When you talk about Samsung's Galaxy smartphones, it's hard not to talk about 'the average consumer.' Because the Galaxy S series is the second-most popular line of smartphones on earth, its audience is unashamedly mainstream, and the vast majority of sales of these devices will be to consumers who aren't what you'd call tech-savvy. The issue for Samsung, increasingly, is learning how to split the difference between a smartphone that provides a good experience for everybody and maintaining that all important credibility with its fans and enthusiasts.

The Galaxy S8 and S8+, for example, have Quad HD displays - the best ones I've ever seen. But they're set to 1080p by default for improved performance. And as enthusiasts clamor for ever-larger batteries, Samsung has put very average, if not exactly small, ones in these new phones (though they should degrade less noticeably). The S8 is still a slippery metal and glass sandwich that essentially requires additional protection unless you like to live life on the edge, which is great news for case manufacturers, but less so for you and me. And then there's the new fingerprint scanner, which is just a bit tragic (especially on the S8+).

Of course, there are big upsides: the latest chipset from Qualcomm, the Snapdragon 835, ensures that the Galaxy S8 will probably have the best LTE performance of any phone on the market here in the US. That chip also brings features like Bluetooth 5.0, improved Wi-Fi performance, and better image signal processors for the cameras. Samsung's Infinity Display is genuinely breathtaking: this is the best screen I've seen on a smartphone, period. The rear-facing camera is still great, the quality of the phone itself seems almost unimpeachable, and Samsung continues to make legitimate value-adds to the smartphone experience with features like Samsung Pay, wireless charging, and advanced network feature support across all four major US carriers. The fact that you can just walk in to a store and buy one generally speaking (ahem, Google) is something worth pointing out, too. Samsung's ubiquity is absolutely a product feature.

Like the S7 and S7 edge last year, the S8 and S8+ feel iterative - in a good way. But I also believe they're evidence that what makes a smartphone "great" is becoming more and more subjective. These are great smartphones, but how great really depends a lot on your priorities.

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The Good

Display The best displays I've ever seen on a smartphone. They're bright, they're beautiful, they have excellent viewing angles, and tiny little bezels. You get a ton of screen in a remarkably compact package.
Battery I only tested the S8+ in depth, but the battery life on this phone was great. If you disable the always-on display, it gets even better.
Camera While I still prefer the Pixel's camera, the S8's has its own strengths, including excellent low-light performance, fast captures, and bright, vivid colors.
GraceUX isn't bad TouchWiz has come a long way. Setting aside the conversation about updates, I find GraceUX perfectly good, and Samsung has genuine value-adds in the software these days.
Virtual keys FINALLY. Samsung has entered the modern Android era and given us virtual navigation keys. It has noticeably improved my feelings about using a Samsung phone.

The Not So Good

Fingerprint scanner I actively hate the fingerprint scanner on the S8+. It may be better on the standard S8. But yeah, it's bad.
Updates The S8 and S8+ ship with Android 7.0, and I've seen exactly nothing from Samsung indicating they plan to change their attitude about timely Android platform updates.
Bixby Is utterly worthless. A waste of a perfectly good hardware key.
So much glass I would seriously worry about breaking this phone if I bought it. There is so much glass - Samsung phones essentially require cases.
Pricey At $750 and $850 for the S8 and S8+, respectively, there's no denying Samsung is asking a lot for the privilege of joining the Galaxy S club this year.

Design and materials

Not all glass and metal sandwiches are created equal. With the S8 and S8+, Samsung has proven once again that, yes, there is still room for refinement when it comes to packaging and polishing a smartphone. To call these phones "pretty" would be to do them a disservice (I also don't necessarily think it's true). They have an almost precious quality to them, something that tends to be strongly evoked when you hold them in the slightly awkward "claw" grip a curved-edge smartphone sort of requires.

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But the phones look and feel so solid - their seams so uniform and tight - that you get the sense they can't even be taken apart, because they must have been forged whole in some kind of dark ritual (especially in this black finish). I don't mean to fawn, but when you compare Samsung's industrial design here on the S8+ to something like the Google Pixel XL, the Pixel looks and feels like yesterday's smartphone. And I don't just mean the bezels.

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Compare it to the Galaxy S7 edge, and the new S8+ is clearly a more moderate step forward, though. The biggest change is of course the display, which we will get to soon, but let's talk about those bezels. Samsung hasn't made what you'd call a "bezelless" phone (no one has), but their bezel reduction approach is more similar to LG's than, say, Xiaomi's. Instead of making the ludicrous compromise of moving the front-facing camera and various sensors down to the chin of the phone and messing with the earpiece speaker just to achieve that not-bezelless look, Samsung's chopped off some bezel on both the top and bottom.

