Smartphone reviewers throw around the term "flagship" pretty loosely, to the point where it's come to mean "a high-spec phone from a major or mid-level manufacturer." But when you get your hands on a phone with the technical excellence and attention to detail of the Samsung Galaxy S8 series, you're reminded that there's more to a great phone than a bunch of chips.
Like Apple and Google, Samsung has something more in mind than just selling phones. The Galaxy S8 and S8+ are devices that bring you into a useful ecosystem in exactly the same way that Apple does with the iPhone and Google does with Android.
The front door to that ecosystem is the assistive software that Samsung calls Bixby. Intended as a direct competitor to Google Assistant, Bixby is an ambitious feature that's in its very early days. But wait, there's more: For enterprise customers, Samsung has given us DeX, a device that lets you attach a keyboard, mouse and monitor to the phone and use it as a desktop machine.
Admittedly, it's been an epically lousy year for Samsung. The Galaxy Note 7 phone showed a propensity for bursting into flames, and was recalled and banned by airlines. A line of high-end washing machines was recalled because the lids sometimes flew off during the spin cycle. Lee Jae-yong, head of Samsung's parent company, Samsung Group, and a pillar of industry in the company's home country of South Korea, was arrested and accused of bribery in a wide-ranging political scandal. That the company is able to maintain focus and produce anything of value is a remarkable achievement.
The Galaxy S8 phones are, by any measure, excellent. I was provided with the jumbo-sized S8+ in black, operating on the T-Mobile network. The 8+ is 2.9 x 6.3 in., but crams a 6.2-in. diagonal quad-density (2680 x 1440) Super AMOLED screen into that space. The S8 is slightly smaller: 2.7 x 5.9 in. with a 5.8-in. quad-density Super AMOLED screen. (That and a slightly less powerful battery in the S8 are the only differences between the two.)
By way of comparison, the S8+ is the same width and about a quarter-inch taller than the withdrawn Note 7 and the Galaxy S7 Edge. The Note 7 had a 5.7-in. screen and S7 Edge has a 5.5-in. screen; the S8+'s display is 6.2 in. Somehow, all that extra real estate does not translate into an unwieldy feel. Yes, the phone is big, but it avoids feeling out of scale or too large for your hand -- and I'm not generally a fan of plus-sized phones.
The phones are fully wrapped in Corning Gorilla Glass 5. In both, the screen curves along the long edges, giving the illusion of no bezel; in truth, the bezel that's there is minimal. The S8+'s chin and forehead each measure 0.25 in. The impression is that of a full-screen bezel-less glass device, a window rather than a phone, the edges of which are curved in a way that make it easy to hold.
Hardware specs are as premium as you'd expect.
The exact components you'll get depend on where you live. In the U.S., the S8s use the newest Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 8-core chipset; everywhere else, Samsung uses its own Exynos chips. Certainly, with the U.S. chips, graphics rendering and application speed were excellent.
If you're interested in test figures, AnTuTu benchmarks came in at 163307, topping all Android phones, although barely besting the OnePlus 3T's 162297. (The iPhone 7 Plus' 184546 still rules the roost.)
The 3500mAh battery needed 7 hours, 30 minutes to run down with the screen set to full brightness and all power saving off, and the phone took just 3 hours 10 minutes to charge (wirelessly) from zero to 100%. (The smaller-screened S8 comes with a 3000mAh battery.) Certainly, the S8+ will get you through your day -- several of them, if you're a light user. Oh -- and charging/discharging battery temperatures never got higher than 103 degrees F.
On the bottom of the phone is a headphone jack, USB-C port and single speaker; along the right edge is a power/wake button; at the top is the SIM/microSD drawer, and along the right is a volume rocker and a button that activates the Bixby assistant. The back is flat and carries the phone's only branding, which is an extraordinarily subtle gray logo on black.
There's a thin, barely visible ridge around the camera, near the top edge on the back, next to the phone's fingerprint sensor, which has a similar ridge surrounding it. I generally approve of fingerprint sensors on the backs of phones, but the relatively small size and placement of this one -- right next to the camera lens -- seems to be begging for smudged photos.
