Easily Samsung's best phone yet. It's pricey, and there are a few feature misses, but none overshadow what a superb smartphone the Galaxy S8 is.
What we love
- Still one of the market's best cameras
- State of the art 'Infinity' screen
- Layered biometric security
- A superb smartphone for daily duties
What could be improved
- Bixby personal assistant is seriously undercooked
- Fingerprint scanner is in an awkward location
- Battery life could be better
The best thing you can say about the new Samsung Galaxy S8 is that there is so much you can say about it. Samsung phones have long been packed to the gills with new tech, features and gimmicks, but none more than the S8 and S8+ handsets.
Phone makers this year will try and capture your attention with a single, stunning feature. You’ll see handsets with edge-to-edge displays, with advanced artificial intelligence apps and souped up computer processors. The secret to the Galaxy S8 is that it has all of these things.
What is it?
The Galaxy S8 is Samsung’s latest and greatest. As the name suggests, it is the 8th Galaxy S smartphone, and with years of experience behind it, Samsung has made its best phone yet. It is also the first phone Samsung has released since the infamous Galaxy Note 7 set the world on fire — quite literally — before an embarrassing global recall. It would be an understatement to say that Samsung has a lot riding on this release.
Interestingly, the new Galaxy S8 looks a lot like the Note 7. It has the same glossy glass finish, where the edges curve on the front and the back and meet seamlessly along the sides. It is an awe-inspiring design, the sort of phone that makes people’s eyes widen when they first see it.
It is also a PC. Samsung will release a computer docking station as an optional extra for the S8 handset, which uses the computing power of the phone to steer a PC-like environment, complete with web browsing, Microsoft apps, and all of the Android apps on your phone. Known as DeX, the dock has USB ports, HDMI and ethernet. You can also use the Bluetooth connection in the phone to connect a mouse and keyboard. You’ll need to BYO your own monitor and peripherals, but it could be just the thing for someone needing a computer on the move.
What we love about it
Let’s start with something that seems small and insignificant, but actually has had a big impact on how I’ve used this phone: face to unlock. Not since the first iPhone introduced ‘swipe to unlock’ has security like this been a noteworthy feature of a phone. But with the S8, Samsung adds face recognition as one of the biometric security features, alongside fingerprints and iris scanning, and it's worth talking about. Samsung layers these options, rather than forcing you to pick a favourite, so that you can can use your face, a fingerprint and a pattern-lock all at the same time. Depending on where you are, and how you are holding the phone, or whether it is day or night, you can use whichever feature is the most convenient at the time.
The face recognition is fast, especially when you hold the phone straight in front of your face. I find that I do need to align the camera for moment before the software recognizes my sparkling, crystal blue eyes and proud, bushy beard, but it is never a long enough wait to turn me off using it. The fingerprint scanner is faster, lightning fast in fact, but the position of the sensor next to the camera lens on the back makes it less convenient.
Likewise, the new ‘Infinity’ display is a real stunner. The combination of Samsung’s excellent high resolution panels, curved display, and the new edge-to-edge design combine to make this Samsung’s best yet. In fact, it is probably the best smartphone screen ever. It is also the tallest, skinniest screen too. Samsung moves away from the standard 16:9 height and width ratio to fit even more screen onto the front of the phone. The home screen button gets the flick, so that there is only a sliver of glossy, black bezel on the above and below the gorgeous screen.
Our only criticism of the new screen is that many of the apps you’ll use on a daily basis won’t make use of the extra screen real estate. Pre-installed apps, like the web browser and Google apps, fill the canvas by default, but you’ll find most everything else runs with a black bar separating the top of the app from the notifications panel. This doesn’t impact on the way you’ll use the apps, but it may have you asking, “what’s the point of a bigger screen if apps don’t make use of the extra space?” There is an option buried away in the settings where you can manually select apps and zoom in and fit the screen, but it would be better to have this as a button that you toggle while actually using the apps.
