Samsung Galaxy S8 review: The best phone ever made, only smaller

Samsung Galaxy S8 review: The best phone ever made, only smaller

If you haven’t yet read our extensive review of the Galaxy S8+, you should. Nearly everything said about that phone applies to the smaller Galaxy S8. It’s got the same gorgeous design, the same best-ever display, the same awesome camera, same processor, memory, storage, features...it’s just smaller.

The display is 5.8 inches instead of 6.2, and the battery is 3,000 mAh instead of 3,500. These differences, and a price tag about $130 lower, are all the separate the Galaxy S8 from the S8+. 

That means the problems with the S8+ are apparent here as well, namely an unbelievably bad fingerprint sensor location and the lackluster debut of Samsung’s Bixby AI assistant. Both are annoying, but generally avoidable, and thus only slightly tarnish the Galaxy S8’s shine.

Speed and stamina

The Galaxy S8 and S8+ are the first phones to hit the market with Qualcomm’s new 10nm Snapdragon 835 processor. The results are impressive. It delivers faster benchmarks than the Snapdragon 821, especially in multitasking and graphics performance. In many apps you won’t necessarily feel the difference, as we’ve reached the point where software optimization means more to how a high-end phone “feels” than processor performance. But it’s the energy efficiency that impresses me.

galaxy s8 benchmarks 3dmark Greenbot

Particularly in 3D graphics tests, the new Snapdragon 835 outpaces the 821.

The Galaxy S8 has a smaller display than the S8+, whose lower power requirements help to offset the roughly 17 percent smaller battery. I had no trouble getting through a full day of moderate-to-heavy usage, leaving Wi-Fi, cellular, and Bluetooth turned on, along with adaptive brightness and all the other sub-optimal settings that regular people use. The larger phone will probably last a little longer in real-world use, if only because the greater capacity will give it more standby “screen off” time. Our battery test, run with displays always on and fixed at 200 nits, showed both phones to have similar excellent battery life.

galaxy s8 benchmarks battery Greenbot

Battery life is better than you’d expect from a 3,000 mAh battery. The phone easily lasts all day.

Kitchen sink included

But great hardware is about more than just fast processor speeds and long battery life. It’s future-proofing features like support for gigabit wireless (carriers will roll it out over the coming year). It’s wireless fast charging, with support for both Qi and PMA standards. It’s USB-C and really fast wired charging—I went from zero to 73% in one hour with the included charger. It’s 64GB of storage standard, with support for microSD cards to expand it. It’s Bluetooth 5, which promises longer range, higher bandwidth, and faster connection times. The Galaxy S8 is the first phone on the market to include it.

galaxy s8 ports Jason Cross/IDG

Samsung fit a ton of hardware into a tiny package, with almost no bezels, and waterpoofing, and didn’t remove the headphone jack. Take that, Apple.

The IP68 waterproofing can be a lifesaver, and Samsung didn’t have to kill the headphone jack to provide it. The GS8’s speaker quality is only so-so, but the 32-bit DAC produces clean and detailed audio from the headphone jack. In fact, the Galaxy S8 and S8+ ship with a pair of AKG earbuds in the box that are far and away best pack-in earbuds I’ve ever used. Samsung says they’re worth $100, and from the excellent build quality (dig that braided cord) to the clear and punchy sound, I think that price is about right. They’re better than some $100 headphones I’ve used, but not the best in that price range. To get this quality included in the box is outrageously awesome and puts all other premium smartphone vendors on notice.

galaxy s8 headphones Jason Cross/IDG

The AKG earbuds that come in the box are far superior to any other pack-ins I’ve ever used.

Of course, the phone includes support for Samsung Pay, including the MST technology that lets it work with the older (and ubiquitous) swipe-style card readers. Samsung makes a lot of technology products that directly compete with Google’s, and most of them are not any better. I think Samsung Pay may be the exception.

If there’s one major flaw with all the features packed into this gorgeous phone, it’s the placement of the fingerprint sensor. I can only assume there was some technical reason for it being shoved up to the side of the camera, because this placement wouldn’t have passed even the most rudimentary usability testing. Samsung did a great job of making the camera and fingerprint reader flush with the phone, but as a result you can barely ever tell them apart by feel alone. It’s hard to reach the sensor area, and just when you think you’ve got it, you find you’re pawing at the camera glass, leaving smudges all over it.

galaxy s8 camera Jason Cross/IDG

The camera is flush with the body, as is the fingerprint sensor, so they’re nearly impossible to tell apart by feel.

