The Galaxy S6 was, by all accounts, a truly transformational moment for Samsung's industrial design. After years of building plastic phones constantly lambasted for their "cheapness," Samsung made radical changes in an attempt to completely redefine its smartphone brand. Those changes were generally well received, but it always felt like they stopped short: the software was still slow, bloated, and the battery life surprisingly poor. With the Note5 and S6 edge+ we saw significant refinement of that reinvention "moment," but not until the S7 and S7 edge did Samsung really build the concept I think they set out to with those first metal and glass sandwiches.
The Galaxy S8 and S8+ are Samsung's attempt to show us that they can do more than just iterate on that "Eureka" moment they had in 2015, even if those iterations have generally been quite good. And after the Note7 disaster last year, they really need to make good on that promise. After spending some time with the phones last week, I'm still on the fence as to whether Samsung has truly succeeded - but I think the pieces for success are there. Even if I don't think they're all terribly obvious, and even if the phones don't take any real big risks.
Take what you loved about the Galaxy S7 edge and Note7, then just imagine it all being better. More refined, more coherent, more polished. As to that final point: literally. The Galaxy S8 siblings now feature polished aluminum mid-frames, as opposed to the matte anodized finish of years past. In particular - at least in my opinion - this looks good on the Midnight Black version of the phone, which features a shiny black mid-frame to match. The whole phone visually sort of looks like a deep black stone - it's a very interesting and striking effect Samsung has achieved here. As you'd expect of Samsung, the attention to detail is impeccable. The glass meets the aluminum in a very natural, near-seamless way, and the various body colors all have a distinct character.
The front of the phones, however, do not: unlike years past, all colors of the Galaxy S8 and S8+ will feature black surrounds on the display side of the phone, to accentuate Samsung's "infinity display" and its minimal bezel. I absolutely agree with this design decision, because it brings the canvas - the screen - out as the sole focal point of the front of the device. You're drawn to the screen, and everything surrounding it just sort of falls away.
Samsung has been paying attention to the little stuff, too. Everything from the design of the camera module (it now has more of a stylized "lens" effect) to the smooth USB-C cutout seems carefully considered and manufactured with precision. The phones scream quality, and I am continually impressed by Samsung's ability to iterate in this area. Samsung clearly spends a lot of time and energy on its design and manufacturing processes, and it shows.
Perhaps most notably, these phones mark the end of one of the last vestigial elements of the Galaxy brand: capacitive navigation keys and the physical home button. It really makes the S8 and S8+ the cleanest-looking handsets Samsung's ever produced. Above the display sit the standard array of sensors, including a new 8MP front-facing camera with software-simulated autofocus (we'll see how that goes) and the iris scanner array. Out back, Samsung says the 12MP rear camera is basically unchanged physically from last year's, with most optimizations happening on the photo processing side. I'm certainly curious to see how photos compare to last year's phones, then.
You still get IP68 waterproofing, and 64GB of storage is now standard (with microSD expansion available). Samsung has retained the headphone jack, but made the switch to USB-C it began with the Note7 last year. Wireless charging is intact, too.
As to the deceptively giant displays, at 5.8 and 6.2", respectively, the phones are considerably taller this year. But they're also narrowed, meaning they're easier to get a grip on, and they really aren't especially heavy or unwieldy. Ceding so much of what was previously bezel space to the expanded display seems an obvious choice in retrospect, but to me it definitely necessitated the end of the capacitive keys, otherwise all that extra height tends to feel a bit wasted. Speaking of those keys.
To answer your first and greatest question: Yes, you can switch the order of the navigation keys. You can either have them in Samsung (read: wrong) order, or change them to the standard Android layout of back, home, and recent apps (left to right). Samsung also lets you customize the color of the navigation bar background, which is nice. Sure, the iconography is nowhere near stock, but I couldn't really give a damn what the buttons look like as long as they do what I expect them to. And no, Bixby is not mapped to long-pressing the home key: that's 100% Google Assistant. (Bixby's functional overlap with Assistant is actually quite minimal - for now.)
The latest version of I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-TouchWiz is based on Android 7.0 (not 7.1, sigh) and feels basically similar to what we had on the Note7 and now have on the Galaxy S7 phones. "Grace UX" is the easiest on the eyes TouchWiz has ever been, and while there are still a bunch of old features in there I hardly think warrant the real estate in the settings app, Samsung continues to provide its own useful additions.
I didn't spend much time with the software in-depth, as I really didn't have time. And Samsung's Bixby assistant was only demoed to us in a controlled, scripted test environment, which is useless from an evaluation perspective. I can give you the overview, though: it's basically Google Goggles meets Google Now meets voice-powered accessibility controls. It's definitely an interesting mesh of features, though Samsung's hardest push seems to be around the idea that people will want to use their voice to control things like their screen brightness, toggling the hotspot, picking a camera mode or filter, and generally controlling their device. I am, to put it bluntly, unconvinced anyone will use this. But maybe it'll win me over when our review units come in and I actually have a chance to put it to the test.
But, if you were worried that Bixby was an attempt to subvert Google Assistant and replace it: please, don't be. Not yet, at least. Google Assistant and Bixby happily coexist on the Galaxy S8, and are frankly rather different products.
