Samsung has finally beat Apple at its own game.
While the Galaxy S has been regarded for years as the best Android phone money can buy (at least until the Pixel came around), it’s always existed in the iPhone’s lengthy shadow. Even with a higher market share, a dominant OS, and a years-long lead on features like screen size and water resistance, the Galaxy S has stayed just out of reach of the iPhone zeitgeist. No matter how much it tried to create its own end-to-end experience, Apple fans saw it as a copycat and Android enthusiasts lamented its aggressive TouchWiz interface overhaul.
All that has changed with the Galaxy S8+. With a stunning design that absolutely needs to be seen and a harmonious integration between hardware and OS, the Galaxy S8+ is the first phone in a long while that truly changes the conversation and resets our expectations. It might be a touch hyperbolic to compare it to the original iPhone, but it's hard to deny that the S8+ is a watershed moment for modern smartphones, despite the tragic and confounding placement of its fingerprint sensor. After years of barely-distinguishable rectangles jammed with features of dubious usefulness, Samsung has brought something entirely new to the table.
And when the iPhone 8 comes out in September, people might not look at it quite so admiringly.
If I didn’t know better I would have though Samsung sent me the wrong phone. The S8+ doesn’t look or feel anywhere near as big as it is, with a screen that makes other phablets seem small by comparison, despite a much smaller frame.
Even after using it for several days, it’s still hard to believe that the S8+ has 6.2-inch display. At 159.5mm tall, it practically defies logic. Consider this: it’s smaller than the HTC U Ultra, and only a few millimeters taller than Galaxy S7 Edge, Pixel XL, and LG G6 but somehow adds a full half-inch of screen (and in the case of the Pixel and S7, nearly three-quarters of an inch). It’s like holding an optical illusion.
And the Infinity Display, as Samsung is calling it, is an absolute pleasure to behold. The curved edges rest gracefully in your hand, and whether you’re using one hand or both, its natural contours and glass-and-metal craftsmanship give it a smooth feel without it being too cumbersome or slippery. Which is good, because it’s practically a crime to put it in a case.
Slim is in
Unlike some other slim-bezel smartphones, the Galaxy S8+ is blissfully symmetrical, with perfectly proportioned slivers of bezel above and below the screen. But where the S7 was available in white, silver, and gold, the S8+ only comes with black front plate, a move meant to seemingly put even greater emphasis on the screen. Every phone I’ve ever owned has had a black frame, so I’m on board with the decision, but some are sure to grumble over the silver and grey-backed versions having black bezels on the front. I think such a small area of color at the top and bottom of the screen would have been distracting.
The only quibble I have with the design is the same one I have with other Galaxy phones: the placement of the charging port. Where the speaker and the headphone jack are centered on the bottom edge of the device, the new USB-C port is a just a touch too low, otherwise ruining the perfect equilibrium. For a phone that pays such fastidious attention to its design, it’s a head-scratcher.
Samsung has sculpted a real work of art with the Galaxy S8+. Features that would grab headlines on either phones, like IP68 water resistance and wireless charging, are practically an afterthought, and its competitors, including Apple, are going to have their work cut out for them. And the fact that Samsung was able to do all his without removing the 3.5mm headphone jack makes Apple’s “courageous” decision seem all the more outlandish.
As if to drive that point home, Samsung has bundled a pair of AKG wired earbuds, which are far and away the best sounding earphones I’ve gotten inside the box. I’m no audiophile, but the bass, balance, and volume of these things are top-notch, rivaling the sound I get from my PowerBeats3.
With an 83 percent screen-to-body ratio, Samsung didn’t leave much room on the Galaxy S8+ for much of anything else. Aside from the sensors, the front of the device has no distinguishable markings, and that includes the Samsung logo. However, even without its name emblazoned below the display, the S8+ is unmistakable, easily as identifiable as an iPhone 7.
For the first time, Samsung is also doing away with the physical home button and back/recents buttons; hardly an innovation in Android land but new territory for Galaxy phones. And it kind of shows. While the pressure-sensitive virtual on-screen home button is a winner, the fingerprint button is in the worst possible place. Surely you’ve seen images of its location to the right of the camera, but it’s even more awkward than the pictures would have you believe.
