In order to stay on top of the Android market as Samsung does year after year, you've got to walk a fine line between giving users more of what they're familiar with – what they've responded favorably to in the past – while mixing in the right amount of the new and different, introducing them to new technologies, turning expectations on their head, and maintaining that reputation as a technology leader.
We have spent some time with the new S8 and S8 Plus. Here are our impressions!Do the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ manage to pull off that balance? Has Samsung risked going too far with “new and different?” We've spent some early hands-on time with both phones in order to get to know them, form some initial opinions, and hopefully get to the bottom of addressing those concerns.
The shape of smartphones is changing, and Samsung's helping to lead the way with the GS8 and GS8+. For years, we've seen manufacturers push further and further towards the idea of bezeless phones – those with expansive screens that do all they can to stretch across the entire surface of a handset's face. Samsung's curved-edge displays have already been a very noteworthy step in that direction, but these new phones go further for Samsung than ever before towards realizing that mission.
A large part of that is the new extra-tall shape of the screens, with aspect ratios that push past the familiar 16:9, and even the 18:9 of the LG G6, to a preposterously tall 18.5:9. The end result is a phone with just bare slivers of non-screen space at the top and bottom.
Instead, Samsung's joined the on-screen virtual-Android-button party, but not without throwing one very important bone to users who will miss the home button: some haptic feedback that delivers a satisfyingly clicky response to each tap of that virtual button. It's not quite the same (and how could it be), but like we saw on the iPhone 7, it may be just enough to keep users happy.
As for the bodies of these phones, we're looking at smooth curves, sleek glass back panels, and a design that feels very “Samsung” while still looking fresh. Samsung's not ditching headphone jacks just yet, and like we saw on the Note 7, USB Type-C connectivity makes a return. Another Note 7 holdover is the GS8's iris scanner, letting users unlock the phone with their eyes. And if that's not your thing, the fingerprint scanner hasn't disappeared, but instead been relocated around back.
Comparing the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+, it's interesting to see Samsung embrace the idea that the only thing separating these phones should be their size. While last year you were choosing between the flat-screened GS7 or curved-screen GS7 edge, this time it's curved or nothing; all you have to decide is if you want a 5.8-inch or 6.2-inch display.
Color choices are set to include black, orchid gray, silver, blue, and maple gold, though not all markets will have access to all those colors.
Samsung's calling the super-tall screens on the GS8 family its Infinity Display, and while this isn't quite a bezel-free experience, we very much understand why the name fits. The curved-glass AMOLED panels are unlike anything we've seen on a smartphone before, and the prestige from having a phone that doesn't quite look like anything else out there is bound to drive a few sales.
Both phones share the same 1440 x 2960 resolution, and as we'd only expect from Samsung screens, the image quality is very impressive. We'll have to take these models back to our lab and run a full diagnostic, but we definitely like what we're seeing from these first hands-on interactions.
Probably the biggest challenge with these odd new screens is how to reach all the way across them. Now with the GS8, we have the benefit of a phone that's slightly narrower than the GS7, helping you to stretch from edge to edge. The GS8+, meanwhile, is a bit wider than the GS7 edge. But even if everything there were still equal, we now have much taller screens to contend with. When we're dealing with screen-side elements, like the notification shade, that has the potential to cause trouble, and even with the smaller GS8, we struggled to pull it down one-handed.
Perhaps this is just a case of learning a new way to hold these new and unusual phones, and we'll come around to these new screen shapes in a day or two. At the very least, the jury's still out on this one.
The most interesting thing happening to Samsung's software on the GS8 and GS8+ is the arrival of Bixby, the company's new voice-driven virtual assistant. Samsung's betting so heavily on Bixby that it's even introducing a dedicated hardware button on the edge of these phones, giving users an always-there way to access the service.
You've no doubt already used a smartphone virtual assistant or two, and Bixby is largely cut from the same cloth as its competition: it will perform web searches, help you find products, remind you of upcoming items on your schedule, and the like. But Bixby goes beyond those others with the extent to which it empowers hands-free usage.
Samsung Galaxy S8 new UI
Bixby also attempts to make the most of your Galaxy experience by recommending actions based on your historic behavior. If it spots you performing the same task on your phone every day around the same time, or when your GPS indicates you're in the same place, Bixby will try to spot that pattern and be at the ready to lend a hand, in advance of you asking for any help.
There's ample potential here, and Samsung sure seems like it's making the right investments in keeping Bixby a priority, but we're very much going to want to spend a lot more time to see what it can (and can't) do.
Looking at hardware for a moment, both phones run the latest 10nm-process chips, are equipped with 4GB of RAM, and offer 64GB storage with the option for microSD expansion.
For all the GS8 and GS8+ are doing new, Samsung's camera upgrades are seriously conservative. Both phones land with the same kind of 12MP f/1.7 Dual Pixel cameras we saw on the GS7. Then again, that worked really last year, so we can't help but think, “why fix what ain't broken?”
That said, other smartphone cameras have come a long way in the past year, and there's a risk that Samsung may be doing itself a disservice by not taking bolder action with new hardware. Our one saving grace may be enhancements to image processing, with speedier operation that Samsung says should improve low-light operation.
While it's old hardware around back, the front-facers get an upgrade to 8MP sensors, while also picking up face-tracking auto-focus.
More efficient 10nm processors should contribute to battery lifeLast year Samsung gave the GS7 and GS7 edge 3,000mAh and 3,500mAh batteries, respectively. Now we've got bigger screens, with half a million more pixels, and … we're still looking at those very same battery capacities for the GS8 and GS8+.
If that concerns you, you're not alone, but it may not be the end of the world for users demanding day-long smartphone operation. Component upgrades, like these new 10nm processors, could deliver power-efficiency boosts that help offset some of what the new screens consume. At least, that's one theory, but this is one aspect of a new phone that's perilously tricky to judge from a quick hands-on. Again, more investigation is warranted.
Your feelings about Samsung and its phones notwithstanding, one thing you can't accuse Samsung of with the Galaxy S8 and S8+ is playing it safe. These phones aren't just Samsung's latest, but bold, challenging handsets that seek to change what we ask from our mobile devices.
Every year we show you plenty of concept phones, whether fan renders or tech-demos from various trade shows. With the Galaxy S8 and S8+, it feels like you're actually taking one of those phones-of-the-future home with you.
But for as impressive as the designs of these phones are, and how we can't take our eyes off those expansive Infinity Displays, it takes more than artful sculpting, next-gen fabrication, and one of the biggest brand names in smartphones to make a handset a winner.
Will these screens prove simply too large to comfortably interact with in day-to-day usage? The extra-tall screen on the LG G6 was one thing, but Samsung pushes the envelope even further. Will Samsung regret not arming its flagships with bigger batteries, or doing more to upgrade the cameras? It's questions like these that will ultimately determine just how strongly we can recommend Samsung's latest. Keep an eye out for our full reviews of both the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ in the weeks to come; for now, you can whet your appetite for the pair with our image galleries and hands-on videos. Enjoy!