The presumptive heir to the best Android crown is here: the Samsung Galaxy S8. A few years ago, the race to be the world’s favourite Android phone designer was wide-open. HTC would win it one year, and then LG would dazzle the next. Recently, the list has become more predictable: Samsung Galaxy S5, Samsung Galaxy S6, Samsung Galaxy S7.
Two things have changed to make this less a foregone conclusion than it was a couple of years ago, however. The first is that specifications have improved to the degree that even a cheap smartphone is good enough for most people. The second is the burnt out corpse of something that looks like it might have once been an elephant in the room: the Galaxy Note 7, removed from market after less than two months for being just a bit more flammable than advertised.
In short, we always knew that the Samsung Galaxy S8 was going to be good, but the stakes have been raised. It needs to be really good, and good enough to justify the enormous price tag too. It’s £689 SIM free, with contracts starting at around £45.99 per month with an additional upfront cost.
And it is good. Very good indeed. The best smartphone you can buy, bar none. Whether it’s worth the cost though… that’s strictly between you and your wallet, but hopefully the next few pages can at least help you justify the loan to your bank manager. Print this out if you think it’ll help.
Samsung Galaxy S8 review: Design
Let me begin by saying that Samsung’s teaser for the S8 was more than a little overblown. The video, released ahead of the phone’s reveal last month, suggested something that would make you rethink what a phone looks like, and the Galaxy S8 doesn’t really do that, unless you’re terminally devoid of imagination. It’s still a block of metal and glass; it’s just a particularly beautiful one.
What the video alluded to is that the physical home button is gone. That’s significant, but it isn’t the first Android phone to do that; I distinctly remember my trusty HTC One M8 had no physical home button either. What is different is its dimensions: it’s now quite a bit taller, and longer than its predecessors, making it extremely comfortable in the hand.
I use a Samsung Galaxy S7 as my main phone at the moment, itself a slim and attractive handset and the Galaxy S8 leaves it in the dust. Putting them side-by-side, the differences are obvious. It isn’t not much bigger but it uses its space much more effectively with around 84% of the front occupied by the screen a not inconsequential upgrade on the S7’s 72%. It’s only three grams heavier, and is just 0.1mm thicker – which is odd, because if you put them next to each other a table, the Samsung Galaxy S8 looks substantially more svelte.
The phone inherits three design features from the previous generation: it’s IP68 certified, which means it’s waterproof in 1.5 metres of water for up to half an hour; it supports wireless Qi and PNA charging; and it has expandable storage for microSD cards up to 256GB in size should the 64GB of onboard storage prove insufficient. USB Type-C is in, which is better in the long run, but awkward if your house, like mine, has become a retirement home for micro USB cables.
There’s even room for a 3.5mm headphone jack. Odd to think that’s a controversial move, but Apple, HTC and Lenovo’s recent decisions to remove it have made including the 60-year-old port a major selling point in a 2017 flagship.
There are just two issues you can legitimately have with the design. The first is that a whole button is dedicated to Bixby, Samsung’s AI assistant, which at the time of writing doesn’t do a great deal. For now, it’s essentially a second home button, but the fact that Samsung has given it such prominence suggests it won’t be for ever, so you can give them a pass on that.
The second is harder to defend: the location of the fingerprint scanner. It’s right next to the camera lens on the rear of the device, and while I was able to get used to this for unlocking over my time with the Galaxy S8, it was never as comfortable as one placed below the screen, as on the Samsung Galaxy S7 or Apple iPhone 7, or on the side of the device as with Sony’s recent smartphones. Placing it right next to the camera lens also means you often find yourself touching the lens, rather than the scanner, so you’d best get used to giving it a good polish before you take a photo.
Samsung Galaxy S8 review: Screen
After you’ve finished gawking over the lovely design, the next thing you’ll notice is that the screen looks a bit different to current phones: it’s long and thin. While most phones work to a 16:9 aspect ratio, the S8 changes things up by increasing things to 18.5:9 with a resolution of 1,440 x 2,960. That’s a slightly taller ratio than the LG G6 with its unusual 18:9 mix. The idea, according to Samsung, is that you can get more screen real estate in a handset that won’t be uncomfortable for the small-pawed among us.
Of course, that’s not exactly the case. As The Verge points out, a regular 16:9 5.8in handset has a greater area and, even if you like the newer tall design, it’s not without its issues. For starters, most apps currently black out the bottom of the screen, leaving the familiar Android buttons in place. That means that the job could be done just as well by a bezel for the most part. The real advantage is for pictures and video, but there are issues there, too. 16:9 is the universal standard for video (notwithstanding the circle of Hell reserved for YouTubers who take video in portrait mode) and, if you watch any of those on your S8 you’re going to have to decide between black bookends at each end, or cropping off the top and bottom of the screen.
