The Galaxy Note 8 is Samsung's latest small form-factor tablet, and it checks in with a $399 price point. That's important, and we'll be referring back to the price several times during this review. Why? Because there are two great tablets at this size that the Note 8 is directly competing against -- the $200 Nexus 7 and the $330 iPad Mini.
Price aside, the Note 8 is one of the best tablets Samsung has offered. It's full of the same great features that we're used to seeing in the Galaxy Note line, and it's hardware is plenty fast enough to make the experience pretty good overall. And of course, there's the S Pen to consider. Stop thinking of it as a stylus, because it's deeply integrated into the software and brings things to the table a regular stylus never could.
Is that enough to justify the $399 price? To answer that, hit the break and see what we think of the Galaxy Note 8.
- The Note 8 has a better display than the Nexus 7 or the iPad Mini. It's not going to knock you out, but it's also not going to be horrible for daily use. TouchWiz is feature-rich, and more important is that the features are easy to turn off when you find some you don't want to use. The S Pen works incredibly well, and makes the Note 8 not just another small Android tablet.
- $399 is just too much for an 8-inch tablet. The Nexus 7 is a much better value at half the price, and the iPad Mini has a better selection of tablet specific applications for the same (or lower) price. After a few hours of use, I find myself wishing Samsung had went with their 7-inch form factor, which is easier to hold with one hand.
The Bottom Line
The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 is the best use of a digital pen I've ever seen. If you're interested in computing this way, rather than standard touch input with your fingers, this is the tablet to get. If you're not interested in using the S Pen, save a few dollars and get the Tab 2 7-inch or the Nexus 7.
Hands-on with the Galaxy Note 8
The Galaxy Note 8 hardware
Because Samsung decided to go 8 inches with the Galaxy Note 8, the tablet "holds" different than the 7-inch Tab and Tab 2 we've seen before, as well as the Nexus 7. To be honest, it's a little awkward at first, reminiscent of holding the iPad Mini. Unless you have hands a bit on the smaller side, you'll get used to it, but it's still not as natural feeling because of the wider frame. The Note 8 feels like it's made in the same style as the Note 10.1, which means the plastic is a little thin and creaky. This is simply a user-preference thing, because it's not going to break or fly apart no matter what you might have read on the Internet about plastic things. Samsung has been successful making devices out of plastic, and we don't expect this to change any time soon. There is nothing wrong with the way the Note 8 is built, but it doesn't give the illusion of quality that some of the other tablets with metal and rubberized surfaces do.
The bezels are generous without being too big. After using it, I think Samsung has found the perfect mix between bezels big enough to hold the tablet without triggering the screen on accident, and being so big that wasted space becomes an issue. On the top bezel you have the front facing camera and the device sensors, on the bottom you have the three interface buttons -- a physical Home key in the center, and a menu and back key. Unlike the previous Note devices, the S Pen will trigger the capacitive menu and back buttons. This is a welcome change indeed.
On the bottom of the Note 8 you'll find a pair of speaker openings, the microUSB port, and the S Pen slot. On the right side is the microSD card slot, and on the left is the power button, volume rocker, and the IR blaster. The very top houses a 3.5mm headphone jack. The buttons and controls are easy to find and use, and there is no wiggle or any signs of them being prone to breakage.
Galaxy Note 8 performance
The Note 8 runs atop a 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos 4410 CPU with 2GB of RAM. It ships with Android 4.1.2 (Jelly Bean) running Samsung's TouchWiz UI. Also included is support for 802.11 a/b/g/n (in both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz modes) Wifi, Bluetooth 4.0, GPS and a sensor package consisting of a gyroscope, an accelerometer and a compass.
The device's 8-inch screen has a 1280x800-pixel resolution, which checks in at 189 pixels-per-inch (ppi). That's noticeably better than the 163 ppi screen on the iPad Mini, which I feel is the Note 8's main competition in the market. The screen is nice and sharp, and the PLS panel is plenty bright. Reading is one of the things I spend a lot of time doing on a tablet, and the Note 8 renders fonts very nicely, without any of the jagged edges you find on other tablets. The inclusion of three screen presets (Dynamic, Standard and Movie) adjust the brightness and contrast to the appropriate settings for each use, and generally things work very nicely. While I want tablets built in 2013 to have a bit higher resolution than 800p, the Wacom digitizer probably dictates the resolution on the Note 8. I can't knock the tablet for that, and think Samsung did an excellent job with everything else about the screen -- making the less-than-1080p resolution easy to accept.
The UI is nice and speedy. Swiping between home screens or turning pages in an e-reader app is smooth and absolutely lag-free. The only hesitation I'm seeing is when you press the Home button to return to your home screen from an application, but even this is negligible. The Mali 400 GPU may not be the latest and greatest chip, but it performs more than well enough for gaming. Running my very non-scientific test of playing Riptide GP until the battery runs dead, the game is responsive, looks great, and was an overall pleasant experience. The only issue I ran into is that I end up hitting the back button while playing the game (it's a landscape-only affair), which of course creates a frustrating moment where you exit out.
