Samsung Galaxy S8

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The Samsung Galaxy S8 is one of those phones that just has to do well – it’s up against some massively impressive competition in 2017 – and the good news is that this is, indeed, a very strong phone.

The amount of S8 leaks we’ve seen are staggering, both in their volume and accuracy, but they don’t tell the whole story about a phone that’s certain to be at the top (or very near the summit) of most ‘best phone’ lists this year.

The Infinity Display is the headline feature of this handset – while it’s not all screen, it’s as close as can be. Samsung has also been very clever in the way it’s got around the loss of the front-facing home screen button, managing to make the handset usable without requiring the mechanical key on the front of the Galaxy S8.

That doesn’t mean it’s a perfect phone though. The lack of significant camera upgrades and the user interface will irk some, although they shouldn’t detract from what is a hugely impressive effort from Samsung.

Samsung Galaxy S8 release date and price

We should probably get the fact that this is likely to be the most expensive Samsung has ever made out of the way right now – while the price is yet to be confirmed (and we’ll update this hands-on review as we get that information filtering into our inbox) it looks like it’ll be far above last year’s cost, with early rumors putting the Samsung Galaxy S8 price at around $845/£695/AU$1,115.

The actual Samsung Galaxy S8 release date is April 21, with pre-orders starting on March 30. 

Watch our hands on video review of the Samsung Galaxy S8

Design

The look of the Samsung Galaxy S8 is what will sell it to the legions of fans clamoring for a new phone from the brand – and to a wider audience as well. While there aren’t that many internal upgrades, the front of the phone is mostly just display, and it’s by far the lowest bezel-to-screen ratio we’ve seen on a globally-available flagship phone so far.

The effect will definitely impress the first time you pick it up – while the Infinity Display (as Samsung is calling this edge-to-edge effort) isn’t completely bezel-less at the sides, it still seems to spill over to the back of the phone.

Every corner and edge has been rounded on the Samsung Galaxy S8, giving it a very pleasing feel in the hand. It’s the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge with a bit more courage in the design – Samsung has spent two years convincing the world that a curved screen is best, and the fact it’s on both this handset and the larger Galaxy S8 Plus is testament to that effort.

That said, it’s not a small phone. The 5.2-inch screen is packed tightly into the frame but it’s still large at 148.90 x 68 x 8mm, and you’ll struggle to reach all corners of the screen with a single thumb.

The fingerprint scanner is on the back, by the camera, and it’s rather hard to use from the natural holding position for a phone in your palm. It is something you could get used to, but we’re not sure why Samsung put it so close to the camera when it could have been closer to the middle of the phone.

However, we don’t want to take away from how impressive the Galaxy S8 is in the hand, with the 5.8-inch screen squashed into an impossibly-small chassis – and one that packs in wireless charging and a IP68 rating, so you’ll be able to immerse this phone in water and dust with little worry… and not even need to plug in a cable to charge it.

The Galaxy S8 comes in three colors at launch for the US and UK: Midnight, Orchid Gray, and Arctic Silver. Maple Gold and Coral Blue are being saved for other regions.

Screen

Let’s spend a little more time on one of the headline features of this phone: the screen. The 5.8-inch Super AMOLED display is clear, bright and colorful, with a QHD resolution (and a little bit more, thanks to the screen being extended further down the chassis and now offering an 18.5:9 aspect ratio).

That stretch is significant, as it allows more content to be spilled down the front of the phone, with all the internal apps optimized to make use of this larger space. LG is the other brand to do such a thing, with the LG G6, but it tried to use it in a ‘two square’ interface, essentially putting two apps in one on the screen, whereas Samsung is just making everything look a bit larger.

There’s no way to easily make everything widescreen when it comes to third-party apps, which may mean some people don’t make full use of the longer display unless they trek through the settings menu on the Galaxy S8.

Samsung is also talking up the fact that it’s got the first truly mobile HDR screen on the market, which seems a bit harsh on LG and Sony, given they’ve already announced such things. More importantly, those brands have partnered with Netflix and/ or Amazon to bring true HDR content to their phones.

Samsung is probably doing the same with the S8, but hasn’t mentioned anything along those lines at the time of writing – and as such, an HDR screen seems pointless at lanuch. Even if it is able to use the Netflix and Amazon content, there’s not a lot of point right now, as it costs more and doesn’t add enough to warrant the expense.

However, for the future of this handset and others, HDR technology will make a difference.

Bixby

Samsung has shocked us in a small way by announcing Bixby, its own take on an intelligent assistant, before the lanuch of the phone. The Samsung Galaxy S8 is clearly the launch vehicle for the AI service, and there’s even a dedicated Bixby key on the side of the Galaxy S8 so you’ve always got instant access to the portal.

