phone cameras

Every recent high-end phone launch has focused, sorry about that, on the device’s camera. Likewise, phone promotion or marketing always pushes cameras to the fore.

Samsung launched the Galaxy S9 in Auckland last month. The company invited journalists to an open plan restaurant. There, Samsung invited journalists to photograph the chef preparing food.

The menu included a dish with a viscous pour-on sauce. This was a clever way of highlighting the S9’s very slow motion video function. The results were impressive.

Samsung hired a video professional to take slow motion footage of bees entering a hive. Shown on a giant TV screen, the pictures were crystal clear and, at times, had stunning clarity.

When phone makers show journalists new devices, they devote at least half the time to cameras.

Apple and Huawei have the same emphasis on photography.

Phone makers with smaller budgets push camera features to the top of their press releases.

Camera talk

During technical presentations company insiders talk at great length about phone features. At least a third of allotted time is camera talk. You can come away with the impression that’s all they want to talk about.

Every phone maker mentioned so far and some others will tell you they have the best phone camera. In a limited sense most of them are right, although it depends on your terms of reference. No phone costing, say, $800 or more has a bad camera.

In the last year or so, every phone maker used the word ‘bokeh’ at least once in their launch presentation. It would not be hard to think up a cliché bingo card for phone launch attendees.

If this sounds like ‘me too’ market, well, it can be at times. Everyone seems to think a fashion parade is original.

Yet there are important difference. Each company’s best camera excels at something else. Samsung’s Galaxy S9 does well in low light and can do very slow motion video. Huawei’s Mate 10 is best for black and white photography.

Most phone makers can point at unique camera hardware features. They can all point at unique software.

The quality of still and moving pictures from high end phones is remarkable. If you know what you’re doing — we’ll come back to that point — you can achieve wonderful things. This is even more impressive when you consider how small the lenses are. Phone lenses are prone to finger smudges and camera shake is a given.

A point of difference

So why do phone makers put so much emphasis on cameras? An obvious reason is cameras differentiate what can otherwise be me-too products.

Telephony and connectivity are much the same on all phones including cheap ones. Screen resolution is higher than the human eye can perceive. Few high-end phones struggle with processing power. These days they all look alike.

While there is a huge and obvious software difference between Apple’s iPhone range and Android handsets, you couldn’t say the same for Android models. Phone makers add their own software skins to stock Android. In almost every case this detracts value, at least from the customer’s perspective.

This leaves cameras and camera software as a playground for creativity and innovation. Which, in turn, brings us to the second reason phone makers place so much emphasis on photography.

Phone hardware designs and specifications have stabilised. With the move to remove bezels, that is the borders around screens, there’s little left to tinker with. Samsung struggles deciding where to put its fingerprint scanner. Otherwise, physical phone design has reached a cul-de-sac, at least for now.

The Galaxy S9 looks so much like the S8. Samsung had to come up with a new case colour for people wanting to show off their new phone.

Room for improvement

Over the last few years phone makers found room for improvement in their camera hardware and software. It’s likely this will soon reach another dead end. The laws of physics mean there’s only so much you can do with a tiny lens and sensor array.

The last big innovation was the move to dual lens cameras. This hasn’t played out yet. Meanwhile, at least one phone maker, Huawei, is talking of a triple lens camera.

There’s a danger this could become like the disposable razor business. There, for a time, adding an extra blade gave the appearance of innovation to an otherwise evolved product. It could be like tail fins on 1950s American cars. In effect we’re talking innovation for the sake of having an innovation talking point.

Another danger is that customers are loosing interest in phone cameras. Or, more likely, customer interest in phone cameras is not in alignment with phone maker hype.

Take, again, the Samsung Galaxy S9 slow-motion video feature. As mentioned early, the results are impressive, but how many Galaxy S9 buyers will use it?

Or, more to the point, how many will continue to use it beyond playing around with it when they first get their phone?

You can ask the same question about many of the camera innovations phone makers promote. Is the beauty mode, which attempts to make people look better, anything more than passing fad. How many phone owners have taken more than a handful of bokeh shots with blurred backgrounds?

Are people buying cameras or phones?

Slow-motion video is nice-to-have, but it’s unlikely more than one phone buyer in 20 will use it often. Similar reasoning goes for all fancy high-end phone camera features.

The flip side of this logic is worth considering. High-end phones with fancy camera features sell at a considerable premium. You may pay NZ$500 extra to get that super camera in your hands. If you only use it a dozen or so times, that feature has cost you $40 a shot.

