Samsung continues to make a phone that appeals to a massive number of people, but it comes at a small cost of frustration.
The Galaxy S7 was easily my favorite phone of 2017 until the Google Pixel XL took its place in my pocket, and just as is the case for millions of consumers out there I couldn't resist the call of the Galaxy S8. It's a stunningly gorgeous phone to both look at and hold, while it continues to be a pleasure to use on a daily basis.
On the whole I agree with the views of Android Central's official Galaxy S8 review, and encourage you to read it for the complete take on all aspects of the phone. But after a couple weeks of using the Galaxy S8 myself, I wanted to bring you my view on the hottest phone of the year so far and see where it fits in my hierarchy of phones today.
A personal decision
Choosing the smaller Galaxy S8
I used both the Galaxy S8 and larger Galaxy S8+ pretty extensively in the week before and after the public launch of the phones, and like everyone else had to weigh the pros and cons of deciding between the two. Ultimately, I settled on the smaller Galaxy S8. I was already used to the size and shape of the LG G6, which the Galaxy S8 nearly matches, and couldn't manage reaching the top of the screen nor the fingerprint sensor on the Galaxy S8+. Losing the extra battery life and screen real estate of the Galaxy S8+ was tough, and I know other members of the Android Central team prefer the larger phone, but for me the overall usability improvement of the GS8 was more important.
That being said, the best part about this year's Galaxy S launch is that the similarities between the two models are closer than ever before. No more deciding between curved vs. flat or small vs. big — you get subtle curves either way, and the phones are close together in size while the GS8 isn't exactly "small" by any scale. You really just have to decide which size fits your hand and screen needs better, and then how much you need the extra battery offered by the GS8+.
Welcome to the future
Galaxy S8 Hardware and design
There's no other way to say it: the Galaxy S8 looks downright futuristic. Despite tempering our design expectations with the introduction of really nice curved displays and sleek metal last year, Samsung managed to one-up itself properly with the tiny bezels and wonderful execution of the Galaxy S8's body. I chose the super-stealth black model, but no matter which color you choose you'll be impressed the moment you take this thing out of its box.
Smartphone hardware from the future, today.
The way the screen just melts over the edges so subtly is wonderful, with such a more dramatic effect than even the LG G6 offers with its own slim bezels. With smaller screen curves and what I assume is better palm rejection software Samsung has removed any issues I previously had with gripping the curved display. In fact, I haven't had any issues at all with the tiny bezels — and I really expected to have some sort of learning curve on a phone that has a rapidly decreasing number of safe places to grab hold of.
Samsung continues to have all the right features in its displays
And oh my, what a display. Samsung still leads the industry in smartphone screens, and it's not particularly close. Sure the Pixel XL and LG G6 do a great job in their own right, and I'm plenty happy using either of those, but the Galaxy S8's range of colors, clarity for everything you look at and fantastic daylight visibility are absolutely a step above. The curved portions of the display are just icing on the cake, really.
The one concern that will continue to be repeated as these phones become more screen and less substance will be durability. I don't really worry about that, even though I'm keenly aware that the back glass of my Galaxy S8 has picked up countless scratches in just two weeks. There will always be a balancing act between beauty and strength, and I totally get why Samsung has leaned toward the former. Beauty sells phones to a wider number of people. I'm not rough on my phone, and I don't even use a case most of the time, and I don't feel any more worried about the Galaxy S8 breaking with a drop than I do my other phones.
So. Many. Features.
Galaxy S8 Software and experience
I've maintained a relatively trouble-free relationship with Samsung's software over the years. Though I'm not always personally excited about everything its software offers, I can understand most of the decisions. Things improved greatly starting with the Galaxy S6, and the Galaxy S8 easily offers the best overall software experience Samsung has ever shipped.
Samsung is operating in a tough position: it has to continue to support years of legacy features that keep consumers coming back to Galaxy S phones over and over again, while also integrating altogether new features to get people interested in the latest phone, but it also clearly wants to simplify its interface and make the core experience easier to handle for everyone. As much as I'd love to see Samsung slash features and cruft until it was left with something akin to a Google Pixel experience, it just isn't going to happen for the fear of losing its years of built-up consumer confidence in all of its features.
