The Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 is a strange beast. Sitting more or less between the Note II and the Note 10.1, the Note 8.0 feels like a Frankenstein Android device, mixing elements of both smartphones and tablets. Of course, that's kind of the point: in territories where carriers don't have such a stranglehold on the wireless industry, the Note 8.0 is exactly the giant phone that it looks like. Here in the States, we'll have to make due with an 8-inch WiFi tablet - a mid-sized device for the category, with a premium price.
That said, the price may be the only major downside of the Note 8.0 for some very targeted users. It's a solid tablet with a great form factor, despite its mildly ridiculous looks. Samsung has spent the last few years honing both its TouchWiz interface and its Note and S-Pen additions to such quality that one can almost forgive them for obfuscating Android itself. It won't make believers out of anyone who doesn't like Samsung's aesthetics, but for those who do, and desire a powerful, capable mid-sized tablet, the Note 8.0 delivers. I just wish it would deliver at $350 or less.
Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 (WiFi)
- Price: $400
- Processor: 1.6GHz quad-core Exynos 4412
- GPU: Mali-400
- Network compatibility: WiFi
- Operating system: Android 4.1.2
- Display: 8.0" 1280x800 TFT LCD
- Memory: 2GB RAM / 16GB Storage (9.78GB usable)
- Cameras: 5MP rear (no flash), 1.3MP front
- Battery: 4600mAh, non-removable
- NFC: Yes
- Ports / expandable storage: microUSB / microSD
- Thickness: 8.0mm
- Weight: 338g
- Form Factor: The 8-9" tablet size is a sweet spot between portability and function, and the Galaxy Note 8.0's relatively light weight makes it an easy travel companion. The smartphone-style buttons take some getting used to, but once you do, it feels great in one hand or two.
- S-Pen: For those who enjoy the Note family's accurate screen and extra software, the Note 8.0 delivers. The pen itself is bigger than the Note II's and sturdier than the Note 10.1's, with satisfying travel in the tip. It's also the first Note stylus that works with the capacitive buttons.
- Performance: a combination of Exynos quad-core, 2GB of RAM and the Mali-400 GPU make the Note 8.0 fast and efficient. It won't blow the latest and greatest hardware out of the water, but with specs roughly comparable to the international Galaxy S III, it's got plenty of oomph and decent battery life to boot.
- Software: Say what you will about TouchWiz, but Samsung's additions to Android are finally starting to become useful, without slowing it down. The Smart Stay eye-tracking feature is particularly nice for tablets, as is multi-window, to say nothing of the S-Pen's tailored apps.
- Build quality: This is a Samsung design through and through, for better and worse. With that lightweight plastic frame comes a bit more flex and creak than I'd like. It's nowhere near as bad as the embarrassing Note 10.1, but it's still noticeably behind competitors.
- Smartphone style: There's no getting around the fact that this thing looks like a giant smartphone. If Samsung had given US consumers the option to buy a tablet with a 3G radio, things might be different (if just as awkward). As it is, the Note 8.0 looks a little ridiculous.
- Price: At $400, it's hard to recommend the Note 8.0 above the Nexus 7, or even similarly-sized entries from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. A 720p screen on a tablet this expensive is a hard sell, especially with more premium hardware like the Nexus 10 at the same price.
- Camera and Speakers: The less said about the pitiful 5MP rear camera - without an LED flash, no less - the better. And Samsung's decision to abandon the forward-facing speakers from its 10" models is baffling.
- Android 4.1.2: While both versions of Jelly Bean are great, 4.2 adds certain tweaks that are hard to ignore once you get used to them. This device is new enough that it should've featured 4.2 out of the box, so hopefully Samsung will get an OTA out the door pretty quickly.
Design and build quality
The Galaxy Note 8.0's look can be described thusly: imagine if someone took a Note II and flattened it out with a rolling pin until the screen was eight inches diagonal. Everything from the gently rounded top and bottom to the strangely out of place physical controls to the vertically-oriented cameras screams "smartphone". On one occasion, a passerby actually asked me if I was holding a giant phone, despite the WiFi model's lack of an earpiece.
