Part of the reason for Samsung’s Note 7 exploding battery crisis was that the company was in a big hurry to get the phone to market before Apple could announce its new iPhone 7. The batteries had design flaws, and quality assurance was lacking in their manufacture.
Samsung’s first post-Note 7 phone—the S8/S8+—goes on sale today, and while we know of no quality assurance problems, some aspects of the device—particularly the implementation of the fingerprint reader and the Bixby personal assistant—suggest that Samsung is still rushing new devices to market before they’re fully baked.
Those considering buying an S8 in the next few days should be aware of this, even if doesn’t end up being a deal-breaker. The S8 is arguably the strongest smartphone in the world right now; what it gets right it gets very right, and lots of people will like it. That makes it all the more confounding that Samsung would release the device with such glaring shortcomings.
Fingering The Culprit
One of the things Samsung needed to do in its new phone to stay ahead of Apple was to put a bigger and brighter display on the S8. It did, and the critics love it. But there’s a design trade-off there. To remove the bottom bezel, the “chin” on the front of the phone and replace it with screen area, Samsung needed to find a new place for the fingerprint scanner, one of three biometric methods of logging onto the phone and almost certainly the most popular.
Samsung placed it awkwardly on the top back of the phone near the camera. This raises the risk that the user will smudge the camera. Worse, as numerous reviewers said, it’s difficult to locate the button with one’s finger while looking at the front of the phone, and difficult to rest one’s finger on the sensor just right to get proper read.
This shortcoming shouldn’t be underplayed—it’s arguably the hardware feature we use most on our smartphones. And it’s not something that can be fixed with a software upgrade; it’s there for the life of the phone. Samsung told The Verge that it could not place the scanner further down on the bottom of the phone because of the placement of the battery inside.
To make matters worse, the other two biometric buttons for unlocking the phone don’t work that well either. The iris scanning in the Note 7 took a lot of eye positioning and eye widening for a successful read, and by the sound of the reviews the S8’s iris scanner is largely the same. There’s also a new facial recognition unlock method, which Samsung quickly admitted is far from secure.
Samsung was noticeably late to add its own smart voice assistant to its phones, after the failure of its not-very-useful S-voice assistant feature. Then came news of a new smart voice assistant called Bixby, which developed from Samsung’s acquisition of Viv, the AI startup founded by some of the same people who built Siri. Samsung expects Bixby to play a role in many functions and apps in the phone. Mobile CTO Injong Rhee told Mashable that the Bixby voice assistant is nothing short of an “interface revolution.”
Samsung even built a special hardware button into the S8 just to activate the Bixby voice assistant. But, for the most part, Bixby won’t be present in the phones that went on sale today. Pressing down on the special button on the left side of the phone won’t call up the voice assistant. Samsung says that function will be activated through a software update coming later in the spring. One function that’s already in the phone is Bixby Vision, which can scan text and analyze images. However, my colleague Harry McCracken notes that once he began using the S8’s camera the phone begged him over and over to use Bixby Vision and there was no obvious way to make it stop.
Having a dedicated personal assistant button on the phone is probably a very good idea—better than putting it on the Home button, which often causes the personal assistant to be accidentally activated. But if Bixby is so important to the way Samsung phones will be used, why release it in such a half-baked form? As others have pointed out, users’ first impression of Bixby will likely influence how much they use it in the future.
It’s hard to imagine Apple shipping a phone with a dead button. (Although Apple did release the dual-camera iPhone 7 Plus before Portrait Mode was ready.)
Samsung already had delayed the launch of the new S8 by a couple of months so that it had extra time to make sure the battery was safe from explosions. If it was willing to do that, what would have been the harm in delaying the launch for another few months to find a better location for the fingerprint reader, and to get Bixby ready for prime time?
Samsung has said it hopes to sell 60 million of the S8 and S8+ phones this year. It already has a million preorders, reports say.
My advice for anyone who is on the fence is to wait at least until the Bixby update comes out to buy an S8. Or better yet, wait until this fall when you’ll be able to compare the S8 and Apple’s new phones side by side.
While the examples given above suggest Samsung may have shipped some hardware and software features that weren’t quite done, I’m not suggesting Samsung might have repeated the same quality assurance mistakes that led to the Note 7 battery explosions. Given that the Note 7 crisis presented an existential threat to Samsung’s consumer devices business full stop, it simply can’t happen again, and the company surely went above and beyond to make sure it doesn’t.