Excellence in times of adversity or whatever you’d like to call it, Samsung has a track record for pulling through during make-or-break moments.
Two years ago, when its closest rivals mounted the biggest threat to its dominance, the tech giant silenced critics with the Galaxy S6 Edge, a smartphone that teased the future with its dual-edge curved glass display.
Today, it finds itself in even more challenging waters following last year’s embarrassing recall of the explosive Galaxy Note 7. And as it launches its first major smartphone since the incident, bets are cast on its new flagship to shove clouds out of the way and stir up new waves of success.
Thankfully, the Galaxy S8 launched in New York today is built to impress, every last bit a representation of what smartphone computing might be like in the future.
The S8 will most undoubtedly be a hit, much of which has to do with its design — two generations’ worth of iterating on the same curved-glass idea that saved Samsung from stagnation.
The phone has curved glass on all sides with an airline-grade metal frame giving it some support.
The entire front panel is all display. There are no buttons, no fingerprint sensor, no borders, not even the Samsung logo. Just enough space for a selfie camera and iris scanner.
It not the first time we’ve seen a phone with a borderless display; Xiaomi and LG, for example, have been first to announce similar concepts. But what sets the S8 apart is how it seems to have been carved out of a single slab of glass.
In many ways, it feels like a futuristic glass slate with a computer built in, just like how phones are imagined in science-fiction movies.
LONG AND NARROW
When you first pick up the phone, its unconventional proportions stand out. The S8 is less wide than your average smartphone but much longer.
Because of this unique aspect ratio, I can comfortably wrap my fingers around the phone without any strain. If you’ve found large screen phones restrictive, you might want to get your hands on an S8; it may change your minds.
The larger S8+ too is surprisingly easy to hold with one hand, even if like the S8, it has a much bigger screen than its predecessor.
These new phones have 5.8- and 6.22-inch displays respectively (up from 5.1 and 5.5 inches), but are not at all bigger than last year’s phones. A few years back when you said a phone had that big a display… you’d immediately think humongous! But these phones are not, a direct benefit of its border-free design.
EDGE SCREEN FUNCTIONALITY
Its dual-edge screen isn’t without purpose. You can swipe in from either direction to access frequently called contacts, favorite apps, or a set of tools that make taking clippings and screenshots easier. Some of these tools were only once available on the Note series.
And when you get a notification or a call, the edges glow based on a color of your choosing.
SPILL PROOF, RINSE PROOF
Like its predecessor, the new S8 is water-and dust-resistant. You should be able to submerge it in shallow freshwater for up to 30 minutes, but you’ll be better off thinking of it as protection against spills, rain, the occasional rinses in the sink, or when you want to use your phone for a quick minute in the tub or pool.
The display still responds when wet, and when its ports detect too much moisture, you’ll get a warning so you can hold off from connecting to a power source till it dries.
SMART CAMERA, FUN CAMERA
While many manufacturers have gone for dual-camera setups this year, the S8 still has only one, and that’s okay considering the quality of images it produces.
On paper, the main camera looks pretty much unchanged with its large dual-pixel sensor and f/1.7 aperture among its features. But in our initial tests, the S8 takes even better photos than its predecessor and with a slightly wider-angle lens.
If you’ve used or held the S7 or own an iPhone 7, you’ll be happy to know that the phone doesn’t have a camera bump. Place it back side down on a table and the phone will not wobble from side to side.
Other improvements come by way of built-in intelligence.
Bixby Vision (part of its new virtual personal assistant beta) lets you point at a landmark and it brings up important information about that place. You can point your camera at a bottle of wine and the S8 will let you know if it’s a good buy.
It can scan barcodes, translate text, or look up objects on Pinterest. And soon you’ll be able to point at an object and buy it off Amazon.
If you love selfies and Snapchat, you’ll like the new and improved selfie camera, too. Sure the upgrade from 5 to 8 megapixels is great, but the main attraction is the new stickers and stamps feature.
Built into the camera app is a wide selection of Snapchat-like live filters that can give you bunny ears, look like Michael Jackson, or a festive frock. The Live filters can accommodate up to three people all at once, support both photos and videos, and work with both the selfie and main camera.
