Samsung’s cards are on the table, and Apple will soon be laying theirs out too with the iPhone 8. If early reports are anything to go by, it sounds a lot like Apple’s efforts could be very similar indeed to Samsung’s.
Could we be in for another rounded corner patent bunfight like the one that saw consumers and shareholders losing while the legal fat cats got fatter? Who knows? Who cares!
Two things we do know right now are that Samsung’s S8 Plus is a very tasty piece of hardware indeed, and that the ensuing fanboy forum fights will be about as interesting as a DIY cranial lobotomy.
Here’s the odd thing. The S8 Plus is both big and small. When Samsung said the Galaxy S8 Plus is ‘the next big thing’ they weren’t kidding. It has a ridiculously big screen, bonkers specs and an exquisite (and dare I say it, original) design – all packed into a small body.
So how big is big? Try a 6.2-inch screen for size. Although the S8 Plus has one of biggest screens currently on the market, its chassis is still about the same size as a Galaxy S7. This is largely due to its curved bezel-less screen and the dumping a home button.
This is probably due to it being an AMOLED beastie, which means colours pop and black levels are achieved by switching pixels off. This results in crisp contrast levels and is far more battery friendly compared to LCD. The screen is also Quad HD.
A longer screen results in an aspect ratio of 18.5:9. This gives you far more screen real-estate even though the S8 plus can be held comfortably in just one hand. This also means that split-screen multitasking feels far less cramped.
Then there’s mobile HDR (high dynamic range). According to the marketing blah-blah, it results in more vibrant colours, greater brightness and contrast levels. The sample video footage showcased on the S8/S8 Plus at the launch event was Mobile HDR-encoded and looked fantastic. Shadow detail was discernible rather than merely being dark blobs. Here’s hoping Netflix starts supporting mobile HDR sooner rather than later.
As fantastic as the display is, the move to a Quad HD resolution is a mixed blessing. While it is hard to fault it as a battery-saving move, it is noticeable when the S8 is dropped into a Gear VR and only millimetres away from your eyeballs. VR aside, for everyday use, Quad HD works just fine. Unless you have electron microscopes for eyes, you won’t be able to tell the difference.
The curved edges attracted some criticism with the S7 Edge, with some claiming their palms were triggering false screen touches. During my time with the S8 Plus, this never happened, which could be due to the screen’s gentler curves. Taking full advantage of miserly power consumption means Sammy have also baked in an ‘always-on’ display that’ll show time, date, battery life and notifications, even when the S8 plus is on standby. In short, the screen raises the bar on phone displays to near stratospheric levels of peeper pleasing delight.
The design of the S8 and S8 Plus looks and feels both fresh and original. Samsung have changed up their design language to bring us a slick futuristic looking smartphone that isn’t a generic me-too slab of tech along similar lines to what every other phone maker and their greyhound has already launched.
The secret sauce to the S8 Plus’s Tardis-like design is what Samsung call its ‘Infinity Display’. In essence this takes the ability to make OLED displays curved and combines it with an almost bezel-less screen. The net result is a wider screen on a slim phone. It’s a clever and compelling move. The other design trick used has involved Samsung killing their trademarked lozenge-shaped Home button and replacing it with a virtual pressure sensitive on screen button. This means that dead space occupied by a Home button is no longer, and hey-presto! More vertical screen space.
Samsung have hit the sweet spot when it comes to smartphone design. With the Galaxy S8 Plus, consumers have got what they’ve long lusted after – a bigger screen on a phone that’s still small enough to be easily pocketable.
Unsurprisingly, everything about the Galaxy S8 Plus’s design highlights its massive screen. Even the Samsung logo no longer sits atop of the screen, having moved around to the back. Even the colours of the S8 and S8 Plus are intended not to detract from its screen. The S8 and S8 Plus can be bought in Midnight Black, Orchid Gray, and Arctic Silver. All told, everything seems cleaner and uncluttered.
Spinning the S8 around reveals another pleasant surprise. Samsung has all but killed the ugly rear camera bump. Now the lens is protected from scratches by a tiny lip. This is a sensible move as it’ll keep the delicate lens glass out of harm’s way when the S8/S8 Plus is on its back.
Although its all-glass body makes the S8/S8 Plus something you wouldn’t want to drop, it is IP68 rated. This makes it both dust and water-resistant. According to the folks at Sammy, it can handle being dunked in 5m underwater for up to 30 minutes. Even though it probably is the smartphone you’ll want to shower with, our advice is buy a case.
