It’s amazing the difference a few months can make to the reputation of a company. As many may well know, even the biggest of companies are not exempt from a dramatic fall from grace, public perception, or some or other form of PR disaster leading up to a major shift in the industry. Many pundits predicted a huge backlash for Samsung following the Note7 batterygate in 2016. Fastforward a few months, and Samsung had managed to build up quite the hype ahead of the launch for the Samsung Galaxy S8. Even still, there were many doubters still circling, which were subsequently faded to silence once the unit officially launched.
It doesn’t take long to fall in love with the S8, thanks to its glorious Infinity Display, blowing away all the nay-sayers and winning over fans previously dedicated to another brand. But there’s more to the unit than just the external beauty provided by the end-to-end screen, with hardware and software optimisation to make it a true contender for the best smartphone of 2017.
Build and Design
It’s been said over and over again, but it’s hard escaping the simple fact – the S8 is eye candy at its best. It doesn’t have an overly complicated design, with glass panels on the front and back, protected by Corning’s Gorilla Glass 5. The overall look is extremely glossy as a result and often extremely slippery on the sofa, your pocket, or any such surfaces. Thankfully, it isn’t as slippery in hand and feels a lot more comfortable. Still, you can’t help but feel a sense of nervousness everytime you pick up the S8.
At 8mm, the unit isn’t the thinnest around, but the curvature of the screen makes it appear a lot sleeker. And that’s what Samsung does really well on the S8, blending all the angles in all the right places to look the part. And this isn’t to say that Samsung is hiding the phone’s true nature, it only adds to its premium look and feel. There are five colour variants to choose from; Coral Blue, Maple Gold, Arctic Silver, Orchid Grey, and the unit I received, and best looking, Midnight Black. The black makes the unit look like a single piece of glass panel, as it blends what’s left of the bezel with the black screen.
In terms of the button and port configuration, there’s the one obvious omission over almost all previous Galaxy devices. The home button has been replaced with an on-screen, capacitive home button, which can also be turned off in the settings. The power button remains unchanged on the right hand side of the device, with the volume rocker on the left. The addition to the left side, below the volume control, is the dedicated Bixby button. (I won’t go into much detail on Bixby in this review, but will leave that for a full review at a later stage). The SIM and microSD card draw sits on the top of the device, and is opened by means of a pin. The bottom houses the Type C USB port, loud speaker grill on the right, and the 3.5mm audio jack on the left. The back of the device houses the camera in the centre near the top, flanked by the dual flash and fingerprint reader, on the left and right, respectively. While the non-centralised fingerprint reader has been met with much disdain on the Web, it eventually does become second nature to stretch out your finger slightly off to the side to activate it. In addition to this, my device unlocked almost seamlessly when I lifted it to read a message by means of the Iris Scanner. Touching on the inclusion of the audio jack, not only has Samsung not followed the trend Apple seemingly wants to start, they also offered a pair of AKG wired earphones for good measure.
Some part of me would like to believe that Samsung may have been trying to develop a fingerprint reader that fits beneath the screen, but weren’t able to finalise the design before signing off on the design with the factories for manufacturing. If it had achieved this, I’m sure those nay-sayers would’ve been singing a different tune. Overall, the design and build quality are great on the whole. While it may not be the perfect end product, you would go a long way to find anything better looking at the moment.
Screen and Display
Over the years, Samsung has bolted on some of the finest screens on their Galaxy smartphones, so it’s no great surprise that the company has delivered once again for the S8. Not only has it improved the resolution and quality, the end-to-end, curved Infinity Display just stands out from the crowd. It isn’t quite as pronounced as the Edge units for the S6 and S7 but, as with those units, adds quite a lot to the appeal, both in terms of the design and viewing on the screen.
The 5.8″ screen is squeezed into dimensions only slightly larger than the 5.1″ S7, with a screen-to-body ratio of 83.6% on the S8. You cannot underestimate how much of a difference the edge to edge design makes to the hands-on feel and comfort of holding and using the device in one hand. The resolution has increased to 1440x2960px (quad-HD+), which brings about a new aspect ratio of 18.5:9, instead of the standard 16:9, making it somewhat taller than most other screens.