Skeptical readers might see the industry’s obsession with camera phones as a way of forcing up handset prices. It also repairs margins in a business where only Apple and Samsung make decent money.

Of course, you can use phone cameras for serious work. If you need to take pictures in your job, the extra cost can be a smart investment.

Yet, in general you can’t take pictures of the quality you’d get from a SLR or any decent camera with a much bigger lens and sensor array. Phone cameras are handy, we carry them with us all the time. And the quality is so good that at times it is hard to tell if an iPhone or a Canon took the shot.

Hard to use

One phone camera drawback is they are hard to use in a hurry. Sure, all the phone makers tell us how easy their products are to use. Even so, the software can be confusing.

Phone camera interfaces are often tiny and you need to hunt around to find controls. Almost everyone uses the default mode for every shot. What’s more, stabbing at controls on a phone screen is not the best way to steady your hand to take pictures. Adjusting and using a digital SLR is easy in comparison.

There is still some room for improvement with phone cameras. Among other things Huawei’s third lens could do the trick. There is scope for yet more innovation in the software and, yes, a better user interface.

No doubt other improvements are in the works. At best we may see one or two more cycles. In the meantime some phone makers are switching their marketing attention to what they call AI or artificial intelligence.

It’s questionable whether this is real AI in the sense that the software learns things from use. There’s also a big question over whether phone buyers give a toss for this approach. We’ll see.

End of the golden age

Phone makers face a far bigger problem than competition with each other. It appears phone sales have faltered and now may be about to end the same kind of fall that has plagued the PC sector.

People are hanging on to phone longer. Research companies like IDC and Gartner put this down to consumers not being so enchanted with new feature that they feel a need to upgrade.

Given the marketing emphasis phone makers put on cameras, that can be evidence they are out of sync with what customers want. Whatever that is, it’s unlikely to be a way of taking better photographs or videos.

Also on:

Mobile phone handsetPeople are paying more for phones. After years of falling prices, market research firm GfK reports the average price of a phone climbed seven percent in the last year. The number of phones sold worldwide climbed three percent during the year. Sales fell in North America and Western Europe.

GfK works with actual sales data rather than the shipments preferred by some analysts. This means the information is a more accurate reflection of consumer behaviour.

The clear pattern is that phone makers have switched focus towards more expensive premium smartphone models. Apple, Samsung and, most of all, Huawei all moved their customers upmarket. GfK says the premium features have become more important to customers.

What phone buyers want

They now look for: “water and dust protection, battery power and memory, high-resolution sound, camera and video capabilities, bezel-less design and even biometric sensors”.

Rising handset prices run counter to conventional technology hardware wisdom. The usual pattern is for prices to fall over time as manufacturers improve processes and wring out economies of scale. This is accelerated by new market entrants undercutting existing players.

The phone market has been running on a different track ever since Apple introduced the first iPhone a decade ago. For most of that time Apple has made almost all the industry’s profit despite having only a minority market share.

Aggressive phone prices

To a degree Apple’s rivals bought market share with aggressive discounting. That made sense to them during the growth years as people around the world bought their first smartphones.

It meant the phone business went through the usual economic cycle much faster than earlier technology waves. While it was always a competitive business, there were far few players than in, say, personal computer hardware.

There have been casualties along the way. Blackberry, Nokia and HTC were all roadkill on the route to today’s market.

Chasing margins

Now the phone makers, especially the Android phone makers, have turned their focus to margins and profitability. Hence the price rises. Apple pushed the bar higher again with its iPhone X which costs more than NZ$2000. Huawei has an even pricier phone.

Huawei is knocking on the door of Apple and Samsung. It aims to be the first Chinese company to be a global technology quality brand.

There’s still a way to go. The company’s products are excellent quality and contain as much innovation as brands like Samsung. Unlike Samsung, Huawei is on the whole more inclined to invest in engineering than in marketing budgets. That said, the company uses Scarlett Johansson in its advertising to great effect.

Huawei also teams with prestige brands. Its high-end phones use Leica camera lenses and its most expensive models have blingy Porsche designs.

Despite the company’s engineering prowess, Huawei has yet to master the art of looking after a customer after the sale. The biggest complaint you hear is that phone software is rarely, if ever, updated. That may be an issue that only concerns a certain market segment. Ironically, it is the market segment most likely to be drawn to advanced engineering.

Artificial intelligence

Huawei’s latest phone, the Mate 10, includes the kind of artificial intelligence features found in Apple and Samsung models. It’s ability to translate written languages feels almost like magic, or perhaps something from science fiction. In a similar vein, the phones take screenshots when you knock on the display with your knuckle.

