Samsung Galaxy S8 Smartphone Review
The new Samsung Galaxy S8 is the best Android phone money can buy
I’m happy to report that my Galaxy S8 hasn’t exploded yet.
In fact, as of now, the only thing my Samsung Galaxy S8 (MSRP $720) is guilty of is being one of the best smartphones I’ve ever used.
According to all of our tests, the S8 scores high marks in every conceivable category. Its design is phenomenal, it snaps amazing photos, and it performs at the top of its class. Sure, it ain’t perfect—the fingerprint sensor is haphazardly placed, Samsung’s digital assistant arrives undercooked, and getting used to the S8’s tall screen is a tall order. When the overall experience is as good as what the S8 is offering, however, you can ignore the slight imperfections.
With so much riding on the release of the Galaxy S8 and the S8 Plus, it must’ve been tempting for Samsung to tear everything up and start from scratch. Instead, the company is digging in its heels and doing what it does best: bundling thoughtful innovations with time-tested elements that have worked in the past. For that reason, the Galaxy S8 is the epitome of refinement and one of the best smartphones ever made.
Welcome back, Samsung.
About the Samsung Galaxy S8
The first thing you’ll notice about the S8 is its screen—a tall, nearly bezel-less AMOLED display with a peculiar aspect ratio. The gargantuan screen is the most noteworthy new feature for a phone that otherwise follows the same playbook as its predecessor, the Galaxy S7. Even the S8’s camera is identical to the sensor in the Galaxy S7 (though Samsung made some fine adjustments to the S8’s image processing software).
Here’s the S8 at a glance:
• Snapdragon 835 quad-core processor (2.3GHz, 1.7GHz)
• 4GB RAM
• 64GB internal storage, up to 256GB of expanded storage via microSD
• 5.8-inch quad-HD (2960x1440) edge-to-edge AMOLED display
• 12MP, f/1.7 primary camera with OIS, auto-HDR, LED flash, face detection, and 4K video support (30FPS)
• 8MP f/1.7 front-facing camera
• IP68-rated water resistance for up to thirty minutes in 1.5 meters of underwater submersion
• 4G LTE, WiFi, AC/Bluetooth, and NFC support (with Samsung Pay)
• 3,000mAh lithium-ion battery with both fast- and wireless charging support
• USB Type-C port
• Fingerprint, iris, and biometric scanner
• 3.5mm headphone jack
What I like about the Galaxy S8
Make no mistake: With the Galaxy S8, you're getting the kind of top-shelf performance you'd expect from a premium smartphone with a premium price tag. This is easily the most powerful smartphone we've ever tested, and its stunning design and carefully crafted software only bolsters its blistering speed and top-of-the-line camera.
Refined design, refined software, and top-shelf performance
Like the S7 and the late Galaxy Note 7, the Galaxy S8 is an exercise in refinement. Inside and out, the S8 blends the best elements of Galaxies past (like water resistance) with bold, fresh ideas (like the giant freakin' screen). The new stuff doesn't always work, but that's how Samsung rolls: incorporate things that worked in years prior with new elements that might end up being mainstay features in the future, but otherwise stay out of the way.
Let's start with the physical design. Despite its large size, the Galaxy S8 never feels as big as it actually is. This is mostly due to its ultra-narrow profile, but there's a lot to be said for the curvature of the display; the carefully-sculpted corners keep the S8 nestled comfortably in your palm, so it's cozy to use one-handed. The display's size takes some getting used to, but given that the front of the S8 is nearly all screen, S7 users will adjust right away.
My favorite design element, however, its 3.5mm headphone jack. Yes—the Galaxy S8 has a headphone jack. Admittedly, it's only an exciting feature if you've spent the better part of the last year worrying that a headphone jack wouldn't make the cut in a post-iPhone 7 world. Hell, it shouldn't be exciting to find out that your new, nearly-$800 smartphone has a headphone jack, but that's just the world we live in now. Samsung is even doubling down on it and including a better-than-average pair of AKG earbuds with each Galaxy S8. It's totally music to our ears.
The refinement isn't limited to the outside, either—Samsung's TouchWiz software (historically viewed as a nuisance for users yearning for a stripped-down Android experience) has been pared down significantly. The result is a simple, breezy user interface that makes the Galaxy S7 feel stuffy in comparison; the default home screen is minimal and your app drawer is a mere swipe away.