The colour reproduction is vivid, the brightness of the highest quality, with one the deepest blacks and contrast you’ll find. The S8 ticks quite a lot of the boxes when it comes to certification, which adds to the great screen quality. These include the Mobile HDR Premium and DCI-P3 cinema-grade certifications, the former meaning you’ll be able to consume HDR content where available. The brightness tops the 1000 nit mark, which is on average 25% brighter than most flagship smartphones, the LG G6 for example only managing around 650 nits.
An added bonus for the impressive resolution is that you have the choice to optimise this in the settings, allowing you to more effectively optimise the battery life. Users can choose between the highest Quad-HD+ resolution, a mid-range 1080p, or lower 720p for the most effective battery savings. In addition to this setting, you also have the option of a Video Enhancer, which changes the settings for the contrast and brightness when viewing video content. You can also choose which apps make use of the feature.
Performance and Battery
If I ended the review at this stage, you wouldn’t feel shortchanged, as the screen and design are enough to lure any prospective buyer. All of that, and we’ve yet to cover what is often the three most important segments of a review. Underneath all the glitz and glam, the S8 packs in an Exynos 8895 chipset Octa-core (4×2.3GHz & 4×1.7GHz) CPU, a Mali-G71 MP20 GPU, 64GB internal storage, 4GB RAM, and a non-removable Li-Ion 3000mAh battery.
On paper, these are some pretty impressive stats to tout. In the real world, they hold up just a well, and even better in direct comparison to many of its competitors. The Exynos chipset is built using the 10nm production process, and delivers one of the most powerful chips on the market, the other being Qualcomm’s Snapdragon, which is found in the US version of the S8. The processor is so powerful that Samsung has been able to offer their new DeX system, which effectively turns your device into a PC via an HDMI connection. Another feature is the use of Bluetooth 5.0, slightly ahead of its time, and you’re not quite able to make full use of it given the lack of availability on other devices.
The S8 runs smoothly and as quick as I’ve seen any portable device. There are some great features, once again, added to optimise the CPU usage, allowing you to decrease clock speed to 70%, again to improve battery life. Overall, the benchmark tests deliver great results, and while it may not be the best in all categories (such as single core results), it right up there. The gaming benchmarks, on the other hand, are significantly higher the iPhone 7 and LG G6.
The trend across the categories thus far is how Samsung has managed to add optimisation into all aspects of the hardware. Given the slightly lower 3000mAh battery, there’s no surprise that the company would have had to have optimised overall usage to eke out the most on a single charge. And it does this brilliantly. I tinkered quite a lot with these settings, finding a balance between what I need, what looks good, and what I can live without. As a result, I easily manage to get through a full day’s use without worrying about having to find the nearest power outlet. Often times, I do a quick charge after work, and disconnecting it once fully charged. This means I leave it overnight while I sleep, and continue to use it the next day without any worry, all the while leaving the “always-on” screen on, and a few gaming sessions scattered throughout.
Samsung delivers quite a significant amount of power and performance on the S8, so much so that it often feels overkill. I expect that the additional power is to drive the DeX performance, but I’m not so sure most users will choose this option, instead simply looking for their next flagship upgrade on their contract. Turning down the CPU and screen performances aren’t a must, but goes wasted when left on maximum output the entire day for no specific reason.
Right from the start of the smartphone age, and the competition between Android and iOS, or even between Samsung and other Android devices, was the Galaxy range’s bloatware. Over the years, Samsung has slowly reduced the amount of bloatware on its devices with each new release, but has reached what I feel is the perfect balance on the S8. Gone are a lot of the native Samsung apps, even the Music and Video apps are non-standard on the device. Instead, I downloaded this from the Play Store to just to experience the overall suite of apps available and how they all integrate.
Samsung builds its TouchWiz UI atop of Google’s Android 7.0 Nougat, but offers more of a glazing on top rather than something that feels like a complete overhaul. And the user experience is great. Simple UI updates such as the removal of the app drawer button leaves more room on the panel for your shortcut apps, and uses a swipe up or down gesture to enter the app drawer. You do have the option to choose to remove the app drawer altogether, but I’ve never enjoyed this approach.