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The result is much more screen in a package that doesn't need to grow dramatically to accommodate it. This is the smart approach to maximizing screen-to-body ratio (conversely, I would argue the Xiaomi approach is not smart). The one compromise Samsung had to make was the home button - it was time for it to go. We'll talk more about the software keys later, but for those of you who liked to tap the home key to quickly check your notifications, be at ease: it has a replacement. The pressure-sensitive, always-on virtual home key can be configured to wake the screen on a double tap or long press for quick glances.

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As you know, this also means the fingerprint scanner had to be put... somewhere else. Samsung hasn't chosen well. The fingerprint scanner on the Galaxy S8+, in particular, is nothing short of a bad experience. My success rate on reads hovers around 50% at the time of this writing, and it's become a frustration so constant that I've started to feel a bit annoyed by the whole thing. Why couldn't it have gone in a more natural, isolated location below the camera sensor? It's not just the reach - the scanner itself is incredibly finicky about making sure the whole sensor area is covered, and sometimes just doesn't recognize my finger is on it at all. This is not to mention that said scanner is right next to the camera, which has the same sort of raised edge design as the scanner and feels exactly the same to your finger.

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Unlocking the S8+ with your right hand requires immense discipline and active attention to how you grasp the phone. It isn't even worth the trouble (my fingers are pretty long, by the way). With your left, it's doable as you build up the muscle memory instead of having to actively feel out the scanner. But I use a lot of phones, and this is hands down the worst fingerprint scanner I have used since Samsung's old swipe-to-read ones. It boggles my mind how far backward Samsung has gone with this experience. Even the registration process is annoying: it refused to read any of my attempts to register the sides and edges of my finger because the scanner wasn't completely covered. Anyway, that's my fingerprint scanner rant. Samsung, you messed this up.

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On the bottom of the phone you'll find the 3.5mm headphone jack, a USB 3.0 Type C port, the microphone, and the outlet for the speaker. The design of the power key is unchanged, but Samsung has switched back to a rocker for the volume key to avoid confusion with the new Bixby button. The buttons all provide good feedback and have a nice, clicky feel. I will say the volume rocker is a bit high up on the S8+, presumably in order to make room for said Bixby key.

Out back, the camera hump is gone, meaning you can tap away at the S8 sitting on a flat surface and it won't rock or wobble (at least, not significantly). To the right of the sensor is the fingerprint scanner, and to the left is the flash and Samsung's weirdly persistent heart-rate monitor. On the front, things have become substantially more subdued with this generation of phone. The earpiece speaker is much smaller, the Samsung logo is nowhere to be found (a victory, I would say), and there's no chroming or accents around any of the sensors or front-facing camera. All colors of the Galaxy S8 have black bezels around the screen, so no matter which shade you choose, you'll get a pretty stealthy fascia.

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Undoubtedly, some of you are coming into this review with a question: S8 or S8+? If you're currently using a Galaxy Note5, S6 edge+, or S7 edge, I would actually advise you to consider the S8 over the larger model I'm testing here. The S8+ is a big phone - as tall as a Nexus 6, if not nearly as wide. This will make pocketability a genuine question for some, especially if you're going to be throwing a case on this big, expensive slab of metal and glass. If you typically find yourself liking a 5.5-5.7" smartphone, I'd say go for the regular S8.

But if you do want something bigger, the S8+ offers a ton of screen in a package that is a lot easier to handle than phablets (sorry, sorry) of the past. Because all of the extra display area is packaged vertically, the phone is still very narrow and easy to manage with one hand - for most tasks. Reaching the top of the screen can be a real bear, and that can mean risky maneuvers (i.e., potentially dropping it) to access certain parts of the UI one-handed. I still think it's way easier to manipulate than my old Nexus 6, though. The comparative narrowness makes my grip on it a lot more confidence-inspiring, even if those stretches for the notification bar can feel a bit dicey.

And because I wasn't sure where else to put it: Yes, the multi-color notification LED is still there. Even with the reduced bezel, Samsung managed to hold on to it.

Display

If you're sick and tired of hearing every year that "Samsung has done it again - the best smartphone display ever!" then I am sorry, you will continue to be sick and tired. The Galaxy S8 and S8+ have the best smartphone screens. Ever. They get extremely bright, the colors are exceptionally vivid (or accurate, if you switch to the Basic display mode), viewing angles are excellent, blacks are very deep, and the AMOLED panel can get ultra-dim for those late-night reading sessions. Samsung continues to demonstrate that its Super AMOLED technology is the gold standard for displays with the Galaxy S8, and that the bar can still be raised higher yet. I'm always impressed with Samsung's ability to iterate this technology with such consistent success.