It took me longer to set up a single fingerprint than it does for multiple ones on other phones. A left-handed colleague actually had a slightly easier time, but I consistently missed the target when trying to use it. At times when I needed to use the fingerprint sensor for apps like Mint or 1Password, it took me several tries, sometimes to the point where it would have been quicker just to type in my password. (However, on the off chance that I hit it on the first try, it worked extremely quickly.)
Thankfully (or perhaps consequently), Samsung has provided multiple ways to unlock the S8+. In addition to the standard passcode and password options, there’s face and iris unlocking, both of which are quick but require you to stare at the front-facing cameras above the screen. The iris scanner is particularly impressive as well as being far more secure. It worked flawlessly nearly every time, even when I was wearing glasses. The only time I had difficulty was in direct sunlight, when the infrared sensor struggled to lock onto my irises until I took my glasses off.
I quickly learned how to position my phone so my eyes would unlock it as quickly as possible, but I had a harder time adjusting to the face scanner. All in all, I would still prefer using my fingerprint. I also would have liked the ability to tap an area other than the virtual home button to wake the screen, but even so, the new unlocking methods are a nice upgrade for the S8+. Just keep in mind that face recognition could be spoofed by a picture, as Samsung warns, so iris scanning is your best bet here, unless you happen to have fingers like Elastigirl.
As good as the design is when the screen is off, it’s only accentuated when it comes to life. Even if you’ve previously used an Edge phone, the S8+ still feels like something entirely new, with edges that seamlessly blend into the frame and corners that dip elegantly out of view. It’s hard to do it justice with words, but I’ll say this: It makes all other phones, including the similarly svelte LG G6, look positively dull.
By making it a standard feature, Samsung has essentially taken the Edge screen out of beta mode, and it’s absolutely ready for its closeup. Even when purposefully holding one of the sides, it didn’t register a single extraneous touch, and the Edge-specific features only launched when deliberately activated. The panels offer the same customizable access to your favorite apps and contacts, and there are several new ones installed by default (I particularly liked the clipboard one to keep track of all of the screenshots I took). Edge Feeds are nowhere to be found in the Settings or the Galaxy Apps store, so it appears that Samsung has thought better of the ticker’s usefulness. However, the notification lights remain.
Samsung has stuck with a 2K screen for the S8+. However, while it has a slightly higher pixel count (2960 vs 2560) due to its new 18.5 by 9 aspect ratio, it’s hard to imagine a 4K display adding anything more than a tax on the battery. Even when using the default FHD+ resolution (2220 x 1080) the screen is crisp, bright, and stunningly vibrant, especially when watching movies in full screen. And since the S8+ offers the first display to carry the new Mobile HDR Premium certification, once Netflix and Amazon ramp up their mobile apps, it will easily be the best handheld movie player you can buy.
Consolidation of power
The Galaxy S8+ may be pretty on the outside, but on the inside it’s all business. It’s the first phone to be powered by the 10nm Snapdragon 835, and the gains it delivers over the S7 are certainly palpable.
But that’s measuring it against a year-old chip, so noticeable gains are to be expected. The upgrade is less obvious when comparing it to the newer 821 phones like the Pixel and LG G6. To the untrained and unbenchmarked eye, the S8+ could just as easily have an 821 chip inside it, as the real-world differences between the two are fairly inconsiderable. The S8+ feels just as snappy and smooth as other 821 phones, and I didn’t experience any of the dreaded and oft-reported Samsung lag. Benchmarks bear this out, with a measurable but not massive increase over Qualcomm’s predecessor.
That being said, the 835 is the first chip I’ve tested that’s in the same league as Huawei’s in-house Kirin 960, and it even held its own against Apple’s latest silicon. Samsung reportedly worked closely with Qualcomm on the design of the chip, and the optimization benefits can clearly be seen. Until Samsung can refine the performance of its Exynos chips for U.S. networks, this is the next best thing.
