The Samsung Galaxy S8 is a powerful phone with a design that’s unlike anything most phone buyers will have seen before – and it’s stunning.
But it’s also one of the most expensive devices out there right now, and packs in a few questionable design decisions to accommodate that large display – essentially, Samsung has rolled the dice to create something that looks truly breathtaking and innovative.
There are a few other elements that may raise eyebrows: the battery life isn’t any better, and (on paper at least) the rear camera hasn’t been improved.
There’s no more RAM than last year and Bixby, meant to be the big play from Samsung to take on Siri, Alexa and Google’s Assistant is in a raw, very much early-build stage.
But the Galaxy S8 is firmly a phone that rises above those points to combine everything into a handset that really impresses in the hand, fitting seamlessly into day-to-day life (as long as you can get over the dizzying price).
Samsung Galaxy S8 price
- Between £40-£45 on contract, £689 SIM-free
- $30 to $31.25 on US carrier, $724.99 SIM-free
- AU$1200 to get the S8 SIM-free
- Ordering early can get you priority access and gifts
The Samsung Galaxy S8 isn’t the cheapest phone on the market by any stretch of the imagination; in fact, it’s one of the most expensive. You’re really paying for that screen.
In the UK, you’re going to be looking at between £40-£45 per month to get this phone without an upfront cost and with a few gigabytes of data, or you can purchase it SIM-free for a whopping £689.
In the US you’re going to pay between $30 to $31.25 a month for this phone with a 24-month contract through American carriers like Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. Their contract pricing isn’t cheap.
For $724.99, there will be an unlocked Samsung Galaxy S8. However, it won’t be available until two months after the initial phone launch. If you want to go SIM-free right away, you’ll have to pay off one of the carriers first.
In Australia, you’re looking at a shade under AU$1,200 to get your hands on this phone.
The slightly good news is that you’re at least getting a 64GB version of this phone in all territories; the presence of a microSD slot means Samsung won’t be launching multiple variants of the phone in different regions, instead offering a decent amount of storage as standard and giving users the option to add to that if they so wish.
Samsung Galaxy S8 release date
The Galaxy S8 launch is being staggered around the world, with the US getting its hands on the phone on April 21.
Officially the UK and Australia will get the S8 from April 28, but multiple retailers are offering pre-order deals that will enable you to get it from April 20 (with some throwing in gifts such as a free Gear VR) so check your local retailer to see what’s happening there.
Not seeing eye to eye
- Biometrics add time to unlocking the phone
- Fingerprint scanner in a poor place
- Facial recognition infuriating
Right, let’s get down to business – and we’ll start with the thing that’s concerning us most about the Galaxy S8.
The main issue we have with this phone centers around how you’ll get into it – most smartphones users now expect to use a fingerprint to unlock their device, making it secure and meaning you don’t have to peck in your PIN a billion times a day.
It’s a good idea, it’s safe enough for most people, and it just works – we’re all in agreement there.
With the Galaxy S6, Samsung got biometric unlocking right, but annoyingly with the Galaxy S8 things have become difficult and confusing.
You can unlock this phone with your face, a fingerprint or an iris scan, in increasing order of security level, making the S8 one of the most secure phones around (assuming nobody knows your PIN, of course, which is the backup method of entry).
However, in creating the massive screen on the front of the Galaxy S8, Samsung has moved the fingerprint scanner to the rear of the phone – and placed it out of the reach of most fingers when holding your phone naturally.
As a result, you’ll need to shift the handset to an unnatural position in your palm to reach the scanner with your digit, and thanks to the elongated lozenge-like shape of the fingerprint sensor it can take a couple of attempts to register.
It also makes it less stable in the hand and prone to being dropped.
The fingerprint scanner, then, is too far away to use naturally. So how about iris scanning? Well, it’s the best implementation we’ve seen from Samsung (far better than we’ve seen on the flammable Note 7) but it’s still not perfect.
There are times when it’s flawless, where you’ll just turn the phone on and be instantly unlocked as the S8 has spotted your eyes and confirmed your identity. (Or just thinks you’ve got lovely irises and wants to impress you… either way, it’s rapid).
On the occasions when it works like this you’ll experience a genuine sense of living in the future.
Other times, when you’re walking or in lower light, the iris scanner just failed time and again (although weirdly it works fine in the pitch-dark).
This meant we sometimes ended up gurning (by the way, we urge you to search YouTube for the gurning world championships) at the S8, trying to force the issue by opening our eyes really wide and moving the phone around in order to unlock it.
On the train, this is not acceptable behavior – and after a couple of days, it actually made our eyes hurt, pushing them out on stalks so often.
There were also times when the iris scanner wouldn’t work even in optimal conditions (sitting still in bright light), and only a restart sorted this issue out.
Not smart, Samsung. If you’re going to make people switch to an iris scanner by putting the fingerprint sensor out of reach, then make it flawless, not brilliant-most-of-the-time-but-sometimes-not.
Over a week or so we did get used to the nuances of the iris scanner; it’s fine – it’s just mildly irritating to have to hold your phone in a certain way, and it’s useless while walking or wearing sunglasses (although it did work through regular glasses).