The advertised 14-hour battery life is a bit of a stretch. During my testing -- comprising a bit of Riptide GP, surfing the web, and a little time on Google+ -- I could get about five hours of non-stop screen time and still have enough juice left for an hour or two of reading before bed and needing to plug the Note 8 into the charger. This is slightly less than I get from my personal device, which is a Nexus 7. If you use it more, especially for processor-intensive 3D gaming, you'll need to plug it in sooner.
The 1.3MP front-facing camera is pretty poor, useful only for video conferencing. The rear camera is slightly better, but you'll not want to use the Note 8 as your go-to camera unless you have to. And that's a good thing, because nothing is worse than being that guy who holds up his tablet to take pictures.
The sound is also adequate. There are two speaker openings, but the sound is clearly not stereo and the speaker placement puts everything off to one side while watching video or playing a game. Of course, this is easy to overcome by plugging a pair of headphones into the tablet, which sound just fine. Hopefully, future devices all follow the lead of HTC's One and the Nexus 10 and point the sound at us while we're looking at the screen.
The S Pen
The S Pen is simply one of the best accessories / features ever built into a portable computer. If you're thinking it's a stylus, just stop. The S Pen is a pressure-sensitive tool that is perfectly integrated into the software of the device, and actually makes the Note 8 a compelling buy. Little things like taking screen captures, opening an application's menu, or even navigating the UI can be done by holding the button on the S Pen and making the appropriate gesture against the screen.
Even more useful, albeit not for everyone, is how responsive the tablet is between when you touch the S Pen to the screen and when things happen on the tablet. This makes the S Pen perfect for writing or drawing, giving the user the natural control needed to do either fluidly. Software specially built for the S Pen make it even better, allowing you to write out words instead of typing them, or changing the width of the virtual pen tip based on the amount of pressure you're using against the screen.
Things have come a long way since the original Note and its S Pen, and other than a few occasions when the tablet's palm-rejection feature failed me, it was a great experience. If you've a need for a tablet with any sort of pen-style input, this is the one.
Galaxy Note 8 software
For the most part, the Note 8's software is a mirror of what we see on the Note 10 or Note 2. Additions like Air View and Reading Mode work particularly well, while some things like the device's head tracking features and slightly high learning curve still need a bit of work.
You'll feel right at home if you've used any modern Samsung Android device, as TouchWiz is out in full force here. I'll leave the arguments over whether that's a good thing or a bad thing to the reader, but it does lead to a more consistent look and feel across Samsung's wide range of devices. The same highly-colorful, ultra-configurable, and slightly over-complicated feel you would get from the Galaxy S line of phones or the previous Galaxy Note devices is alive and well on the Note 8.
Samsung's multi-window feature is a really nice addition when you have 8-inches of screen real-estate to work with. With more applications compatible with the multi-window mode (including Chrome, Twitter and Facebook) you can do two things at once, while still being able to actually see what the hell you're looking at. What was a bit of a gimmick at 5-inches turns into something useful at 8-inches. Using the S Pen to move and resize the windows is easy, and the whole affair feels like it was designed with the device features in mind. Well done, Samsung.
Another favorite of mine has been the S Pen to text "translation" feature of the Note 8. Open an application that can take text input, say for example the browser, and enable the feature through the device software keyboard settings. After this, any time you tap a text-entry field in your browser, instead of the keyboard popping up you'll get a notepad that you write on with the S Pen. The Note 8 then translates your input into text and fills in the field. It's been consistently accurate, and I've found that entering text with the S Pen is better for me than using the keyboard.
Perhaps my favorite feature is the new Reading Mode. It's a fairly simple little tweak that really works well. What it does it change the background of the e-reader application to closer resemble real paper instead of a glowing white background. It then adjusts the intensity of the effect based on the amount of ambient light the sensor picks up. It works well, and makes a big difference while reading -- both in bright light and in darkness.
Other features like the Awesome Note HD version specially built for the S Pen and Samsung's various hubs and apps are also on-board, and work well enough for those that will want to use them. I found that my own choices from Google Play were better for me than the bundled apps, and S Note in particular was better than Awesome Note HD. Your mileage may vary, and it's easy enough to disable the applications you'll not want to use.
The bottom line
The Note 8 is one of the most expensive small-form tablets available. If you're looking for a good all-around tablet to play a few games or for general Internet-foolery, don't spend $400 on it. Yes, I'll go on record with that. The price is too high, and for about the same amount you're better served with an iPad Mini, or if you're an Android fan the Nexus 7 is a much better buy for half the price.
That all goes out the window if you think you'll need or enjoy using the S Pen. Nothing else comes close to the tight integration and many productive features Samsung has built into the Note 8 when coupled with the S Pen. If you're into drawing, or need a way to sign digital documents, or just need precise control that you can't get with your fingers the Note 8 is one you'll want to look at. It really does put the Note 8 into a class by itself.