Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+: Style and substance rolled into one

Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8. Photo: Khalid Anzar
As deliveries of the Samsung S8 and S8+ begin, we bring you all you need to know about the smartphones:

 

Last year, I reviewed a Samsung phone which couldn’t make it to these pages; then, I had said Samsung had done wonders with its interface and with a killer battery, this was a sure winner. Unfortunately, my prediction was prophetic, though in a different sense; the battery was a killer — it killed the phone.

 

That said, I still held the opinion the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 was the best phone from the Korean major, but for its battery troubles (the unit I reviewed had none). Thus, I was looking forward to the next iteration — the Samsung Galaxy S8 (Rs 57,900) and Samsung Galaxy S8+ (Rs 64,900).

 

Out of the box, both phones looked an amalgamation of the style cues of the Galaxy S7 edge and the Galaxy Note 7; but the new line was sexier, with more glass than metal and hardly-there bezels. The S8+, with a 6.2-inch screen (6.1-inch without the curved edges) is as tall as the 5.5-inch iPhone 7 Plus, but narrower and thinner; the S8 has a 5.8-inch screen (5.6-inch without the curved edges) but is as big as any phone which sports a 5-inch screen. Since the screens on the S8 and S8+ are practically devoid of bezels, the home button is now a software one, with haptic feedback. I felt a bit uneasy at first, but soon adapted to using it and the two software buttons (which can now be customised) easily. The home button is available even in standby or “Always On” mode.

 

The phone is a fingerprint and dust magnet and a bit slippery so one needs to invest in a case, which would undoubtedly hit the looks of the phone; but you got to decide if you want a safe albeit not-so-sexy handset or a svelte but shattered one.

 

The power/lock button is on the right while the volume rocker is on the left; the SIM/microSD slot is on top while the bottom edge houses the USC-C port, flanked by the headphones jack and the mono speaker. Below the volume rocker is a dedicated key to bring up Bixby, Samsung’s personal assistant.

 

Besides the usual ways of unlocking a phone (PIN, pattern and fingerprint), Samsung offers two other ways — an iris scanner and face recognition. While face recognition is easy, it isn’t that secure; instead I opted for the iris scanner (something I also loved in the Note 7). Setting up wasn’t difficult and indoors, it worked without a hitch; outdoors, it was a chore removing my shades to scan my irises (and in direct sunlight, it did struggle a bit), thus I opted to use the PIN to unlock the phone. On the S8+, the fingerprint scanner, which now flanks the back camera along with the heartbeat monitor on both the phones, was pretty difficult to reach with my chubby fingers; often I placed my sweaty fingers on the camera, dirtying it. It was a tad better on the S8, but will need enough muscle training till you can do this with ease.

 

The phones run Android 7 out of the box, with Samsung’s Experience UX built on top of it. I’ve often criticised the Samsung’s customised interface for its sluggishness, but with the Galaxy 7 line, things got better. Don’t get me wrong, Samsung has bundled a truckload of apps with the phones, but there’s little sluggishness. That said, some apps such as the Microsoft bundle, are actually helpful. One needs to swipe up to access all apps and swipe down for notifications; a swipe to the right brings up Bixby, Samsung’s special sauce.

 

While you can still access Google Now, Bixby does similar stuff and some more, such as one can take a picture of an object and it can give you suggestions. I took a picture of my iPhone and Bixby suggested some cases for it, down to the right model. But I was able to fool it into thinking the lights on my AC were stars! One would need to use Bixby more extensively to find out how useful it is; for now, it’s a work in progress.

 

I loved the game mode last year, and this time it was no different; Asphalt 8: Airborne and NFS: Most Wanted performed without a hitch didn’t heat up the phone too much; it did eat up a chunk of the battery though. And you’re better off using headphones for gaming, since in landscape mode, I ended up completely muffling the sound on the tinny speaker. The speaker, during calls, performs well, but is a sore point for gaming or consuming content.

 

I downloaded all the popular streaming apps and started binge-watching The Musketeers and the last season of Game of Thrones but I wasn’t satisfied with the sound; so I turned to the bundled AKG earphones and felt like kicking myself. This was a whole new world — to really understand the audio prowess of the S8 and S8+, one must use the bundled pair. While the AKG pair was bass-heavy, there was no distortion even at high volumes; they also had a wide soundstage. Next, I listened to Hardwell and Calvin Harris on Google Play Music on my daily run, and was impressed. It helped that Samsung Health was able to measure my heartbeat and stress levels on the run, though truth be told, I got a bit stressed when the phone wasn’t able to detect my stress levels the first time I used it — turned out, my finger was not properly placed.

 

Now, the brilliant screens have a rather uncommon aspect ratio of 18.5: 9; while this is great for reading and browsing websites, this could result in black bands on the sides while watching streaming content or gaming. That said, once you use the S8 and S8+ to read or browse websites, you’ll never want to go back to ordinary phones again.

 

In a departure from last time, Samsung hasn’t used two lenses for its primary 12-megapixel (MP) camera, but I got equally impressive results. In fact, the S8 and S8+ focus faster in low light. Photos clicked in direct sunlight came out very well, nearly as good as those clicked by an iPhone 7 Plus; in low light and indoors, Samsung was king. The iPhone, though, ran away with the honours in fading light. All in all, there are few phones which can equal the prowess of the camera on the S8 and S8+. The front selfie camera has been bumped up to 8MP and it does very well for group selfies and video calls; a pity Samsung doesn’t provide a front flash as well.

 

The multimedia capabilities of the S8 and S8+ mean you will consume a lot of content on it; this would mean the S8 will definitely run out of juice before the day runs out. With the S8+, I was just about able to get through the day. Samsung has set the default resolution of the screen to Full HD on both phones, a life-saver if you ask me. But keep a battery back handy. The quick charger takes about a couple of hours to charge a fully depleted S8+.

 

The Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+ are for those who want the best-looking Android phone in the market now and don’t mind using Samsung’s interface. Both of them are solid performers but you can go for the S8+ if you want a sexy phablet, which is not a misnomer any more.  

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