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While this is a Quad HD panel with a native resolution of 2960x1440 (that's a lot of pixels), Samsung configures the S8 and S8+ out of the box to run at 1080p (2220x1080). Why? Because it improves performance. And that feels like something of a copout, doesn't it? Google can run the Pixel XL with its older, less efficient Snapdragon 821 chip at full QHD resolution and achieve performance and battery life that go toe-to-toe with a fresh-out-of-the-box Galaxy S8+.

So, why make the phones QHD at all? VR! At least, that's a convenient scapegoat. Notably, you can change the resolution manually to the full QHD. I'll have a few more words about this in the performance section of the review, so stay tuned.

Getting back to the screen, I found it worked well even in direct sunlight, with Samsung's ultra-high contrast overboost mode kicking in to maximize readability even in the most challenging conditions. Sure, that'll drain your battery real fast, but it's better than not being able to see your phone.

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The Galaxy S8s also have support for HDR video, but I believe it's only the HDR10 standard (not Dolby Vision). As far as I know, this will work with select apps that are specifically optimized for Samsung devices, so I would expect adoption of this in a wide way will be fairly slow for the time being outside the core video services like Netflix and Amazon. Still, it's good to have, because the screens on these phones really do deserve HDR video to fully take advantage of their impressive capabilities - especially those positively inky black levels.

I applaud Samsung for continuing to include its helpful screen mode setting, which allows you to choose one of four color profile presets depending on how you want the screen to look. The "basic" mode offers the most unforgivingly accurate reproduction of colors, something I find helpful when reviewing photos.

Finally, let's talk about the edge. Last year, I was pretty clear on my feelings about the Galaxy S7 edge having issues properly rejecting fingers or palms at the edge of the display. Because of the way curved-edge displays are shaped and the fact that Samsung curves both the front and the back of the device, it's essentially impossible to hold a curved-edge phone without your fingers or palms touching the edge of the screen. On the S7 edge, this was absolutely maddening at times. It made the phone nearly impossible for me to use if I was lying on my back, for example, doing some email in bed, and it was one of the reasons I stopped using it so quickly after my review period.

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I am happy to report that it looks like Samsung has given some serious attention to the issue of edge rejection. I tapped out a full email on the S8+ lying back on the couch and didn't get a single misread character or failure to respond to input. I browsed the web, scrolled through Twitter, did some texting, and it all went off without a hitch. That's cause for a sigh of relief - I was really worried Samsung would just continue to act like this issue didn't exist.

Battery life and charging

I've only been using the Galaxy S8+, so that's the phone I can give you battery life impressions on. My take so far is that battery life is at least as good as the Snapdragon Galaxy S7 edge from last year, a phone that offered above-average performance in this area. In single-day heavy use, the phone could reliably get 5 hours of screen time, sometimes creeping closer to 6 hours. That's very good - exceeding the Pixel XL in performance, even. Will the Exynos variant once again clean Qualcomm's clock on efficiency? I guess we'll have to see how they compare in reviews around the web.

Still, the S8+ does really well here, and if you want the version of the phone that's going to be able to power you through the most usage possible, that extra 500mAh of capacity (3500mAh total for the S8+) over the standard S8 isn't anything to sneeze at - and I doubt the larger display cannibalizes all of it. Samsung has also claimed that these batteries should hold up better over the long haul than those in last year's phones, saying that the S8 and S8+ will retain 95% of their effective capacity after a full year of typical usage (the S7 retained just 80%). That's welcome news, because as we all know, battery life doesn't tend to get better as a phone ages.

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The idle drain on the S8+ wasn't particularly great in my experience, but that's because I had the always-on display enabled. Samsung estimated on the S7 that you'd drain under 1% of your battery per hour with the feature turned on, so I think those of you really looking to get every bit of battery bang for your buck possible will want to turn this off. It does have an effect.

I also turned off Samsung's very annoying app "sleep" feature, which looks at apps that are using power in the background but that you don't use regularly and then forces them into an "sleep" state to prevent them from waking the phone. It's well-intentioned, I know, but if I want something like that, I tend to trust Greenify, and honestly, I'm generally OK with letting Android's Doze do its work.

Finally, just as a note: all of my testing was done in the standard 1080p mode the phone ships in - I've not turned up the resolution to full QHD. Obviously, if you do this, your battery life will suffer as a result of the increased number of pixels which need to be rendered (apparently not - it's just performance). However, I really can't be sure just how big an effect this will have, and it's not a particularly easy thing to test outside of a highly controlled environment.

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Charging the S8 and S8+ is just the same as it's been for years with the Galaxy line of phones, using Samsung's Adaptive Fast Charge technology based on Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0. The one change comes in the port, which is now a USB-C connector. Oh, and Samsung has made the charging bricks and cables black now, instead of white. It charges at the same speed all Samsung phones with Adaptive Fast Charge have over the years, and the charger still has a Type A USB port. Samsung says the retention of the older charging tech and Type A port is to make transitioning from legacy products easier for their customers, and it looks like the S8 will even include a microUSB to type C adapter tip in the box. When you sell as many smartphones to "normals" as Samsung, these are very valid considerations, and so while enthusiasts might be a bit miffed than Qualcomm Quick Charge 4.0 and USB Power Delivery aren't in tow here, it's not like the phones charge slowly.

