The Samsung Galaxy S8 is finally here. Launching in the UK on the 28th April for £689 it is a phone designed to make you forget.
Samsung had a bad 2016, that’s a fact.
To try and come back from such a major product recall like the Galaxy Note 7 would be difficult at any time of the year. Of course the stakes were much higher than that, Samsung had to do it knowing that the next big smartphone they would be unveiling would be its most important phone of the year.
So here we find ourselves, the Samsung Galaxy S8 is officially here and ready to be judged.
The design is an evolution of the curved screen philosophy that Samsung pushed with both the S7 edge and the Note 7.
In many ways it feels like the razor sharp edge of years of fine-tuning, ultimately resulting in something that feels effortlessly purposeful. Every curve, material and laser-drilled hole has meaning, it feels similar to Apple’s philosophy but with just a little more swagger.
On the front you’ll find little to identify the S8, it has no buttons, no logos just a vast ocean of glass that helps protect the phone’s massive 5.8-inch display.
The phone’s front and back are now almost symmetrically curved, gently sloping down onto the slim metal frame that keeps the entire phone in one piece. On the top is the microSD card and SIM tray while on the bottom you’ll find one speaker grill, a USB-C port and the headphone jack.
The back is another mass of glass with only the now-tiny ring of a camera lens, flash and the newly-moved fingerprint sensor interrupting the order of things.
This is, a truly stunning piece of design, there can surely be no argument there. However as Samsung moves more and more into the realms of creating something beautiful there can be no doubt that sacrifices have been made.
The entire phone is a fingerprint magnet, and a very efficient one at that. Then there’s the newly-moved fingerprint sensor. We understand why it had to go from the front of the phone but its new home is stupidly placed for anyone who doesn’t have abnormally long fingers.
You get the feeling that Samsung wanted to integrate the sensor into the screen itself but either couldn’t perfect the technology or ran out of time.
To help make up for the badly-placed fingerprint scanner the S8 now offers two extra forms of security: Facial recognition and iris recognition.
Facial recognition is by far and away the fastest of the two, but it’s less secure and hates low-light. Iris recognition is slower, much more secure and also doesn’t like the dark. In all truth we ended up using an awkward combination of the fingerprint sensor and the pattern lock on the display.
Finally there’s the small issue of sturdiness. We dare you to go a day and not see a smashed iPhone screen. Imagine then, how this, a beautifully crafted phone with two vast pieces of glass and a slim metal frame would cope with even the slightest drop. Replacing that screen cannot be easy, or cheap. Buy a case.
Press the lock button and you’re greeted with what Samsung calls its ‘Infinity Display’. It’s a shameless marketing term, but one that annoyingly holds some value because as you can see, it really does take up almost all of the front of the phone.
It also helps that it’s absolutely stunning. Thanks to an almost bezel-less design the S8 boasts a gorgeous 5.8-inch curved AMOLED display with a resolution of 2960x1440. The S8+ has an even larger 6.2-inch screen but with the same resolution.
Place it next to something like the iPhone 7 Plus and you start to see the challenge that faces Apple. Samsung’s display might not be as wide as the 7 Plus, but put the two together and Apple’s use of massive bezels are laid bare.
Whereas the screen feels almost hemmed in by bezels on the iPhone, the Galaxy S8 quite literally is the screen.
This is a Samsung phone so naturally there are some gimmicks, the first is that this display is Mobile HDR Premium certified. Essentially what that means is that you can now watch all of Netflix and Amazon’s HDR content natively on your S8.
Personally, we’re not convinced. Most of us watch this content either on the commute, or when travelling and at that point we’re just glad to have something to keep us occupied. HDR content works on a brand-new 4K TV that’s as big as your wall, it looks stunning. To suggest that it’s going to transform a screen no bigger than your wallet is hopeful at best.
One gimmick we do love is the integrated home button. You see because Samsung’s had to ditch all physical buttons on the front of the phone there is now an ‘invisible’ home button built into the screen. Press it and you’ll get the same vibration feedback you’d find on the iPhone’s TouchID sensor or when you press firmly on the display. It’s a neat little implementation.