Whether or not you think that’s a sacrifice worth making for a stylish, comfortable handset like this will vary from person to person but you’ll be unsurprised to hear that this AMOLED screen meets Samsung’s usual standards of high quality. It reaches a pretty bright 415.16cd/m2 peak brightness on manual mode, and a searing 569cd/m2 in automatic in the right conditions. On top of that, it covers 99.9% of the sRGB spectrum.
In other words, this is about as good a screen as you can get. It’s considerably brighter than last year’s model and closing in on the scores obtained by the IPS screens of the iPhone 7 and the recently released LG G6.
Samsung Galaxy S8 review: Performance
While the year-old S7 still pushes near the top of its class in terms of performance, it would be surprising if Samsung’s latest didn’t deliver a healthy performance boost on top of its cosmetic surgery. This isn’t a Moto G5 situation: Samsung has indeed stepped up to the plate with newer components that deliver a healthy kick.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that the Galaxy S8 feels incredibly fast and responsive out of the box. That’s partly because no Android handset should feel sluggish from the first boot (although some manage to crash head first into that insultingly low bar) but also because Samsung has packed the latest technology into its thin frame. You’re looking at a 2.3GHz octacore Exynos 8895 processor (or Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 for US-based customers), with 4GB RAM and 64GB storage, expandable via microSD card. It’s among the first smartphones in the world to use a 10nm manufacturing process to produce the chip, which promises to improve efficiency and battery life as well as provide the best performance around.
That kind of technicality is hidden away from sight but what I can say with certainty is that the Samsung Galaxy S8 is super fast. Every benchmark revealed speeds at the very top of the class, as you’d expect in a smartphone closing in on £700. In the Geekbench 4 multi-core test, it smashed past the iPhone 7 and LG G6, with only the Huawei P10 Plus coming close:
As for graphics performance, it was a similar story. The S8 is a powerhouse for mobile games:
To be clear, these graphical tests are intense, with cheaper handsets routinely getting single-figure frame per second scores. While most 2017 handsets should handle the majority of games on the marketplace, it’s pretty clear that the S8 offers far more future-proofing than any other device we’ve seen to date.
Providing juice for all of this is a non-removable 3,000mAh battery. For those keeping track, that’s the same size as was found in the Galaxy S7 which raises an interesting question: will it have more or less stamina? The larger screen would indicate less, but the efficiency of components would suggest more.
In the end, the answer is that’s it’s weaker, but not by much. In our battery test – which involves playing a looped 720p video with the screen set to 170cd/m2 brightness and flight mode engaged – it lasted an impressive 16hrs 45 minutes. That’s good, but it’s around an hour worse than the Samsung Galaxy S7 (17 hours and 48 minutes) and around two hours weaker than the S7 Edge (18 hours and 42 minutes).
Samsung Galaxy S8 review: Software
The Samsung Galaxy S8 comes with Android N straight out of the box, as you’d expect. It isn’t the cleanest version of Android I’ve ever seen, still coated with a thin film of Samsung’s TouchWiz skin. It’s far less intrusive than it used to be, though, and I’ve found it fine to navigate in my time with the phone.
In terms of software, this is as much a Google product as a Samsung one, with each smartphone behemoth granted a folder of apps in the app drawer. The Google folder contains Drive, Play Movies, Duo and Photos, while Chrome, Play Music and Gmail are left floating in the app drawer. The Samsung apps tend to be duplicates of Google’s: an email app, an internet browser, a note-taking app and so forth. Microsoft also gets a folder of its own, with Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneDrive and Skype all installed be default.
It’s not too bloated, but plenty of this will be unwelcome on your brand new phone and it’s a mixed bag as to how much of the storage you can reclaim. Google apps can be uninstalled freely, but around half of the Samsung apps and all of the Microsoft ones can only be disabled, not properly uninstalled, which is a bit poor as they run into the hundreds of megabytes. That’s not such a big deal with microSD support, but some apps and games are still fussy about being movable to expandable storage.
There are a few other things worth noting. The curved edges are now the default, which hopefully means that Samsung and its developers will have more incentive to use them inventively. For now the functions are pretty familiar, which is to say they’re useful-ish but kind of gimmicky.
Then there’s face unlock, an addition to the fingerprint and iris recognition available on the Samsung Galaxy S7. Register your photo with the S8, and you should be able to unlock the handset without having to find the fingerprint reader or tap in your password. It works better on bright days, I found, and it does feel a bit magical, although there has been talk of it being fooled by printed photos, which I suppose makes you marginally less secure if you’re interesting enough to hack. I like it, but I’m glad I don’t have to rely on it as the only way of accessing my phone – basically it’s a pleasant surprise when it works. Simple things, eh?
