The Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus were announced today, as were new versions of the Gear 360, an updated Gear VR with a motion controller, and a competitor to Siri and Google Assistant. Months of leaks mean we had a pretty good handle on what basically all of Samsung’s new flagships and other announcements would look like. But now we finally have the full picture.
The new phones are the obvious highlight. (They start at $720 and will be available for preorder starting March 30th, by the way.) But phones these days are more than just phones, and Samsung’s spent the last few years really building out the “galaxy” (get it?) of products and services that work with its flagships. That means much of Samsung’s event was spent talking about other things like virtual reality, or Bixby, Samsung’s new digital assistant, and even DeX, the new computer crossover dock.
That’s a lot! So here are the biggest takeaways from today’s event.
The screens on the new S8 and S8 Plus are what stand out the most, even if you’re just looking at images on a laptop, so let’s start there. They’re huge compared to what we’ve gotten used to over the last few years — 5.8 inches and 6.2 inches, respectively — and they stretch almost completely to the edges of each device.
But what’s impressive about their size is that Samsung fit the new screens into bodies that aren’t much bigger than what premium smartphone owners have become accustomed to. The S8, for example, is smaller than an S7 Edge but not much bigger than an iPhone 7 — despite the fact that it has a bigger screen than both of those phones. The screens also come in an unfamiliar aspect ratio, 18.5:9. The company explained that it plans to use this to automatically stretch 21:9 content (like movies), and that it should help enhance the multitasking experience in Android 7.0 Nougat.
Stretching the screens means that Samsung had to make a choice about what to do with the physical home button. In short, it’s gone. The (mostly standard) Android software buttons remain, but without a physical home button, Samsung made a section of the bottom of the screen pressure-sensitive.
Samsung calls this the “invisible home button,” but the bottom line is the phone uses haptic feedback to simulate the feeling of pressing a real button, similar to what Apple does with Force Touch on the latest iPhones.
This change means that the fingerprint reader has been moved to the back. It’s not in the center, like on the Nexus 5X and 6P or the Google Pixel. Instead, it’s up near the camera module, meaning it’ll be a stretch for some users — especially with the bigger S8 Plus.
Samsung’s not the first company to push for a bezel-less phone, but it’s now one of the highest profile to make an attempt. If this is really the future of smartphone design, the S8 will be remembered as one of those pioneering devices.
The camera is one thing that Samsung didn’t change much from the S7. The S8 phones have the same 12-megapixel sensor camera with optical image stabilization on the back, while the front camera gets a bump up from 5 to 8 megapixels. Otherwise, there’s no spec bumps and no dual-camera trickery. The Galaxy S7 had a fantastic camera — in some settings, it was the best on the market — and so Samsung is letting it ride for another year.
One thing Samsung says it has changed with the camera can be found under the hood. The S8’s camera will be able to take multiple shots at basically the same time, and it will combine the best parts of each image. That sounds awfully similar to the Google Pixel’s HDR+ mode, so if it’s even half as good, that’s a welcome addition.
And one other small but notable difference is that, with no home button, Samsung moved the camera shortcut to the power button. I have my reservations on whether that will be as good, but our own Dieter Bohn seems to like it.
By now, you probably know the ballad of the Galaxy Note 7. It was one of the most promising devices of the last few years, and then shortly after its release, a number of the smartphones started randomly catching fire and outright exploding. Samsung’s replacements also caught fire, and so the company recalled the device completely.
What this means for the S8 is that the batteries aren’t boundary-pushing. The S8 has a 3,000mAh battery, and the S8 Plus has a 3,500mAh version — the same size that was found in the Note 7. Samsung has a lot to say about how its improved safety testing process in this feature that Dan Seifert wrote about the new phones, so if you’re curious (or still worried), that’s a good place to start. The point is these phones should last through your typical day, nothing more.
Here’s the most important thing you need to know about Bixby: Samsung has enough faith in the new digital assistant that Bixby gets its own physical button on the new phones. That’s commitment to an idea.
In some ways, Bixby sounds not all too different from other digital assistants. You can ask it to set an alarm or a reminder, for example. But Samsung is promising that “anything you can control with touch, you can also control with voice,” which is a big bet. Ten Samsung apps will support Bixby’s deep voice controls at launch, allowing users to do things like rotate a photo with their voice. Beyond that, Samsung needs developers to write apps that specifically support Bixby.
Bixby also shows up in the camera app, where it offers some augmented reality features. But all we know that it can do here is identify objects and generate a “buy” link. Whether or not Samsung will come up with a more useful take on augmented reality remains to be seen.
Samsung’s Bixby is up against some tough competition in Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana. Bixby looks like it could be different enough, but we won’t know for sure until we spend some more time with the new phones.
Samsung’s new Gear 360 has just about everything you’d want in an upgrade. It shoots an actual 4K image. It can now live stream. Maybe most importantly, Samsung expanded the compatibility, meaning you can use the new camera with other phones — namely, the iPhone.
What we didn’t hear from Samsung is when it will be available, or for how much. We also don’t know whether the company figured out a way to speed up the file transfers, or the time required to process and stitch the footage. And while the new design — which is admittedly adorable — is supposed to make the device more approachable, it also runs the risk of encouraging people to shoot 360 video handheld. That’s not good.
Announced last month at Mobile World Congress, Samsung officially introduced the new(ish) Gear VR, which mostly just got a fresh coat of paint. The more exciting part of the announcement is the motion controller. Following in the steps of Google’s mobile VR headset, Daydream, the controller has a touch-sensitive trackpad, a trigger, and a few other buttons.
Our first impression of the controller wasn’t particularly flattering, but it’s a step in the right direction. It will sold bundled with the refreshed Gear VR for $129, and it will be sold separately for existing users for $39. It will hopefully enhance the Gear VR experience while also inspiring developers to try to push what the mobile VR rig is capable of.
Samsung and Oculus also announced a brand-new home screen for the Gear VR. It’s supposed to be faster and look better, which is nice. It’s also far simpler — which is so welcome — and it adds the customizable avatars that Oculus announced for the Rift last fall. There’s also now a VR web browser available, so get ready to kick back on the couch and beam your favorite websites right to your eyeballs.
DeX is a dock for the S8 and S8 Plus that can turn any monitor into a PC-like experience. Sound familiar? It’s another idea that’s been tried before, notably by Motorola and Microsoft, but it’s never really lived up to the promise.
The DeX dock supports monitor connection over HDMI, and allows for a keyboard, mouse, and two USB ports. There’s even a cooling fan inside to keep the Galaxy S8 from overheating it. The whole thing is powered by USB-C.
Samsung’s take isn’t all that different from its predecessors. It’s still basically just mobile apps running on a bigger window, and because of that, you’re stuck dealing with all the trappings of mobile apps. For instance, the phone doesn’t hold the apps or app windows in place if you unplug the phone from the dock and plug it back in.
Like other leading smartphones, the S8 and S8 Plus have fantastic processors inside. It’s understandable why Samsung would want to try to push the capabilities of those chips by extending the phone beyond its hardware. But again, Samsung has to prove that DeX is worth the customer’s money — whatever the dock winds up costing.