It is easy to make a bad product good. All you need is some common sense, identify the obvious problem areas, fix said problem areas and presto, you have something good in your hands. But to make a great product even better…this is where almost everyone will struggle.
Those who attempt it will tell you that to come up with a hit time and time again is, essentially, almost impossible. But here we are, after a crisis of epic proportions with the Note 7, Samsung is once again attempting the impossible. This time with the Galaxy S8 – probably one of the most important smartphones the Korean brand has released ever since it introduced the Galaxy S range seven years ago, in 2010.
An obsessive attention to detail
In those seven years since the launch of the first Galaxy S device, Samsung has grown from an obscure unknown to one of the leading brands in the industry. One that, I would argue, has surpassed Apple in terms of innovation.
In the journey to become a dominant force and an icon in the industry, Samsung has learned a great deal about making smartphones. It tried new things, it innovated, it failed but through the years, the people at Samsung persevered. The Galaxy S8 is the ultimate cultivation of the invaluable knowledge that Samsung has gained. I think it is the best smartphone you can get right now.
A completely new design but one that feels familiar
For the Galaxy S8, Samsung started with a clean slate, a complete departure from the design iteration that we are familiar with in the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S7. The most noticeable difference is the removal of the physical home button.
Samsung says consumers want larger displays on their devices but don’t want the bulk of a bigger device. A smaller device, Samsung reasons, means customers will use it more often, as it gets used often user expectations from the device becomes more complex as the ask for more useful and intelligent features.
Samsung’s solution is to remove the home button altogether. As a result, the front of the Galaxy S8 is all screen. So obsessed is Samsung to fit the largest screen it can on the Galaxy S8 that it also removed the Samsung brand name from the front fascia. All you get at the front is display and what a beautiful display it is. 5.8 inch Super AMOLED QHD+ display (6.2 inch on the Galaxy S8+) with a resolution of 2960×1440 pixels. Samsung calls this feature the Infinity Display.
To cram as much screen real-estate into the front of the Galaxy S8, Samsung also changed the display aspect ratio from the 16:9 aspect ratio you get on the Galaxy S7 and other smartphones to an 18.5:9 aspect ratio that makes the screen taller compared to its predecessor. The new aspect ratio also means that although the Galaxy S8 has a bigger display compared to the Galaxy S7, the overall size of the device is smaller. Now, 83% of the front panel on the Galaxy S8 is display. In my hands, the Galaxy S8 feels really compact just like a compact 5-inch device instead of a 5.8 inch one. This is also in part, thanks to the more ergonomic and natural curves designed into the device allowing it to fit nicely in my hands.
The interface has also been updated, gone is the dedicated app drawer icon on the bottom left of the home screen, in its place is an app drawer gesture that feels more natural and intuitive. If you want to access the app drawer all you need to do is swipe up from the bottom of the home screen. To close the app drawer, swipe down. Simple, easy and convenient. I like it!
This aspect ratio is not unique to Samsung. The LG G6 that was launched at Mobile World Congress earlier this year has the same display aspect ratio but in the case of the Galaxy S8, the new aspect ratio is further optimised with several benefits. Firstly, the screen ratio mean cinematic content fully utilises the screen space available and you don’t get those annoying top and bottom black bars when viewing cinematic content in landscape mode. This combines with the impeccable and symmetrical Mobile HDR Premium Certified display to deliver a deeply satisfying viewing experience. Watching movies on this thing is a joy.
Secondly, you get more room to do true multi-tasking on the Galaxy S8. With the taller screen, when operating in portrait mode, the top 1/3 portion of the display fits video content comfortably, this frees up the bottom 2/3 of display for whatever multi-tasking you need to do. From my brief experience with the device, the Galaxy S8 offers of the best multi-tasking experience Samsung has ever produced. In comparison, it makes multi-tasking on other devices feel clunky and useless.
About the missing home button
Missing the physical home button is also less of an issue than I expected. From early leaks, I lamented on the lack of physical home button arguing that the button provides an important tactile feedback and a guide to the user. Without it, the user would be lost and not know where to tap to wake the Galaxy S8 but this wasn’t the case.
The virtual home button is augmented with a haptic feedback and make it feel that you’re pressing a physical button. It’s something like Apple’s 3D touch but not as well executed. While the feedback is good it is not as positive and tactile as Apple’s execution. I hope Samsung would improve on this with new firmware updates.
What I don’t like about the new design is the new location of the fingerprint scanner, it’s now located at the back of the device on the right side of the rear camera. On the Galaxy S7, this used to be where the heart-rate scanner was located, it was easy to locate the heart-rate scanner thanks to the subtle protruding outline. The Galaxy S8 has the same subtle protruding outline for the fingerprint scanner but the location is inconvenient for me especially when using Samsung Pay. I’ve never been a fan of fingerprint scanners located the back and will find myself using the scanner less on the Galaxy S8. Thankfully though, the Galaxy S8 has an Iris scanner at the front. This is faster and more, if not just as secure as a fingerprint scanner.