Samsung also still includes wireless charging, and it is releasing a new wireless fast charging pad which provides the same speed as the fast charging pad for the S7 did last year. This year, the pad has a rubbery, leather-texture surface and pops up to act as a phone stand, which is kind of cool. Wireless charging is available on all Galaxy S8 models, too - no worrying about regional variants here.

Storage, wireless, and call quality

The Galaxy S8 and S8+ come with as much storage as you'd like - as long as it's 64GB. There's only one storage tier being offered in the US (I wouldn't be surprised if China gets a 128GB model), but you can expand that with a microSD card. I really will hand it to Samsung for upping their base offering to 64GB - 32GB just doesn't cut it these days, and 128GB can seem a bit overkill. This T-Mobile variant I tested came with 53GB of that available to the user out of the box, which should be more than enough for most of us.

Wireless performance on the phone has been excellent for me. Data speeds on T-Mobile have been great, and the Galaxy S8 and S8+ support a large number of advanced network technologies here in the US to ensure you're getting the most possible out of your carrier's network. Be it advanced LTE carrier aggregation, wireless MIMO, VoLTE, HD Voice, Wi-Fi calling, LTE-U - it's all here. You can thank Qualcomm's X16 LTE modem for most of this. A lot of things can be said of Samsung, but they rarely ever miss out on a chance to be a showcase for the carriers' newest features. T-Mobile, for example, says the S8 and S8+ will be the fastest-ever smartphones on its network thanks to 4x4 MIMO, carrier aggregation, and 256 QAM support.

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Wi-Fi performance on the S8+ has been great for me, and Bluetooth in my car has been flawless, providing strong reception and zero pairing issues (something that can't be said of certain phones starting with "P"). I've come to expect Samsung to get Bluetooth right over the years, and they still are. Bluetooth 5.0 support is on board courtesy of the Snapdragon 835 chipset, but no real consumer devices out there using the standard exist yet. But you can take advantage of some of the standard's increased power right now - for example, Samsung has introduced a new feature called dual audio that lets you stream to two pairs of Bluetooth headphones at once. That's pretty awesome.

Audio and speakers

The Snapdragon 835 features a newer revision of Qualcomm's Aqstic audio "codec" (basically, the DAC and headphone amplifier), and I do think some noticeable gains have been made here. For one, I feel output on the headphone jack is better - driving big, high-impedance headphones left me with more room on the volume slider than attempting to play the same tracks with my Pixel XL. I also might be hearing some improved bass response, but that could just be the extra "oomf" the new amplifier is providing. Quality itself is still excellent, and I really noticed no difference on that front between the 821 and 835.

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Annoyingly, Samsung's volume warning still won't let you exceed a certain threshold until you accept a warning dialogue saying you might blow out your ears. It is very annoying. I realize there are laws on the books about this in Europe, but why does this have to be in the firmware for every variant of the phone, and why does it have to tell you every time you plug in a set of headphones? That's certainly not the case with Apple or Google's phones here, but Samsung seems dogged in its resistance to this regional accommodation.

Samsung doesn't seem to have really done much with its external speaker. It sounds decent, but the direction it fires and the peak output leave a fair bit to be desired. In the age of waterproofed smartphones with itty-bitty bezels, it's hard to see speakers being a major priority anymore. It's sad, but it's true.

Camera

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I was a fan of the camera on the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge, though I do still have my critiques as they've aged: colors are exaggerated and processing can be overbearing. Samsung claims that while the camera in the S8 and S8+ is the same one found in last year's phones, they've done work on the processing side to increase image quality. What does that mean, exactly? For my eyeballs, it means less aggressive sharpening.

As with last year's phones, the S8 is an incredibly capable camera in low light conditions. The f/1.7 lens hoovers up a surprising amount of light even in challenging conditions, and with a steady hand you can get some pretty crisp shots where other phones would just render an unpleasing mess of noise and blur. Even Google's Pixel is no match for the S7 in low light - the dual-pixel autofocus and aforementioned lens make a formidable duo in the dark.

Photos shoot off fast and the camera launches quickly, though I had honestly hoped for some improvement in speed given the new Spectra ISP the Snapdragon 835 features. In fact, the Galaxy S8's camera still doesn't launch as consistently quickly as my Pixel XL's, especially when using the quick launch feature, where the Pixel XL is very noticeably faster on the draw. That's... not great. It's still quick to start up, but you'd think Samsung would be focusing on this kind of stuff in terms of trying to be the best.

