Last summer, Samsung released a really excellent phablet. I said it was the best large phone on the market, and recommended it to anyone looking for a bigger smartphone. It was a great device that could likely have tipped the high-end smartphone wars in Samsung’s favor over Apple, which has fallen into a rut in recent years. But then it started blowing up.
The Samsung Note 7 was probably the biggest PR gaffe the company had faced (at least for another few months), recalling millions of phones across the world, pausing sales, and damaging consumer confidence in the electronics powerhouse. Samsung likely needed its next phones to be flawless, or at least very, very good. Those phones, announced in March, are the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+. They both feature massive screens that consume almost the entirety of the front of the phones, but are their dazzling displays enough to counter the stigma of the Note 7, or even be better than Samsung’s previous Galaxy phone, the S7?
Quartz spent the last few days testing out the Galaxy S8 and S8+ to find out if they are worthy successors to the S7:
The screen is brilliant. Both literally and figuratively. The S8+ features a 6.2-inch HD screen that Samsung is calling an “Infinity Display,” as it takes up over 80% of the front of the phone. The edges of the display almost feel as if they’re blending into the body of the phone itself, as the sides of the device are curved (much like the Note 7 and the Galaxy S7 edge before it), and the display actually features rounded corners at the top and the bottom. When you first see this phone with the display on, it almost looks like those poor photoshops that have circulated for years of phones where a massive screen was added onto a phone it clearly don’t belong on. It’s the closest I’ve seen to a phone looking as if it’s been forged out of a single piece of glass. The iPhone 7 Plus, Apple’s record-breaking smartphone, looks surprisingly dated next to the Galaxy S8.
Adding to the screen’s size is the fact that there’s no traditional home button on the phone. There’s a pressure-sensitive area built into the device, below the screen, that allows users to press down as if there was a button there. This means there’s more real estate for a screen, which is great when watching a full-screen movie, although the digital buttons tend to hang around on a black bar at the bottom of the screen when using most apps, making the screen feel smaller than it actually is.
They look good. While there’s not too much that you can do with the design of a candy bar-shaped smartphone to make it really stand out anymore, the giant curved screen is pretty attractive. The phone will be released in three colors in the US: black, grey and silver.
Battery life. The S8+ boasts a large 3,500 milliamp-hour battery, and I could easily use the phone for two days straight without charging it. It also charged quite rapidly, and there’s the added option of buying a wireless-charging dock, if plugging in your phone when it’s low on battery is too much of a hassle.
Water resistant. Much like its predecessors, the S8 and S8+ can handle a dip in the pool, and unlike the iPhone 7, they still have regular headphone jacks.
Expandable memory. The phones have a slot for a MicroSD slot (up to 256 GB) right next to where the SIM card is inserted. It’s not particularly accessible, but it’s there if it’s needed.
Split-screen apps. This isn’t a new feature—some of Samsung’s phones have been able to run two apps for years—but the massive screen of the S8+ really does make using two apps at once something that doesn’t feel too fiddly on a smartphone. I watched YouTube clips while checking Twitter; I checked in on Slack, while checking Twitter; I checked my mail, while checking Twitter. (Disclaimer: I am on Twitter a lot.) This was probably the first phone (other than the ill-fated Note 7) where split-screen apps didn’t feel awkward.
Bundled-in headphones sound good. Samsung bought the audio firm Harman back in November, and the S8 comes bundled with a pair of the company’s AKG earphones. The sound quality on $100 headphones is decent (you can hear actual bass on songs!), and a world better than most other bundled-in earphones. Samsung’s new phones also have the ability to pair with two different sets of Bluetooth headphones at the same time, meaning no more sharing headphones.
A Snapchat built-in clone. The camera has all sorts of Instagram-worthy filters that users can apply to photos, but it seems Samsung has also taken a page out of Snapchat’s book: There are live filters that detect faces and add dog ears, teddy-bear costumes and other zany situations, exactly like on Snapchat.
Other fun camera features. The S8 features pretty much the same resolution camera as the S7 did, but through a host of software wizardry, the new phone can produce a range of photo modes, with more clarity than previous models. There’s a “selective focus” mode that can take some pretty extreme selfies (that you can later refocus to the background if you’d prefer), a selfie mode that can slim down your face, a “food” mode for taking the prefect photo of your brunch, the ability to take wide-angle selfies, slow motion video, panoramas, manual-focus shots, and everything else you’d expect from the company that made one of the best smartphone cameras last year. You can also download other modes from the app store, such as one that lets you take a photo using both the front and rear cameras at the same time, and one called “Beauty face” that I’m assuming is supposed to make you look prettier, but did nothing to my face. Make of that what you will.
Futuristic case. I don’t tend to use cases, but the one Samsung sent through looks great. It’s made of a translucent, metallic-looking material, so the lock screen shines through, giving the phone a retro-futuristic feel that wouldn’t look out of place in the film Blade Runner. The case also doubles as a stand, and given the S8+ has such a massive screen, it can easily be the only device you need to take with you on the plane—it’s definitely larger than some of the screens on the older-model planes out there.
It didn’t explode. This is probably the most important thing. After spending multiple nights using and charging the phone, I am still here. (Then again, neither did the Note 7 when I tested it.) Samsung has a new eight-point check process that all its phone batteries now undergo before being released to the world. The phone did get warm a few times when charging and using it for extended periods of time, though.