This is the kind of usability nightmare that would have instantly killed our ability to recommend the phone, if it didn’t also include an iris scanner that is impressively fast, reliable, and secure. It’s improved a bit since its debut on the ill-fated Galaxy Note7, and while you do need to use your fingerprint for some apps, unlocking your phone and signing in to Samsung apps with your eyes is fast, secure, and reliable enough to greatly mitigate the disastrous fingerprint scanner placement.

A new high water mark for displays

Samsung’s flagship phones have had the best displays of any smartphone for the last three years or so. This one is no different: peak brightness, contrast, color accuracy, color gamut, sharpness—it leads the pack in just about every metric. But it is different. After years of phones with displays that adhere to the 16:9 aspect ratio common to HDTVs, Samsung has gone taller.

LG beat Samsung to the punch with the LG G6’s 18:9 display, so the ever-so-slightly-taller 18.5:9 ratio of the Galaxy S8 and S8+ is not as novel as it otherwise would be. But Samsung does a better job building a phone around it, with gently sloping sides, perfectly symmetrical (and very thin) forehead and chin above and below, and a “virtual home button” at the bottom of the screen that is more intuitive than the button on the back of LG’s latest phone.

galaxy s8 size comparison Jason Cross/IDG

A new aspect ratio and nearly nonexistent bezels puts a bigger display into a smaller package.

After using a phone with an aspect ratio around 2:1 and a screen-to-body ratio over 80%, I have a feeling that this is going to be the design trend for future phones. Just as tablets experimented with 16:9 displays before deciding that 4:3 is the right ratio for that form factor, I think an aspect ratio taller and narrower than 16:9 is better suited to phones. It lets you get more overall screen area without making the phone wider, thus making it easier to grip and use with one hand, and easier to pocket, too.

I’ve been using this phone for only about one week, and I already look at standard 16:9 phones as if they seem old-fashioned. Woe to the company that plans to ship a high-end flagship phone late this year with a 16:9 display.

Better software, but quirks remain

The software design that once carried the awful name TouchWiz is now called Samsung Experience. It’s still what you expect it to be—a wholly “Samsung” interface built on top of the latest major version of Android. In this case, that’s Android 7.0, though we hope for a speedy update to 7.1

Once the poster child for the “please just use stock Android” crowd, Samsung’s interface is less offensive than it has ever been. After some tweaking, I even think it’s quite good, though I still think Samsung would be better off sticking with the font, color, icon, and layout standards of the latest version of Android while just integrating its own unique features, as Motorola or Nvidia do.

galaxy s8 apps Jason Cross/IDG

Samsung’s software still has quirks, like the paginated app drawer, but there are lots of customization options to get rid of most of them.

Samsung Experience certainly provides a lot of useful features, if nothing else. Smart Stay keeps the screen on while you’re looking at it, you can quick launch the camera with a double-tap of the power button, and the screenshot function can capture long scrolling screens, to name just a few. There’s even a clever “SOS” feature that lets you quickly press the power button three times to send your location to emergency contacts, along with optional front-and-rear camera images and a 5 second audio clip. 

One could spend all day detailing the many ways Samsung’s interface differs from stock Android, and not all the changes are appreciated. That’s what makes this new Samsung Experience so much better than TouchWiz ever was. Many features are optional, and if you spot an annoyance, odds are you can get rid of it. Don’t like the way Samsung puts a frame around app icons to make them look like bulging squares? You can turn that off so it doesn’t look like your gorgeous new phone has icon design from 2010. Show the app drawer button or don’t. Or get rid of the app drawer entirely and put everything on the home screen. Tweak and schedule the blue light filter, turn off the notification LED, change the look of the always-on display (or turn it off), whatever you want to do. Most phone makers, and indeed past Samsung phones, made these decisions for you. On the Galaxy S8, you’re given choices.

Somehow, Samsung still finds plenty of ways to annoy us, though. Carrier bloatware is as rampant as ever. And who do I have to bribe to get the persistent, un-killable T-Mobile Wi-Fi calling notification to go away? There’s a Samsung app to mirror just about every Google app, and in most cases it’s not nearly as good as Google’s offering. Samsung has its own app store, web browser, SMS app, health app, calendar, clock, email, contacts, and phone apps. That’s in addition to actual worthwhile Samsung apps like Secure Folder, the file browser, and Samsung+ (the support service).

After downloading a few Google apps and making a few trips to the settings you can safely ignore most of this crap and give yourself a better overall experience. But it’s clear that Samsung’s mission is now as it always has been: to build the best Samsung phone, not the best Android phone.

Bixby isn’t ready yet

Nowhere is the “like Google but not as good” vibe as strong as it is with Bixby, Samsung’s run at building an AI assistant. Because every giant tech company has to have its own AI assistant now.

