The Samsung Galaxy S8 feels great. A minimalist glass slab, the S8 is the new winner for the most powerful phone you can actually fit in one hand. I spent some time with the S8 and its bigger sibling, the S8+, ahead of Samsung’s March 29th launch and have some first impressions. I also went to Korea a few weeks ago for a factory tour and spoke to Samsung Mobile’s CEO and CTO, where I learned lots of information that wasn’t revealed at the New York Unpacked event.
“The core idea behind the Galaxy S8, codenamed ‘Dream,’ has been to deliver the biggest screen in the smallest device possible,” Robert Kim, vice president of Samsung’s global product strategy team, said. “The contradiction is that [customers] want to have a bigger screen size but a small form factor,” Kim added. By shrinking bezels and bending edges, Samsung makes that happen.
The Galaxy S8 and S8+ feel cool and calming to hold, thanks to the gently rounded edges. The S8 measures 5.87 by 2.68 by 0.31 inches (HWD) and the S8+ is 6.28 by 2.88 by 0.32 inches. That’s narrower than the S7 (5.61 by 2.74 by 0.31 inches) and the S7 Edge (5.94 by 2.86 by 0.30 inches).
They’re taller, too, of course. The phones have 2,960-by-1,440, 18.5:9 screens, an even stretchier aspect ratio than the LG G6, and one we’ve never seen before. It works fine for web browsing, but as with the G6, I’m concerned about third-party apps being compatible.
Samsung Mobile CEO DJ Koh said Facebook has already updated for the new size, and, “All of our major partners are working on it.” Kim said the phone will have both a whitelist and a blacklist for games that can and can’t handle the screen ratio, and that users will have the options to zoom or letterbox/pillarbox video.
I watched both 21:9 and 16:9 content on the big screen. 21:9 widescreen movies look great, with less letterboxing than on the Samsung Galaxy S7. A 16:9 TV show, on the other hand, had visible pillarboxing. Zooming would have forced part of the image off of the screen. This is similar to the experience on the LG G6.
There’s no physical home button. Instead, you press on the screen where you see a home-button icon, and you feel a little bit of haptic feedback. It works just fine. The app drawer icon is gone, too: To get the app drawer, you swipe up from the home area. That will take a little getting used to.
The rear camera has a slight physical bump, like on the S7. I’m genuinely curious about the camera situation. Samsung confirmed the S8 has the same physical camera as the S7, but says that better image processing software means better low-light performance. That’s not a crazy suggestion—software makes the difference on the Google Pixel—but it’s something we’ll have to test. The front-facing camera has been bumped up to 8 megapixels from 5, and autofocus with face detection has been added.
Kim said Samsung hasn’t been able to “find the real value” in the current trend toward dual main cameras, although it’s considering the idea for the future.
Yes, the fingerprint sensor is right next to the camera. If you’re worried about smudging the camera every time you reach for it, I understand. In several briefings, Samsung played down using the fingerprint sensor, saying we should use iris scanning or Google’s face recognition to log in. But when I tried the iris scanner at a meeting in Korea, it couldn’t see my eyes through my glasses. Google’s face recognition worked very quickly, but it’s known to be insecure.
The all-glass body may also be fragile. Samsung said that by using Gorilla Glass 5 with a more gentle curve than on the Galaxy S7 Edge, it’s made the phone more durable. At the manufacturing plant in Gumi, it showed me a four-foot drop test. Still, though, that glass back will be inherently more breakable than a metal back, and Samsung’s curved glass is expensive to replace.
“Compared to the S7, component wise, [durability] is a 40 percent improvement,” Kim said. “Device-wise, it’s around 20 percent.”
The S8 has a regular headphone jack, on the bottom next to the USB-C port and the single speaker. The speaker is loud enough to hear in a noisy room, but it won’t win any awards for sound fidelity.
Two Models: S8 vs. S8+
The S8 and S8+ are almost the same phone. The only real differences are the screen size and the battery size. The S8 has a “5.8-inch” screen, and the S8+ has a “6.2-inch” screen. I put those in quotes because since we’re now dealing with an 18.5:9 aspect ratio, the screens don’t have the same area that a 5.8-inch 16:9 or 4:3 screen would have.
The S8 also has a 3,000mAh battery while the S8+ has a 3,500mAh cell. The S7 had a 3,000mAh cell, while the S7 Edge had a 3,600mAh battery. Samsung is being conservative, given the Galaxy Note 7 disaster. But there’s reason to feel good about the batteries. In Korea, Samsung execs said the company focused on increasing the number of charge cycles before the battery’s maximum charge declines, which means that battery life over two years should be better than on the S7. And the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor is more power efficient than the 820 was, hopefully leading to better day-to-day battery performance.
