In 2015, Samsung released the Galaxy S6, a phone that was mostly about refinement. It upped the company’s industrial-design chops, rolled back its previous tendency to add bloat to the Android operating system, and ensured that the phone’s camera was among the best the smartphone world had to offer. Samsung followed that phone up with 2016’s Galaxy S7, which refined the S6’s refinements.
Today Samsung is launching the Galaxy S8 and S8+ (both of which already got leaked in detail) at an event in New York, along with new versions of its Gear VR virtual-reality headset and Gear 360 camera. Instead of piling more refinements on top of refinements of refinements, these new models move onto new challenges, from upsizing their display sizes in a manageable fashion to melding AI, voice control, and machine vision into an experience designed to set the phones apart from Android rivals and iPhones.
I recently attended a preview event that included a briefing by Samsung executives and some hands-on time with the phones. What I got wasn’t enough to form any definitive conclusions about the phones, in part because one of the most important new features–the Bixby voice assistant–wasn’t enabled on the units I got to try. But I did come away with some first impressions, along with questions that will take a while to answer:
1. These screens are tall.
One of the most obvious things about the Galaxy S8 and S8+–which are essentially the same phone in two sizes–is that they’ve got big displays. At 5.8″ and 6.2″, respectively, they provide more real estate than the Galaxy S7, the S7 Edge, the iPhone 7, and the iPhone 7 Plus.
Samsung didn’t accomplish this just by building upscaled successors to the S7—a move that would have made for phones that felt uncomfortably ginormous in the hand. Instead, it brought the screens up to the left and right edges of the phone (as with its Edge models) and then stretched them vertically, eliminating as much of the phones’ “foreheads” and “chins” as possible.
The resulting tall-boy design is an obvious departure from Samsung phones past, and–judging from the limited time I’ve had with the new phones–a pleasing one. It reminds me of Apple’s iPhone 5, which also upsized its display through vertical stretching.
2. The spacious screens don’t impinge on, um, holdability.
The S8 is actually slightly narrower than the smaller-screened S7, making it easier to grip; the S8+ is narrower than the iPhone 7 Plus, despite having more display space. They’re big phones, but not monsters. (People with dainty hands might strain to use these phones in one-handed mode, but that can be an issue with almost any modern phone.)
3. Tall screens make for tall apps.
The preinstalled apps I got to try looked good at the new 18.5:9 aspect ratio. Samsung has optimized its own apps and added settings for apps such as Chrome that let them fill out the available space. Just how well third-party apps will adjust, I’ll be interested to see. I’m particularly curious what these screens mean for games, some of which are hard-coded for particular aspect ratios.
4. You can also choose to look at these phones as having really wide screens.
Which they do, when you hold them in landscape orientation, as you’d do to watch a movie. The videos I sampled felt unusually immersive, both because of the screen width and because the display covers almost the entire face of the phones.
5. No conventional home button is no great loss.
The S8 and S8+’s skyscraper screens leave no room for the home button/fingerprint scanner on previous Galaxy models. The scanner is now on the phone’s backside—a location I find slightly less convenient than the front, but not onerous. And the home button is now virtual, appearing near the bottom edge of the screen.
There’s nothing new about on-screen home buttons: Countless other Android phones have had them for years. But Samsung, adopting a technology apparently similar to the one Apple uses for the solid-state home buttons on the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, gave its virtual button a bit of vibration that mimics the tactile feedback of its physical ancestor. I didn’t notice this until I’d been using the S8 for 20 minutes, a fact that suggests it’s a successful bit of trickery. (The home button, back button, and multitasking buttons disappear when appropriate, such as when you’re watching a video.)
6. The arrival of USB-C on Samsung’s flagship phones is a meaningful moment.
Last year’s Galaxy S6 stuck with the pervasive-but-dated microUSB connector, at a time when most other major Android phones were switching to the more elegant and versatile USB-C. With the Note 7, the company went with USB-C—a shift that would have mattered more if the phone’s life hadn’t been so short. Now, with the S7 and S7+, USB-C is back on Samsung phones. And given how well they’re likely to sell, it should help make the technology feel less like next year’s big thing and more like the default flavor of USB. (Meanwhile, despite rumors, these new phones did not follow Apple’s lead when it came to deeming the headphone jack to be obsolete.)
7. Will the new era of Samsung software appeal to consumers?
A few years ago, Samsung tried to distinguish its phones from the Android pack by larding them up with its own apps and features. The results often felt gimmicky and disjointed. And the company must have eventually concluded that they didn’t help sell phones, since more recent Galaxy models have deemphasized such trimmings.
Now, with Bixby, Samsung is taking a fresh pass at differentiating its smartphones through unique software. Bixby’s assemblage of AI, voice, and vision features have nothing to do with previous Samsung oddities such as Air View and Air Gesture, and Samsung’s acquisition of smart-assistant startup Viv gives it some promising technologies to build upon. But in their own way, they revive an old challenge: Unless Samsung figures out how to make them compelling and seamless, they could feel like bloat.
