Although Samsung appears to have escaped 2016 relatively unscathed from the issues experienced with the Galaxy Note 7, the pressure is still on for a highly successful 2017 flagship.
I was recently able to spend a couple weeks with the Galaxy S8+, which is almost the exact same as the Galaxy S8. For this launch, Samsung has gone all-in with curves, formerly used for Edge devices and now rebranded as the Infinity Display, in pushing a bezel-less display and trying to move the needle on phone design. Samsung has always been trying to use their interface to make things easier, but often they got in their own way in those attempts. For this round, in another rebranding move, Touchwiz is now the Samsung Experience which continues an effort to lighten up the user interface and let more of Android shine through.
Read on to find out whether Samsung succeeded in establishing a new bar for other hardware manufacturers to aspire to and to reset expectations for consumers looking for a new phone.
The Galaxy S8+ continues a trend by Samsung and other manufacturers in the high-end segment of producing devices heavy on the metal and glass. Being able to distinguish a device in the market is certainly a challenge, one that Samsung tackled by producing a large phone in a package that is consistent with smaller devices on the market. This was achieved through the use of the Infinity display which enabled Samsung to stretch the actual display nearly from edge to edge, both vertically and horizontally. By almost completely getting rid of bezels, the overall size could be kept in check while maximizing the part of the phone that gets the most use – the display.
Samsung used curved screens on both sides of the device to create an illusion that no bezels exist. As someone who has never used one of these curved edge screens, I found this effective. There is still a thin bezel similar to some other devices on the market, but no additional frame is present. The more stunning part though is how the bezels at the top and bottom have been minimized. I found this to be borderline stunning in how effective it is in changing the impression of the device.
Moving on around to the edges and the back, everything is smooth and round and shiny. The last phone I reviewed was the HTC 10 and one of the complaints I had was that some of the sharp edges would start to create some pain in my fingers after holding the device for long periods of time. That is certainly not the case with the Galaxy S8+. Lest you worry about the device slipping out of your hand with all the slick metal and glass and nary a straight edge to get a grip on, I found I had absolutely no problem holding and using the device with one hand.
Along the edges of the device you will find the usual assortment of buttons and slots. There is a place for the USB-C connection and a 3.5mm audio jack on the bottom edge along with a grill for the speaker. The top edge of the device holds the tray for the SIM card and extra memory, so it is basically flat. On the right hand edge is the power button and on the left hand edge are the volume rockers and the Bixby button. All of these buttons are very thin and overall unobtrusive. I found them all to work quite effectively and as expected.
Moving around to the back of the device you will find the flash, camera lens and the fingerprint scanner. I imagine I am like many other people in being critical of that placement of the fingerprint scanner. I did a few tests with it and consistently ran into some of the same problems you have probably read about with people hitting their camera lens, and smearing it, when searching for that scanner. That is a problem that will likely correct itself with some muscle memory learning.
The bigger problem to me is the decreased usefulness of that location. Like many people, during the day I tend to have my phone sitting on my desk, so being able to use a scanner on the front of the device, like the Moto Z Play work phone I have, is much more useful than having to pick up the phone to access the fingerprint scanner or press the power button. The saving grace for Samsung is the “always-on” power button feature in which you can press on the screen where the home button would traditionally be located and if you press hard enough, it will power on the device.
From an aesthetic standpoint, Samsung is producing the devices in five colors – Midnight Black, Orchid Gray, Coral Blue, Arctic Silver and Maple Gold.
Overall, the Galaxy S8+ is a beautiful device with a nice, clean look that is easy to hold and use.
|Samsung Galaxy S8||Samsung Galaxy S8+|
|Announced||March 29, 2017||March 29, 2017|
|Release||April 21, 2017||April 21, 2017|
|Display||5.8-inch (2960x1440) Super AMOLED w/ Corning Gorilla Glass 5||6.2-inch (2960x1440) Super AMOLED w/ Corning Gorilla Glass 5|
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 835||Qualcomm Snapdragon 835|
|Storage||64GB w/ microSD card slot||64GB w/ microSD card slot|
|Rear Camera||12MP w/ LED flash, optical image stabilization, phase detection autofocus||12MP w/ LED flash, optical image stabilization, phase detection autofocus|
|Battery||3000mAh (non-removable)||3500mAh (non-removable)|
|Charging||USB-C w/ fast charging and wireless charging||USB-C w/ fast charging and wireless charging|
|Sound||Bottom-facing speakers||Bottom-facing speakers|
|Software||Android 7.0 Nougat with TouchWiz||Android 7.0 Nougat with TouchWiz|
|Connectivity||Bluetooth 5.0, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, NFC, GPS||Bluetooth 5.0, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, NFC, GPS|
|Sensors||Ambient, proximity, accelerometer, gyro, compass, barometer, fingerprint||Ambient, proximity, accelerometer, gyro, compass, barometer, fingerprint|
|Measurements||148.9 x 68.1 x 8mm||159.5 x 73.4 x 8.1mm|
|Colors||Midnight Black, Maple Gold, Arctic Silver, Coral Blue, Orchid Gray||Midnight Black, Maple Gold, Arctic Silver, Coral Blue, Orchid Gray|
The Galaxy S8+ hits the market with the Snapdragon 835, Qualcomm’s latest and greatest processor. Packed with 4GB of RAM, the device should work smoothly and quickly. One thing I wanted to see was how much things have progressed compared to two generations ago and the Snapdragon 801 in my Moto X Pure Edition. This seems reasonable for buyers who may be coming off a two-year device purchase contract and are looking for a new phone. In some testing I did, I found initial app launching to be about the same speed between the two devices as well as things like swiping between screens or opening folders. Where the difference showed up was in loading the actual content of an app. With my older phone, launching Google+ or Facebook may get the app open just as fast, but I would be looking at a blank screen while things got loaded. With the Galaxy S8+ everything appeared much faster, as expected, making for a better overall experience.
