Travel revelations from Samsung's super-tall, super-specced flagship.
It takes time to get to know a new phone and understand all of its various quirks, strengths and foibles. Traveling with a device can rapidly accelerate that process, though. Nothing pushes a phone to its limits like juggling airport navigation, boarding passes and in-flight antics — and that's before you start on however much work or play awaits you at the other end.
That's exactly what I've been doing for the past couple of weeks, first taking my Samsung Galaxy S8+ to San Francisco, then on to Google I/O in Mountain View and back, before hopping on another plane a couple days later to Computex show in Taipei, Taiwan — from where I write this article.
After spending entirely too much time taking the S8+ on and off planes and across borders, I decided to share a few of the things I've learned...
1. The camera beats the GS7 where it really matters
If we needed further proof that DxOMark scores alone are a flimsy metric for measuring camera performance, this is it. The Galaxy S8 was recently awarded the same DxO score as the S7 — 88/100 — and while at first glance there isn't much separating Galaxy S8 photos from pics taken on its predecessor, there's a lot going on around multi-frame processing that makes the S8's camera the clear winner. Like the Google Pixel and HTC 10, the S8 takes multiple exposures by default, runs computation on them and conjures up the best-looking image it can, and this gives S8 has the edge in low-light situations, or shots where your hands might be moving slightly.
Where the Galaxy S7 would wash out colors and give its photos a yellowish tint, the S8 can conjure up more accurate hues. Where motion blur could scupper the best low-light Pixel photo, the S8's OIS provides a necessary buffer. A great example of this is a type of shot I've tried again and again to master on a phone camera — shooting out of an airplane window over a nighttime cityscape. At landing, when there's actual motion in the shot. Even the Pixel struggles with this type of photo, and the S7 wasn't any better. On the S8 — with a few attempts, granted — I was actually able to get a decent, clear, sharp photo of the approach to Dubai airport.
That's an extreme fringe case, but the benefits apply to every low-light pic you'll take with the Galaxy S8 — I've seen clear improvements with photos in dark bars and restaurants, as well as night-time landscape shots like the shot of the Bay Bridge above. Plus it's running the same algorithms even on daylight shots too, even if the improvements are harder to spot in well-lit scenes.
The Google Pixel remains the king of high-contrast photos, where Google's HDR+ magic is able to pull spectacular color detail out of night shots. At the same time, there's an argument to be made for the S8's sharper, more true-to-life images.
2. ... But you probably don't need to use Pro mode
It's great that the S8 offers a full manual mode, where you can tweak just about every setting imaginable and maintain full control over your photo. But as the full auto mode continues to improve — particularly this year with the addition of multi-frame photography — Pro mode seems increasingly redundant. Unless you're carrying a tripod around and want to experiment with multi-second exposure or light painting, you're better off living in "auto" and adjusting your EV level accordingly.
In some cases, 'Pro' mode can actually result in photos looking worse.
In fact, because Pro mode seems to not use the more advanced computational photography tricks of Auto mode, an image taken in Pro mode might actually look worse, with noticably reduced fine detail. That's something I found again and again as I tried to eke a little more detail out of night shots on the S8. In the Bay Bridge photo above, even though the ISO and shutter speed were very close, Auto mode produced a better-looking landscape.
That's something you'll want to note if you're upgrading to an S8 from a Galaxy S6-era phone, where manual mode (and a steady hand) was a relatively easy way to improve low-light picture quality.
3. It's easily the best 'direct sunlight' phone screen
For the past couple of years, Samsung's phones have featured a daylight mode, which pushes the display into overdrive to maintain visibility in very bright direct sunlight at the cost of color accuracy. In the early days, there was a jarring transition when this mode was suddenly activated, but the Galaxy S8's daylight mode is far easier on the eyes,
I took three phones with me to last year's I/O, which was the first to be hosted under the California sun at Shoreline Amphitheater in Moutain View.
The Nexus 6P's display? Practically invisible.
The LG G5? Lol nope.
Galaxy S7 edge? Better, but not by much.
Under similar conditions at this year's I/O, the improvement on my S8+ was shocking. I could actually see and use the display even directly under the sun at midday.