You won’t be surprised to read it, but the camera in the Galaxy S8 is still best in class. Pundits rumbled that Samsung’s decision to use the same camera components as seen in last year’s Galaxy S7 was a misstep, but the photos we’ve taken tell a different story. This camera is as fast and fully-featured as any other smartphone camera, and the photos are superb. Our shots have been routinely sharp, colorful, and it handles low-light situations better than just about any other camera on the back of a phone. Photos lean towards being a touch over-saturated, but the results are bold in a way that is fun to look at, even if it’s not exactly what the real world looks like.
What’s not so good
Let’s not beat around the bush. Bixby is a bust. Samsung’s brand new artificial intelligence assistant is one of the headline features of this new phone, but at launch it is barely more than an RSS feed of new stories, calendar reminders and the weather. The Bixby team has missed the deadline to incorporate voice guidance into the system before the S8 hits stores, which it touts as being more advanced than Siri and Google Assistant. That remains to be seen and what is left isn’t particularly useful. This also means that the dedicated Bixby button, found under the volume rocker on the side of the phone, doesn’t do anything yet.
Bixby Vision is the one part of this new software that is both available to use and has some useful functionality. It complements the Camera app, and can analyse photos and identify objects and places. With this information, Vision can link you to websites, suggest things to buy, and shortcut you to Pinterest galleries. It can also detect QR codes, read business cards and use screenshots of websites to hyperlink you to the site in the web browser. Perhaps the best use is that of Sommelier. Bixby Vision can identify wine bottles and deliver reviews and food pairings on the fly.
In one way, it is might better than Bixby isn’t onboard, as the battery in the S8 has enough to contend with. Adding an extra 1.8cm to the height of screen takes its toll, and while Samsung includes a generous 3,000mAh capacity battery in the S8, we found we got just a day of use between charges, or about 5 hours of screen time. Samsung includes an option in the settings to shift adjust the screen resolution between HD+, Full HD+ and WQHD+, and sets it to the middle peg by default, but we didn’t find that stepping down to the lowest setting made too much difference to battery life over the course of a day.
We’ll reiterate the position of the fingerprint scanner while we are in the ‘not so good’ section of our review. To be honest, it doesn’t bother us too much, but it is a little awkward. The top right corner of the phone is just not a part we tend to touch.
It is also worth pointing out the price. Value for money differs from wallet to wallet, but the fact is that at $1199, the Galaxy S8 is one of the most expensive phones you can buy, eclipsed only by a few of the iPhone 7s, and its stablemate the Galaxy S8+. It’s hard to argue that you don’t get your money’s worth with this phone, in fact you get everything with this phone, but if you won’t make use of the extended features, you might be better off saving a wad of cash and buying a cheaper model.
Who's it for?
What can you say about a phone like the Galaxy S8? A phone that literally has every smartphone feature packed into it, and then some. A phone that dazzles with its glossy, curved glass body and Samsung’s new ‘Infinity’ display. A phone with one of the highest price tags in market. This is a phone for anyone who wants the best, and isn't afraid of a four-digit price tag.
The Galaxy S8 is a gamble for Samsung in a number of ways. For a King’s ransom, you get a phone that converts into a basic PC, a fantastic digital camera, and a glamorous, sophisticated fashion accessory. But most importantly, you get an absolutely cracking smartphone.
For as much as Samsung might talk about the extra, new features, the number one reason to buy a Samsung Galaxy S8 is because it is so good at doing what we expect it to do best: being the computer in our pockets.
What else can you buy?
If any other phone maker is close to making a phone as remarkable as the Galaxy S8, it is South Korean rivals LG. The G6 has a similar edge-to-edge, packing a large 5.7-inch screen in a phone about the size of the iPhone 7. It’s a great phone, and you should find it a little bit cheaper.
Look, we know that if you’re reading a Samsung review the mere sight of an iPhone may repulse you, but there is no doubting that Samsung and Apple make the world’s most popular phones, and for good reasons. If you choose the larger iPhone 7 Plus, you’ll also get two camera lenses.
It’ll be a long time before we stop recommending the Pixel. Google’s phone is fast, powerful and if any phone can challenge Samsung for the mantle of ‘best smartphone camera’ it is this phone.