As always, the integrated S Pen stylus is the main feature that separates the Note series from Samsung's S series. The S Pen stylus fits snugly into the bottom of the phone when not in use, popping out when you want to use it.
Samsung completely overhauled the S Pen for last year's Note7, redesigning it to be more responsive and easier to use and they've now brought those improvements forward for the Note8. The tip of the Note8's S Pen has a radius of only 0.7mm (down from 1.6m on the Note 5's S Pen), and the thinner tip makes the S Pen feel more like a ballpoint pen. The redesigned S Pen is more accurate too, and can now recognize 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity, twice that of the Note 5. These two improvements result in a more fluid writing experience, which makes the S Pen feel more like you're writing with a pen on paper.
Like the Note8, the S Pen itself is IP68 dust and water resistant. This is more useful than you might think, because unlike most water-resistant smartphones, where the screen isn't actually responsive underwater, you can still use the S Pen on the display even when both your phone and the S pen are fully submerged in water.
A new feature for the S Pen this year is Live Message, which lets you create an animated gif of your handwriting with animated effects around the words to send to your friends. You can use a blank background or you can choose a photo from your gallery to write on. Once you've made a Live Message, you can save it as a custom emoji to send again. You can also export it as a GIF you can use anywhere:
Other than Live Message, you'll mostly find improvements on the S Pen features introduced in the Note7, rather than brand new features. Translate will now translate entire sentences at once, instead of just individual words, and there's even a built in currency and unit converter whenever you translate something. You can switch between single word and whole sentence translation by tapping a little icon at the top of the screen.
Screen off memo has also been improved, and you can now write up to a 100 pages of notes in Screen off memo mode. You can also save any screen off memos and come back to them later to edit them.
Samsung's virtual assistant Bixby makes a return on the Note8. Bixby is made up of three features: Bixby Voice, Bixby Home, and Bixby Vision.
One thing worth mentioning that I pointed out in my S8 review is that Bixby kind of cheats with local areas of interest. It doesn't actually show you areas near to the landmark you've taken a picture of, instead it just uses GPS to locate you and show you nearby things, so when I loaded up a picture of Marina Bay Sands on my computer at work and then took a picture of that, it tried to suggest me restaurants near my office.
Eventually, you'll also be able to use Bixby Vision for shopping. In the US this is already available as Samsung has partnered with Amazon so, for example, if you take a picture of a pair of shoes, it will send you to Amazon with an option to buy that exact same pair of shoes. Unfortunately, despite Amazon Prime now being available in Singapore, Samsung is still in negotiations with various vendors, so this isn't available yet.
Like the S8, the Note8 is compatible with Samsung's Dex dock, which lets you turn your phone into a chromebook-like desktop PC by connecting it to a monitor and a wireless keyboard and mouse. There are also some nice new features on Dex that are currently unique to the Note8, but will likely be added to the S8 and S8+ in a later software update.
The first is Game Launcher, which lets you play compatible Android games in a full screen mode with your keyboard and mouse.
There's also a new music creation app called Soundcamp that lets you plug a USB instrument like a mini-keyboard into the Dex dock and record your own music. You can also edit music in the app.
The Note8 has three forms of biometric security: fingerprint, iris scanning and facial recognition.
The fingerprint scanner is fast and responsive, but once again, awkwardly positioned on the rear of the phone next to the camera module. It's actually further to the right than the S8's sensor, and more importantly, the flash module now sits in between it and the camera lens so it's less likely you'll smudge the lens with fingerprints, but it's still not ideal. I would like to see Samsung either move the fingerprint scanner to a spot below and away from the camera module (which would also make it easier to reach), or even better, integrate it into the power button on the side like Sony does.
Iris scanning first debuted on the Note7 and uses a dedicated iris sensor on the front of the phone with an infrared LED that works in conjunction with the front camera. The LED directs a beam of near-infrared light at your eyes and scans the pattern of your irises. Infrared light is used because it exposes the pattern of the iris much more clearly, making it easier for the sensor to capture it and, as an added bonus, means the iris scanner can work in the dark. It also means that glasses and contact lenses won't affect the beam. Once the image has been recorded, software translates the iris' pattern into code. This code is then compared against a record in search of a match.
Setting up the iris scanner is incredibly easy and is actually faster than setting up your fingerprints, but you'll have to remove your glasses to do so. Once everything is setup however, you can unlock your phone without taking your glasses off. When you unlock your phone, two circles will show up on screen. You're supposed to line up your eyes with these circles but I've found that just vaguely looking in the general direction of your phone will do the trick, and all it needs to do is catch one eye to unlock. The iris scanner is lightning fast, and is just as secure as the fingerprint scanner - you won't be able to fool it with a picture of your eyes.
A less secure, but even more convenient way of unlocking your phone is face recognition. It's a lot more low-tech, and simply compares the image from the front-facing camera with the one it has on file from when you setup facial recognition. Face recognition and Iris scanning can't be used at the same time and, unsurprisingly, face recognition can be fooled fairly easily with a picture placed at the right angle in front of the phone and, as such, Samsung won't let you use it for Samsung Pay or even your password-protected Secure Folder.
The Note8 runs on Android 7.1.1 Nougat with Samsung's Dream UX on top of it. Dream is a progression from Grace UX, which we saw on the Note7 and A7 (2017). If you haven't seen a Samsung phone in a while, you'll be in for a pleasant surprise as the software is both restrained and tasteful, with a simple home screen, and a small tray of app shortcuts. There's no icon for the app drawer by default (although you can add it back in the Settings menu) but if you swipe on the screen, it will load the app drawer. Swipe up again and you're back to the home screen.
Like Grace UX, there's a search bar in the app drawer and settings menu, so it's easy to find anything you need. Dig deeper into the settings and there are customization options for nearly everything, from the order and functionality of the on-screen buttons to themes, and settings for the always-on display.