Galaxy S8+ review: Samsung catches fire (this time, in a good way)
There's been a lot of talk this year about bezel-less displays on smartphones. Samsung has now delivered the best – and most beautiful – example of how this can makes things better for the consumer, with the Galaxy S8 phones and their not-so-subtly-branded "Infinity Screens." Read on as we review the Samsung Galaxy S8+.
Smartphone screens have only had a few major evolutions in the last 10 years:
The first iPhone in 2007 had an impressive enough display for its time, but the first sharp "Retina Display" on the iPhone 4 in 2010 introduced us to a new degree of crispness, with the first hints at the razor-sharp text and lush images offered by the high-end phones of today.
In 2011, Samsung had us rethinking "big" (and introducing us to the unfortunate word "phablet") with the Galaxy Note's 5.3-inch display. Remember, iPhones at the time still had teeny-weeny 3.5-in screens.
By 2012, Android manufacturers took their own crack at pushing resolution boundaries with 1080p panels, while two years later they ventured into ultra-sharp Quad HD (2K) territory, as display sizes simultaneously ballooned closer to the 6-in range.
In a decade's worth of smartphone evolution, though, that's a relatively small list of major screen landmarks.
Samsung has now added one of the biggest milestones yet to that list with the phenomenal display on the Galaxy S8 series. The Galaxy S8+'s gently-curved screen pushes boundaries in both size and all-around presentation, while all but eliminating the wasted bezel space that typically frames the front of a phone.
"Economical" isn't a word you'll often hear associated with an US$850 piece of tech, but the S8's ratio of screen size to phone size is the most economical you can find today. On a practical level, that means a 6.2-in display that won't feel like a tank in your pocket or hand.
Screen resolution essentially stands pat compared to Samsung's flagships since late 2014 (the S8 and S8+ have more vertical pixels, but that's only because of the screen's more elongated aspect ratio). Samsung does, however, build on that ultra-crisp foundation by refining the subtler details: colors, contrast and brightness. And after a recent software update (just now rolling out) you can manually adjust the screen's white balance – a wonderful tool for color perfectionists.
We knew the phone's overall wow factor would be high from the moment we first saw it, but we held some reservations at first, knowing Samsung's products have at times prioritized the sexy money shot over a consistently solid, practical and intuitive user experience. (You can bank on Samsung including features that will turn heads, but too many of those additions have proven more gimmicky than life changing.) Having used the Galaxy S8+ for a couple weeks, though, I believe the company has fared better than ever in the all-around user experience department.
One of those past features that seemed gimmicky was the iris scanner on the recalled Note 7. It was slow to activate, required you to hold your phone at a precise angle, was unusable in bright sunlight, and didn't work well if you were wearing prescription glasses. Why bother when you can simply rest your finger on the home button sensor below the screen?
In the Galaxy S8 and S8+, though, the iris scanner is vastly improved. While you still need to hold the phone towards your face while looking at the top of the screen, the margin for error is wider – making for a quicker and smoother process. Considering how many times most of us unlock our phones during a typical day, that's key. And while it didn't scan well in the most intense of outdoor sunlight (midday in the southwest American desert), more evenly-cast outdoor settings posed no problems using the iris scanner.
It also worked well enough while wearing my glasses (which have a very strong prescription), though it does sometimes take longer to scan through specs than while wearing contacts or no lenses at all.
On the whole, though, iris-scanning provides near-instant logins – making the tech highly practical for the first time.
That's a good thing, because about the only downside about this phone is the location of its fingerprint sensor. In this respect Samsung prioritized cosmetic layout over usability, putting the sensor on the phone's (upper right) backside, just to the right of the camera. It sometimes takes a little fiddling and finagling to find the right location.
This did, however, get easier to use over time: Once your muscle memory learns where to reach for the sensor, the process isn't as difficult or awkward as we'd originally expected.
Either way, the iris scanning is good enough that the finger sensor can serve as your backup option. (You can have both biometric logins enabled at the same time.) For a secondary method, the finger scanner is fine.
