After the catastrophic recall of the Samsung’s “exploding” Galaxy Note 7 last year, it’s perhaps no surprise the company has thrown everything it’s got at its new flagship smartphone.
The Galaxy S8 represents the pinnacle of smartphone innovation – from its stunning “infinity” display to its cutting-edge iris recognition software and its new “intelligent interface”, Bixby.
Samsung has avoided falling into the trap of using gimmicks to make the Galaxy S8 stand out, and focused on combining sleek design with raw power.
While retaining many of the widely-praised features of the Galaxy S7 Edge, such as the curved screen, 12-megapixel rear camera, wireless charging and water resistance, it has added just enough to elevate it above its rivals.
Samsung has really excelled itself in terms of design. The company has taken the curved glass screen that proved so popular on the Galaxy S7 Edge and mirrored it on the back of the device, giving the Galaxy S8 a pleasingly symmetrical appearance.
The physical Home button has been replaced with a pressure-sensitive digital button, meaning the entire front of the phone is a single pane of glass, interrupted only by a narrow slit for the speaker at the very top.
The size of the rear camera has been reduced so that it sits flush with the back of the device, and the fingerprint reader has also been moved to the back of the phone, so that in can be used with an index finger rather than a thumb.
All of the buttons and ports are positioned on the narrow metal band that runs around the outside of the phone and binds the two glass panels together.
This includes the 3.5mm audio port, which Samsung decided to include, despite rumours that it was planning to follow Apple in ditching the headphone jack .
It is, without doubt, a stunning device. My only real quibble is that the glass picks up fingerprints very easily, so you’re constantly having to wipe it down.
In reality, you can combat this by putting the device in a case – something you’d probably want to do anyway to protect it from scratches. Tech21’s Pure Clear case is a good option, as it protects the device while still allowing you to appreciate the sleek design.
I also found that the fingerprint reader on the 6.2-inch Galaxy S8+ was too high up on the back of the device to use it easily while holding the phone with one hand.
This is less of a problem with the standard S8, which has a 5.8-inch display, but in replicating the design on the plus-sized device, Samsung appears to have overlooked this issue.
Luckily the Galaxy S8 comes with a variety of authentication options, including an iris scanner and facial recognition, so you don’t have to rely solely on the fingerprint reader to unlock your phone.
The display is without doubt the standout feature on the Galaxy S8.
Samsung has massively reduced the size of the bezels along the top and bottom of the screen, so that the display takes up almost the entire front of the device.
This gives it an unusual aspect ratio of 18.5:9, which is great for browsing the internet or scrolling through social networks like Facebook or Instagram.
Most videos still use the 16:9 aspect ratio, meaning you’ll end up with black bars to the left and right of the picture, but some apps like YouTube give you the option to crop the video to fit the screen. Just be aware that by doing this you are losing part of the picture.
With several smartphone makers including LG and Apple working to reduce the size of the bezels on their devices, new content is increasingly being optimised for a wider screen format.
The “Quad HD+” display, which is the first to be certified as “Mobile HDR Premium”, serves up sharp images and eye-popping colours, making the most of the larger screen space.
Despite some reports from Korea that the display has a reddish tint, I saw no evidence of this. There is, however, the option to switch on a blue light filter, to reduce eye strain by limiting the amount of blue light emitted by the screen.
The Galaxy S8’s rear camera is the same one Samsung used on the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge – that is a 12-megapixel sensor with an aperture of f/1.7, something that Samsung calls “dual pixel”.
Aperture is a measure of how much the lens opens to allow light onto the sensor. The wider it opens, the more light hits the camera’s sensor, and the better the camera performs in low light.
Samsung’s camera has long been one of the best smartphone cameras in this respect, although other phone makers have made big improvements over the past year.
The camera comes with some handy software features to make it easier to use with one hand. For example, you can launch the camera from the lock screen by double-pressing the power button, and you can switch between the front and rear cameras by swiping up or down on the screen.
You can also swipe right to select different modes such as panorama, slow motion or selective focus, or swipe left to add filters, effects and stickers.
To test out the Galaxy S8’s camera, Samsung took me on a helicopter ride over London at dusk to see what I could capture. Here are some of the results:
While some of the pictures came out blurry, the Galaxy S8 did a pretty good job of counteracting the vibrations from the helicopter, and as you can see, it had no problems capturing detail in low light.
Once I was back on solid ground, I used the phone’s in-built “Auto adjust” feature to bring out the colours, and in some cases increase the brightness, but no third-party software was used to enhance the pictures.
