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The Galaxy Note 8 Has The Best Camera Samsung’s Ever Made

The new smartphone has an impressive dual-lens camera, and a slightly smaller battery.

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The Note was originally marketed as a “phablet,” a horrible portmanteau of “phone” and “tablet” that insinuates the thing is both portable and productive, or something. Power users (aka people who do a lot of shit on their phones) have historically gravitated towards the Note because of its roomy screen and its precious tiny stylus — two features that differentiated the Note from Samsung’s more popular Galaxy line, which aren’t as large and don’t come with a pen tool.

This year’s model, the Note 8, is still designed to be a workhorse. But it’s also so much more.

There are multi-tasking and note-taking features out the wazoo in this phone. But, for the first time, the Note is now *the* Samsung phone photographers (or, rather, phonenographers) should consider, because it has the best camera the Korean tech conglomerate has ever made. In other words, the Note’s stylus is no longer its only major selling point.

Aside from the impressive dual-lens camera, all other features are incremental improvements or carry-overs from last year’s disastrous Note 7, which shipped with faulty, exploding batteries and was recalled twice before finally being discontinued. The 8 has all the Samsung-y stuff: wireless charging, Gear VR compatibility, biometric security (iris and fingerprint scanning, and face recognition), 6GB RAM with 64GB of upgradable storage (mini SD cards up to 256GB), and compatibility with DeX, which is a dock, sold separately, that allows you to connect the phone to a monitor and use keyboard and mouse input.

The Note 8 has a smaller, more conservative battery, and Samsung says it’s “committed to quality” now more than ever, with an eight-point battery safety check that includes extreme testing and X-ray inspection, plus additional testing by a third-party company, UL. All of that sounds like a good thing.

I’ve spent a week with the Galaxy Note 8, and though I’m still not a fan of the company’s TouchWiz interface (all of the extra stuff Samsung adds to the phone on top of the Android operating system), it’s clear that this is the most capable Samsung phone ever made.

Let’s get right to it: that camera.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

Most phones have one, wide-angle lens that forces you to zoom with your feet or zoom digitally (causing pixelation). The Note 8 has two 12-megapixel lenses: one standard wide-angle lens (f/1.7) and one telephoto lens (f/2.4) for close-ups, which you can take advantage of in a variety of ways.

The most obvious is being able to zoom in 2x, which is great for whale or bird watching or whatever. The second is that when you capture a close-up with the telephoto lens, the Note 8 automatically snaps a picture with the wide-angle lens too, so you can switch between the zoomed in and zoomed out versions of the pic.

(Click on the images below to see them up close.)

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The third is that now the camera has a sense of depth (what Samsung calls “Live Focus”), which means it knows approximately how to get the blurry bokeh look that makes professional photos look so legit.

Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus offers something similar: two lenses, one wide-angle and one telephoto, with a similar gauzy, out-of-focus effect called Portrait Mode. The Note 8 takes the concept a step further, by letting users adjust the background blur after the photo has been taken.

Live Focus sometimes misses and doesn’t apply the depth effect to the full background (the rocks shown here, for example), but generally makes phone pics look really good.

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On top of all that, the Note 8’s camera has optical image stabilization, which reduces blur from the shakiness of your hand, on both of its lenses. Basically, this means that when zooming in at 2x with the Note 8, your photos will likely look less blurry.

Portrait Mode vs. Live Focus

2x optical zoom using telephoto lens with shaky arm

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

Both the Galaxy Note 8's telephoto and wide-angle lenses have optical image stabilization. On the 7 Plus only the wide-angle lens has it (the telephoto lens doesn't). You can see the detail in the flowers (below) is a bit blurrier in the 7 Plus photo compared to the Note 8's.

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The camera is very, very impressive, and is clearly aimed at the photography-forward iPhone 7 Plus crowd. Of course, three new iPhones are expected to be announced in a few weeks, on Sept. 12, and who knows what kind of camera tech those devices will bring.

Other new features aren’t nearly as wow-worthy.

“App pair” is a shortcut you can create that opens two apps in split-view, multi-window mode. You can access the shortcut easily by swiping in from the device’s edge. It’s a nice-to-have, but not an essential. The best use case I found for it was being able to open Google Keep and Chrome at the same time for grocery list making while recipe browsing.

“Live message” seems like it’s inspired by iMessage’s Digital Touch feature for iPhone users — and of all the features Samsung could copy from Apple it appears to have copied...the worst one?

It’s basically sending an animated GIF to someone of you writing a very short phrase with glowsticks over a black background or a photo. You can’t write more than about eight words with Live message, and the GIF itself looks pixelated and slow.

“Screen off memo,” a way to jot down something with the stylus without having to unlock the phone, now supports up to 100 pages of notes (instead of just one page in the previous version), which is kind of awesome. It’s a great feature for short to-dos.