When we get to the actual business of the photos, I think nearly everyone who buys this phone will be incredibly happy with how their snapshots turn out. They're vivid, crisp, and as I said, the results in challenging light are still as impressive today as they were last year. I definitely approve of Samsung's reduction in the amount of sharpening applied to photos - things just look more natural now.

The colors are still a bit unrealistic at times, and Samsung's automatic HDR is nowhere near as impressive as Google's HDR+, meaning you'll still get blowouts in particularly high-contrast scenarios. But the camera is good.

In terms of the app experience, Samsung has added Snapchat-like overlays and stickers (for joy), but aside from a new option to place a floating shutter button on the UI, the camera app is essentially unchanged from how it appears on the Galaxy S7's current Nougat build with Grace UX. That means you get a Pro mode with a few more shooting options (including RAW output), filters, slow motion, panorama, hyperlapse, and more. All in all, the camera experience on the S8 hasn't really changed much this year, and while I wouldn't call that a letdown, per se, I don't think Samsung had the best smartphone camera last year overall, and leaving it essentially unchanged for 2017 means it probably won't this year, either.

Performance

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The version of the Galaxy S8+ I'm testing uses Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 chipset, not the Samsung Exynos chip that many other markets around the world will get. If you want to know about the 835's capabilities on paper, we have an extensive post benchmarking its performance. In the real world, the Galaxy S8 and S8+ are the very first smartphones to utilize Qualcomm's new chip. How's that gone?

Well, I am happy to report that the Galaxy S8+ I'm testing is very noticeably faster than an S7 edge with a fairly fresh Nougat install. It's a pretty stark difference. Has Samsung conquered the infamous lag its devices develop over longer periods of time? I can't answer that today, obviously, and Samsung really isn't interested in discussing it, either. As more reviewers and eventually consumers spend more time with the phone, we'll be able to better assess that issue.

That said, out of the box, the Galaxy S8+ feels almost as quick as my Google Pixel XL. A little faster in some scenarios, too, but I would say the two phones offer reasonably comparable performance based on the week I had to really compare the two. The Pixel XL isn't what I'd call the fastest Android phone for raw speed (I'd say the OnePlus 3T wins there), but it's the consistency of its performance that has really impressed me in the last six months. If Samsung can keep even close to this level of performance on the Galaxy S8 six months from now, that'd be a huge boost for the user experience on its phones.

That is, unless you really heat up the S8+. Between benchmark testing runs, I noticed the phone developed the very typical kind of lag I'd found on devices like the Galaxy S7 edge last year. The Pixel doesn't do this. The OnePlus 3T doesn't do this. Why are Samsung phones so aggressively throttling under thermal load? Still, the number of times I worked the phone hard enough in regular use for this to be an issue were negligible - as in, it really didn't happen at all outside the back-to-back benchmarking scenario.

One performance asterisk I'd like to point out is that the Galaxy S8 and S8+ do give themselves something of an edge on phones like the G6 and Pixel XL inherently, because they run at 1080p resolution out of the box instead of the 1440p every other QHD phone does, but you really can't tell the difference 95% of the time.

On the whole, I'm satisfied with how this phone performs. During the hands-on event, I was much more tepid, as I just didn't have the time to really get a feel, especially comparatively, for the overall smoothness and consistency of the experience. There are, however, some areas where I think Samsung could improve. The way the notification shade draws down feels a bit clunky (not slow, just weird), and sometimes the virtual navigation keys have a split-second delay on interaction. It's also definitely a bit easier to choke up the S8+ with manic opening and closing of apps than the Pixel XL - it does start to get a little overwhelmed when you really, really push it. I also think Google is doing a better job on touch latency, as sometimes the S8+ feels just a bit behind my fingers.

As for benchmarks, you probably won't be surprised to learn Samsung's implementation of the Snapdragon 835 isn't as fast as Qualcomm's reference device. I've pasted a results table for popular tests below.

DeviceGeekbench (1)Geekbench (multi)GFXBench (Car Chase OS)GFXBench (Man3.1, 1080 OS)GFXBench (Man3.0 OS)GFXB (T-Rex OS)Antutu3DMark (Slingshot 3.1)3DMark (Slingshot 3.0)3DMark (Ice Storm Unltd)PCMark 1.1OctaneKraken (lower is better)SunSpider (lower is better)
Galaxy S8+ (SD835)18296169131223143343575016056534044608362517445112112832408
Galaxy S7 edge (SD820)145038005871005158424481303572327291618914561347164038651
Galaxy S7 (Exynos)1866535890417062485464313569120102362292165064103372565511
Snapdragon 835 (reference device)20596461151326683873662518193938034996385188124143012308237.4
OnePlus 3T1840403211802058300652791571912619329830741FAILED92802601531
Pixel XL1638408911481997298251311372902839320527376591391542775576
Huawei P10192657137481403185136901196181910223025066722289473159464

Testing notes

I'm going to call this section "experimental" in phone reviews going forward, because I've tried it as a section for bugs, stability issues, and software problems, but it just didn't seem to add much. Instead I'm going to devote this section to brief thoughts I've had when using the phone - specific, relatively concise observations about what the Galaxy S8+ is like to use.