The real blow-away improvements in the S8+ can be seen with battery life. After the Note7 debacle, Samsung has promised to put every phone it sells through a strenuous 8-point battery check, but that doesn’t mean it crammed a giant battery into the S8+. There’s actually a smaller 3,500 mAh battery here (compared to the 3,600 mAh one in the S7 Edge), but Samsung has taken advantage of the 835’s power efficiency improvements, along with likely improved efficiency of its AMOLED displays, to squeeze out as much battery life as possible. Benchmark testing consistently showed around 9 hours, and my day-to-day experience matched up, easily getting through a full day of moderate-to-heavy use. The Galaxy S8+ was still ticking hours after the G6 and the Pixel would have needed a charge.
Our battery benchmarks calibrate the display to 200 nits with adaptive brightness turned off but cellular and Wi-Fi turned on, and the phone turned in some impressive scores.
Along with the benefits begotten by the 835 chip, Samsung has also souped up its OS to get every last drop from the battery. For one, the default resolution is “only” 2220 x 1080 FHD+, and Samsung actually warns about the possible increased battery drain when raising it to WQXD+. Android enthusiasts will scoff at this, but the visible difference between the two resolutions is negligible outside of higher-end gaming and VR. Even when I switched WQHD+ on for a full day, I didn’t notice the kind of enormous battery hit that would preclude you from using it.
Samsung has also tweaked the brightness slider to add a “red zone” to indicate the very high levels that seriously impact battery life. Again, hard-core users will grouse about such a warning, but I’d much rather Samsung give us the option than simply cripple the display. Besides, full brightness is almost too much to bear, so most users will be plenty comfortable keeping the levels well below the danger zone.
Head over to the settings you’ll find a pair of battery saving modes that will stretch your usage even further. Both will let you customize how your phone will save battery, offering toggles for brightness, resolution, and chip speed. It’s a definite improvement over Google’s all-or-nothing method, and with the right tweaks you can add several hours without degrading the experience too much. Battery warriors will be bummed to see the multi-day Ultra setting ditched in favor of a less-intense Max mode, but you’ll at least be able to triple your battery life in exchange for some serious limitations on the apps you can use.
Big bad Bixby
Along the right edge of the device you’ll find a sole power button as always, but there’s a new arrangement on the left. Samsung has thankfully gone with a volume rocker instead of individual keys, and below it there’s a new button dedicated to its inchoate AI assistant, which it calls Bixby. It’s one of the premier features of the S8 and the start of a new voice-powered ecosystem for Samsung, but unfortunately it’s not quite ready for prime time yet.
I mean that both literally and anecdotally. Just days before the S8’s launch, Samsung announced that Bixby Voice, the primary method for communicating with Bixby, wouldn’t be able to understand English speakers until it is patched later this spring. As such, there’s no way to actually summon Bixby on the S8+, and the parts that do work are more like random app features than a cohesive system.
Pressing the Bixby button brings up the Hello Bixby home screen, a Google Now-like set of cards that show your schedule, reminders, weather, activity, steps, etc. There’s nothing bad about it, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Most manufacturers have already created their own spin on the personalized recommendation system, and while Samsung’s version looks nice enough, I just don’t see a compelling reason to use it.
Seeing isn’t believing
The other functioning part of Bixby, other than a pretty standard implementation of location-based reminders, is Vision, Samsung’s take on Google’s long-forgotten Goggles project. Its real-world discovery concept is unique to a digital assistant, but it’s not the first time someone has tapped into the camera to identify things on a phone. And the last effort didn’t go so well.
You may remember a few years back when Amazon took a stab at making a smartphone. Called the Fire Phone, its premier feature was called Firefly, and while it was primarily a way to wrangle shoppers, the concept was very similar to what Bixby is doing here. But even with the power of Amazon.com behind it, Firefly quickly fizzled out, and I’m not sure Bixby Vision will fare much better. It works well enough, but I just don’t see the usefulness of it beyond the occasional query.
Presumably you’ll be able to activate it by speaking once Bixby Voice goes live, but for now you need to open the camera app first, or choose a picture from the Gallery app. You’ll see a new eye icon at the left of the screen, and tapping it will turn your camera into Bixby’s virtual eyes, ready to scan whatever it sees. Once it locks on an image it will offer up a options to search for similar Pinterest images or Amazon shopping results, and, if applicable, text translations and wine identification. I wasn’t wowed by any of the results. While it did recognize the things I scanned as what they were, it didn’t always get the the specifics right. Books were mostly on the money (aside from some older obscure titles), but common objects were more hit-or-miss. For example, it knew that my MacBook was a laptop, but offered just as many PC notebooks in the results as Macs.
