Samsung Galaxy S8 Maple Gold

Samsung needs a hit phone after the Note 7 debacle. The Galaxy S8 Plus could fit the bill. It is an elegant, slim, feature-packed slab of glass and metal.

Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus at a glance

For:Looks great, feels great
Well made,
Feature packed.
Against:Fixed battery,
Fingerprint scanner position,
Android 7.0, not 7.1,
Single lens camera.
Maybe:Flashing notification led,
Bixby,
Sound.
Verdict:The best Android phone on the market
Price:$1500 (S8 also available at $1300)
Website:Samsung

For years premier phones have inched towards the ideal format. That is the largest possible screen on the smallest, thinnest case.

Samsung takes the biggest screen, smallest case idea further than anyone. The Galaxy S8 has a front that is almost all screen. That is handset screen nirvana.

The display’s glass curves to wrap around the sides of the phone. The top and bottom of the front have edges, phone geeks call them bezels, of about 10mm and 6mm1. This means the display takes up close to nine-tenths of the phone’s front.

The sound of one hand phoning

It is a beautiful display. No one makes screens better than Samsung. You won’t find a better phone display anywhere else2. At least for now.

The screen is long and narrow. Almost like the slot in a letter box. It is 5.8 inches and uses the QHD standard. Samsung calls it the infinity display.

Thanks to the Amoled panel, the screen is bright while colours are rich and vivid. Screen contrast is close to perfection. Again, it underlines the earlier point about this being the best phone display to date.

Narrow body

Samsung packs all this into a body that’s a shade under 70mm wide. That is a full 10mm narrower than the Apple iPhone 7 Plus.

What this means in practice is that it sits better in the hand. You need big hands to grasp and work the iPhone 7 Plus. Far more people will get to work that way with the S8.

With the Galaxy S8 Plus, Samsung pulled off a design feat putting a bigger screen on a phone that is still easy to hold in one hand. There’s no question this is the most comfortable phone to hold.

The Galaxy S8 design looks new and modern in a category where designs were starting to look much the same. Recent phones from Oppo and Huawei pay homage to Apple’s iPhone. Samsung has gone its own way. If you place it beside the iPhone 7, Apple’s design, so modern when it first appeared, now looks a little old.

 

Samsung Galaxy S8

Feelings

To make the infinity screen Samsung moved the fingerprint button to the rear of the phone. Reaching to that spot isn’t a problem in itself, but the button is only a few millimetres from the camera lens.

When reaching for the button, my finger often found the lens first. That’s a recipe for grubby smudges on the lens. It didn’t happen during the review, but it seems an accident waiting to happen.

The Galaxy S8 lens isn’t flush with the case, there’s a tiny ridge around it. But there is no disfiguring and sometimes uncomfortable bump like on the iPhone 7.

Instead of capacitive buttons, there are software buttons on the screen. It’s an elegant engineering solution, but in practice it doesn’t always work. I found myself pressing the keys expecting them to do their and then repressing. The home key is pressure sensitive. You have to give it a positive push.

Samsung’s earlier curved displays had problems with phantom key presses. I didn’t see this at all with the Galaxy S8, but I haven’t tried the pickier apps.

At times this is frustrating. Also frustrating is that the screen doesn’t always respond when you try to wake the phone.

Performance

It is hard to find a modern premium phone that isn’t snappy. They all seem to have more than enough power for everyday use.

The Galaxy S8 is no slouch in this department. More important than raw speed is that the phone doesn’t slurp battery power when pushed to the limits. At the same time, it doesn’t heat up.

Call quality is good on the Galaxy S8, but the sound is not as loud as on some other premium phones. The speaker is a little tinny compared to some rival devices. This notices most when you use the Galaxy S8 in loudspeaker mode, say, to share a call with others. This is a noticeable weak spot.

There’s a 3.5mm socket for the earphones. Again the earphone sound is not as impressive as on other recent premium phones. It seems Samsung pays less attention to how things sound than to how they look and feel.

Battery

For years the main shortcoming of premium phones has been battery life. A phone isn’t that useful if it can get you from one end to another of a busy working day without recharging.

Samsung has delivered on this with a vengeance. In practice I found it lasts for well over 24 hours of normal use. That’s without using any of the power saving software features. If you opt for more conservative settings and don’t overdo things, you can extend this to 36 hours.

There is wireless charging if you have the right charger. If you don’t the USB-C connector works fast enough. It is possible to give the phone a full charge in 90 minutes. Sure, there are faster charging phones out there, but this is good by any standard.

Software

Samsung’s earlier Galaxy S phones had a software overlay that subtracted from Android. Over the years the company has learned to dial back on irritating gimmicks. Today’s TouchWiz is a huge improvement. It’s still annoying at times, but it’s no longer a reason not to choose a Galaxy S phone.

As you’d expect it is customisable. There’s so much opportunity to change things that a geek could tinker for weeks before doing real work. Some see that as Android’s big advantage. Each to his or her own.

One issue the brand new phone is that it doesn’t have the latest version of Android. Samsung delivered the Galaxy S8 with Android 7.0. Given Samsung’s historic tardiness with Android upgrades, this could be a problem.

Bixby smixby

Bixby, Samsung’s answer to Siri, is disappointing. Like all software, there is an opportunity to upgrade it. Before you get excited, remember Samsung is slow at delivering software updates.

