Samsung Galaxy S8 Review69
Update: You can now read our Galaxy S9 and S9+ review!
It hasn’t exactly been easy for Samsung these last few years. Sure, the S7 family turned out to be pretty successful, but the previous two generations weren’t met with top marks, while 2017 ended pretty badly with the Note 7 fiasco. To make matters worse, this was a period of intense expansion for low-cost phone makers, primarily those from China, who fiercely attacked Samsung’s positions in key growing markets.
But we have to give it to Samsung – the company didn’t bend under all that pressure. Instead, it toughened up and got back to work, determined to create a new flagship product that would once again prove the point that Samsung is the undisputed leader on the Android market. This product is the Galaxy S8.
While most smartphones, especially those that try to offer good experience at a low price, involve some kind of specific trade-off, the Galaxy S8 doesn’t have this problem – it’s designed to be the ultimate product in Samsung’s portfolio: a top phone at a top price, and the results can be seen from afar: a snazzy, new 5.8” AMOLED screen, cutting-edge octa-core chipset, state-of-the-art camera, premium aesthetics with high-quality materials… the list goes on and on. The Galaxy S8 is here to both recover Samsung’s image after the Note 7 flop, as well as to fend off all the smaller players trying to snatch pieces of the company’s vast market share.
Eye-catchy and forward-looking
Samsung is trying to label the GS8 as a completely new type of smartphone, called 'infinity phone', due to the super-slim bezels. We don’t know about that infinity thing, but there’s obviously more to the Galaxy S8’s design than the skinny bezels. There is an elegantly curved screen, for example, as well as a diverse set of beautiful color options. The Samsung Galaxy S8 family comes in 5 hues: Midnight Black (black), Arctic Silver (gray), Coral Blue (blue), Maple Gold (gold), and Orchid Grey (light violet). All variants feature a black front, and honestly, they all look striking. Previous Galaxy S iterations came in some dazzling hues that were interesting to look at, but kind of eccentric. This new 5-color line-up is fresh, yet mature and easy on the eyes – it's surprisingly well selected. Unfortunately, only the black, gray, and orchid colors will be officially available in the US.
OK, so the Galaxy S8 is a real eye-catcher, but to be honest, looks are just half of the story here. Equally important is the way the phone feels in the hand, and here it can be described with one word: fantastic! Thanks to the compact dimensions of the phone, as well as the precisely curved sides, it’s impressive just how seamless this device feels in the hand. There are no sharp edges, no nasty materials used here: only smooth glass and a polished aluminum frame. The latter is a great design choice by Samsung, as the shiny metal goes well with the glass, and it further enhances the feel and grip in the hand. Speaking of grip, the smooth, glossy surfaces mean the phone literally sticks to your fingers, which is great. Of course, it'll usually be smudgier than its matte phone counterparts, but that's not much of a problem.
The physical buttons (power, volume, and Bixby) don't have legendary level of feel or clickiness, but they seem perfectly serviceable. There's no longer a dedicated home button – it's been replaced by an on-screen one, but you can still use it to wake the phone up, thanks to the pressure sensitive sensor in the home button area beneath the screen. Just press firmly in the bottom center area of the S8, and you'll feel a slight vibration, followed by the screen lighting up. Unfortunately, the pressure sensitive pad doesn’t seem to serve any useful purpose beyond this.
The Galaxy S8 is IP68 certified for a strong level of dust- and water-resistance – not only is it beautiful, it's also tough! If we had a giant “APPROVED” stamp, we'd plaster it all over the Galaxy S8 right now.
It's a quality AMOLED panel, but do we really need the extra-tall/wide aspect ratio?
The unusual new screen is understandably among the major points of interest with the Galaxy S8. After all, the phone has relatively compact dimensions, all the while it’s equipped with an impressive 5.8” display! However, there's a catch here: the new screen has an aspect ratio of 9:18.5. Up until now, phone screens came (and still come) in the way more widespread 9:16 ratio. The Galaxy S8's 9:18.5 ratio means its screen is taller than usual. Not necessarily much wider than that of the 5.1” Galaxy S7, for example, but considerably taller.
