The Samsung Galaxy S8 is without a doubt the most beautiful, polished phone I’ve ever held.
For Samsung, it’s also the most important phone. It represents a chance to restore buyers’ confidence after theand an opportunity to cement the Samsung name as the top Android brand against rivals from Google, LG and OnePlus.
What makes the Galaxy S8 so special is this: A tall, narrow shape that fits snugly in my palm and curved sides that scream “classy.” And the screen? 5.8 inches of colorful gorgeousness and a display that stretches from edge to edge with just a whisper of a bezel. For its looks alone, Samsung’s flashiest phone lands at the top of the class. Trust me, when you see the S8 and, you’re gonna want to put your hands all over them.
I did everything with these two phones at home, in the office, around town and at the beach. I took scores of photos and videos, watched tons of YouTube and Netflix movies, chatted my fingers off. I sat on them in my back pocket (no Bendgate yet). I must have unlocked these things 100 times in four different ways (fingerprint, eyes, face, pin). So I’m confident pointing out the S8’s problems — because, let’s be real, there’s always something.
Samsung Galaxy S8, S8 Plus and Bixby pix: Come and get ’em
In this case, I can boil it down to the awkwardly placed fingerprint reader — you will curse this — and the still-up-in-the-air, which combines Siri, Google Now and a camera add-on. (Samsung’s Siri-like at the time of writing and could change quickly, so keep an eye on this space.) And while photo quality is great, it’s weird to me that Samsung, usually so on top of trends, opted for one camera lens on the back instead of two.
So far, the battery has made the S8 warm, like most phones get, but not dangerously hot. Hopefully Samsung’s new eight-point battery test has done its job keeping all future handsets combustion-free, unlike the poor Note 7. The battery reserves lasted a good, long time. Overall, it’s zippier than the, but not so much better at its core that S7 owners should dash to upgrade.
What you really need to know is that the S8 is an extremely fast, highly competent, visually stunning device that you’ll probably want to use with a case. Yes, this will hide most of its beautiful lines. Tough luck: It’s just too costly and pretty to risk dropping.
And the Galaxy S8 is expensive. At $750, £689 or AU$1,199, you want to know that your phone is going to go the distance, and that you won’t regret getting something cheaper — like the midrange but awesome-for-what-it-is— or holding out for the next iPhone, Google Pixel or , each of which should debut in the next four to six months.
So long as you aren’t hanging all your hopes on work-in-progress Bixby (Google Assistant is an easy alternative to invoke) and have the patience of a saint when unlocking the phone, the Galaxy S8 is a sound buy that will make your friends jealous of its tall, curved, crazy-elegant screen. If you’re serious about buying, I’d make a special trip to test out the fingerprint reader before taking the plunge. And if your current phone isn’t yet on its last legs, it doesn’t hurt to wait and see how the S8’s battery fares in the wild in the weeks ahead.
- US pricing details, by carrier
- UK pricing details, by carrier
- Australian pricing details, by carrier
All-new design rocks it
Not to be dramatic, but the Galaxy S8 really is a feast for the eyes. It adopts a new dimension — 18.5:9 (that’s almost 2:1 like the LG G6) — which means that it’s tall and narrow. That makes it easier to use one-handed. Extremely slim bezels mean there’s much more screen stuffed into the shape: 83 percent of the phone’s face is all yours for tapping and viewing. The S8 is almost the exact same height as the G6, but those curved sides make the S8 feel narrower, slimmer and, in truth, much more vulnerable.
I was extremely nervous I’d drop it. It almost seems more like a museum piece than a tool I’m going to use every day. I’ve had one close call so far, but it hasn’t smashed to the ground yet. When it inevitably does, because butterfingers, I have a feeling those rounded edges will be easier to crack than a device with straight sides. I can’t say for sure, but the bigger problem may be the glass back.
Last year’s GS7 shattered when I dropped it (oops), and my colleague Luke Lancaster in Sydney said his S8 slipped and slid out from under him, resulting in a bash. With the Galaxy S8’s newer Gorilla Glass 5 topper, time will tell just how often this happens for others, too.
There’s no more physical home button, and honestly? I didn’t miss it at all. The on-screen control you see on pretty much every other Android phone felt completely natural. In fact, going Home on the S8 was faster than going Home on a lightly used S7. By the way, you can swap the placement of the Back and Recents buttons if you want to.
The S8 is the first standard Galaxy S phone (as in, not an Edge or Edge Plus) to have curved sides and the Edge display. You can use it as a kind of speed dial for your frequent apps and contacts, news headlines and so on, which you can call up from any screen (and tweak the tab location so it’s easy for you to grab). You can add a lot of panes in the settings, but I like it best when kept to two — otherwise you waste time trying to find what you’re looking for.