  • The fingerprint scanner is too hard to reach on the S8+, misreads are common.
  • You may smudge the camera lens when reaching for the scanner, meaning blurry photos if you're not an obsessive lens wiper like me.
  • I tried to use the iris scanner, but it was even worse than the fingerprint sensor with my glasses, my hit rate was well under 20%.
  • Unlike with the Pixel, Bluetooth performance in my car ('16 Mazda) was great - I didn't even need to take the phone out of my pocket.
  • The S8+ is fairly easy to keep a grip on width-wise, but it is very tall, and pulling down on the notification bar one-handed just feels risky. The top area of my homescreen is basically a no man's land for the same reason.
  • I can't say I actually care the phone renders in 1080p by default, you can't really tell.
  • I didn't end up using the always-on home button feature at all, even though it is kind of neat.
  • If I bought this phone, I'd turn off always-on display to keep the idle battery drain lower.
  • While not the newest or fastest standard, Samsung's 15 watt fast charging still tops up the phone pretty quickly in my experience.
  • On the launcher, the Samsung Pay quick-access peeking thing reduces the size of the touch targets for the nav keys.
  • I switched the navigation key order to the traditional Android layout (back, home, recent apps) and haven't looked back.
  • Samsung's new launcher looks alright but I went straight to Nova, in part to get my round icons back (yes, I have been Pixel indoctrinated).
  • I don't know how anyone lives with the stock Samsung keyboard. Yikes.
  • Even with all this extra vertical space, I still can't find a single compelling reason to split-screen apps on Android.
  • Samsung still isn't allowing "OK Google" hotword recognition when the display is off (probably because Bixby).

Software

For the purpose of this review, much of my definition of "new" is going to rely on what is new versus a Galaxy S7 running Samsung's GraceUX update on Android 7.0. So with that in mind, let's get to it.

What's new

Navigation keys

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The biggest change, of course, is down at the bottom of the screen: virtual navigation keys! I'm not going to get caught up on how they look - I just care that they're there and they work. And you can change them to the proper back-home-recents order, which I did immediately upon setting up the phone. Choice feels good. You can also change the background color for the navbar if you're so inclined.

The home button has a few extra tricks up its sleeve, too. It's always on - even if the always-on display mode is off and your screen isn't illuminated, there's a pressure sensitive area where the home button displays. Just press with some force (the amount of force can be adjusted in settings), and your phone will wake up just like you'd pressed a physical home button. You can see why rumors are swirling that Samsung wanted to integrate a fingerprint scanner with this feature - it would make complete sense. The home key will also respond to hard presses even when an app is overlaying the navbar. Honestly, I didn't end up using the hard press feature pretty much ever. You can also set it up to just display the lockscreen on a double-tap of the button. (Which is fine, but seems an inferior solution to tapping anywhere on the display to do a wake as LG, HTC, and other phones do.)

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Bixby

*cracks knuckles.* OK, let's talk about Samsung's intelligent assistant... thing. Bixby exists in three incarnations on the Galaxy S8 at this time. First, there is Bixby Home (Google Now). Then, there is Bixby Reminders (which is, well, reminders). And then we have Bixby Vision (Google Goggles). We'll talk about each of them, I guess. Bixby's banner feature, voice controls, is not available at the time of this review, and will supposedly launch here in the US later this spring. For now, then, all the Bixby button does is launch Bixby Home.

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Bixby Home is the most involved of the three, so let's begin there. Bixby Home is a bit like someone took your Google Now feed and made it less useful. It displays recent photos you've taken, advertises themes on Samsung's Galaxy Apps store, suggests wallpapers, gives you unnecessarily large calendar event cards, displays random GIFs from giphy (why), gives you a list of your most frequently visited websites (if you use Samsung's browser), as well as your most frequently used apps. There's also weather, your step count (helpful), and news served from Flipboard (which you can remove entirely).

Currently, Bixby home integrates with a few third-party apps, too. Spotify, Twitter, Uber, Giphy, Facebook, CNN, and Foursquare all can pipe in data to the Bixby Home app if they're installed on your device. Of note: Bixby Home by default can run from your lockscreen, though Samsung does disable cards that might contain personally identifying information like your contacts or calendar. Bixby Home does look kind of nice, so there's that, but I just don't see anybody using this. Google Now is helpful for the deep insights it has about your habits and interests based on the fact that Google knows an insanely creepy amount about what you do on the internet. Samsung will probably never be able to get that deep.

