This is shaping up to be a good year for smart phones. We can expect to see significant changes in top of the line devices: better design, faster processors and refined voice control. The new Samsung Galaxy S8 is now first to market with many of these features. It is easily the best new phone so far this year.
The device, released last Friday is a striking balance of design and technology that improves on its predecessor in almost every way. The S8 feels solid and luxurious.
The first thing you notice is the screen, which seems to span from the top of the device to the bottom and pour over its sides. Samsung says it covers more than 80 percent of the front surface, but it looks like more.
The traditional home and navigation buttons are gone, replaced by virtual counterparts that appear along the bottom of the screen, sometimes hovering above the windows below. The virtual buttons include solid haptic feedback so that you don’t feel like you are pushing that elevator button that seems only connected to the light bulb behind it. The only other interruptions are a slim speaker at the top of the screen and tiny circular windows for the front-facing camera and an indicator light. All of the screen edge functions from the previous S7 series are carried over in the S8.
The 6.2” Quad HD+ Super AMOLED screen on our S8+ review unit is clear and extremely sharp -- 529 ppi. That’s something that becomes even more important when you strap the S8 into the available Gear VR headset. Samsung let us test our S8+ alongside that headset and its sleek Level Bluetooth wireless headphones. More on those later.
In the wake of the Note 7 recall, Samsung spent a lot of time working on the S8’s battery systems. Our S8+ comes with a 3500mHh battery that the company says gives it up to 24 hours of talk time. So far its been going two days between charges. That’s pretty good considering we are playing with the phone and its features quite a bit.
Unlike Apple’s iPhone 7, Samsung isn’t pushing you towards that Bluetooth audio. The S8’s engineers managed to squeeze a traditional headphone jack along the bottom edge, right next to the USB-C charging and data port. They didn’t scrimp on the bundled ear buds either. The S8 comes with a nice pair of AKG-branded, 2-way buds that feel and sound like they are of higher quality than those usually tossed in the box with most smart phones. Last year, Samsung purchased AKG’s parent company, Harmon International. Expect to see more and better sound options in the months ahead.
The phone is also chocked full of sensors. In addition to what you would expect, Samsung has included an iris sensor that can be used along with the phones security measures to replace passwords in some apps. Not to be confused with the iris sensor, the S8 also includes a facial recognition system that will unlock the phone simply by looking at it. That features takes only seconds to set up and works surprisingly quick. The fingerprint sensor has been moved to the back of the device where it shares space in a cluster that includes the camera, its flash and a heartbeat sensor.
The rear camera is little changed from the unit on the S7. It boasts 12 MO and an f1.7 lens making it excellent for low-light photography. It shoots 4K video. The front-facing camera also features an f1.7 lens and 8 MP. Both front and back cameras are auto focusing. The back camera, though, can be switched into Pro Mode giving you control over focus, shutter speed, color temperature and white balance. It also lets you shoot RAW images to give you more information to work with in programs like Photoshop. There is also a Food Mode to punch up the colors when you share photos of your latest culinary creations on Facebook.
The S8 ships with Android version 7.0, otherwise known as Nougat. It runs on an 8-core, 64-bit processor. Standard memory includes 4 GB RAM and 64 GB of storage. Bucking the trend, you can expand the S8’s memory with up to a 256 GB microSD card that neatly fits into the same tray as the SIM card. That helps the device keep its weather resistant rating.
Where Apple has Siri and Google has its Assistant, Samsung sends in Bixby, which lets you talk to your device to get things done. Bixby lets you interact and give instructions to your phone. It all depends on Samsung servers for its information, so expect Bixby to learn as it grows. Of course, this being an Android phone, Google Assistant works just fine on the Galaxy as well.
The S8 is the center of a growing universe of Samsung accessories that lean heavily toward virtual reality. The Gear VR unit for the S8 is little changed from last year’s, but it includes a new accessory of its own that changes the way everything works. Instead of just tapping on the buttons on the side of the Gear VR, a new Oculus designed remote is included. It’s like a little laser pointer in your virtual world. The remote is visible on screen and appears to project a thing beam that can be used to select items. A round control pad on the remote also helps you navigate environments. It is a small change, but it makes a big difference.
Finally I want to touch on Samsung’s Level On Pro wireless headphones. They the company’s answer to the popular Beats headsets and come without the annoying bass heavy sound Beats are known for. The Level On Pro is easy to bond with the S8 by NFC or regular Bluetooth. The sound is excellent, for a Bluetooth device and Samsung says it can be even better using its proprietary audio format. While I noticed a difference, its not huge.
The best part about the Level On is its control scheme. You simply trace your finger up on the right ear cup to increase the volume, down to lower it. Trace your finger forward to skip ahead and back to go back. Tapping pauses and plays. It’s easy and doesn’t require you to grope around feeling for the right button.
The Galaxy S8 includes features that will be standard on many high-end smart phones in the future, but Samsung has them now. It is a flagship that makes it easy to forget about previous problems with the Note 7, but how customers react to the company and its quality control remain to be seen.
As for 2017, it will be a good year for smart phones. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s coming next.