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The iPhone X didn't topple the Galaxy Note 8

CNET logo CNET 9/14/2017 Jessica Dolcourt

James Martin/CNET © Provided by CNET James Martin/CNET Weeks before Apple announced the iPhone X, Samsung threw down its own top-tier challenge: the Galaxy Note 8.

Samsung's most feature-packed phone also introduces its first dual-camera setup, a pretty good portrait mode and the signature S Pen stylus found on every Note phone. It's an excellent device for power users who want to do everything they can do on a phone.

But the Note 8 largely plays it safe, blending last year's disaster-stricken Galaxy Note 7 and this past spring's Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus, with just that little camera bump to pop out from those other phones. That relatively small boost swung open the door for Apple to walk through. The iPhone X was Apple's chance to shine, and to win over people who at the end of the day don't really care if they have an iPhone or a Samsung phone; they just want the "best" phone that money can buy.

The thing is, Apple's iPhone X flagship plays it safe in its own way, too. Like the Note 8, it will compete most intensely against its own kin, the iPhone 8 and larger iPhone 8 Plus. All three new iPhones share the most important new goodies: wireless charging, a faster processor and upgraded slow motion. The iPhone X and iPhone 8 Plus both get enhanced portrait mode (in beta).

Really, the main iPhone X differences are that it's larger (not always a bonus), has a more colorful screen and OIS on both cameras, not just one. You can also take portraits with the front-facing camera. Oh yeah, and it's missing the home button, which could be a bonus (you unlock the phone with your face), but might also wind up being a hindrance (you can't seem to unlock it any other way). Attached to Face ID is a tiny feature called animoji, which -- you guessed it -- animates emojis modeled on your facial expressions. Like Samsung's Live Message GIFs, it's a little fun, but pretty frivolous.

In focusing on keeping the Note 8 battery from overheating like last year's Galaxy Note 7, Samsung missed an opportunity to bowl us over with innovation. Now that the iPhone X is out, it's clear that Apple has failed to do the same. The iPhone X might make some small gains over the iPhone 8 Plus, but it's far from being a clear knockout, especially if you've got qualms about giving up that home button.

The Galaxy Note 8 is without a doubt a tremendous phone, and the iPhone X has everything it needs to be the same. But is it so exciting you can't live without it? Well, we'll keep an open mind and let you know when we've had a chance to fully review the iPhone X. Apple could surprise us yet.

Just to make sure it's really clear: This is based on our Galaxy Note 8 and iPhone X specs -- it's far from our final say.

Portrait mode: Advantage, Apple

The Note 8 gets a second camera on the back long after Apple cemented the trend. The Note 8's portrait mode (called Live Focus here) has one cool extra compared to other phones. You can adjust the blur intensity both before or after the shot.

Both rear lenses on both phones gain OIS, or optical image stabilization. That'll help improve low-light shots and keep videos from shaking even if you are.

Apple's iPhone X adds a new mode that helps light up portraits to make them either more dramatic or more natural; your choice. In theory, that gives you much more control over the final outcome. (The iPhone 8 Plus gets this, too.) What the iPhone X also adds, and this is where it really stands out on paper, is portrait mode on the front-facing camera, too. The Note 8's selfie cam can't compete. 

We'll fully compare portrait modes when we get the two phones side by side.

AMOLED screens, 'no-bezel' design and wireless charging: A draw

Until the iPhone X came along, the Note 8 soared past the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus in details like a bright AMOLED screen, wireless charging, facial recognition, a superslim bezel and stylus support. (Apple caught up to Samsung's water resistance last year.)

With the iPhone X, Apple nearly obliterates the hardware gap. It doesn't support Apple Pencil, so it doesn't match the Note 8 that way, but it comes pretty close on everything else. In fact, it's widely known that Samsung made the iPhone X's OLED (also called AMOLED) screen.

Battery life will be one remaining question mark. In CNET's looping video test, Samsung phones traditionally last hours longer than the iPhone. Testing will tell.

Fingerprint ID vs. facial recognition: Too soon to call

You can unlock the Galaxy Note 8 with your fingerprint, iris scan or scan of your face. Or all three, if you'd like. But good luck reaching for the fingerprint reader all the way on the back and have fun lifting the phone to your face (and lifting your sunglasses on top of your head).

And facial recognition? It's easy to spoof and not even Samsung thinks it's very secure.

The iPhone X does away with the fingerprint reader and seems to morph iris scanning with facial recognition in Face ID. But it isn't clear if this is Apple's only option for unlocking the phone (you might be able to still add a pin), or even if it's beneficial. If facial scanning isn't absolutely perfect, and absolutely unhackable, the people will rage.

iPhone X could go far with AR

Samsung has a strong record with VR, but Apple is betting more on AR -- and initial demos with existing hardware look good. CEO Tim Cook crowed that iOS 11, the software that'll be preloaded on the next iPhones, will make the company's AR platform the largest, "overnight."

AR is the next big frontier for phones, and one that Samsung hasn't yet exploited. AR allows you to layer virtual objects on top of the real world, as seen through your phone screen, like mapping the sky around you and playing games in new ways. AR doesn't need a headset (the Note 8 requires a Samsung Gear VR).

Apple spent some time showing off demos on the iPhone X, but AR works with all three new iPhones. If developers make enough apps that use the feature, the iPhone X could create a richer virtual experience than the Note 8, though AR versus VR is probably one of the least important reasons why someone would choose the Note 8 over the iPhone X or the other way around.

The Note 8 and iPhone X are just too similar to their sibs

In a phone-eat-phone world, the iPhones and Galaxy phones are cannibals. 

The Note 8 could nibble away at S8 or S8 Plus sales (Samsung would make more money that way), though it's much more likely that buyers will opt for the cheaper Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus. The same goes for the iPhone X, iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus.

Samsung's problem is that with the exception of the second camera -- in other words, portrait mode -- and the S Pen, which is a specialized tool not everyone will want, the Galaxy Note 8 is pretty much the same phone as the S8 Plus.

In fact, the Note 8's screen is only a tenth of an inch larger (6.3 inches versus 6.2) and the core hardware and dimensions are very nearly the same. 

Apple has a similar problem, especially moving from the iPhone 8 Plus to the iPhone X (the iPhone 8 remains small enough to make it feel truly different).

For phones that creeps toward $1,000, £900 and AU$1,500, the Note 8 and iPhone X don't seem different enough to justify the price bump -- unless you intend to use the c**p out of every single bonus feature. 

They both have sky-high price tags

Samsung's Galaxy Note 8 hovers near $950, while the 64GB version of the iPhone X starts at $999 (there's a 256GB version, too). You can save serious cash by going for the Galaxy S8 or iPhone 8 instead. 

But this could be a developing trend. Depending on how much the next Pixel phone and LG V30 cost -- the two could wind up fitting right in with the cream of the smartphone crop.

True, there are a lot of "ifs" here, and we won't know for sure until we can fully test the iPhone X and compare it to the Note 8, and to the LG V30 and Pixel 2 as well. What is clear is that undecided phone owners looking for an upgrade have much to think about before they buy.

The definitive answers are coming soon.

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