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Then, we've got Bixby Reminders. Bixby Reminders is exactly what it sounds like: you can set a reminder to do something, including based on a time or location. There are roughly, I don't know, a billion apps and services out there that do this much more robustly and with far more powerful features. I don't see any reason to care about Bixby Reminders unless you're a big fan of Bixby Home, which is where you will be able to find said Bixby Reminders.

Finally, there's Bixby Vision. You use it by opening the camera app and pressing the Bixby Vision button.

Right now, Bixby Vision can identify wine. I tried a bottle, it didn't work.

Bixby Vision can also identify text for translation. That's kind of nice.

Bixby Vision can identify objects. I showed it a Galaxy S7. It gave me results for iPads.

And it can read QR codes, because it's 2017 and we're still using those.

So, yes, it really is just Google Goggles but kind of different (and worse?). You can probably safely ignore Bixby for now, but maybe voice commands will make it actually somewhat useful when they do arrive. Try not to hit the button accidentally, though - I'm doing it all the time and it's getting kind of annoying.

Snap window

Snap windows is an interesting attempt by Samsung to make Android's splitscreen functionality suck less when you're using it to watch video. Let's say you're watching something in YouTube but you also want to keep texting someone without interrupting your video. You could use Android's built-in splitscreening to do this, but every time you pop out the keyboard in the chat app, your video is going to get pushed around and interrupted and reload constantly. It's a bad experience, and kind of shows just what a sorry state multitasking really still is in on the platform.

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Snap window is a band-aid, of sorts, on that problem. With your video player open and the video in view (in portrait mode), open the multitasking UI and the card for the video app should have a third icon to the left of the splitscreen button. Hit that, and you're given a crop interface. Move the rectangle over the area where the video is playing, adjust the size if necessary, and hit "done." At this point, the video will "pin" to the top of the screen, and the lower part of the interface becomes the app switcher. Pick an app, and you're off and running - the video won't move at all even if you pop out the keyboard, and plays back smoothly.

I have no idea how this really works, but Samsung clearly understood that video was a pain point in the Android splitscreen experience, and this makes it much better. I can't say I'll use it, but given all that vertical screen space on the S8+, I'm sure someone wants to know about this.

Snap window works with any app, of course, but video is the most obvious application.

Dual audio

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Thanks to Bluetooth 5.0, the Galaxy S8 can transmit the same audio to two pairs of Bluetooth audio devices at once. This could be great for watching movies or listening to music on a plane together, for example. I tested it, and it works. Samsung does note that because you only get one volume slider to adjust on the phone, the output level to each connected Bluetooth device will probably vary, and you'll need to adjust the device volume for individual control.

Still, it's pretty cool.

Separate app sound

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This is another one I found digging around in Samsung's labyrinthine settings menu: a new feature called separate app sound. I know, this sounds boring, but hold on - it may actually solve a problem that's been bugging you for years. Streaming music over Bluetooth is convenient, but it does tend to come with a catch: your device can't play any other media audio when you're streaming music, because that'll pause the player app. So if you want to play a game or watch a video silently on your phone while you're streaming tunes to a Bluetooth speaker or headphones, you can't - there's only one media channel.

This fixes that. Once separate app sound is enabled, you can select one app and make it the exclusive media audio provider to a connected Bluetooth device. So, if you want to make sure Play Music is coming through your Bluetooth speaker, pick the Play Music app and select the Bluetooth device, and only that app will be allowed to send media audio to that speaker while this setting is enabled. (Notification audio, unfortunately, is not blocked - that will still come through.)

But, now you can open up YouTube, a game, or browse the web on your phone while Play Music is going without worrying about pausing your Bluetooth stream, as all other media audio will play directly through the device speaker instead. This is a pretty decent idea.

Other changes

I've got some smaller features and changes I discovered, and I'll list them out here.

  • Fingerprint scanner can be set to pull down the notification shade and, from the home screen, to launch Samsung Pay by swiping up.
  • Face unlock mode.
  • Always-on display mode has some very slight aesthetic tweaks.

That's really it. The software changes versus the current GraceUX OS on the GS7 and S7 edge are pretty minor.

General UI (launcher, notifications, lockscreen, navigation keys)

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The notification tray is essentially unchanged from the current version of Samsung's skin running on a Galaxy S7, though the launcher is an all-new version of TouchWiz Home that uses a swipe-up (or down, actually) app drawer a la Pixel. Samsung has also implemented some kind of ape on launcher shortcuts, but they're not really launcher shortcuts - they're just a bunch of actions you can take on the icon. For example, you can multi-select icons in the launcher, remove a shortcut, sleep an app, uninstall it, or go to the info screen. It's kind of handy, really, but I'm not sure it could easily coexist with Android's app shortcuts - the list of items would get really long. In lieu of Google Now, the TouchWiz launcher has a pane for Bixby home to the left of the first homescreen. Yay.

