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Galaxy S8 and Plus

Samsung Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ Overview

 

That the Galaxy S8 feels like such a complete thought out of the box likely speaks to how long the phone was in development. In this overview, we’re going to be referring to the Galaxy S8 and S8+ interchangeably because, for all intents and purposes, and unlike last year, they are one phone in two sizes.

That’s due to a renewed focus on fundamentals, on sticking with what works and evolving the experience in small, meaningful ways. There are regressions, in one major and one minor way, but we’ll get to that.

It has been using the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ at different times for a total of two weeks. Both models are unlocked Canadian models connected to AT&T in the U.S. or Rogers in Canada, with Snapdragon 835 processors and Sony IMX camera sensors.

 

 

One day prior to the review embargo, Samsung released a small update for the Galaxy S8 and S8+ updating the software to Build G950WVLU1AQD9. The update prepared the units for Bixby Voice (which still doesn’t work) and updated the security patch to April 1, 2017. It also closed the loophole to allow remapping of the Bixby button.

A Fitbit Alta HR was connected to the phones during the review period.

The main takeaway here, and the reason we feel comfortable combining the two phones into a single review is because, unlike their predecessors, the S8 and S8+ are merely two sizes, and even then, aren’t that drastically different. The Galaxy S8 is 5.8 inches, with a new 18.5:9 aspect ratio; the S8+ is 6.2 inches, which makes it a bit taller and slightly wider, with a battery 16% larger.

Since 2016, Samsung has built its flagship phones with aluminum frames and glass fronts and backs. And as good as the Galaxy S6 series was, the refinement in this year’s phones is noticeable. The curved glass front meets the metal frame at the same gradual angle as the back, which maintains symmetry that debuted on the Note 7, but here looks even better.

Part of that comes down to Samsung’s color choices — color-matched metal around the Midnight Black model, or muted purple hue of the Orchid Gray — but much of it is about curves.

 

The corners curve; the display curves; the glass curves. This is a phone that has no sharp corners, nowhere to focus our attention away from the massive screen. If you think back to the proposition of the Galaxy S3, all the way back in 2012, Samsung wanted the focus on its “pebble design” and Nature UX. This phone, five years later, is the culmination of that journey, for better or worse.

That shape and choice of materials also lends the phone an unprecedented slipperiness. You probably shouldn’t try to nestle the Galaxy S8 in the crook of your neck while you’re talking on the phone. After a few hours — sometimes a few minutes, even — the phone will be fingerprint-smudged and slippery, so if you’re clumsy you will probably want to invest in a case, or a microfiber cloth.

 

But hold it in your hand, and it feels fantastic. You’re getting either a 5.8-inch or 6.2-inch QHD+ display, but both use Samsung’s latest AMOLED panels, at a 2960×1440 resolution. We’re not going to get bogged down by semantics, but as Alex Dobie points out, the screens themselves are not their exact sizes; instead, they’re closer to 5.3 and 5.7 inches if you compare them to traditional 16:9 screens. Whatever the case, you’re getting more vertical realestate in a phone you can hold and use in one hand. The larger of the two, the S8+, is a little less amenable to single-paw use, but it’s still far narrower than something like the Pixel XL, and has far more usable screen real estate.

 

The screens are amazing. Great viewing angles are expected these days, but Samsung has once again found a way to make the Super AMOLED panel on both versions of the phone bright and, more importantly, accurate. They are DCI-P3 compliant, which gives them a wider color gamut than a typical RGB palette. That, in addition to being HDR certified, makes them technically proficient, which is great, but you’re also getting one of the most pleasurable viewing experiences on a phone today.

Even though wide-angle video is cut off (though some apps make minor crops to fill the display), the tradeoff is worth it. As good as the LCD panel is on the LG G6, Samsung practically owns the OLED space, and it’s becoming clear that the thinner display technology is the future of mobile screens.

It really can’t be overstated how beautiful this hardware is.

That screen — the so-called Infinity Display — is not a huge departure from something like the Galaxy S7’s edge, but it eliminates as much of the bezels above and below the display as possible. LG did it first with the G6 — well, Xiaomi did it with the Mi Mix, and Huawei has been inching towards it for years — but this is a truly remarkable achievement nonetheless. Samsung did it, in part, because it finally removed the home button from the front of the phone, adopting on-screen navigation buttons for the first time in its history. And you can’t talk about that without talking about what you’re losing.

 

So there’s no physical home button, just three on-screen navigation keys. They’re in the traditional “reverse” Samsung order — recent apps, home, back — but you can change that. The achievement comes in the form of an “invisible” home button, a tactile area below the on-screen home button that offers real feedback from a precise haptic engine.

The most controversial change to the Galaxy S8 is the placement of the fingerprint sensor.