The core software experience is really good on the Galaxy S8.
The core experience, where Samsung has clearly spent a considerable amount of time in both UI and UX, is really good on the Galaxy S8. I really like Samsung's latest overhaul of its iconography, and appreciate the subtle touches throughout the interface that bring everything together. Simple transitions, light colors and this "wireframe" look feel modern and cohesive.
And thank you to every single engineer at Samsung who pushed and finally won the battle to move to an on-screen navigation bar. Thank you so very much.
Much along those same lines, Samsung's performance is strong on my Snapdragon 835-powered U.S. model — even when bumping the screen resolution up to WQHD+ and leaving the "optimized" power mode on. No phone is immune to slowdowns at some point or another, and I think Samsung is going a bit too aggressive with its power management in some cases, but I just haven't hit performance hiccups or stutters in my two weeks using the phone. That's a great sign, and based on how well my Galaxy S7 held up over a year I don't think I have anything to worry about with the longterm performance of the GS8.
Samsung still has an issue managing its immense number of features
But it isn't all roses with the GS8's software. As I mentioned earlier, Samsung still has an issue managing its immense number of features. Not only does it have dozens of truly useful features it needs to try and surface to those who need them, but there are dozens more that are just ... there, not with much purpose and not found in the most intuitive places. Sure there are big misses like Bixby being baked into the operating system with little use to anyone, but there are lots of subtle issues with piles of features so few people want or need, yet are forced to have on their phone regardless. Even as what I would consider to be an advanced user, I find it tough to navigate everything the GS8 offers — I wonder how the average consumer ever deals with them.
The same goes for all of the bloatware, duplicate apps and services baked into the system with no recourse. I don't want anything to do with a Samsung Account, or Samsung's Calendar app or the various carrier-pushed bloatware it lets on its phone. It's all hurting the experience of what would otherwise be a super clean interface. The process of setting up a new Samsung phone is still overwhelming, and that's before you try to get your own apps and services installed the way you want.
The unlocking conundrum
The one true blunder in the Galaxy S8 is the way you keep it secure. After being one of the pioneers of great one-touch fingerprint sensors in phones, Samsung has delivered a complete hodgepodge on the GS8 — and I don't have many nice things to say about it. The fingerprint sensor, even on the smaller Galaxy S8, is just too hard to reliably reach and press. The face unlocking never worked properly for me, no matter how many times I re-trained it. Iris scanning has been the lone bright spot, and actually works some 80% of the time for me — problem being the other 20% of the time when I look like a fool staring at my phone while it fails.
Yes you have options like smart unlock, and you may have better success with iris scanning or face scanning than I have (taking a look at social media, I doubt it). But when it comes to unlocking apps, they still all want a fingerprint sensor — and each time I reach up there, I'm going to smudge my camera lens because it's in a baffling location. Let's hope Samsung rectifies this situation somehow with the Galaxy S9, or even sooner in the Galaxy Note 8, because this is a really bad look for a company that usually leads the industry in so many ways.
As I said above, I chose the Galaxy S8 knowing its smaller 3000mAh battery wouldn't give me as much wiggle room as the larger GS8+. On an average day, I'm not a very heavy user — I spend a lot of time listening to music over Bluetooth, but I don't have the screen on a ton (around 3 hours per day) and I'm on Wi-Fi networks a lot. But at the same time, I don't take any real proactive measures to save battery: I leave automatic brightness on, I leave Wi-Fi and Bluetooth active, I use Always On Display and I leave the screen at full resolution.
Plenty of battery to work with, even if it isn't a two-day champion.
For this kind of usage, the Galaxy S8 battery is more than adequate — I can use the Galaxy S8 to its full potential, and I don't have to charge during the day. Even in a heavier-than-usual day I'll end with at least 15% battery left when I'm getting into bed — which is a nice little buffer in case I have a heavier day, albeit a smaller one than on my other favorite devices the LG G6 and Pixel XL that will be closer to 30% at night.