The first phones to use Bixby will be those in South Korea and the US, with places like the UK getting it later as Samsung works to integrate the accents with its service.

We should probably talk about what Bixby actually is: it’s meant to be a frictionless assistant that can follow you through voice, the camera or touch, learning what you want it to do, and not requiring you to know a specific set of phrases to make it work.

However, that’s not what we saw at launch – what we saw was a slow and clunky imitation of every other voice assistant on a phone. At this point you can basically use Bixby to make a call, look up wine or work out places around you through image recognition.

Given that Samsung is making such a big deal about how Bixby will be contextual and understand what you want, when you want, it seems odd that it’s being launched now at all. Google Assistant is still available on the Galaxy S8, and is arguably far more useful. For instance, you can still say ‘Okay Google’ and do all the things Bixby can and more… without needing to press a dedicated button.

That said, Bixby isn’t a service for now. Samsung intends to build on it, make it available to all the apps on the phone and offer a software developer kit to the app makers in the future. 

That’s fine, but Amazon, Google and Microsoft are all roaring ahead with their voice assistants, so it’s hard to see how Samsung will catch up and convince the world to add Bixby voice recognition to its gadgets. Then again, that head-start the others have could be the very reason Samsung is scrambling to launch, in order not to lose any more ground.

Bixby is fine at this early stage, but nowhere near the power of its rivals. Being able to ask your phone to call someone for you, or give you the weather forecast, isn’t that impressive at all, but Bixby Vision, built into the camera, is already much more compelling, as it allows you to identify items and give you info on wine (which so many phones seem to like to do) already.

It’s reminiscent of the Amazon Fire Phone, to the point where we wonder if there wasn’t some sort of tie-in between the two companies.

Specs

In terms of the Samsung Galaxy S8 spec, there are no surprises here for anyone who’s been keeping tabs on the leaks. 4GB of RAM sits alongside either the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset, or Samsung’s own Exynos 8895; we’ve not had these chips confirmed to us yet, nor which region is getting which variant, but our sources have told us that this is the configuration we can expect.

You can see the rest of the specs listed at the top of this piece, but whichever chipset has been used it’s using a 10nm fabrication process, which means everything can be made more efficient at the heart of the phone.

As such, the Samsung Galaxy S8 has a 10% more powerful CPU than last year, and a 21% more grunty GPU for better manipulation of all the little blocks on the screen.

Interface

Samsung has, once again, refined its user interface to provide its own Samsung Experience (formerly TouchWiz) skin on top of Android 7.0 Nougat. This UI is unfairly maligned by some, and the new upgrades fuse Android and Samsung’s own design ethos together well.

One of the most noticeable changes here is to the app tray – there isn’t one on the home screen. However, swipe your finger up or down from the main display and you’re taken to your hordes of apps – it’s a nice way of doing things, and feels very natural.

Talking of which, we’ve been very impressed with the way Samsung has managed to offset the loss of the fingerprint scanner from the front of the phone. Where before it was a simple press-in of the mechanical button and you were inside the phone, now it’s moved all the way to the back by the camera, and no longer clicks in when pressed.

The move has the potential to be annoying – however, you can use iris scanning or facial recognition to unlock the phone just by holding it up slightly. 

We had huge worries over whether the iris scanning was going to work in this instance, as the system on the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was terrible. You needed to hold the phone in a very particular way under certain lighting, and even then it wasn’t accurate.

The iris scanning on the Galaxy S8, however, is miles faster, and better at noticing who you are, although you do still need to hold the phone at a very precise angle.

Better than that is the facial recognition, which is almost instant in its ability to work out who you are. It is, of course, not as secure as iris scanning, as it can probably be duped with a decent picture of the S8 owner’s face, but as a method of opening a PIN-secured phone without having to peck at the screen a thousand times a day, it works very well.

There’s still a home key of sorts on the front of the Galaxy S8 too, with a virtual, pressure-sensitive key sitting just below the screen. It’s similar to the way in which the new iPhone 7 TouchID key doesn’t actually press in, but vibrates in a way that makes you think it has.

The interface on the Samsung Galaxy is blisteringly fast under the finger. The only time we saw any slowdown was when exiting the video player, and that’s acceptable for many handsets – although we did rather hope a phone of this power and (likely) cost would be flawless throughout.

The design changes to the UI on the Samsung Galaxy S8 aren’t massive, but everything has been made to look more like ancient runes or hieroglyphics than before, with symbols being used to signify how to interact with the phone at the base of the screen.

The app icons are sharper and more rounded, and the general look and feel of the menus is more fluid than before, with fewer angular shapes and more of a ‘natural’ feel.