Oh, one more thing about the screen. It’s a very high-resolution, 2,960×1,440-pixel display, and that makes text, images and video absolutely pop, even in direct sunlight. You should know, though, that the off-standard dimension means you’ll have to either be cool with black bars on the sides of videos you play (called pillarboxing), or you’ll need to tap a screen control to crop-to-fit. In some videos, doing so reduced image quality. At other times, it looked just as good.
The S8 falters when you give it the finger(print)
My biggest problem with the phone design is the fingerprint reader, which moved from the home button on the S7’s front face to a narrow strip on its backing that looks a lot like a Tic Tac, just left of the camera mount. I have no idea what Samsung was thinking putting it here. Other rear-mounted fingerprint sensors, such as the LG G6 and Google Pixel, are closer to the middle center of the phone’s body, well clear of the camera and flash. They’re round and easier to completely cover with your fingertip.
Maybe muscle memory will take over and you’ll get used to the placement? That hasn’t happened for me yet. I got a lot of setup errors, and the accuracy is less “hit” and more “miss,” especially when I haven’t unlocked the phone for a long time. And yes, I did often smear the camera with finger grease (yum) on the way to the scanner. Even though I’m right-handed, I also registered my left index finger and gave that a try. Unsurprisingly, I still groped for the scanner.
But wait, you say! You can always use face unlock (which Samsung calls more convenient than it is secure, so no thanks) or the iris scanner, which is deemed secure enough for Samsung Pay. I tried both. The iris scanner still took longer than an accurate fingerprint reader on a rival phone, plus you have to hold it level to your face, and lift your sunglasses if you’re outside. But it worked fine with my glasses, even though I registered my peepers with contacts.
One other thing about Samsung Pay. Using both the fingerprint and iris methods to authenticate a payment took longer than on the Galaxy S7 and Note 7, which made me feel like a jerk for holding up the line. Having a credit card ready is frankly faster, even though it’s way less cool.
What’s going on with the Bixby AI assistant?
Oh, boy. So much. Bixby is the blanket name for a feature that’s actually broken into three parts: Voice, Home and Vision. It does not replace Google voice search or Google Assistant, which comes preloaded on the S8 and which you can invoke by long pressing the home button.
Bixby Voice is most like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. It will launch on April 21, so I didn’t get a chance to test it yet. It’ll start off by only working with phone settings, such as vocally dimming the screen, turning on Wi-Fi, rotating a picture and so on. It has its own dedicated button beneath the volume rocker, which you will not be able to remap from the settings menu. Boo.
I was able to test the other two features. The more visible of the two, Bixby Home (confusingly called “Hello, Bixby” when you sign in), is like Google Now for other Android phones. There are cards for the weather, upcoming appointments, your step count, headlines and so on. I’m not convinced it adds much value beyond Google Now, which also gives me flight alerts and tells me when my packages are set to arrive. However, you will be able to see Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter cards. You’ll be able to turn off Bixby Home, but I’m not sure if it’ll be easy to add Google Now (the one with the cards) if you prefer that instead.
By the way, you’ll need a Samsung account to use any Bixby feature, which is one more thing to sign into, or sign up for if you didn’t have a Samsung account before.
Bixby is ambitious and brand new and I’m willing to give Samsung some leeway to develop it over the coming months. But from what I’ve seen so far, it’s by no means a reason to buy the Galaxy S8. It rankles that you won’t be able to reprogram the Bixby Voice key to launch any app you want — this is something you can do on, say, the— but at this point I wouldn’t boycott the S8 because of it.
No dual camera, and that’s (mostly) OK
Standard photos on the Galaxy S8’s single 12-megapixel are consistently good. They’re crisp, colorful and eminently sharable. Low light shots are relatively bright and detailed (the darker the scene, the more image noise you’ll see), and selfies on the 8-megapixel front-facing camera are also terrific. I especially like the new auto-focus feature, which frees you from having to stretch out your arm and tap the screen to focus.
You can double-tap the power button to launch the camera. This is baked into Android Marshmallow and up, but Samsung only implemented it now and it’s great.
In addition, there’s a pro mode and a heap of editing tools that really let you fine-tune colors, brightness and tone. If the camera recognizes a face, it’ll offer up a Portrait editing option, which lets you blur the background to approximate the same kind of bokeh effect you can get from the iPhone 7 Plus’ second camera lens. Result: enthusiastic overblurring that might cut off an arm or wipe out the background if you overdo it.
A word on the single-versus-double camera lens. Apple, LG and Huawei have phones with two lenses on the back. These, respectively, help achieve portraits with that cool, blurred effect I just mentioned, get wide-angle shots or take crisp black and white images. By sticking with a camera that’s similar to last year’s model, the Galaxy S8 can’t do any of that as well as competitors.
Videos shoot by default in 1080p HD, but you can uplevel to quad HD (1440p). If you do, you’ll lose a few features and effects, including video stabilization. You’ll have hyperlapse and slow-mo modes for extra video fun.