The phone runs Samsung’s skinned version of Android 7.0. It is without doubt Samsung’s best version of Android we’ve seen yet and we’re thankful to report that they’ve finally ditched the almost child-like designs of TouchWiz. Instead each app is a gently edited version of Google’s original, containing all the simplicity and functionality you’d want
It is also one of the most customisable operating systems we’ve seen in a long time. The screen’s actual resolution, font size, icon design, colours and layout can all be fine-tuned to create the interface that you want. It’s exactly what Samsung should have done now the screen is your entry point to almost everything on the phone.
The camera on the back is a 12MP f1.7 lens that boasts image stabilisation and a feature called dual pixels. All this essentially means is that the S8 is even better than before at taking images in low-light, while a new feature that combines three separate shots into one means your pictures have even less chance of being awful.
Samsung’s also bumped up the software a good deal, the Pro mode now offers a veritable sweet shop of tweaks. Another impressive feature worth mentioning is the Selective Focus mode. It’s essentially Samsung’s version of Portrait Mode on the iPhone, creating a bokeh effect that leaves the subject perfectly in focus while blurring the background.
Samsung’s version, it has to be said, works incredibly well. Using nothing but software tweaks the phone was able to isolate the subjects we chose with alarming precision. What makes it a real clincher though is that it works on the front-facing camera too.
It’s designed to be an all-in-one assistant that can help organise your life and the content on your phone.
So here’s the first piece of bad news, it’s not actually ready yet. While we saw demos of people talking to Bixby using their voice, the feature won’t actually be available at launch. Even then when it does launch it’ll be in the US and South Korea first with no definitive date on it arriving in the UK. Well quite.
What you do get though is a dedicated button on the side that when pressed brings up the Bixby home screen; a personalised collection of cards that show your calendar, localised news, basic fitness tracking stats, your Spotify playlists and more.
It’s nothing revolutionary, the iPhone has something similar as do many other smartphones but it’s good to see Samsung try and unify everything under a single product.
Bixby Vision is the other feature you get. It’s a smart camera that can recognise objects in front of it and then offer up content. An example would be that you point it at a pair of trainers you really like and Bixby Vision can either show you lots of pictures of the trainers online, or rather more helpfully, show you places to buy them.
Another example being you can point it at a bottle of wine and Bixby Vision can give you tasting notes as well as information about its point of origin. Finally, it can recognise landmarks, letting you take a picture of where you are and then see food and drink recommendations nearby.
We’ll be completely honest here, Bixby Vision feels like nothing more than a gimmick at present. The shopping feature is by far and away the most useful of the four and even then we found it to be incredibly hit and miss.
We really think Samsung should have waited until voice activation was ready, it’s the single most powerful element of Bixby and yet we have no idea when it’s going to be available in the UK. Thankfully, Google Assistant is always on-hand so it’s not like Samsung’s leaving you out to dry.
Finally we turn to day-to-day usage. The 3,000mAh battery might not sound like much but in everyday testing we found it to be good for at least a day and a half’s usage with the screen brightness kept at the conservative end of conservative.
Charging is bafflingly quick through the USB-C port and provided charger too so if you are worried about taking it out for an evening just 15-20mins of charge is more than enough to see you through.
The Galaxy S8 is Samsung’s best phone, there’s not doubt about it. It is also, once again, probably the best Android phone we’ve ever tested.
It’s a testament to the quality of the product then that it still manages to be that good even when some of its features feel either rushed or just aren’t finished yet. Bixby is a shadow of what it should be at present, while the fingerprint sensor is just a case of bad design.
Yet despite this there’s so much that’s exemplary about this phone. The screen is stunning, and we do mean stunning. The camera is class-leading in its simplicity and functionality. The software is endlessly customisable.
Who should buy the Samsung Galaxy S8?
If you don’t mind paying the premium then Samsung has crafted its best smartphone ever with the Galaxy S8. It’s stunning to look at, powerful and a brilliant camera phone. Just remember, you really really need to buy a case.
Who shouldn’t buy the Samsung Galaxy S8?
The S8 won’t be for everyone. Its on-par battery life will be an annoyance. It’s also incredibly expensive to buy and we suspect just as expensive to repair. If you want pure practicality as well then we’d also suggest looking more in the direction of the G5 or the Pixel, both are simpler, more sturdy and offer better battery life.
The Samsung Galaxy S8 is available from the 28th April in either Black or Orchid Grey with 64GB Storage. The Galaxy S8 costs £689 while the Galaxy S8+ costs £779.