The brand new Samsung Galaxy S8, just introduced to the world at Unpacked in New York, is Samsung's best phone ever. It's the most powerful, with an innovative screen and a design that's incredibly refined. It has Bixby, a voice agent that wants to be just as useful and integral to your phone as touch already is. It has a new motion-sensitive Gear VR headset and works with a new high-resolution Gear 360 camera.
At the same time, there's no one standout feature or gimmick with the new phone from the world's largest phone maker that makes you go wow — after travelling the rocky road paved by the Galaxy Note7, Samsung is concentrating on getting the basics right with the S8 and larger S8+.
It's All About That Infinity Display
The crowning feature of the Galaxy S8, if there is one, is its edge-to-edge Infinity Display. On the Galaxy S8, a 5.8-inch display is squeezed into a phone chassis smaller than that of the Galaxy S7 (which had a 5.1-inch screen). The slightly larger Galaxy S8+ has a 6.2-inch display in a body smaller than the 5.5-inch S7 edge.
With a 18.5:9 aspect ratio, the Galaxy S8's display is significantly longer than the 16:9 display of the Galaxy S7 — and Samsung has minimised the top and bottom bezels of the phone to suit. That means the physical home button is gone, replaced by an on-screen home button that has a pressure-sensitive panel and haptic feedback quite similar to Apple's 3D Touch on the iPhone 6s and 7. The fingerprint reader remains, but it's moved around to the back of the phone alongside the camera module.
At the moment, most high-end phones from competitors have a screen-to-body ratio of around 75 per cent — the mid-range Galaxy A7, for example, is 73.5 per cent. The Galaxy S8's chief competition, the LG G6, has an 80 per cent screen-to-body ratio. The S8 and S8+, Samsung says, hit an 83 per cent ratio — making them the record holder for a phone with the smallest bezels on that front panel.
The S8 and S8+'s re-jigged ratio means the screen resolution is technically higher than last year's at 2960x1440 pixels. Both the smaller Galaxy S8 and larger Galaxy S8+ have curved edges on both sides of the screen glass, and include Samsung's Edge widget for quick-launching apps, reading news or flicking through contacts. There's no flat-screened model available this year.
Meet Bixby, A 'Voice Agent' Made By Samsung
Bixby is Samsung's attempt to compete with Google Assistant and Apple's Siri. Bixby is fundamentally a voice-controlled assistant that answer questions and respond to user input commands, but it also intends to be a lot more.
Phones are already very good at being controlled by touch and multi-touch input — it's what they've been built for since the original iPhone. If you want to be productive on a phone, it's easiest to have it in your hands while tapping away. Samsung's goal with Bixby is to replicate that ease of use and productivity with voice input — mixing voice and tap and text at the same time.
Bixby's tolerance for natural language fuzziness is good, Samsung says, making it possible to have more of a conversation with the Galaxy S8 than the simple question-and-answer response of Siri. Google Assistant already does contextual conversation well, but it's still new as well. Bixby will be able to make a best guess at incomplete text input, and will be able to half-complete a task — if you ask it to share your latest photo with Justin, it'll ask how you want to share it and which Justin to share that photo with.
Since there are over a million different points of input in any app when you take different buttons and text commands into account, apps need to be enabled for Bixby to have the full suite of voice input available to them. Samsung has a small range of first-party apps already Bixby enabled, and an API will let developers do the same for theirs.
At the moment, Bixby's voice features won't be available to Australians at launch — it needs to be localised for the Australian accent and tied into any potential local app partners and Samsung services.
As we hurtle towards the imminent launch of Samsung's not-really-very-secret-any-more Galaxy S8 at full speed, we're already learning more and more about one of the phone's most important features. Bixby, a new voice-controlled assistant that will replicate just about any command you could tap in with your fingers.
New Hardware Makes For A More Efficient Smartphone
Internally, the Galaxy S8 makes the same year-on-year update in processing power that previous Galaxy S flagships have on the models before them. Internationally the Galaxy S8 and S8+ will use Qualcomm's latest quad-core 10-nanometre Snapdragon 835 chipset but local models will use a 10nm Samsung Exynos 8895 octa-core, around 30 per cent more energy efficient than the S7 while producing faster test results. 4GB of RAM is standard, and 64GB of onboard storage for all variants rounds out the package.