8. Are the camera-sensor wars nearing an end?
Samsung says that while it’s improved its camera software, it left the 12MP rear-facing sensor pretty much alone. Given how nice the Galaxy S7’s images were, the S8 and S8+ could have some of the best cameras on the market even if they’re largely unchanged. But it does make me wonder: Is camera-sensor technology so mature that the smartphones of 2018, 2019, and 2012 won’t be radically better cameras than the phones we have now?
(Samsung has meaningfully improved the new phones’ front-facing selfie cameras, which now pack 8MP of resolution and autofocus.)
9. Do people want to use a phone as a PC?
Samsung’s most intriguing accessory for the S8 and S8+ is the DeX Station, a name that’s shorthand for “desktop experience.” It’s a cute little puck-shaped docking station that lets you use the Galaxy S8 or S8+ with an external display, keyboard, and mouse—turning either phone into a desktop computer. The company has also tweaked Android to provide an interface that roughly approximates what we’re used to with Windows and Mac OS, with apps running in floating windows you can resize and drag around. It even worked with Microsoft and Adobe to optimize the Android versions of Office 365 and Lightroom, respectively, for this PC-like environment.
Speaking of Microsoft, that company introduced a Windows 10 feature called Continuum back in 2015 that did the same thing. Unfortunately, it did so at the same time that Windows was withering away as an operating system for phones, so we never got to see whether Continuum was a killer feature. With the new Galaxies, the concept will get another shot at relevance.
10. How big a deal is voice control?
With the Bixby assistant, Samsung says that its goal is to let you use spoken commands to accomplish any task that you’d otherwise achieve by touching the screen–something which, to my knowledge, no smartphone currently offers. If the capability catches on, it could be a genuine sea change for a gadget category that’s been primarily touch-oriented ever since the first iPhone debuted a decade ago.
11. Will Bixby make computer vision a core smartphone feature?
One of the core capabilities of Amazon’s ill-fated Fire Phone was Firefly, a feature that let you point your phone’s camera at anything from a can of soup to a work of art and get information about it. Firefly also let you buy the stuff you identified from Amazon, which is presumably why the company was excited about the idea in the first place. When the Fire Phone died, so did Firefly in its most ambitious form. (The guts of the technology still exist in a feature in Amazon’s mobile apps called Camera Search.)
The Galaxy S8 and S8+’s Bixby Vision feature, which can do things like recognize a bottle of wine based on its label, look like a latter-day version of Firefly. Given the quantities of phones that Samsung will ship, a lot more people will get the chance to try this idea, and we’ll have a better sense of whether this vision-based technology stands a chance of becoming an everyday smartphone necessity.
12. Can Bixby and Google Assistant peaceably coexist on one phone?
As Samsung strives to make Bixby into an invaluable personal assistant, Google is pouring its own energies into its Google Assistant feature, which will also be available on the Galaxy S8 and S8+. Though they have their own points of emphasis–Samsung is teaching Bixby to control devices such as the company’s Roomba-style robotic vacuum, while the Assistant reflects Google’s expertise in search engines and hooks into services such as Gmail–there will certainly be areas of overlap. In the past, when phone makers have added features that compete with Google’s built-in offerings, it’s often felt less like an embarrassment of riches and more like an experience under joint custody.
13. Do these phones presage the next iPhone, and future phones in general?
If you take the rumor mill seriously–always a dangerous proposition—Apple is readying an ““iPhone 8 Pro” with a 5.8″ OLED display that spans almost all available room on the phone’s front and ditches the discrete home button for an onscreen version. If those are indeed key design factors in Apple’s next flagship phone, Samsung got there first. And if both Samsung and Apple are stretching their screens to fill as much space as possible, you’ve got to think that other manufacturers will follow. (With its new G6, LG is already on the bandwagon ahead of schedule.)
14. Will the Note 7 battery fiasco hang over this launch? For months, the big news about Samsung smartphones involved the fire-prone Galaxy Note 7 and the company’s two recalls and ultimate cancellation of the model. Samsung knows that the saga is still on peoples’ minds: The S8 press event I attended began with an executive acknowledging last year’s “setbacks.” A safe, successful S8 rollout could quickly undo the damage to the company’s reputation. Then again, even one ugly anecdote could give consumers jitters–and no device with a lithium-ion battery is absolutely free of risks. (Just ask Apple.)
One more thought about the Galaxy S8 and S8+: There’s no way that Samsung is going to realize its sprawling ambitions for Bixby–encompassing voice interfaces, machine vision, and AI in a variety of forms–into the first version of the software as provided on two phones. That means that the S8 and S8+ could represent the first step on a journey that will require multiple generations of phones to get anywhere near completion. Once again, as with the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S7, it’s likely that Samsung’s emphasis will turn from fresh new ideas to refinement.