For the last few years, Apple has reliably trailed Samsung in releasing the latest and greatest premium smartphone features. And this morning, Samsung jumped out in front again with the official launch of its new Galaxy S8 and S8+ smartphones.
The new devices offer several features that the iPhone doesn’t yet have—and some of them could really change (and improve) the way we use the devices.
Samsung’s strong suit is the display, and the company put a beauty on the S8. It’s an edge-to-edge OLED screen, so it removes the bezel space around the screen area.
“So it’s the same footprint (same size as S7 and S7+), there’s nothing bigger to hold, and you get a much bigger screen,” says Gartner analyst Brian Blau, who spoke from the Samsung event in New York.
The S8 has a 5.8-inch display compared to the S7’s 5.1-inch screen. The S8+ has a 6.2-inch display, compared to the S7+’s 5.5-inch display. That’s a big step up. However, it does create an elongated aspect ratio in the new phone screens. We’ll see how that works with third-party apps.
And like all Samsung displays, it’s noticeably bigger and brighter than those on other smartphones.
The screen is so big that it crowded out the space needed for a physical home button. So users will rely on the software buttons in Android for control.
Samsung included an biometric iris scanner in its failed Galaxy Note 7 phone, but the technology was a little unreliable as a quick way to unlock the phone. Samsung has tried again in the S8, with hopefully better results.
“The iris scanner is going to be big,” says Bob O’Donnell of Technalysis Research (who also spoke from the event). “It’s a really secure biometric method, and it’s great that Samsung is giving people the option of using that and using the fingerprint reader.”
Gartner’s Blau is also bullish on the iris scanner but isn’t a fan of the new placement of the fingerprint reader (which got pushed to the back of the phone when the physical home button went away).
“It’s ill-positioned because it’s right next to the camera on the back of the phone,” he says. “I worry that it’s going to lead to users smudging the camera lens.”
O’Donnell is impressed with the new AKG earbuds that will ship with the new S8s. They normally cost $99, but are included for free. Smartphone makers have traditionally made poor earphones (Apple recently became the exception) so Samsung let somebody who knows audio provide the buds. “It’s an impressive first integration with Harman,” O’Donnell says. Samsung bought Harman in late 2016 for its automotive and consumer audio technology, and has been furiously working to bring the U.S.-based company into the Samsung fold.
Both O’Donnell and Blau thought Samsung’s new DeX desktop dock for the S8 was notable, but are reserving judgment until they learn how well it actually works.
“The notion of the phone as pocket computer is something that we’ve seen before from Motorola and others, but this looks like a more serious effort,” O’Donnell said. He added that the dock is powered by a bit of software called Citrix Receiver, which will allow users to securely connect to a cloud and display enterprise apps in the S8’s Android environment.
Gartner’s Blau: “To be honest, it’s not going to be something for everyone, but it might be useful for a certain segment of mobile workers.”
Samsung used the event as a sort of coming-out party for its new “Bixby” digital personal assistant and Siri competitor. “Bixby is interesting because it does both voice and image recognition,” O’Donnell said. “The concept is that the assistant can both understand talking and can see, which is conceptually the right idea.”
Samsung demonstrated how Bixby can recognize a specific bottle of wine through the lens of the S8 camera—and since it’s connected to Amazon, the user could actually buy the bottle. Gartner’s Blau points out that we’ve already seen such technology in Amazon’s Fire Phone and in the Amazon shopping app, so it’s not that new.
Bixby looks very rudimentary at the moment, and Samsung will need time to build the assistant into something really useful to consumers, said Blau. “It’s an interesting first pass.”
On the downside, Samsung did almost nothing to improve the rear-facing camera in the new phone. Aside from some software enhancements, the hardware is the same, Blau said. “With other companies introducing dual-lens cameras, I would have expected that Samsung would have done something here.” Samsung did, however, increase the front-facing camera from a 5-megapixel to 8-megapixel lens.
Samsung’s big message is that it’s offering a meaningful set (a “galaxy”) of products and services around its premium smartphones. O’Donnell believes the company did a more compelling job of expressing that vision at today’s event. “They’ve been able to build an ecosystem that has broad appeal and enables a whole bunch of services that extend beyond the phone,” he said.
And, of course, the elephant in the room was the company’s PR nightmare with the exploding batteries in its last major smartphone release, the Galaxy Note 7. Samsung’s mobile chief D.J. Ko was convincingly contrite at the end of the event today, saying his company needs to be “humble” and to learn from the past.
“Samsung needed a solid event today to help them get past the Note debacle,” Blau said. “I think they did that; I think they’re clearly stepping past that.”