocked for $930. As for carriers, AT&T will sell it for $950 and Verizon will sell it for $960. T-Mobile users can nab it for $930 while Sprint offers it for $960. The phone will also be available on US Cellular for the full retail price of $963 ($32 on 30-month plan) or for $900 prepaid.
Is the Note 8's battery safe?
It's too early to truly call the Note 8 a Note 7 redeemer until it's survived weeks on the market without the phone overheating and catching fire. After all, CNET's multiple Note 7 review units remained incident-free even while an unusually high number of handsets around the world charred within just a few weeks of that phone's release.
For the record, the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus batteries graduated from the same enhanced battery test without reports of widespread problems. However, if you're wary, it doesn't hurt to watch and wait.
The Galaxy Note 8's dual cameras took these picsDuring my testing, the phone got plenty warm, but not dangerously hot, and not hotter than other apple parts I've tested.