Samsung’s S8: The best in class all-rounder

Above: Samsung’s S8 is available in a range of colours, including a recently announced metallic pink that’s proving popular. Photo courtesy Samsung.

BitDepth#1104 for August 01, 2017

Samsung’s S series of smartphones continues to hold a commanding market position among Android device users for good reasons.

The company has implemented a robust mix of innovation and feature parity since it introduced the line of devices to compete with Apple’s genre defining iPhone.

The two companies have leapfrogged each other on occasion, most notably since the landmark legal challenge that essentially forced Samsung to strike out more boldly into its own territory.

Beginning with the S3, the S series smartphones have charted a course that has influenced other Android device makers and spurred Google to introduce more user-friendly features into the core operating system.

In recent years, the Korean multinational has begun to introduce dramatic design ideas to its smartphones and has used its considerable manufacturing savvy to field a range of telecommunications devices that have probed customer interest in different sizes and form factors for these handheld computers.

The new S series phones, the S8 and S8+ inherit design cues from the now discontinued Edge series of smartphones, a parallel line of S7 series phones with a screen design that wrapped around the edge of the phone on its longest sides.

Until last week, I’d been convinced that the S8+, which I’ve been testing, was a quiet replacement for the Note 7, the phone that cut Samsung’s market hamstrings for long months in the last half of 2016 after it became clear that there was something dramatically wrong with the phone’s battery system.

But there’s an Unpacked event coming on August 23 with a graphic that seems to be heralding a new version of the Note with the wrap screen that Samsung now describes as an infinity screen.

I believe that the Note brand is terminally poisoned, so I’d be surprised if Samsung decides to stick with it and work to rehabilitate it, but then they decided to say nothing about the battery issue for months, so who knows?

It’s tough to come back from an FAA ban, but perhaps the brand value is worth the effort of bringing a Note 8 into the world.

If you’ve been jonesing for a new Note meanwhile and didn’t mind not having stylus input, the S8+ is a really good substitute.

The S8+ tracks closely on size to the Note 7. It’s slightly taller at 6.28 inches versus 6.04 inches on the Note 7, incrementally slimmer at 2.89 inches (N7: 2.91) and heavier at 173g (N7: 169g).

The lens in the Samsung S8 and S8+ is one of the best available in a single lens smartphone, offering the depth effects typically found in professional optics. Photo by Mark Lyndersay. Click to enlarge.

The comfortable wrap of the infinity screen makes the device seem even smaller than it is, though you’ll have to choose your protective case carefully. Samsung makes a case for the device that comes with a transluscent lid that suggests that the S8+ is a Note 7 consolation for the device bereft.

Without a case, the S8 series boasts IP68 dust and water resistance and the company claims it will resist submersion in up to 1.5 metres of fresh water for up to 30 minutes.

The S8 series introduces more than the infinity screen though, and most of the new features are driven by software that’s intended to embed the phone more deeply into the lifestyle of its users.

Bixby is a software assistant and artificial intelligence that seeks to carve out its own space in a field that’s already crowded with Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana and the Google Assistant.

Activating Bixby is unnecessarily irritating though. Samsung has tied the software into its own, parallel Samsung app store, which means that if you’ve avoided using that service until now, you will need to sign up for yet another online service to use Bixby.

Be warned. Bixby will appear to offer you options in its agreement screen, but if you don’t choose to accept all, some screens won’t move you forward to completion. It’s an odd example of offering nuanced choices when there really aren’t any beyond yes or no.

The home screen is an attractive collection of personal data, including reminders you’ve created and a stream of news items that the software has presumably curated from your browsing history.

Some of Bixby’s features are still US only, but the voice recognition supports thousands of commands for both built-in software and popular apps. Expect to spend some time working with the software to improve its understanding of Trini English.

Samsung offers five different ways to secure your home screen and is clearly proudest of its new Iris recognition, which scans the unique patterns of the user’s eyes.

Unfortunately, the feature has already been cracked using a distinctly low-rent solution involving a photograph and contact lenses, so it’s probably better to stay with fingerprints, patterns, face recognition or a PIN until Samsung adapts the software to be more secure.

As part of its emphasis on battery improvements, Samsung has introduced fast charging on a new USB-C port, and a dialog will warn of slower charge times if you try to use a charger other than the one that shipped with the product. An overnight charge lasts for at least two days and depending on how you use the S8+, may last longer in my experience.

The S8 series inherits the excellent lens and camera system from the S7, which set the standard for fast apertures on a smartphone at f1.7, but the interface for the camera feels dated, with too many features that savvy users will use regularly buried in swipe screens instead of on the main, quite ample view screen.

I’d really prefer being able to switch to pro mode on the main screen instead of being able to apply rabbit ears to a selfie. Other users may have different preferences.

Samsung’s SmartSwitch makes is really easy to migrate from an older Samsung device to a new one. It also supports migrating data from other, non-Android devices, but the process is a bit more fussy. Still, it’s free and more important, it exists.

Samsung’s S8 series positions the company as a preferred player for the smartphone user looking for a device that delivers on multiple fronts and balances size, features and comfort with modern style.

It checklists near the top against all of its competition and takes a ding in my experience with it for not capitalising more on the excellent camera hardware that’s built in with better software support and ignoring recent developments in computational photography that have made smartphone photography more interesting.