The S8/S8 Plus’s rear-mounted fingerprint scanner is annoyingly located. Where most phone makers plonk theirs under the rear camera roughly where your index finger lands when you pick up your phone, Samsung have stuck theirs right next to the rear camera. This frequently saw smearing my oily prints on the camera lens for added soft focus effect.
Another stumble is the face recognition unlock. While it flawlessly worked with my ugly mug, reports have surfaced that it can also be fooled using a selfie on another phone. I tested this out thoroughly. it appears that these reports are overhyped. Out of 50 attempts, Selfies only worked 4 times. In real world conditions a thief would need to get a good quality shot of your mug before they’d be able to unlock your phone. This is unlikely.
This is less of a security problem than the hype would have you believe, as S8/S8 Plus comes with the same iris scanner tech used by the Note 7. The Iris scanner worked fine and has the added side benefit of being much harder to outfox. It’ll also work in the dark as it uses IR to illuminate your peepers. It is just a pain that this is not enabled by default.
Setting a pin as a fall-back is also possible. In short, fumbly fingerprint scanner issues aside, there’s less to grizzle about security-wise with the S8/S8 Plus than the headlines imply.
Design is one thing, but usability in real-world conditions is another. The good news is that there’s plenty of power on tap. In a nutshell, it’d be fair to say that the S8 Plus packs more grunt than a piggery.
This gets helped along by Samsung’s refreshed TouchWiz user interface. They’ve dropped the cartoony sounding TouchWiz name and are now calling their UI the ‘Samsung Experience’. I don’t know about you, but this sounds a lot like a band that’d be doing Pink Floyd covers on the pub circuit.
Fortunately, Samsung Experience is no mere cover band. It gives Android Nougat a fresh lick of paint and a de-cluttered look and feel, due to logically and intuitively laid-out menus as well as a liberal sprinkling of search options for anything you can’t find.
Like the Pixel, swiping up on the Home screen fires up the app drawer. The app drawer button is gone, freeing up more screen space. I also liked the fact that I could long-press on app icons for additional options. This allowed me to easily uninstall and to select multiple icons. It isn’t a big thing, but it does make a difference.
The S8/S8 Plus comes with 4GB of RAM and Samsung’s in-house developed Exynos 8895. Crafted using a 10nm process, the Exynos is a powerful piece of silicon that draws even less juice than last year’s crop of 14nm CPUs.
The phone comes with Gigabit 4G and Wi-Fi so you’ll mosey online with a real spring in your step should local telcos start supporting gigabit LTE. Another extra is Bluetooth Dual Audio. This allows audio to stream to two sets of Bluetooth headphones. Wha-ha!
The S8/S8 Plus comes with just 64GB of internal storage. If you need more the good news is that it’ll take a microSD card for up to 256GB of storage.
Battery life-wise, I squeezed a full day and a half out of the S8 Plus with heavy use that included several Bluetooth paired devices. With lighter use, I almost made it to the two-day mark. This is impressive stuff, considering the S8 Plus’s ample screen and processing power.
Then there’s Bixby. This isn’t just the surname of the actor who played the Hulk’s alter alias back in the ‘70s, but Samsung’s answer to Google Assistant, Siri and Cortana and Samsung’s own S-Voice. Sadly, Bixby has yet to make a full appearance. At the moment, the S8/S8 Plus comes with some Bixby bits. These are Bixby Home and Bixby Vision. They’re accessible via a physical Bixby button on the S8/S8 Plus’s left hand side and the camera app. Annoyingly, I found that I kept hitting the Bixby button instead of volume down.
Bixby’s voice assistant won’t be seen here for at least a few months. Until then, it’s a case of making do with Bixby Home (Samsung’s take on Google Now), Bixby Reminders (which handily works with location as well as dates and time), and Bixby Vision (which can handily identify landmarks, translate text, rate wines and so on). As it stands, Bixby’s bits are clever but they lack the integration needed to make Bixby a part of my daily phone repertoire. Here’s hoping Bixby speech recognition unifies everything soonish. Thankfully, Google Assistant is baked in and can be accessed by long-pressing on the home button. Hacks are also surfacing to remap the Bixby button.
Gorgeous design, a water-and dust-resistant design, decent specs and expandable storage make it a very desirable device. Battery life is decent and its UI feels highly polished. There are a few issues. The oddly located fingerprint sensor and Bixby’s stage shyness spring to mind, but these are not biggies. At the end of the day, the S8 Plus’s gorgeous Tardis-like design and raw power make it very recommendable indeed.