Screen stealer: Why iPhone owners will envy the Galaxy S8
USA Today's Ed Baig tries out Samsung's new smartphone before it hits store shelves. USA TODAY
NEW YORK—Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and its larger sibling the S8+ are strong new smartphones I can highly recommend.
The devices, which hit stores Friday (for around $720 on up), aren't perfect. Cool-sounding features like iris and facial recognition were extremely spotty for me. Water and dust resistance are great, but other phones now share these traits. And the vocal component of its new Bixby artificial intelligence assistant, a rival to Apple's Siri, is delayed.
Instead, what sold me after using the S8+ for several days was an engineering feat that's resulted in a very simple but powerful solution for users: a wide display that stretches from one curved edge of the relatively narrow body to the other. This "bezel-lite" display gives users a lot of app real estate without the bulk, and ends up meaning more to our enjoyment of a phone than we probably realize.
In this latest version of its popular Galaxy flagship phone, the first major release since Samsung launched its ultimately disastrous, recalled Galaxy Note 7, Samsung’s designers produced a phablet-sized 5.8-inch display on the S8 on that’s thinner, narrower, about the same weight and just a tad taller than the S7 that it replaces. In other words, the S8 feels like your typical-sized handset, while the S7, despite similar dimensions, had a considerably smaller 5.1-inch display with a half-million fewer pixels.
The S8+ has a 6.2-inch screen, compared to the 5.5-inch display on the S7 Edge. It’s roughly as tall as the iPhone 7 Plus.
Thought of another way: the two latest phones have a screen to body ratio—that is the percentage of the front of the phone that’s taken up by the screen—that exceeds 83%. The viewing area of the S8 (compared to the S7) expands by 36%, opening up a more immersive experience, depending on what you're doing.
First LG, then Samsung, next Apple?
There are some trade-offs. Besides dramatically reducing the top and bottom bezels of the phones, Samsung also ditched the physical home button in favor of pressure-sensitive home buttons beneath the screen. That works fine.
But the fingerprint sensor—yep, still another way to unlock the device—was moved to the back, and while I wouldn't normally object, its off-center placement next to the camera on the rear feels like a design boo-boo. My finger frequently landed on the camera instead of the fingerprint sensor. (As with other Android phones, you can also unlock the device by drawing a designated pattern on the screen or by entering a conventional PIN or passcode.)
Both new phones have snappy Octa core processing, and eye-pleasing Quad HD (2960x1440) screen resolutions. Both also let you surface secondary content on the curved edge of the display (close contacts, stocks, icons for frequently used apps, etc.) The S7 Edge offered this feature; the S7 did not.
It’s worth noting that Samsung’s South Korean rival LG, has embarked on a similar screen path on its own very fine new flagship, the G6. My assumption is that Apple will also follow a near all-screen strategy when it gets around to releasing the tenth anniversary iPhone, likely in September. We seem to be onto a trend here.
Another tradeoff to the unconventional screen size is that some widescreen video may be “pillarboxed,” or bordered by bars on the sides. Meanwhile, some widescreen video I shot on the S8+ looked squished when viewed vertically.
Facial unlock? Not quite
The S8's promised facial recognItion, or the ability to wake up the device by staring into the screen, didn't quite pan out as advertised. You first must "register" your face using the front facing camera on the phone by holding the handset between 8 and 20 inches from your face and positioning it in a circle that appears on the screen. But even though I was successfully able to register my mug, my face under less than ideal lighting conditions wasn't recognized, and even sometimes when the light seemed right.
One reviewer, in fact claimed after the testing the device at Samsung's recent New York launch to be able to unlock the device with a photo. I couldn't duplicate that purported feat.
I had far better results with an iris unlock feature that uses an infrared scanner and works better, Samsung says, away from bright direct sun. Iris scanning was a feature on the Note 7, and it is in fact more secure than facial recognition.
You obviously cannot exploit the iris and facial unlock features at the same time.
I was generally pleased with the quality of pictures and videos that I captured, and found I could comfortably shoot with one hand, at least when shooting horizontally. The quality of selfies (on the 8-megapixel front camera) were also impressive. On the rear: dual pixel 12-megapixels sensor.
The phones come with 64GB; you can bolster storage through optional microSD cards. There’s USB-C and also still a standard headphone jack—looking at you Apple—and support for Samsung’s Gear VR, a product category Apple has yet to embrace.
Alas, the glass enclosure on Samsung’s new phones are magnets for smudges.
Bixby is here, but lacks a voice
There’s already confusion surrounding what Bixby can and can’t do. It relies on artificial intelligence to serve as the phone’s digital assistant. But the voice agent feature that promises an experience akin to Siri et al doesn’t arrive until later this spring, thus Bixby Voice was not made available for this review. Of course, as an Android phone, you can summon the Google Assistant.
I could test other Bixby traits. An application called Bixby Home feels a lot like Google Now, with customizable cards for your weather, calendar, fitness activity, stuff trending on Facebook, and more. You can summon Bixby Home by swiping right from the left edge of the screen or by double-pressing a dedicated Bixby button on the side of the phone. There’s also a contextually aware Bixby Reminder feature.
One of the more interesting features, Bixby Vision, leverages the phone’s camera, pix you already shot, or the Internet to translate text, identify objects or bottles of wine, recognize QR codes, points of interest and more, similar to Google Googles or the Firefly feature in the failed Amazon Fire phone.
For example, when I took a picture of a Tabasco jar in a restaurant, Bixby listed places to buy the sauce online. At the Old North Church in Boston, Bixby surfaced a listing for the Paul Revere Mall and other nearby spots.
On a bottle of Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2013, Bixby suggested food pairings and offered some winemaker notes.
But my Bixby Vision experience with products and places was just as often a miss as a hit. To be fair, Samsung was still updating Bixby during my review period.
The S8 and S8+ are capable of fast wireless charging on an optional wireless pad, as on other Galaxy phones. The battery on the S8+ lasted all day into evening. And I never detected even the slightest bit of overheating while charging or using the device — a relief after the Galaxy Note 7 explosions.
But in the end I'm bullish on bezels. Reducing their size, that is.
The bottom line
Samsung Galaxy S8, S8+
$720 on up; www.samsung.com/galaxy
Pro. Large brilliant displays crammed into smaller form factor; excellent design; multiple ways to unlock device, water resistant, excellent cameras, wireless charging
Con. Bixby a work in progress. Unconventional screen size may result in squished video. Smudge-prone