Not only does this alleviate some of the angst around losing that physical key, but it allows you to turn on the screen as you would that physical counterpart by pressing at any time — even when the display is off. That, combined with the ultra-fast face recognition built into the S8, made me miss that front-facing fingerprint sensor a lot less.

 

The most controversial change to the Galaxy S8 is the placement of that fingerprint sensor. Now on the back, right next to the camera, it’s not quite as bad as it looks — especially on the smaller S8 — but it’s still not great. Rumor has it that Samsung was working on a way to outfit the S8 with a below-the-glass biometrics, but couldn’t make it work in time. And while I wish Samsung would have thrown symmetry to the wind and placed it center, below the camera, I found myself only using the fingerprint sensor when the face recognition wasn’t feasible.

Thankfully, starting with the Galaxy S7 series and continuing here, it appears thinness is no longer a top priority for Samsung; the Galaxy S8 is 8mm thick, while the S8+ is 8.1mm, perfectly suited for a modest, but not huge, battery, and the complete elimination of a camera bump. The 12MP rear sensor on the back is completely flush with the glass, ringed by metal and flanked by an LED flash and heart rate sensor on the left and the fingerprint sensor on the right.

The Galaxy S8 has been bestowed a USB-C port, the reversible standard that, along with fast charging and dual-mode wireless charging, suits my lifestyle perfectly. Practically all my “bag cables” are USB-C, and the fewer Micro-USB cables I need to tote around with me, the better. Samsung has also improved the single down-port speaker on the Galaxy S8, giving it some extra power that puts it on par with products like the Pixel with similar designs. It gets considerably louder than the thin speakers of the Huawei P10, OnePlus 3T and LG G6, and along with the superlative (and customizable) quality from the headphone port, reinforces the fact that despite not really talking it up, Samsung still takes audio very seriously. A nice surprise.

 

Aside from the bevy of sensors aligning the narrow strip of bezel atop the display, the only other major change to the Galaxy S8’s design is the addition of an extra button on the left side of the phone. That’s for Bixby, Samsung’s AI-powered assistant, and when pressed launches Bixby Home. Soon (but not now), when held it will launch Bixby Voice, and let you dictate various commands to it.

It really can’t be overstated how beautiful this hardware is. Even if the software was utter garbage (which it isn’t), Samsung would get points for its mastery of form, and how far it’s come from the plasticky, Band-Aid designs of the Galaxy S4 and S5. The S8 series is not some remarkable departure from its predecessor, but a consolidation of the good ideas therein with the available (and burgeoning) technologies of 2017. You’ll likely see more companies release phones of this shape, size and aspect ratio this year, but none will be able to offer an AMOLED screen of this caliber (HDR certification, DCI-P3 color gamut) with a flexible display and curved glass that isn’t just a gimmick (well, mostly isn’t a gimmick).

 

Better than it ever was

Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+ Software

The Galaxy S8 ships with Android 7.0 running Samsung’s latest Experience design: ultra-minimal, with an emphasis on white backgrounds with light blue accents. Icons are wireframes that stand out from the rest of Google’s (and the rest of Android’s, for that matter) Material Design leanings, and the front navigation buttons are a bizarre mess of abstract shapes that feel like they defy Google’s accepted practices for no other reason than just to prove they can.

This may be the first Samsung launcher I stick with.

That said, Samsung’s new launcher is pretty great, with a gesture-friendly home screen that does a lot with a little. By default, the app drawer icon is hidden, encouraging users to swipe up or down in unused space to open the still-horizontal series of apps. The changes may seem arbitrary to anyone coming from a non-Samsung phone, but current Galaxy users will see the continuity in these design decisions. For what it’s worth, this is the first time I’ve ever used a Samsung phone without wanting to immediately throw away the launcher for something clearly better. Face recognition is not new to Android, but this implementation is so much better as to be, well, unrecognizable to the average smartphone user. Because you can turn on the Galaxy S8 by tapping on the invisible home button (Samsung’s term, not mine) and have the phone automatically begin scanning for a face, the sequence, while not quite as fast as a front-facing fingerprint sensor, is just as seamless, and when it works, it’s a remarkable achievement.

 

Despite having a curved screen, the Edge display features don’t really add anything to the Galaxy S8.

To cap off the software experience, Samsung’s hidden a lot of little treats inside the menus, from the ability to color the navigation buttons to a fully-customizable audio equalizer that adapts to your particular set of headphones. There’s an improved one-handed mode, especially useful on the Galaxy S8+, and the ability to swipe down on the fingerprint sensor, à la Huawei, to expose the notifications.

Apps that aren’t optimized for the Galaxy S8’s taller aspect ratio can be forced to conform — my default email app, Newton, saw no ill effects — and Samsung has taken it upon itself to optimize YouTube for the larger display, intelligently cropping content so it fills the entire 18.5:9 screen.

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