There’s a dedicated button on the left of the phone under the volume controls which switches Bixby on. This is faster than, say, the long press on the home button needed to get Siri moving. And it’s more reliable than “hey Siri” or “OK Google”.

However, there’s a negative here. On a minimal phone design an extra button is a big deal. Because Bixby is flawed and only marginally usable, it turns out the button is something of a white elephant. At least for now.

It doesn’t help that you can reprogram the Bixby button to do something else. No doubt hacks or apps will appear soon to do just this.

Google Assistant, only nothing like as good

When you hit the Bixby button, the screen then displays something that looks a lot like Google Now. You get cards showing information from a handful of your phone widgets. The most useful is the weather card. Most of the others are annoying, a form of advertising or a waste of time.

At the product launch Samsung showed Bixby responding to voice input. That’s not ready yet. It promises the US voice assistant later this year. Those of us who have been around technology a long time know not to buy hardware on the promise of a later software update.

A lot of the information provided by Bixby is wrong. OK, not wrong; inappropriate. As I write the news widget shows only US news, sport and business information. That’s despite setting the phone for New Zealand. This is typical of the unfinished nature of Samsung software.

My Bixby display also shows what it calls “Nearby Places”. But it does this without any intelligence. So, I get what looks like a promotion for the Hobsonville Farmer’s Market. As the crow flies it is only a kilometre or so from where I am sitting. Yet, it is the other side of the harbour, maybe a 40 minute drive by car if traffic is light.

Samsung hasn’t replaced Google Assistant. It is still there if you long-press the home button. Keeping it may be a contractual obligation between Samsung and Google. If not, leaving it in the phone could prove a strategic mistake.

That’s because Google Assistant is better than today’s version Bixby. This wouldn’t matter if Samsung didn’t much such a fuss about its software. But every time you hit one of the two buttons you are reminded that Samsung has yet to deliver.

Camera

Samsung is the only premium phone maker in the last year not to make a huge song and dance about its camera. That’s not because it is bad or unremarkable. A possible reason is the camera on the Galaxy S8 is a much the same as the one on the Galaxy Note 7.

Could it be Samsung doesn’t want to remind us of that phone?

Another possibility is that Samsung has fallen behind the market in this department. Many other premium phones now come with dual lens cameras. This delivers great results that are harder to get from the Galaxy S8 Plus. Dual lens means better depth of field, more zoom options and different focal lengths.

The back camera is as good as any you’ll find on a premium phone. It has a fast f/1.7 lens and optical image stabilisation. It lets in a lot of light. A 12-megapixel sensor may not sound impressive by 2017 standards, but it’s all anyone needs on a phone. In practice it does a good job and shines in low light conditions.

Front-facing cameras have had more attention from phone makers this year. Samsung’s main update here is to add autofocus to the front camera. It’s a feature I’ve not seen anywhere else.

One area where Samsung got the phone software right is the camera app. There are plenty of controls and it is easy enough to use when you are racing about.

Other points

  • The virtual home button is not as easy to use as you’d hope. It sometimes doesn’t register. I found I gave myself a mild new variety of repetitive strain injury pushing it too hard too often
  • While the design looks beautiful, the phone feels fragile. You wouldn’t want to drop $1500 in the street, but that’s what could happen if the phone slips out of your hand. This might be deceptive. There haven’t been widespread reports of breakages yet.
  • There’s a lot to be said for the narrow screen format when watching high quality video. It’s not always the best shape for viewing photos. Moreover, I find it easier to use apps like Microsoft Word on the squarer displays. Maybe that will change with familiarity and practice.
  • On the other hand, this format is better for working with a split screen. Although split-screen work on a phone is not the best way to squeeze productivity from a handheld.
  • DeX is an intriguing idea. In theory it is a NZ$250 docking station that turns the Galaxy S8 into a desktop computer. It wasn’t possible to test this at the time of the review.
  • The problem with DeX is that you’re stuck with Android. It’s not the best operating system for this kind of work.

Specifications

Screen:6.2 in quad HD Amoled
Processor:octa-core Samsung Exynos 8895 or octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835
Ram:4GB
Storage:64GB with slot for microSD card
Software:Android 7.0,
Samsung TouchWiz
Camera:12 megapixel rear with optical image stabilisation,
8 megapixel front camera
Size:150 x 70 x 8mm
Weight:155g

Samsung Galaxy S8 verdict

Samsung’s Galaxy S8 is a fine phone. Unless some hitherto unseen Achilles Heel emerges, it repairs Samsung’s reputation. It also regain’s the best Android phone crown for Samsung3.

On the outside it looks and feels close to perfect. It also feels more modern than other premium phones. That’s an achievement given how much their designs are converging.

Away from the external features, the Galaxy S8 is noticeably better than rival Android phones, but it isn’t in a higher league. By the end of the year one or two of the other phone makers will have either caught up or headed off in a different direction.

Would you want to upgrade from a Galaxy S7? There’s no question the newer phone is better. But then you’d expect that. Apart from looks, most of the improvements over the S8 are incremental. Spending $1500 won’t make you work faster or better. You won’t get much more enjoyment or entertainment.


  1. The curve makes accurate measurement hard. ↩︎
  2. This is something I’ve written a few times. It was true then and is today. Phone makers in general and Samsung in particular continue to refine screen technology. They get better and better. ↩︎
  3. I plan to write a separate post comparing the Galaxy S8 with the iPhone 7. ↩︎
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