Galaxy Note 8 First Look: After Battery Fires, Samsung's Big Phone Is Back

By Geoffrey A. Fowler Features Dow Jones Newswires

Samsung's new Galaxy Note 8 is a Grande-size smartphone with Venti expectations.

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It succeeds the Note 7, which was perhaps the most talked-about phone of 2017... for all the wrong reasons. And when the Note 8 arrives in stores Sept. 15, it will go head to head against Apple's 10th-anniversary iPhone in what's expected to be the largest-ever season for phone upgrades.

So what's Samsung's strategy for breaking Apple's spell while also making us forget about battery fires? Rather than surprise, the Note 8 mostly just supersizes the things that worked well in this spring's Galaxy S8. Its screen measures 6.3 inches.

The Note 8's standout new feature, a dual-lens camera, will make other Samsung owners jealous, but it only just catches up to Apple.

When I had the chance to try the Note 8 briefly, ahead of its debut, it was clear this is the phone to beat for anyone looking to max out on screen. In a form that's slightly thinner and taller than the iPhone 7 Plus, the Note 8 packs about 20% more screen.

Like the S8, the Note 8 squeezes in more usable screen by slimming the phone's forehead and chin, elongating the display. And its so-called "infinity" screen stays trim on the sides by curving down. That curve has a sharper angle than past Samsung phones, which makes the Note 8 slightly easier to hold.

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Side by side, the Note 8 screen looks like a modest boost from the S8+ model, with a 6.2-inch screen, that Samsung introduced in the spring. But it will feel like an Olympic-size swimming pool for anyone still using the two-year-old Note 5 or any iPhone.

Unfortunately, Samsung still doesn't know where to put the fingerprint reader. The Note 8, like the S8, moves it to the back of the phone, awkwardly up near the camera. I'm still waiting for a phone maker to return the reader to the front where it belongs, maybe right in the screen itself.

In the don't-break-what-isn't-broken department, the Note 8's S Pen stylus for drawing and taking notes hasn't changed much. One new trick: Like a magic wand, it can now translate complete sentences, rather than just words.

The Note 8's software has Samsung's not-always-beloved version of Android, which isn't much changed. They've added the marginally useful ability to pair apps together into a single launch icon. This will let you load duos you frequently use together, say, YouTube and email or navigation and music. To work, the apps themselves must be multi-window compatible.

The phone also has a dedicated button for Bixby, Samsung's newborn voice assistant. Bixby not only answers questions but also operates the entire phone (or at least aspires to).

Now let's talk about that hopefully nonexploding Note 8 battery. It's a tiny bit smaller this year, possibly helping it avoid some of the problems that caused fires in last year's model. Independent testing firm UL is publicly vouching for the Note 8 battery, a significant improvement over the just-trust-us approach Samsung took with battery safety in the S8.

The Note 8's dual 12-megapixel camera is the feature most likely to make other Samsung owners jealous. Just as on the iPhone 7 Plus, one lens is for wide angle and the other for 2X zoom. Samsung added optical image stabilization to both its lenses, which it says will produce clearer shots. The iPhone 7 Plus has stabilization only on the default wide-angle lens.

Like the iPhone, the Note 8 can use depth information from the two lenses to take portraits with only the subject in focus. The Note lets you manually adjust how much background blur to apply -- a feature I've felt was lacking on the iPhone's Portrait Mode. (On the Note 8, you can even adjust it after you take the picture.

The Note 8, available in pre-sales on August 25, is too big for my tastes. I think the Samsung Galaxy S8 offers just the right amount of screen, 5.2 inches, in a slender package. But by offering a supersize line, Samsung retains loyal customers who want choice.

And the Note 8 maintains Samsung's lead on phone design. The new norm for a premium phone in 2017 is a dual-lens camera and a reduced-bezel shape with a huge screen. But there's still room for Apple to impress this fall by fixing the fingerprint reader, addressing battery life -- and perhaps identifying something we didn't even know we wanted.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 23, 2017 11:14 ET (15:14 GMT)