How does that change the user experience? Well, it's actually a double-edged sword. This display format allows software developers to show more content on screen, such as additional information, or some kind of contextual app controls, for example. On the other hand, if this screen format isn't used efficiently, it may lead to inconvenient UI, with some important elements ending up in a very hard to reach corner of the screen. It also means most video content will have black bars on the sides, as it's distributed in 16:9 aspect ratio. The same goes for some games and apps out there.
For the most part, though, the extra-tall display doesn't stand in the way, it doesn't make things look bad or inconvenient. But does it really enhance the experience?
If we're looking for some magical way in which this 9:18.5 display is supposed to improve everything, the answer is no. Software still works the same exact way it used to, so between the Galaxy S8 and the S7, there isn't really that much of a difference in the way you'll be doing or viewing things. With the push to reduce bezels, however, and Samsung's reluctance to just make the phone itself smaller/shorter, something has to fill this newly vacated space, and 'more screen' is the obvious answer. There is one major benefit to this tall screen we can think of, and that's the ability to see more content in applications whose purpose is to show you content. Think the web browser, where you read articles and browse through long web pages, or the Kindle app, where you read books (it'll fit more on each page, meaning fewer page turns), or the calendar, where more events will be visible at a time in agenda view. This is where the main benefit of this screen is found.
Tech-wise, it's a Super AMOLED panel with resolution of 1440 x 2960 pixels. That's more than enough pixels, resulting in 570 ppi (pixels per inch) – incredible pixel density that makes even tiny fonts appear super fine. Other than that, this is an AMOLED display not much different from those of previous top Samsung phones: it gets plenty bright when outdoors, as well as very dim when viewed in the dark, which is all great. Viewing angles are still wonky, meaning brightness is retained, but colors quickly shift to colder ones even when viewed at slight angles. To add some context here: IPS LCD screens usually behave in the opposite way, where we observe reduced brightness or contrast, but retained color characteristics at angles.
Once again, the default color mode is ‘Adaptive’, which characterizes with a slightly cold temperature (bluish cast) and unnecessarily oversaturated colors. It feels a bit excessive, which is why we recommend switching to some of the other available modes. Traditionally, we’d suggest using the ‘Basic’ mode, as it happens to be closest to the standard sRGB colorspace, but it doesn’t look good at all on the Galaxy S8 and S8+. In addition to a slightly lacking red, color intensity on Basic is weak across the board, causing the screen to look desaturated and lifeless. Because of that, we recommend using the AMOLED Photo mode, where colors aren’t exactly true to life, but are at least pleasantly vivid, with natural enough balance.
Samsung's Android software rises above the rest
Samsung has, once again!, reworked its take on Android. This time, we're not dealing with major functional shake-ups, but rather a visual rethinking. The operating system that comes pre-installed is Android 7.0, so all the latest Google features will be available, but what makes Samsung phones so enticing for consumers, perhaps equally as strongly as the elegant hardware design, is Samsung's unique software UI, which is now dubbed Samsung Experience (previously, it was called TouchWiz).
The new visual style of the user interface is interesting and unique. The iconography has a simplisic style with clean, yet thoughtful shapes and curves. The new gradient wallpapers with animated ‘stars’ overlay correspond well to this new style, although we can’t say they are exactly attractive. What’s more, these animated wallpapers seem to slow the Galaxy S8 and S8+ down somewhat, which is why we recommend switching to a static image.
Phone, Messaging, Calendar
Now let’s take a look at the essential communication applications. The phonebook is incredibly clean – it contains only two tabs: Recents and Contacts. In what seems like a questionable move, the favorites aren’t found in their own, separate tab, but at the top of the contacts list. What’s probably a bigger insult, however, is the fact that the tabs are close to the upper edge of the screen, which obviously not the optimal placement with such a tall screen. Samsung claims it has tailored its software to the tall screen, but when there are such decisions where the tabs in some of the most used apps like phone and messaging are put at the top, instead of close to the easy-to-reach bottom edge, it makes you realize those efforts haven’t gone too deep.
