Now, where do I begin?
Perhaps I should start with the moment I picked this smartphone up. The sudden rush of wonder that coursed through my body caught me by surprise. I had seen this handset before in photos and in videos but here, actually holding it in my hand, gave the smartphone an entirely new vibe, a vibe I didn’t expect.
It was almost like a concept phone. Something, at least in its current incarnation, would never make it to the production line because it was too intricate, too complex. It looked like something Samsung would make just to show off as a “technological achievement”.
Only it’s isn’t. It’s not some “for display purposes only” concept smartphone. This is the new Galaxy S8, Samsung’s latest flagship smartphone that’s going on sale early next month. And that’s when the most ridiculous, uncontrollable smile spread across my face.
Ladies and gentlemen, boys, girls and everyone in between, the phone of tomorrow is finally here.
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There is a lot of hype surrounding this smartphone and that’s in no small part due to Samsung’s advertising efforts. The whole “unbox your phone” campaign suggested that Samsung was going to change the way you see a handset and that’s a bold claim even for them.
Another reason for this hype and expectation is because this is the very next flagship after Samsung’s disastrous Note7 phablet. Questions were raised on whether the South Korean electronics giant would be able to recover from such a setback or would the same problems continue to plague the smartphone manufacturer in the months to come?
After spending some time with the Galaxy S8, I’m here to tell you that the hype is real but with a tiny asterisk at the top. Why? Well, that’s because you can definitely see traces of where the scars left by the Note7 are still fresh.
I’ll start by addressing the most obvious thing on the Galaxy S8 — its “infinity display”. Coming in at 5.8 inches with a QHD+ resolution of 2960×1440 pixels, it is the most gorgeous display I’ve ever seen on a smartphone. The viewing angles, the colours, the sharpness, the curve, the way everything seems to pop out at you and the awesomely thin bezels are absolutely stunning. It’s not just a screen, it’s an experience.
Then we have the peculiar aspect ratio, 18.5 by 9, which I think is definitely the way forward. Sure, it makes the handset a little tall but when you hold this positively tiny smartphone (its dimensions are smaller than the S7 edge), you almost won’t believe that this phone sports a 5.8-inch screen.
When watching 16:9 videos, some people might get annoyed by the black bars that appear on either side of the video, but honestly, I didn’t have a problem with them. To me, they’re like a regular phone’s forehead and chin…only they disappear when you’re watching cinematic content. Yup, that includes videos like the new Star Wars trailer (which looks awesome on this aspect ratio by the way).
Moving on, we have the phone’s build. Samsung made a few, subtle, design choices with this phone but I think it makes all the difference when it comes to the effect it gives. The first thing I noticed was that they shaved the metal frame down until it sits nearly flush with the curved glass on the front and back.
To accentuate the fact that they want you to focus on the glass, Samsung also gave the metal rails a glossy finish culminating with an effect that feels amazing. Add that to the fact that the S8 is also IP68 dust and water resistant and I really think Samsung has completely nailed this phone’s build.
But now, the scars rear their ugly heads.
Beginning with the performance, many will undoubtedly notice that the S8 isn’t really a big upgrade over last year’s flagship. Sure, the S8 gets a new 10nm Exynos 8895 octa-core processor but RAM is still at 4GB and storage comes in at just 64GB. The resulting performance is…familiar and it doesn’t feel a whole lot faster than the S7 edge. It’s not a slow phone by any means, it’s just not significantly faster than an already fast handset.
Speaking of things that look pretty much the same, we’ve got the S8’s camera. On paper, the 12-megapixel Dual Pixel camera with f/1.7 aperture lenses are identical to the S7 and S7 edge’s but Samsung claims they’ve done some tweaking to the processing.
The result? Well, we already found out it’s noticeably better than the S7 edge’s camera and I definitely think the S8 can take some truly stunning photos. I mean, look at this shot:
Excellent colours, excellent sharpness and good dynamic range. Keep in mind the lighting conditions were pretty stark (bright sky, darker street level).
As a whole, I’m impressed by the S8’s camera performance because it can take great photos and works really well as a smartphone camera. It’s still the snappiest shooter in the market and focuses faster than any phone I’ve seen.
Maybe they could have developed new camera hardware, and I’m sure many would’ve liked to see it, but I have no complaints about this shooter.
Next, we have the battery, which is one of only three pain points I found with the S8. Coming in at just 3,000 mAh, this cell has to juice a QHD+ screen and all that powerful hardware — a tall order for something so small. So, it comes to nobody’s surprise then that the S8 doesn’t have great battery life. If you really give it the beans and push it in the highest QHD+ resolution, the S8 won’t last a full day. I got just over two hours of screen-on-time which is awful by anyone’s standards.
Push things down to Full HD (also switching off the “infinity wallpaper”) and I got about 20 minutes extra screen on time which isn’t much. On moderate usage (lots of Full HD YouTube and social media with minimal camera use), it lasted an entire day and gave me about 5 hours of SOT which is actually pretty good. The camera is definitely one of the bigger power drains so your mileage will vary depending on your usage. On average, though, I’m not convinced.
It also clocks in fairly average charging times, when charged with the bundled fast-charging brick, and it seems to speed up fast-charging past the 30-minute mark, which is odd. So, while half an hour only gave me 33%, 60 minutes had the battery reading 70% while a full charge took just over one and a half hours.
The second pain point comes from — you’ve probably guessed it — the fingerprint scanner. It’s in an awful position. It’s difficult to find, difficult to reach and isn’t nearly as accurate as the top scanners in the market. I would have loved to see it embedded beneath the screen under the pressure sensitive home button (which works great by the way) but alas, this just ends up feeling like a temporary solution they decided to go with at the last minute. Of course, you can use the Iris scanner (which works as well as it did on the Note7) but because of its limitations (you have to lift the phone up and position your eyes where the scanner can detect them to unlock the phone) mean it just doesn’t beat a really good fingerprint scanner.
Finally, we’ve got the last pain point — Bixby. Why on earth does an assistant, which boasts its voice control capabilities, have a dedicated physical button directly opposing the power button? I can forgive the fact that it doesn’t have all its features right now but I just can’t fathom the need for a physical button. Also, it triggers through the lock screen so I find myself accidentally launching Bixby way more frequently than I’d like. Maybe it’ll be super useful in the future but right now, it’s just really annoying.
However, despite all that, I still love the Galaxy S8. As a flagship package, Samsung really isn’t missing a beat. I haven’t fallen for a phone this hard and this fast since the Xiaomi Mi MIX and I think the S8 is better even than that. Not only is it nearly a complete package but it trumps every other phone in the market right now when it comes to the wow factor.
It makes you feel special. It makes it feel like your hard earned money was spent in the best, most awesome way possible and that’s a feeling not many phones can achieve.
But, it’s certainly not perfect. Battery life is a big issue and everywhere I look beyond the phone’s hardware construction, I see traces of forced restraint. The smaller battery, the similar specs and the similar camera all seem to point towards Samsung’s reluctance to really push boundaries lest they get another Note7 on their hands. It’s like the wounds from the Note7’s fires have closed but they’re still very sensitive to the touch.
Does that mean this phone is not for you? Well, I’ll say that if you’re coming from an S7 edge, you probably won’t need to upgrade. The S8 is a desirable phone for sure and I think it’s probably best phone money can buy right now, but I also can’t shake the feeling that it’s just Samsung testing the waters — a precursor to something potentially greater.
Here are more photos captured with the Samsung Galaxy S8’s camera. Click on each image to view its full resolution.
Here’s one with one of the filters turned on: