You can’t quibble with the length of the list of new and improved features on Samsung’s Galaxy S8 smartphone. For a phone that’s now eight years old, it’s impressively long on substantial upgrades.
There’s the longer “Infinity” screen, which takes the S8 in a new direction, both in terms of how it looks and how you use the phone. The S8 now has a 5.8-inch screen, up from 5.1 inches on the Galaxy S7, and the S8+ now has an enormous 6.2-inch screen, up from 5.5 inches on the S7 edge. (It’s now called the S8+ because even the regular S8’s screen now has curved edges, rendering the “edge” distinction meaningless.) All of that was achieved without making the phones much bigger.
Then there’s the iris scanner, which adds a new, heightened level of security to the phone. There’s the face scanner, which adds a new level of convenience to unlocking the phone without unduly compromising security. (Anything that matters can be locked with the iris scanner.)
There’s Bixby, the totally new artificial intelligence engine that doesn’t do a whole lot right now but that one day might be the best voice-based assistant on the planet.
There’s the upgraded front-facing camera that now has intelligent auto-focus, that should improve group selfies. There’s the 1 gigabit-per-second (capable if not actual) 4G internet connection.
There’s the USB-C charging port and there’s Dex, the USB-C docking station that turns the Galaxy S8 into a desktop computer. That one feature alone would have been enough to justify an upgrade five or six years ago, back when we thought docked desktop computer phones were an idea that would catch on.
But what’s not on the list is a new rear-facing camera. Surprisingly – shockingly, really – the Galaxy S8 has the same camera as last year. There are some image processing enhancements, such as the anti-blur feature that takes three photos and combines them into one, but it’s the same 12 megapixel image sensor and the same f1.7 lens as last year.
That’s a worry, because if Samsung has it right, it means that the world has become so narcissistic that only the selfie camera matters nowadays.
And if Samsung has it wrong, it means that it might lose its photographic crown by Christmas.
For the past several years, the Galaxy S has come out in the first half of the year with a rear camera that was the best on the market by some margin. Over the course of the second half of the year, other phone makers always closed the gap, even if they (arguably) never overtook the Galaxy S. (I still maintain that the Galaxy S7 has the best camera of any smart phone, but only just. Google’s Pixel is very close, and I know a lot of people who think it has edged in front and who prefer it to the S7.)
This year, though, the starting point is neck-and-neck, leaving the field wide open for someone, either Apple or Huawei or more likely Google to end the year in top spot. Unless of course Samsung is keeping its brand new camera up its sleeve for the Galaxy Note 8, which is a possibility given the pressure it’s going to be under.
Now, I didn’t get the chance to review the cameras on the S8, nor could I review Bixby. Several of the new features were disabled on all the units made available to the press, due to them being unfinished ahead of the release a month from now.
But I did get the chance test out Dex, and I did get to test out the overall user experience on the S8: how the longer screen feels, how the buttons feel now that they’ve been moved around to accommodate the longer screen, and how it all looks and feels in general.
For what it’s worth (which won’t be much to most users) Dex is already working quite well. It’s a portable docking station with USB ports for a mouse and keyboard, an ethernet port for network connectivity and an HDMI port for attaching the phone to a larger desktop monitor.
The mouse I tested Dex with lagged a little at times (it was a Bluetooth mouse rather than a USB mouse), but for the most part Dex presents a very usable desktop PC experience for people who don’t have access to an actual desktop PC. It runs Android, of course, but Microsoft’s Office apps are pretty decent on Android, and you’d have no trouble using Dex to knock out a Word or an Excel document.
The more important improvement is to the screen, and to the look and feel of the Galaxy S8. On that front, Samsung really has achieved something remarkable with this phone. It truly is gorgeous, and the buttons that are built into the bottom of the screen, which vibrate when you press them even though they appear to be mere on-screen icons, work well enough that you won’t mind losing real buttons in exchange for the extra screen real estate.
That extra real estate comes in the form of extra length rather than extra breadth, meaning the phones now have an unusually long aspect ratio that will work extremely well for video and that might also improve other applications such as web browsers and maps because they will need less scrolling: more content will be visible on the screen at any one time.
The new, longer screen takes up a very high percentage of the front of the phone (83 per cent for the S8, and almost 84 per cent for the S8+) and it means that the Galaxy S8 is by some margin the most striking, most appealing phone on the market. Such is the lead that Samsung has with the use of materials (glass in particular) that I’d be surprised if it didn’t hold the lead until the S9 comes around.
It’s just a pity the same can no longer be said of the camera.
But like I said, I didn’t actually get the chance to review the new/old camera, so there’s always the possibility that the improvements Samsung has made in image processing will actually be more dramatic than they sound.