The screen is big enough, so typing tends to be a comfortable experience with the Samsung Galaxy S8. The portrait keyboard has a clean, yet functional design, with enough space between keys. There is a handy number row above the letters, although we would have liked to see the frequently used ‘comma’ and ‘apostrophe’ keys somehow included in the main layout.
The Samsung calendar app is very likeable. It’s quite modern, with nice, soft colors, a convenient week view, and swift appointment creation.
Promising, but half-baked at launch
Along with the Galaxy S8 and S8+, Samsung is debuting its own virtual butler, Bixby. It’s ultimate goal is to be a successful Google Assistant alternative/replacement by offering similar, or even richer features. While Samsung has promised to make Bixby capable of operating almost every aspect of the phone for the user, by means of voice, currently its expertise is limited to a number of things: vision, reminders, and homescreen info cards. Notice that voice commands aren’t supported by Bixby at launch – this functionality will be rolled out later, perhaps sometime in May. At the moment, voice commands are handled by Google Assistant.
Bixby Vision is best described as a smart, contextual camera, which can detect a number of categories, such as QR codes, images, places, text, and… wine. You can point Bixby’s camera at an item, and if it manages to recognize it correctly, it can offer you a shopping link (mostly from Amazon), and/or an image search (powered by Pinterest). Weirdly, wine has its own separate category, probably because Samsung partnered with Vivino, which is an established wine database service. Using Bixby vision is a hit or miss experience – its object recognition accuracy is decent at this point, but definitely needs more work if it is to be more practical than a simple text search, which is Vision’s ultimate goal. When it gets the objects right, the image search feature (Pinterest pics) works well, but shopping is not very reliable, often returning no or inaccurate results. Products with labels on them, such as a branded box of chocolates, work well, but more generic-looking things, like a black laptop or a phone, for example, seem to be almost impossible to recognize.
The leftmost homescreen page on the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus is, for some reason, called ‘Hello Bixby’, instead of just ‘Bixby’. It’s an HTC BlinkFeed slash Google Now kind of screen, which aggregates a bunch of organization and lifestyle features, such as alarms, next calendar appointments, reminders, latest news, weather forecast, frequently visited webpages, and more. It’s nice and fits the overall concept of a virtual assistant; it acts like a summary of your day.
Bixby is a promising Samsung feature, and even though it’s still in its infancy and doesn’t offer anything that isn’t already available on rival platforms, it’s something Samsung should definitely keep developing, because it’ll soon prove to be a valuable competitive asset.
Privacy and Security
This has to be the most versatile phone when it comes to security features! With no ultimate locking method, Samsung has simply chosen to include everything and let the user decide what to use. We're talking a rear-mounted fingerprint scanner, iris scanner, and face detection. While all three can surely be reliable device-securing features, neither is particularly well implemented in the Galaxy S8.
- Fingerprint scanner: With not enough physical space left on the bottom bezel, Samsung was forced to move the fingerprint scanner to the back of the phone. The exact positioning is controversial: it's placed right next to the camera lens. Having all the stuff neatly lined up there sure looks nice and clean, but it's just not comfortable. Reaching the sensor requires quite a bit of stretch, and depending on which hand you hold the phone with, your experience may range from inconvenient to frustrating. The fingerprint sensor itself is good enough, but its positioning may ultimately make you opt for one of the other unlock methods available.
- Iris scanner: The iris scanner that made its debut on the Note 7 is back, and it suffers from the same issues as before, including failed attempts, long scanning times, and limited optimal position/distance for a successful reading. It's said to be the most secure method of them all, but it just isn't practical enough for everyday use.
