Samsung used to be known for making plastic phones that felt cheap and ran the least desirable version of Android. Then, things changed after the poor performance of the Galaxy S5. Samsung started paying attention to the design and features it pushed on consumers, and it has released some of the most attractive and solid Android phones in recent years. There have been bumps along the road, like the Note 7 with its defective battery. Samsung hopes the Galaxy S8 can smooth all that over, and the early results are good. The Galaxy S8 is getting largely positive reviews, and none of them have exploded. That's always nice.
You've probably heard plenty about the Galaxy S8, but most reviews don't get past basic evaluations of the features. Let's drill down deeper and go over the best and worst things about this phone.
Looks aren't everything, but they are definitely something. The Galaxy S8 has good looks to spare, too. It's like a slightly more compact version of the ill-fated Galaxy Note 7 with the same symmetrical front-back curve. It's an extremely comfortable phone to hold in both the standard 5.8-inch and 6.2-inch Plus varieties.
I'll get to the new AMOLED panel in a moment, but the shape of this phone is an important milestone for Samsung. There won't be a version of the GS8 with a flat screen, which frankly concerned me at first. While curved AMOLEDs have sold better and generally look really neat, Samsung's palm detection needed work. With the GS6 and GS7 generations, curved AMOLEDs suffered from a lot of "phantom touches" on the edge as you were holding them. The Galaxy S8 solves that problem. No longer do I find my hand setting off touches on the edge of the screen.
The AMOLED itself is again the best one on a phone. This is probably the best reason to get a Galaxy S8. It has a taller aspect ratio of 18.5:9 (it's taller) and the corners are rounded. The result is almost no bezel around the edges of the screen, so you can cram a 5.8-inch panel into a footprint that would usually have a 5 or 5.2-inch screen. Of course, the left and right edges curve downward, so there's not quite as much useful space as a flat 5.8-inch panel.
Samsung's latest AMOLED panel has an incredible max brightness of 1,000 nits, and the color accuracy is best in class. Perhaps you've heard about the red tint some panels seem to have. Well, it's a thing, but it's not a serious problem. You can adjust the colors yourself, and there's an OTA update rolling out that adjusts them at the system level. I suspect Samsung's default calibration going forward will
The Galaxy S8 packs a 12MP rear-facing camera that is once again exceptional. I think the Pixel is still a little better, but Samsung's camera has quick captures, good low-light performance, and the optical stabilization is impressive. A lot of phones can take a good shot in the right conditions, but the GS8 can take good photos almost all the time when other phones would just spit out a noisy mess.
Samsung has finally made an important change this year—physical navigation buttons are over. The Galaxy S8 has on-screen navigation buttons. The icons aren't the best, but you can rearrange them to be in the "correct" order used by all other Android devices. Thanks goodness. The home button is also pressure sensitive. That means you can hard-press that area of the screen at any time to trigger the home button. The display doesn't even have to be awake for it to work.
The Galaxy S8 is the first phone to ship with a Snapdragon 835, which is something Samsung is happy to brag about. However, it doesn't make much of an impact on how the phone runs. There are devices with the Snapdragon 821 like the Pixel and OnePlus 3T that are faster than the GS8. That's not the say the Galaxy S8 is slow, but it's not much faster than the Galaxy S7 was. Apps sometimes take a beat longer to load, and multitasking can occasionally lag. The reason for this is probably that Samsung optimized for battery life (which is good).
While the move to on-screen buttons is a very good thing, the fingerprint sensor's new home is very bad. See, it used to be in the physical home button on Samsung's phones, so it had to move on the Galaxy S8. For some reason, Samsung decided to place it on the back next to the camera sensor. Many phones have rear-facing fingerprint sensors, and I actually prefer that placement when it's in a reasonable location below the camera. Putting the sensor next to the camera makes it hard to reach, and the similar feel of the ring around Samsung's camera and fingerprint sensor ensures you'll often smudge your camera lens when you mean to touch the fingerprint sensor.
Even when you do stretch your finger enough to tap the sensor, it's not very accurate or fast. In fact, it hasn't improved at all since last year. Cheap phones like the OnePlus 3T put Samsung's fingerprint scanner to shame. This phone has an iris scanner as well, but that's little more than a novelty. It works, but not as reliably as a good fingerprint scanner.
While the screen is overall great, there's a downside you should be aware of. The taller aspect ratio makes it difficult to reach everything. It's a comfortable phone to hold, but it is still a 5.8-inch screen. The GS8 Plus is, I think, a bit too much of a stretch for most people to use one-handed. The GS8 is usable in one hand, but even there reaching the notification shade and be a pain. You have to shift your grip to make it, and this is a glass phone. Thus, it's slippery and could break if you drop it.
And then, there's Bixby. This is Samsung's new assistant tool, which is supposed to eventually have voice commands. That's not ready at launch, though. There is a physical Bixby button, which is in the perfect place to accidentally hit when you're trying to change the volume on your phone (on the left edge). Press it brings up Bixby Home, which is like a much less useful version of the Google Feed. You can also use Bixby to set reminders and (allegedly) identify objects with the camera. That last one is called Bixby Vision and it doesn't work very well.
Samsung's TouchWiz interface has undergone a few tweaks this year, and it's mostly inoffensive now. Most of the colors are muted, with the exception of some super-bright launcher icons. I would not say it's good, though. Samsung still insists on reorganizing the settings, and there's a whole panel on the home screen for Bixby. There are also a lot of features piling up in the settings, some of which are disabled by default. It's a bit of that old feature creep from the Galaxy S4 days. You can safely ignore most of it, though.
Conclusion: Mostly Good
Samsung has made some very positive changes to the Galaxy line this year. Ditching the physical buttons makes the phone more pleasant to use, and the pressure sensitive home button is a great idea. The design of the GS8 is also fantastic—if you want a really pretty phone, look no further. The screen is also great, as is the camera.
While the screen is very good, remember it's still a large panel that can be hard to use at times. The GS8 Plus is just a bit too large for most people to comfortably use one-handed. That's not a huge deal, but I'm not pleased with the fingerprint sensor, which is in a terrible spot no matter how large your hands, and it's slower than other phones. Samsung's launch of Bixby is also shaping up to be a mess. It only does voice commands in Korean, and early feedback from Korean speakers isn't good. Yet, there's a button on the phone dedicated to a feature almost no one will use.
The Galaxy S8 is a fine device, as long as you know what you're getting. It's spendy, though. You're looking at $750 for the GS8 and $850 for the GS8 Plus.