You know you want one. Here's the justification for getting Samsung's latest flagship phone.
The presumptive heir to the best Android crown is here: the Samsung Galaxy S8. A few years ago, the race to be the world’s favourite Android phone designer was wide-open. HTC would win it one year, and then LG would dazzle the next. Recently, the list has become more predictable: Samsung Galaxy S5, Samsung Galaxy S6, Samsung Galaxy S7.
Two things have changed to make this less a foregone conclusion than it was a couple of years ago, however. The first is that specifications have improved to the degree that even a cheap smartphone is good enough for most people. The second is the burnt out corpse of something that looks like it might have once been an elephant in the room: the Galaxy Note 7, removed from market after less than two months for being just a bit more flammable than advertised.
In short, we always knew that the Samsung Galaxy S8 was going to be good, but the stakes have been raised. It needs to be really good, and good enough to justify the high price tag too. It’s $1,199 outright and, on plans, costs from $72 per month (with 1GB from Woolworths Mobile). It will be available from most major Australian mobile carriers and retailers from 28 April – or on pre-order now.
And it is good. Very good indeed. The best smartphone you can buy, bar none. Whether it’s worth the cost though… that’s strictly between you and your wallet, but hopefully the next few pages can at least help you justify the loan to your bank manager. Print this out if you think it’ll help.
Samsung’s promotion for the S8 went a bit overboard, suggesting something that would make you rethink what a phone looks like. The Galaxy S8 doesn’t really do that. It’s still a block of metal and glass; it’s just a particularly beautiful one.
The physical home button is gone. That’s significant, but it isn’t the first Android phone to do that. The HTC One M8, for example, had no physical home button either. What is different is its dimensions: it’s now quite a bit taller, and longer than its predecessors, making it extremely comfortable in the hand.
The Galaxy S7 was a slim and attractive handset, but the Galaxy S8 leaves it in the dust. Putting them side-by-side (see above), the differences are obvious. It isn’t not much bigger but it uses its space much more effectively with around 84% of the front occupied by the screen a not inconsequential upgrade on the S7’s 72%. It’s only three grams heavier, and is just 0.1mm thicker – which is odd, because if you put them next to each other a table, the Galaxy S8 looks substantially more svelte.
The phone inherits three design features from the previous generation: it’s IP68 certified, which means it’s waterproof in 1.5 metres of water for up to half an hour; it supports wireless charging; and it has expandable storage for microSD cards up to 256GB in size should the 64GB of onboard storage prove insufficient. USB Type-C is in, which is better in the long run, but not as convenient if your house, like ours, has become a retirement home for micro USB cables.
There’s even room for a 3.5mm headphone jack. Odd to think that’s a controversial move, but recent decisions by Apple and others to remove it have made including the 60-year-old port a major selling point in a 2017 flagship.
There are just three issues you can legitimately have with the design. The first is that a whole button is dedicated to Bixby, Samsung’s artificial intelligence assistant, which at the time of writing doesn’t do a great deal. For now, it’s essentially a second home button, but the fact that Samsung has given it such prominence suggests it won’t be for ever, so you can give them a pass on that.
The second is harder to defend: the location of the fingerprint scanner. It’s right next to the camera lens on the rear of the device, and while we were able to get used to this for unlocking during our time with the Galaxy S8, it was never as comfortable as one placed below the screen, as on the Galaxy S7 or Apple iPhone 7, or on the side of the device as with Sony’s recent smartphones. Placing it right next to the camera lens also means you often find yourself touching the lens, rather than the scanner, so you’d best get used to giving it a good polish before you take a photo.
And the third is the question mark over the Galaxy S8’s ability to handle a fall, given all the glass used in its design. Yes, it’s latest type of toughened Gorilla Glass, but recent drop tests suggest the S8 is less resilient to falls than the S7.
After you’ve finished gawking over the lovely design, the next thing you’ll notice is that the screen looks a bit different to current phones: it’s long and thin. While most phones work to a 16:9 aspect ratio, the S8 changes things up by increasing things to 18.5:9 with a resolution of 1,440 x 2,960 pixels. That’s a slightly taller ratio than the LG G6 with its unusual 18:9 mix. The idea, according to Samsung, is that you can get more screen real estate in a handset that won’t be uncomfortable for the small-pawed among us.
Of course, that’s not exactly the case. A regular 16:9 5.8in handset has a greater area and, even if you like the newer tall design, it’s not without its issues. For starters, most apps currently black out the bottom of the screen, leaving the familiar Android buttons in place. That means that the job could be done just as well by a bezel for the most part.