One of the great, and sometimes not so great, features of the S8’s firmware build is that there’s quite a lot integrated into it, which means you don’t have to download or use 3rd-party apps to get the job done. For example, the device has built-in security, which is actually McAfee anti-virus software. Other features built into the software include device maintenance, which does a lot more in-depth checks on your battery, optimising performance, clearing up storage, and reducing memory load. If you don’t want to go through each of these steps separately, there is a shortcut “optimise” button that performs alll the necessary steps to get your device back up to 100%, as this rating slides dependent on the above-mentioned categories. Further optimisation also comes in the form of how it handles games. Whatever your settings are for normal use, you can bypass this by updating the settings from the Games Launcher menu.
One of the more obvious shortcomings for the build-in apps comes in the form of Bixby. And while I’ll leave the full description to a separate review, I feel that, and by Samsung’s own admission, Bixby doesn’t yet meet the expectations of what it was envisaged to do.
There have been many reviews and comments about the S8’s unlocking capabilities, but, in my opinion, having tested each of them, I have had no qualms at all. Having left both the iris scanner and fingerprint reader on as unlock options, I can without effort simply pick up my device and start using it. What I found really surprising was that the iris scanner still worked well at night, using infrared capability to read my prominent scowl. In addition, it still worked well enough to recognise my eyes while wearing glasses, I use to work on my laptop. While there is a security risk in being able to unlock my device with a simple image of me, I did find that my blinking makes it easier to unlock as opposed to simply staring at it. In addition, I don’t think there are many, if any, persons that have a headshot of me on-hand to unlock.
The S8 has a 12MP camera fitted to the rear, and while it has dual flash, it doesn’t have the wide-soread dual camera capability found on modern flagships. Samsung’s single-lens camera, however, delivers really good images with every snap. Double-tapping the power button almost instantly opens the camera app, allowing you to quickly take a photo without missing the action. The colour reproduction and brightness of each photo is good and stands out even more on the Infinity Display. Low-light photos are also quite impressive, one of the best fitted to a smartphone.
The camera features numerous photo modes, from panorama to food, and even selective focus, a must for the premium photo of 2017. Samsung has also included a number of Snapchat-like selfie features direct from the app, which can brighten up those selfies on the 8MP front-facing camera. While this Isn’t something that appeals to me, nor Spanchat, it may be a useful feature to many others.
On auto mode, the camera app also detects the different backgrounds, objects and lighting to make the necessary changes without manual intervention. One of these detections comes from the face-detection, which creates a bokeh effect around said face, blurring out the background and highlighting the facial features. Again, this may not be to everyone’s interest, but does add some value. The pro mode, on the other hand, provides a lot of tools for the user to tinker with, to round up a very good overall experience for some great photos.
At this point it may seem something of a press release, but there’s quite a lot that makes the Samsung Galaxy S8 a really great piece of equipment. Whether you want to own one simply to look good (while offering water-resistant capability), having a great screen, for its performance, or its very well-optimised software, it pretty much covers all you need in a smartphone. And while some of the additional features may not have been carried out with great success as yet, the ecosystem can only grow. I would have also have loved to have seen the DeX capability built right into the OS without a secondary peripheral to transition to PC mode, but I’m hoping to test and review this feature in the near future.
As is the case every year, 2017 is no different in the shootout for best smartphone of the year. For most of the Android OEMs, their phones are released in Q1, while Google and Apple leave their launches towards the latter part of the year. While it’s still early days, the S8 is the clear frontrunner in the race to the line. Whether users will choose the S8 over other flagships isn’t as cut and dry, with many other external factors to consider, such as price, contract deal, network carrier, work, or simply don’t support the brand. At a cost of R15,999, the S8 isn’t going to be winning the price war, but it does offer a lot of bang for your buck.
As it stands, the S8 is a great all round smartphone, and does a lot to win over fans from the different brand loyalists, with even a few iPhone enthusiasts expressing great interest upon my sometimes shameless display of the unit to Apple fans. At the end of the day, the S8 is the best phone available today.