Last week, I went hands-on with the new Galaxy Note 8, Samsung's latest, best, and most powerful phone. The narrative around its announcement and release was, predictably, both humble and overwrought — a typical Samsung-specific mixture of sentiment and braggadocio.
It's a really nice phone, with plenty of reasons to be excited, especially if that S Pen is your jam. It's my jam — I like writing on paper, and this feels about as close to that as, say, the Apple Pencil on iPad Pro — so I'm excited about using it. The Note 7, as you are probably well aware, didn't go so well for Samsung, which is likely why, even with its new near-bezel-less design, the Note 8 is about as conservative an upgrade as you'll find in today's world.
I compared the phone to the iPhone 7 Plus, which feels massive in comparison. Both phones are built solidly, with perfectly-machined aluminum and high-quality glass. Even a year later, though, the iPhone 7 Plus feels incredibly well-built. The glossy 7000 Series aluminum of my Jet Black model has held up quite well — I don't check it daily for scratches, though I'm sure they've proliferated in the months since I stopped using a case.
The Note 8 may have been announced before the new iPhone, but it has to compete head-to-head.
The Note 8 is, like the iPhone, built with an aluminum frame, but it has a sheet of Corning Gorilla Glass on the back, whereas Apple uses metal throughout. Samsung says there are some advantages to this — it allows for wireless charging, for instance, and doesn't require the surreptitious hiding of antenna lines — but its glass-backed phones are all slippery fingerprint magnets, and the Note 8 is no exception.
What's really interesting about the Note 8, though, isn't how it compares to the iPhone 7 Plus, but how it will stand up to the iPhone 8, or the idea of the iPhone 8. By now we know a lot about Apple's upcoming phone, which could debut at $999 — a full $70 more than the already-expensive Note 8 — but Apple has ways of surprising even the most well-informed of leak followers.
It's important to see whether Apple's claim that it is always a few years ahead of the competition is actually true, since the Note 8 is basically the most advanced and expensive Android phone most people can buy right now. It also showcases the best of what Samsung can do with hardware and software, given that its operating system, built by Google can only be altered so much.
The iPhone 8 is said to feature a number of hardware improvements that have been present, in one rudimentary form or another, for years on Android. Wireless charging has been on every Galaxy S flagship since 2015's Galaxy S6, while its rumored face unlock feature debuted on the Galaxy Note 7.
There's also talk of the next iPhone largely doing away with the bezels around the display, opting for an on-screen home button that would allow for a much more efficient screen-to-body ratio. And there's talk of the iPhone 8 moving from LCD to OLED, a display technology that Samsung has largely perfected.
Moving in the other direction, the Note 8 has Samsung's first dual camera setup, which largely apes that of the iPhone 7 Plus (and, most likely, the upcoming iPhone 8). With a second 12MP sensor that pairs with what Samsung calls a "2x lens," the results appear to be similar to that of the iPhone: the ability to shoot twice the distance with no loss in photo quality, and a portrait mode that Samsung is calling Live Focus.
The ongoing differences
Even if more of the spec sheet is, on paper, shared this year between the two phones, there are always going to be substantive differences between any Note device and the latest iPhone. The S Pen, despite the growing adoption of the Apple Pencil on iPad Pro, is still the only decent stylus for a phone, and I've heard from many iPhone users over the years that wished Apple would just offer Pencil support on its handheld devices.
The S Pen continues to improve every year, and on the Note 8 it's now possible to write on the lock screen without actually turning on the phone (the Note 8's Super AMOLED display means that black is truly black, so battery isn't affected). There's also a built-in coloring book, because why not?
Samsung has no equivalent to iMessage, and that's becoming a problem.
More important, though, are the differences between the two phones' ecosystems. Samsung still relies on Google's Android operating system for its foundation, which is probably why its software aspirations continue to improve in fits and starts. Samsung does bundle its own app store with its phones, but it's nowhere near as comprehensive as Apple's App Store (or Google's own Play Store).
The Note 8 will launch with Android 7.1.1, the penultimate version of Google's mobile OS — Android 8.0 isn't expected to come to Samsung devices for another six months or longer — which, while great in most respects, still lacks some of Google's improvements to notifications, battery efficiency, and for the texters in the back, emoji.
Speaking of emoji, Samsung — and Google, for that matter — still lacks a credible competitor to iMessage, which is almost single-handedly the reason younger people buy iPhones these days. Of course, the Note 8 isn't aimed at teenagers, but Samsung's continued inability to build platform buy-in makes its hardware a comparatively harder sell. Samsung will sell just south of 50 million Galaxy S8 units this year, but Apple, through iMessage, still has a lock on that special communication sauce that acts as glue between so many millions of people around the world.
It's clear that Samsung is trying to edge its way into that dominance: one of the more prominent features in the Note 8 is something called Live Messages which, like Digital Touch, lets you draw on the screen using the S Pen and have it translate, highlighters, sparkles and all, into a GIF that can be sent using any messaging app. It's a shrewd, smart move from Samsung since it lives anywhere but can only be made using a Samsung phone, but it's nowhere near as sticky as a closed system like iMessage.
The Bixby-Siri conundrum
The iPhone 8 will almost certainly double down on Siri as its do-everything virtual assistant, just as Apple has done every year since the service debuted in 2011 with the iPhone 4s. The service, while not perfect, has had years to get better, faster, and more intelligent, and we're now able to plug into third-party apps to do cool things.
Bixby, Samsung's not-quite-an-assistant, had a tough few months in its infancy, but has probably surpassed a lot of people's expectations with its comprehensive list of voice commands. Of course, Bixby is an on-device assistant, so it's far less like Siri than, say, Google Assistant or Alexa, but it's still a useful little tool that's getting better all the time. And it's here to stay, for better or worse: Samsung appears to be putting dedicated Bixby buttons on all of its flagships from now on.
The Galaxy Note 8 is here, perhaps improbably, and it's going to be one of the best Android phones of the year. A lot of pundits are pushing people to forego this version in favor of the cheaper and almost-as-good Galaxy S8+, but I'm not one of them: I think there's virtue in the pen (the pen is mightier?), and benefit to the dual camera.
But whether it's going to be enough to convince millions of people to skip the iPhone 8, or switch from iOS to Android, remains to be seen. A lot of Note 7 owners came from the iPhone, but that short-lived phone may have been a flash in the pan. This year's iPhone is more exciting and enticing than 2016's version, and despite record numbers of switchers last year, Tim Cook may reveal that the iPhone 8 brought over more Android users than ever before.
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