Galaxy S8+ vs S8: hands-on with Samsung's new phones

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Galaxy S8+ vs S8: hands-on with Samsung's new phones
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Samsung Galaxy S8

The Galaxy S8 is a 5.8in phone that, in essence, feels like a 5.2in device. The question is how? Has Samsung achieved this through the equivalent of engineering voodoo or industrial-design magic? 

The Samsung Galaxy S8 and LG's G6 (right).

The Galaxy S8's dramatically rounded corners, familiar curved screen edges that taper into nothingness, and the ultra-thin 8mm profile all do their bit of course, but it’s the new screen aspect ratio of 18.5:1 (the same, incidentally, as the screen on the LG G6) and the virtual elimination of the top and bottom bezels that make all the difference here.

These changes transform a 5.8in phone from a pocket-stretching monster into something practical for everyday use. Samsung was keen to point out that you can use the Samsung Galaxy S8 one-handed, and while this is stretching reality a little, the point still holds; it’s much easier to use in one hand than, say, the 5.7in Google Pixel XL. And as has become the norm for the recent generations of Samsung smartphones, the S8 also looks absolutely glorious.

So sure, the Samsung Galaxy S8 is still just a smartphone. It’s still a rectangle of glass, metal and silicon available in the usual cheesily named selection of colours (midnight black, orchid grey and arctic silver, in case you were wondering), but Samsung has made enough tweaks and refinements to make it genuinely special. 

The Galaxy S8, S8+ and Google Pixel XL.

There is one word of caution, however. This concerns the fingerprint reader, which has moved from the front of the phone below the screen to the rear, next to the camera lens. With no room for it on the front – Samsung has at last moved to onscreen home, back and Recent Apps buttons – this is a design decision that has been somewhat forced on Samsung. However, putting it next to the camera rather than below it will be something that will take some time to get used to.

At least you can still unlock the phone using iris recognition, with Samsung improving the accuracy of recognition and adding facial recognition this year as well.

Key features and specifications

The Galaxy S8 is, Samsung claims, the first smartphone to use a processor built using the 10nm manufacturing process. That’s not strictly true. It’s among the first: the Sony XZ Premium, announced at Mobile World Congress earlier this year, also has a 10nm chip – the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835.

A smaller manufacturing process typically indicates greater efficiency, and could contribute to better battery life, although since the battery is the same size as in the S7 (3,000mAh), improvements are likely to be marginal. 

Samsung says the Galaxy S8 will include either the Snapdragon 835 or the Samsung equivalent, the Exynos 8895, depending on the region. Based on recent history with the Galaxy S7, Australia is probably more likely to get the Exynos 8895. There are small differences in the clockspeeds in the two processors’ cores, but bottom line is both are 64-bit, octa-core chips that are seriously quick.

The Snapdragon 835 is 10% faster for CPU operations than the Galaxy S7 and 20% faster for graphics than the Galaxy S7, according Samsung. And according to leaked figures, the Exynos 8895 could be even a touch quicker.

Bixby voice-activated assistant

The Galaxy S8 will also see the launch of Samsung’s rebranded voice-control system, now called Bixby. This is Samsung’s attempt to challenge Apple’s Siri and the Google Assistant by providing “multi-modal” control over the phone and its functions as well as voice-driven text recognition for search, emailing and messages.

You’ll be able to use Bixby to fling content from your phone to your TV, discover more information about items or landmarks you’ve just photographed, set reminders, and interact with the homescreen.

With Bixby, there’s no need to utter an embarrassing keyphrase to launch it: simply press the Bixby button, which lives on the left edge of the device opposite the power button, and talk.

The bad news is that Bixby isn’t ready yet, at least not for US and European markets. We’ll have to wait until later this year to find out whether it’s any good.

Display and camera

One thing that’s unlikely to let us down is the display. On the Samsung Galaxy S8 you get a super-widescreen 5.8in display (when viewed horizontally) with a resolution of 2,960 x 1,440, a pixel density of 570ppi and an aspect ratio of 18.5:9.

It’s an AMOLED panel, so contrast is effectively perfect. Although we won’t have the chance to test it fully until we have a review device, if past efforts are anything to go by, it will be bright and perfectly readable in bright sunlight as well.

As with the S7 and S7 Edge, the Samsung Galaxy S8’s display is rounded off at each edge with virtually no visible border, and sports the usual Edge display functions. What’s new is that the bezels at the top and bottom are barely there, and that the corners are rounded off, a little like the corners on the LG G6’s screen.

It’s a great look, but the only new thing here is Mobile HDR Premium compatibility. Given the current paucity of high dynamic range content on mobile, this is a bit of a moot point right now.

The Samsung Galaxy S8’s camera merely builds on last year’s model and doesn’t rip up the rulebook. Instead, it takes advantage of new capabilities in the phone’s chipset to grab three frames in rapid succession every time you take a picture, combining them together to create a sharper photograph.

Obviously, a phone launch is hardly the best environment in which to test such refinements, but what we can say is that we approve wholeheartedly of what Samsung has done with the software, adding a handy zoom function to the onscreen shutter button – just hold and drag to zoom in and out. It’s a marvellously simple solution to a genuine problem.

It’s also good to see that Samsung has implemented Android 7 Nougat here, although as always, it’s cloaked in the firm’s own love-it-or-loathe-it launcher software. The biggest changes are the Home, Back and Recent apps navigation buttons that now live at the bottom of the screen instead of on the chin of the phone as capacitive buttons.

Samsung has added its own twist here, though, by introducing a pressure-sensitive sensor beneath the home button. This appears to have no practical function, however, and does nothing but buzz lightly whenever you press down on it.

Samsung DeX

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Galaxy S8 launch is Samsung DeX (desktop experience). Each of the new phones comes with the built-in ability to run a windowed Android-based desktop computing environment, simply by dropping the phone into the DeX dock and hooking up to a monitor, keyboard and mouse.

The Samsung DeX desktop environment.

The DeX dock is neat enough, with an Ethernet port and HDMI port on the rear, as well as a micro-USB port for charging and (rather worryingly) a built-in fan to keep the phone cool, and it can be neatly folded away for storage and transport. And the DeX environment itself looks advanced enough to get some reasonably serious work done on it. Samsung has even gone as far as working with Citrix to make sure you can also run full Windows on it, via virtual desktop.

However, this has the whiff of Microsoft Continuum about it. That was a system that was supposed to revive Windows Mobile phones by doing effectively the same thing. In reality, no matter how neat DeX looks, we think it’s still too early to get excited about phones replacing our laptops, desktops and mobile communications just yet.

Early verdict

We’ve been to enough phone launches over the years to know that the days of dramatic advances are long behind us, so I’m not too fussed that the Samsung Galaxy S8 looks to be a relatively minor upgrade on the S7.

It will be slightly faster. The camera will, probably, be slightly better, and we really do like the new taller shape and slim bezels at the top and bottom of the screen. Battery life, too, should be similar if not improved by the efficiency of the new 10nm chip. This is all about marginal gains adding up to make a measurable overall improvement.

We'll be able to give a more considered verdict after we've thoroughly tested and spent more time with the handset. But so far, so good. The only things we don’t like about the Samsung Galaxy S8 (and, by extension the S8 Plus) are the placement of the fingerprint reader and the rather high price of $1,199. Aside from that, though, we thoroughly approve of Samsung’s new flagship.

Next: Samsung Galaxy S8+ hands-on.

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