Review: Samsung Galaxy S8

By Will Goodbody, Science & Technology Correspondent

After the controversy and crisis surrounding the exploding and ultimately scrapped Samsung Galaxy Note 7, it is no exaggeration to say the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S8 was among the most anticipated smartphone launches ever.

Not only did the device have to not explode.

But it also had to be good, really good in fact, in order to reclaim some of the lost market share, confidence and appeal that Samsung had lost.

Well that pressure appears to have paid off, with the company producing a top device.

DESIGN:

Out of the box, the Samsung Galaxy S8 is a stunning looking handset.

That’s mostly because of its enormous wrap around screen which makes it stand out significantly from the crowd.

The curved edges of that display join seamlessly with a metal rim, which in turn blends into the back of the phone.

It feels light and comfortable to hold. And despite the smoothness of the finish, it doesn’t feel like it is going to slip out of your hand all the time.

That’s certainly a good thing, because without a protective cover the S8 would be extremely vulnerable to breakage if dropped on a hard surface.

On the right side there’s the power button and on the left the volume rocker and a dedicated but not overly needed button to launch the Bixby virtual assistant – more on that later.

Because of the changes to the display, the fingerprint sensor has moved to the rear – right beside the main camera lens, which lies flush.

The bottom of the handset still has a 3.5mm audio jack – something many will welcome - and charging is via USB-C .

The SIM card and memory card tray is on the top of the device.

DISPLAY:

Samsung has done something new and very effective with the screen on the S8.

Aside from wrapping the screen completely around the edges, it has changed the aspect ratio to 18:5:9.

It makes it very long – 5.8 inches from corner to corner.

But the result of the changes combined with a near bezel-less design is that almost the entire front of the phone is enveloped in what Samsung calls an Infinity Display.

It does make reaching the full length of the phone a bit of a stretch for the average finger or thumb.

But the trade off is a wonderfully immersive experience when watching video or looking at images.

The quality of the Quad HD+ Super AMOLED screen’s output is superb too.

Vivid bright colours leap out at you, deep blacks and sharp whites make for great contrast and sharpness.

The screen is also extremely touch sensitive, so there’s no multiple tapping necessary to open apps, etc.

The edges, like on the previous "Edge" models, have expandable trays for quick launching particular applications.

The changes to the screen mean the physical home button has been replaced by a virtual one.

That’s not such a big deal , and the haptic feedback you get when you push it makes it feel like you aren’t just pressing glass.

One thing to note is that despite the Quad HD+ spec, the device comes preset on Full HD+.

That could be a battery saving move, or maybe it is just a tacit acknowledgement that most of us can’t really tell the difference.

But in any event, if you want the full experience, you must change the settings.

HARDWARE:

The device is driven by a powerful engine.

On board is either the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 or Samsung's own Exynos 8895 chip.

Both are octa-core processors (one has slightly less power in the second chip) and coupled with the 4GB of RAM, propel it along at lightning speed without any struggles.

It also has 64GB of memory pre-loaded and that can be expanded to 256GB using the MicroSD card.

The S8 has a 3,000mAh battery (the S8+ has a 3,500mAh power pack).

It is enough to see you through the day with moderate to high levels of use, although anything heavier and you might have to reach for the charging pack.

It does make you wonder if the Note 7 battery hadn’t been such a disaster, would the battery on the S8 have been bigger?

CAMERA

One of the areas where there has been limited changes from the Galaxy S7 is the camera department.

The 8MP front facing camera has been upgraded as the focus on selfies becomes more and more important.

However the 12MP main camera is the same one as could be found in the S7.

That’s for the good reason that the S7 camera was really good – among the best around.

The interface has, however, changed and is easy to navigate and use.

There are a few more bells and whistles, like augmented reality masks for example, but all told it remains and excellent camera, particularly in low-light conditions.

There’s a pro-mode too for camera aficionados.

Clever shortcuts also make opening and firing the camera really quick – important when you want to capture that moment.