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The cameras on the Galaxy S8 is less of a quantum leap compared to the other features on the device. At the back, you get the same 12MP f/1.7 Dual Pixel camera as the Galaxy S7 – still, one of the best cameras you can get on a smartphone right now. Some may fuss about the lack of a dual-camera setup ala Huawei P10 but I’m not complaining. The single camera setup is efficient, produces amazing picture and video quality that is improved from the Galaxy S7 thanks to improved image processing and multi-frame image processing. Colours are more accurate and less blown out while white balance remains accurate across various shooting conditions. Low-light performance is excellent as well. The Galaxy S8 isn’t unfazed by high-contrast situations that would leave other flagships challenged. Of course, we’ll get into more detail about the camera once a review unit is available.
The front camera on the Galaxy S8 is new. It’s now an 8MP shooter with a f/1.7 lens for better low light performance. You also get Smart Autofocus that can help make sure faces stay in focus when you’re taking group selfies. I didn’t try the front camera much but it does what it says on the can.
In terms of specs
Here’s a brief rundown of the Galaxy S8 specs. IP68 dust and water-resistance. 64GB of storage with MicroSD expansion up to 256GB and a new 10nm processor. There are two variants available – Samsung Exynos powered version and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 version, both with 4GB of RAM. Typically, Malaysia will be getting the Exynos version.
In terms of battery, the Galaxy S8 gets a 3,000mAh battery which is smaller than the 3,600mAh battery on the Galaxy S7 edge. The Galaxy S8+ gets a 3,500 mAh battery. I didn’t get the time to fully run through our battery test cycle but on first impressions, the battery drain is almost the same as the Galaxy S7 but I’ll save my comments until we get a review unit.
Unfortunately, the Galaxy S8 still retains the hybrid SIM card slot. This means you choose to run a SIM card with a MicroSD or run two SIM cards at one time, you can’t run two SIM cards and a MicroSD, which sucks because I am one of those people who has two SIM cards and want memory expansion as well.
Colours available for the Galaxy S8 are Midnight Black, Orchid Grey, Maple Gold, Coral Blue and Artic Silver. I was told that only three colours will be available in Malaysia at launch and black will be one of them. I’m hoping Orchid Grey and Coral Blue makes it to Malaysia as well as those two colours really make the Galaxy S8 stand out from the crowd.
The other big thing in the Galaxy S8 is Bixby. Bixby is an “intelligent interface” that Samsung says will “help users get more out of their phone”. So confident is Samsung about Bixby that they’ve included a dedicated physical button just for the feature. Bixby is activated by push-to-talk using the button, you push and hold the button and say your command.
Bixby is so integrated into the Galaxy S8 firmware that you’re able to access deep device settings like, turning blue light filter on or off, just by using your voice. You can also tell Bixby to cast content from your phone to your smart TV and ask Bixby to show you the latest pictures that you’ve taken with your phone. Aside from voice, you can also interact with Bixby using touch, vision and text commands. Contextual awareness capabilities enable Bixby to offer personalized help based on what it continues to learn about the user’s interests, situation and location. Users can also shop, search for images and get details about nearby places with Bixby’s image recognition technology.
It’s fun stuff but the demo was too brief for me to really understand how Bixby is going to make me get more out of the Galaxy S8. I can see the potential here but I couldn’t get Bixby on the demo unit I played around with. It could be because the demo unit I used was running a pre-release firmware so check back later to know what I think about Bixby when we get a review unit.
At the end of the day
So what do I think about the Galaxy S8?
Samsung’s obsession to attention to detail has once again produced one of the best smartphones right now to a point that it’s almost perfect. The device is head and shoulders above competitors. I’ve had equal time with the LG G6, the new Xperia XZ Premium and the HTC U and none of them feels as polished and refined both in hardware and software as the Galaxy S8. The Huawei P10 is better than the rest and because of that it comes relatively close to compete with the Galaxy S8 but honestly, none of these devices are in the same league.
The design, display and camera are the clear strengths of the Galaxy S8. Nothing in the market right now, feels so right in my hands than the Galaxy S8. Again, the P10 comes close but this is relative. Samsung just gets it right.
Of course, there’s the lingering question of reliability. The dark cloud that is the Note 7 still looms over Samsung. It’s something that a lot of people in Samsung are very uncomfortable to talk about but it serves as a reminder for them to not let such a thing happen again. I can’t speak for them but I hope, the days of leaking batteries are behind them.
So what we have here is the result of Samsung’s relentless pursuit for the perfect smartphone, one that is more than just a phone, one that can do more than social media and instant messages. With the S8, Samsung set out to create a hub for your life, one that connects you to the other devices in your universe so that you can do much more. From what I’ve seen, they’ve pretty much nailed it.
Photos shot on Sony RX100 V