Last year, Samsung came agonizingly close to making the perfect smartphone. We called the Galaxy S7 “one of the most complete mobile packages we’d ever seen.” The Galaxy Note 7 was even better (and, at least temporarily, our favorite phone of 2016).
But, as you well know, the Note 7 was recalled due to battery fires. The incident was proof that, in life, some things are too good to be true. So, you’ll forgive me if I’m hesitant when using the Galaxy S8; I’m a little worried something might go terribly wrong.
The perfect smartphone doesn’t exist, much like there’s no such thing as the perfect chocolate chip cookie. But the Galaxy S8 is the closest thing to perfection yet. The design and engineering are impeccable, and the software is the best we’ve seen from Samsung.
In the wake of last year’s Note 7 fiasco, Samsung has raised a high bar for competitors to match, and finally makes smartphones exciting again. It’s just too bad the device is marred by a few bone-headed (but forgivable) decisions.
The best design on the market
Over the past few years, the mobile market has fallen in love with aluminum, to the point where even low-end devices are gorgeous metal slabs. But not Samsung. The company has stuck faithfully to a dual-glass design, which has been perfected with the Galaxy S8. You won’t find a more beautiful device anywhere.
Simply telling you the Galaxy S8 looks nice doesn’t really do it justice, and neither do pictures. You have to see and hold it for yourself to truly appreciate the phone’s subtle curves, slim bezels, and supreme polish.
The device’s highlight, of course, is the 5.8-inch “Infinity Display,” which takes up more than 80 percent of the front of the device. It features an unconventional 18.5:9 aspect ratio, allowing Samsung to fit a taller, narrower screen inside of a device that isn’t very big overall. The Galaxy S8 is only slightly taller than the iPhone 7, a handset that sports a decidedly smaller 4.7-inch display.
Like previous Samsung phones, the screen slopes on either side into a rigid, sturdy aluminum frame. The backside features a subtle curve, too, giving the device a continuous, completely smooth design that doesn’t feature any severe angles or sharp edges. I’m almost tempted to see how well it skips across water like a pebble. (Don’t worry, the device is water resistant.)
The slimmer bezels aren’t the only reason to love the Galaxy S8’s screen. Samsung says the display is Mobile HDR Premium certified, promising unrivaled color and contrast performance. In other words, video looks absolutely fantastic.
However, the display’s odd aspect ratio means you’ll be running into black bars. A lot. On YouTube, pretty much all video is set to “fit the screen,” which means black bars will be your new best friend. You can easily fill the display with video (with a few taps), though content will get cut off, which isn’t ideal. Some video—the trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, for example—will automatically adjust to fit the screen without ugly black bars. But that doesn’t happen often.
Black bars extend to some apps, too. Nothing an update from developers can’t fix. But a game as gorgeous as Monument Valley shouldn’t have to suffer the indignity of a neutered experience. (Ok, that’s hyperbolic, but you get the idea.) The experience isn’t reduced in any way; it’s just that most apps won’t be able to fully take advantage of the 18.5:9 display right out of the box.
The prevalence of black bars I can deal with; I had a harder time adjusting to the height of the S8’s display, which isn’t necessarily Samsung’s fault. Maybe it was just my brain struggling to accept that such a small form factor could be outfitted with a 5.8-inch screen. People with smaller hands (i.e. me) will likely find it difficult to reach the top while operating the device one-handed.
There is a “one-handed mode,” however, which makes operation easier. But if you value smaller screens—that’s different from small form factors—the S8 and S8 Plus aren’t for you.
Our only minor complaints we have with the S8’s design is two-fold: One, it collects fingerprints like there’s no tomorrow; two, it features a single down-facing speaker. If that’s the worst we can say, Samsung is doing pretty dang good.
Packed with technology
Whenever we talk about dream phones, we talk about features like wireless charging, groundbreaking biometrics, a great camera, and more. The Galaxy S8 packs in nearly every feature you could ask for. We talked about some of the things that make Samsung’s new flagship such a beast, but it goes even deeper than that.
The device is IP68-rated, which means it’s protected from immersion in up to 1.5 meters of water for up to half an hour. It also supports expandable memory, wireless and fast charging, and the bands necessary to support Gigabit LTE. It’s impressive how much technology is packed into such a well-engineered, beautiful device. No other phone on the market is as advanced.
