Does Samsung’s latest smartphone push all the right buttons? Tech Trends gets down and dirty with the S8.
When I first realised that the Galaxy S8 was entirely buttonless, I wondered whether I’d miss the functionality of the home button in any way, but the short answer to that has been a resounding “No”. The most impressive thing about this phone is its screen, and the fact that you don’t get a button, together with the gorgeous Infinity Display, means that every inch of real estate on this baby is pure, vivid screen. And that’s no bad thing in my book. Besides, for those — like me — who are upgrading from the previous Galaxy models, there is still the exact same button functionality, in the same place where the physical one used to be. So your brain soon gets used to it, and starts wondering why we ever put up with buttons in the first place.
Personally, I have always favoured Samsung SuperAMOLED smartphone screens and felt the colours and contrast were better than the competition, and after spending some quality time with the S8 can honestly say it is the best screen I have used. Blacks are dark and silky while colours are bright and bold but don’t feel fake. These qualities carry across from the interface to enjoying videos, games and photos and once you switch the default resolution from FHD+ to WQHD+ detail and sharpness leap to another level and the quality of this SuperAMOLED panel shines. You will not get tired of looking at your Galaxy S8, which is no bad thing considering how often most of us check our phones every day.
Watching HD and 4K video is a great experience, the high quality colour and sharpness of the screen stand out at the maximum resolution of 2960x1440px but notably video plays smoothly and without lag or stutter at this resolution, which is very impressive when you consider the pixel density is 570dpi. That’s a lot of pixels to push around, so it’s clear Samsung have made sure the S8’s hardware is powerful enough to handle high quality media streaming video without a hitch. We can’t focus on the technical excellence of the screen without discussing its 18.5:9 display ratio, almost bezel-less design and curved corners that really help the S8 stand out visually and make it so comfortable to hold. I actually can’t stop fondling this phone! It’s so nice to hold and play with I keep picking it up to just feel it.
I was not a fan of the S7 Edge as all, as I found the edges quite sharp and uncomfortable but the Galaxy S8 is a pleasure to hold and use, smooth and glossy with a very nice weight to it. Some find the longer, narrower format odd but I enjoy the way it fits my hand better and it doesn’t mean we sacrifice any screen real estate with the S8 display measuring 5.8″ which is still big. The Infinity Display rolls cleanly off at the edges( in a far more tactile and pleasing way that on older Galaxy S models) and the curved corners of the screen mirror the corners of the device. Both these effects combine to make the eye and the hand flow around the handset and focus your attention on the content you are engaging with while your awareness of the edges are diminished. It really is a lovely piece of design with form and function working in harmony.
The buttons appear and disappear depending on what you are doing and the full width of the screen can be filled with your video or photo content with a further tap on the screen, leaving nothing blocking or hovering over your images. YouTube already works with this feature and a little icon button pops up offering to get the interface out of the way leaving you to enjoy the film. This feels so liberating and fresh I think it will draw a new army of fans to Samsung.
The main concern with the lack of a button on the front and smaller side mounted ON/OFF button is the new placement of the fingerprint scanner on the back of the handset. LG have had great success with this same feature and (while drawing some criticism from rather unimaginative elements of the tech press) reported a very positive user experiences with a rear mounted scanner, so I am confident that S8 users will adapt. The new larger scanner is located next to the camera on the back of the phone, which is a comfortable place for the tip of my forefinger to rest, and while I do not personally use this feature (I’m an old-fashioned pin kind of person) conscious S8 users will also have access to iris and face recognition functions, as well as the good old “pattern swipe” option.
I was happy to see Samsung have retained a physical headphone jack for those of us who don’t want to shell out on Bluetooth cans. Testing out the audio quality with a pair of excellent SoundMAGIC E10s I can report that it is much the same as on the S7 which means very good indeed, tight bass and smooth mids with no peaky treble led to a enjoyable session streaming Google Play Music. However if you are a bit old fashioned or an Audiophile like me you might want to store your music as FLAC on your device and the S8 comes as standard with 64GB of internal storage which is as much as most people will need for apps and photos. For those of us who have to have thousands of their favourite tracks on their phone, however, the S8 will also take a micro SDXC card up to 256GB. The included headphones performed well and tout the AKG logo, claiming to have been tweaked by the audio specialist, but to be honest I would always spend a few extra quid on a well-rated pair from another manufacturer to get best results as the on-board DAC is very capable.
Now on to grunt! Depending where you buy your Galaxy S8 it will be powered by either the Exynos 8895 or the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, both very good CPUs whose strength lie in their power to efficiency. With a surprisingly small 3000mAh battery the S8 needs all the help it can get to keep you Twittering, WhatsApping and streaming media through a long day. I am probably a moderate smartphone user but am pleased to report that my Exynos 8895 version S8 comfortably got me through the day with around 30% battery left at bedtime, so power users might run into issues, but to be honest this battery should be enough to keep most people happy. If you do forget to charge it overnight the rapid charge feature really is fast, and will get you from 0% to 40% in half an hour, so plug it in while you shower and dress and you are good to go again.
While other smartphone makers are moving onto to Dual Camera technology on their flagship handsets Samsung has not radically redesigned the S8 camera from the old S7 version, but after testing it out in some extremely difficult conditions and comparing it to the S7 it is clear a lot of work has been done on the software under the hood. The S7 had the best mobile camera I had used and I can say with confidence that the S8 shows improvements in some key areas. The 12MP Dual Pixel sensor now sports faster autofocus and a really impressive F1.7 lens which when combined with next generation image processing produces the best low light photos I have ever seen from a smartphone.
The photos are bright and clear with natural colours and fantastic detail. Low light was always the Achilles heel of mobile phone cameras with a high percentage of users expecting good results wherever they happen to be, but this is first time I have been truly impressed with low light results from any manufacturer. The images we took at Reading Festival where Samsung was showcasing its Hypercube 360 Experience are simply outstanding, specially considering the conditions were pitch black broken by crazy strobing colored lights with infinity mirrors and dancing revelers all around.
Other software advances are clear to see in the evolution of TouchWiz (newly rebranded as Samsung Experience) which now looks sleeker and less childlike than previously. It has too many updates to discuss all of them here, but the two key ones that stood out for me were the much more stylish default interface, and the swipe-up to open the app drawer. All in all it feels a lot fresher and more modern that I had expected, and really highlights the poor design of TouchWiz going back several years. The one feature that drives me crazy, however, is that the new tap to wake function only works on the home button, not anywhere on the screen like on other devices. This is a small but significant niggle, and perhaps one that could be fixed with an app or patch.
With the S8 Samsung are really pushing their personal assistant Bixby, even giving it a dedicated button on the left side of the screen. This tech is pretty new and can be a bit frustrating, but after registering my voice by reading a few lines of text and following a brief tutorial I was able to use Bixby’s voice recognition to open Gmail, start an email to a specific contact and give the email a subject, which was pretty cool. I was also able to open WhatsApp, write and send a message to a specific contact, which even cooler! These technologies only improve with use as machine learning gets better with more data being fed in, so if you want to use Bixby and contribute towards its evolution go for it and your reward will be a better robot PA going forward.
There is much more I could discuss but to avoid getting hopelessly techie I will just finish by saying that I am very impressed by this phone, and it is easily the best Samsung smartphone to date, combining truly excellent design with powerful hardware and, yes I will say it again in case you missed it, an awesome screen!
Disclosure: Tech Trends is a Samsung consultancy and media partner and this is a #sponsored post. However, we retain full editorial control and all reviews accurately reflects our experience in testing out the products.