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Everything else has been introduced in last year’s Note 7 or Galaxy S8. The S Pen stylus, for example, is the same as the Note 7’s.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

It has a small .7mm tip (think: the chunkier of the mechanical pencil standards) that can sense pressure, or whether you’re pressing lightly or hard on the screen. With the calligraphy brush tool, when you press down on the screen, the stroke gets thicker and darker as you press harder. Other tools, like pencil, just get darker.

The lag between screen contact and stroke is noticeable — but the S Pen is still great for quick little quips. Because of its tiny pretzel stick–sized form factor, it’s not ideal for long writing or drawing sessions (the hand cramps!), but it’s nice for marking up documents quickly or jotting down short reminders.

The stylus isn’t just for note-taking, either. It can do about a dozen other things, like translate full sentences (which is actually new in the Note 8), magnify whatever’s onscreen, create animated GIFs, screen capture, screen markup, and “glance,” which creates a floating app icon to switch quickly between apps.

Using a stylus with a smartphone still doesn’t feel natural to me. I would lose this thing in a heartbeat. It’s fantastic for precision, but requires both hands to use it, so not exactly useful for folks who frequent crowded buses or are often walking briskly somewhere.

The Note 8 can’t swim, but it’s water-friendly.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

The device is rated IP68, which means it can withstand being in up to 5 feet of water for up to 30 minutes. The S Pen stylus is water-resistant too, which means you can write "hello" onscreen while submerged (which I did).

The fingerprint sensor is still awkwardly placed on the back, and is a bit slow.

You have to pick the device up if it’s on a table or take it out of its mount every time you want to unlock the device. In my experience, the phone has struggled with recognizing my left and right index finger. Your digit needs to cover the entire sensor to work, and since it’s such a tall phone, it takes some hand fidgeting to get it right. It’s also right near the camera lens (which has the same flatness and smooth texture), so the lens gets smudged 90% of the time.

The Note 8 looks like the Galaxy S8+’s fraternal twin.

The Galaxy S8+, the larger of the two Samsung flagship phones, is nearly identical to the Note 8. Both devices have curved displays that wrap around each side (called an “Infinity Display”). In the midnight-black color, it’s hard to tell where the screen ends and the back of the phone begins. The display is stunning. It’s extremely bright and vivid, and text appears smooth and crisp. The Note 8’s screen is 6.3 inches diagonally, while the S8+’s is 6.2. Not a huge difference there.

That’s a lot of screen. But because the device is curved and so narrow, it still feels like a manageable holding size for a small mitt. Typing single-handed is fine, especially with the kind of keyboard where you can swipe all over the place without lifting a finger, but stretching up to reach a button at the top after typing isn’t as feasible.

The battery doesn’t charge as fast as the Note 7 (and that’s probably a good thing).

It took a little over two hours to fully charge the device (a bit more conservative than the Note 7’s 50% capacity in 30 minutes claim). The phone got warm during charging, but not unbearable to touch.

Despite the smaller battery capacity, the phone should last more than a day for a normal user who spends most of their screen time on email, surfing the web with sporadic picture taking and casual gaming. The Note 8 offers a lot of features to save battery, like downgrading the screen resolution, limiting processing speeds, decreasing brightness, and turning the always-on display off. This absolutely helps stretch the device’s juice for longer, up to 4 or 48 hours, depending on which power-saving mode you choose.

The tl;dr is that the Galaxy Note 8 is a beautiful phone with a seriously good camera — and the most expensive Samsung flagship phone on the market.

Nicole Nguyen / BuzzFeed News

Other than the fact that, uh, a number of devices caught fire, I thought the Note 7 was the best Android phablet you could buy when I first reviewed it. The Note 8 is the Note 7 Samsung should have made. It’s still *the* choice for Android-preferring folks who expect a lot out of their phone, whether it’s watching HDR Netflix movies, marking up PDFs, capturing stunning photos, or jotting down notes. If you don’t expect quite so much from your smartphone, the Galaxy S8 is a better choice, and if you hate Samsung bloat, go for the Pixel XL running stock Android (though a new model is expected this fall) or the Essential phone.

But it’s more expensive than the Galaxy S8 (up to $850) and last year’s Note (up to $865). Preorders for the unlocked version start at $929 at Samsung.com. Former Note 7 owners can trade in their phone for up to $425 value if they decide to upgrade to the Note 8.

At Verizon in the US, the Note 8 will cost $960 retail or $40 a month for two years. AT&T is offering $31.67 a month for 30 months ($950 total) through its Next leasing plan, which lets customers upgrade every two years by trading in an eligible device.

Nicole Nguyen covers products and personal technology for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Nicole Nguyen at nicole.nguyen@buzzfeed.com.

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