On the front you'll find a slightly raised dedicated home button with capacitive menu and back buttons, the same layout that Samsung has been sticking to for their flagship phone products. I don't mind the physical home button - I actually think it's one of the design choices that Apple got right - but on a tablet it's awkward. Even more awkward are the capacitive buttons, which sit on the chunky part of the bezel where dedicated tablet users are used to placing their thumbs. This makes for a lot of accidental activations during the break-in period, especially when holding the device in landscape mode. A 1.3MP camera and a proximity sensor - a strange inclusion, given the lack of an earpiece - sit above the screen. The bezel itself is an arctic white color, the only one available at launch.
The 8mm thin sides are wrapped in a silver plastic band that wants to be aluminum when it grows up. The left side is completely bare except for a MicroSD card slot behind a plastic flap, and the only thing up top is a standard headphone jack. On the right side you'll find Sammy's standard power button and volume toggle, with a new addition sitting right below it: an infrared port. More on that later. On the bottom right corner is the S-Pen bay, with the MicroUSB port (YES!) flanked by two tiny stereo speakers on the bottom side.
The detachable S-Pen itself is naturally bigger than the one found on the Note and Note II, and about the same size as the one on the Note 10.1. However, it feels like it has a bit more density, so it's not quite so flimsy, and my meaty paws had no problem gripping it for extended sessions. A modifier button sits on the top within easy reach of your index finger, and the tip has a pleasant give. By the way, this is the first Note product which allows the capacitive buttons to be activated by the stylus - a nice feature, if overdue. The back of the device is a frosty plain of white, glossy plastic, broken only by the raised bump of the 5-megapixel camera. Note the lack of an LED flash.
Build quality is comparable to all of Samsung's high-end offerings: nice, but still a bit on the cheap side. Those who were disappointed by the Note 10.1 (and there was plenty to be disappointed in) will be glad to hear that the Note 8.0 feels much tighter, with notably less give and flex, despite being lighter and smaller. For a package that's actually slightly lighter than the Nexus 7, despite the larger screen and frame, it feels pretty good in the hand - though I miss the solidness of Asus' little wonder. You can definitely hear a small amount of creak in the plastic when holding it tightly. All in all, the fit and finish is acceptable, but if Samsung thinks this will compare well with the iPad mini, they're only fooling themselves.
Cameron's Thoughts: Surprise! Bet you weren't expecting a second set of thoughts injected right into the middle of this review, were you? Much like Aaron and I did back in the day with the Excite 7.7 review, this will actually be a tag-team review. Jeremiah will be handling the bulk of it, and I'll just throw my thoughts in as the appear inside my brain (read: at the end of every section). Sounds exciting and fun, no?
With that, here are my thoughts on the build quality and hardware: I've made it pretty well known in the past that I don't care for aluminum devices all that much, so it's no surprise that I like the feel of the Note 8.0. My review unit doesn't creak or pop, either – it feels pretty solid to me. The form factor is a bit of another story, however – I'm not a huge fan of the button layout (so used to "back" being on the left side, I'm not sure I can ever get used to the switched layout) and I find the physical home key to be annoying, especially when using the S Pen. As Jeremiah stated, be ready to hit the capacitive keys several times while using the device in landscape, because it's nearly unavoidable. It drives me nuts.
Past that, Jeremiah pretty much hit the nail on the head.
Screen And S-Pen
There are relatively few fans of the 8-9" screen size, but they're vocal, and I count myself among them. My issue with tablets is that at 7 inches they're barely worth bringing along in addition to my Android smartphone, and at 10 inches, I might as well lug my laptop instead. The Galaxy Tab 8.9 was my absolute favorite Android tablet, and if Samsung had given it a proper sequel like the 10.1, I'd be using it now. The Note 8.0 fills this tiny but much-appreciated niche perfectly, and it's completely replaced my Nexus 7 as my big-screen travel buddy. Of course, the idea of a second portable device could be ignored if the Note 8.0 had a cellular radio. Hint, hint.
The Note 8.0 sized up with the Nexus 7 and Transformer TF201, typical 7 and 10-inch tablets.