The other tech aboard the S8 phones is everything you might expect and maybe a little more. Android 7, of course. There's an NFC chip that runs Samsung Pay. Wi-Fi at 802.11ac, Bluetooth 5.0 (the first device I've seen with that), and GPS radios for A-GPS, the Russian GLONASS, the European Galileo and the Chinese BDS (which I also don't think I've noticed on any other phone). No FM radio, but there are heart-rate and pulse oximetry sensors, and ANT+ for communicating with fitness devices. And, for the clumsy among us, the Galaxy S8s continue to have an IP68 rating, which means your phone can survive five feet of water for half an hour, which is lots more than you can do.
The spirit of near-excess carries over to the software side of the S8s, too. It's not uncommon for phones to have a PIN lock, a pattern lock, and a fingerprint lock. The S8s add iris scans and face recognition to the biometrics package.
Iris scans don't work particularly well if you wear glasses (as I do). On the other hand, the face recognition is several notches better than Android standard. It takes a little practice to use, is a bit fussy about light, and works about 75% of the time. But it wasn't fooled by photos or family members. And if it won't unlock your phone, you can always fall back on fingerprints or PIN. One thing: You have to choose either iris scan or face recognition; you can't fall back from one option to the other.
The user interface, based on Samsung's TouchWiz Android skin, is so flexible that I was left wondering sometimes if the company wasn't just showing off. The company redesigned the basic icons, which wasn't really necessary, but I suppose the new versions are all right. There's no explicit icon for bringing up the app tray -- you can just swipe up from any home screen to see your installed apps -- unless you want one, in which case there's a setting for that. Edge apps -- shortcuts that are activated by swiping from a screen edge -- first appeared on the S7 Edge and return on both S8 models, but it's a feature that still seems less useful than it ought to be.
There's a nine-band parametric equalizer and high-res DAC for when you use the included AKG earbuds (remember that Samsung bought Harman last November). You can also decide to play sound from, say, YouTube on your phone speaker while directing Spotify to output on a Bluetooth device. If the phone feels too big for your hand, you can enable thumb gestures that temporarily shrink the contents of the screen so you can reach everything easily.
The Settings menus are extensive but clear. If you can't find some elusive setting, though, search is easily accessible, and the UI team did a good job at including links within the Settings menus that guide you where you might want to go.
T-Mobile's app stack is typically lightweight, nonintrusive and useful. There are apps for TV streaming, voicemail, call blocking and account management.
For enterprises, maybe the biggest triumph of the Galaxy S8 is something called DeX, which lets you plug your phone into a dock and use it like a desktop device. It's not the first phone to do this -- HP's Elite x3 Windows phone got there last year, although it's not a mainstream device and didn't seem to get much traction.
The thing about DeX is that it Just Works.
The DeX device itself costs $150. It's a puck about 4 in. in diameter and 2 in. high. (It looks like a wireless charger, but isn't.) Around the back are two USB-A ports, an Ethernet port, an HDMI port and a USB-C port. The top of the puck slides up to reveal a male USB-C plug where you dock the phone. Plug in an HDMI monitor, a USB or Bluetooth keyboard, power through the USB-C port on the back, pair a Bluetooth mouse to the phone (although I imagine a USB mouse would work), pop the phone onto USB-C plug, and presto! You've got a desktop computer.
When you look at the monitor, along the left edge of the screen you'll see icons for a file manager, Samsung's browser, Samsung's email app, a photo gallery and the phone's settings. On the bottom left are familiar Android icons for Back, Home and Recent. Next to that are icons for all open apps, and to the right along the bottom are icons that you normally see on an Android phone's eyebrow line: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, battery charge and the like.Â
What may be most remarkable about DeX is how unremarkable it seems. I ran it on an Asus 1920 x 1080 monitor -- which has significantly lower resolution than the phone's native screen -- and there was no noticeable lag or obvious video flaws. I didn't run a full-resolution movie or live sports, because that's not the main application here, although full-screen news simulcasts were crisp. You will want a Bluetooth speaker or headphones, because audio is otherwise routed through the phone's indifferent speaker, which is largely blocked by the DeX unit itself.
