Since the underwhelming launch of the iPhone 7 in 2016, the world has been waiting for what analysts called a “supercycle” in 2017, where Apple was set to launch a litany of new products, including a new, redesigned flagship iPhone.
That more or less came to pass, with Apple releasing the iPhone X (as well as the iPhone 8, for some reason), new MacBooks, iPads, Macs, watches, and TVs to great media fanfare. And while there were legitimate complaints to be made about many of the devices (the computers are missing ports, the iPads definitely aren’t computers, the watches are niche products), Apple had an excellent year, returning to revenue growth, and selling some 216 million iPhones in the process.
But the iPhone X, which Apple has referred to as “the future” of the iPhone, didn’t feel particularly futuristic when I tested it. It was expensive, featured a very buggy operating system, and forced me to change the way I’ve used smartphones for years for no particularly good reason. It has some positives—the large, sharp display and the truly excellent camera chief among them—but for all the hullabaloo around the phone, it didn’t feel like a device that was head-and-shoulders above the competition, as Apple’s phones have been so clearly in the past. In fact, I found the two flagship devices Samsung released this year—the Galaxy S8 and Note 8—much more compelling.
Here’s a quick rundown of what made the Note 8 stand out where the iPhone X didn’t:
It still has a “home button” (even though there’s no physical button). The Note 8 has a massive screen that takes up most of the front of the phone, like the iPhone X, but Samsung still kept an on-screen home button that’s in the same place the home button has been on all its devices. This is likely partially due to the Android design, but Apple’s replacement of its home button with awkward swiping continues to frustrate me nearly a month into owning the iPhone X. Samsung’s device still has a massive display, and doesn’t force its users to change their behavior.
It still has a headphone jack, even though it’s water-resistant. One of Apple’s arguments for removing the headphone jack when it launched the iPhone 7 was that it made it easier to make the phone water resistant, as there were fewer holes that needed to be sealed. That may be true, but Samsung, and other manufacturers, figured out how to do it without removing one of the oldest electronics standards still in use.
It has a similar display as the iPhone X, but bigger. The OLED display for the iPhone is made by Samsung, and is quite similar to the one for the Note 8, although it is arguably sharper. But the Note 8’s screen is no slouch, and it’s absolutely massive: The 6.3-inch screen (compared to the X’s 5.8-inch screen) feels like holding a widescreen TV in your hands. If you can hold this thing with ease, it’s simply the largest, best screen you can carry around with you.
USB-C is the new standard. Apple has sort of agreed as much by replacing all the ports on its MacBooks with USB-C ports. USB-C cables can throughput more data than standard USB cables (and can be inserted in any direction). But then, the iPhone X still uses its own proprietary Lightning cable to charge. I can charge my Mac and a Note 8 with the same cable—it would be nice if I could do the same with my iPhone.
Excellent camera, similar features. The iPhone X has my favorite cameras of any smartphone I’ve used this year, but the Note 8, along with the Google Pixel 2 XL, were close seconds. Like the X, the Note 8 features two rear-facing cameras, which allow it to create impressive portrait shots with shallow depth of field that look like they were taken on a professional camera. Other than the bizarre stage-lighting camera modes Apple recently introduced, Samsung’s newest phone cameras can do just about everything an iPhone’s can.
The S Pen is occasionally very useful. It might seem pretty gimmicky, but there are definitely times where the Note 8’s included stylus actually comes in handy. Writing quick notes on the lock screen, adding captions to photos to post on Twitter, or even signing documents are all much easier to do with the giant screen of the Note 8 and the stylus.
The always-on screen for time and notifications is great. Apple and Samsung use similar displays on their devices, but only Samsung chooses to display information when the screen is locked. The Note 8 has a white clock and notification badges that requires almost no power to display, as the vast majority of the pixels on the screen are still off in this mode. It’s the same way it handles taking notes on the lock screen, and it’s just downright useful.
Google Assistant works much better than Siri. Even though Siri was the first voice assistant to be included in a smartphone’s operating system, she’s still pretty terrible at understanding what we ask her, or giving us useful information. Google Assistant, on the other hand, is about as useful as Google itself. (But let’s not mention Samsung’s Bixby, which is also on the phone, and also pretty useless.)
Many of these features also apply to the Galaxy S8. It’s a list of a lot of little things, many of which Apple will likely emulate in the future, but to me, it was off-putting enough to find Apple playing catch-up to Samsung this year. Apple continues to hint that the X is just the start of a reinvention of the iPhone, so perhaps we’re in store for a device in the near future that feels as revolutionary as the original iPhone did 10 years ago. But if you’re considering which phone to get right now, the answer should probably be a Samsung.
The Quartz review of the Samsung Note 8
The Quartz review of the iPhone X