Battery life is very good, and no overheating problems so far
The million-dollar question: Is the Galaxy S8 battery safe? I sure hope so. The truth is that we just won’t know if Samsung’s eight-point safety check will keep the S8 and other future phones from the Note 7’s fiery fate until the phone is released to the public and some time passes without incidents. Hopefully, the S8 will be as trouble-free as the Galaxy S7, which has no known battery issues.
But I will say that my Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus test units, the first ever phones (in some markets) with the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset, never felt dangerously hot. The glass-backed phones do get warm when charging and playing demanding games (such as Riptide GP Renegade or Clash of Clans), but so do other phones.
In CNET’s battery drain test, the S8 averaged about 16 hours in our looped video playback test before huffing out. That’s less than the Galaxy S7 by about an hour, and about 2 hours shy of the Note 7 straight out of the box. This still falls at the high end of the scale. In real life, the phone lasts a full day of moderate use, and not quite a full day under heavy use.
One day, I started at 7 a.m., kept the screen on pretty much all day at full brightness, and took tons of photos and video. Twelve hours later, I was down to 13 percent. I backed off, and was at 6 percent when I got home at 10 p.m. Another day, I streamed music videos and played Spotify for three hours (both over Wi-Fi), navigated around and did all the usual stuff, and it lasted much longer. Bottom line: Plan on charging the phone before bed.
Importantly, Samsung has said that the S8’s long-term battery life will surpass the S7’s long-term life in six months, a year or two years down the road. So that will hopefully mean that as the battery naturally loses capacity, you’re getting closer to 15 hours than you are, say, eight.
Wireless charging on the new fast charger is convenient, but much slower than charging through the included USB-C. When the phone’s turned off it takes under two hours to completely charge the S8 through its cable and closer to three and a half hours to power it up wirelessly.
- The glass body is super reflective and smudgy as hell (tradition!)
- It runs Android 7.0 Nougat under custom Samsung software
- Don’t expect an right away when the new OS is ready to go (based on past experience, it could take six months)
- A cleaner Samsung interface comes with nice changes: swipe up on the home screen to see apps, touch and hold an app icon for more options
- Audio sounded tinny pumped through the main speakers
- Songs and video sounded rich through the included earbuds — great for in-box headphones
- Very fast Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor (tested)
- Some regions come with Samsung Exynos processor instead
- Support for Gigabit-class LTE, when available with carriers (aka Category 16 LTE)
- Water-resistant IP68 body up to 3 feet of water and up to 30 minutes (it survived a dunk in a bucket — a foot of water — for 28 minutes)
- More convenient one-handed operation than S7
- Bluetooth Dual Audio lets you connect to two Bluetooth devices, like wireless headsets
- Colors: midnight black, orchid gray, arctic silver, maple gold, coral blue (varies by region)
- Will work with Samsung DeX accessory, Gear 360 cameras, Samsung Gear VR
- Call a doctor in Samsung Health app through Amwell (takes insurance)
Galaxy S8 vs. iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, Google Pixels, LG G6, Galaxy S7
The S8 is right up there with other top-tier phones (full specs below), and it comes with AKG in-ear headphones worth $100, so that helps offset some of the cost. I’d also start looking for deals around major holidays. In testing, the camera’s image quality is very high, and overall evenly matched (except for the portrait effect). We’ll have an in-depth photo comparison soon.
iPhone 7 and 7 Plus: The S8 is taller than the iPhone 7 and shorter and narrower than the 7 Plus. In both cases, the Galaxy S8 gives you more screen (5.8- versus 4.7- and 5.5-inch, respectively). Samsung Pay works where Apple Pay doesn’t, and the S8 has a microSD card slot, which makes storing media cheaper than buying an iPhone with more storage. The 7 Plus’s second camera lens helps it demolish the Galaxy S8 in portrait mode as the S8 uses software, with inferior results. A new, redesigned iPhone is expected to be unveiled in September.
LG G6: The Galaxy S8 costs anywhere from a little more to about the same, depending on the carrier. It’s definitely prettier than the G6, and edges it on photos. But LG’s phone is very nice in its own right and has almost the same slim dimensions. Plus, the G6’s second camera takes wide-angle photos. Also its fingerprint reader and power button is infinitely more accurate.
Samsung Galaxy S7: The S8 is far sexier, with a larger screen. It’s also faster. You won’t get Bixby on the S7, but you will get the same perks with Samsung Pay, wireless charging and waterproofing. Plus, the fingerprint reader in the S7’s home button is much easier to use. Unless you’ve gotta have the latest and greatest hardware specs and the S8’s curved-screen lusciousness, there’s no pressing need to upgrade.
Samsung Galaxy Note 8: We know nothing official except that it’s coming. I have a hunch that it’ll address some of the S8’s design issues and refine the software experience, including Bixby. If history is a guide, it’ll be closer to the S8 Plus’ size, cost more and, of course, come with a stylus. We’ll know more in four months, if Samsung launches the Note 8 in August. .