The first thing I noticed about the Samsung Galaxy S8, only a moment after turning it on, was the screen. There’s so much of it. An enormous 5.8 inches of bright, crisp, super-saturated colors illuminated my face as the phone booted. I stared at the round corners and curved edges of the glass. Holding it in my left hand, it looked and felt like holding a screen and nothing more. So many phones feel like every other phone, but not this one. The Samsung Galaxy S8 feels like a prop from Ridley Scott movie. It feels like the future.
The S8 offers a lot to talk about. It features Bixby, Samsung’s attempt to hang with Alexa and Siri and Google Assistant as the software platform you thread through your entire life. It includes iris scanning and face recognition, so you can unlock your phone like an MI6 agent. And it lets you dock your phone and turn it into a PC. The S8 sports a big battery everyone hopes won’t explode, an improved camera, and new chips. It arrives in a hilariously humongous box with a Gear VR headset and Samsung’s Level-branded wireless headphones. You can’t help but find it all so very impressive.
And somehow that all pales next to that screen. The tall, narrow pane of glass dictated everything about the S8—for better and for worse. That screen is what will grab you from across the Verizon store, and make people stop you to ask which phone you’re using. I’ve used the S8 for exactly one day, so watch this space over the next week or so for more insights. But I can tell you this right now: Bezels are dead. And I couldn’t be happier about it.
Big, Bigger, Smaller
I normally cringe at a phone with a 5.8-inch screen. Unless you play in the NBA, you cannot comfortably use a phone that big. But the S8 features a bezel so slim the comparisons fall apart. With no wasted space for your hand to span, you can reach everything. The S8 is slightly wider (and much taller) than my iPhone 7, yet entirely usable in one hand.
The fingerprint reader works fine, but don’t bother. The new Face Unlock feature works brilliantly.
The screen’s curved sides remain little more than a pretty gimmick. Samsung built a small app launcher you access by swiping in from the side, but I still haven’t figured out why. Still, I suspect the S8 and phones like it will change app design. App navigation belongs at the bottom of the screen now, because no one can reach hamburger buttons in the top left corner. And a screen this tall lets you show so. Much. More. Tall phones represent the future, and developers will surely catch up.
The S8 banishes buttons from the front of the phone. Instead, it uses on-screen software controls, like virtually every other Android phone. That’s fine. What’s not fine is Samsung’s crazy and apparently last-minute choice to put the fingerprint reader way up high on the back, make it tiny, and stick it right next to the camera lens. Even Samsung seems to realize this was stupid: When you first scan your fingerprint during the setup, the S8 warns you about smudging the camera lens. But of course you will. You can’t help it.
The new Face Unlock feature, on the other hand, works seamlessly. Maybe to a fault. It takes 30 seconds to set up, then works almost instantly almost every time. Using it is like not having a passcode at all—which is more or less the case, since I’ve found I can also unlock the phone with a photo of myself. The iris scanner is easily the most secure method, but it only works if you align your phone just so and stare at your phone without blinking for surprisingly long periods of time. Bad placement and all, you might be stuck with the fingerprint reader.
The handset is a work of waterproof art. I found the slim, sturdy metal rectangle stunning. No, really. It’s gorgeous. Nothing about it (other than the fingerprint reader) feels phoned-in or settled for. The S8 is one of the most carefully crafted and considered phones I’ve ever seen, the pinnacle of the company’s capital-d design. And yet you probably shouldn’t touch it. If you do, prepare to spend the rest of your days obsessively polishing it with a microfiber cloth to remove your fingerprints, because this thing will be filthy with them. You’ll probably end up buying a case, which is a shame.
After just one day, I can’t tell you much about the S8’s battery life, except that it seems about normal, or its performance, except that I found it just as fast as every other fast phone. I also can’t say much about the camera, except that I spent a rainy hour walking around San Francisco and mostly came up impressed by the 12-megapixel results. It’s ridiculously fast, and mostly really simple to use. It may not have a dual-lens rig, which is a shame, but Samsung still managed to add in some nifty augmented-reality stickers and lenses. So far, it strikes me overall as no better or worse than the camera in the S7, which is fine—that was an excellent camera.
The S8’s splashiest new feature, the Bixby assistant, isn’t shipping on early S8 models. In fact, I’ll hold off writing a full review of this phone—complete with a rating—until Bixby arrives in earnest to help you send photos, play music, and generally figure out your S8. But a couple of features already work. Swipe right on the home screen and Bixby brings up a stream of things you might want to see: upcoming reminders, the weather, your activity, personalized news, and more. I found it handy, even if I don’t see what makes it better than Google Now.
Samsung has a long history of stomping all over Google’s work and design on Android. That’s as true as ever here.
The coolest thing about Bixby so far is its camera-first search engine. Using Pinterest-powered software, it lets you take a photo of something and either shop for it or find similar images online. It identified my headphones and found my Field Notes notebook, but mistook my water bottle for wine. Not a wine bottle, just wine. Still, it used a photo of my sleeping dog to show me many more pictures of sleeping dogs. A net positive for sure.
Samsung has a long history of stomping all over Google’s work and design on Android. That’s as true as ever here, as it deprecates the Google Assistant in favor of Bixby—you can still use Assistant by long-pressing the home button, but only Bixby gets to use the button on the side. Elsewhere, this is probably the nicest version of TouchWiz ever, but that’s not saying much. The S8 features a super-helpful lockscreen, with categorized notifications and a handy always-on clock, which I like. I found the settings menu massively confusing and will never understand why Samsung used an icon representing Saturn on an app called Internet. Those things I hate. Samsung’s same-size icons: good! Its blinding white notification shade: bad!
Like too many other Android manufacturers, Samsung installs too much of its own junk and gives carriers too much leeway. My T-Mobile S8 ($750 at T-Mobile) includes more than a dozen apps I don’t want, plus an infuriating and impossible to remove notification constantly reminding me about Wi-Fi calling. One of the things I love most about the Google Pixel is the cleanliness of the experience. Samsung’s still way behind.
Again, I’m only a day in. More to come soon, and I’m also eager to see if Samsung’s new focus on safety really holds up. But so far, the S8 is … about what I expected: a gorgeous phone with a fast processor, a solid camera, and some weird (and useless) features. That makes the S8 something of a throwback. In an era when software is everything, where everyone wants to ensconce all their devices a perfect ecosystem, Samsung made the S8 all about the hardware. The look. The feel. And that screen. Man, that screen.
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