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Samsung Galaxy S8 And S8+ Review: Dream Screens And Harsh Software Realities

These new phones pack immersive displays into surprisingly trim packages with great cameras. But Bixby’s AI ambitions don’t yet amount to much.

Samsung Galaxy S8 And S8+ Review: Dream Screens And Harsh Software Realities

Since 2015, Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S smartphone line has suffered from a split personality. You could buy a standard model such as the Galaxy S6 or S7 and get something that looked fine…but, well, pretty much like an iPhone wannabe. Or you could pony up for a distinctive and elegant Galaxy Edge model, with a screen that tapered off in a graceful curve on the left and right sides rather than ended with an iPhone-style hard edge and border.

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In other words, Samsung treated striking, unmistakably Samsung-esque style as an optional feature.

The company’s new Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus, which officially arrive on April 21, have names that suggest they’re follow-ups to last year’s S7. But really, they’re the heirs to the upscale Edge line in all but branding.

Both models take the Edge’s curvy approach to screen design and literally stretch its boundaries, squeezing out most of the border at top and bottom and resulting in phones that are almost all screen and surprisingly hand-friendly for the amount of display space they offer. The design is both striking and functional–a meaningful feat as Samsung aims to rebound from the fiasco that was its last major smartphone launch, the Galaxy Note 7.

When these phones go on sale later this week, this sleek new form factor will be their biggest differentiating point by far. Samsung is also touting Bixby, its entry in the AI assistant race that already includes Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, and Microsoft’s Cortana. But Bixby Voice, which Samsung says will let you speak to accomplish any task you’d otherwise perform via the touch screen, won’t be available until later this spring.

Delaying the release of Bixby Voice makes life hard on early adopters and gadget reviewers. Still, I’d much rather Samsung took its time than rushed out the software in half-baked form. For now, the excellent Google Assistant is available with a long press on the home button or by saying “OK Google.”

In most respects that matter, the S8/S8+ hardware is exemplary. But questions about its new software go beyond what Bixby Voice will be like once it ships. As Samsung gets more ambitious about customizing Android, it shows signs of backsliding into the behavior it exhibited back in the era of the Galaxy S III and S 4 phones, when it piled on functionality that added more bloat than value.

Samsung provided me with prerelease units of the T-Mobile versions of the S8 and S8+ for review. The phones will be available through all major U.S. wireless carriers; on Samsung’s site they start at $720 for the S8 and $840 for the S8+, which is more than last year’s Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, as well as the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. What you’ll actually pay will vary by carrier, may be impacted by special deals, and will be chopped into monthly payments if you opt for an installment plan.

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Tall-Boy Design

The Galaxy S8 and S8+ are essentially the same phone in two sizes. With 5.8″ and 6.2″ displays, respectively, they offer more screen inchage than last year’s S7 and S7 Edge and the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. But it would be a mistake to obsess over display measurements, because what Samsung does with that space is more important than the precise amount involved. And the diagonal measurements for these phones’ screens aren’t directly comparable to those with more conventional displays anyhow.

For each phone, the Edge-style lack of left- and right-hand borders lets Samsung provide more a generous amount of screen space without making the phone wider and therefore more of a strain on your fingers. Beyond that, the company reduced the top and bottom borders, thereby allowing it to increase the vertical screen height beyond that of garden-variety phones. (In the case of the S8, the phone’s entire case is also longer than usual in a way that’s instantly obvious.)

The Galaxy S8 (left) packs a much bigger screen into a phone that's noticeably taller than the iPhone 7.
The Galaxy S8 (left) packs a bigger screen into a phone that’s noticeably taller than the iPhone 7.

The resulting 18.5:9 aspect ratio is strikingly tall and skinny, as Apple’s iPhone 5 seemed when it debuted. Most of the apps I tried adjusted themselves nicely to fit; games, however, are typically hardwired for specific aspect ratios and tended to leave a bit of black border.

Some of the new phones’ extra display real estate is eaten up by the strip of controls at the bottom: on-screen multitasking, home, and back buttons, replacing the discrete ones that sat below the display on previous Galaxy models. By making these buttons virtual, Samsung was able to stretch the screen that much closer to the bottom of the phone. And the buttons disappear when appropriate, such as when you’re watching a movie or looking at a full-screen photo.

For those who like the tactile feel of a real physical home button, Samsung has given its on-screen replacement a bit of haptic feedback, similar to what Apple did with the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus’s solid-state home buttons. But it also moved its fingerprint scanner that used to be embedded in the home button to the back on the phone, where it sits directly to the right of the camera lens—a position that is tough to find with your fingertip without peeking and might leave you accidentally smudging up the lens. (Google’s Pixel phone and LG’s G6 also have backside scanners, but they’re centered and better isolated from the camera.)

The Galaxy S8 (left) puts its fingerprint scanner to the right of the camera lens. On Google's Pixel XL, the scanner is well out of the way.
The Galaxy S8 (left) puts its fingerprint scanner to the right of the camera lens. On Google’s Pixel XL, the scanner is well out of the way.

Samsung being Samsung, it gave the S8 and S8+ multiple types of security to choose from: Instead of unlocking your phone via fingerprint, you can register your eyes’ irises or use face recognition. I didn’t find any of these options nearly as quick and foolproof as picking up an iPhone with my thumb resting on its home button/TouchID sensor. (For what it’s worth, I wasn’t able to fool the S8 face recognition with a photo of myself, a vulnerability that people are already worried about.)

