Science fiction in the palm of your hand
Each year phones are upgraded. New feature this, smaller part that, better everything – and of course, each upgrade carries a new and improved price tag. In the past, these annual technological leaps were distinct, offering exponential improvements. Over time these leaps have become hops, and it’s really just small inconsequential things that seem to be improving each year.
Phone companies rely on slick marketing and the average human’s urge to have the best “thing” that they can show off to their friends. Those without the funds or the need to impress people they don’t know habitually upgrade every two years when their cellular contract expires, and start the whole process over again. Regardless of where you fit into this technological ritual, it’s important to make the right choice when faced with the question: which new phone should I upgrade to?
Without any hesitation, it’s easy to recommend the Samsung Galaxy S8. It’s a sexy piece of equipment that gets the job done, doesn’t have any issues, is lovely to hold, and did I mention it looks incredible? So incredible it’ll have all your friends secretly hating you. But that’s not why you’re looking to upgrade, right?
For you tech-savvy folks, the S8 features Samsung’s Exynos 8895 chipset, which has 8 cores – 4 at 2.3GHz and 4 at 1.7 GHz. Graphics processing is handled by a Mali-G71 MP20 GPU. You get 64GB of internal storage, which can be expanded up to 256GB if you’re one of those people who never delete photos or videos. Said expansion is handled via a microSD card slot. The screen is a 5.8-inch 18.5:9 Quad HD+ (2960×1440) display with a crisp 570 PPI pixel density. But that’s not all. The display is dubbed an infinity display, which in effect means it’s designed with no bezel around the edges. The home button is now accessed by pressing the screen where the dedicated home button used to be. The screen curves at the left and right edges, so essentially the entire width of the phone is all screen. It really feels as though you’re holding a device that’s all display in your hand. Chalk one up to Samsung for offering something truly innovative that not only looks good, but works like a tireless pack donkey as well.
To give you an idea of the size of the screen, the display covers 83.6% of the front of the S8. The hidden home button is nice, but the harder press you need to do to activate it feels unusual, and some software still needs to be updated to highlight it in the way Samsung intended. It works, but isn’t as easy and simple to use as a good, old-fashioned button. That said, the sacrifice is well worth it for the overall look, and in this case form over function isn’t something you’ll complain about. The end result is a crisp, sharp, bright display in any environment, even direct sunlight. Just leave it off when you go to the cinema please, or rather stay at home when you’re keen to watch movies. I can’t stand people who use their phones during a movie. Oh wait, did I say that out loud?
The always-on display has also received some new features and improvements. You can customise and tweak what your phone looks like when it’s just laying on your desk. Calendar, time, remaining battery and notifications can all be customised to appear on-screen, all the time. It’s useful, and you’ll lose count the number of times you do a quick glance at the screen for the time, or to see if someone is trying to reach you on WhatsApp. As a bonus, this little trick doesn’t burn the battery.
The phone is also dust- and water-resistant, certified to a testing standard you’ve never heard about. In other words, the S8 is IP68 certified. Let’s break that down. IP stands for International Protection, a standard put together but the IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission, not our IEC). The 6 is a dust rating, meaning no dust (sand, dirt, etc.) got inside during an 8-hour test. The 8 is the result of a water-resistance test, proving that the S8 can remain 1.5 metres underwater for 30 minutes and still keep ticking. So no problem if you drop it in the pool, bath or toilet. Also, get off your phone in the bathroom. Bathroom time is Zen time, not Candy Crush time.
On the front of the phone you’ll find the iris scanner. Yes, like science fiction made real, you look at it and the phone knows it’s you. We tried to fool it using people in the office, friends, kids and even a small brown dachshund. Nothing cracked the iris security, so you get to act like a secret agent with it – an overweight, badly dressed and clumsy version of James Bond, but a 00 agent nonetheless.
There are cameras both back and front of course. The rear one is the main one at 12MP, featuring Samsung’s dual-pixel cleverness, and the front one is an upgraded 8MP autofocus shooter for those all-important selfies. The phone also has Wi-Fi 802.11, Bluetooth, GPS, NFC and a reversible USB 3.1 connector at the bottom. They supply a fast charger in the box as well as earphones. How nice.
