Just when I thought I was done with big phones, Samsung drags me back in. There’s an obvious commentary happening here. The return story. The rebuilding. Samsung’s comeback. This company weathered a brutal public disaster last year. An opportunity for other manufacturers to steal some limelight, but unsurprisingly, most affected consumers opted to stay in the Galaxy ecosystem. Minus a feature like the S-Pen, the Galaxy S8+ seeks to further reward the Samsung faithful. We get a new big-screen phone that heavily features a radical new form factor. That big screen comes with big specs, and a big price tag is along for the ride.
It’s a bit obvious to declare that this will be one of the top sellers of 2017, but has Samsung successfully made the argument for why consumers should spend this much money on mobile device?
From our first time holding it, to my first day playing with it, to now, this design continues to impress. For color options, black is striking, but personally, the gray is my favorite for an attractive and professional looking gadget. Shame we don’t get a blue option for this phone.
This hardware aesthetic remains visually appealing weeks after launch. Symmetrical curved sides playfully confuse your fingertips into thinking this phone is thinner than it really is. It’s actually thicker than the LG G6 by .2mm, but it FEELS thinner thanks to the contouring. That’s a neat trick.
It fits in the hand terrifically well, and this is the easiest time my stumpy thumb has had with lateral swipes on a phablet. However, I find I need to slide the phone around quite a bit for basic navigation. You slide the phone up to unlock, then down for navigation controls, then up for notification shade. This thing always feels like it’s balanced on the least amount of fingertip surface I can comfortably utilize.
It’s a stunning look which should be admired under museum lighting, but we still can’t shake some of the traditional concerns we’ve had using glass back devices and edge curved displays. It’s an age-old debate in our comments, case or no case. The S8+ doesn’t help move the needle at all on those opposing viewpoints. For my personal use, this design mandates using a case or skin. I’m the guy rolling around in the dirt, and holding the phone over highway overpasses, to produce camera reviews. The S8+ is too slippery for me to use naked (the phone naked, not me naked).
Using the camera is a perfect example of this ergonomic consideration. You hold the phone on impressively thin edges, while also accurately interacting with on-screen controls. The user is focusing more on taking the photo than on holding the phone. It’s a great recipe for a quick move, or a careless gesture, to send the phone flying. Samsung’s design is incredible, but additional money will be spent to recover the thicker sides and edges found on competing devices.
Bumps and drops are all normal aspects of lifestyle abuse, what our phones need to survive over the life of a multi-year commitment. Gorilla Glass 5 has proven to be a durable performer, but the Galaxy’s curves provide more surface area to wreck your day with a fairly common lifestyle issue like dropping your phone. Another timeless gadget debate, how much attention does our phone demand and how well should it blend into the background of our day. In early use, the S8+ demands more of your attention in holding the phone than the flat edged Galaxies of Samsung’s past.
Jaime has successfully “tested” this durability several times on the smaller S8, but we’ve also reported the concerns from third party labs that rate this phone as more of a risk. We’re also not terribly impressed with the solutions other companies have delivered for screen protectors. This isn’t a deal breaker for prospective S8+ owners, but it’s an idea which should be discussed when summing up this investment.
The inclusion of IP68 water resistance is always appreciated though. Samsung was ahead of the curve for protecting phones against moisture damage, and continue to celebrate that focus. It’s disappointing that this kind of guard is not more common on competitor’s handsets. I still find it kind of amazing to see open ports on a phone which handily survives being completely submerged.
We’ve well documented the technology packed into this phablet. It’s about as cutting edge a collection of specs as we should expect for 2017. Only the RAM junkies in our audience stand to be disappointed. North American owners will see the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, while the rest of the world will receive Samsung’s Exynos 8895 chipset. We were hoping to see more parity this year, but from early benchmarking, the Exynos continues to deliver a consistent bump in performance over the Snapdragon. Even for this disparity, the 835 at least catches Qualcomm up to the horsepower we’ve been enjoying for a while now on the Huawei Mate 9 and P10.
The improvements to storage capacity will be appreciated by all. Other phones have pushed into 64GB territory, but now that Samsung has arrived, it sets a clear bar for other manufactures to reach on premium phones. The S8 had its own minor scandal in terms of disclosing what kind of storage was used. This phone might ship with UFS2.0 or UFS2.1 storage chips. Between the two phones in my possession, my S8+ is using the faster UFS2.1 storage, while my smaller S8 has the slower UFS2.0 chips.
