NEW YORK — Samsung on Wednesday unveiled its latest premium smartphones, the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus, which the company hopes will restore its reputation as one of the world’s best smartphone makers.
To do that, of course, Samsung must recover from the disastrous recall of its last premium phone, the Galaxy Note 7. Samsung was forced to discontinue that product after a rash of battery fires, and also chose to delay the launch of these new phones in the wake of the controversy. DJ Koh, the head of Samsung’s mobile division, opened the presentation by acknowledging that 2016 had been a difficult year for the company. But he also added that this launch marks the start of “important new beginnings.”
Samsung was clearly eager to move on and reclaim its reputation as an innovator. Before the Note 7, Samsung had shaken off its old image of being a copycat and had ushered in the era of larger-screened phones — a move that arguably prompted its chief rival, Apple, to make a larger iPhone, analysts said.
Overall, analysts said that Samsung pulled off a strong performance Wednesday and possibly set the tone for a more innovative smartphone cycle in 2017.
“We are seeing some great design innovation from Samsung this year and expect the same from Apple,” said Jefferson Wang, senior partner at IBB Consulting, in an email. The phones released this year — with curved screens and big displays — should set a new template for the next couple of years, he said.
In terms of innovation, Samsung's new phones pick up where the company had left off.
As expected, the S8 and S8 Plus ditch the physical home button to give the touch screen as much real estate as possible. As with Samsung's Galaxy Edge devices, the phones also have displays that curve over their sides. The new devices have a variety of security features — an iris scanner, fingerprint scanner and facial recognition sensor — that can be used to secure the phone as well as other services, including Samsung Pay and Samsung Health.
The phones will go on sale April 21, on AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. While prices may vary by carrier and payment plan, the suggested price of the Galaxy S8 is $720; the Galaxy S8 Plus will cost $840.
The screens for the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus measure 5.8 inches and 6.2 inches, respectively, but are slim enough to fit in one hand without feeling too bulky. Samsung also introduced a new mode, DeX, that allows the phones to plug into a monitor and special charging dock and perform desktop functions such as email and even Microsoft Word programs. The dock is sold separately.
Samsung revealed more about its new digital assistant, Bixby. The voice-controlled assistant is integrated with the phones' cameras so users can snap pictures of products, which Bixby will then search for online. The assistant can figure out your location from a picture and look for restaurants or other attractions nearby. Unlike its closest competitor, Apple's Siri, Bixby can also fully control some apps by voice — but right now nearly all of those apps are made by Samsung.
Bixby is still not as comprehensive as many analysts had hoped. “Samsung’s initial Bixby implementation falls short of its goal of being a comprehensive AI assistant because of weak app integration and limited voice compatibility,” said Ian Fogg, analyst at IHS Markit, in an email. Until Samsung expands the assistant — and supports languages apart from English and Korean — it won’t be competitive, Fogg added. In fact, he said, many users may not even choose it for the S8, which also ships with a Bixby competitor, Google Assistant.
The Galaxy S8 provides hints of Samsung's ambition to be a major player in the smart-home market. The company introduced an app called Samsung Connect, which shows users a unified list of all their smart devices, and lets them control them from the phone. As might be expected, the products listed in the demo, including a refrigerator and a robot vacuum, were all made by Samsung. That was a nod to the broad base of products that Samsung makes, which gives it an advantage over Apple and Google — the latter is its partner on Android but also its smart home rival.
The company also continued to tout its progress in virtual reality, which it views as a complement to its mobile-phone business. Samsung introduced a new version of its 360-degree camera, the Gear 360, which is now able to live-stream video while recording.
Samsung's new features should also push Apple, analysts say. “The consumer is the big winner in all of this. We have genuine first-class competition among major players,” said Thomas Cooke, professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.