Before I forget, let’s return to the iris scanner for a moment. This, along with a fingerprint reader, facial recognition, and the low-tech pattern and pin security systems, keep your phone safe. The iris-and-pattern combination is by far the easiest, simplest method for protecting the phone. Just try to avoid opening your eyes extra-wide when being iris scanned. You don’t need to do this. It’ll see into your soul just fine, no matter how wide you part your eyelids. On the flip side, the fingerprint reader is a pain. It’s too small and it takes an awkwardly long time to scan your print. The whole time during my fingerprint-scanning tests, I couldn’t help thinking this would be a problem going forward. So stick to the iris and the pattern.
All the rest
The S8 is powered by a 3,000mAh, non-exploding battery [HA! – Ed.] that supports direct quick-charging. If you use the wireless charger, it takes the usual amount of time to charge, but looks good doing it. The whole thing weighs 155 grams and its exact measurements are 148.9×68.1x8mm. It’s relatively compact and it’s beautiful to look at – but it’s also very thin, which can make it feel fragile. Considering the fact that the screen bends over the edge and that the whole thing is pretty much made out of glass, it occasionally feels slippery, so definitely get a cover. Or be less clumsy. The narrow form factor is nice because the phone fits neatly in your hand, so it feels like a phone and not like you’re trying to call someone using a huge slice of bread.
The stuff running the phone has also received a fresh coat of paint. The phone is built on Android 7.0, with Samsung’s TouchWiz UI sitting atop it. The edge of the screen features a place for more things to go, and a convenient menu hides right on the curve of the screen that you can pull across and to which you can add icons.
Amidst the list of other new things, Bixby is something Samsung has been talking about a lot. Bixby is a virtual assistant, and the S8 features a button on the left side of the phone dedicated to it. Launching Bixby (you have to sign in to your Samsung account to do so) brings up a home screen with panels featuring news and assorted information. You can connect it to Facebook and similar services, as well as things like weather and reminders. The idea is that Bixby will learn your habits and preferences, and adapt its home screen to reflect your needs.
The other part of the Bixby puzzle is Bixby Vision. Simply point your camera at something, and the software will provide information about said something. Using it to identify popular landmarks and gaining more information about the world around you is the plan. It’s a good idea, but why not just use Google for this? As for the Bixby home screen, we already have so much information at our fingertips that we don’t really need yet another, “easier” way of accessing it. Bixby is also supposed to use voice recognition to do your bidding, but this functionality isn’t available right now. As mentioned, you’ll need a Samsung account (yes, yet another thing to sign up for), and you needn’t worry that in the future some AI will be deciding what news it thinks you’ll enjoy best. Just note that Bixby is not at all a compelling reason to get this phone. There are already apps available on the Play Store which enable you to reassign the Bixby button. Samsung does appear to be committed to improving Bixby, however, so have a look and decide for yourself once they’ve gotten everything working in this region.
Keeping in mind that many people these days are simply not that impressed with each year’s new slate of smartphones, does the cost justify an upgrade to the S8? It’s a good-looking phone, especially with that screen. All of its new features are really impressive. It’s easy to recommend the S8 because it works, it’s fast and it looks sexy. Some downsides are the fingerprint reader, and the pointless (at least in its current form) Bixby application. The battery is a little short-lived, but it’s not massively inconvenient – just be aware that you’ll get a day and a bit out of it before needing to charge it again. Annoyingly, there’s a lot of Samsung software pre-installed on the phone that you can’t get rid of, even if you already use other software to do the same job. It’s definitely a winner though, and if this is your year to upgrade then you can’t go wrong with an upgrade to the S8. I’ve no idea what they’ll cram into the S9 and the SX when the time comes for those to arrive, but it’s always an incrementally interesting journey. Yes, I called it here – two years from now, Samsung’s flagship smartphone will be called the SX.