Samsung is trying to move past last year's disastrous Galaxy Note 7 launch with a successor sporting a dual-lens camera, animated messages, expanded note-taking — and lower battery capacity.
The South Korean tech giant is no longer trying to squeeze more battery power into each phone. Last year's Note 7 was recalled after dozens spontaneously caught fire because of defective batteries.
Samsung responded by subjecting new phones to multiple inspections, including X-rays and stress tests at extreme temperatures. And it's giving the battery more physical protection, taking up room normally available for the charge.
Although the success of this past spring's Galaxy S8 phone suggests Samsung has recovered from the Note 7 debacle, which included bans and warnings on airline flights, any further mistakes could prove fatal.
“Here it is from the ashes, literally, a rebirth of this pretty iconic brand,” said Bob O'Donnell, a veteran consumer tech analyst at Technalysis Research.
The Galaxy Note 8 will go on sale Sept. 15, around the time Apple is expected to come out with new iPhones. Advance orders for the Note 8 begin Thursday.
Samsung didn't immediately give a price as it unveiled the phone Wednesday in New York. The price is likely to be at least $850, which would make the phone among the most expensive. The iPhone 7 starts at about $650 and the S8 at $750. Samsung's Note phones tend to be niche products aimed at people who use their phones more than the average consumer.
But O'Donnell said the Note 8 launch could boost interest in Samsung's mainstream phones.
“Having a halo product at the top of the line helps drive interest across the line,” he said. “The Note 8 will make more people aware of the S8.”
New and not new
The Note 8 phone offers significant improvements over the 2-year-old Note 5 device (Samsung skipped the Note 6).
But it will feel incremental next to the S8 phones, which already have one of the Note 8's signature features: an “infinity display” that maximizes screen size by reducing the frame, or bezel, surrounding the display. The Note 8's screen will measure 6.3 inches diagonally, up from the Note 7's 5.7 inches, without feeling much bigger.
The Note 8 also matches the S8 in offering the ability to unlock phones with iris patterns, free premium earbuds from Samsung's AKG brand and a slot for adding storage beyond the 64 gigabytes included.
Unlike the S8, the Note 8 will have two camera lenses on the back — one with twice the magnification — allowing for sharper close-ups. The Note 8 will match Apple's iPhone 7 Plus in using that second lens for software tricks that blur out the background in portrait shots. Samsung goes further in offering more tweaking capabilities after the shot, along with anti-shake technology in both lenses (in the iPhone, only the lens with regular magnification has it).
Samsung's Note line is notable for its stylus, which pops out of a slot in the phone. The new pen restores some of the hardware improvements introduced — then taken away — with the doomed Note 7.
The company is also bringing back popular features such as the ability to write notes on the phone's lock screen, much like a chalkboard. Samsung is expanding how much people can write — up to 100 screens full of notes, rather than just one.
It's also introducing the ability to handwrite text messages rather than just typing them. They are sent as animated GIF files, so friends without Note 8 phones can read them too. With Apple's Messages app, recipients must have iPhones or iPads with a recent software update for animation to work.
Samsung is taking a conservative approach to its battery, as it did with the S8 phones. Capacity is reduced by 6% to 3,300 milliampere hours, from 3,500 in the Note 7, in part because thicker walls and other safety measures take away room once devoted to the charge. Still, Samsung says the capacity is enough for all-day use, thanks to efficiencies from better software.
To boost confidence, Samsung is also seeking certification from an outside safety lab, UL.
Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, said the fact the S8 outsold last year's S7 shows that “consumers are well past the Note 7 issues. Consumers are a forgiving bunch, and as long as there aren't strings of issues, they quickly forgive and forget.”
Moorhead said Samsung's new Android phone represents its “best opportunity to gain market share from Apple as this is the first super-premium phone they've had for years.”
But it comes as Apple is expected to release its own super-premium phone for the iPhone's 10th anniversary. Apple hasn't said anything about it, though it's likely to make an announcement in the coming weeks. Carolina Milanesi, a mobile tech analyst with Creative Strategies, said high-end users tend to stick with the system they already have, whether that's iPhones or Android.