If you’re a smartphone company and your last major product caused fires and explosions and had to be removed from the market, you’d want to make sure your next big phone model really stands out and is an object of desire. Samsung did exactly that with the new Galaxy S8, which goes on sale this week for the very hefty starting price of $750 at most US carriers ($720 at Verizon).
The S8 is a fast, versatile phone with fine cameras. But by far its biggest benefit is this: it fits a big screen into a surprisingly small, comfortable-to-hold, easy-to-carry body. And the end result is a visual and tactile triumph.
There are some trade-offs that result from this design feat. And there are some unrelated aspects of the S8 that I found wanting in several days of testing. But I have never before held a phone that delivered so much screen in such a comfortable, beautiful way.
As with every new smartphone, especially premium models and especially Samsung’s (which often seem to have lots of wacky software), there are many, many features packed in behind the S8’s vivid 5.8-inch screen. But most of them are either variations of old ideas, or catch-ups to competitors.
So, I’m going to limit this column to the highlights of the S8, the things I believe most of you will want to know, and which I stressed in my testing over the past few days. I’m also omitting the bigger model, the S8 Plus, which I didn’t test. For more deep details, I happily direct you to my colleague Dan Seifert's deep-dive review, here.
We all know that many consumers seem to like smartphone screens so big they were once laughed at. Big screens helped propel Samsung to top-tier prominence, and helped iPhone sales explode a few years later. But for many, including myself, the biggest-screen models just weren’t practical because their overall size made them too large, too bulky, and too heavy.
Samsung has drastically altered the rule that big screens mean huge phones. Even this smaller of the new Galaxy S models has a larger screen than the biggest iPhone, but it’s much narrower and easier to hold and to slip into a pocket. Samsung achieved this in three ways. First, it vastly shrunk the bezels. Secondly, using curved glass, it gave the screen useful territory right up to the edge, where it seems to melt into the body of the phone.
But, more importantly, it changed the aspect ratio of the screen and the dimensions of the body to make them taller and narrower. This makes the phone much easier to handle.
Samsung has drastically altered the rule that big screens mean huge phones
Samsung says the S8 has 36 percent more viewing area than last year’s Galaxy S7, and that the screen covers 83 percent of the front of the phone. That means you can see longer lists of items and more of a webpage or document.
To compensate for the thin bezels, Samsung joined most other Android phone makers in ditching the physical home button and replaced it with an icon, which can sometimes even be hidden, but which (as on the iPhone 7) has a tactile response built in to make it feel like you’re pressing a button.
The downside is that the phone is taller than standard-shaped models like the iPhone 7 and the Google Pixel and pokes out of some pockets and purse compartments which entirely contain those other models.
A more serious downside is that, in one-handed use, the screen is now so tall that it can be impossible in one-handed mode to easily reach the notification shade or the top rows of icons. So, Samsung has a feature you can engage that shrinks the whole screen image to a shrunken vestige of itself. This makes reaching easy, but it also makes everything look tiny and ugly. I prefer Apple’s technique of just moving down the top of the screen image, at full size, if you find something hard to reach.
Also, a surprising number of popular apps, like Netflix and Dark Sky and Pocket, don’t fully fill the new elongated screen unless you press an icon on them.
I wasn’t surprised to find Samsung’s OLED screen to be bright, vivid, and clear. It’s beautiful, although in viewing some photos and videos, I found, as I have in the past, that — to my eye at least — Samsung tends to oversaturate colors.
It was a battery problem in the exploding Samsung Galaxy Note 7 which caused all the trouble last year. So, Samsung chose not to increase the size of the batteries in this year’s S model, even though the screens are larger.
Nevertheless, in my tests, I found the battery life to be good enough to last a full day at 75 percent brightness. For instance, on one day, I streamed two movies and a TV show from Netflix, did a bunch of photo and video shooting, placed a few phone calls, and did email, texting, and social media posting and reading. The battery lasted about 10 hours. As it was a Saturday, the phone wasn’t receiving nearly the typical weekday volume of emails, texts, tweets, and Facebook posts. But I still think that, for most people who aren’t likely to be watching all that video on a work day, the S8 would get them through the day.
