Which phablet is worth breaking the bank over?
September is the month for a big, big 8 – your pick of the just-shipped Samsung Galaxy Note 8 or Apple’s iPhone 8 Plus, which hits stores at the end of this week.
Based on our time with each phone and their respective spec sheets, both are pretty fab phablets. The Galaxy Note 8 extends the Galaxy S8’s design philosophy to a slightly larger display and packs in the S Pen stylus – and unlike last year’s Note, none of them have exploded (yet).
Meanwhile, the iPhone 8 Plus makes modest improvements and alterations to last year’s winning iPhone 7 Plus, which still ranks #3 on our list of the best smartphones in the world right now (as of this writing). However, it’s a bit overshadowed by the forthcoming iPhone X.
DESIGN: NOTE THIS
We could almost cut and paste the design showdown from our recent Galaxy Note 8 vs iPhone 7 Plus matchup, because the iPhone 8 Plus looks a hell of a lot like its predecessor. And the one before that. Oh, and the one before that too.
That’s true from the front, at least. Flip it over and – finally! – the iPhone 8 Plus has revived the glass-backing treatment. Yes, the old aluminum finish is gone, in favour of flashy glass that also unlocks wireless charging capabilities. It’s a slick upgrade, but otherwise the iPhone 8 Plus mostly looks and feels the same as before. We were already growing tired of the familiar look, plus the flashy iPhone X isn’t making the old approach seem any fresher.
And we’re just way more into the Galaxy Note 8’s look, really. Like the Galaxy S8, it’s almost all screen on the front, with minimal top and bottom bezel around the huge curved display. It’s striking stuff, and unlike what any other maker is putting out there right now.
Likely Winner: Samsung Galaxy Note 8
SCREEN: STILL SAMSUNG
Again, there’s not a big leap from the comparison to last year’s big iPhone – seeing a trend here? The iPhone 8 Plus again packs in a 5.5in LCD screen at 1080p resolution, and based on what we’ve seen briefly with our own eyes, it’s plenty bright, solidly crisp, and should please iPhone users. It’s certainly a heap better than the 750p iPhone 8 screen.
The one big new advantage is Apple’s True Tone tech, which comes over from iPad. It automatically adjusts colour levels based on your ambient lighting, and it looks really sharp. If those screens are any indication, the iPhone 8 Plus screen should really pop in everyday usage.
And yet the Galaxy Note 8 nudges out a win here. It’s a higher-resolution Quad HD display, and while it’s larger at 6.2in, that’s because it’s also taller – with an atypical 18.5:9 aspect ratio. That gives you more screen to play with, but without making the phone feel too wide or unmanageable.
Better yet, it’s another AMOLED stunner from Samsung, with excellent contrast, deep blacks, and now support for mobile HDR (high dynamic range) for apps such as Netflix and YouTube. Like the Galaxy S8 phones, it’s the best smartphone screen you’ll find right now. Well, until we properly test the iPhone X of course.
Likely winner: Samsung Galaxy Note 8
CAMERA: SNAP DECISION
The Galaxy Note 8 won the recent camera battle against last year’s iPhone 7 Plus when we pitched the two against each other, but that was a bit of an uneven fight given Apple’s year-old tech there. So, will the new iPhone 8 Plus fare any better?
Well, we’ll have to get back to you on that one once we’ve properly tested it. But here’s how it looks for now: the iPhone 8 Plus promises modest enhancements over last year’s phone. It has two 12-megapixel cameras on the back, one wide angle at f/1.8 aperture and the other telephoto at f/2.8. On paper, that’s the same as last year.
However, Apple now says the Portrait mode will work better than before, and there’s also the addition of the new Portrait Lighting feature, which lets you fiddle with the lighting around your subject with varied results.
On the other side, the Galaxy Note 8 also has two 12MP cameras: one f/1.7 main sensor and another at f/2.4. You can likewise do Portrait-style shots and optical zoom as on the iPhone.