For now, the sector’s move upmarket has created opportunities for mid-tier phone makers like Oppo. It’s another Chinese brand. Oppo sells an Android phone with about 90 percent of premium phone functionality for about 50 percent of the price.

Although Huawei would love to be seen as a serious rival to Apple, in truth the two address two quite different audiences. Few Apple iPhone owners would jump ship for a Mate 10. That’s not the case with Samsung customer, the two brands both use the same basic Android software and switching is relatively painless.

Galaxy Note 8Last year’s Galaxy Note 7 looked like a winner. It seemed to be the best Android phone. Then we learnt about battery explosions and burning phones.

Yesterday Samsung unveiled this year’s model. The company’s Auckland launch was a tired affair set in a grim industrial bunker.

After drinks the crowd was made to stand in the cold watching a dreary and blurry demonstration of, well, it’s not clear what Samsung intended to show us. Earlier in the week Oppo did a better launch job on a smaller budget.

A lot of people, including me, left at this point.

Solid, not remarkable

The event highlights the problem with the Note 8: it’s not that special, exciting or different. It doesn’t do anything significant that the Note 7 didn’t. You won’t be more productive or have more fun.

On the other hand, you won’t get burnt and you can travel on a plane without being a pariah.

Sure, Note 8 has a bigger screen than last year’s model. The front camera has more megapixels. There are dual lenses. Samsung uses a newer processor. Without hands-on testing it’s hard to tell if that means faster in practice.

Incremental

The key here is these are all incremental updates. It’s the Note 7 with a safer battery, nicer case and a few specification bumps.

That’s not to say the Note 8 is not a decent phone. It is. Battery issues aside the Note 7 was so far ahead of the curve, that an incremental update is all anyone could realistically expect.

And there are a lot of incremental updates. Together they add up to more than the sum of the parts.

Galaxy Note 8 comeback?

Samsung has a lot riding on the Galaxy Note 8. Almost every technology headline writer on the planet has referred to it as a comeback phone or used words to that effect.

In truth Samsung doesn’t need a comeback phone. The market has been generous to Samsung. If another Samsung phone has a melt-down the company will be in trouble, but its lead in the Android market remains strong. Huawei and Oppo are snapping at Samsung’s heels, but they were there last year too.

The Galaxy Note 8 poses two questions. First, is the latest Note sufficiently different from the Galaxy S8 Plus? As a casual observer at the launch function it felt like the two phones are converging, although I can’t put my finger on why that seems to be the case.

Samsung gave the Note a stylus. The Galaxy S8 doesn’t have one. Otherwise, there’s not much in it.

Stylus

There’s a sense that Samsung’s Galaxy Note stylus may have run its course. I notice many existing Note users don’t do much with their stylus. There aren’t lots of apps to make use of it, unlike the Apple Pencil.

Samsung’s stylus is like a technological security blanket. This may be different in Asia where people need to use more complex characters to write.

The second question posed by the Note 8 is about the competition from other Android brands. The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 will go on sale in New Zealand next month at $1600. That’s the same price as last year’s model. While it is cheaper than the Apple iPhone 7Plus, you can choose from a dozen or so cheaper Android alternatives including Samsung phones.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S3Whatever you think about iOS and Android phones, Apple’s tablets have always been streets ahead. Samsung wants to change that. Its Galaxy Tab S3 is anything but just-another-Android-tablet.

There’s nothing second-rate about this baby.

Samsung first showed the Galaxy Tab S3 in February. It went on sale in New Zealand last month. I’ve had my hands on a review model for the past two or three weeks. It is the only serious direct competitor to the iPad I’ve seen.

When the Galaxy Tab S3 first arrived, Apple was still selling last year’s 9.7-inch iPad Pro. That model was the tablet gold standard. Samsung’s tablet compares well with the 2016 iPad Pro.

Matches the 2016 9.7-inch iPad Pro

Feature-for-feature the Galaxy Tab S3 matches Apple’s hardware. With tablets the whole is greater than the sum of parts. Samsung’s glorious hardware is let down by the software, but when it comes to the stuff you can drop on your toes, the Galaxy Tab S3 was in reach of its rival.

Soon after I started this review, Apple released the next generation iPad Pro. The hardware has leapt ahead of Samsung. Apple also announced an iOS upgrade which, when it arrives, promises to widen the gap between the two.

Software is most important difference between the two tablets. Samsung’s tablet uses Google’s Android 7.0. It’s a smooth, slicker version of the operating system that works well on phones. It’s not so good on a tablet.