Some may find the 8-inch 1280x800 LCD screen a tad disappointing, especially in light of the monster resolutions on the Samsung Nexus 10, the Galaxy S4, and similarly-sized Nooks and Kindles. It's not that big of an issue for me, but I wouldn't disagree with those who'd view it as a dealbreaker, especially considering the $400 price tag. The screen itself is serviceable -bright and clear for an LCD, with Samsung's usual tendency towards a slightly oversaturated picture. Touch response is probably the best I've seen in an Android tablet, both when using my finger and the S-Pen.
The glass seems (for lack of a better term) slicker than some phones and tablets, and perhaps this is intentional, to give the S-Pen a nice, smooth travel. In use, the pen is naturally much more accurate that either a finger or a passive stylus, thanks to the Wacom digitizer found in all Note hardware. Drawing and writing on a tablet still feels alien, but it's aided by a good, long travel on the tip and solid palm rejection (at least in those apps that support it). As in previous Notes, the screen can detect the presence of the S-Pen hovering a few millimeters above actual contact, a feature that's only as useful as its application.
Cameron's Thoughts: What more is there to say that hasn't already been said? The screen is good, but not great; and the S Pen is fantastic. That pretty much sums it up for me.
Battery Life And Reception
Battery life on the Note 8.0 is roughly comparable to the Nexus 7, at a little less than two days of light use and about 7-8 hours of video playback. Even while constantly browsing and checking email, with some streaming music and YouTube views thrown in, I had about 20% battery remaining after a full day during my relatively intensive testing period. I understand that some early users (and those who reviewed the hardware immediately) had issues with short battery life, but I believe the tiny OTA update may have addressed this. The Note 8.0's non-removable battery is 4600mAh, just a little bigger than the N7's and a little more than twice that of newer flagship smartphones.
Something that's important to battery life and longevity in general is the charger. Samsung includes their basic wall-wart and charging cable in the 100% recyclable box, but the important thing here is that the tablet can be charged via a standard MicroUSB port. Thank the god of post 9-11 air travel, Samsung finally seems ready to abandon proprietary cables and docks. At least I hope so - the MicroUSB port might just be a side effect of the Note 8.0's market position as a giant phone in other locations. Unfortunately, the tablet can't be charged from a standard PC USB port.
Since this device is most decidedly not a giant phone, I can only gauge reception in terms of WiFi. The tablet performed admirably in both a low-interference area in my house and crowded classrooms and coffee shops. Say what you will about all-plastic bodies, but they let those RF waves through like a napping toll booth operator. However, once I got more than two walls away from my home WiFi router, signal deteriorated quickly, and there's definitely a sensitive spot on the top near the camera - tough to avoid if you're gaming or using landscape mode. GPS signals were always quick and clear.
Cameron's Thoughts: I'm a pretty big Bluetooth user, and I'm happy to report that both game controllers and Bluetooth speakers work very well with the Note 8.0. I still get the occasional BT choppiness when streaming audio from my Nexus 7 or 4, but didn't suffer the same issue with this device. That may have something to do with the fact that it's only running Android 4.1.2 (and not Android 4.2, where many BT issue were introduced), but I can't say for sure. I'm just glad it works the way it's supposed to.
Audio And Speaker
Tablets are natural media consumption devices, which is why the front-facing speakers on the Galaxy Note 10.1, Galaxy Tab 10.1 2, and Nexus 10 make sense. So why Samsung would choose to place the speakers on the Note 8 in tiny, recessed wells on the bottom of the device is beyond me. In addition, their placement on the bottom edge of the tablet means that you'll be covering them up with your hand half the time if you hold it in landscape mode. If you like to play games, you're basically screwed by this design decision: learn to love headphones, or get used to listening to your game through your palm.
While the speakers themselves are decently loud, you won't be getting high fidelity out of them. It's better to go for headphones for any extended listening, and thankfully, the top-mounted jack won't get in your way. There was no audible interference during my listening test either. That said, this device really needs a pair of pack-in headphones, which Samsung has unaccountably left out - unlike most of the other hardware they've made in the last few years. If you like placing your tablet in an oversized pocket, do so top-down to have the speakers pointing towards you - though the inclusion of a pretty stout vibration motor means you can go silent without fear.
