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Here's a secret: I wasn't excited for the Galaxy S8.
When Samsung first announced the smartphone, I felt like I was watching a replay of last year's Galaxy Note 7. A curved display, an iris scanner, and enough tech under the hood to make a geek's knees clatter with excitement. We've heard this story, though, and last year Samsung's Galaxy Note 7 was recalled twice and ultimately killed due to faulty batteries. I had ordered and returned the phone twice, and so, for the first time in recent memory, I decided not to buy the Galaxy S8.
Now, after a week testing Samsung's new device, I think I might actually buy it. It's the most exciting device to launch so far this year, is supposed to be much safer (though only time will tell if the battery will hold up this time) and is future-proofed to support faster Gigabit LTE networks as carriers begin rolling them out this year.
The Galaxy S8 has shortcomings, which I'll discuss in this review, but so long as Samsung can avoid any major recalls, it's enough to put the company's smartphones right back on the map.
The highlight feature of the Galaxy S8, at least the one most folks are going to notice first, is the sharp, rounded and colorful AMOLED display, which was recently rated the best on the market by display experts.
Samsung is selling two versions of the Galaxy S8. The only difference is standard model has a 5.8-inch display while the Galaxy S8+ sports a 6.2-inch screen. The new "Infinity" form factor, however, allows the 5.8-inch screen to fit on a device that's much smaller and more pocketable than the iPhone 7 Plus, even though Apple's device has a smaller 5.5-inch screen.
The curved edges help remove borders along the side of the screen, allowing it to look like it's flowing over the sides of the device. It's taller and spans almost from top to bottom. You feel like you could sink right into the device.
Samsung confirmed the larger model is already more popular, but I found it more cumbersome to use. It's hard to reach the top of the phone with one hand, which was frustrating. The 5.8-inch display size of the smaller Galaxy S8 was more than large enough for gaming and watching movies and much easier to hold.
And speaking of easier to hold, Samsung embedded the home button right into the display. There's a small area at the bottom of the screen that can be pressed to return back to the home screen at any time. It works great, and helps provide a much cleaner design.
I have two gripes about the phone's industrial design. First, the back of the device feels slimy and gross really quickly. It also attracts fingerprints and looks pretty dirty even after just a few minutes of use. I recommend a case to help resolve this problem instantly. Second, the screen seemed to scratch really easily during a week of tests, even though I was careful to try to keep it from sharing a pocket with my keys.
Samsung is using Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 835 processor in the Galaxy S8. In fact, it's the only smartphone maker that's been able to get its hands on this new chip, leaving competitors to scramble to either build their own chips or use Qualcomm's older Snapdragon processors. The Snapdragon 835 is one of the first chips to support Gigabit LTE. That's a stepping stone to next-generation 5G networks, which carriers are going to start rolling out this year.
In my tests, with the Galaxy S8 and the iPhone 7 Plus next to one another, I always got faster download speeds on Samsung's device. That's without Gigabit LTE even active yet, and testament to the power of Qualcomm's modem and Samsung's antenna design.
Think of it like this: if you buy the Galaxy S8, you're preparing yourself to get much faster download speeds, perfect for streaming HD or even 4K video, when they're available. It's a nice way of future-proofing yourself.
Samsung stuffed the whole kitchen sink in the Galaxy S8.
Let's cover the basics before we dive in too much. Connectivity was great on T-Mobile's network during my tests, and I didn't experience any dropped calls. Just once I had to repeat myself during a phone call when the other user wasn't able to hear me for a few seconds.
Also, the Galaxy S8 runs on Android Nougat, the latest major release of Android. The UI is clean, which hasn't been typical of Samsung phones in the past, and very quick and fluid. As with earlier iterations of Samsung Galaxy S devices, you can run apps side by side, or pop out video for watching while performing other tasks.