In both indoor and outdoor scenarios, the S8’s rear camera — largely unchanged from last year — took really good pictures and videos. However, in my judgement, the Google Pixel, with which I compared it shot for shot, took slightly better pictures and videos. The color and detail on shots of flowers and a dogwood tree, whether from afar or up close, were just a little truer and sharper from the Pixel’s camera. In one indoor shot of a stuffed figure propped next to a plant, the S8 camera back-focused on the plant. The Pixel focused on the figure and had much better results.
You won’t be unhappy at all with the S8’s rear camera, but I can’t call it the best on the market — even the Android market.
As for the front camera, it’s got a bit higher 8-megapixel rating this year and sports autofocus. It beat the Pixel’s front camera at selfies in my test, but not by much.
Though the S8, like all premium Samsung phones, runs Android with the basic Google suite of apps, Samsung keeps trying to duplicate Android functions with its own software. It wants to be a software platform like its rival Apple, but it uses someone else’s operating system and core apps. Awkward.
This year, the main example of that is something called Bixby, a built-in assistant that supposedly distinguishes itself by focusing on managing the tasks on the phone, as opposed to knowing things going on in the wider world.
However, the voice part of Bixby isn’t even shipping and Samsung says it won’t be available till later this spring. For now, Bixby (which has its own dedicated key) mainly is a collection of information cards that look like what Android and iOS offer. Far from being focused on phone tasks, it shows me things like what's trending on Twitter and Facebook, calendar items, reminders, news, and sports.
I am totally unimpressed with Bixby — at least for now
But I am totally unimpressed with Bixby — at least for now. For one thing, the S8 also has Google Assistant, and it, too, can manage things on your phone. For instance, Google Assistant on the S8 had no trouble launching multiple apps, finding me photos of specific items in my photo library, telling me the next item on my calendar, or playing a song.
The one kind of cool part of Bixby is when you press an icon while using the camera, it can identify and even help you shop for objects the lens sees. This is not a new thing — it’s been on the Amazon iPhone app forever — but it did mostly work. For instance, it easily identified a box of Kleenex and a package of Twizzlers. (Ironically, it had more trouble with a Samsung-branded Chromebook.) This feels like one of those tech features that demos well but isn’t used much.
Maybe the voice part of Bixby, when it arrives, will blow us all away. But, based on what I’ve seen so far, I wouldn't buy the S8 to get Bixby.
In my tests, the Galaxy S8 had the least reliable, most frustrating, biometric security measures I’ve ever tested. The fingerprint sensor has been moved to a high, awkward position on the rear of the phone, and I found that it constantly failed to recognize either of my two index fingers. Even enrolling the fingers was slow and jerky.
Facial recognition, in addition to being relatively insecure according to Samsung, also failed almost all the time for me. And the same was true for a more secure method, Iris recognition, which was slow even in the minority of times it worked.
The result: I wound up typing in a pin almost all the time.
I also found the Samsung keyboard and accompanying Bixby dictation to be far worse than their standard Android counterparts.
The S8 has three kinds of biometric security. None of them worked for me
And then there was the bloatware. Samsung has cut way back on its once laughably complex settings menus and some other features of its Android skin. But it still thinks it’s a software company. So, on my test unit, there was a passel of unnecessary, duplicative Samsung software, and another folder chock full of bloatware from the carrier, T-Mobile.
I much prefer the clean experiences on my iPhone and Pixel. So does everyone I know, Maybe it’s finally time for Samsung to emulate Apple and use its brand power to bar preinstalled carrier software. Maybe it’s also time for Samsung to either get fabulous at its own software or stop trying.
If you have $750 or so lying around (or enough for the installment plans) and like a big screen, the Galaxy S8 is a great choice. You’ll get a beautiful design, a wonderful feel in the hand, a fine camera, good battery life, and a great display. Just don’t count on any revolutionary new features.