The pièce de résistance is the phone’s Snapdragon 835 processor, which uses a 10nm process. The new chip provides a 40 percent decrease in power consumption, while also adding an increase in performance. In normal parlance, it means your phone will be more powerful without burning out quite as quickly as previous generations.
Unfortunately, due in part to last year’s Note 7 recall, the S8 sports a small-ish (for an Android phone of this size) 3,000mAh battery. The good news is Samsung claims the battery will degrade much more slowly than what’s come before.
After a year’s worth of charges, Samsung says the battery will still have an effective capacity of 95 percent. The S7’s battery would only have about 80 percent of effective capacity after a year of use, according to Samsung.
It remains to be seen how the S8’s battery will actually hold up long term, but I can say it’s more than enough to get you through a day of moderate use. Kick it in the butt a little harder, and you’ll likely reach for the charger before the day is over. Luckily, it juices up lickety-split thanks to Quick Charge technology.
There are also more biometric features than a James Bond gizmo: fingerprint, face scanning, and iris scanning. This is where the S8 begins to falter.
Due to the S8’s bezel-less screen, Samsung had to move the fingerprint sensor to the back. But instead of placing it below the camera, similar to the Pixel and LG G6, it was inexplicably placed next to it. Needless to say, you’ll be touching the camera’s lens a lot. A lens smudged with finger grease isn’t conducive to snapping photos.
Not only that, but the fingerprint sensor is difficult to reach, especially if you’re using the S8 Plus. I found myself simply not using it because it just isn’t conveniently placed. Folks who frequently use services such as Samsung Pay will find the sensor’s placement particularly exasperating.
Samsung carries over the Note 7’s iris scanner, too, which is the coolest biometric option of the three. Once you set it up, stare longingly at your device and that’s it. Unfortunately, it requires finesse and perfect placement in order to work, which means half the time it’s not much more convenient than a pin or swipe pattern. But it sure beats the face-scanning option, which I don’t recommend using.
During a briefing we had with Samsung ahead of the S8’s announcement, the face-scanning feature was great. Now, it hardly works at all. After a quick setup, it often told me no face could be detected. Last I checked, I’m not a vampire, so it ain’t my fault. Jon experienced the same issue while testing the S8 Plus.
Not that I’d choose to use the face-scanning feature in the first place. Samsung has already acknowledged it’s not as secure as using your fingerprint. And videos have shown the feature being fooled by pictures, which has me wondering why it was included in the first place. Perhaps a software update will improve the feature but, for now, it isn’t worth using.
Software you’ll want to use*
What is worth using is the S8’s software. Samsung has been pummeled in the past for its bloated, sluggish Android skin. But the S8 offers an experience you’ll actually enjoy. Since the Galaxy S6 hit, Samsung has been making a concerted effort to improve the look and feel of its software, and the S8 is the culmination of those efforts.
It goes beyond more elegant app icons, too. The font, for example, is immediately readable and eminently stylish. Samsung provides users with just enough customization options to make the software fun and personal, but not overwhelming. There’s even an option to rearrange the home, back, and multi-tasking buttons to Android’s default layout, much to the delight of pretty much everyone.
Then there’s the always-on display, which can be configured with different clock styles; you even have control over what content to show. These little flourishes add up to provide users with an experience that’s just as good as stock Android, and in some instances better.
The Settings menu is easy to navigate and search, while the app shortcuts in the notification tray are clean and endlessly customizable. One swipe down (or up) will launch the app drawer; another swipe will send you back to the home screen. And the Edge panel is always available via a visible table. Or you can disable the feature completely. Your call.
What I liked most about the Edge panels are the quick shortcuts to Smart Select, which makes taking screenshots and creating GIFs a cinch. Of course, these features should feel familiar to longtime Samsung users, having been available in previous devices.
The software home button, meanwhile, is a new concept for Samsung users. Because the physical home button is dead, Samsung has come up with a clever solution that makes the transition a breeze. Similar to Apple’s Force Touch, the software button is pressure-sensitive and provides haptic feedback when pressed. It can also be adjusted to be more or less sensitive depending on your preference.
Samsung’s attempts to improve its software has been an ongoing struggle over the past few years. The Galaxy S8 proves the company is capable of making smart, elegant software that gets out of its own way while providing users with useful additions. We knew it was possible. Now, Samsung is fulfilling its potential.