Fashionable folks who take pride in customizing their Android experience will find the options to be abundant, but the out-of-the-box settings will treat you kindly regardless.
And then there's the phone's immense processing power, which will likely keep the S8 kicking around in the list of top-performing smartphones for a few years. If just holding the S8 doesn't sell you on its steep price, the luxury of using it will convince you that it's worth the cost. Everything on the S8—from Facebook to video streaming—runs at a silky-smooth pace. Multi-taskers will marvel at how easy it is to leap from app-to-app, and mobile gamers will immediately love the S8's processing prowess, which stands up to even the most hardware-punishing games available.
As of now, the Samsung Galaxy S8 is the fastest smartphone we've ever tested, snatching the crown back from Google Pixel. Now, you might prefer the Pixel's barebones UI and Google's software integration, but in terms of pure speed, the numbers don't lie—the S8 outperforms the next best phone with authority.
The best smartphone camera in the game
When it was released last year, the Galaxy S7 arrived with the best smartphone camera we'd ever tested. Since then, both the iPhone 7 Plus and the Google Pixel narrowly edged the S7 out of the top spot, mostly due to superior software (though the 7 Plus's dual camera functionality certainly helped).
As it turns out, Samsung spent the downtime between the S7 and the S8 making adjustments not to the camera itself, but to its image processing on the back-end. The secret to the Google Pixel's fantastic low-light performance is apparently out of the bag, because Samsung's newest flagship is outfitted with the best smartphone camera we've ever used.
The S8's 12MP, f/1.7 camera fires off shots at a lightning-fast clip, rivaled only by the Pixel's similarly-speedy camera. Yes, the sensor itself is the same one you'll find in the Galaxy S7, but the S8's ability to render low-light photos is astoundingly good, eclipsing its predecessor's performance in dimly-lit settings. Like the Pixel and the iPhone 7 Plus, the Galaxy S8 can make dusk lighting downright romantic and free of excess noise.
In normal, amply-lit settings, the S8's camera is better than the S7's and as good as its competitors. The inclusion of OIS (optical image stabilization) is a blessing when you're angling to capture macro-style shots of food, flowers, or anything up-close-and-personal. The amount of detail the S8 is able to squeeze out of every image is astonishing—rich, well-saturated colors are anchored by the S8's intelligent white balance software.
Rounding out the S8's superb camera is its razor-sharp 4K video capability (30FPS) and Samsung's robust, well-designed stock camera app. Shutterbugs will no doubt head to Google Play to download their camera app of choice, but casual users will be in great hands if they opt for the out-of-the-box experience.
A battery that won't let you down
The Galaxy S8 returned a Geekbench 3 battery test result of just under 9 hours of heavy, battery-punishing use. It's the second best result we've ever measured, trailing closely behind the iPhone 7 Plus. It's important to keep in mind that the test is designed to simulate heavy use, so S8 owners can expect far more than 9 hours of regular, day-to-day use.
In fact, I found the S8 to last just over a day and a half on a full charge, and I probably reach for my smartphone more than the average consumer. The S8 wrings a crazy amount of life out of its 3,000mAh battery, provided the AMOLED screen isn't cranked all the way up to full brightness.
What I don't like about the Galaxy S8
In its quest to whittle down imperfections and push the envelope where possible, Samsung isn't without a few missteps. The Galaxy S8's biggest blemishes are the result of bold decision-making with regards to its physical design and software integration, however, so at least these mistakes were borne out of innovation rather than lazy complacency.
The fingerprint sensor is horribly misplaced.
The second we started hearing rumors about the S8’s wall-to-wall display, the question on everyone’s mind was where the phone’s fingerprint sensor would end up given the lack of a physical home button.
When specs began to leak in the months leading up to Samsung’s S8 announcement, it became clear that the company would not be employing hardware similar to what we’ve heard about the next iPhone, which is rumored to feature a fingerprint sensor beneath the display itself. The next logical landing spot, then, is the back of the Galaxy S8, where no Galaxy has previously placed its fingerprint scanner.