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Like me, you're probably going to toss off that stock launcher almost immediately, so I won't dive in too deep. It seems like a fine launcher as OEM launchers go, but if you want any kind of customization, you've still got to go third party.

The recent apps menu is the same as you'll find on any up to date S7, and the lockscreen has seen a slight visual refresh, though still offers the same shortcuts for the dialer, Samsung Pay, and the camera app.

Of note: Samsung takes a more conservative approach with whether or not it will stretch apps into "full-screen" mode on this new, longer display. There's an area in the settings menu where you can force toggle apps to display in the full UI space, as I've noticed many, even some Google apps, are not set to by default. I forced this on for all my apps and haven't had any issues, but your mileage may vary.

Software: Opinion

I really don't mind GraceUX. Samsung doesn't mess with stock Android too much these days from a strictly functional perspective. I don't like that I have to disable some things like Samsung's app sleeping, touch sounds, or navigation button order - but here's the thing: I can. There are very few things which I cannot change about the software experience on the Galaxy S8 that are genuine annoyances. Don't like the launcher? Throw on a new one. Don't care for Bixby? Ignore it. Almost every potential software negative on this phone is either easily replaced or simply kept out of sight and out of mind.

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Throw on your own launcher, set up Samsung Pay, and try to ignore that you'll probably be seeing "7.0" on this screen for a while - that's my advice.

Meanwhile, Samsung adds genuinely useful features like Samsung Pay, screen modes, its dual audio Bluetooth feature, game modes, fingerprint scanner gestures, face recognition, a system-level audio EQ, tons of various configuration options, and more all packaged in what is probably the most technologically advanced smartphone on sale right now. That's not small potatoes.

The one sticking point for me, though, is the Android version. The Galaxy S8 ships with Android 7.0, already a version and change behind. Samsung seems to have no interest in changing its approach to platform updates, and that's disappointing. I guess we'll see how they handle things with the S8 and S8+, but I don't have my hopes up.

Additionally, while performance is decent out of the gate, I really think we should be demanding more. "Almost as good as the Pixel" is not huge praise considering this phone runs a next-generation chipset and renders the OS at a fraction the resolution a Pixel does. These aren't small concerns for the enthusiast set, but I don't think they're at all fatal to the phones. They're just worth considering.

Value

In essence, the Galaxy S8 and S8+ retail for $750 and $850, respectively, here in the US. That's a chunk of change more than an LG G6, though that phone does only come with 32GB of storage and features an older chipset.

I think that considering the advanced display, processor, and level of quality Samsung is delivering, the prices are totally justifiable. Now, that doesn't mean they're not expensive phones - they are. Really, really expensive phones. But the standard S8 to me is more the competitor to the G6 and Pixel XL, while the S8+ sort of stands on its own as a direct challenge to the iPhone 7 Plus. Many people may not find the size of the S8+ very practical - it really is quite tall.

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Samsung phones also mean a glut of accessory choices for things like cases, full compatibility with any US carrier (including advanced network features), and more attention from 3rd-party developers in terms of ensuring apps run as they should. These aren't trivial things, even if they may not often go into the traditional smartphone value assessment.

Is there nearly $300 more hardware in a Galaxy S8 than a OnePlus 3T? Of course not. But that's not really the question anyone is seriously asking. I think Samsung is charging a pretty penny for the S8 and S8+, but I also think they're doing more to convince the average consumer than, say, Google, that the price of admission is actually worth it.

Conclusion

The Galaxy S8 and S8+ are great smartphones, I have no doubt of this. Are they great smartphones for everyone? That's a question that, as an Android enthusiast myself, I have a harder time sounding decisive answering. I really like the Infinity Display. I like the very good battery life. I don't mind GraceUX - it's fine! I like the cameras, I like the quality of the phone itself, and I like the new software navigation keys.

I have a harder time accepting the update situation and the already-slightly-shaky performance. These things give me genuine pause. But if they don't concern you - and they may well not - it's hard to find truly major faults with these phones. Samsung has done an excellent job building upon and refining the formula that it... built upon and refined with the S7 and S7 edge. The S8+ is probably a little big for most people, but I like that Samsung is offering a "real" big phone in its mainstream lineup. And if you don't want a "big" phone, the standard S8 really is very manageable.

Samsung has built two excellent smartphones with the S8 and S8+. We're awarding both the S8 and S8+ our editor's choice "Most Wanted" accolade as well. Whether or not that gets you excited really comes down to what you value in a phone. For me? I'm still pretty happy with my Pixel XL. But if I was shopping today, I'd give the S8, or the S8+, a long, hard look.

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