The one big issue with the camera is the situation of the lens beside the fingerprint sensor.

It is way too easy to mix the two up, the result being a smudged camera just when you are racing to grab the perfect shot.

OTHER

Every high-end smartphone must today have some form of smart assistant based on artificial intelligence.

Samsung’s big-play answer is Bixby.

The plan is that Bixby will become Samsung’s answer to Siri, Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, helping with all sorts of daily activities and chores.

I say "will" because so far it is not yet available in its true form here in Ireland.

You can get a taste of what it can do through Bixby Vision – a camera setting that recognises what’s in the shot and then allows you to search or shop for it.

There’s also the Bixby Home page, accessed via the button on the side of the handset, which offers up personalised news, etc.

But all told Bixby is a work in progress which may, or may not be, worth waiting for.

The device runs on Android Nougat with the new version of Samsung’s own user interface on top of it.

It’s pretty nice, easy to use and has some added features - like long-pressing certain icons revealing sub-menus for example.

Other changes include having to swipe down to access the app drawer – there is no button.

They aren’t big or necessarily bad alterations, although they do require a bit of getting used to if you are used previous versions of the phone.

There’s also a customisable always-on display, which is handy.

The finger-print sensor moving to the back is less so, however.

Its position right beside the camera lens means you are likely to occasionally accidentally smudge it.

It also isn’t in the most comfortable position.

The other options for access and security, aside from the usual PIN/pattern, are biometrics.

Both facial recognition and iris scanning are available – but neither is particularly brilliant.

They both work, but take a little while to lock onto their target and need the face or eyes to be well positioned to activate.

ACCESSORIES

In tandem with the launch of the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus, Samsung also released an upgraded version of the Gear VR headset and the Gear 360 camera.

Both represent incremental but meaningful enough iterations of the original products.

The Gear VR includes new features like a USB-C plug that S8 connects into and it is also noticeably lighter.

The button layout is also a bit different, with a dedicated home button now beside the touch pad.

The killer addition though is a new wireless controller, which makes navigating the VR space considerably easier.

It has a circular touchpad, a trigger button, volume switches, home button and back button.

I like the Gear VR a lot – it is comfortable to wear, easy to navigate, there’s plenty of content and for €100 (controller is extra) it’s an inexpensive entry to VR if you have a compatible phone.

It can, however, be a bit glitchy and trying to explain what to do to children or adult novices who are using it for the first time is tricky.

If you are interested in making content for your Gear VR then the Gear 360 has had an upgrade too.

Its design has been completely revamped, it now shoots in 4k and there’s now an iOS compatible app for it.

The main Android app is pretty good, and has lots of features, including a live 360 broadcast mode.

The video quality is good, not fantastic, and it takes reasonable quality photos.

One downside is that the smaller battery isn’t replaceable on the new version, but was on the original.

However, as an entry level offering, this camera is fun and easy to use.

The final accessory for the S8 is the DeX docking station, which enables you to connect your S8 or S8 Plus to a monitor and keyboard.

When it is connected you see a desktop version of Android on the screen that is more akin to Windows than the traditional Google mobile OS.

As well as the HDMI-out port, DeX has an ethernet jack, and two full-size USB ports.

It won’t replace a full workstation or laptop, but it is an interesting and functional accessory for a location where you may not have a full system but might want to work for short periods on a full-screen and keyboard.

CONCLUSION

The Galaxy S8 isn’t perfect.

There’s the badly placed fingerprint sensor, the incomplete Bixby and the absence of an upgrade on the camera.

It is also very expensive – starting at around €800 on prepay for the S8 and €900 for the S8 Plus.

That puts it in the same price bracket as the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus and above the soon to be released Sony Xperia XZ Premium and Huawei P10/Plus.

But it is an extremely good smartphone, with probably the best screen on the market right now and plenty of features to help justify much of that very premium price tag.

Comments welcome via Twitter via @willgoodbody