I also like features like the Blue Light shade, which cuts out blue light while you're reading at night so you can fall asleep easier. Apps like Samsung Connect will let you tap into SmartThings accessories throughout your home, everything from refrigerators to light bulbs and smart vacuums, though I didn't own any of these to test with.
Ok, on to the goodies, some of which you don't see on most smartphones.
There are a few features we've seen before, like wireless charging and quick charging, the latter of which allows the device to juice up faster at the outlet.
There's even an iris scanner, which is secure and works well but initially made its debut on the ill-fated Galaxy Note 7.
My favorite feature is face unlock. It unlocks the display almost instantly, before I can even type in my pin code, so long as it recognizes me. It's not secure, though. I was able to fool it with a picture of myself. Samsung says it's not meant for security and is simply meant to make the phone easy to unlock. I'm not sure I buy those claims, so beware that it's not meant to keep your phone locked from would-be hackers.
There's a fingerprint reader, too, which can be used to verify your identity to unlock the phone or for mobile payments either online or at tap-and-go stations in places like coffee shops or grocery stores. It works well, but it's placed in such a terrible spot. It's next to the camera which makes it hard to reach — I was always flipping my phone and looking for it — and caused smudging on the camera when I missed the fingerprint reader.
Speaking of mobile payments, the Galaxy S8 sports Samsung Pay. It's my favorite mobile payment technology, even ahead of Apple Pay, because it allows you to make purchases at terminals without NFC readers. That's thanks to technology it acquired from LoopPay which allows wireless mobile payments to work with simple mag stripe readers in most locations. Even cooler, Samsung includes easy access to coupons and other deals right inside the app, so you can swipe through them while you're waiting in line at the checkout counter. I even received a $20 gift card for registering my first credit card in Samsung Pay, which I used at a Dunkin Donuts without hiccup.
The Galaxy S8 features the same camera sensor as the Galaxy S7 that launched last year, though Samsung says it fine tuned some of the software under the hood to make it even better. I didn't have much to complain about last year and that still holds true here.
The camera autofocuses nearly instantly and snaps beautiful photos. It's one of the best smartphone cameras on the market, right up there with the Google Pixel — often viewed as the best of the best — and the iPhone 7 Plus.
Finally, Samsung is introducing its new "Bixby" artificial intelligence assistant on the Galaxy S8. It's useless right now.
Bixby can help show you the weather or news stories for topics you might care about in a panel that sits to the left of the home screen. You'll also find things like trending topics on Twitter, random GIFs, calendar updates, Samsung themes and more. Save for the weather forecast, I never once looked to Bixby for assistance.
Bixby also exists inside the camera app, allowing you to point your camera at specific items and then shop for them online. It barely worked with specific things, like a tube of Clorox wipes I had at my desk, but not at all with more obscure objects, like the Sony camera sitting on my desk. In the case of the latter, I just saw an image search for random cameras. It doesn't work well and you'll find better performing software built into apps like Amazon, which provide a more seamless buying experience, too.
The voice functionality that will allow Bixby to act more like Siri isn't yet available yet, which means you can't say things like "Hey Bixby what's the Yankees score?" There's even a dedicated function for this feature that should be useful once voice support is added in the coming weeks. For now, though, it just launches the Bixby side panel.
Bixby should ultimately be a major aspect of this smartphone. It's bizarre Samsung isn't including full functionality at launch. The good news is users can still access Google Assistant, which works really well.
The smartphones we're going to start to see later this year and beyond will have screens that take over most of the front display, support for the next-generation of wireless networks that will begin rolling out this year, thinner designs than ever before and new biometric security features like iris scanners. Samsung is the first to bring all of these to market in a mass consumer device. I suspect Apple will follow with some of these features, including the advanced screen and the iris scanner.
If there's one thing you should take away from this review, it's that the Galaxy S8 is a fantastic smartphone that's well worth the cost. Will it blow up? I hope not, but I also think that there's enough here to draw Samsung fans back to the brand, and to help Samsung replant itself as one of the leaders in the smartphone market.