Finally, there’s Bixby: Samsung’s AI. To be honest, at this point making such a song and dance about it feels like a misstep, because at launch it’s pretty limited. That’s the thing about AI though: its abilities organically grow over time. Just take a look at the Amazon Echo, which does significantly more today than it did at its American launch back in 2015.
Samsung is backing it strongly (why else would it give it its own dedicated button?), but at the moment, said button effectively functions as a second home key. The Bixby screen feels a little bit like HTC’s old Blinkfeed system, drawing in news, photos and apps from your system. Bixby does invade other parts of the Galaxy S8, however. On the camera, you can focus on an object, and then let the AI look for shopping results or image results. Shopping never worked for me, and image results were a mixed bag. Sometimes it worked well…
Other times less so…
And at other points, it was just plain baffling:
Samsung says that American English and Korean voice controls will be coming later in the spring, which makes the whole Bixby package a touch disappointing for now. But two things about that: the first is that the software is something that will improve over time. The second is nobody is looking to buy this phone based on some AI software, right?
Samsung Galaxy S8 review: Camera
On paper, the camera is one area which doesn’t receive much attention, with Samsung adopting the “if it ain’t broke, then for God’s sake don’t touch it” approach. That’s sensible: The S7’s camera was about as far from being broke as it’s possible to be, second only to the Google Pixel in terms of quality.
So it’s still a 12 megapixel affair, with a f/1.7 aperture with a 1/2.55in sensor and 1.4um pixels. While the hardware is the same, there are other upgrades afoot: the most obvious of these is that it now takes three shots in quick succession and combines them into a better picture. The results are, as you might imagine, very good indeed.
In conditions with plenty of light the pictures are sharp, vibrant and full of detail. In trickier low-light conditions, the Galaxy S8 copes brilliantly. Again, no surprise given its predecessor was also a stellar performer.
It’s not a huge difference, but zoom in and it is noticeable. The contrast is slightly better, and the colours feel a touch richer. It’s not night and day, but this edges it a little closer to the Pixel.
In low light, generally, the performance was even better than the S7, with much less blurring when you zoom in for a sharp, colourful image.
However, we did notice some strange artifacting on a couple of the shots. Look at the paint pallette on the image above – now see what happens when we zoom in:
We don’t know what’s going on here. It’s not always present, and it’s entirely possible it’s an issue with our review handset (our sister site, Expert Reviews, had no such problem with their model), or a software issue that will be fixed by Samsung in the coming weeks. For now, it’s a small but disappointing blight on an otherwise brilliant camera.
Speaking of software, this has been tweaked to make it a bit easier to use one-handed: you can now drag the shutter button up and down to zoom in and out, and the mode buttons and live filters are clustered at the bottom of the screen when you use the phone in portrait mode. Digging under the surface a little, the Pro mode has focus peaking – an aid to manual focussing where you can see what’s in focus with a green outline. Very neat indeed, but as with the LG G6, this feature isn’t available while shooting video, which is where it would be most handy.
It’s also worth noting that if the camera is all that appeals to you, and you don’t fancy a dedicated DSLR camera, the camera module now appears in Lenovo’s Moto G5 Plus, and while the software isn’t as well implemented it is only £250. Obviously, that price comes with other limitations, but worth bearing in mind.
While the rear camera is, on paper, the same the front facing selfie camera gets a bigger upgrade. This has gone from five megapixels to eight, and the results are suitably sharp.
So, is the camera an improvement? Modestly, yes, but it’s not the kind of improvement that you should cash in your S7 contract for.
Samsung Galaxy S8 review: Verdict
Over 3,000 words later (a personal high five to everyone who read every one of them), what’s the take home? Well, the Samsung Galaxy S8 is comfortably the best phone I’ve ever used. It’s fast, looks great, has a fantastic camera and has a screen that will do any photos captured justice.
It has a couple of missteps – the fingerprint scanner is in a silly place that will lead to many a smudged lens, and Bixby feels underdeveloped, but for the most part, this is a product from a company at the top of its game.
The question is: do you really need this much phone? For most people,
probably not – the price is very high, and the gap between what budget and top-end smartphones can do is shrinking by the month.
That said, if you want the best of the best, then this is it – and the cost may not be as big a deal as it is today in a few months time. We’re seeing a lot of Brexit-related tech price hikes which may prove an unpleasant equaliser as time goes on and the LG G6 – the first rival out the blocks this year – is only £60 cheaper, for a far less convincing package.
If you want a great phone and you don’t want to spend the Earth then the OnePlus 3T still gets our nod. If you want the best of the best, however, you’ll have to pay the Samsung tax. Your wallet won’t thank you, but your apps will.