Based on specs, these seem very similar in overall approach. We thought the Galaxy Note 8 had crisper shots than the iPhone 7 Plus, along with the added customisation with the Portrait photos, but the iPhone 8 Plus may well have matched Samsung’s advantages here – or surpassed them. We’ll update once we know for sure either way. For now, we’ll call it a draw.
Likely winner: Draw
PERFORMANCE: POWERED UP
Samsung’s Exynos 8895 chip powers the Galaxy Note 8 in some parts of the world, while the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 handles the load elsewhere – but in either case, it’s a total powerhouse. Add in 6GB RAM and you end up with one of the smoothest-running Android phones on the market today.
And yet it looks like Apple might have a commanding lead when it comes to raw specs. Last year’s A10 Fusion chip was pretty close to Samsung’s newer one in terms of benchmark testing, while the new A11 Bionic chip blows them both out of the water – or so it appears. And that’s with 3GB RAM in the iPhone 8 Plus.
If true, then the iPhone 8 Plus will have a lot more horsepower to work with, although common everyday tasks only require so much power on a smartphone. Both of these should be extremely swift with navigation and able to handle top games and apps with ease. But Apple’s extra power could reveal itself in time.
Likely winner: Apple iPhone 8 Plus
BATTERY AND PERKS: SO MANY PERKS
As mentioned above, wireless charging is one of the big benefits that the iPhone 8 Plus has over the iPhone 7 Plus, although it’s nothing special in this battle – the Note 8 has it too. Both phones can also handle fast charging, another new addition for the iPhone (finally).
When it comes to actual battery life, we can’t say for sure on the iPhone 8 Plus front yet. Apple says it’s about the same as the iPhone 7 Plus – it’s a slightly smaller cell within, but software and hardware optimisations apparently make up the difference.
We called the battle about even with the iPhone 7 Plus and the Note 8: both can last you till bedtime if you don’t push too hard, but if you’re rocking games and streaming media for hours, then you’ll probably need a top-up. Thank goodness for fast charging!
When it comes to storage, we see another upgrade on the Apple front, but still a weakness overall. The iPhone 8 Plus offers more starting storage than last year, with 64GB and 256GB models, but there’s still no option for expandable storage. The Note 8 comes with 64GB within, and then you can use microSD cards as you please.
The Galaxy Note 8 also packs in some bonuses that the iPhone can’t touch, such as Gear VR support, as well as the optional DeX Station dock for using your phone as the brain of a desktop-like computing experience. (Although not one that we rate particularly highly, as it stands). Also, the Note 8 has a headphone port, whereas Apple didn’t add that back with the iPhone 8 Plus.
Lastly, of course, the Galaxy Note 8 has the S Pen, which can add a nicely productive boost for power users. But in our review testing, we weren’t particularly moved by the addition. It’s useful, but given how much we command our phones with our fingers, will you really feel compelled to use it? We weren’t strongly swayed by it.
Likely Winner: Samsung Galaxy Note 8
INITIAL VERDICT: A CLOSER CALL
Assuming the iPhone 8 Plus really does just feel like an even better iPhone 7 Plus, then you really can’t lose here: both of these are big, spectacular handsets, and they’re both packed with modern tech, loads of power, and ample features.
The Galaxy Note 8 comes out ahead in some categories, mainly the design and screen quality, plus it has more perks. The iPhone 8 Plus seems to pack even more raw power, although you may not notice an advantage in daily use (we’ll see), and its camera setup should be about even with the Note 8 – although it could possibly come out ahead.
When we compared the Note 8 to the iPhone 7 Plus, the $200 difference between them helped push us to recommend Apple’s phone. The Galaxy Note 8 just feels like too much phone for a lot of people, and Samsung’s advantages aren’t critical.
In short: we suspect that we’ll still end up recommending the iPhone 8 Plus in this battle given the overall value and appeal of the handset, but with less distance in price, Samsung’s myriad perks might take the advantage. We’re not ready to call it yet, but check back soon and we’ll give you a final verdict once our iPhone 8 Plus review is all done and dusted.
Likely Winner: Draw