With the exploding Note7 battery fiasco, Samsung inadvertently did something that's increasingly difficult these days: It made smartphones interesting for a flickering moment. Super interesting, in fact. Besides the intrigue of the mournful saga of Note7, whose embarrassing recall cost the company billions, Samsung also set up a dramatic release narrative for the Galaxy S8. This wasn't just another smartphone -- this was a make-or-break device charged with saving a company in the throes of an existential crisis. A smartphone that screams at the void -- yikes!
All product photos: Alex Cranz/Gizmodo
With the stakes high, Samsung has delivered a device that legitimately stands out from the rest. The $1199 Galaxy S8 is a good enough phone that Samsung can likely leave that Note7 drama behind. (Though, you know, we're still waiting to see what unfortunate cataclysm will befall the S8 now.) Ultimately, what makes the S8 a winner isn't any of the assistant smart features that manufacturers have been pushing hard over the last few years -- in fact Samsung's entrant here, Bixby, falls short. The S8 wins with an industry-leading hardware design that challenges the iPhone's aesthetic supremacy.
The Pixel (right) always looked dorky with it's home button free bezel, but it looks even worse next to the micro-bezel on the S8+ (left).
If you buy the Galaxy S8, you're buying it because it's the most beautiful phone available. While it falls short of being completely bezel-less, it might as well be. Though LG released a similarly bezel-less device earlier this year, it suffered from an excess of simplicity.
The S8+ (left) versus last year's S7 Edge (right).
The design is a huge leap forward for Samsung, which has been inching in this direction for years with its edge display devices. This thing is practically all display on the front -- Samsung even got rid of its physical home button. The phone's gently rounded edges and curves create the effect of a display that's simply floating in the air or hovering just above your hand. There are no jarring interruptions to the minimal design. It feels like you're looking at a phone from the future, rather than a tired rehash of a winning design from the past -- unsurprisingly, Apple is reportedly considering a similar look on its forthcoming iPhone.
The S8 comes in two display sizes -- a 5.8-inch Galaxy S8 ($1199), and the 6.2-inch S8+ ($1349). I tested the S8+, but the only difference between the two devices is size and price. Those display sizes make it difficult to compare them to other devices.
Both S8s have an 18.5:9 aspect ratio, as opposed the more traditional 16:9 shape. Consequently the S8+ is a little thicker and taller than the iPhone 7 Plus, as well as very slightly narrower. Nitpicking aside, they're basically the same size:
The S8+ and iPhone 7 Plus (bottom).
There's been some debate about the merits of the new 18.5:9 aspect ratio (LG, again, did something similar this year, too). Most of the content you will view on websites, Netflix, Hulu, and so on, is 16:9 so it fills up the entirety of devices like the iPhone. Meanwhile, watch the same content on the S8, and the picture will be surrounded by black bars. It feels wasteful, but, as you see in the image above, it isn't the end of the world.
Galaxy S8+'s display is bright and vibrant.
Compared to the other phones you might consider buying these days, the S8's OLED is noticeably brighter and more vivid. Your photos will pop on this display.
Bixby's dashboard looks a lot like the old Google Now interface.
Besides the hardware design, the other fresh addition in the S8 is Bixby, Samsung's newly acquired digital assistant tech that's meant to compete with Google Assistant, Apple's Siri, and Amazon's Alexa.
At launch, Bixby will not support voice commands, though Samsung promises that feature will land this spring. I promised myself I wasn't going to nail Samsung for shipping unfinished product (despite what happened the last time Samsung did). In the end I don't need to. Most voice assistants are dumb as hell, including Google Assistant, which is also built into the S8, but Bixby's bad enough that adding voice support wouldn't even make a difference.
Many of Bixby's features seem amazing at first glance. Like the hardware button Samsung has built onto the side of the phone. It wakes Bixby up with a touch instead of a shout. There is nothing I hate more than invoking assistants by name. OK Google -- tell me I sound like an arsehole! Push the button, and Bixby's Google Now-like dashboard display pops up, showing your appointments, the weather, and information from supported apps like Samsung Health and CNN.
The Galaxy S8 is the prettiest phone you can buy right now.