Cameron's Thoughts: What we have here is another tablet with poor speaker placement. To add insult to injury, this is coming from a company that has put out three tablets with front-facing speakers – a brilliant idea on a device that's made for content consumption. You dropped the ball on this one, Sammy. Sadface.
Let's just get this out of the way: the 5-megapixel rear camera is a joke. It's relatively low-res, it's not cooperative with motion, and color reproduction is iffy at best. It doesn't do well in low light either, and since Samsung decided to forego an LED flash, you're out of luck if you try shooting in anything but full sunlight or a well-lit room. It's good enough for quick shots of a business card or something equally unimportant, but there's no way it's going to compete with even a mid-range smartphone. Which I'm actually kind of glad for - any reduction in the amount of people awkwardly using tablets as cameras is OK in my book.
The 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera is actually alright, by the low standards of self-shooters. It won't make your profile pictures sparkle or anything, but for video conferencing and the like, it's perfectly serviceable.
Cameron's Thoughts: Tablet camera. Meh.
There's only one model of the Galaxy Note 8.0 available in the US right now: the 16GB White version. After Samsung's admittedly bloated Android 4.1 build and partition, you'll get a little less than 10GB of space to use for apps and media. That's marginally pathetic in the age of gigantic games and HD video - I managed to fill 'er up with my usual load of apps, plus 15 standard-definition episodes of The Venture Brothers.
The inclusion of a MicroSD card slot is nice, and of course, for some it's an absolute must. But since Android 4.1 and later has nixed moving apps to the SD card, it's become less relevant. The card slot is great for those who want to bring along gigantic collections of local music and video, but the rest of us (especially gamers and Google Play Music abusers) will find ourselves wishing for more built-in storage. For four hundred bucks, I don't think 32GB would have been an unreasonable expectation.
Cameron's Thoughts: I absolutely share Jeremiah's sentiments here. A paltry 16GBs of storage is absolutely insulting on a $400 device, despite the addition of a microSD card slot. Sure, you can load a 32GB card up with your favorite movies and music, but it doesn't help a bit if you like to keep Horn, Modern Combat 4, Asphalt 7, and other 2GB+ games around. You'll fill the measly ~10GB up in a matter of no time. 32GB should be an absolutely minimum on all tablets moving forward (especially at this price point) – it can't cost the company more than a few bucks to add the extra storage, anyway.
The Galaxy Note 8.0 is a comparable to current high-end devices, particularly those from Samsung. It's got the same Exynos 4412 quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM as the Note 10.1, and though that tablet had a lot of sour points, its power plant wasn't one of them. Response is fast and smooth in all apps, even the heavy TouchWiz launcher and S-Pen apps. It's not the latest or the greatest, but normal users won't have anything to complain about. Boot time us surprisingly fast as well, at less than 30 seconds.
The 2GB of RAM may be even more important - with Android and its apps getting more memory-hungry, the extra breathing room makes using the Note 8.0 a lot more pleasant. With Samsung's suite of extra software, users will be glad of the extra gigabyte on top of comparable tablets. Samsung seems to have tamed TouchWiz's more egregious excesses as well.
The Mali-400 GPU is probably the most underpowered element here, but even that is enough to play current games like Dead Trigger and Epoch with no visible slowdown. The tablet might not keep pace once games for the Tegra 4 and similar hardware start coming out, but it's more than adequate for the current crop of titles.
Cameron's Thoughts: Compared to the Nexus 7 (which is my current daily driver in the tablet realm), the Note 8.0 is an unstoppable monster. I knew the N7 was getting slower in its old age, but I didn't realize just how much until I got hands on this device. I'm not entirely certain that the processor has as much to do with that as the extra geebee of RAM, however. Again, 2GB should be a requisite of all Android devices going forward (fortunately, that seems to be the way things are heading).
If you've used a Samsung device before, and specifically one of the Note family, you know what to expect when it comes to software. If you don't, the experience can be more than a little jarring. Extra features range from genuinely useful (Smart Stay) to mildly interesting (most of the S-Pen goodies and related apps) to downright broken (homescreen voice unlock). Most of these can be either put to good use or safely ignored. I wish that Samsung's aesthetic sensibilities weren't quite so glossy - seriously, it looks like someone had Fisher Price design these icons, then hit them with about four hours of furniture wax - but complaining about Sammy's style is like chasing after the wind.