Oh, and this is kind of interesting, I guess: Samsung has also implemented the fingerprint scanner gesture to bring down the notification bar. It's off by default, I think, but it's there.
Like the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge after their respective Nougat updates, the S8 and S8+ don't actually display in their native, physical resolutions by default (they're set to full HD mode). I remain very divided on this choice: while I know the vast majority of people who own these phones will never, ever notice and reap considerable battery life returns as a result, why put in these more expensive ultra-high-res panels in the first place? Samsung's answer, of course, relies heavily on VR, because you need that Quad HD display mode to provide a good VR experience. But I don't think anyone, even Samsung, has actually produced compelling evidence that consumers care about VR (apart from the companies making VR products). I guess it comes down to the question of how much more a Quad HD panel of this type would cost to produce than a 1080p version. If it's not a big difference, then I guess I get where Samsung is coming from.
One feature I found quite interesting is the new home button wake gesture. Simply press your finger on the home button that is shown in the always-on display mode for a moment, and the screen will wake, indicated by a light burst of haptic feedback. While obviously you won't get far if you have a fingerprint scanner lock set, you might be more likely to use Samsung's iris scan or face unlock features (the latter is new to the S8). Given rumors that Samsung intended to place the fingerprint scanner inside the display itself with the S8 but failed to achieve the necessary yields, I have to wonder if this is the compromise they've settled on: pushing customers away from the ubiquitous fingerprint scanner, for now, until their more impressive technology is ready for primetime.
As for me, I probably wouldn't use the home button wake regardless - the fingerprint scanner is simply my preferred mode of authentication. The reader is definitely a bit of a reach on these phones, though, and even with my relatively long fingers I found the S8+ would definitely take some getting used to in terms of default hand positioning. Samsung's iris scanner tech is fast and very accurate, but I'm not always looking at my phone when I unlock it.
Performance on the phones is not something I feel comfortable expressing any definitive opinion on at this time. They felt fine - not crazy fast, not particularly slow - but given the notoriety Samsung's phones have achieved for slowing down over time, my experience in a controlled demo environment is simply not going to be helpful in assessing these things. It's probably better for me to end that discussion here and save the extended thoughts for our review.
I obviously can't judge battery life yet, but Samsung shared an interesting figure with me: the new batteries in the Galaxy S8 and S8+ feature much better cycle longevity than the ones in last year's phones. Whereas after a year of typical charge and discharge cycles last year's Galaxy S7 and S7 edge would see around 20% of their effective capacity lost, Samsung says that figure is more like 5% of capacity lost over a year on the S8 and S8+. That's definitely encouraging.
The Galaxy S8 and S8+ are big, beautiful phones. The larger displays are absolutely great, and the switch to virtual navigation keys is long overdue. I'm sure they'll have great cameras, and I expect battery life will probably be largely comparable to last year's phones (i.e., good). TouchWiz is, as far as user experience goes, the best it's ever been. That may not be saying much for some of you, but I generally find Samsung's UI modifications at the very least aesthetically palatable nowadays, and some of the added features are genuinely useful. A switch to 64GB of storage as standard is absolutely welcome and, I think, should be the bar to meet for any flagship phone in 2017. Bixby, despite the fears of many (myself included), doesn't really seem meant to displace Google Assistant or search on your phone. The Snapdragon 835 version of the S8 and S8+ we'll get here in the US packs a lot of new and potent technology, too - it's not just faster than the 820 and 821, it's more efficient and more capable.
What am I not loving yet? Launching with Android 7.0 feels oh so typical Samsung: they can preach all they want about how they test their software endlessly in order to ensure updates are smooth and low on bugs, but I just can't shake the feeling that Samsung really has no intention of changing its approach to Android platform updates. Performance is going to be a big question, too (and it's one Samsung seems uninterested in discussing). I won't even be able to conclusively come to an answer in our review, simply due to the amount of time we'll have to use the phones before publishing. That'll take weeks and months of additional testing. Finally, there's a lot of uncertainty remaining around the value proposition these phones will offer, and without pricing, that's hard to comment on just yet.
There's also a lingering feeling that the S8 and S8+ feel iterative in terms of actual user experience versus being showcases for advancements in industrial design and engineering. Samsung itself seems very eager to present the reduced bezel and larger displays as the raison d'etre for the Galaxy S8. But it's hard to tell if beauty is more than skin deep with these phones. Why is the screen curved? Because it's pretty (fragile, and the edge UI experience sucks). Why is the aluminum frame now polished? Because it's pretty (and will get scratched). Why aren't the batteries any bigger? Because thin phones are pretty (even though everyone wants bigger batteries).
These are thoughts that I've had a harder time shaking than I expected. There's no doubt the Galaxy S8 and S8+ are exceptional achievements from the standpoint of design and phone-building knowhow, but I think I can distill my feelings about them down to this: I'm really unsure why I'd want one of these that much more than a Galaxy S7 edge or, if it still existed, a Note7. If there's some major improvement to performance I missed, maybe that could be it, but on most other fronts - aside from the switch to virtual nav keys - I'm left scratching my head a bit.
But, maybe that's just a result of not having enough time with them. Hopefully, we'll be reviewing these phones soon enough, as I'm eager to get a deeper sense of the changes Samsung's made and how they translate into a real-world product experience.