The Galaxy S8 and plus-sized S8+ are absolutely brilliant smartphones. They're not without their flaws, but in everything from industrial design to internal hardware to software refinement, Samsung has knocked this one out of the park.
The Samsung Galaxy S8 is Samsung's first big phone launch after last year's Note7 disaster. It's a huge moment for the world's most popular smartphone manufacturer. For a lot of everyday smartphone buyers — the talkback radio listeners and tabloid newspaper readers of the world — Samsung is a tarnished name. The Galaxy S8 is the first, and potentially only, chance for the company to change that opinion.
What Is It?
The $1199 Samsung Galaxy S8 and $1349 Galaxy S8+ (or Plus, if you prefer) are the new kids in town, and they mean business. The smaller of the two, the 149x68x8mm S8 packs a 5.8-inch Super AMOLED display into its skinny body — itself barely taller than last year's S7, which only had a 5.1-inch screen. The 159x73x8.1mm S8+ has a huge 6.2-inch screen. Both achieve this with what Samsung calls its 'Infinity Display', with a significantly longer 18.5:9 ratio that's noticeably taller than the 16:9 widescreen displays we're already used to.
When you first hold the Galaxy S8 or the slightly elongated Galaxy S8+ in your hand, it's familiar — especially to anyone that's used a Galaxy S6 edge or S6 edge plus from 2015 or last year's S7 edge — but at the same time you quickly realise that something is different. So much of the front of the Galaxy S8 is screen.
Charging comes from USB Type-C down the bottom, there's still a headphone jack, and up top you'll see a unified SIM tray that holds a nanoSIM plus a slot for microSD expandable storage of up to 2TB — although, at the moment, only 256GB cards are available. The phone itself has 64GB of onboard storage, which should be plenty for most users, but having the option for removable storage is definitely preferable to not.
The first phones to use Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 10-nanometre processor internationally and Samsung's own Exynos 8895 10nm octa-core in Australia, the S8 is fast. Supremely fast. More CPU and GPU power than ever before makes for a phone that doesn't slow down during the complex tasks I tried out on it. Moreover, it'll support 1Gbps download speeds on Telstra's 4G network in Australia — in select CBD areas, at least.
What's It Good At?
The Galaxy S8 is an absolutely gorgeous piece of hardware. I genuinely think it's the most beautiful phone — the symphony of screen, cameras, and other user-facing gadgets and the metal and glass and paint that shroud and surround them — that has ever been built. In the week that I've been using it full time, I've had more than a few wow moments, from friends and family and even from a person that walked past when I was in a cafe. It's all screen on the front, apart from the tiniest top and bottom bezels that hide away the front-facing camera and iris scanner and other tech. There are side buttons for power and volume and Bixby. The rear of the phone is no more ostentatious than necessary, with a small camera bump and Samsung logo and little else.
That design is practical, too. A more refined curve of edge glass means that your fingers and palm won't register errant presses any more — it was a small issue on the Galaxy S7 edge. The rear glass means fast wireless charging is possible. There's no non-curved version of the Galaxy S8 this time around, but I don't particularly miss the flat display of the smaller 5.1-inch Galaxy S7 when it means having the ultra-tall, nearly bezel-less Infinity Display of the S8. In a phone that's less wide than the previous iteration and barely a centimetre taller (for both the S7 versus S8 and the S7 edge versus S8+), it packs a screen .7 inches larger in diagonal size. That's a huge difference, and frankly it makes any phone without its tall edge-to-edge display look a bit old and outdated.
The screen takes up a full 83 per cent of the front of the Galaxy S8, which is far and away the largest screen-to-body ratio of any phone that you can buy today. Put it next to an iPhone 7 Plus — a phone with the same height dimensions, as well as being wider and thicker — and the difference is night and day. We're talking a 6.2-inch screen versus a 5.5-inch one, and bezels versus... no bezels. It's stunning. It does present some minor usability issues, but they're ones that you quickly learn to live with. Everything that's not screen is hidden off to the side — or around the back, like the fingerprint sensor. This is a phone built for viewing and for touching. It's gratifying; it feels the closest of any phone to any of those thin-slice-of-glass sci-fi datapads we've seen in movies for years now.
The Infinity Display is better for watching widescreen video. It just is. You get the same screen size as a 5.5-inch 16:9 phone on the 6.2-inch 18.5:9 S8+ when you're watching the same 16:9 content, and if you want it to take up the entire screen you can just zoom. On cinematic content shot in 2.35:1 or 2.39:1 — we're talking your blockbuster movies like Star Wars: Rogue One — you can crop out any black bars that appear on a widescreen phone and have the entire display filled with video. And wow. It looks good. It is, by all accounts, an absolutely amazing display, either for a smartphone or for any display hands down.
While the rear camera stays the same as last year, which is a disappointment — more on that later — the autofocusing 8-megapixel front-facing camera is a significant upgrade from previous models. Having autofocus makes a big difference for the consistent sharpness of your selfies; where a fixed-focus camera had to be designed for a best guess — usually at the distance of an outstretched arm, I guess? — the front-facing camera now accurately snaps clear and detailed photos. As a general rule, I've hated front-facing cameras before this one, but I'm actually using it on the S8. As someone that doesn't really normally take selfies, this is a quantum leap for me. It's not a bad camera, and that's the biggest compliment I could give any forward-facing sensor.
