After months of leaks and rumors, there wasn't much left to the imagination before Samsung unveiled the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+. But no matter how many alleged press images and stealthily-taken spy shots we'd seen of the phones, there's nothing quite like gazing at it with your own eyes and holding it in your own hands. We got to do just that at Samsung's New York launch event today.
With LG, Samsung and (likely) Apple later this year having phones with nearly bezel-free displays, it's easy to take on a ho-hum attitude about the Galaxy S8's killer feature. But seeing it in person, it does make for a striking first impression – one that accentuates that wasted space that features heavily on basically every smartphone from 2007-2016.
The display-heavy front is especially nice for widescreen content, whether videos or games, where the navigation buttons fade away and the phone allows you to stretch content past the standard 16:9 format to fill the entire 18.5:9 aspect ratio of the "Infinity Display."
For the first time, a company has released a "big" and "small" version of the same phone, and both of them have huge screens. The standard Galaxy S8 has a 5.8-in display, while the S8+ jumps up to 6.2 inches. (Just remember those diagonals are a little misleading, compared to 16:9 phones, as the more oblong aspect ratio exaggerates the corner-to-corner distance more than actual area would.) Both look like phablets when you're gazing at their screens, but they don't especially feel like it in hand – especially the smaller S8.
For all the sexed-up marketing we're about to see for these phones' cosmetic appearances, that will soon become familiar and the novelty will fade. What will last after that is screen-size-to-phone-size ratio: They give you bigger windows into your content without making a bigger bulge in your pocket.
For cosmetic first impressions, the Galaxy S8 and S8+ get an A+, but they also felt extremely snappy. Of course we've said that about many past phones on first use, only to find them slowing down significantly after installing lots of apps and adding carrier bloat that wasn't installed in the demo-area models. So we can optimistically say this phone is capable of blazing speeds, but more realistically advise to take that evaluation with a few grains of salt.
One of the supposed killer features in the ill-fated Note 7 was its iris scanner, which let you log into your phone by scanning your peepers. It's supposedly more secure than fingerprint logins, but it also took a long time to use, as you had to tediously hold the phone at just the right angle to line up your eyes in the scanner.
On the Galaxy S8 and S8+, iris scanning is a faster and smoother process. Of course you still have to hold it facing your eyes, but it recognized them almost immediately. And if you want an even faster biometric login, it also includes facial recognition, which (in our demo) worked every bit as fast as a fingerprint sensor.
That's good, because the S8 and S8+ have a fingerprint sensor that's somewhat awkwardly placed on the backside, off to the right (while looking at the phone from the back).
The phone retains Samsung's now-customary glass back with aluminum frame. Both screens also slope off on either side, as "Edge" Galaxies now appear to be the norm. I did notice, however, that the backs of the glass phones are fingerprint magnets, so you may need some maintenance with a microfiber cloth to keep their smooth bodies looking as sharp as they undoubtedly will in Samsung's promotional materials.
Of course the sexy designs only further accentuate the great irony with today's smartphone industry: The cosmetic brilliance that makes them more appealing also dictates that they'll spend their lives hiding inside cheap and rubbery-looking cases. Samsung did make them out of strong Gorilla Glass 5, but even today's strongest glass isn't likely enough to make it worth risking an untimely drop that forever blemishes its good looks.
The S8 marks the arrival of Samsung's Bixby virtual assistant, which has its own dedicated hardware button on the left side of the device. The company, however, essentially hid it from reporters in the media area, as voice control was disabled in all demo models. Consider that an incomplete – and enough to make us ask "what were they hiding?"
Bixby also, somewhat confusingly, lives alongside Google Assistant on the same device. While I suppose that's better than not having Google Assistant, it strikes me as typical Android clutter: two companies' versions of the same feature on the same device (not just causing potential confusion, but also taking up precious storage).
I played with the phone's cameras in the demo area, but there's next to nothing you can tell about a mobile device's photography prowess in that kind of setting. We'll have more to say on that, as well as battery life, in our full review.
Samsung has a great-looking pair of phones in the Galaxy S8 and S8+: They'll surely tempt many a shopper, standing out among the bezel-tastic competition on the shelves of wireless carriers and electronics retailers. And if their blazing speeds from the demo hold up in regular use (hardly a guarantee), they'll also have some of the most fluid performance you'll find in a mobile device.
Just remember that Samsung has a historical tendency of going for the sexy, marketing-friendly home run, but not always prioritizing a consistently delightful and unbroken user experience. We'll revisit this when we get review units.
The Galaxy S8 and S8+ go on sale April 21.
Product page: Samsung