Updated: a day ago
The Samsung Galaxy S8 is the nicest phone I’ve ever seen, It’s a beautiful combination of glass, metal, and an absolutely massive screen in a body that’s much smaller than you might expect.
And that might not be enough to make it stand out anymore.
There are two versions of the S8: the standard Galaxy S8 with a 5.8-inch screen and the larger S8 Plus with a 6.2-inch screen.
Both are available for preorder on March 30th and will be shipping in the US on April 21st. Pricing, as always with Samsung, is up to the carriers — but you can expect them to command a premium price. The early word is that it will start at $720.
Extending the screen to near the bottom of the phone means that there’s no room for Samsung’s traditional hardware home button. Instead, it uses software buttons like other Android phones.
It also uses some haptic feedback like Apple’s iPhones to create a virtual feeling of pressing a home button, though it only works on the very specific spot where the software home button appears.
One neat feature: some Android apps hide those main Android buttons when they go full screen, but you can still firmly press the bottom of the screen to activate the home button.
SAMSUNG BORROWS FORCE TOUCH FROM THE IPHONE, AT LEAST FOR THE HOME BUTTON Getting rid of the physical home button also means that Samsung had to move the fingerprint sensor. It’s on the back now, right next to the camera.
That’s not a very convenient place for it, honestly. It’s too high up on the phone to comfortably reach and it’s also right next to the camera module, which might mean you’ll be getting fingerprints on the camera more often than you’d like.
Speaking of fingerprints, because the S8 is nearly all glass, you’ll see them on the back a lot, but they’re not as prominent as you might expect (they’re worse on the LG G6, for example).
Both the USB-C port and the 3.5mm headphone jack (hallelujah) are located on the bottom of the phone.
You have power on one side and volume buttons on the other, underneath which you’ll find a whole new button that’s dedicated to the big new software feature on the Galaxy S8, Bixby.
There’s much more on Bixby below, but for now I’ll just note that dedicating a hardware button to this software feature is a big bet on Samsung’s intelligent assistant. If Bixby ends up being not that great, I expect many people will be looking for ways to remap that extra hardware button (or decrying that it’s vestigial).
As you’d expect, the S8 has the best specs you can get on an Android phone. Depending on the region, you’ll either get Qualcomm’s newest (and slightly rarer) Snapdragon 835 or Samsung’s own Exynos. In both cases, Samsung is touting that they’re built on a 10nm chip, which should theoretically help with power consumption.
In my brief time with it, everything was whip-fast. Hopefully it will stay that way over time — Samsung phones often don’t.
The standard S8 has a 570ppi 5.8-inch screen, with a resolution of 2960 x 1440. The S8 Plus has the exact same resolution on its 6.2-inch screen, which works out to 529ppi. For my money, the standard S8 is the way to go.
It still feels like a massive screen and the body is significantly smaller. The height of the screen is interesting, too: the aspect ratio is a super-tall 18.5:9, which adds a bunch of screen real estate to scroll through. I didn’t get to test a bunch of third-party apps, so hopefully we won’t see too much weirdness with the new aspect ratio.
Even if we do, Galaxy phones are popular enough to prod developers to update their apps to support it.
In terms of other specs, it’s pretty bog standard stuff: 4 gigs of RAM, 64 gigs of onboard storage, and an expandable SD card slot.
GALAXY S8 BATTERY:
Nearly 900 words in and I haven’t made an exploding phone joke (you’re welcome, Samsung). But now is the time to point out that the last time the phone maker released a phone this big and beautiful, it literally set itself on fire on a disturbingly regular basis.
The company’s responses to this issue were botched and bad for some time before it pivoted, apologized, and introduced a new process for checking battery safety.
Those safety checks are important, but Samsung still has to own all the exploding phone jokes and hear them at every mention of its phones for a while.
So on the S8, Samsung did not push the envelope when it comes to capacity. The S8 has a 3,000mAh battery and the S8 Plus has a larger 3,500mAh battery — the same capacity that the Note 7 had. But neither is especially large when you consider the fact that they need to power towering screens. Samsung claims it has tweaked the battery chemistry to help the batteries last longer after a year or two of use.
To make up for it, Samsung is offering the usual suite of power options:
Qualcomm Quick Charge and support for both major wireless charging standards. But I still have reservations about how long the batteries will last on these phones. In fact, it may be a reason to seriously consider getting the larger S8 Plus.