Bixby, put plainly, is not ready to be released. At the last minute, support for voice commands in English were delayed, so this is one of the only major AIs you actually can’t talk to. And you can’t type at it, either.

galaxy s8 buttons Jason Cross/IDG

There’s a prominant button dedicated to Bixby, just below the volume rocker. I can’t imagine ever wanting to press it.

So what’s left? Well, there’s a Bixby hub on the leftmost home screen, where the Google Now feed lives on stock Android. Like Google Now, it’s a series of cards that are deliver at-a-glance info. Check the weather (the home screen widget does that already), look at News headlines, count your daily steps, and so on. Only it’s mostly garbage. The Twitter card, for example, doesn’t show your latest likes, retweets, and DMs. It’s just a list of trending topics. The news card is just headlines from Flipboard, rather than personalized data mined from your search history to cater to your interests. There’s an Uber card that doesn’t really save you time from just launching the app, and a Foursquare card that shows you places nearby but doesn’t seem to personalize its picks.

The world does not need another “cards full of at-a-glance info” feed. I’d much rather have the Google Now feed.

Then there’s Bixby Vision, which at least seems to have some real future potential. You can launch it from the Camera app, the Gallery, or the top of the Bixby home screen. Point your camera at something and it will try to identify it, and give you options to shop for it, or look up similar images on Pinterest. Yeah, only Pinterest, not the entire web. It frequently fails to identify objects correctly, though books and wine labels are relatively successful. Perhaps the most useful feature is the ability to scan a business card and import the information directly into the Contacts app.

To say Bixby has a long way to go would be a grand understatement, and yet Samsung is so invested in it that there’s a unique Bixby button below the volume rocker that can’t be assigned to anything else. It summons Bixby, and that’s all it does, so now there’s a prominent button on my phone for a feature I never want to use. Fortunately, Google Assistant is still where it belongs, hiding behind a long-press of the virtual home button or a spoken “OK Google” prompt.

A conservative but top-quality camera

A great smartphone needs a great camera. For high-end phones, a killer camera is now table stakes. In a world where dual rear camera setups are all the rage and crazy stacked DRAM sensors are coming, Samsung has taken a conservative approach. There’s just a single 12 megapixel rear camera, and a single 8 megapixel front camera.

galaxy s8 pixel flower2 compare Jason Cross/IDG

Samsung’s tendancy to oversaturate a bit can cause it to lose detail in some high-color areas, like these flowers.

Samsung has optimized for quality and ease of use, and it shows. The rear camera is similar to the excellent shooter in last year’s Galaxy S7 at 12 megapixels with dual-pixel autofocus, optical image stabilization, and an f/1.7 aperture. But it is a new sensor with new optics, and Samsung has improved its image processing algorithms. The result is more consistent and even photos in a range of conditions. 

galaxy s8 pixel walle compare Jason Cross/IDG

In low indoor light, the S8 outperforms even the Pixel, thanks in part to OIS.

galaxy s8 pixel walle closeup compare2 Jason Cross/IDG

In this closeup of the above image, notice how much less noise is in the GS8 shot. OIS lets the camera use a longer shutter speed and lower ISO.

The front camera has been bumped up from 5 megapixels to 8, and the added autofocus really helps you take a clear selfie every time. It’s a marked improvement.

Samsung’s camera software, too, is top notch. It’s not too different from last year’s, where it made a big leap in usability. There are new filters and stickers, and the interface is cleaned up a little, but you still get a super fast and easy Auto mode, a powerful Pro mode, selective focus, slow motion, time lapse, and even a new Food mode that blurs out the edges and punches up the color.

galaxy s8 pixel dinner compare Jason Cross/IDG

The Food Mode punches up colors and blurs edges, but the Galaxy S8 does great even without it.

It’s going to take some serious head-to-head comparison to tell if this is the very best camera on a smartphone, but I feel comfortable claiming it to be among the best.

It’s the best phone, warts and all

Bixby has landed with a dud, but you can ignore it easily enough. The fingerprint sensor is disastrously placed, but an excellent iris scanner helps minimize its necessity. Samsung’s interface and app bloat is still needlessly...Samsung-y...but you have more options than ever to smooth away most of the annoying bits.

These blemishes only slightly detract from what is otherwise a killer phone. Whether it’s the gorgeous display with a fantastic new aspect ratio, the overall industrial design and ergonomics, the fast and power-efficient new processor, or the absolute flood of features new and old, this is one phone that seemingly does everything and does nearly all of it with grace and aplomb. 

At $720 it is very expensive, but the 64GB of storage and fantastic AKG earbuds take a some of the sting out of the price. If you want the best phone on the market, period, you only have to ask yourself if you want the Galaxy S8, or the bigger Galaxy S8+.

IDG Insider

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