Camera

In terms of the camera on the Samsung Galaxy S8, we’re oddly seeing little in the way of improvement over the (admittedly impressive) snapper on the Samsung Galaxy S7 from 2016, despite promises to the contrary.

The specs tell the same story as the experience: a 12MP sensor on the rear, with an f/1.7 aperture a fast autofocus. Those specs contributed to, arguably, the best camera on a smartphone in 2016, and Samsung clearly doesn’t want to tinker with the formula.

We were expecting a dual-lens design, similar to the one found in the iPhone 7 Plus and multiple Huawei phones (as well as rival LG’s G6), but Samsung clearly has other design issues it wants to solve first.

One of the big upgrades on board is to the multi-frame image feature, where three snaps are shot and the best is selected for you with each picture. It’s not clear at this time whether this is an interpolation of all three pictures, in the same way as HDR on smartphones works for brightness and color, or if it’s just the Galaxy S8 looking for the sharpest image of three.

There’s no sign of the super slow-motion, 1,000 frames per second video to rival the same feature on the Sony Xperia XZ Premium, but there are a lot of features that will make most smartphone camera fans happy.

The auto mode is rapid and takes brilliantly sharp images every time, the pro mode is slick and fully-featured, and there are a host of other modes (included background defocus, just like in the iPhone 7 Plus… although Samsung has been doing it a lot longer) to keep you interested with the snapper.

It’s hard to say whether Samsung was right to stick here, rather than twisting up a better camera sensor and package, but the Galaxy S8 does still take brilliant pictures quickly and simply, and that’s not a bad place to be.

The front-facing camera has been upgraded to 8MP and is clear and sharp too – with a great low-light sensor once more we’re confident this will be a great selfie phone.

Samsung has curiously added effects to the front-facing camera, in a weird attempt to mimic the likes of Snap, but it seems like such a light effort it hardly seems worth doing. That said, we did enjoy becoming a cartoon pup with a single tap.

And let’s not forget Bixby Vision, which is baked into the camera itself – you’ll be able to instantly look up places or objects using the snapper, and this will be there at launch… no need to wait around for there to be a UK English version on the table (for example), as this doesn’t need your voice.

Battery

There’s only a 3000mAh battery in the Samsung Galaxy S8, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a problem – the only issue we can see is that the longer screen that’s on offer has more pixels to power, but with a CPU/GPU combination that’s more powerful than before there are some efficiencies to be offered in terms of saving the battery life.

There’s also wireless and fast charging on board by default – Samsung didn’t talk up the battery prowess in any way during its briefing, which means it’s likely there’s no massive upgrade to the speed of charging or to the wireless power management.

It’s odd that Samsung hasn’t made a big deal about these two key elements of a phone; if you want to make a world-beating handset you need long battery life and a great snapper. Samsung had both of these last year, but will reusing the same spec have the same effect?

Accessories

There are a host of accessories on offer for the Samsung Galaxy S8, and our favorite by far is the Samsung DeX, which turns Android into a true desktop-class environment.

The effort is minimal: plug your phone into the dock, connect a monitor and keyboard and you’re away. You can edit documents on the go through Google’s productivity apps or Microsoft Office, or connect to a remote desktop using Citrix or Amazon WorkPlaces.

It’s a really slick service (although slow to boot up and disengage, with a few blips of slowdown with the interface) and it makes us feel that Samsung should have launched a laptop shell for the system… that would have been a huge leap forward for what phones can do (pour one out for Motorola’s dockable Atrix though).

The AKG headphones that come bundled with every Samsung Galaxy S8 (and S8 Plus) are powerful, without erring too hard on the side of bass. They’re far more lightweight than we were expecting, but the sound quality was natural enough, and many will be pleased with what’s on offer in the box.

Early verdict

If Samsung gets the price right, it can pretty much hit a homerun with the Galaxy S8. It’s a great mix of power and design, with the screen on the front rightly being the headline feature of this phone – the new display on the Samsung Galaxy S8 is the most attractive we’ve ever seen on any phone.

There are some question marks that could lead to possible issues down the line though: will the camera and battery, which appear to be shorn of upgrades, be good enough for two years’ use? Why is Bixby given its own dedicated button when it’s such a limited service right now?

That aside, it’s very hard to fault the Samsung Galaxy S8. It’s fast, attractive and has the biggest screen possible in a very compact body. The battery was good enough on the S7, so should be acceptable here, and while we’re not sold on the new AI at all (Google Assistant, also on board, is far better) the DeX dock is a real game-changer if it works well and is widely sold.

The Samsung Galaxy S8 appears to be the phone to beat in 2017 – and it looks like the competition will have a hard time doing that.

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