The difference in read speeds can be around 40%, no small discrepancy, but even at the slow end, this isn’t a disastrous situation for “losing” the hardware lottery. It’s not as significant a difference as the selection of components one might get in RAM and storage on a Huawei P10 for example.
A small hardware gripe, the Galaxy’s home button has a vibration sensor to mimic the tactile response of hardware, but it doesn’t pulse consistently. Sometimes I press hard expecting the haptic feedback. When the pulse doesn’t happen, my thumb lingers, which then launches my Google Assistant instead. More often than not, I’ll swipe around the screen to get the navigation bar to pop back up, then tap on a home button. The idea is appreciated, trying to maintain the feel of hardware, but the execution is inconsistent. It doesn’t seem to bring much benefit over pure software controls. Lightly touching the home button delivers exactly the same functionality as “force pressing” the home button area. It’s one area I wish Samsung had been a bit more “inspired” by the tactile response on the iPhone 7.
Losing the front hardware button means the front fingerprint sensor is also gone. That biometric security feature clumsily moved to the rear of the phone. Using the phone for a week now, I still smudge my camera on the regular. My early teething pains in unlocking have mostly been ironed out, though the phone still prefers my right index finger to my left. We receive many comments from folks who think that this move is no big deal.
To a degree, we agree. It’s a situation that will improve as your muscle memory is retrained. We still feel its relevant to point out that this is awkward design for such an expensive phone. Playing with center positioned sensors on entry level phones, it’s tough to not be irked by this tiny blemish on the S8+. It stands in contrast to how this manufacturer is praising a symmetrical design. Like a tiny little rock in your shoe on a long hike, it’s yet another vote in favor of using a case, to quickly retrain your finger where to reach.
I still find it hilarious that Samsung has a camera pop up, warning you not to smudge your lens, not that they couldn’t have helped us out there with a better hardware position.
I do need to deliver a small retraction from my first impression video, that I was disappointed in not having a notification shade gesture on this sensor. Of course this gesture is included. I just couldn’t find it in my first 12 hours of use and setup. It’s still not as full featured as what’s included on a phone like the Mate 9, but I’m happy to have this ergonomic consideration on a bigger phone.
The counter argument to the fingerprint sensor is to train the iris scanner, so you don’t have to smudge your camera. The performance is incredibly fast to unlock in all but backlit conditions, but it’s a much more deliberate an action. I’d prefer the phone be unlocked before I hold it up to my face. A fingerprint sensor is a purely tactile gesture, implemented as the phone is being pulled from a pocket or purse. Pairing over Bluetooth with Trusted Devices like my car or a smartwatch has pretty much eliminated when I might use that iris scanner.
That brings us to this new AMOLED. A 6.2” WQHD+ screen with an 18.5:9 aspect ratio. It’s huge, just slightly besting the 5.9” Mate 9 for overall area. It makes a mockery of the forehead and chin bezels on an iPhone 7 Plus. If you’ve got HDR content to stream, do it. This screen will handle HDR beautifully. This is a very good display, with excellent contrast, and best in class outdoor brightness.
A small concern, on the Galaxy S7, switching the display to basic mode used to deliver one of the most color accurate screens on any phone we’ve tested. The S8’s color processing is downright ruddy by comparison, and users should probably stay in some kind of adaptive mode. Samsung is pushing out software updates to help address this issue, but our review S8+ has yet to receive that tune up.
Oddly, the phone pops out of the box using a lower than native resolution. Ostensibly this has been done for better performance and power management, which we’ll cover later in this review. There’s nothing wrong with this in theory, but I would have preferred some kind of disclosure, or option to change this, during the initial set up. Many phones now include screen resolution options in power saver modes, but those are up to the user to activate when needed. Those modes are not activated by default out of the box. Why pay for all these pixels if we’re not really going to use them?
The spirit of Touchwiz lives on. Nearly every aspect of this phone has been touched, skinned, or tweaked. Some of these changes are comically unnecessary. Like sliding up to get the app drawer, then laterally to get app pages. Is it a big deal? Nope. You’ll get used to it, but WHY change directions for navigating a core UI element?
