In the kingdom of smartphones, the iPhone 7, the Google Pixel, and Samsung's Galaxy S7 have sat on the throne for the past year. These souped-up flagships won't come cheap, but they perform at the highest level and look good doing it.
Yesterday, Samsung finally unveiled its next flagship: the Galaxy S8. It's the first big, top-of-the-food-chain smartphone of 2017, and soon it'll tag itself into the ring, relieve the S7 of its duties, and go toe-to-toe against the iPhone 7 and the Pixel (at least until the latter are upgraded later this year).
Of all the popular criteria used to judge these premium phones, no blue ribbon is more valued than the one that says "best camera." While hardware benchmarks (like processing power and battery life) can be hard to contextualize, pictures are tangible and immediate. It's who we are on social media: the places we went, the food we ate, and the sights we saw.
This is why Samsung, Apple, and Google invest so much capital in their phones' cameras. It's the reason you see "Shot on iPhone" ads on bus stops and billboards. Everyone understands the difference between good- and bad-looking pictures; not everyone understands the difference between an LCD and an AMOLED screen.
I don't need to tell you how much is on the line with the Samsung Galaxy S8. By now, you've heard about Samsung's Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Year: the exploding phones, the exploding washer machines, the unfortunate headlines. In order to earn back consumers' trust, Samsung needs to stick the landing with the Galaxy S8.
"Doesn't explode" is obviously a box Samsung would like to check off, but if it wants to reclaim the first-place podium, there's no better strategy than making sure the S8's camera stands above the rest. Interestingly, the S8's primary camera—a 12MP, f/1.7 sensor with OIS— is the same one you'll find in its predecessor, the Galaxy S7. Any improvements in this year's camera performance, therefore, will be on account of updates to software, which could be Android-based or finer adjustments made by Samsung itself.
The smartphone camera game is a game of inches. The Pixel launched several months after the S7, so Samsung is a couple steps behind Google, at least when it comes to improvements that've been made in the realm of Android. The only software improvements that really matter, then, belong to Samsung. Matching the Pixel's pace won't likely pose a problem, but passing the Pixel will take some deft maneuvering.
And although the current generation of iPhones are at least as good as the Pixel, it's the dual-camera experience on the iPhone 7 Plus that gives it a slight edge.
I'm going to let you in on a little secret: the Galaxy S8 is probably going to be a sensational smartphone. Samsung found a winning formula, and since then, the Galaxy trajectory has been about slow-but-steady progress. In other words, the company's been content ironing out minor wrinkles rather than making bold, risky moves. The Galaxy S6 was great, the S7 was even better, and up until it spontaneously combusted, the Note 7 made similar, incremental improvements on the Note 5.
We know the S8 will be fast. We know it'll be packed with features. And, since it has the same camera as the S7, it's a pretty safe bet that the pictures it takes will at least be as good as those shot on its predecessor. It's up to Samsung to provide a faster, smoother camera experience if it wants to gain a few steps on the competition.