Over the past few months I’ve been considering upgrading/replacing my Moto X Pure Edition, but one thing that keeps me holding on to it is the Quad HD display. Even though it is an LCD display, it is quite nice and watching videos at HD quality or higher is always a pleasure. I can definitely tell a difference when compared to a mid-range device like the Moto Z Play Droid I was issued at work.
The Galaxy S8+ comes with an AMOLED display running at Quad HD resolution and is very nice as one would expect. Videos run smoothly and the curved edges do not cause any issues. One complaint I did have though was with the extended screen size which is stretched to an 18.5:9 ratio. Because the Galaxy S8+ screen is so large from top to bottom, videos end up having letterbox bars on the left and right when watching a video while holding the device in landscape mode. While this is not really any different than having large bezels, I found it a bit annoying versus having the video fill the whole screen as it would on a display with a standard 16:9 ratio. The flipside of this is that more screen real estate is available for apps and if one starts making use of the multi-window feature of Android Nougat, that will be welcome screen space.
With this being the first phone I’ve used with the curved edges, one thing I was worried about was how holding the device might impact input. I found that there were no problems with the display accidentally picking up my fingers holding the sides of the device as attempts at input, so it looks like Samsung did an excellent job in tuning the display to distinguish between actual input and a user just holding onto the phone.
As far as sound, the speaker on the bottom of the device works well and produces decent volume with no degradation at max volume. That said, it is just a single speaker and does not compare well with devices that have dual front-facing speakers or that have taken other steps to create more of a stereo effect.
One feature Samsung added to the Galaxy S8+ is the iris scanner. This feature is supposed to be able to add some incredible security to the device, even beyond fingerprints according to some experts. Unfortunately, I was unable to get the device to register my eyes, despite numerous attempts, and was not able to test this feature. According to the setup procedure, contacts and eyelids can cause problems, so that may be why I was never successful. Nevertheless, I almost always have my contacts in and my eyelids are always present, so eliminating them to get the iris scanner working is not really a feasible solution.
The Galaxy S8+ comes with a 3500 mAh battery that should be more than capable of getting a user through a typical day of usage. I found that the way I use a phone, which includes the occasional video and lots of social media and email checking along with a few apps, I was able to get a couple days use between recharging on a fairly consistent basis. In fact, on one occasion when I was particularly busy, the phone had gone over 3 days between charges and still had an estimated 7 hours of use left.
I also had an opportunity to test the battery drain compared to my Moto X Pure Edition while I was on the road. My own phone struggles with navigation and if I leave the screen on, being plugged into a charger will still drain the battery, just not as fast. In an impromptu test I did while driving in the country, I launched Google’s Navigation on both devices and ran them both off of battery with the screen off except for checking status every fifteen minutes or so. After adjusting things to get the numbers normalized to account for differences in battery size, my Moto X Pure Edition was using 11.4 mAh/minute connected versus the Galaxy S8+ that was using only 5.4 mAh/minute connected. In terms of impact, the MXPE saw the battery life drawn down by 33 percent over the course of 1.5 hours of driving versus the Galaxy S8+ that saw a hit of only 9 percent. More than anything, this points to the success at optimizing energy consumption on the part of chip makers, phone makers, and OS makers and helps to show the improvement newer phones like the Galaxy S8+ have over older devices.
In terms of charging the fast charge feature works as expected and is quite speedy. The Galaxy S8+ only took about 2 hours to recharge from below 10 percent to being fully charged. As is the norm for fast charging, the really fast portion occurs at lower battery levels, but I did not really notice a slowdown until the phone got above about 60 percent charge and it really only became noticeable above 80 percent.
