For several years now, Samsung’s been dominating the world of smartphones. Multi-billion dollar marketing campaigns have made the company wildly successful with the general public, but us tech journalists haven’t always been impressed with Samsung’s handsets. While we universally praised the Galaxy S II for raising the bar, we generally found the S III and S4 too gimmicky and plasticky. The Galaxy S5 was the epitome of this malaise, suffering from heavy handed and annoying software customizations, and poor materials and build quality, which resulted in lackluster sales.
The company redeemed itself with the Galaxy S6 and S7, great phones with beautiful hardware designs to match. And then the awesome Note 7 started catching fire. Oops. Which brings us to today’s Samsung flagships, the Galaxy S8 and S8+. A lot has been written about these handsets already but we wanted to give your our opinion now that the hype has died down a little. Is the Galaxy S8 the mother of all smartphones? Should you pick it over this year’s other excellent flagships? Is it safe? Let’s find out.
Note: Throughout this review we generally refer to both the Galaxy S8 and S8+ as simply “Galaxy S8” or “S8” since both phones are identical but for screen and battery size.
In many ways, the Galaxy S8 feels like the ultimate evolution of Samsung’s “edge” design language. Look closely, though, and a lot has changed. It’s familiar yet different enough to redefine what a smartphone should look and feel like in 2017. The ultra-wide 18.5:9 aspect ratio “infinity” screen — 5.8-inches on the S8, and 6.2-inches on the S8+ — is absolutely gorgeous. It covers the front of the device almost entirely, leaving just slivers of bezel top and bottom, and features Samsung’s signature curved edges, now with rounded corners. This isn’t completely new since LG’s G6 uses a 5.7-inch 18:9 display with rounded corners that also takes up most of the front, but here the effect is even more pronounced.
Samsung packed a lot of stuff into that top bezel, including the 8MP front-facing camera, the earpiece, a notification LED, proximity and light sensors, and an iris scanner. The S8 is also the first Galaxy handset to replace the physical buttons with configurable on-screen navigation keys. You can finally have the back button on the left and the recent apps key on the right, just like the Android creators intended. It also means the fingerprint sensor now lives round the back, and to make up for lack of a real home button, Samsung added 3D Touch-like haptic feedback to the virtual home key.
The back of the Galaxy S8 is also glass and is a mirror image of the front. It’s home to the single 12MP f/1.7 main shooter (now flush with the glass), a LED flash, a heart rate sensor, and the world’s most awkwardly placed fingerprint sensor. See, the S8’s fingerprint sensor is located right next to the rear camera and is almost the same shape and size, which means you’ll either miss it and leave a smudge on the lens, or hit it only partially and fail to unlock your phone. It also very hard to reach, especially on the S8+, because it’s too high. We found this extremely frustrating, even though muscle memory helped after a few days.
Between the two sheets of Gorilla Glass 5 is an ultra-smooth machined aluminum frame with barely visible antenna bands. The Galaxy S8 is like an Oreo, where the central chassis (the filling) melts between the glass (the cookies) — it looks like nothing else out there. Needless to say, build quality is spectacular. The seams between the glass and metal are almost imperceptible and both phones feel amazing in hand. Our review units are midnight black and are fingerprints magnets, but the S8 and S8+ are also available in orchid grey and arctic silver here in the US, with even more colors sold abroad.
You’ll find various controls and ports scattered around the edges of both handsets. The nano SIM/microSD tray and secondary mic are on top; the power/lock key is on the right; the headphone jack (yes!), USB Type-C connector, mono speaker, and primary mic are on the bottom; and the volume rocker and Bixby button are on the left. Yes, there’s a dedicated key for Samsung’s assistant, but in a completely user hostile move, you can’t disable or remap it. This also means that when you reach for the volume rocker, you often press the Bixby button instead, which is highly annoying. We really hope Samsung fixes this in a future software update.
The Galaxy S8 is water and dust resistant (IP68) and as such, uses sealed batteries (3000mAh in the S8 and 3500mAh in the S8+). Despite boasting large displays, these aren’t huge phones by today’s standards. At 148.9 x 68.1 x 8mm (5.86 x 2.68 x 0.31 inches) and 155g (5.47oz), the Galaxy S8 is slightly narrower (not to mention lighter) than the G6, and at 159.5 x 73.4 x 8.1mm (6.28 x 2.89 x 0.32 inches) and 173g (6.10oz) the S8+ is narrower but only marginally taller than 5.5-inch devices like Google’s Pixel XL or Apple’s iPhone 7 Plus. With these two handsets, it’s clear that Samsung has set a new standard by which all future flagships will be measured — both figuratively and literally.
Both phones feature stunning 2960×1440-pixel, HDR certified, AMOLED screens with curved edges and rounded corners — 5.8 inches across on the S8 (570ppi) and 6.2 inches across on the S8+ (529ppi). These ultra-wide 18.5:9 aspect ratio displays cover 83% of the front, and are without a doubt the best panels we’ve ever seen, with rich colors, inky blacks, and impeccable viewing angles. In other words, Samsung’s years of AMOLED expertise truly shines here.
Out of the box, the two handsets are set to a resolution of 1080p, but you can change this to the screen’s native 1440p or an even more power-efficient 720p in the settings. It’s an interesting way to extract even more life from the battery. As we pointed out in our LG G6 review, the ultra-wide aspect ratio helps with multitasking by allowing two square apps to run side by side. It also offers more vertical real estate for content like websites, which now require less scrolling. Most videos shot today use the industry standard 16:9 aspect ratio, and don’t cover the full display in landscape mode, so Samsung provides controls to scale content to fill the entire screen.