That's not enough battery to make me confident I could make it through even half a travel day with the Galaxy S8, though, which is something again I kind of resigned when I chose the smaller model. I could turn off Always On Display or drop the screen resolution to FHD+ to save a bit, but this just isn't going to be a marathon device — and that's okay, because for me those are fringe cases, and I can deal with them. My daily routine fits into the Galaxy S8's battery constraints just fine without any sort of power anxiety, and that's what matters most.
Great, but not unmatched
Galaxy S8 Camera
When Samsung came out of the blocks talking about having the "same" camera setup as last year, I was immediately worried it would be lost this generation among other phones that have made big improvements since the Galaxy S7. Since then we now know the sensor has changed ever so slightly, but the real key here is how Samsung is processing the data it gets through the f/1.7 lens and into that sensor.
Samsung's camera app is still great, and it continues to be amazingly fast to open, capture and operate. Being able to slide the shutter key to zoom is genius. And even though I'll never use Bixby Vision or these Snapchat ripoff filters, I'll put up with those being there because the rest of the experience is fantastic all around.
The Galaxy S8 has a really good camera. With its better handling of sharp edges and color reproduction than its predecessor, it takes a nice little jump from last year in terms of the quality you can get out of each and every shot. At the same time, you didn't lose anything from the GS7: it's still super fast, good in low light and capable of taking photos in a wide variety of situations that can make you say "wow."
I'm still very confident in the camera's abilities, but the competition can hit the same quality.
But that doesn't mean the Galaxy S8's camera is far and away the best camera out there — the competition has caught up in the last year. The Pixel XL can arguably beat the Galaxy S8's quality in many situations, even though it may not offer such a full-featured camera app or as much speed. I also miss the flexibility of the LG G6's dual camera setup — being able to take unique wide-angle shots is great, and that's while its main camera is on average the same quality as the GS8's.
Every day I walk out of the house with the GS8 I don't feel like I'm carrying an inferior camera, and I know when I press the shutter I'll get something good just about every time. It just isn't as mind-blowingly ahead of the competition as the GS7 was. Samsung has just set such a high standard in cameras with the past couple years of phones, and we continue to expect that quality to improve.
Imperfect, but still great
Galaxy S8 Second opinion
There's a reason why Samsung is on such a high level that it's no longer worried about other Android manufacturers and is instead going head-to-head with Apple. In the past two years it has completely redefined how it makes smartphones, building hardware that is absolutely tops in the market from a standpoint of physical design but also technical execution. The Galaxy S8 is beautiful in so many ways, and you feel like you're getting your money's worth every time you hold it in your hand, look at that display, play a high-end game or see the photos it takes.
You can't dispute the GS8 does what it takes to completely deserve the top spot.
Even taking into consideration a total fumble in terms of its biometric unlocking situation, Samsung made the right calls overall in its hardware. The Galaxy S8 continues to integrate the features that the mass market crave, and the ones that keep selling phones: a higher screen-to-body ratio, a bright and colorful display, fast performance, waterproofing, a fast camera, and a feature in every nook and cranny to appeal to as many people as possible.
But even while dumping heaps of praise on the Galaxy S8 for all it does to appeal to the vast majority of smartphone buyers today, I can also say it isn't necessarily the best phone for everyone. If you value simplicity over all else, you won't find the Galaxy S8 to be to your tastes. While the Galaxy S line has continued to amass huge market share by attempting to be all things to all people, Samsung's lack of restraint in including features works against it for many people who just want something simpler. Some people can ignore the software, apps and features they don't want, but others can't stand having tons of unnecessary cruft in their way when they paid top dollar for a phone.
When someone comes up to me and asks "what phone should I buy?" the conversation is still going to start with the Galaxy S8 and work from there. It's the default choice for anyone looking to buy a high-end phone, and you really can't dispute that the Galaxy S8 does what it takes to completely deserve that top spot.