Iris scanning also eliminates one of the few drawbacks of fingerprint sensors: trying to unlock the phone when your fingers are wet. The closest equivalent, getting my irises scanned after using eyedrops, posed no problems.
The phone's build isn't a radical departure from last year's Samsung flagships: You still have a glass back with minimal aluminum frame and rounded edges. I already thought Samsung had made the best-looking phones for the past few years, but the S8 series pushes their beauty into a new stratosphere that vaults far past the bezel-y competition. Suddenly the rumored iPhone 8, which will allegedly have a similar design, sounds less like a radical breakthrough and more like a competitive necessity – lest Apple's phones start to look extremely dated.
While we've yet to see any big Android manufacturers employ pressure-sensitive screen tech similar to Apple's 3D Touch, Samsung did add pressure sensitivity to its virtual/onscreen home button. After the announcement, we were confused about the purpose of this (was it just another me-too move in response to Apple?), but it makes more sense than we originally thought:
On Android phones with virtual/onscreen navigation buttons, those keys fade out when you're viewing something in full screen mode – places like photos, videos or games. You then have to swipe in from the edge of the screen to show the buttons before pressing home. On the S8, even when the navigation bar is faded out, you can deep-press in the home button area to immediately go home.
The S8 series has a terrific main camera, building on similar (if not exactly the same) hardware from the Galaxy S7, while implementing more advanced HDR algorithms that snap multiple shots, splice them together and create one impressive result. It's better in low-lit settings than the latest iPhones (and on par with the Google Pixels), leaving the iPhone 7 Plus' dual-camera Portrait Mode as the only advantage Apple's best phone camera has over the S8 and S8+.
Battery life is very good, and had one of the best flagships scores we've seen in our benchmark. Streaming video over Wi-Fi (with screen brightness set at a consistent level) it dropped 9 percent per hour. For comparison's sake, the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus each dropped 12 percent per hour, the Google Pixel XL lost 11 percent and the OnePlus 3T edged the S8+ out at just 8 percent.
In more anecdotal terms, it hasn't given me any problems, usually finishing a full day with 40 percent or more left in the battery. And if you need a quick refill, it supports quick charging and wireless charging.
Storage is generous and simple: Each model of the S8 or S8+ gives you 64 GB of internal storage along with microSD expansion.
While Gear VR support is nothing new for Samsung flagships, the latest version of the Samsung/Oculus virtual reality headset adds a lone motion controller that gives it a Wii-like input system that complements its casual-gaming-focused library. In our testing, the S8+ provided a terrific visual presentation in VR, with excellent performance and no overheating concerns.
(The new Gear VR with controller costs $130, but if you already have an older Gear headset, you can buy the controller alone for $40.)
To say a company's latest smartphone is its "best ever" is one of those bits of hyperbolic nonsense that falls apart once you think about it for more than a few seconds: If a company's 2017 flagship wasn't better than its 2016 and earlier phones, how could that be anything but a colossal failure?
But the Galaxy S8+ (and its smaller, but otherwise identical, S8 sibling) is Samsung's best phone relative to its time period. While the company has made some great phones through the years, this is the first that feels like a major breakthrough. I believe it's the best smartphone today by a wide margin.
If you prefer the Apple ecosystem, then if you can wait until September or later, the iPhone 8 is rumored to have a similar edge-to-edge design. You can also expect this approach towards smartphone design to quickly become the norm among high-end flagships: Trends towards sameness usually prevail in this industry.
But if you want the very best that smartphones have to offer today – and Samsung's most impressive handset to date – the Galaxy S8 and S8+ are as close to perfect as we've seen in any smartphone. This is a company that was once the butt of jokes: for blatantly copying Apple, delivering too much glitz and too little substance and (more recently) selling phones that were fire hazards. Take note: Samsung appears to have grown up, making an absolute beast of a phone in 2017. The S8 and S8+ mark a major milestone in smartphone evolution.
The phenomenal Galaxy S8 and S8+ are available now, ringing up for roughly $750 and $850 (full retail), respectively.
Product page: Samsung