The real advantage is for pictures and video, but there are issues there, too. 16:9 is the universal standard for video and, if you watch any of those on your S8 you’re going to have to decide between black bookends at each end, or cropping off the top and bottom of the screen.
Whether or not you think that’s a sacrifice worth making for a stylish, comfortable handset like this will vary from person to person but you’ll be unsurprised to hear that this AMOLED screen meets Samsung’s usual standards of high quality. It reaches a pretty bright 415.16cd/m2 peak brightness on manual mode, and a searing 569cd/m2 in automatic in the right conditions. On top of that, it covers 99.9% of the sRGB spectrum.
For comparison, here’s how that looks against its key competitors:
|Pixels per inch||Peak brightness||sRGB coverage||Contrast|
|Samsung Galaxy S8||570||415.16cd/m2 (manual); 569cd/m2 (auto)||99.9%||Perfect|
|Samsung Galaxy S7||577||353.74cd/m2; (470cd/m2 auto)||100%||Perfect|
|Huawei P10 Plus||540||587.4cd/m2||98.5%||Perfect|
In other words, this is about as good a screen as you can get. It’s considerably brighter than last year’s model and closing in on the scores obtained by the IPS screens of the iPhone 7 and the recently released LG G6.
While the year-old S7 still pushes near the top of its class in terms of performance, Samsung has indeed stepped up to the plate with newer components that deliver a healthy kick.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that the Galaxy S8 feels incredibly fast and responsive out of the box. That’s partly because no Android handset should feel sluggish from the first boot but also because Samsung has packed the latest technology into its thin frame. It’s among the first smartphones in the world to use a 10nm manufacturing process to produce the chip – Samsung’s Exynos 8895 or Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 – which promises to improve efficiency and battery life as well as provide the best performance around. In Australia, we’re getting a 2.3GHz octacore Exynos 8895 processor, with 4GB RAM and 64GB storage, expandable via microSD card.
And we can say with certainty is that the Samsung Galaxy S8 is super fast. Every benchmark revealed speeds at the very top of the class, as you’d expect in a premium-priced smartphone. In the Geekbench 4 multi-core test, it smashed past the iPhone 7 and LG G6, with only the Huawei’s P10 Plus coming close.
As for graphics performance, it was a similar story. The S8 is a powerhouse for mobile games.
To be clear, these graphical tests are intense, with cheaper handsets routinely getting single-figure frame per second scores. While most 2017 handsets should handle the majority of games on the marketplace, it’s pretty clear that the S8 offers far more future-proofing than any other device we’ve seen to date.
Providing juice for all of this is a non-removable 3,000mAh battery. That’s the same size as was found in the Galaxy S7 which raises an interesting question: will it have more or less stamina? The larger screen would indicate less, but the efficiency of components would suggest more.
In the end, the answer is that’s it’s weaker, but not by much. In our battery test – which involves playing a looped 720p video with the screen set to 170cd/m2 brightness and flight mode engaged – it lasted an impressive 16 hours 45 minutes. That’s good, but it’s around an hour worse than the Galaxy S7 (17 hours and 48 minutes) and around two hours weaker than the Galaxy S7 Edge (18 hours and 42 minutes).
The Samsung Galaxy S8 comes with Android N straight out of the box, as you’d expect. It isn’t the cleanest version of Android we’ve ever seen, still coated with a thin film of Samsung’s TouchWiz skin. It's far less intrusive than it used to be, though.
In terms of software, this is as much a Google product as a Samsung one, with each smartphone behemoth granted a folder of apps in the app drawer. The Google folder contains Drive, Play Movies, Duo and Photos, while Chrome, Play Music and Gmail are left floating in the app drawer. The Samsung apps tend to be duplicates of Google’s: an email app, an internet browser, a note-taking app and so forth. Microsoft also gets a folder of its own, with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneDrive and Skype all installed be default.
It’s not too bloated, but plenty of this will be unwelcome on your brand new phone and it’s a mixed bag as to how much of the storage you can reclaim. Google apps can be uninstalled freely, but around half of the Samsung apps and all of the Microsoft ones can only be disabled, not properly uninstalled, which is a bit poor as they run into the hundreds of megabytes. That’s not such a big deal with microSD support, but some apps and games are still fussy about being movable to expandable storage.
There are a few other things worth noting. The curved edges are now the default, which hopefully means that Samsung and its developers will have more incentive to use them inventively. For now the functions are pretty familiar, which is to say they’re useful-ish but kind of gimmicky.