Cameron's Thoughts: Oh, Samsung – how I love the functionality you've added with don't-call-it-TouchWiz, but loathe the overly-colorful Crayola vomit-fest theme. If only the look fell more in-line with stock Android and less with Playskool, we'd all be happier. So much happier. For all its usefulness, however, I guess the theme is at least tolerable. Brains over beauty, after all.
Samsung's apps include (deep breath) AllShare, aNote HD, ChatON, GameHub, Group Play, Music Hub, a file explorer, Paper Artist, Peel Smart Remote, S Note, S Planner, S Voice, Samsung Apps, Samsung Cares Video (instructional videos), Screen Saver, Smart Remote, WatchON, and World Clock, to say nothing of the customized and skinned apps, and pack-ins like Polaris Office, Dropbox, and Flipboard. No doubt about it, this is a heavy load. Most of these apps we've seen before, but a few are notable if only for their integration with the S-Pen.
S Note, S Planner, and Artist will make the most use of the stylus and Wacom digitizer. S Note is Samsung's notation app, and as a digital recreation of a legal pad, It'll do - different pens and adjustable sizes make for quick changes on the fly. That said, the default page size is very small - much smaller than the Note 10.1 - and you'll find yourself running out of room quickly. A somewhat confusing system of superfluous templates doesn't help - why would you need pre-made layouts and titles for a note system?
S Planner is a calendar app that uses the S-Pen as a sort of fridge planner alternative. Relying on the more accurate tip allows more information to be displayed at once, and if your hand is steady enough, you can jot down handwritten notes as well. Samsung clearly wants you to use this instead of Google Calendar, since Gcal isn't included among the myriad pack-in apps. Too bad it needs an extra step to sync through Kies. That extra hassle wasn't enough to make me switch. aNote HD is a sort of Evernote competitor, but since it doesn't add any S-Pen features, there's no real reason to switch from your normal to-do list... and without syncing, there's a good reason not to.
Your mileage - and penmanship - may vary.
The only other app of note is Peel, and it's a different kettle of fish altogether. It's a combination universal remote control and TV scheduler that takes advantage of the IR blaster hardware. With a selection of built-in codes for TVs and cable boxes, plus the ability to perform multiple commands at once, it's easily as good as any of the old Logitech Harmony remotes all by itself. Throw in a TV schedule that automatically populates with your provider's programming, and the Galaxy Note 8.0 is a pretty perfect couch potato companion. Samsung's own proprietary video service, WatchON, is also included, but there's very little reason to use it above alternatives like Google Play and Netflix.
Cameron's Thoughts: One of the first things I did was install Google Calendar, because S Planner is just an incredibly frustrating experience. Whereas GCal will show me basically everything I want to see at a glance, S Planner only shows a few things per day; hovering over specific days with the S Pen will reveal the full day's content, but that simply won't do when I'm trying to make an appointment or check my schedule in a hurry.
So far as the other S apps are concerned, however, S Note is fantastic – the palm rejection is great, and using natural handwriting this fluid on a touch-centric device is a bit surreal. I was blown away the first time I tried it, as anyone who already owns (or has tried) a Note device can likely attest. It really is second to none.
The launcher and menu system should be familiar to Samsung users. There's a bit that's customizable (which is more than I can say for some of these manufacturer skins) but power users will dump the launcher for Nova or Apex almost immediately. Unless you're a constant S-Pen user, that is - the launcher automatically enables a pre-configured panel when you remove the stylus. The notification panel can get busy quickly - Samsung's standard notification settings seem to be constantly expanding. Even with the ability to customize them in the Settings menu, you have to have at least 9 enabled. I'm actually a fan of these things (I tend to use them a lot on custom ROMs) but a bit more customization is always welcome. The ability to long-press an icon to get to the relevant Settings menu is a great touch, as always. When you remove the S-Pen, a second panel appears in the notification area, with some quick links to often-used apps.