I can see how millennials will love this new feature. Considering these photos and videos can be exported to your camera roll and uploaded to Instagram stories, for example. I’m quite certain people will all want to know where all these new filters are from and why they don’t have them yet.
The S8 marks the birth of Samsung’s new personal assistant Bixby, which is supposed to rival Siri on the iPhone and Assistant on the Google Pixel.
Currently in Beta, the grand vision for Bixby is a whole new way of interacting with your phone with just your voice. Video demos show users asking Bixby to pick a photo from a recent trip and giving it an aged look, but we weren’t able to test out the feature.
Samsung also promises it will one day work with its range of digital appliances, so you should hypothetically be able to ask Bixby to start a wash or turn off the TV.
Samsung is also opening Bixby up to third-party services and apps. Clearly, its success as a platform relies on this. But considering Samsung’s dedicated an entire physical button to it, looks like they’re pretty serious about seeing this one through.
OPEN EYES TO UNLOCK
Beside the main camera on the phone’s back side is its fingerprint sensor, relocated from the front of the phone.
If we had one complaint about the S8, it would be this new spot, way too close to the camera for comfort. Choosing to place it beside the camera was most likely done in favor of aesthetics more than function.
Unless you’re really careful, you’ll most likely run your fingers on the camera lens leaving behind smudges. Gosh, that would suck.
That said, we recommending using the phone’s built-in iris scanner instead. There’s now a setting that activates the scanner as soon as you raise the phone.
If you hold it right, the phone unlocks instantly. It’s the same technology we saw previously on the Note 7, and is a much better alternative to fingerprints, because you can still unlock your phone even when your fingers are grimy or wet.
And like on the Note 7, there’s now Secure Folder which lets you store top secret files and apps. Just like how you’d unlock your phone, you can access the vault with a PIN, pattern, or your irises.
Samsung promises the S8 won’t have the battery issues of the Note 7, thanks to a more stringent 8-point battery check.
While I’m sure they could have gone bigger or faster, it was most prudent for Samsung not to push very hard in the battery department this year, and they indeed kept it on the down low.
Compared the the S7 and S7 Edge, the S8 and S8+ have similar battery capacities, and the same quick-charging features.
There’s wireless charging too, and a new wireless charging accessory that works both as a charging pad and a stand.
Samsung says while there are no capacity or charging boosts, battery life should improve by up to 20 percent even with its bigger display thanks to the power management improvements on its new processors, which, depending on where you are in the world, will either be a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 or Samsung’s own Exynos system-on-a-chip (SoC).
Android Nougat on the S8 feels snappy even while running several apps and games.
All that power comes in useful to run a spiffy new feature called DeX. All you need is a separately sold docking station, monitor, keyboard, and mouse.
Docking your phone turns it into a desktop computer. Expect to see an interface on your monitor similar to what you’re used to on a Windows computer or Chromebook.
We’ve seen this feature before on Windows Mobile called Continuum, but considering how obscure that phone became, it didn’t enjoy the popularity it could have had.
It’s possibly a game-changer. In our limited time using our S8 test device with DeX, we ran Facebook, Chrome, Microsoft Word, and Google Slides side-by-side and everything worked fine without any noticeable lag. We couldn’t believe we were multitasking on a smartphone, or that the computer was running off a smartphone.
We think this feature will be a hit in dorm rooms or other instances where you don’t necessarily have or need a workstation or laptop. Or if you just need more screen real estate to, for example, edit slides on your presentation.
OF THE FUTURE, FOR TODAY
We’ve seen a lot of great smartphones in 2017 already, but the Galaxy S8 sets an even higher bar. Despite its challenges, Samsung has managed to build a phone that is not only worth the upgrade, but also one we feel might get iOS users to switch. While we think DeX might be a game-changer and the host of security features much needed, of all the features Samsung put forth in the S8, its futuristic design is what keeps us wanting to come back for more. Then there’s Bixby; while we have yet to see its full potential realized, if Samsung plays its cards right, it could very well chart the phone’s path to that of legend.