The Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus are Samsung’s newest phones, poised to hit the market Friday, starting at $720. It is a critical launch for Samsung — not only because they are the firm’s newest flagship phones, but they also may help erase the bad memory of the (recalled, overheating and exploding) Galaxy Note 7.
I spent some time with a review unit of the Galaxy S8 Plus, which Samsung provided to The Washington Post. Given my experience with it, Samsung’s given itself a clear shot at bouncing back, thanks to innovative design and strong performance. Here's what I learned:
The first thing anyone will mention after looking at this phone is its screen. The Galaxy S8 Plus — the larger of the two phones — boasts a 6.2 inch screen rather than the S8's 5.8 inches. Samsung removed all the buttons from the front of the screen and pushed the display to its limits. The S8 and S8 Plus both sport the “infinity screen,” which curves over the edges of the phone. This display has rich colors — occasionally a bit too rich, particularly with reds. Overall, it's visually stunning and the extra screen space makes a noticeable difference.
I was initially worried that the screen's proportions might annoy me over time — it's a little taller and thinner than you might expect for the phone’s width. And, to be honest, the taller phone always felt like it was about to fall out of my (admittedly small) hand. For those whose thumbs can’t quite reach those upper corners, Samsung has put in a “one-handed” mode that will shrink the display down to a more manageable size temporarily.
The screen's quality, however, overrode the proportional weirdness for me.
The phone was snappy and responsive; it was a breeze to switch between apps and to run them at the same time. I had no problems playing games or doing work on the phone. I occasionally got a stutter in video when running two apps at the same time — YouTube, for example, while also browsing Chrome — but it wasn't that frequent or severe.
Several other features of the phone worked without a hitch. The retina scanner was able to read my eyes whether I was wearing contacts or glasses. (Not sunglasses, however, which is perhaps to be expected.) The rear-mounted fingerprint reader was a little awkward to hold, but it worked well. The Galaxy S8Plus survived a dunk in my sink, without missing a frame of the video it was playing. And calls — remember those? — were very clear.
Samsung has also improved the camera on these phones, and those improvements stood out, particularly with lowlight photos. For other shots, colors on the screen of the S8 Plus were also more vivid than the iPhone 7, though that didn’t always translate in the photos or videos themselves.
The company also tweaked its front-facing camera (a.k.a., the selfie camera) to autofocus on its subject, making for crisp and well-composed selfies.
Samsung didn’t push the boundaries with the battery in these phones — for obvious reasons — but managed with software to ensure that its increased screen size doesn’t drain the battery away.
I had no problems with overheating. Of course, it’s impossible for me to assure anyone that this phone won’t have the same problem as the Galaxy Note 7. But I can say that I had no problems with the phone I was provided. It never seemed under stress or alarmingly warm to the touch — even while watching video in sunlight.
Overall, I was impressed with the battery life. In practical terms, I could easily get through a day without having to recharge the phone. I even once forgot to plug it in overnight and still managed to get a morning’s use out of it. (Not that I’d recommend making it a habit.) The phone charges quickly, either with a USB-C cord or using Samsung’s wireless charger. Ten minutes of charging would generally bring the phone back to a point where I wasn’t panicked that it was going to die on me.
I had one gripe though: The battery drained very quickly while I was testing the phone's extremes, dropping 25 percent in 20 minutes. While that wasn’t my general experience in using it like a normal person, it may be a hint to frequent gamers and video streamers to keep a cord handy.
Samsung made some big promises at its launch event about Bixby, the company’s voice assistant, which provides a chance for the company to show it can really play with Apple and Google when it comes to phone voice assistants.
Except … Bixby isn’t launching in all its glory along with the phone. Samsung announced earlier this month that Bixby’s voice features will be delayed. Talk about the air going out of the balloon.
Still, other Bixby features do work. Samsung has a centralized hub for its assistant — accessible though a dedicated button. It also has Bixby Vision, a feature that allows users to use the camera to scan objects and get more information about them, such as where to buy them. Samsung’s partnered with companies including Foursquare and wine app Vivino to provide these services, but you don’t have to download those apps to use the services.
The feature doesn’t always work that well, however. For example, I scanned a particular pair of wireless headphones, expecting to see results for that product, and instead got very general listings for headphones — even some with wires.
Ultimately, I found these features to be more gimmick than genuinely useful — the thought of passing someone on the street and trying to scan their shoes doesn’t really appeal to me. That said, the features generally work as promised and provide a glimpse into how an augmented reality future could be useful, if they are further refined.
Overall, Samsung has made an impressive, solid phone that shows that the company is still trying to move ahead — though with perhaps a bit more caution than before. That’s all right, though: This is a phone that balances a careful polish with a few features that still push the envelope.
Upgrading from the Galaxy S6, users would notice a marked improvement in speed, as well as enjoying that beautiful screen. Even Galaxy S7 or S7 Edge users may want to think about going for the newer model, if the thought of a buttonless front appeals to them.
Still, those on the fence about picking up the S8 or the S8 Plus or the upcoming iPhone — expected out in the fall — may consider waiting. Apple, after all, is rumored to be including some of the same features as the S8 line in its next phone, including a buttonless screen.
In a vacuum, Samsung's made a pair of phones that give it a real shot at redemption. In the real world? Most users will probably want to see what the competition has to offer.