I fired up a browser, and found that Google Docs and Microsoft Office Live worked perfectly well. So did the associated Android apps.
I'm too much of a traditionalist to abandon my laptop to carry a DeX and trust that I'd be able to find a keyboard, monitor and power source when I need one. But an S8/DeX combination makes for a totally credible light network client, and appears to be something that enterprises can think about planning around.
With the Galaxy S8 line, Samsung is rolling out a personal assistant called Bixby. The promise of Bixby is that it will replace Google Assistant as both an information source and a voice interface. Shortly before the phones shipped, however, Samsung announced that the voice interface part of Bixby was being held back for a while because it just wasn't fully cooked.
What did ship with the S8+ was the image recognition and information feeds that are part of Bixby, and they're not quite fully cooked, either. The image recognition feature is very ambitious: Bixby promises to recognize objects you view with the camera and propose places you could buy them. Another Bixby tool promises to translate words that it sees with the camera.
In my tests, none of this worked well at all. Bixby was unable to recognize anything, much less shop for it, and although it recognized text, it didn't do so well enough to make translations enlightening.
Tapping the Bixby button twice on the phone's left edge or swiping right from the home screen showed a list of Bixby cards that will look extremely familiar to users of Google Now. This worked fairly well, although Bixby doesn't yet know me, my interests, and my habits nearly as well as Google does. How could it?
In any movie about sentient computers, the first reel is about how the AI doesn't know anything, the second reel is about how the AI becomes alive and useful, and the third reel is about how it takes over humanity. Bixby is at the beginning of the first reel, and whether Google has yet reached the second reel is a matter for debate. But the point is, it's very early days for Bixby. It doesn't work very well at all, but it would be a mistake to think that Samsung is going to give up on it.
One downside of Bixby: It requires a Samsung Cloud login. It's free, but it's just one more cloud service to be worried about.
What's strategically interesting about Bixby is that it's Samsung's loudest signal yet that it's uncomfortable under Google's Android umbrella. The S8 comes with Samsung native apps -- a browser, an email app, a messaging app -- front and center. The standard Google app stack here is noticeably light: Android Pay, Gmail, Drive, Play, Play Store, YouTube, Duo and Photos. Chrome and Google Calendar are not preloaded. You can get to Google Assistant's voice interface by holding down the Home button, but swiping right will only get you Bixby's cards. And although I didn't hack around with it, there are reports that Samsung has made it impossible for programmers to reassign the Bixby key to something more useful -- like Google Assistant. It feels as though Samsung considers Android to be something of a necessary evil.
The cameras on the S8+ are as feature-ridden as the rest of the phone. The main camera is a 12MP f/1.7 device that can shoot both JPEG and RAW files in Pro mode. Video resolution goes up to 4K. The selfie camera is an 8MP device that can shoot quad HD resolution and be triggered by touch, by voice or by showing your palm.
One very nice camera control allows zooming by dragging the shutter button left or right. It's much more convenient than pinching and spreading your fingers.
Camera modes include a very detailed Pro mode, panorama, slow motion, hyperlapse, a food mode and a 3D "bullet" mode. You can enhance skin tone, put color filters on pictures, and attach Snapchat-style masks and annotations if you swing that way.
Not everyone wants to spend $750 for a phone, and not everyone should. The Galaxy S8 and S8+ are beautiful pieces of well-conceived and magnificently executed technology. You can spend half the money (or less) and have a perfectly good phone that will serve you well.
But if you're in the market for an elegant top-of-the-line Android phone that can do anything you'd expect plus a few other things besides, the current state of the art is the Galaxy S8 line. And if you're equipping a mobile enterprise, the S8/DeX combination might make for a compelling choice.