The brightness controls in your notification shade are another example. Toggling auto brightness requires an extra menu tap, which slides two toggles for you to adjust, instead of the usual option next to the slider. Changes like these don’t add anything to the experience, instead often adding a step. It’s different just for the sake of being different.
Menus, settings, UI elements. They all have that special Samsung twist to them. Though switching to a dark theme, I still couldn’t find a way to change the notification shade. The screen gets plenty dim for night use, but I’m still not a fan of that bright white notification slide.
For all this customizing, Samsung still hasn’t quite answered the question of WHY we need this taller screen. More area is great, but what do we really get for it? Games and videos will likely be cut off at the corners, the camera app is a sea of wasted space, and we’re reaching farther for corner mounted ui elements.
There are improvements. You will see more content in your browser, and in vertically scrolling apps (if you manually increase your screen resolution). Samsung does feature some of the best split-screen multitasking available, easily shifting the size of apps on your display, but it’s not so much better than an LG G6 that we would call that a purchasing recommendation.
Samsung’s answer for productivity is one we’ve seen since the S6 days. The edge screen panel, now slightly more evolved, for customizing at a glance content and shortcuts. In using a ton of other phones, I keep forgetting it’s there, but people using the S8 as a permanent daily driver will probably better enjoy quick access to shortcuts. This feature has grown significantly over the last two years. There are numerous options now for edge panels, delivering a number of different options, no matter what content is currently on your screen.
Game Center also returns as a handy way to capture game play, but with recent improvements to Youtube Gaming and Google Play Games, we’d probably recommend the Google apps over Samsung’s custom solution. It works well for capturing game play, but it’s a separate Samsung solution which sits just outside Google’s services. These menus do provide quick access to screen and resolution options though. Games which aren’t broken by the curved screen corners, can quickly toggle aspect ratio from Game Center.
Unfortunately, we can’t comment much on Bixby. It’s not done yet, and we have to ding Samsung here the same way we dinged HTC for the U Ultra’s missing AI. This is such an important feature that there’s a dedicated button for it, but it wasn’t ready for launch, so our review remains incomplete. If using bixby vision is any early indication, we’re not entirely impressed with Samsung’s digital assistant strategy.
As it stands, I’ve already disabled the Bibxy home page, which just lags the phone in one of the most important areas for smooth performance. Just like Flipboard for previous generations of Galaxies. The Bixby cards page is another area which needs some polish. Pushing the dedicated button, it can take around a second before we see a welcome page, then several more seconds before the screen is populated with content. After that, trying to scroll, Bixby is one of the most consistent areas where we encounter lag and stuttering.
Lastly for software, I was a bit disappointed to see the S8 ship with Android 7.0, as more phones are arriving with 7.1. This hasn’t given me a lot of hope that Samsung can leverage carrier relationships for more timely updates. This phone is expensive, and has hardware which should help improve battery performance, but we’re denied some of the refinements found in Android 7.1. We’ll just have to be ok with heavily skinned devices lagging behind the updates on phones with leaner builds of Android.
Taking a closer look at performance, it’s very good, if about par for a Samsung phone. This is bleeding edge hardware, but Samsung has a LOT running on this device. We’re using an unlocked phone, without carrier bloat. There are numerous Samsung services running, like the edge customizations. The general UI and app performance is snappy, but phones with less powerful hardware, and less customization, often feel comparable, or even a touch faster.
This hardware is overkill for the communication basics. The true test often arrives with gaming and multimedia benchmarks. Firing up a poorly optimized for Android game like Marvel Future Fight, the S8+ delivers the smoothest, most fluid frame rates we’ve ever seen on Qualcomm hardware. Getting into busy gameplay moments however, we think Huawei’s Kirin 960 still has a slight lead. A quick note on this game, I use Future Fight BECAUSE it’s poorly optimized. It’s a test of brute force heavy lifting. Better optimized games will obviously run smoother. A huge graphics intense game like Implosion is an absolute screamer on this phone.
LTE performance is generally excellent around Los Angeles on AT&T. The S8+ regularly bested the LG G6 using Android’s built-in reception gauge. That was also mirrored in faster downloads running some speed tests around town.
However, WiFi performance was nearly identical to the G6 when testing from the edges of my condo. Often the LG would post a minor lead in reception, but one so minor it could easily be within the margin of error for the app we use to test signal strength.