*Sadly, Bixby does not make a very positive first impression. For one, Bixby Voice isn’t available at launch. We’ve become accustomed to speaking to Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant, so the lack of voice features at launch is a big disappointment.
Luckily, Bixby has other talents, so the assistant isn’t completely useless. One of its main ingredients is known as Home, which can be summoned in one of two ways: Press the dedicated Bixby button twice, or swipe from left to right when you’re on the home screen.
If you’ve ever used Google Now, Bixby Home is pretty much a clone—albeit an inferior one. It’s essentially a place for useful widgets to live, from reminders to trending news to calendar events. It’s beautifully done and useful, and Samsung claims Bixby Home will continue to improve over time.
The last component is Bixby Vision, which utilizes Amazon’s visual search technology. The idea here is to simplify the process of finding products online, translating languages, identifying places, and more. It certainly sounds futuristic—when it works.
I can point at my Klean Kanteen water bottle and bring up similar products on Amazon. But it doesn’t always work. I have run into a few instances when Vision doesn’t pull up a product at all—an Anker battery, for example—and it’s prone to mis-identification. I suppose that’s the fault of Amazon’s vision search technology, and not Samsung. Still, Samsung is marketing the feature as homemade, so it reflects poorly on the company when it acts wonky.
The upshot is Bixby will only get better as time goes on. At the moment, it doesn’t feel anywhere near complete. It’s difficult to make a final judgment call since its voice features aren’t even available. Samsung announced it plans to launch Bixby Voice later in the spring.
A fantastic camera
For the past few years, Samsung phones have arguably offered the best cameras on the market—last year’s Galaxy S7 was one of the best. Although the S8’s main camera is still capped at 12 megapixels, the sensor is new which, combined with some software enhancements, results in a fantastic experience.
The Galaxy S8 doesn’t quite beat the Google Pixel in raw image quality, but I’d still choose Samsung’s flagship because it offers a superior experience overall. In addition to the 12-megapixel sensor, the device rocks an f/1.7 aperture, with phase detection autofocus and optical image stabilization.
As for the “software enhancements,” Samsung uses a feature known as multi-frame processing. Essentially, the feature captures multiple photos and then selects the clearest image, using the others to reduce motion blur. Additionally, Samsung claims the merged frames create photos with increased detail, particularly in low light.
What I always find so impressive about Samsung cameras is how quickly they operate. The S8 isn’t just fast to snap pictures, but focus, too. That makes a huge difference when a moment is sneaking away. If you have pets or small children, you’ll be thankful the handset’s camera is so zippy, almost to the point where it takes a picture before you’re done thinking about it.
Most of the time, you’ll be content to let the camera’s auto features do the work for you. But Samsung also offers a lot of pro features, so you can control exposure, white balance, etc. Even with such powerful features, the experience is always easy to grasp; bare-bones yet loaded with numerous ways to capture the world.
In addition to the improvements made to the S8’s main camera, Samsung found room to make the front-facing camera better. The resolution has been bumped up to 8 megapixels, while the camera now supports autofocus, promising to elevate your selfie game. Samsung includes some fun Snapchat-like effects as well, which people will certainly get a kick out of.
By all accounts, the Galaxy S8 is a hit among consumers, and signs point to it being the phone to beat—at least until the iPhone 8 is released. Samsung’s execution here is nearly flawless, and the design is the best we’ve ever seen.
But how will the device hold up over time? The Note 7 is still a painful memory, and people have a right to be concerned the S8 could suffer the same fate. After all, reports about Note 7 fires didn’t start popping up until the device had already been on the market for a few weeks.
Even if the S8 doesn’t face any major hardware problems, the device has its issues. The fingerprint sensor’s location is not great and battery life may be a concern for heavy lifters. Bixby, meanwhile, is nothing to write home about, though the software does show promise. The idea is there, but the execution is lacking.
Despite its few shortcomings, it’s hard not to love the Galaxy S8. I can’t help but marvel every time I pick it up. The Infinity Display looks unreal, and the software is a joy to use. It will be a while before we see a phone with such polish and refinement.
Ultimately, the Galaxy S8 is an emphatic response to critics and fans who lost faith in the company following last year’s Note 7 recall.
Disclaimer: Samsung sent TechnoBuffalo a review unit of the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8 Plus. Brandon tested the device for five days before beginning his review.
Photography by Ralph Llerenas