For a little over two years, I've been using a Samsung Galaxy S6. I only had that phone because my beloved Nokia Icon bit the dust (or a rock in the dust) and shattered its screen entirely. I loved my Windows phone, but at the time there were no more comparable models; to change to any other windows phone felt like a backslide and Verizon had already stopped selling the Icon. So I knuckled up and took whatever deal there was on the S6.
How is that relevant to the Note 8, you ask? It sets the stage for my love-hate relationship with Samsung products. I had over two years with my S6 and nearly 5 with Verizon as my carrier. That phone came loaded with so much bloatware that I was frustrated with it throughout. But when my S6 finally started to fade, it was time to look for something else, and once more I find myself with a Samsung.
One thing that Samsung does is take the initial Android OS and then replace all the most-used applications with its own design. This includes the Launcher (which gets replaced with TouchWiz), the Messenger client, the Phone, Contacts, Calendar apps, etc. Sometimes the Samsung way is cool, or at least as good as the default; sometimes it is not. On my old S6, you could disable (not uninstall, but at least minimize the footprint of and hide) most of the Samsung apps. The same was true for the built-in Verizon bullshit; I really don't need the NFL app, folks. Sorry, not a football fan.
With the Note 8, you can no longer disable the bloat. The option has been grayed out and won't let you select it for many of the applications. This was my first bit of annoyance with the new product.
It is Android, so even if you can't disable some of the default apps you can at least replace them. I quickly downloaded the Google Now launcher and replaced the TouchWiz interface. While installing this removed all the items from my home screen and forced me to set up my icons again, it was still a vast improvement. With TouchWiz, the app launcher would re-arrange my pages of apps as it felt I should see them, constantly. With Google Now, at least they're alphabetical and have some logic to them.
Bixby vs Cortana vs Google Assistant
Here's another arena where Samsung has entered the fray in a way that I feel was unnecessary: the virtual assistant. With the Note 8, Samsung has pre-loaded their own virtual assistant and named it Bixby. Where they came up with this name, I have no idea. It's a little awkward on the tongue.
Bixby is enabled by default and there are several ways you can access her. You can swipe to the right and enter the Bixby Home screen; you can press the Bixby button located beneath the Volume keys on the side of the phone; or after you've gone through the setup you can say, "Hi Bixby," or related phrases.
All of this might be cool if Bixby worked.
For ten minutes I went through the tutorials to train Bixby to recognize my commands. The software has you say a number of phrases, sometimes repetitively, so that it can learn your unique speech patterns and how you say certain words. This was an extremely frustrating experience. The program constantly failed to recognize I was speaking or would complain that it could not hear me, yet my husband across the room said I was loud.
The Bixby button is also dedicated only to Bixby. Previously you could reassign it to other useful functions, usually using third-party apps that would intercept the command, but Samsung has since fixed that "flaw." Now your choice is to use the Bixby button for Bixby, or just disable it.
I put Cortana in next. I use this feature on my Windows PC from time to time and she's usually working pretty well. I've found, though, that on Android she's slow to respond. At least Cortana could hear my voice and recognize my commands.
Of all the virtual assistants, though, the new Google Assistant performed the best. It's no surprise that the one built by the OS makers would be the snappiest. I've got this one enabled for now, and I might write a full comparison of the three later.
Phenomenal. Bright, clear, and full of features, the Samsung display is great. It defaults to full HD, but there's a slider that allows you to take the device to 4k in a few clicks. While the Note is certainly taller than the standard Galaxy S series, it maintains the standard aspect ratio and will still use the entire screen for full-screen video.
The screen itself is full of other tricks. Samsung uses the edge of the screen to allow for a second menu. You can drag over from the right edge and have a number of other features available at your fingertips; I currently have mine set to my calendar.
You can take a look at this article for some other tips and tricks.
Here's another area that Samsung has made some great improvements. My Galaxy S6 (which was still better than the abysmal S5) had an atrocious battery life and I'd end up charging it 2-3 times per day. So far, I've been quite pleased with the Note 8's battery. It is charged with the new USB-C chargers, but luckily the phone comes with converters so I do no need to buy a new car charger. It also still works with my old Samsung charging pad.
So far, it seems to be a good, solid piece of hardware. I'm working around the software quirks, but I'm hopeful. I'll keep you all updated on how it goes.