GALAXY S8 CAMERAS:
Another place where Samsung hasn’t really pushed the envelope is the camera. The S8 uses the exact same rear camera as the Galaxy S7, a 12-megapixel sensor with OIS.
Samsung says it’s done work on the software side to improve picture quality, and in my short time with it I found it to be significantly faster than the camera on the Galaxy S7 Edge.
It is notable that the S8 Plus doesn’t get a better camera or a dual-camera setup. Excepting screen and battery size, both phones are identical.
GALAXY S8 SOFTWARE:
That Samsung is capable of making great hardware should come as no surprise to anybody. It’s the software where we have reason to be skeptical. Running all the way back to the bad old days of TouchWiz, Samsung has a well-earned reputation for taking Android and mucking it up with bad ideas.
For the past few years, though, the common refrain has been restraint, and I’m going to repeat it again today. Samsung has done a pretty good job keeping its worst instincts in check.
There are a ton of weird features to find in the dark recesses of the settings menu, but out of the box the basic look, feel, and functionality of Samsung’s Android skinning is pretty good.
BIXBY, SAMSUNG’S PERSONAL ASSISTANT:
Samsung may not have put a ton of effort in changing its hardware design language, updating its camera, or packing in a bigger battery. But it has been focused on figuring out how to make software that people actually like, and it’s all centered on a new virtual assistant called Bixby.
As I mentioned above, Bixby is launched by pressing an honest-to-god dedicated physical button. It has basically three modes:
A short-press of the button takes you to Bixby Home (you can also swipe over to it from the home screen).
Long-pressing the button turns on Bixby’s voice features.
There’s a small button on the camera app for Bixby’s augmented reality features.
Let’s start in the middle with voice, because speaking to Bixby is the most interesting and challenging set of features here. Essentially, what Samsung is trying to do is create a new kind of virtual assistant, one that helps you use the device directly in your hands rather than ask random questions from the cloud.
The goal is that “anything you can control with touch, you can also control with voice.” It’s a laudable goal, but it’s also one I very seriously doubt Samsung can achieve. For one thing, it only works with about 10 Samsung apps at launch. Also, it can only work with apps that are written to support Bixby. Unlike Google Now on Tap, Bixby doesn’t do any screen reading to try and guess what’s on the screen. So it might be a virtual assistant, but it’s very far from an artificial intelligence.
BIXBY IS SAMSUNG’S BIG BET:
The other big question with Bixby is how exactly is it differentiated from the Google Assistant. It seems pretty clear, but then you discover that there’s a bunch of overlap. For example, you can do things like set alarms with Bixby.
There’s also Bixby Home, which so far as I can tell is a giant, random set of information cards for things like your smart light bulbs, fitness data, local news and weather, and whatever else Samsung thinks belongs in a virtual assistant home screen. It looks like every widget screen you’ve ever seen on a phone, which is to say it looks like sort of a mess that you probably won’t use very much.
Last but certainly not least are Bixby’s camera features, which are Bixby’s best features. You can launch it either directly in the camera app or from Bixby Home, and what it essentially does is turn your camera into a photo search machine. Point the Bixby camera app at anything and it will identify it and suggest web searches for it. I tried on flowers and it gave me options to buy flowers on Amazon or look at more flowers on Pinterest. It wasn’t able to precisely identify my Android Wear watch, but it did know it was a round watch and offered to let me buy a real one on Amazon.
It also works with more prosaic things. Samsung ran a demo with wine labels and book covers, both easily identified and given options to buy. Samsung says it’s working with specific partners for Bixby — including Amazon and Pinterest — but it doesn’t appear that it works with the biggest search engine of them all, Google. That’s not really a surprise.
GALAXY S8 RELEASE DATE, COLORS, AND PRICE:
In the US, the S8 and S8 Plus will come in black, gray, and silver. Gold and blue are options internationally.
The Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus are available for preorder starting tomorrow, March 30th, and you should get a free Oculus headset with a controller and a set of games along with your preorder. The official release in the US is on April 21st. Unfortunately, Samsung won’t confirm pricing, leaving that to its carrier partners — again, it looks like it’ll start at around $720.
Watch Samsung Galaxy S8 Official Introduction Here: