Samsung’s Galaxy S8 arrives on the market with large promises, but is this a handset that reaches for the stars? We explore in our in-depth review!
There’s a Latin phrase – Per aspera ad astra – that perhaps nicely sums up Samsung’s predicament with the Galaxy S8, and perhaps with its wider Galaxy range in the wake of the fact that the Note 7 went supernova a little too quickly.
Meaning through hardships to the stars, the phrase perhaps best encapsulates a company moving out of (arguably) one of the greatest smartphone disasters to have graced news headlines in recent years.
Rather than return to Earth, however, Samsung has proven that – if on paper, before anything else – it’s a company that’s prepared to struggle through to the stars.
The Galaxy S8 is that bold promise; a smartphone that looks and feels like it’s designed to spearhead a new frontier. Where bezels and frames have tethered smartphones of yore to the ground, the Galaxy S8 feels free; the promise of a silky smooth form factor and an edge-to-edge screen promise liberty.
The question is, however – beyond looks and paper promises, is the Galaxy S8 a smartphone that offers deliverance? Is this a first step into a larger world, or merely a passing attempt at gracing the history books?
It’s time to dive in.
In terms of specifications, the Galaxy S8 arrives with one promise that will instantly appeal to power users; the presence of Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 835 chipset in the US is a show-stopper, while other regions will benefit from Samsung’s own Exynos 8895 SoC. Present is 4GB of RAM, 64GB of native (expandable) storage, and a sizeable 3,000mAh battery.
The Galaxy S8 might lack a dual-camera array, but in good news the handset does arrive with a similar setup to last year’s Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge with the inclusion of a 12-megapixel primary camera and an 8-megapixel selfie shooter.
The real meat and bones of the Galaxy S8’s arrival on the market is, undoubtedly, its design. Where concepts and renders have hinted at a future where smartphones are slates of glass, the Galaxy S8 takes that metaphor to an extreme; the handset’s gorgeous Infinity Display aches around corners and – for the first time ever – takes a bite out of both the top forehead and bottom chin we’ve become so accustomed to over recent years.
In the hand, the S8 is light and airy – the Infinity Display refines the Edge we’ve previously seen on Samsung’s flagship phones and feels this time around like more of a natural, tapering surface than the more obtrusive cornering we’ve had to contend with in previous interations. The end result is a screen that seemingly melts into one’s hand, though a side bumper remains with Samsung’s standard button array.
A new addition on the left-hand side is the presence of a Bixby button, which allows users to quickly summon Samsung’s artificial assistant (more on that later). The presence of the button can feel somewhat confusing when one’s arbitrarily holding the device, and is easy to confuse for the lower half of the volume rocker.
The Galaxy S8’s side panels wrap round to a svelte rear panel which is naturally coated in glass, and is smooth until the profile of the camera and depression that is the rear-facing fingerprint scanner awaken the surface.
There’s little getting around it – the Galaxy S8’s fingerprint scanner feels like a half-complete addition to a device; a caveat for Samsung’s failure to integrate a front-facing fingerprint scanner beneath the primary display of the device. Without a case, it’s easy to confuse the profile of the camera and the fingerprint sensor; and while one can indeed rely on facial recognition or iris scanning for biometric security, there simply isn’t a faster or more reliable option at this stage than fingerprint reading – a falling point which brings the Galaxy S8 back down to Earth.
The presence of a capacitive button beneath the S8’s primary display is a telling addition, and is one that perhaps feels half-baked without the addition of a fingerprint scanner atop it. Galaxy acolytes transitioning from a Samsung phone with a capacitive button will welcome the reminder, though the rest of us will likely forget it’s there until the button is accidentally triggered.
Performance & User Interface
Normally in reviews I tend to separate general phone performance from my concerns or compliments towards its user interface, but here I found for once that both were so intertwined that not only were my criticisms shared, so too were my admirations.
Let’s get one thing straight; for a R15999 smartphone, one has to expect some hefty performance from the Galaxy S8; and this is a phone that delivers. During the course of our Galaxy S8 review, I encountered next to no sluggishness or app failure; a rare feat for Samsung considering the previous weight TouchWiz has exerted on Samsung’s Android phones.
Herein lies the blessing; TouchWiz is gone, banished to the darkest depths of space; in its place stands Samsung Experience – a bolder, crisper, and leaner vision of what a skinned version of Android can be. Where TouchWiz could stymie not only style but smarts, Samsung Experience is a far less obtrusive endeavour.
That has implications in many things; for the first time, Samsung owners can opt to show apps in Samsung’s standard squircles, or in their native app icon. Users can further pick between having the ability to trigger the app drawer by gesture or by icon, and meaningful stock apps for once help lessen the divide between what is Samsung and what is Google.
The lighter skin shines throughout in a way that not only highlights the Galaxy S8’s physical design, but further its software performance; while the Galaxy S7 became somewhat toasty in our hands on the odd occasion, the Galaxy S8 only seems to accumulate heat (understandably so) when charging wirelessly.
Visual flourishes are lessened here, and that makes more room for speed; gestures quickly toggle actions without the bloat we’ve come to expect from Samsung’s smartphones in the past, though that second of lag when triggering Bixby (previously where Flipboard would sit) remains evidently frustrating.
To not put too fine a point on it, there’s little one can actually do to fluster the S8. Adept app management secures the stability of applications running in the background, while the camera is quick to fire. For the power-hungry among us, the S8 remains a worthwhile bet – at least until other manufacturers begin to adopt Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 chipset.