That's thanks to the new, brighter daylight mode supported by Samsung's new panels. In testing, DisplayMate found that the Galaxy S8's screen could crank itself all the way up to 1,000 nits if necessary, compared to 610 if you're adjusting the slider manually. Now, running the screen this bright for long periods probably isn't great for the longevity of the panel, but it works wonders on the few occasions where you really need that extra brightness.
4. One-handing this thing is not impossible
Easy one-handed use is important when you're traveling, because there's an above average chance your other hand will be occupied with bags, rolling luggage or a camera. And to begin with, the Galaxy S8+ was among the most awkward to wrangle without involving a second hand — for me, it was right up there with the Nexus 6.
But as I've been forced to use the S8+ more and more with just one paw, I've figured out a grip and workflow that works for me. An important part of that is having a backup option if you do need to reach something at the very top of the screen — for me, that's Samsung's one-handed mode.
One-handed mode looks ridiculous, but is actually really useful.
Bizarrely, it's disabled by default, but once enabled, a simple swipe-in gesture from the bottom-right corner of the screen shrinks the contents of the 6.2-inch display into a 4.2-inch window. It sounds (and looks) slightly ridiculous, but once you're used to the gesture, it's easy to activate it, swipe down for notifications (or inwards for a "hamburger" menu), then tap the outer area to go fullscreen again.
It's certainly easier than fumbling with the phone to get your thumb in line with something at the very top of the display. And I've found it indispensable when carrying a laptop bag, camera and lenses around Google I/O.
5. The S8+ stand case is a great tray table companion
In general day-to-day use, I'll normally use my phones without a case — most of the time, I don't need the added bulk that a case brings — and of course, a beautiful phone like the Galaxy S8+ deserves to not be hidden behind hard plastic or flimsy rubber. But that changes when I travel. I've picked up too many mystery scratches and abrasions at airports and during flights, so to save my S8+ from suffering the same fate, I picked up Samsung's official clear view stand case.
As further travel restrictions on tablets look likely, a stand case for a large smartphone is a decent in-flight alternative.
Like "clear view" cases for older Samsung phones, you can see the Always-On Display through it, the plastic protects all the vulnerable areas of the phone, and flipping it open will power on the screen fully. There's a soft-touch coating on the inside, which should hopefully prevent the front cover from wearing on the screen in places, as some earlier models did.
The big difference, though, is that this one also doubles as a stand, letting me prop up the GS8+ on my tray table and burn through a few episodes of Better Call Saul on Netflix while I was in the air. With the prospect of larger devices being banned on flights into the U.S., a case like this is a good backup to have.
Between protecting my phone in hand baggage bins and serving as a stand, the case itself has picked up a few scrapes — which, after all, is its job.
6. I've learned to live with the S8's wonky biometrics
Smart Lock with Bluetooth isn't an option on an airplane.
I've never liked the Galaxy S8's fingerprint scanner, found face unlock frustrating to use when checking notifications, and was loathed to rely on iris unlock when it didn't work outside. But between fingerprint, iris and Google's Smart Lock feature, I'm now at the point where the phone's decidedly wonky biometric security doesn't bother me too much.
I tend to leave my smartwatch of choice, the original Huawei Watch, switched off in-flight, which means Smart Lock isn't an option. That might not seem like a big deal, but consider how many times you might unlock your phone through multiple long-haul flights — it all adds up. Most of the time, in the relatively dim conditions of an airplane cabin, iris unlock worked surprisingly reliably. After all, your seating position doesn't change too much throughout a flight, nor does the ambient brightness get anywhere near that of a bright, sunny day.
The rest of the time, with the clear view stand case fitted, I found it easier to guide my index finger onto the rear-mounted scanner — something I wasn't able to do reliably with the case off.
I'd still prefer a reliable front-facing fingerprint scanner, or something under the display — which is surely on the cards for the Note 8 and beyond. But I've been surprised that when I'm forced to, I actually can work with the S8's trio of imperfect biometric options.
Got any Galaxy S8 travel tips of your own? Share them down in the comments!