- Face recognition: This is the newcomer here. Facial recognition is a way simpler method than iris recognition – it doesn't involve a special IR cameras, lights, etc. It simply uses the front (aka selfie) snapper of the phone, and the rest is software. Facial recognition is much faster than the iris scanner, but it's also not as secure. In fact, we managed to successfully fool it using a picture of the user's Facebook profile. It's not super easy to fool it, but it's absolutely possible. We'd say this unlocking method is just fine for everyday usage, as long as you don't keep any super-private and super-sensitive info on your device. Plus, if you do have such info, but for some reason want to stick with facial recognition, you can always put that info in the special Secure Folder, where it'll be hidden behind a second, tougher layer of protection.
Performance and Memory
Top hardware components, but not quite top performance
In terms of the chipset moving things inside, there are once again two main variants with Samsung’s new flagships. In the US, the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus are powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, while in most other markets, it’s Samsung’s own Exynos 8895 chipset doing the computing. Both system-on-chips are extremely powerful and built on the state-of-the-art 10nm process, the main benefit of which is higher power efficiency. The Snapdragon 835 sports an octa-core CPU, running at up to 2450 MHz, and is complemented by the Adreno 540 GPU. Meanwhile, the Exynos 8895 comes with an octa-core CPU of up to 2.5 GHz, and the Mali-G71 MP20 GPU. The in-depth testing for this review has been done with the Exynos version of the phone, but performance and power efficiency are expected to be on par between both variants.
The Galaxy S8 and S8+ are generally very quick – no significant hiccups with regards to performance are observed. As mentioned earlier, there’s a bit of lag introduced by the default animated wallpapers, but once those are swapped for a static image, things tend to move in an instantaneous manner. The system also doesn’t seem to suffer from any temperature-related or stability issues. However, some heavier games may not run completely fluidly, even at the default FHD+ resolution. To be more precise: 3D gaming is perfectly possible and most titles are playable, but the frames per second in some of the more intensive ones (NOVA, Heroes of Order and Chaos, Asphalt Xtreme) just don’t reach the comfortable 60 fps, which is a shame. Turning the screen resolution down to the HD+ (1480 x 720px) setting doesn’t seem to improve things much. Simpler games, like town builders and the like, would naturally run with no such issues.
Samsung is being pretty generous with the storage space, as all Galaxy S8 and S8+ models come with 64 GB of internal memory, which is A LOT of space. But even if you happen to be a 4K video maniac, there isn’t much cause for concern, as the microSD card slot on board makes for an easy expansion.
Internet and connectivity
Samsung's own Internet browser is a real alternative to Chrome
With an immense number of supported LTE bands, the Galaxy S8 is one well connected handset. Not only that, it’s also future-proof with LTE-A Pro Cat 16 compatibility for theoretical download speeds of up to 1 gigabit/s, and upload of up to 150 megabits/s. There is no cellular network out there that will let you stream data at such speeds, of course, but the radio itself is evidently top notch. All kinds of other communications are also supported, including NFC and MST for easy mobile payments in countries where Samsung Pay is already operational, like US, China, South Korea, Spain, Australia, Singapore, and some others.
A superb smartphone camera; that oversharpening, though...
This year, Samsung isn’t increasing or decreasing the megapixels in the main camera of the Galaxy S8 and S8+. Instead, it’s worked to enhance the image processing aspect of the image capturing process. To be honest, processing was already quite good on Samsung cameras, with probably the only exception being a noticeable oversharpening effect, which could make some pictures look a bit artificial. It’ll be interesting to see in what direction Samsung has taken image processing in the Galaxy S8+.
Hardware-wise, the single rear shooter is a 12 MP unit with aperture of F1.7, 1.4 μm pixel size, and focal length of 26 mm. The camera UI is very cool: the important shutter and video rec buttons are neatly placed on one side, while on the other are the HDR, Flash, and Settings. Speaking of settings, the camera is as versatile as ever, with a plethora of shooting modes and adjustments available. In addition to the standard pinch-to-zoom way of digital zooming, you can now also do so by sliding the shutter button up or down (if in landscape), which is a very natural feature that works surprisingly well.