Then there’s face unlock, an addition to the fingerprint and iris recognition available on the Samsung Galaxy S7. Register your photo with the S8, and you should be able to unlock the handset without having to find the fingerprint reader or tap in your password. It works better on bright days, we found, and it does feel a bit magical, although there has been talk of it being fooled by printed photos, which I suppose makes you marginally less secure if you’re interesting enough to hack. I like it, but I’m glad I don’t have to rely on it as the only way of accessing my phone – basically it’s a pleasant surprise when it works. Simple things, eh?
Finally, there’s Bixby: Samsung’s AI assistant. To be honest, at this point making such a song and dance about it feels like a misstep, because at launch it’s pretty limited. That’s the thing about AI though: its abilities organically grow over time.
Samsung is backing it strongly (why else would it give it its own dedicated button?), but at the moment, said button effectively functions as a second home key. The Bixby screen feels a little bit like HTC’s old Blinkfeed system, drawing in news, photos and apps from your system. Bixby does invade other parts of the Galaxy S8, however. On the camera, you can focus on an object, and then let the AI look for shopping results or image results. Shopping never worked for me, and image results were a mixed bag. Sometimes it worked well…
Other times less so…
Samsung says that American English and Korean voice controls will be coming later in the spring, which makes the whole Bixby package a touch disappointing for now. But two things about that: the first is that the software is something that will improve over time. The second is nobody is looking to buy this phone based on some AI software, right?
On paper, the camera is one area which doesn’t receive much attention, with Samsung adopting the “if it ain’t broke, then for God’s sake don’t touch it” approach. That’s sensible: The S7’s camera was about as far from being broke as it’s possible to be, second only to the Google Pixel in terms of quality.
So it’s still a 12 megapixel affair, with a f/1.7 aperture, 1/2.55in sensor and 1.4um pixels. While the hardware is the same, there are other upgrades afoot: the most obvious of these is that it now takes three shots in quick succession and combines them into a better picture. The results are, as you might imagine, very good indeed.
In conditions with plenty of light the pictures are sharp, vibrant and full of detail. In trickier low-light conditions, the Galaxy S8 copes brilliantly. Again, no surprise given its predecessor was also a stellar performer.
It’s not a huge difference, but zoom in and it is noticeable. The contrast is slightly better, and the colours feel a touch richer. It’s not night and day, but this edges it a little closer to the Pixel.
In low light, generally, the performance was even better than the S7, with much less blurring when you zoom in for a sharp, colourful image.
However, we did notice some strange artifacts on a couple of the shots. We don’t know what’s going on here. It’s not always present, and it’s entirely possible it’s an issue with our review handset (other reviewers have had no such problem), or a software issue that will be fixed by Samsung in the coming weeks. For now, it’s a small but disappointing blight on an otherwise brilliant camera.
Speaking of software, this has been tweaked to make it a bit easier to use one-handed: you can now drag the shutter button up and down to zoom in and out, and the mode buttons and live filters are clustered at the bottom of the screen when you use the phone in portrait mode. Digging under the surface a little, the Pro mode has focus peaking – an aid to manual focussing where you can see what’s in focus with a green outline. Very neat indeed, but as with the LG G6, this feature isn’t available while shooting video, which is where it would be most handy.
While the rear camera is, on paper, the same the front facing selfie camera gets a bigger upgrade. This has gone from five megapixels to eight, and the results are suitably sharp. Plus, you now have Snapchat style filters, so if you’ve ever wondered what I would look like as a heavily airbrushed rabbit then today is your lucky day:
So, is the camera an improvement? Modestly, yes, but it’s not the kind of improvement that you should cash in your S7 contract for.
Suffice to say, the Samsung Galaxy S8 is comfortably the best phone we’ve ever used. It’s fast, looks great, has a fantastic camera and has a screen that will do any photos captured justice.
It has a couple of missteps – the fingerprint scanner is in a silly place that will lead to many a smudged lens, and Bixby feels underdeveloped – but overall, it’s outstanding.
The question is: do you really need this much phone? For many people, probably not – the gap between what budget and top-end smartphones can do is shrinking by the year.
That said, the Galaxy S8’s price is about the same as other premium phones, including the new LG G6, a less convincing package with a similar tall-screen design.
If you want the best of the best, then this is it. The only question is should you go for the S8 or its larger sibling? In our review, we felt the 6.2in Galaxy S8+ was a step too far in terms of its size, but if you're a big-screen fan, you could love it.