The Galaxy S series has typically been renowned for its photography prowess since the time of the Galaxy S6 onwards, and the Galaxy S8 doesn’t do terribly much to improve on the skills of its predecessor. For once, however, that’s actually a good thing – the Galaxy S7 remains a terrific shooter and the Galaxy S8 executes smaller, but meaningful improvements to bring that experience into 2017.
Dual pixel technology enables superb low-light photography on the S8, and while the handset (like any other) will struggle in absolute darkness, the device does succeed in eking out more colour and detail in low-lit scenarios than other single-lens competitors.
A hallmark of the device is its adept control of focus; shots will sharpen in focus and introduce a gradual amount of bokeh in daylight photography which makes taking pictures somewhat addictive. While no new camera modes debut onboard the Galaxy S8, the handset does leverage the effects and modes that made the Galaxy S7 so popular.
The 8-megapixel front-facing camera leverages fine detail for superior selfies, though low-light control isn’t as refined as its primary counterpart. Colour on the front-facing unit tends to hue towards reds, whereas the primary unit exerts a more neutral tone on images.
One might have expected Samsung to have skimped on the promise of battery life in making a smartphone with a design as ambitious as the one worn by the S8, but perhaps the best promise the S8 delivers on is the fact that this isn’t the case.
The Galaxy S8’s 3,000mAh battery lasts throughout the day and often well into the 20-hour period before requiring a top-up, and the presence of USB Type-C and quick charge support means that it won’t take consumers overly long to gain sufficient charge before they’re ready to head on out into the open world again.
Refreshingly, the S8 further doesn’t become flummoxed by intensive tasks; the power management executed by either the Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 or Samsung’s Exynos 8895 processor ensures that the device lasts even with challenged with a burst of photographic activity or invasive app-handling.
The presence of wireless charging, too, is a boon for consumers should they choose to fork out for an additional wireless charging mat.
In the wake of the Galaxy Note 7 disaster, Samsung had to pull some special sauce in order to make the Galaxy S8 a stellar proposition in more than just design. That special feature, then, is Bixby – Samsung’s unfortunately half-baked digital assistant that’s just smart enough to do what Siri has been doing for years.
True, Siri doesn’t benefit from a specific pane which can offer up trending news stories, Twitter hashtags or give you an overview of the snaps you took on a specific day, though Bixby’s true weakness is that the AI arrives without a voice of its own – that’s slated to arrive later this year.
Samsung’s commitment to Bixby is evident from the fact that the company have included a dedicated button for the service – though it is one that I wish could serve as an assignable convenience key instead of a dedicated reminder that the S8 is, in fact, hobbled with unfinished software.
Bixby’s purpose is to streamline user input and navigation, and that’s only really a promise we’ll be able to evaluate later this year when Samsung officially unveils the AI’s voice capabilities. Until then, the software is used for either quick head’s up or to identify items for purchase through Bixby Vision; a great idea if you’re seeking to do some online shopping, but less so if you happen to live in South Africa.
Beyond Bixby, the Galaxy S8 includes other tricks – such as the ability to scan irises as a biometric security measure and further offer facial recognition support.
Both of these feel somewhat before their time; in use I struggled to get the S8 to recognise my irises, and often resorted to scanning my fingerprint out of frustration. Given the alleged failures of the S8’s facial recognition – and the fact that I quickly grew tired of holding the device to unlock it – I quickly surrendered any fledgling belief in Samsung’s newer security features. As is often said, sometimes the classics are best.
There’s an old saying – reach for the stars; even if you miss, at least you’ll end up in the roof.
The Galaxy S8 somewhat embodies this statement; on the whole, this is undoubtedly a fantastic smartphone. A gorgeous, futuristic design feels utterly stellar in the hand, and a cleaner, lighter design in both software and harder makes the device feel primed for liftoff at any moment. In the wake of the Galaxy Note 7 going prematurely supernova, that’s one hell of a comeback.
However, if this were a space mission, not all of the proverbial rocket makes it that far into space. While the Galaxy S8’s core promises – sublime design, powerful processing, a clever camera and beastly battery management all play out with aplomb, it’s the more cutting-edge features that leave the S8 as somewhat of an unfulfilled vision.
Even if you don’t use it continuously, it’s clear that Bixby is a step too far for Samsung at present, and that the biometric security features the company developed – such as iris scanning and facial recognition – aren’t as advanced nor capable as advertised. There’s perhaps nothing less satisfying to fumble around the device’s rear panel in search of the fingerprint scanner – a saddening reminder that the S8, while brilliant, could have been a little more so.
Is the Galaxy S8 the perfect smartphone?No, it’s probably not – though we at Bandwidth Blog always argue that doesn’t exist.
However, what the Galaxy S8 does represent is a monumental effort, and one of the boldest and most commendable steps forward we’ve seen in recent years. The device represents a bold moonshot for Samsung, and it is one that the company has largely delivered.
The strengths of the S8 perhaps lie best in conventional use, when one simply enjoys it for its form factor and general utility rather than using it as a breakthrough, revolutionary product. Where it becomes clear that Samsung’s steps into the future remain unfinished, the S8 redeems itself through proving it can serve as a solid workhorse with a powerful slew of specifications and a gorgeous design.
As a whole, this is a smartphone that will appeal to many – and rightfully so. Where the space race of the 1960s caught imaginations, the next few years and advancements in mobile technology will now see the iteration and refinement of the smartphones we’ve seen before – and what makes the Galaxy S8 stand out is the fact that – despite its shortcomings – it does represent a radical shift that will undoubtedly change the face of not only Android, but smartphones to come. As they say – Per aspera ad astra.
Have your say!
What are your thoughts? Are you looking to purchase a Galaxy S8 or S8+ in the near future? Be sure to let us know your thoughts in the comments below!