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The Galaxy S8 is an important product from Samsung. Last year, they had the Galaxy S7 and S7 edge models which were a refinement of their S6 models from 2015 and they were well received by reviewers and users alike.

This year, Samsung had to prove to their customers and to their investors that they will bounce back from the Note 7 fiasco (which was plagued by battery explosion issues that led to a massive recall) and boy they did with the Galaxy S8.

Design

When leaks started pouring in across the web about the device, everybody was stunned by the company’s radical decision to change their design language.

The Galaxy S8 is a natural evolution of the Galaxy S7 edge’s design where they had perfected the curved glass and a thin metal band sandwich that feels great in the hand.

The Galaxy S8 added to that design by eliminating their classic home button and creating space for a relatively large 5.8″ display that dominates the entire front. To put it into perspective, the Galaxy S8 is slightly taller than my Xperia Z2 but narrower, yet it has a bigger display (5.8″ vs 5.2″).

At the very top we have the multiple sensors that this phone carries: An infrared iris scanner, ambient light sensor, earpiece and the 8MP front facing camera.

On the right we have the power button and the left side is quite busy thanks to the volume rocker and the Bixby button, which we will talk about later on.

At the top, we have a single microphone and at the bottom, we have the 3.5 mm headphone jack (which has become a rarity with flagship phones), the other microphone, USB type C port and a single speaker.

At the back, we have the 12MP primary camera, awkwardly placed fingerprint sensor and the heart rate monitor all squished to the top centre of the device. The entire back is covered in glass.

The Galaxy S8 just makes every other phone in the market look dated designwise. When I picked it up and used it for a few hours, every other ‘flat screened’ phoned felt like they were made in the 90s. The very small bezels on this phone make this phone appear very chic and Samsung struck a home-run with this design.

However, there are few gripes with it:

  • The curved screen introduces glare which can be annoying while watching videos or browsing through pictures.
  • The fingerprint scanner is awkwardly placed and it requires a stretch for you to use it effectively.
  • The phone is incredibly slippery so you need a case.

Display

The Samsung Galaxy S8 has a gorgeous 5.8″ Super AMOLED display (which they call Infinity Display) that has tiny bezels and covers 80% of the front face. It borrows the curved edges from the Galaxy S7 edge and it makes the phone smaller than it looks.

The display has a variable display resolution: You can set the resolution to be 1480 x 720 (HD+) , 2220 x 1080 (FHD+) or the maximum resolution of 2960 x 1440 (WQHD+). I like pixels and I set the resolution to the max since the screen is so good to look at.

One thing that I was happy Samsung added to the display settings is white balance settings which is under the display settings. I’ve been enjoying this feature for a while in Sony phones and it is great that you can now fiddle with the toggles provided to find that perfect “white” in the display. the other modes: Basic, AMOLED cinema and AMOLED photo are too yellow for my liking and it is great that you have the option to change that.

The S8 also has some neat tricks borrowed from the Note 7 and Galaxy S7 like Always on DisplayEdge Lighting and Edge Screen. You can choose a variety of Always on Display complications from Settings and as downloads from the Galaxy Apps Store. Edge Lighting uses the edges to beam customized lighting as notification lights and I’d never use it because it warrants you placing the phone upside down to see it in full effect. Edge Screen involves a variety of panels that you launch by making a right to left gesture when you activate them which launches a variety of widgets like smart select tools, apps edge (shortcut to frequently used apps), people edge (for making quick calls to people), clipboard, remidsers, weather, sports and much more.

User Interface

Samsung has received criticism over its Touchwiz interface for a while now where people complained about its looks and the odd stuttering on relatively powerful hardware. The user interface that Samsung shipped with the Galaxy S8 is the most refined we have seen in years. It looks rather attractive with less gaudy looking icons and the app launcher is accessed by making a swipe up gesture.

The user interface generally runs smoothly while switching panes on the homescreen but stutters a bit while launching the app drawer. The user settings look much better than what we have seen being implemented in past although since the S8 has an AMOLED display, it would have been swell if it had a black background to save battery.

The user interface overhaul is a huge step forward for Samsung and they only need to make it even smoother by getting rid of those weird stutters while launching the app drawer or making those transitions shorter like what we see on the OnePlus phones.

Performance

Samsung crammed the best hardware they could at the time to the Galaxy S8 and this shows from its performance. It installs fast, loads photos on the gallery fast and runs 3D games without stutter. My review unit came with the Exynos 8895 Octa which has 4 fast Samsung Exynos M1 cores that can run upto 2.3 Ghz , 4 power efficient Cortex A53 chips that can run upto 1.7Ghz and a 20 core Mali G71 GPU that has the same performance as the Adreno 430 from Qualcomm.

When you run synthetic benchmarks like Geekbench 4, the Exynos Galaxy S8 posts a good score of over 2000 on single core performance and over 6000 on multicore. This is in line with what the Snapdragon 835 phones are able to get, but that single performance is still lower than the iPhone 6S (2300+) that was released in 2015 or the iPhone 7 (3300+).

An overlooked aspect of a phone is the speed of the internal storage. If your internal storage is fast, your apps will install faster and you will be able to refresh images in your galleries much faster than a slower phone.

Thankfully the Galaxy S8 has UFS storage and it is fast…SSD like fast. When I measured the read and write speeds of the inbuilt 64GB UFS storage, it registered over 500MB/s as read speeds and over 200 MB/s as write speeds, which are still fast by todays standards on phones.

Battery

The Galaxy S8 has a relatively conservative 3000mAh battery capacity size, but since it has an AMOLED screen, a power efficient 10nm SoC and Doze feature on Android, it manages that power reserve rather well.