The pictures coming from the Galaxy S8 and S8+ are fantastic. Detail levels are superb, dynamics are great, and colors are mostly realistic. Very rarely, there would be a slight white balance issue, but in more than 95% of the time, colors are spot on. Unfortunately, there is still some of the oversharpening going on, which may be especially annoying in certain situations – see the pictures with the waterfall for example.
Low-light photography is once again at the highest level imaginable. What separates the S8 from its rivals is the incredibly high level of detail preserved. Colors also remain remarkably lifelike, which is a quality not unique to the Galaxy S8, but in combination with the impressive sharpness, it all makes for quite the exemplary night-time and low-light photographs.
The loudspeaker of the new Galaxy is very powerful, but also quite substantial. Sure, it can’t deliver bass or anything close, but for a phone speaker, it sounds very well.
Samsung is making a big deal out of the included AKG earphones, and for the most part, they seem to deliver. Somewhat. Depending on whether you manage to get them to stay in your ears. They are of the in-ear type, which is never too comfortable to wear, and some of us had trouble making them stay in their place tightly, resulting in a dramatic loss of low frequencies. If you managed to push them deep enough in your ears, and make them stay there (which the author of this review was unable to do), then you’ll be able to enjoy high-quality sound.
Voices through the earpiece tend to sound OK, but not pleasing.
Solid performance in the battery department is hindered by Always-on display
A reasonable 3000 mAh battery is powering the Samsung Galaxy S8. The phone holds up quite well, although not quite as well as the S8+. Stand by times don’t seem to be superb, which is probably due to the Always-on display feature. Given its limited use, we’d recommend disabling Always-on display, and in turn enjoying the benefits of a very real battery life boost.
Samsung gives us some interesting statistics for this wirelessly chargeable battery: it can deliver up to 16 hours of continuous video playback, or the cool 67 hours of music playback. Web browsing on Wi-Fi and LTE can last for 14 and 12 hours, respectively. These browsing times mimic what the iPhone 7 is supposed to allow, but the iPhone’s continuous video and music playback times are slightly lower.
Interestingly, the Galaxy S8 scored slightly better than the S8+ on our custom battery benchmark, lasting for 8 hours 22 mins. This is considerably more than last year’s S7 (6 h 37 min), and also better than the Pixel's 7h 45 min and iPhone 7's 7h 46 min.
Recharging the battery from 0 to 100% happens in 1 hour and 40 minutes. While last year's S7 charged slightly faster, in 1h 28 mins, the S8's result is still perfectly acceptablwe, considering the rest of the landscape. The Google Pixel takes 1h 42 minutes to charge, and the iPhone 7 takes 2 hours and 21 minutes.
Despite the stark new appearance and display aspect ratio, it is yet to be decided if this new, almost bezel-less design trend of the Galaxy S8 is going to lead to a meaningful change in how we experience the smartphone as a tool. Having the bezels reduced is perfectly OK when it comes to aesthetics, but introducing an extra tall display is a change of practical meaning. Throughout this review, we saw that the taller display could be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it does allow for more content to be shown without increasing the width of the phone, which is always good, but on the other, it can lead to usability discomfort in case the user interface and the content viewed are not optimized well enough for the extravagant aspect ratio. And in the case of the Galaxy S8, we can’t say that all has been executed flawlessly.
However, if we stop looking for revolutionary improvements where they are unlikely to be found, and examine the device in itself, we quickly realize that the Galaxy S8 is a truly remarkable smartphone. Samsung has been focusing its efforts in exactly the right areas, which is evident in the Galaxy S8’s excellent performance across almost all essential fields. For most consumers out there, this is the best Android smartphone there is: an elegant and premium design, combined with a powerful but thoughtfully conceived software experience, with exemplary performance where it counts the most. In the end, the Galaxy S8 proves that it’s well worth the asking price, despite being surrounded by tempting low-cost alternatives.
Update: You can now read our Galaxy S9 and S9+ review!