The biggest change for everyday phone users is the Galaxy S8's switch to stereo speakers, with the phone's earpiece doubling as a second speaker for full-volume playback. Battery sizes are roughly on par with the previous generation of Galaxy S flagship phone — the big-screened S8 will have a 3000mAh internal nonremovable cell while the S8+ will have a 3500mAh one; the newer processors will mean battery life should be the same or better than last year's phones.
In terms of accessories, the usual slew of cases and covers will be sold alongside the phone. But it's two standalone devices that might tempt Galaxy S8 buyers to purchase a bundle of extras. A new Gear VR headset, still made by Oculus, that includes a motion-sensitive controller nearly identical to that of the Google Daydream, lets the Galaxy S8 (and other phones like the S7 Edge, S7 and Note 5 through a USB-C to microUSB adapter) play games and navigate menus far better than any Gear VR before it.
A new Gear 360 camera, too, is part of the wider Samsung Connect ecosystem. It records in a true 4K resolution this time — the entire wraparound 360-degree video resolution is 4096x2048 pixels — and has a form factor that makes it easier to hold than the original Gear 360. Each of the two lenses covers a 195-degree video arc, and for the first time you'll be able to broadcast live at 2K 360-degree resolution to YouTube, Facebook Live and Samsung's own VR platform.
Otherwise, The Basics Are Still The Same
Screen aside, you might largely recognise the same design elements that inspired the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy Note7 appearing on the Galaxy S8. The aluminium strip that runs around the perimeter of the handset is a bright finish now, but both the front and back of the phones are finished almost entirely with Samsung's own formula of smash- and scratch-resistant glass.
The same iris scanning biometrics that debuted on the Galaxy Note7 returns on the S8, along with face unlocking using the front camera. And the phone's fingerprint reader now lives on the back a la LG, Huawei and Google.
Samsung has previously sold its phones mainly on their strength as photographic tools, but the Galaxy S8 continues the trend set by the Galaxy Note7 in not really departing too far from the benchmark set by 2016's Galaxy S7. The same 12-megapixel dual-pixel autofocus sensor is there on the Galaxy S8, with the same f/1.7 OIS 27mm-equivalent wide-angle lens.
The front camera is significantly improved, both with a sensor resolution bump to 8 megapixels, and with the same f/1.7 22mm-equivalent wide-angle lens as the S7 but with autofocus and face detection added. That should significantly improve the front-facing camera's performance versus the fixed-focus design of the S7, which was designed to be held around arm's length for crisp photos but suffered close up or at distance.
In terms of the phone's buttons and ports, you've got a dedicated Bixby button underneath the left bezel's volume control, while power is on the right. Charging and data transfer comes from USB Type-C, there's still a headphone jack, and both the Galaxy S8 and S8+ have microSD card support for the currently largest available 256GB capacity and are IP68 water and dust resistant.
Pricing, Australian Availability And Release Dates
In Australia, we'll initially get the Midnight Black, Orchid Grey and Maple Gold versions of both the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ at launch. Other colour variants might be launched later, but they'll likely be exclusive to one carrier or only sold outright through Samsung.
The 5.8-inch Samsung Galaxy S8 — with that Infinity Display screen hiding in a body even smaller than last year's 5.1-inch Galaxy S7 — will set you back $1199 in Australia. The larger 6.2-inch Galaxy S8+ — again, in a body smaller than the 5.5-inch Galaxy S7 edge — will be $1349. For the phone's pricing on plans from Australia's major telcos, stay tuned until later today for those plans to be released by Telstra, Optus, Vodafone and Virgin Mobile. As a comparison, the Galaxy S7 was $1149 and the S7 edge was $1249.
In Australia, you can pre-order the S8 or S8+ through Samsung's website from March 31 until midnight on April 27, mere seconds before the Galaxy S8 actually goes on sale throughout the country on April 28.
If you do pre-order the Galaxy S8 or S8+ in Australia, you'll score yourself a few freebies. You'll get a free Gear VR headset with Samsung's first ever VR motion controller (worth $199) along with $50 of Oculus Store credit. Anyone pre-ordering their phone early, too, should get it delivered during the week of April 21, a week before the phone goes on sale in stores.
Less than 24 hours from now, Samsung will reveal the Galaxy S8 to the world at its Unpacked event in New York. We'll be live blogging from the event, but you should also watch along with the live stream — so here's where to find it.