Ultimately, Bixby isn’t something I’m going to use very often. That might change once voice commands are activated, but for now, Google Assistant fits my needs, and Bixby doesn’t do nearly enough for me to consider switching. But even though Samsung is promoting Bixby as a major feature of the S8, it’s hardly an essential one, and before long you’ll likely forget it’s even there. Nothing about what I saw led me to believe that voice will add anything ground-breaking to the Bixby experience, but I’m willing to hold out judgement for now.
Bixby is a massive undertaking for the company with an equally ambitious roadmap, and it will likely take years of refinements before it can stand with the likes of Siri and Google Assistant. However, Google Assistant is still present and works just as it does on any phone, summoned with a long-press of the home button or by saying "OK Google." Samsung's lackluster Bixby AI doesn't force you to give up anything, it's just not a worthwhile addition yet.
If there’s one thing Samsung has consistently brought to the table with its Galaxy S phones, it’s a killer camera. Until the Pixel came around last year its only true competitor was the iPhone, and even there it was kind of a toss-up as to which was better. Like Apple, most of Samsung’s magic goes on behind the scenes, which might explain why the main camera is visually unchanged from the S7, save for a new sensor (with the same resolution and dual-pixel focus technology) and the elimination of the 0.46mm camera bump, making it fully flush against the case.
Most surprising is the lack of a second rear camera. Rapidly becoming a standard smartphone feature, the dual-camera system is responsible for the LG G6’s wide-angle prowess and the iPhone 7 Plus’s portrait mode, and it was widely assumed that the S8+ would simply follow suit to keep pace. However, while Samsung experimented with a second camera, it ultimately decided that it didn’t need it. It’s a bold decision for a premium phone in 2017, but the S8+ isn’t about following trends, it’s about setting them. And Samsung has done more with the a single camera than most other manufacturers have done with two.
Samsung is so confident in its processing prowess, it hasn’t even done much to upgrade the camera hardware it does have in the S8+. You’ll find the same 12MP Dual Pixel, f/1.7 lens, and optical image stabilization, but the sensor’s been upgraded. Depending on region, you’ll either get a Sony IMX333 or a Samsung-made Isocell S5K3H1, as compared to the IMX260 or S5K2L1 in the Galaxy S7. Samsung has made most of its improvements behind the scenes, with updated image processing algorithms.
It might not seem like much, it makes a noticeable difference in your final shot. In tests between the Galaxy S7 and S8+, photos were consistently truer to life with the newer sensor, with the S7’s pics seeming washed out in bright sunlight and oversaturated in lower light.
The differences were only accentuated with HDR turned on, with the S8+ picking up greater detail and better contrast when dealing with strong shadows and midtones (almost to a fault), and the S7’s overcompensation distorting colors and blowing out the contrast.
The camera app is mostly the same, with a nice set of pro controls and a series of shooting modes, including the sublime selective focus. The only new additions to speak of come in the form of Snapchat-style stickers and filters that add a bit of whimsy to your shots. They work with both the front and rear cameras, but they obviously seem more designed for selfies, an area where Samsung has paid pretty close attention.
The front camera has gotten a pretty serious upgrade over the 5MP one in the S7, with an 8MP, f/1.7 aperture lens with auto focus, and the upgrade definitely shows. The S7’s front camera was somewhat pedestrian, but on the S8 it’s a social media addict’s dream, producing clean, crisp shots in all kinds of light. The auto focus helps lock on to you and your friend’s faces quickly, and a series of beauty sliders will keep your complexion looking its best.
But most people will just want to play with the new animated filters. There are 30 to choose from, and each one is more fun than the last. Instant detection applies and animates each time a new face comes into the scene, and it’s just the kind of thing that could bring the fun of Snapchat to parents and grandparents. It’s so fun, I’m kind of surprised Snapchat didn’t think of it first and release it as its own standalone camera app. The S8+’s rear camera might be the go-to shooter for capturing scenic shots, but people who have never taken a selfie before are going to find themselves using the front camera more and more.