If you prefer Android or if use Android every day on your phone you might like the sound of Android 7.0 on a tablet. It could be fine, but Android doesn’t scale to fit larger screens as well as iOS.

Good apps missing in action

There is a bigger problem with Android. It lacks first-rate tablet apps. Many of the tablet apps you’ll find in the Google Play store are identical to their phone versions. Load them on to the Galaxy Tab S3 and their phone layouts expand to fill the larger display.

This can look horrible. At times you get huge, chunky text or pixellated images. But that’s not the worst part of this. Android app user interfaces often don’t scale well. They can be hard to use.

It’s as if Android app developers deliberately don’t cater for tablet customers. They rarely make use of any extra features a tablet might have.

Many apps don’t even make a decent transition from portrait to landscape screens. Although this can be poor in the operating system as well.

As a user you get the uncomfortable feeling you’re neglected, even unwelcome.

Good for consuming content

Because of this software neglect, Android tablets end up used as video players or browsers. You might also get to work with email and messaging. They are good at all these tasks, but don’t do much more.

And that restrains the potential of an Android tablet. The hardware might be good enough to replace a laptop for many people, but the software need to make this work in practice is not up to scratch.

Yet the iPad isn’t restricted this way. Many iOS apps are either rewritten or designed from the outset to scale. There is just an occasional hint of a problem running some obscure apps on the large 12.7-inch iPad.

In practice this means you can use an iPad to do a lot more. It works as a plausible laptop replacement. I’ve taken my iPad Pro instead of my MacBook Air on a number of recent trips and expect to do so in future.

A business-class Android tablet

In hardware terms Samsung has upped the ante for Android tablets. That’s not hard, many are lacklustre. Even so, the Galaxy Tab S3 is the best Android tablet I’ve ever seen.

It’s the first Android tablet that could be a productive business tool given better software support. And it’s the first worthy of consideration alongside the iPad or Surface Pro.

While it is cheaper than a Microsoft Surface Pro, it is still expensive at NZ$1100. That buys a model with 32GB storage and Wi-Fi. It includes a stylus. The sim-card version costs $100 more.

This compares with NZ$1100 for this year’s 10.5-inch iPad Pro with 64GB of storage. Apple charges an extra $160 for its Pencil. Even though you get the Samsung stylus for no extra charge, Apple has the edge on price.

It’s impossible to write about the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 without referring to last year’s 9.7-inch iPad Pro. The two have so much in common. They have a similar look and the same high quality finish.

The two have else much in common. Both are slim and light. You’d be hard pressed to say which is smaller, thinner or lighter. In practice it doesn’t matter, both are near perfect in those departments.

Vibrant screen

Both have great 9.7-inch screens showing 2048 by 1536 pixels. Samsung’s Amoled screen shows more vibrant colour and better blacks than the iPad. The 120Hz refresh rate on the 2017 iPad Pro means you get smoother moving images. There are fingerprint scanners on both tablets. Both have magnetic connectors down the side to take detachable keyboards.

Samsung didn’t supply a keyboard with the review model, so I can’t comment on how well it works. I can tell you the Galaxy Tab S3 works fine with my array of Bluetooth keyboards.

Apple and Samsung use different tablet processors. The Samsung feels a little slower than the 2016 iPad Pro. But the lag is so slight you’d be hard-pressed to notice much difference. In practice both tablets are fast, I’ve never experienced any slowness.

As mentioned, Samsung’s tablet does a fine job as a media and internet consumption device. What about productivity? In practice it works fine with productivity apps like Microsoft Word and Excel. These come installed as standard on the Tab S3, a nice touch Samsung. Of course, the tablet works well with cloud-based apps like Xero or Google Docs.

Hook it up to a keyboard and you can word process or number crunch to your heart’s delight. My only gripe is that text is often smaller and harder to read on the Samsung tablet than on the Apple when using default settings.

Galaxy Tab S3 verdict

The price isn’t right. You could spend the same $1100 and get the more up-to-date, better equipped 2017 9.7-inch iPad Pro.

Prices for Windows 10 2-in-1 computers start at the same price as the $1200 cellular ready S3. Surface Pro prices start at about $1300, a little than the cost of a Galaxy Tab S3. All these devices will do more.

Even so, if you can’t buy Apple or have some objection to Apple, the Tab S3 is a fine alternative to the iPad Pro. It is the first great tablet that didn’t come from Apple or Microsoft.

Samsung Galaxy S8 Maple GoldSamsung 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. ↩︎