Samsung continues to refine the software on every new flagship Galaxy phone, and that's true more than ever on the Galaxy S8. Taking heavy cues from the Grace UX of the ill-fated Note7, the S8's interface built on top of Android 7.0 is clean and — mostly — free of unnecessary fripperies. The launcher in particular, with its straightforward approach to app icons and folders and widgets, is finally a legitimate competitor to Google's own Pixel launcher. The move to on-screen buttons could have been jarring, but Samsung's use of a pressure-sensitive panel for the home button means that navigating the S8's interface feels normal and natural. It's not quite as awesome as 3D Touch on the iPhone 7, but it's getting there. As for other software tweaks, the active notification bubble that pops up while you're using the phone, and the extremely customisable always-on display — both are things I'll miss on iOS or other Android devices.
And yes, you have a wired headphone jack on the Galaxy S8 — and some surprisingly good AKG in-ear headphones thrown in the box as a nice extra. Charging is done over the same USB Type-C connector that the Galaxy Note7 introduced to the world, and it's fast — an 18-Watt fast charger and USB to Type-C cable are included in the box, as are adapters to bring content from your old phone and to use an existing microUSB cable with the S8's Type-C connector. You get 64GB of onboard storage — great! — and a microSD slot that can take another card up to 2TB — even better! and a surprisingly loud mono speaker in the base of the phone. It's as complete a hardware package as any 2017 flagship smartphone competitor out ther.
What's It Not Good At?
Samsung's choice to move the S8's fingerprint reader to the rear of the phone has an entirely rational reason behind it: there just isn't space for it on the front any more. But in moving it to the rear and to the left side of the camera and flash module, Samsung has made it more difficult to use than central readers like those on the LG G6 and Google Pixel. It's harder to reach with the forefinger of your right hand, which is the finger most people — I've asked around — use to unlock their rear-sensing phones. As a result, I use it a lot less than I did when it was on the front — it's not a huge deal since there are other biometrics in use like the iris scanner, but it's a frustrating stumble on an otherwise excellent design.
When it works, iris scanning is very effective. But to make it work, your face and eyes must be in a very specific orientation, around 25 to 35 centimetres from the S8's display. Occasionally I've caught myself staring at the top of my locked phone like a crazy person. As for the face scanning, I don't think it's unreasonable to say that I have a pretty generic face — I shave my head and I have a modest beard — but I couldn't make the S8's face recognition work reliably for me. Apparently you can fool it with a printed photo, but I couldn't do that either. All in all, the S8 has a swathe of biometrics at its disposal but none of them is as straightforward an implementation as the old-school clicky front button.
The Samsung Galaxy S8 takes some great photos. It has an excellent sensor and very competent image processing that draws out excellent colour with smooth gradients and generally good exposures — maybe a little overexposed by default, but that's really no surprise for a smartphone. But my complaint, again minor as it is, is that it's not a huge upgrade from last year's (yes, excellent) Galaxy S7. I was a little bit mystified to see the same sensor used in the Galaxy Note7, but to see it used again in the S8 is mystifying further.
As with the LG G6, you're buying into a bit of hardware in the Galaxy S8 that software hasn't quite caught up with. That 18.5:9 aspect ratio display is — in most of the apps that you'll use on it — a little bit wasted, with many video services and games stuck at that 16:9 widescreen ratio we've been using on phones for years. You can scale or crop some apps like YouTube, but it's an imperfect solution to the problem. When apps are built for the display itself or able to dynamically adjust, like Samsung's camera app or Google Photos or It's a bit like the difficult birth of USB-C — it'll get there in time, but things won't be absolutely perfect along the way.
At launch, Bixby is a little bit half-cooked. There's no 'Hello Bixby' voice control in Australia at launch, while the service gets localised for Aussie accents and software partners. If you short-press the S8's Bixby button you'll get a Google Now-style home screen with cards for your calendar, Facebook trending topics, S Health data and so on. It's good, but it's also redundant because Google Now already exists — why re-invent the wheel, Samsung? Bixby Vision, the augmented reality component, can pick out landmarks like the Opera House, but struggles with everyday items; powered by Pinterest, it makes some interesting guesses at cups of coffee and department store purchases. It's a boon that Google Assistant works out of the box on the S8 — and that's a very good thing. Just like on the Pixel and the G6, it works very well, and it's still the best voice assistant you can use on Android.
Battery life? Well, it's mediocre. It's OK. It's more than enough for a full day of work, with a reasonably bright screen and Wi-Fi and Bluetooth switched on and all the usual trimmings. It meets the standards that I expect any half-decent Android phone to meet in 2017. But, courtesy of that massive screen in a small body, the 3000mAh and 3500mAh cells in the S8 and S8+ respectively won't give you the two-day battery life of a phone with a larger battery and less bright screen like the Huawei Mate 9. It charges quickly over USB Type-C and also has wireless charging, so filling it back up is easy — you'll just have to do it on a regular basis.
And one small, final caveat: in the same way that massive phones aren't for some people, tall phones aren't going to be for some people either. Even with my reasonably large hands it can be hard to reach up to swipe down the notification menu when holding the S8+ one-handed. If you've got smaller hands, you might struggle even with the smaller S8. These phones have massive screens stuffed into slim, svelte bodies, but they're long screens and that requires you hold the phone a certain way to make everything accessible; you can't rest the bottom of the S8 against your pinkie finger and still reach the top.
Should You Buy It?