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Galaxy Note 8 preview: Samsung's big bet

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

It’s been just about a year since Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 exploded onto the market with its red-hot features and smoking design. And if it weren’t for the phone’s propensity for blowing up in people’s pockets and while charging on their nightstands, the Note 7 would have been one of the best handsets around.

Despite that setback, Samsung is bringing back the Note brand with its all-new, Android-powered Galaxy Note 8. Available for pre-order on Aug. 24 and launching Sept. 15, the Note 8 looks to improve on its predecessor in every way. Heck, Samsung even went and got the battery certified by the folks at the Underwriters Laboratory to ensure it’s safe.

I spent about an hour with the Note 8, and it certainly does help you forget about the Note 7 fiasco rather quickly.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note line is back from the brink with the all-new Galaxy Note 8. But can it make up for the disappointment of the Note 7?

A familiar face

To be sure, the Note 8 isn’t the first major Samsung smartphone release following the Note7 debacle; that heavy lifting went to the Galaxy S8. Samsung says it has shipped a relatively similar number of those phones as it did the Galaxy S7.

The Note 8 is essentially an elongated, more rectangular version of the S8. There’s nearly no bezel along its top and bottom edges and the Infinite Screen Super AMOLED display wraps all the way around its left and right sides. Those smaller bezels also mean the Note 8’s screen is far larger than the Note 7’s, 6.3 inches versus 5.7.

Oddly, the Note 8’s panel is just 0.1 inches larger than the Galaxy S8 Plus’ 6.2-inch display. The Note’s value has always been with its large screen and S Pen stylus, but it seems as though Samsung is now leaning more heavily on the benefits of the S Pen.

As with the S8, the Note 8’s fingerprint reader has been moved to its rear, which means, yep, you’re going to confuse it with the camera. That’s because the reader is positioned directly next to the camera, which means you’ll get plenty of smudge marks on its lenses.

Camera time

Yes, that’s lenses, as in plural. Samsung is jumping onto the dual-lens camera setup bandwagon with the Note 8. Like Apple’s (AAPL) iPhone 7 Plus, the Note 8’s camera includes one wide-angle lens and one telephoto lens. Both lenses will capture 12 megapixels each and unlike the iPhone 7 Plus, both lenses will get optical image stabilization.

That’s a big deal, since when you zoom in on a subject, every minor movement of your hand is exaggerated, which can lead to blurred photos. By adding optical image stabilization, you’ll be able to zoom in on a subject without having to worry about a minor hand movement ruining a great shot.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8 has a dual-lens camera, but it’s fingerprint reader is right next to it.

Of course, Samsung is also adding the ability to take bokeh-style photos, images with the subject in focus and the background blurred. You’ll also be able to adjust the blurring effect in real time via a slider, as well as after you capture your image. What’s more, the Note 8 will take both wide-angle and telephoto lens pictures at the same time, so you’ll have the option of switching between the two.

That also means you’ll use about 8MB an image, which is a ton. Thankfully, you can disable the features if you want to preserve space.

Styling with the stylus

The Galaxy Note’s S Pen stylus has always been an important part of the phone’s formula, so naturally it’s making a return with the Note 8. This time around, the company has worked to make the S Pen’s tip feel more like that of a ballpoint pen.

Samsung’s new Live Messages feature is similar to Apple’s Digital Touch.

What’s more, Samsung has added a new feature to its S Pen apps called Live Messages. Similar to Apple’s Digital Touch function found in its Messages app, Live Messages lets you send a sketch or written message that your recipient can view as if you’re writing in real time. It’s not exactly original, but it’s still fun. Plus, Samsung lets you add photos to your Live Messages, which you can then draw on.

Power up

Samsung crammed the Note 8 with the same 8-core processor found on the S8, as well as 6GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. That should make for quite the speedy machine. And if you plan on playing VR games with it using the Gear VR, it better be fast.

More importantly, the battery — which was the source of all of the Note 7’s troubles — clocks in at 3,300 mAh, which is smaller than the Galaxy S8 Plus’ 3,500-mAh power plant. Still, I’d expect the Note 8 to last more than a day.

During a meeting with the firm, Samsung explained how disappointed consumers were when they had to turn over their Note 7s following their highly publicized battery problems.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8 comes with expandable storage, something Apple’s iPhone lacks.

Tim Baxter, president and CEO of Samsung Electronics North America, said the Note 7’s issues were a “stumble” for the company, but said that the brand has recovered since last fall.

Samsung is desperately hoping consumers aren’t so turned off by the events of last year that they’ll completely abandon the Note line. So it makes sense that they’d want to assure customers the Note 8 is safe. Still, it feels like the company went through all of this when it brought out the Galaxy S8.

We’ll see in a few weeks whether the Note 8 can bury the ghost of the Note 7.

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.