Admittedly, I’ve never been much of a fan of this placement, partially because I find front-facing fingerprint sensors to be more convenient and partially because I’m used to them. But the S8’s fingerprint sensor goes beyond being a minor nuisance and flies straight into inconvenience territory.
The sensor’s physical dimensions are similar to the S8’s minuscule camera hump, and since the camera is smack-dab in the middle of the phone’s rear case, my fingers are perpetually drawn to the camera, not the sensor itself. The end result is a camera that’s relentlessly on the receiving end of unfortunate finger smudges.
The reason Pixel's fingerprint scanner works despite my preference for front-facing sensors has everything to do with its placement. If Samsung had relocated the S8's camera to the corner of the phone and placed the fingerprint scanner in the middle of the back casing (much like the Pixel), it wouldn't be such a headache to use.
Now, to be fair, the S8 does offer two rarely-seen alternatives to fingerprint security: iris scanning and facial recognition. The only problem is that these methods take a bit more effort and are far less casual to use than a good ol’ fashioned fingerprint scan.
Bixby (Samsung’s personal assistant) arrives undercooked.
Between Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa, you may be feeling a little overwhelmed by all of the digital assistants vying for that special place in your heart. And although it was only a matter of time before Samsung launched a digital helper of its own, it brings me no pleasure to report that Samsung's smartphone assistant Bixby is... well, a little dumb.
Bixby stumbles out of the gate with no voice recognition functionality—something I've admittedly never enjoyed using but still begrudgingly understand from a convenience standpoint. Samsung tried to sidestep this issue (or at least approach the concept differently) by slapping a dedicated Bixby button on the side of the S8, but this means I'll probably never stop accidentally pressing the damn thing when I'm trying to fish the S8 out of my pocket.
But even if you acclimate yourself to the Bixby button, there's not much Bixby can actually help you with. The button launches a customizable feed of calendar appointments, news headlines, weather forecasts, etc., but that's about it. As of now, Bixby is just another home screen news feed affixed to a button that you probably didn't mean to press.
Bixby is also baked into Samsung's camera app. In theory, Bixby can help you identify objects and text simply by pointing the S8's camera at something. Once the subject is identified, users can either search for the subject on the web or choose "Shopping" to see information about where to purchase such a thing.
When you point Bixby at, say, a bottle of Sierra Nevada Torpedo, you can search the web for information pertaining to beer, or opt for the "Shopping" feature to determine where to buy Torpedo specifically. Shopping via Bixby is by far the most interesting aspect of Samsung's digital assistant, but it's not good enough at it to warrant the labored ceremony of actually using it.
You'd be forgiven if you don't remember the Amazon Fire Phone, but it was built around similar technology back when it launched in 2014. And if you're wondering what happened to the Amazon Fire Phone, just consider the fact that you forgot it existed until I brought it up in this paragraph.
Should you buy it?
Yes, if you’re in need of an upgrade and you want the best Android money can buy.
From a performance standpoint, the Galaxy S8 is undoubtedly the best Android smartphone in the game, but that doesn't necessarily mean you should plunk down nearly $800 for one right now. If you own a Galaxy S7, for example, the S8's minor shortcomings (especially the misplaced fingerprint scanner) might make it easier to resist upgrading prematurely. After all, the S7 is still one of the best smartphones you can buy, and if history is any indication, Samsung will iron out the S8's wrinkles in a year's time.
But if you're hurtin' for an upgrade and Android is your weapon of choice, there's no better option available. Pound-for-pound, the Galaxy S8 is the best all-around performer on the market. Any advantages Google Pixel has over the S8 will come down to personal preference—you might like Google's software integration better than Samsung's, but that's simply a matter of taste. When it comes to our lab results, the Galaxy S8 has the edge.
The same can be said for the iPhone 7 Plus—you might prefer iOS to Android (or maybe Apple's dual-camera set-up is a better fit for you), but if this is an actual foot race, the S8 has the inside track.
After Samsung's disastrous 2016, it would have been somewhat understandable if the company threw out everything and went back to the drawing board. Instead, the S8 is exactly what the S7 was and the S6 before that: a careful edit of Samsung's greatest hits, with just the right amount of innovation to up the ante. It's the best smartphone money can buy—at least until the next big thing takes its spot.
Credit: Mike Roorda and Jeremy Stamas
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