“Even though the S8[+] battery has a slightly smaller capacity compared to S7 [Edge], the battery life is extended longer than that of S7 thanks to adding energy management software and incorporating energy efficient components. Furthermore, we focused on maintaining the durability of the battery over the long term, over hundreds of charging cycles. For example, after approximately six months of normal usage, the battery in the S8 will outperform previous batteries. While most batteries hold about 80 percent of their charge after 2 years in usual cases, this battery should be capable of 95 percent of its original capacity,” Samsung mobile R&D VP Bookeun Oh said.
Inside, there’s also 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, plus a microSD card slot. The phone supports 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, and NFC.
Modem-wise, this looks to be the most advanced phone we’ve seen yet. The US version has both Sprint’s HPUE, which improves coverage, and gigabit LTE, which Sprint and T-Mobile are turning on later this year. The S8 should get faster network speeds than any phone we’ve ever tested.
Samsung’s Android Nougat
The Galaxy S8 runs Android Nougat 7.0 with the latest version of Samsung’s skin. The home, back, and multitasking icons are both new and thoroughly nonstandard, as are most of the app icons. Before you complain, I’d just like to note that Google was apparently on board with these changes. In fact, Google worked with Samsung to develop a new Play Store icon, according to Samsung’s UX team.
You can swap the order of the back and multitasking buttons in the software. Press down on a home screen icon, and you get Google’s Quick Option menu, letting you clear notification badges and uninstall the app. The S7 didn’t have this menu, even with Android Nougat.
The really tall screen allows for a neat multitasking trick: You can select a chunk of an app’s screen and pin it to the top, running other apps in the bottom half. That lets you watch a video while sending texts about it, for instance.
The “always-on” front display has a more visually appealing design than on the S7, with a colorful spray of stars across the screen.
Samsung is also keeping its custom phone, camera, music, and gallery apps, although the music app is a downloadable option. The phone app now integrates a sticker and GIF messaging function that’s tied to your Samsung Account, which will be able to be used if your friends also have Samsung accounts. Another new app, Samsung Connect, aims to tie together home control for all of your Samsung electronics, but you’ll need a Samsung SmartThings Hub or very new Samsung smart home devices to play along.
Bixby and DeX
Bixby is more than just Samsung’s voice assistant. It’s a company-wide strategy to connect all of its consumer electronics with voice commands, as CTO Injong Rhee explained. “Bixby is an intelligent user interface, and the emphasis is on interface,” Rhee said.
Bixby coexists on the phone with Google Assistant, and you activate it by either pressing a dedicated Bixby button on the side or by simply saying “Bixby.”
While Samsung initially said Bixby’s primary use will be to activate features on the phone (for instance, “Turn off the Wi-Fi hotspot,”) Samsung reps then said Bixby will also answer internet-based queries, causing some potential confusion with Google Assistant.
“Right now, our focus is on the device interface and application controls,” Rhee said. “As Bixby’s ecosystem expands, clearly there’s an overlap between what Bixby can pursue and what Google Assistant can pursue. We are working with Google…so we can actually benefit from both.”
Bixby will initially work with ten built-in apps, including gallery, phone, contacts, settings, camera, and reminders, but notably not the browser, e-mail, or calendar. Rhee said those will come in the second batch of 10, and the company has 32 apps targeted.
The “AI” part of Bixby comes in Bixby Home, which is the screen to the left of the main home screen. It replaces Flipboard, which was on the Galaxy S7. Like the Google Now launcher, Bixby Home will pop up cards based on what Bixby thinks you want to see. But because Bixby has access to the innards of your phone, it can tell if you call someone at the same time every day, and set a reminder to make the call, for instance. Or, if you tend to set your alarm for different times on different days, Bixby Home can figure that out and suggest setting it for you.
According to Samsung’s UX team, Samsung already has partnerships with Facebook and Twitter so Bixby Home can pay attention to your activity and make suggestions. They’re working on Uber, Lyft, and CNN partnerships, as well as an open SDK so any third party can plug into the system.
“That’s one of the reasons we actually acquired [Siri makers] Viv Labs. It’s a way of expanding our vision into a third-party ecosystem,” Rhee said.
The Galaxy S8 will also transform into a desktop PC if you buy the optional DeX dock. Samsung didn’t give us a price or release date for DeX, but it sounds promising. See our in-depth look at DeX for more details.
The S8 and S8+ will be sold by all the major US wireless carriers on April 21, with a factory-unlocked, all-carrier-compatible version coming a few months later. Preorders start on March 30. Pricing is around $720 to $750 for the S8 and $840 to 850 for the S8+ depending on the carrier. Check back soon for more details, and full reviews as soon as the phones are available.