The Galaxy Note 8 runs a highly tweaked version of Android 7.1.1, but that’s no surprise. Aside from a handful of new add-ons, the software here is a dead ringer for what we got on the Galaxy S8 line. I’d argue that’s a good thing: Samsung polished up its custom interface dramatically this year, and it finally feels mature and well thought out. It will still be way, way too much for Android purists, but I’ve surprised myself by sometimes missing Samsung’s tweaks when I test other devices. (File that under: “Sentences I never thought I’d write.”)
I won’t call out every feature carried over from the S8 family, but it’s worth going over the highlights. Since there’s just no room for it, Samsung ditched the physical home button for a virtual one that you press on the screen; you’ll get a little jolt of haptic feedback to let you know you’ve done it right. Right of the box, the virtual home key takes just a little too much pressure to actuate, but it’s easy to fix this in settings. The old-school launcher button is gone too, so you’ll have to swipe up or down on a home screen to see all of your installed apps. More important, actually managing those apps is a lot easier. Long-pressing an app brings up a menu with options to quickly clear its notification badges, disable it or uninstall it entirely. It’s a minor touch, sure, but it makes wrangling ornery apps radically simpler.
The Note 8 also packs a few relatively new interface tricks that S8 owners got in a software update over the summer. See that little dot near the on-screen navigation keys? A quick double tap on that forces the navigation bar to hide off-screen; it takes a swipe up from the bottom of the screen to bring it back. It’s been handy for moments when I really wanted my apps to use every pixel of this enormous screen, but in general, I like my nav keys where I can see them. And since some apps don’t natively play nice with this long screen, the Note 8 will sometimes display a button you can “tap to fill the entire screen” to force things to fit.
Samsung’s Edge UX is back too, and as usual, it offers access to app shortcuts, favorite contacts, device maintenance tools and more. This is where you’ll find one of the few new additions to the mix: App Pair. The concept is simple: You can create a shortcut to two apps, and with a tap they’ll both launch in split-screen windows. There’s a little fun to be had in finding neat combinations of apps that work well together — I’m a fan of Spotify and Genius for lyrics running side by side — but it’s a moot point for people who never do any multi-window multitasking. Nice try, though.
Bixby isn’t going anywhere either, and, for better or worse, it essentially works as well here as it does on the S8 and S8 Plus. The Bixby Home experience, which lives in a panel to the left of your main home screen, did a fine job highlighting how many steps I had taken and what was up next on my calendar. Bixby Vision, which attempts to interpret whatever the camera is pointed at, remains hit-or-miss: it’ll identify bottles of wine and clearly marked products without trouble, but anything other than that feels like a crapshoot. In my experience, Bixby is also a reliable listener when you hold down its dedicated button to offer voice commands.
Here’s the problem, though: You can also activate the assistant with a friendly “Hi, Bixby,” but the Note 8 has been more prone to false positives than either of its predecessors was. In fact, as I write this sentence, Bixby came to life in a quiet office no less than four times, and I have no idea why. That was with the microphone sensitivity set to low, mind you; it’s seriously obnoxious and it shouldn’t be happening.