Samsung Galaxy S8 full review: at HK$5,698 it’s pricey but there’s a lot to like, from its feel to its look to its processing power
WITH VIDEO: Comfortable curves and a bezel-less, all-screen look are impressive, and an iris-scan unlock feature is no gimmick, but the rear fingerprint reader could be problematic for users
After last autumn’s exploding Galaxy Note 7 fiasco, Samsung needs the Galaxy S8 to be not just great, but stunning. After five days of using the phone, I think it has accomplished that goal – but is the phone worth its hefty price tag? Hong Kong prices have yet to be confirmed ahead of the launch of the S8 and its big brother the Galaxy S8+ on May 25, but the S8 sells for US$750 (HK$5,835) in the US and an S8+ is US$850 there.
(The 5.8-inch screen S8 has a bigger variant named the S8+ with a 6.2 inch screen. Both share the same processor, camera, software and hardware design, with the only differences the size of battery and body dimensions. For simplicity, this review will focus on the S8, but everything mentioned applies to both phones unless otherwise stated.)
Design and hardware
As recently as 2014, Samsung’s Galaxy phones were considered ugly by tech writers and Android diehards. That year’s Galaxy S5 had a tacky plastic back and a clunky build that looked dated compared to models from competitors such as HTC and LG. After the LG G3 took a chunk of the S5’s sales, Samsung went back to the drawing board and came back in 2015 with an elegant new flagship phone crafted of glass and metal, with a dual-curved screen the like of which had never before been seen.
In the two years since then, Samsung has tweaked the design language of the S6, and this year’s Galaxy S8 feels like the culmination of all that fine-tuning: this phone has probably the best designed hardware yet.
While the curves on the left and right sides of the display on the S6 and S7 looked cool, they sloped down too much, resulting in erroneous screen touches. The S8 fixes this. The curves here still offer the same impressive visual effect, but there’s almost no risk of accidental palm touches any more. The back also curves towards the screen, making for a device that is symmetrical front and back, top and bottom. It’s pleasing on the eyes and in the hand.
The main attraction of the Galaxy S8, however, is the dramatic reduction in top and bottom bezels, giving the handset a bezel-less, all-screen look.
Xiaomi and LG beat Samsung to the punch with this, but Samsung’s implementation is the most impressive due to the S8’s comfortable curves and superior screen technology (AMOLED, or active-matrix organic light-emitting diode, compared to the LCD panels on other phones). The S8’s screen has the punchiest colours, the deepest blacks, and the best viewing angles of any mobile device out there.
Because the bottom bezel is so narrow, Samsung had to move the fingerprint reader to the back, to a very problematic location that’s too high up on the device and off-centre. Reaching for the fingerprint reader without significantly adjusting your grip on the device is uncomfortable on the S8 and nearly impossible on the taller S8+.
Now a phone with a hard-to-use fingerprint reader should be a death blow in 2017, but the S8 offers another way to unlock the phone: with your eyes. It sounds like a gimmick, but the iris scanner works with stunning speed – as long as I’m looking at the right part of the phone, it usually unlocks in under a second, even when I’m walking or in a completely dark room.
Software and features
The S8 is powered by either Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 or Samsung’s own Exynos 8895 (depending on the country where the handset is purchased), both brand new, top-of-the-line chipsets. The S8 and S8+ I tested are both powered by the Exynos chip, and performance was mostly smooth and snappy, but not the best. I’m positive the culprit is not the chipset but Samsung’s software, which is quite bloated compared to stock Android.
This heavy-handed Samsung software is both a blessing and a curse. The good is obvious: this phone can do so, so many things. For example, Samsung’s “smart capture” lets you record a portion of your screen for a few seconds and turn that footage into a gif.
The software also has its own multi-tasking structure that offers more freedom than Android’s native split-screen mode. In one instance, I had YouTube, WhatsApp and Gmail opened at the same time, and I was able to use all three at once without performance hiccups.
But the bad can be quite frustrating. With the S8, Samsung has introduced a new digital voice assistant named Bixby, and the company really wants you to use it. Not only do you get multiple reminders when you set up the phone for the first time, but Samsung gave Bixby a dedicated hardware button on the side of the device that sits right below the volume rocker. I’ve accidentally activated Bixby on more than a few occasions, which takes a couple of seconds to boot up and takes over the whole screen.
The S8 is, as expected, an excellent device for consuming visual media. Watching Netflix or YouTube on this phone is about as immersive an experience as you can get for a portable screen that fits in the palm of your hand.
The mono speaker located on the bottom of the phone is a disappointment, however. The sound isn’t bad per se; it just can’t compare to the stereo speakers on devices such as the iPhone 7 or ZTE Axon 7 (the latter costs less than half of the S8, by the way).
The camera on the S8 is little changed from that on the S7, except for a few software tweaks. But given that the S7 had one of the best cameras of any phone released in 2016, the shooter still holds up. The S8, with a f/1.7 aperture lens, excels in low light.
Battery life is average. After the Note 7, Samsung obviously isn’t going to push the limits of battery capacity again, so the 3,000 and 3,500 mAh batteries on the S8 and S8+ respectively are on the small side.
Neither phone could last me a full 15-hour day (from 11am to 2am) without needing a top-up. At least the S8 supports Qualcomm’s quick charge technology, so a 20-minute recharge in the middle of the evening is enough to power the phone through until bedtime.
It’s worth noting the S8+ that comes with 6GB RAM, dual SIM and 128GB internal storage is exclusively available for the Hong Kong, mainland China and South Korean markets.
The S8 is, pound for pound, almost certainly the best phone on the market right now. Still, there
are lots of very good phones on the market for probably half the price. Xiaomi’s recently announced Mi 6, for example, offers the same chipset (Snapdragon 835) with more RAM (6GB) for just 2,499 yuan (HK$2,820). The LG G6 offers the same slim-bezel design and a fun secondary camera for around HK$5,500.
Is the S8 worth the extra money? That’s a question only you and your wallet can answer.
Dimensions: 148.9 x 68.1 x 8 mm (S8); 159.5 x 73.4 x 8.1mm (S8+)
Weight: 155 grams (S8); 173 grams (S8+)
Display: 5.8 inches (S8); 6.2 inches (S8+)
Battery: 3,000 mAh (S8); 3,500 mAh (S8+)
OS version reviewed: Samsung Experience 8.1 over Android 7.0
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (Hong Kong, China, North America); Exynos 8895 (everywhere else)
Cameras: 12-megapixel lens with f/1.7 aperture, 8-megapixel front-facing lens with f/1.7 aperture
Memory: 64GB ROM and 4GB RAM
Colours: midnight black, orchid grey, arctic silver
Price: HK$5,698 (S8)/HK$6,398 (S8+, 4GB RAM, 64GB Dual SIM), HK$6,998 (6GB RAM, Dual SIM 128GB)