In practice, the additional hardware button just causes confusion. I frequently hit it instead of the volume down button, pulling up the assistant instead of taking a photo or reducing the loudness of my music. Worse, one morning when the S8's alarm clock woke me up at the ungodly hour I go to the gym, I dumbly fumbled around for my phone and instead of waking it up to turn off my alarms, I was presented with all the meetings I had planned for the day, as if Bixby's sole purpose was to remind my that my every waking hour will be toil and suffering.
The assistant's potentially most impressive feature is Bixby Vision, which allows you to use the phone's camera to search by image. This kind of technology has existed from years -- Amazon introduced an impressive feature called Flow three years ago. So it's incredible how bad this feature is.
When you tap the little Bixby Vision button in the S8's camera app, the tool takes a moment to process what you're looking at, and then presents you with the option to use the image to do a general search, a shopping search, or in the event that it identifies wine or text, to treat the visual information accordingly.
The only Bixby Vision tool that works with any level of consistency is the shopping tool, which identified a Monster energy drink (SUGAR FREE!) and a Neil deGrasse Tyson book correctly. When I pointed it at very expensive over-ear headphones headphones, it tried to sell me moderately priced earbuds, which fair enough, I don't need to spend $1000 on headphones.
Bixby's shopping search works reliably.
The more general image search capability is a joke, and feels like a failure. The only image it was able to identify correctly is an old photograph by German documentary photographer August Sander. Sure, this is just a Pinterest search, but I'm having trouble figuring out what the hell the point of this is.
Bixby's Pinterest-powered search is not very useful for anything.
As for the wine and text tools -- they need serious work. The only time Bixby identified a wine bottle, I wasn't pointing it at wine. The text tool has a hard job, and tends to interpret everything but the cleanest Helvetica typography as a garbled mess.
Hello Bixby, you suck.
Beyond the frustrating assistant, Samsung's software is actually really nicely refined. TouchWiz, the company's proprietary spin on Android, is no longer the unattractive horrorshow it was for years -- mostly because Samsung has increasingly stayed out of Google's way. Some of Samsung's software additions are legitimately useful, like the Apps Edge drawer, which slides out a customisable collection of your favourite apps with a swipe from the right edge of the display.
Samsung's camera is good enough for your snaps and 'grams. There's no dual camera like you're finding on some other devices, but at least it comes with some built-in Snapchat Lens-like filters -- Cool?
The S8's most annoying quirk is the oddly-placed fingerprint sensor.
Less cool is Samsung moving the fingerprint scanner to the back of the phone to the side of the camera was a mistake. It's not placement on the back so much, which was likely necessary to make that beautiful bezel-less front. It's that the sensor is off center so it lacks the intuitive feel of fingerprint sensors that are smack in the middle, as in the case of the Google Pixel and LG G6. What's more, Samsung has gone and put the freaking camera exactly where your brain wants the sensor to be. Instagram your fried chicken dinner at your own risk.
In the end, the $1199 Galaxy S8 handily smokes the Android competition as the top phone you can buy. It's prettier and slicker than the Pixel, and though Bixby feels a little unfinished for the moment, you can still use Google Assistant. The S8 also measures up favourably with the iPhone 7, and whether you choose one or the other probably comes down to something as simple as whether you want Samsung's forward-thinking ideas or Apple's refined simplicity. Or maybe you want a headphone jack -- the S8 has one!
As for whether you should upgrade, well, that's another question entirely. How busted is your current phone? Is it broken and you need a new one? The S8 is a great option. Is your phone less than two years old and humming along fine? Wait until next year.
What's truly interesting about the S8 is just how compelling a phone can be on the merits of its great design alone. Bixby is basically rubbish, and yet the phone is a winner. Perhaps it shouldn't be all that surprising: Top flagship phones with beefy specs are going to perform very well without fail these days. They all have good cameras and day-long battery life and processors that can chop through huge mobile games.
It's so challenging to make a device stand out that manufacturers are employing all manner of gimmicks, like voice assistants and modular accessories, to see if they can't make their devices standout. None of those technologies improve your life quite as much as a design that plays into our crudest superficiality; I stare at my phone all goddamn day -- I want to look at something pretty.
- The prettiest phone you can buy right now.
- The new 18.5:9 aspect ratio doesn't really make a huge difference, but you will notice black bars around your YouTube videos now.
- Bixby Vision is really only good as a shopping tool.
- Bixby, like all AI assistants, is too half-baked to be really useful in a life-changing way.