My use case involves a lot of screen on time use thanks to watching videos on YouTube, social networking use and surfing the web on Chrome on LTE. On average, I get around 4 hours of screen on time, which is not bad for a phone with a 5.8″ screen that’s refreshing all those pixels. The battery life is even shorter if you use Always on Display and/or Edge Lighting since this requires illumination of a portion of the screen. However, it would have been swell if Samsung had used the 3600mAh battery that we saw on the Galaxy S7 and this would have easily given it 20% more battery life.

Although the battery life is not the best that I’ve seen, the Galaxy S8 has fast wired charging and fast wireless charging. I was able to experience the fast wired charging using the special adaptive plug that comes with it and this phone charges FAST. It usually charges from 0-73% in an hour when off during my testing and around 1.5hours total to 100%, which means that if you forget to charge it at night, you will be rest assured that it will fill up by the time you’re done preparing in the morning.

Cameras

The Galaxy S8 has a 12MP rear camera with a lens that has a really wide f/1.7 aperture, optical image stabilization and relatively large pixel size for a phone (1.4μm). The selfie camera has a 8MP sensor with a f/1.7 sensor. The rear camera can shoot upto 4K video at 30fps while the front camera tops out at QHD at 30fps.

During the day, it takes stellar photos. The dynamic range (ability to render bright and dark sections in a photo) is superb and the focus speed is really fast thanks to that phenomenal dual pixel system Samsung introduced in the Galaxy S7 that was carried forward to the S8. Another plus is that by default, you need to tap twice fast on the home button to access the camera when the phone is unlocked, which saves you a swipe if you want to capture something quickly.

This camera setup was made for low-light shooting. Most smartphones shoot relatively good photos during the day when there is a lot of light around, but the quality dips significantly in low light situations and under artificial lights. This phone just shines during night photography, thanks to those relatively large pixels, OIS and wide aperture to let a lot of light in, the Galaxy S8’s 12MP rear camera soaks enough light to properly expose scenes under the excellent Auto mode.

The pro mode is also here for enthusiast shooters who know how to tinker with settings like ISO sensitivity, shutter speed, metering, manual focus and changing the exposure. You can also shoot in RAW, if that is your thing.

The selfie camera got an upgrade, it is now an 8MP unit up from the 5MP one that was in the Galaxy S7 and it still has the same lens with the wide f/1.7 aperture. This means that you will take even better selfies during low light conditions. The front camera is great for normal selfie takes as well as using it to update your Stories on Snapchat or Instagram.

In the age where Augmented Reality became ‘fun’ thanks to Snapchat, Samsung added fun AR effects to be used on selfie camera mode only and they range from cute bunnies to more macho like cowboy ones.

Although the cameras are really good, I have one gripe with it that most people won’t really care really: The JPEGs that come out of this camera are really sharpened during the processing of this images. This is quite evident when you zoom in on foliage or on windows of buildings and this is done to make the photo seems “sharp”.

Unique add-ons

True to Samsung’s style, they used their give-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to the Galaxy S8.

First, we start with the biometrics and specifically the Iris scanner. Samsung debuted this on the Galaxy Note 7 and it uses an infrared scanner to scan your iris and store that data to uniquely identify you. In my testing, it works very well during the day well into the night and even when you’re wearing glasses. You will probably use it more than the awkwardly placed fingerprint scanner and it is just as fast.

The display’s odd 18.5:9 aspect ratio is slightly taller than the LG G6’s 18:9 ratio and they are a deviation from the normal 16:9 ratio that most smartphones have. This weird ratio led Samsung to add tools for you to stretch your games or videos to fill up the screen, but this leads to cropping of the image or video.

Software features like smart select allow you to create GIFs or pin stuff to the top of the screen. Always on Display lets you choose between six different clock styles and you can get others on the Galaxy Apps store.

There is also a setting that shrinks the user interface so that you can use the phone with ease

Bixby

Bixby is the other unique add-on on the Galaxy S8. Bixby is the new virtual assistant that Samsung debuted with the Galaxy S8 and the company is so serious about it in that it has its own dedicated button on the left side.

Bixby can be accessed by either tapping on the dedicated button on the left side of the phone or acess the left most plane on your homescreen.

It shows you a variety of things in a card format layout like your Twitter feed (if you allow it), recommended videos on YouTube, step-counter results from Samsung Health, news from Flipboard, most visited websites, reminders and the weather.

There is also Bixby Vision which has a dedicated button on the camera interface that detects what you’re looking at through the viewfinder and gives you a description of what it sees which is powered by Pinterest. It can also translate text (reminds me of Word Lens on Google Translate) and also read QR codes.

In my time with it, it was not very good in identifying stuff around me and I partly blame the fact that it relies on Pinterest as a database of sorts and it is a gen 1 software product. However, Samsung has a long way to go to make it more useful to future Samsung users where the machine learning needs to be trained to identify stuff better and to move away from Pinterest as the database.

As an update, Samsung released Bixby voice which uses natural language processing to do automated tasks for you, just like Google Assistant. It is also available in very few markets (Korea and the US) so it will take some time for people outside these markets to get the update.

I ended up using Google Assistant and Google Now most of the time and switched off Bixby by using the toggle that is available on the Bixby pane on the homescreen. Bixby has a future, but it is not yet there.

Conclusion

Samsung has a winner here. The Galaxy S8 is a phone that will make you feel special thanks to the futuristic design and one of the best cameras in its class. However, you will have to live with the weird aspect ratio if you’re a perennial video watcher, it is incredibly slippery and the battery is not the best that I’ve seen on such an expensive device.

The phone is not cheap. It retails between KES 80,000- 85,000 currently in Kenya and that is a pretty penny to thrown on this phone.  Is it worth it? Yes it is and I enjoyed using it and it is one phone that you can comfortably use for the next two years easy and be guaranteed that it won’t feel outdated as fast as mid range phones.

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