What’s not so good
The camera. The 12-megapixel camera is by no means bad, but it doesn’t feel markedly better than the one on the S7 from a year ago—which was, however, was the best available at the time. But in the intervening time, Apple released the iPhone 7 Plus, which has two rear-facing cameras, that allow the phone to receive depth, and have a 2x manual focus, and Google released the Pixel, which also has a very strong camera. The S8+ has just one rear camera, with no manual focus, and any focusing the phone’s camera can do is done digitally, which never looks quite as sharp as when it can be done mechanically.
The menus for all the modes on the camera are also exceedingly confusing. Samsung has a history of jamming as many features as it can possibly think of into its phones (and then stripping away the stuff that no one uses), and all of the camera modes are quite difficult to access from tiny icons in the camera app. I also had the phone for three days before I figured out you could swipe left below the camera to reveal all the additional functions I outlined above—the signposting for finding all of the different modes is almost nonexistent.
The cost. The S8 costs $750 in the US, and the S8+ costs $850—that’s about $100 more than both the iPhone 7 and Google Pixel. (That being said, both phones come with 64 GB of storage, whereas Apple and Google’s phones both start at 32 GB.)
Opening the phone is awkward. It took some getting used to pressing down hard on the area of the screen where a home button used to be, especially when my stubby fingers make reaching the power button on the side to turn on the screen a little too difficult to do every time. Also by removing the physical home button, the fingerprint scanner that can open the phone has had to move to the back of the phone, again slightly out of reach of my fingers.
My pockets confused the phone. The pressure-sensitive area at the bottom of the phone seems to be triggered by any warm body part—even though fabric. I walked with the phone in my pocket, and I’d often pull it out and dozens of characters has been pressed, the phone thinking I’d been trying to enter my PIN code, or I’d find Samsung’s digital assistant Bixby had been activated. In both situations the phone was still locked, but it could definitely drain the battery if happened all the time.
The biometric security isn’t perfect. The S8 has three different ways to secure itself, beyond traditional PIN numbers and passwords. There’s a built-in iris scanner, facial detection, and a fingerprint scanner. But the scanner struggled to find my irises consistently when I held up the phone to my face, and the facial detection software seemed to be completely fooled by my face when I put a hat on. The fingerprint scanner usually worked (though it’s a bit slower than the iPhone 7’s), but its placement up near the top of the phone is difficult to reach with one hand. The camera app also repeatedly scolded me for having a smudged lens, presumably because I kept poking it instead of the fingerprint scanner button, which is next to it on the back of the phone.
Bixby isn’t useful yet. Samsung heralded the launch of the S8 as the first step into a world of voice-activated, internet-connected devices, hinting at a future where you could talk to your fridge through your phone, or your TV through your washing machine, all through one voice assistant, called Bixby. But on launch day, the S8 will not have access to the voice assistant function of Bixby. There are other aspects of the AI-like features of Bixby that are available now, including a screen called “Hello Bixby,” which acts as a repository for random information, like the weather, upcoming reminders, and what’s trending on social networks—a lot like Google has built into its own search app, which is also on the phone. Hello Bixby also kept trying to tell me the weather in London, which is not particularly helpful, seeing as I’ve not been there since December.
There’s also a function called “Bixby Vision,” which uses AI to discern what’s going on in photos and tell you more information about them. But the data repositories it uses to figure out photos are not particularly helpful yet. Bixby could tell me that the bottle of wine I had on my counter paired well with beef and lamb, and that 2015 was a decent vintage (because it partnered with Vivino, a wine-comparison company). But the phone was equally sure that a can of Coke was either Coke, or a jar of Trader Joe’s red peppers, because this information was being fed through data from Pinterest, and seemed to be based entirely off of what colors and patterns were in the image. If Samsung can partner with more useful services with informative datasets, perhaps this will be a useful feature in the future. But as it stands, it’s no more useful than doing a Google image search.
Both phones also feature an additional physical button on the left-hand side of the phone that’s supposed to activate Bixby, but seeing as the voice assistant isn’t ready yet, it just opens the Hello Bixby page (which can also be accessed by swiping left on the home screen). Samsung is reportedly disallowing people from changing what that button can be used to do, meaning it’s relatively useless right now.
Should you buy it?
Samsung needed an excellent phone to get consumers to forget about the Note 7 debacle, and if you care about screen size, then this will be that phone for you. It feels like a lot of the DNA of the Note 7—barring its styluses, and hopefully, its batteries—has made it into the Galaxy S8+. I really liked the Note 7 when it was released, and I think Samsung’s latest offering is a good phone for similar reasons. The form factor of the device, and how so much of it is a screen, will likely define what competitors’ smartphones look like for the next few years. It’s possible that the next iPhone, also lacking a physical home button and featuring curved edges, will look a lot like the Galaxy S8. And if Apple’s top-of-the-line iPhone 8 does indeed cost $1,000, as some analysts are speculating, it seems feasible that there will be an exodus of iPhone owners to Samsung come September. But right now, with the two phones on the market, there probably isn’t enough to get users to shift from Apple’s platform to Samsung’s.
If you’re in the market for a high-powered Android phone, this is probably the phone to choose, but it’s a pretty close two-horse race between the S8 and the Google Pixel. If you can put up with Samsung’s foibles (like the messy rollout of Bixby, and the unnecessary Samsung versions of apps for things like email and web browsing), the screen size of this phone just slightly tips the scale in its favor. But there really isn’t too much that the S8 has that can’t be found on any high-end smartphone that’s decently built. So if you’re at the end of a contract and looking for a new phone, this is a great pickup. But if you still have six months to go, you probably shouldn’t feel overly concerned waiting to see what, if anything, Google, Apple, and others release.