Facial recognition – despite being the default out of the box – is a non-starter for us. The phone fails to recognise your face far too often, it doesn’t work in low light, and it can be spoofed by a photo. Nope, not happening.
What users now expect from flagship phones – and what Samsung had done perfectly before – is a simple, muscle memory action that opens your phone. No extra pressing, no having to interact with the phone to open it up – just one single press to be securely into your handset.
The workaround we ended up with (as we’re not leaving our phones unlocked, which is what some might be tempted to do) is to use Smart Lock, where you can set up trusted places or connected devices to confirm your identity.
This means that if you leave your phone lying around at work or at home someone can jump right into it though, so you’re basically just preventing a thief from being able to access data if you lose the Galaxy S8 on the train.
In short, Samsung appears to have screwed this one up. We’d heard rumors that the brand was trying to add in a new feature where the fingerprint was in the same place as on the S7 (at the base of the phone) but actually under the screen.
That would have been perfect, as it’s the way most people fire up the screen anyway.
But clearly Samsung couldn’t make this work effectively, so decided to shove the fingerprint scanner way up the back of the S8, as that was the only place left to put it that didn’t require some last-minute retooling of the phone.
That’s the only logical explanation, as otherwise why wouldn’t the fingerprint scanner be above the Samsung logo, which would be a perfect place for it?
A sluggish start for Bixby
- No point to Bixby right now
- Very much a future feature
- Bixby Vision adds unnecessary bloat to the camera
The other big feature that’s launched with the Samsung Galaxy S8 is Bixby, the brand’s voice assistant rival to Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s less-interestingly-named Assistant.
Those who’ve used the Galaxy S3 and S4 will remember that Samsung already tried to match Siri with S Voice, but it was a bit pointless, especially when Google’s voice chops got so gosh-darn good.
Well, Bixby is Samsung’s big play in its bid to compete in the arena of artificially intelligent assistants, and it clearly thinks it can succeed despite being so late to the game.
The aim here is to make Bixby an indispensable accompaniment to your daily life, reminding you of things when you need them, letting you know what you’re looking at, and being a single-button one-stop shop for all the information you need.
In fact Samsung is so confident that Bixby is going to be brilliant that it’s popped a button dedicated solely to this function on the side of the phone.
Yep, a phone that’s so tightly designed that it can’t even have the fingerprint scanner in an accessible place has a whole key dedicated to Bixby… and it’s very hard to see why right now.
Bixby is pretty mundane at launch, and that’s largely because it’s not coming with any kind of voice recognition. It’ll gain that facility in South Korea and the US later in the spring (although exactly when that will be remains a mystery), and around the rest of the world at a later date.
In the UK, one would assume it wouldn’t be too long – but then again, that region was expecting Samsung Pay a while ago, and it’s still not materialized.
So what does Bixby mean to you, the new phone buyer? Well, nothing. It’s average at best, and pretty much useless at worst.
Bixby Vision, a little icon that lives in the corner of the camera, will be able to analyze what’s being shown through the camera’s viewfinder (both live and from a taken pic) and let you know whether you can buy it, recognize the image and given information or let you know about a place you’re checking out.
Except the results of image recognition just show you things on Pinterest, the shopping element seems to recognize almost nothing at launch and the places option is pretty patchy. It’s slow to work out what it’s looking at and, overall, it’s just a waste of screen right now.
Bixby Home, the screen that lives to the side of the home screen, is much better.
It’s contextual and interesting, and you can pin your favorite elements (like Spotify, for instance) to the top for easy access from anywhere in the phone. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but it’s pretty neat – although there is a pause every time you open it for the first time, as if Bixby is trying to remember where it left its home page.
And then there’s Bixby Reminders, where you’ll be alerted to things you’ve made a note of in the past. You can set a location trigger to remind you to buy fruit when you pass a location, or ping you at a certain time to remind you to call someone.
None of this is exactly new though, and there’s absolutely no reason why you’d buy the Samsung Galaxy S8 for Bixby.
However, don’t judge Bixby just yet; while right now it’s close to useless as a feature (Google Assistant, which is also on board, is miles better and more fully-featured right now), that doesn’t mean it won’t be great in the future.
Samsung is pretty jazzed about Bixby, and the fact that it’ll be able to understand things contextually in the future. Right now it only can work with a handful of native apps (not even all of them…) and there’s no interaction with third-party options. But from this acorn, Samsung insists, a mighty oak will grow.
Imagine not just being able to set a location to buy fruit, but being pinged when somewhere nearby sells it. Or taking a picture of something and finding it far cheaper online straight away, or being able to ask your phone to do things contextually (for instance: ‘Bixby, can you turn on the heating when I’m twenty minutes from home?’ ‘Bixby, upload those pictures from my run today to Facebook with the caption ‘#blessed #squadgoals #ImsorryforwhoI’vebecome).
That’s the world Samsung is promising, and if you purchase the S8 you’ll be buying into that promise. However, right now, that’s all it is… and there’s no way we can recommend a phone based on a promise, as Samsung could just pull the plug on a feature like Bixby if it really can’t get it to work properly.