As many of you know, I have a soft spot for arguing about cell phones. A good phone is probably the most important gadget that someone like me can have; it’s my most frequently available object with an internet connection, it’s what brings me closest to social media and my music, and it’s where I take 99% of my photos.
With that in mind, I tend to try to chase what’s best whenever it’s feasible, and for many years, I was very, very high on the Galaxy Note series. I’m not quite sure that the public knew what the point of the very first model of the device was, and honestly, I’m not sure if Samsung did either. We all knew that it was gigantic compared to the competition, that the battery was huge, and that they were attempting to bring styluses back just a few years after we got used to multi-touch.
But with each successive model, Samsung created a trend-setting device. The S-Pen part remained a niche for its loyalists, but they routinely set benchmarks for power and battery life while making big phones cool again. Without the note, we’re probably still all using 3.5-4 inch iPhones and “large” would probably be under 5″. Instead, we have an arms race of power where 5-6″ is the new standard.
As such, I owned the Galaxy Note 2, 3, and 4, and loved all of them to death, passing them on to friends and family as I upgraded (one of my best friends still uses my old Note 4, while the 2 and 3 met eventual untimely, concrete-assisted deaths). I’ve skipped the last few, opting for the LG G4 and, as my needs changed, I switched back to iOS for a little while.
Yesterday, Samsung announced the Galaxy Note 8, which they’re hoping will be their best-received release to date. Certainly, it appears to be their most robust, most powerful phone, but does it really blow the lid off the competition in the way that it used to?
After all, the S-Pen features that are brought up in the video and the press release are great, but aren’t substantially different from what they’ve had on the device in previous years, with the software integration remaining strikingly similar to what the Note 5 and Note 7 had. Under the hood, they’ve taken no significant leaps from the Galaxy S series; both the Exynos and Snapdragon variants use the same processors as the S8, with the only difference coming in the RAM (an upgrade from 4GB to 6GB).
Dual Cameras are nice for a variety of reasons, but that’s not a unique feature anymore; Apple beat them to the major-market punch with the iPhone 7 Plus, and devices from LG, Motorola, Huawei, OPPO, OnePlus, Essential, ASUS, and many others have followed suit. 6.3″ is a great screen size, but many are approaching the high-fives at this point. The battery is 10% bigger than the S8’s, but you wonder how much the screen and camera will nullify that advantage. USB-C is cool, but it’s not a definitive feature like it was two years ago.
Really, there’s no differentiating factor here; it’s a solid, robust phone that is more or less at the top of the flagship market, but it doesn’t run away with the pack on paper. That doesn’t quite align with the brand’s history, which isn’t something you want when the techies who chase specs will have the similarly beefy but more open and customizable Essential Phone and 2017 Pixels as options in a few weeks.
At that point, you’re hoping that the average consumer buys into the device, and that might be an even bigger hurdle; the percentage of batteries in Note 7 that became very destructive may have been small, but they created a very big dent in the brand’s reputation. To launch a follow-up phone that isn’t that different from the pack, that stands to be the most expensive in the world at launch (Telus has it for pre-order at $260 more than any other Android device), is a very risky play on Samsung’s part. They’ll likely be able to woo Note 7 owners back with the steep trade-in discount they’re offering, but convincing newcomers to join their ecosystem without a massive incentive might prove tough.
I feel sympathetic for Samsung here; this is probably the worst possible time for them to have to attempt a redemption story. Internals aren’t improving at the rate they were a few years ago, prices on them aren’t coming down fast enough, and while they had their toughest hour, the rest of the market on their operating system has caught up. That’s without considering Apple, who are expected to make a major overhaul to the iPhone this fall, which probably covers the attention span of those who are will to pay out the nose for the data-box in their pocket.
At the end of the day, my fear is that Samsung is about to release the best phone on the market, but that it won’t be better enough to negate the hole they fell into last year or even counter the price difference it has over the last few months’ releases. We’ll see how reaction is when it drops in the coming weeks, though.