The lockscreen is, frankly, a disappointment. While the default setting has Samsung's standard "slide anywhere" movement, plus some quick app shortcuts that can be user-set, all this stuff interferes with Android's built-in music playback controls. You can get them back if you enable the pattern or PIN lock (which you should probably do anyway), but why have all this extra stuff if you can't get the basics right? S Voice has a new trick for the lockscreen as well, a voice command function, but I could only get it to recognize my user-set unlock word ("Computer" - TNG forever!) about one time out of five.
A couple of inclusions that aren't new, but are still welcome, are Smart Stay and multi-window. We've seen both of these on the Note 10.1, Note II and Galaxy S III, among others, but they're still pretty awesome. While multi-window (accessed from a sliding tab on the left side of the screen) is a long way from genuine multitasking, there are some cut-and-paste scenarios that make it genuinely useful. (Here's a tip: this root-enabled tool can force multi-window compatibility for all apps.)
The consumptive nature of tablets makes the eye-tracking screen timeout of Smart Stay particularly handy, much more so than a smartphone, especially if you use your tablet in conjunction with a desktop. A nice touch is the ability to instantly pop up a quick sticky note or gesture command area when you remove the S-Pen, but I tired of this quickly, and disabled it in the Settings menu.
Cameron's Thoughts: Nothing more to add here – Jeremiah's thoughts and feelings are spot-on.
Despite better specs, a bigger screen and a lighter build, the Galaxy Note 8 compares poorly to the year-old Nexus 7, if only because of the price. Samsung considers the Note line to be ultra-premium, and maybe it is, but there's no escaping the fact that one of the best 7-inch tablets out there can be had for half the price. And since Samsung's only real competition in the larger market is Apple, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that the iPad mini (with a similar-sized but low-res screen) starts at a full $70 cheaper for the 16GB model.
If you love that 8-9" screen size and don't mind going without the Google Play Store, there's the Kindle Fire HD 8.9, with the 1080p screen that this tablet really should have shipped with, and a more palatable $270 price tag. The Nook HD+ has the same screen, storage capacity, and price, but it's hard to recommend based on the anemic selection of apps. But for those Android fans in the know, the most convincing argument against a Note 8.0 might be the rumored Nexus 7 refresh. At the very least, prospective buyers might want to wait for the summer to see what Google shows off at I/O.
Cameron's Thoughts: After using the Note 8.0 in tandem with my Nexus 7, the performance boost, larger screen, and S Pen functionality have actually won me over in comparison. I admit that its $400 price tag is very much on the steep side – especially when compared with the iPad Mini (which, let's face it, is the Note 8.0's primary competition) – though the addition of some minor tweaks (like a 1080p display) could've made it easier to justify that cost. I'd take Jeremiah's advice on this one and wait a few more weeks to see what Google does at I/O – that rumored Nexus 7 refresh may be the ticket to getting the most bang for your buck.
Those will be my final thoughts on the Note 8.0, a device that I have fallen in love with but probably won't be buying just yet. I'll let Jeremiah stick a fork in this one.
There are a lot of negative points up there, but keep in mind, pointing them out is my job. I really enjoyed using the Galaxy Note 8.0, with the form factor, performance, and a few of Samsung's software enhancements populating the "plus" column. The only thing about the tablet that I really don't appreciate is the smartphone-style buttons, and I imagine those would be easy enough to get used to after a few extended sessions. The 8-9" tablet size is ideal in my opinion, and if you agree, you'll find a lot to love here.
Even so, the high price compared to other Android tablets in the same size and market is a tough pill to swallow. Even with the undeniable capability additions of the S-Pen, a $70-200 premium for Samsung's plastic hardware makes it hard to recommend the Note 8.0 to users who want a tablet first, and a notation device second. A 1080p screen, an unlocked cellular radio, more internal storage, a newer chipset - any one of these features might have justified the higher sticker price. Without them, the Note 8.0 doesn't make a lot of sense if you're shopping for value.
All that said, I'd recommend trying this one out at a brick-and-mortar retailer for anyone who's tempted. If you're a fan of the screen size or the Note family in general, you might just fall in love with the Galaxy Note 8.0... especially if you find it on sale.
P.S. For those of you who do buy the Galaxy Note 8.0, don't forget to register your hardware with Samsung for a free $25 Google Play Store credit.