One of the big gripes I had with the last Samsung device I owned and what turned me off from Samsung was the overbearing nature of the Touchwiz UI. Most manufacturers seem to have figured out that Android is pretty good at handling UI components, so the focus really only needs to be on adding value to what exists and not trying to replace it completely. Samsung is no exception as their overhaul of the user interface formerly known as Touchwiz is much lighter than in the past.
One area where Samsung made some enhancements to the interface is in the use of the curved edges of the device. Samsung added a feature called Apps Edge which consists of a thin bar always present on the edge of the screen even with the power button. Swiping in from the edge of the screen on that bar opens up a tray. That tray can be populated with different items including frequently used apps, contacts, calendar entries, weather, news, and other items. There is even a store available for additional edge apps to be installed. Although I did not fully integrate use of the Apps Edge into my use of the phone, I used it enough to conclude it is a very nice feature of the UI. I can easily see myself using the people edge to quickly access my favorite contacts to make a call or send a text. I did use the app launcher to get to items quickly.
One thing I did find different compared to a cleaner Android implementation was the appearance of folders. I am used to these opening just large enough to show the apps contained in the folder. With the Samsung Experience interface, folders up full screen, which took a little getting used to.
When digging into the settings for the phone, you will find Samsung carried over the hieroglyphic appearance of the standard icons and interface to this area and there are some additional levels to sometimes drill into. For instance, I am used to opening apps and having the top level being a list of open apps so I can select one and deal with it when necessary, often to force close something not behaving properly. With Samsung, I have to drill down an additional level into their “App Manager” which adds an additional tap. Not a big deal, but a slight difference introduced by the addition of an extra UI layer.
One of the big changes for Samsung with the Galaxy S8+ is the addition of Bixby, the company’s take on an artificial assistant similar to Siri, Google Now or even Alexa. I am sure some users may find this useful, but I failed to see how this made things any better than using Google Now, with which I am familiar. As impressive a job as Samsung did on the hardware and most of the improvements to the user interface, I suspect Bixby may go down as less than successful.
Samsung routinely puts a lot of attention into the cameras in their devices as they understand that it is a component frequently used by most people who have phones. Being able to take good, crisp, clean pictures in a variety of circumstances and situations can be a big selling point for a device. For the Galaxy S8+, Samsung continued with a 12 MP unit similar to the Galaxy S7 from last year while the front-facing selfie camera was upgraded from a 5 MP unit to 8 MP. Most indications are that Samsung succeeded in tweaking the processing that occurs so that better low light images can be captured.
In my own use of the camera, I did struggle a bit with learning the interface for the Samsung camera app compared to what I am used to, but that is more a learning curve issue than anything to do with what Samsung has produced. Once I got past that, I found the camera loads fast and I was especially pleased to find that it could focus quickly and accurately. The camera is capable of 8x zoom and while there is some expected noise at that level, the images are still quite acceptable. For comparison, I tried a couple long range shots with my own phone and the Galaxy S8+ at 4x zoom and the image, especially in terms of focus, is much better.
One feature that Samsung includes in the camera app is the ability to use voice commands to take a picture. I found that extremely useful since I struggled to deal with the on-screen camera button or the volume button used to take a picture being on the “bottom” of the device and a long way from where my thumb is (moving it over then covers the screen with my hand). I have used camera apps with voice command features in the past, but found them a bit flaky and required quite a bit of volume to work. Samsung’s implementation worked flawlessly and it took no more than normal conversational volume to trigger the camera. Samsung even included a delay when triggering the front-facing camera with a voice command to give you long enough to shut your mouth and put a smile on.
As I have alluded to throughout this review, a few devices ago I owned a Samsung phone. That experience soured me on Samsung as it was probably close to their height of their overwhelming Touchwiz interface and I was disappointed in their ongoing support in terms of system updates. I had actually made a promise to myself to never buy Samsung again. Reviewing and using the Galaxy S8+ was approached with a great deal of skepticism.
After using the Galaxy S8+ for a couple weeks now, I think I may be ready to renounce that former promise to never look at buying a Samsung phone for myself again. I found the Galaxy S8+ to be well-designed and the quality is excellent. Outside of the questionable benefit of the odd 18.5:9 screen ratio, the display is brilliant and the minimal bezels and curved edges work quite effectively. In terms of software and the user interface, I was glad to see Samsung seems to be on the path of other manufacturers in trying to tone things down on the added layers and instead focusing on adding things that are useful and not just their own take on what Android already has to offer. I would probably still prefer a pure Android experience on a phone, but Samsung has things close enough that I could live with their user interface.
The Galaxy S8+ and Galaxy S8 are going to set you back quite a bit when it comes to their price tags. They are firmly at the high end, but that goes with the high end device you will be getting. Perhaps more importantly, if you want a device that is at the cutting edge in terms of design loaded down with hardware that works and works well, the Galaxy S8+ meets that need. The bottomline is the Galaxy S8+ and Galaxy S8 are excellent devices that you will enjoy owning and using and move Samsung to the front of the line in the phone market.