And then we have TouchWiz or, as it’s now called, Samsung Experience. Obviously it runs on Android Nougat, but it’s only 7.0 for now, still several updates behind schedule. Samsung has intimidated that it will be quickly updating the S8 to 7.1, but the lack of support at launch only serves to underscore our frustrations with Android phone makers.
But despite the outdated version, Samsung has done a fine job with its new interface. It will still have its share of detractors simply due to its deviation from stock Android, but it’s a massive improvement over the Marshmallow version. It take a lot of cues from the Galaxy S7’s Nougat build, but it all looks and feels like it was hand-made for the S8+. All of the unremovable Samsung apps and services are well represented of course (more than 15 in all, including a couple new ones), but they’ve all been redesigned for Nougat and some of them, such as the Calendar and Clock, aren’t half-bad. And I love how the broken-line icon motif matches the virtual home and navigation button.
The new weather widget is the home screen’s most striking feature, and while I liked it, it’s definitely an acquired taste. Its minimal, vertical design certainly fits the S8’s tall screen well, but like the rest of the Samsung Experience, it’s not quite as classy as the one on the Pixel Launcher. But what the new interface lacks in elegance it makes up for with its highly personal and intuitive interface. Along with the usual Touchwiz customizations to tweak the font style, LED indicator, always-on display, and that awesome shrunken-screen gesture for one-handed operation, there are handy little touches all over that make the interface much less aggravating than on previous Galaxy releases.
I particularly appreciated the small, mindful additions, such as the 3D touch-like icon menus, and switches to turn off all notifications and condense the status bar to the just the last three icons. But what most stood out about the interface is its smart and careful attention to detail. While I would probably still choose stock Android if a Google Play edition model ever made a comeback, there’s a sense here that Samsung is finally building its interface to take specific advantage of the hardware. It’s not unlike the way Google has optimized its own custom launcher for the Pixel, and it’ll be interesting to see if Samsung starts taking updates more seriously as a result.
Down to earth
The S8+ is every bit as stunning as the iPhone 7 Plus, and when put side by side, it shows how stale Apple’s design has become. And while it may be a millimeter thicker than the iPhone 7, its tapered edges make it feel every bit as svelte, and it has a headphone jack to boot. The iPhone 8 may very well put the pressure back on Samsung to up its game with the Galaxy S9, but for now, the best designed phone isn’t made in Cupertino.
And while it certainly exists in the same stratosphere as other premium phones, its price, $850 for 64GB of storage, is actually more of a value than previous Galaxy S phones. It has twice the storage and way better earbuds than the $800 S7 Edge, and let’s not forget that Samsung is bundling a $129 Gear VR with all pre-orders.
Even if virtual reality isn’t your thing, that’s a pretty intriguing package. The S8+’s marvelous screen makes VR look better than ever while the new controller brings the easy navigation that was missing from the first model. And the Oculus library is already way more extensive than the Daydream’s, with a slew of controller-ready titles on the way.
Should you buy it?
If you’ve gotten this far you already know the answer to this question. But I’ll say it anyway: If you want the very best Android has to offer, go get a Galaxy S8+. It’s not perfect, but it’s as close as you can get. And it’s hard to imagine another phone coming close anytime soon, except maybe the iPhone 8.
Bixby may be dead (or at least seriously injured) on arrival, but Samsung will surely continue to refine and perfect its AI system with regular updates, so it’s something that will likely get better over time. But Bixby is at best an added benefit and is in no way essential to the S8+ experience, so even if it never evolves into something you want to use, the value of the phone won’t be lessened as a result.
There are a lot of firsts for the S8+, but unlike prior Galaxy S models, it’s not just about getting there before Apple or Google. Bixby aside, the S8+ has a propitious relationship between hardware and software, and as such, it represents a massive leap over prior Galaxy efforts and finally feels like a complete end-to-end package.
If it wasn't for the downright hostile placement of the fingerprint sensor that frustrated me every single time I used it, the S8+ would be the first phone I've used worth of 5 stars, and that includes the iPhone 7 Plus.
Your move, Apple.