Video also benefits from the phone’s image stabilisation software and “multi-frame image processing”, which improves the quality of images in low light conditions.
You can choose to shoot in Full HD (1920 x 1080), Quad HD (2560 x 1440) or Ultra HD (3840 x 2160), although obviously the higher you go, the more storage space the video files will take up on your phone.
As for the selfie camera, Samsung has upgraded this from a 5-megapixel to an 8-megapixel sensor, and added Snapchat-style augmented reality “stickers” that can overlay animated effects onto your face.
There are also various “beauty” settings to even out your skin tone, slim your face, and even widen your eyes if you’re into that sort of thing.
Power and battery life
The Galaxy S8 runs on Samsung’s own Exynos 9 chip, sporting the “industry’s first 10nm application processor”. The company claims this offers 27% higher performance compared to its previous 14nm chip, while consuming 40% less power.
The chip comes paired with 4GB RAM and 64GB storage, which can be expanded up to 256GB with a microSD card.
There’s a 3,000mAh battery inside the Galaxy S8, and a bigger 3,500mAh battery inside the S8+. While these offer no improvement over the S7 and S7 Edge, they will comfortably survive a day of heavy usage.
Although the Galaxy S8 has wireless charging capability, I wasn’t able to test this out, as the wireless charging pad has to be purchased separately.
These days people carry most of their music on their smartphones, so being able to provide a top-notch sound experience is crucial.
Samsung has teamed up with audio brand AKG by Harman to provide a great little pair of earphones with two-way dynamic speakers in the box. These are comfortable to wear and provide great sound quality.
If you prefer to listen to music on speakers, the Galaxy S8 supports Bluetooth Dual Audio, which allows you to play music from two Bluetooth devices at the same time.
The Galaxy S8 runs Android 7.0 Nougat , topped with Samsung’s custom “Experience”.
This includes its “Snap Window” software, which lets you pin an app to the top of the screen for multi-tasking, which is handy if you want to keep Google Maps on the screen while writing a Facebook post, for example.
It also includes Bixby , which theoretically adds a layer of artificial intelligence over the top of this other software. However, the Bixby experience you get at launch is a bit underwhelming.
Bixby Voice assistant (Samsung’s answer to Apple’s Siri) has not yet been enabled on UK devices, so the only thing I could really test out was Bixby Vision, which uses image recognition to detect what you’re looking at and predict what you need.
The most effective use of this I could find was scanning the labels on wine bottles to bring up information such as vintage, price or suggested food pairings from Vivino.
Scanning a bottle of Hellmann’s mayonnaise gave me the option to order it on Amazon, and scanning an apple brought up other images of apples as well as recipes including apples and information on how to freeze apples.
While all of this is fairly amusing, it’s also rather pointless. I can’t imagine many situations when I’d actually want to use this feature.
Then again, it’s still early days for the software, and Samsung promises there’s a lot more to come, so it will be interesting to see how it develops.
The Galaxy S8 also comes with Google Assistant as part of the Android operating system, which can be accessed by holding down the digital home button, so you can use that to control you phone with your voice until Bixby gets up to speed.
Like its predecessor, the Galaxy S8 is IP68-rated, which means it’s dust-resistant and can be dunked in water to a depth of 1.5m for up to 30 minutes.
It also comes with several biometric authentication options, so if you find the fingerprint sensor too awkward to use, you can use the new facial recognition functionality, or the built-in iris scanner, which Samsung claims is one of the most secure methods available on a smartphone.
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All in all, the Galaxy S8 is hard to fault. It looks great, it’s a powerhouse of a device, and it offers every type of biometric authentication going – from fingerprints to iris scanning and facial recognition.
It’s hard to imagine how the smartphone, as a concept, could be refined much further without reinventing the device altogether – Apple certainly has its work cut out with the iPhone 8 .
There are some nice software enhancements, but not so many that they overpower the core Android experience, and Bixby offers an opportunity for the device to evolve over time. Some may prefer the “pure” Android experience offered by the Google Pixel, but this is really a matter of personal taste.
The placement of the fingerprint sensor is unfortunate, and some may find the phone’s propensity for picking up greasy fingerprints a turn off. Bixby also has a long way to go before it becomes truly useful.
But overall, there are more than enough features to compensate, and the sleek design, impressive camera and top-class features like water resistance and iris scanning make it the best Android smartphone of 2017 so far.