FOX11, Los Angeles - It isn't lost on anyone in the tech industry, the news media, and many consumers, that Samsung has a lot riding on the successful launch of the new Galaxy S8 and S8+. After the exploding Note 7 debacle, Samsung needs the S8 to be a hit. It would spell certain doom if it bombs- pardon the pun. What I can tell you is this, if they needed a "hit," what they've come up with is so much more than that. It's a homerun! Everything is bigger and better, including the price, so let's dig into what makes Samsung's latest iteration of the Galaxy S line one of the best flagship phones of 2017 so far.
You can check out our video review here:
I've used this phone for a little over a week, so this is an early review because there's actually so much going on with this phone that, given more time I may uncover even more to talk about. Keep that in mind as you read on or watch the video review. For the time that I've been using it, it's been connected to a Samsung Galaxy S3 Frontier smartwatch.
This review is going to be primarily about the S8+, though I've also had the S8 and can tell you that other than size and battery size, the phones are fairly identical in functionality. The first thing you'll notice about the S8+ is how tall it is and how much display you're seeing, minus any discernable bezels. Sure, they're there, but Samsung's AMOLED Infinity display is so beautiful, you won't notice what bezel is visible. On the S8+ you're going to get a 6.2" Quad HD+ screen that displays 2960x1440, at 529ppi. On the S8, 5.8" Quad HD+ at 2960x1440, with 570ppi. The display sports a new aspect ratio, sitting at 18.5x9 instead of the traditional 16x9 which sounds like you'd actually see more video on the screen but since most content is produced in the 16x9 aspect ratio, you'll actually end up with more black space at the sides of your content.
The one thing you won't see on the front of the phone is a hardware home button. Samsung has done away with that, in an effort to give you more screen real estate and replaced it with a pressure sensitive soft home button. The tactile feedback you get with this new implementation of the home button is a reassuring experience which gives you positive feedback as you hard press it to activate features. From the lock screen, hard pressing it takes you to the notification screen. From the phone's home screen, hard pressing it activates Google Assistant. From within any app, soft pressing it takes you back to the home screen, while hard pressing it activates Google Now on Tap.
The front of the phone is also where you'll find the 8 megapixel front-facing camera, an array of sensors and the earpiece/speaker. The sensor part is where it gets interesting! You get an Iris scanner and the camera supports facial recognition. For me, the Iris scanner has actually been more foolproof than facial recognition, though when the latter works, it is incredibly fast. Matter of fact, when facial recognition worked for me, you wouldn't know it was there because it scanned my face so fast and had the phone unlocked that I rarely see the face unlock dialog screen. Most of the time, you will see the Iris unlock screen, even though it too unlocks so fast that most of the time you'll see a split-second of the iris unlock dialog prior to the phone settling on the home screen.
The sides, top and bottom of the phone is where you'll find the volume rocker, power button, 3.5MM port (thank you Samsung, more on this in a moment), USB-C charge port, a lone mono speaker which is quite loud but fires downward (sigh), and SIM slot which also contains your microSD slot (up to 256GB). The left side of the phone is also where you'll find the dedicated Bixby button. I'll get into what exactly that is in a bit as well. Around the back, you'll find the 12 megapixel camera which features the dual pixel technology we first saw on the S7. You can check the photo gallery above to see some examples of how well this camera operates in low light conditions and why it's among the top smartphone cameras on the market.
The fingerprint scanner is where you'll run into a "love/hate" type of scenario. There are some folks for whom the placement of the scanner, off-center, on the rear of the device will be a turn-off. Deal breaker? No. I'm not a huge fan and rumor has it that the reason why the scanner is there in that location is because Samsung was working on a biometric technology which would exist just below the screen on the front of the device, but that wasn't ready in time for the release of the S8 and S8+. But, Samsung has blessed those of us who aren't fans of the placement by adding some extra functionality to the scanner which makes up for that. Hitting the setting menu, you can turn on a feature which allows you to swipe up and down on the scanner to open or close the notification shade. Not such a big deal on the S8, but on the taller S8+, this is a welcome addition to the scanner's functionality. I have medium to large-size hands but even with that, I have to adjust my grip to one-hand the phone and get to the pull down shade. Turning on this feature has removed the need to adjust my grip to get to notifications. It's a small thing, that makes a big difference.
Small things. The S8 and S8+ are made up of a lot of small improvements that Samsung has made which add up to a massively satisfying experience. You can tell that this phone has been in development for some time as there are a lot of well thought out touches which come together like Voltron to form a beast of a machine.
Unlike previous generations of Samsung Galaxy (and Note) experiences, this iteration brings LESS of the Samsung Experience, allowing users to interact more with the Android experience as it was intended. Don't get me wrong, there is definitely skinning on this phone, and though I've actually never been bothered by Samsung's overlay as much as some of my peers, this time around it just feels well balanced. There are still places where Sammy gets involved, like when you go to use speech-to-text and Samsung's voice "keyboard" comes up as the default. Fortunately, they left in tact some of my favorite aspects of the Samsung experience. I've always hated Android's native calendar widget which never had a month view. One of the reasons I loved the note so much was that I could see my month right on a home screen, text and all, without having to open the calendar app. Samsung's month view calendar widget is beautiful and customizable, so I don't need to hit the Play store for one.
With Android Nougat, you now have an app drawer which gets rid of the button for it in the bottom, middle of your home screen and instead allows you to swipe up to show all of your apps. Samsung's overlay allows you to swipe up anywhere on the home screen to do that now. If you're one who wants all the apps on your home screens and no app drawer, you can hit the settings menu and turn that feature on as well. But, if I wanted an iPhone, I would've bought an iPhone, so not thanks!
Multi-window is another area where we see an incremental improvement that can make a noticeable difference during daily use. If you're one who uses this feature frequently, you know that you can resize the amount of space a window takes up, in multi-window mode, but you couldn't really control which part of the screen appears in the window as you resize. With the new multi-window crop, you can do just that. When you go into multi-window mode you choose how much of the current screen view you want to crop and that portion of the screen is what will sit in your multi-window. Then you simply go about adding the second window to your multi-window session as you have in the past.
Another aspect of the Samsung Experience is customizability. You really can make this phone every bit your phone whether you theme it or not. You can even customize the background color of the navigation bar. And if you aren't a fan of Samsung's backwards Android nav button layout, you can put it back to the standard Google layout in the settings menu. And speaking of customizing, if battery life is of the utmost importance to you, you can even customize screen resolution and choose a less battery hungry setting, going from the WQHD setting all the way down to what Samsung calls HD+ which is slightly higher resolution than 720P.
We took the time to answer viewer questions about the phones during a Facebook Live that you can watch here:
With a camera that isn't a major improvement over last year's, and a price tag that comes in at $100 more than the S7 was at launch, the question many will have to ask is "Is it worth it?" Well, when you factor in that getting the Edge display was roughly $100 more last year, the AKG headphones that come with the phone can jack the price up as many no longer include headphones when they ship and you've easily made the $100 difference. The phone is fast, battery life is wonderful and the display is absolutely stunning, so if you're the premium phone buyer, this is the one. If you're a bit more frugal, it's a hard sell with so many lower cost phones that do an admirable job at a fraction of the cost. So, is it worth it? I'd answer that with a resounding "yes," if it's worth it TO YOU.
Disclosure: Samsung provided us with demo units of the phones and accessories for the purpose of this review.