The location of the fingerprint scanner is the one major design gaffe in otherwise impressive hunks of hardware. I didn’t benchmark the phones, both of whose U.S. versions are powered by Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 835 processor, but they never felt less than zippy. As with other Samsung phones, the Super AMOLED screen technology provides vivid colors and deep blacks; with the phones’ glass backs, lack of sharp edges, and minimalist screen borders, they feel even more like futuristic, pocketable screens rather than pieces of electronics with embedded display technology.

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These are the first Galaxy S phones with USB-C ports, and Samsung throws in MicroUSB and full-size USB adapters to ease the transition. Scuttlebutt and iPhone 7 precedent to the contrary, the new phones keep their headphone jacks, and come with wired headphones from AKG (now a Samsung brand) that are a cut above what you might expect from bundled buds.

Best of all, the Galaxy S8 and S8+ sport cameras that are worthy successors to the fine one in the S7. The rear-facing one is still a 12MP model and hasn’t changed radically, but it’s lag-free and I was almost always delighted with the results, even in dim lighting. (It’s the same camera in both phones, and I did occasionally miss the iPhone 7 Plus’s dual lenses.)

Here are a few sample shots:

Samsung did find meaningful room for improvement in the front-facing camera: It bumped up the resolution to 8MP and added auto-focusing. It also cheerfully knocked off Snapchat’s live augmented-reality effects from Snapchat, giving you the ability to adopt various silly disguises simply by looking into the camera.

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One of the new effects in Samsung's camera app.
One of the new effects in Samsung’s camera app.

As usual, Samsung is outfitting its new phones with a fuller-than-typical complement of accessories. There’s a new version of the Oculus-powered Gear VR virtual-reality headset that–like Google’s Daydream View–comes with a tiny handheld controller. I had fun with the unit Samsung provided with the phones I tested; at $130, the Gear is $50 more than the similar Daydream, but still a reasonably affordable way to dabble in VR. For $90, there’s also a surprisingly posh-looking wireless charging stand that can either lay flat or stand up so you can check the time and see notifications as they come in.

I wasn’t able to test the new Galaxy accessory that intrigued me most: the $150 DeX dock, which, with the addition of an external display, keyboard, and mouse, can turn an S8 or S8+ into a desktop computer. If the execution is more polished than past stabs at similar concepts, it could be an attractive option for certain folks who want a PC-like experience without a PC being involved.

The Incomplete Bixby

The Bixby Voice AI assistant is a no-show for the launch of these phones, but one important fact about Bixby is that it isn’t solely about voice commands. Two other Bixby components are already onboard: Bixby Home and Bixby Vision. In their initial incarnations, however, neither is a reason to rush out and buy a new Galaxy.

Bixby Home
Bixby Home

Bixby Home is a screenful of widgets that can show you anything from reminders (to which you can attach items such as webpages) to the number of steps you’ve taken to trending hashtags on Twitter. Not bad. But also very similar to functionality already built into iOS and available on Google’s Pixel phones. And I was initially flummoxed by the fact that you can summon Bixby Home with either a quick press or a double-press of the Bixby button on the left edge of the phone; a normal press, which will eventually call up Bixby Voice, doesn’t do anything at the moment. (You can also reveal Bixby Home by swiping to the right.)

Conceptually, Bixby Vision riffs on ideas that date back to Google’s 2010 Goggles app and were supposed to be a major selling phone for Amazon’s ill-fated Fire Phone. Baked into the camera and photo apps, it analyzes images and attempts to identify any products in them. It then provides icons that let you perform tasks such as translating text, shopping for whatever item it found, or pulling up similar-looking images from Pinterest. It also attempts to identify wine bottles and provide relevant information about the vintages therein, though I found that it was prone to getting confused by vaguely wine bottle-like items, such as a bottle of cough syrup.

A Bixby Vision that did its work instantly might be handy. But in my experience, it rarely felt like it was worth the effort: It needed several seconds to chug away at its image analysis, and made me choose between the options for translation, shopping, and other tasks before I could tell whether it had correctly identified an object. It’s also disabled if you launch the camera app without unlocking your phone first.

Samsung Pay messageSamsung is serious about building more AI into its products, as shown by the promising startup Viv, founded by some of Siri’s creators. For now, however, these initial Bixby elements don’t even count as medium-size whoops. They’re also symptomatic of the company’s long-standing habit of adding software elements that feel either like gimmicks or like bolted-on competition for Google’s own Android functionality. There are other examples on these smartphones. For instance, they ship with both Google’s Android Pay and Samsung Pay, and while I appreciate the selling point of the latter–it’s designed to work with payment terminals that don’t support Android Pay or Apple Pay–I still don’t understand why it suddenly asked to make phone calls on my behalf when I wasn’t even using the app.

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Herein lies a basic conundrum of Samsung’s phones: Though it’s the world’s premier maker of Android-based devices, it doesn’t want anyone to think of it as only that, especially as Android tends to commoditize the phone market and push down prices. But years of experience shows us that when Samsung (or anybody else) attempts to edit Android to its own liking, the experience can’t match the smoothness of an iPhone or a plain-vanilla Android phone such as Chrome’s Pixel. There are plenty of reasons to choose an S8 or S8+; it’s just that they’re all about its hardware. And as with past Galaxy products, it’s possible that the best move Samsung could make on the software front would be not to try quite so hard.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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