By Kannon Yamada
The $800 Samsung Galaxy S8 is, without question, the best smartphone ever made. A winning combination of top-tier hardware and sophisticated software place it above even superlative phones like the Google Pixel and iPhone 7. So what exactly makes the Samsung Galaxy S8 the best? Let’s find out – and at the end of this review, we’re giving away our test model to one lucky reader. Keep reading to find out how to enter the competition!
The S8 is clearly better than its competitors. And that’s because within the $700-800 price range, phones like the Google Pixel and iPhone 7 were released in 2016. Samsung’s nearly year-long lead gives them access to an entirely new processor along with further software refinements. Perhaps the most obvious reason, though, is how the phone looks. It crams an enormous 5.8-inch screen into a hand-sized form factor.
But how future proofed is the Samsung Galaxy S8? If you love gorgeous screens, given that Samsung’s Infinity Display technology is proprietary, there’s just no competition.
What You Get
If you pre-ordered a Galaxy S8, Samsung included a virtual reality headset along with a sound amplifying dock. I wasn’t very impressed with the cheap plastic build of the Samsung Gear VR, however, and the sound amplifier just feels like a gimmick. More or less, these free products are worth every penny.
Almost everything packaged along with the S8 is standard fare for Samsung. However, one interesting deviation is the headphones: AKG earphones with fabric covered, anti-tangle cords. I didn’t try these out (because we’re giving them away and that would be gross), but reviews online indicate high quality. If rumors are to be believed, these are a step up over the standard Samsung earbuds.
The Samsung Galaxy S8 combines a gorgeous laminated glass body with the wrap-around glass of the Samsung Galaxy Edge. An aluminum band surrounds the entire package, giving it an iPhone-like appearance. Even the aluminum band includes lamination, which should help protect it from drops. It also makes the phone more slip-resistant than its predecessor, the S7, which lacked a coating.
Thanks to iFixit’s teardown, we know the complete internals of the Samsung Galaxy S8. And they’re impressive.
- Water and dust resistant (IP68)
- Cutting-edge Snapdragon 835 system-on-a-chip
- Gorilla Glass 5
- Laminated exterior
- High-end smartphone camera (12MP)
- 8-inch, dual-edge, AMOLED with 2960×1440 resolution (570 PPI)
- Android 7 Nougat
- SD card support
- Biometric reader
- Fingerprint reader
- Wireless charging
- Pressure-based screen unlock
Notes on Hardware Design and Other Features
Samsung made some really interesting design choices in the S8. In truth, Samsung’s latest differs little from the winning formula that it struck upon in the S7. But it further refines the S7’s design, adding a few important features. Most important among these changes are a cutting edge processor, an amazing network modem, and full IP68 waterproofing.
Unfortunately, the S8 dispensed with the infrared blaster in the Samsung Galaxy S6. I’m certain that the rationale for this choice has to do with the presence of an IR blaster inside of Samsung’s wearable smartwatches.
How is the Screen?
The 5.8-inch Super AMOLED screen inside of the Samsung Galaxy S8 offers almost the same pixel density as the S6 that came out in 2015. The main difference between the two iterations is the size of the S8’s screen: it’s huge. No other 5.8-inch phone offers a 5.8-inch screen in a one-hander form factor. The extra screen real estate allows for edge notifications, better function in a split screen mode, and impresses a real sense of awe in onlookers. If you want the envy of friends and enemies, get this phone.
The S8’s screen, however, isn’t even at the top of its class in pixel density. Older iterations of the Galaxy come with a slightly more pixel-dense display. For example, both the S7 and S6 manage to pack in more pixels-per-inch. I’m not sure why this reduction occurred, but even so, it’s a negligible (10 pixels-per-inch) decrease.
Overall, the combination of high pixel density, screen size, and display quality make the S8 the best phone around for aesthetes.
The one thing about AMOLED screens, though, that really bothers me is burn-in. What’s burn-in? Whenever you leave a still image on your phone — particularly white images – they have a tendency to remain on the screen, permanently.
The Burn-In Test
In order to test the quality of Samsung’s panel, I turned on always-on notifications over a 48 hour period. This means that the screen was left on a still image (white text), for two days. I then tested to see whether or not burn-in occurred. So how did the Samsung S8 hold up?
Great! I couldn’t detect any after-images or image retention. Overall, I’d say that Samsung’s OLED technology ranks among the best out there for screen durability. Keep in mind, though, that all OLED panels eventually begin retaining an afterimage of frequently displayed images, notoriously the status bar.
Is the S8’s Camera Any Good?
If you love photography, I’ve got some bad news. The one area that Samsung seemed to gloss over was its camera. That’s not because the camera is bad. In fact, the camera ranks among the best cameras on today’s market. However, Samsung chose to employ the same camera module that it used on last year’s Galaxy S7. The difference rests entirely in its post-processing, which even then, doesn’t differ much from last year’s device.
But there’s one area in which all smartphone cameras suck: low-light photography. No matter how much money you pay, no tiny smartphone camera will produce a decent quality picture. For example, here’s a classic example of a weak photo caused by low ambient light:
If you’re wondering why the dog is laying down like that, it’s because he had a stroke (and I foolishly thought he was just tired). He was euthanized later that day. I’ll miss you Cubby.
Virtual Reality Experience
The Samsung Gear VR offers best-in-class virtual reality performance. Normally, running more graphically intensive VR games can result in extreme overheating. The S8, however, manages to handle some fairly intense games, without bursting into flames.
The Gear VR itself offers a better fit, compared to Google’s Daydream platform. Rather than simply strapping a device into the visor, users plug it into a USB-C connector. The connector allows for passthrough functionality. For example, you can plug in a USB-C flash drive or power source while the Gear VR is in use. Overall, it’s a step up over its competitors. But the plastic buildy does feel a little flimsy.
What’s Samsung DeX?
Samsung’s DeX (Desktop Express) allows the S8 to function as a complete desktop. Unfortunately, it requires a relatively expensive dock and Samsung hasn’t released an official product yet. The only options (as of the Spring of 2017) are third party docking stations, many of which don’t function as advertised.
Quick Charge 4.0 and Wireless Charging
Quick Charge 4.0: In the mobile world, multiple proprietary and nonproprietary standards exist for rapidly charging a phone. The two most common are Qualcomm’s Quick Charge and the non-proprietary Power Delivery standard. Samsung chose Quick Charge as the standard on the Galaxy S8, although PD chargers appear to rapidly charge the S8 as well. The overall charging speed takes the phone from low (~15%) to 27% in around 10 minutes – that’s really fast. The Google Pixel XL in comparison charges from low to around 20% in the same amount of time. However, the Pixel XL’s battery includes an additional 450 mAh over the S8’s 3000 mAh.
Wireless Qi Charging: If you love wireless charging, the S8 is for you. The Qi standard is pretty much universal and you can buy a cheap $15 charger on eBay or Amazon.
Samsung Galaxy S8 Performance
If you know nothing about the Snapdragon 835, there are three things that you need to know: First, it’s the fastest, most battery-friendly mobile system-on-a-chip ever made. Second, it includes the fastest network modem ever seen on a mobile processor. Third, it supports a ridiculous number of features, like Quick Charge 4.0, Bluetooth 5.0, and wireless Qi charging.
The S8 gives users the ability to extend battery life dramatically by enabling a semi-customizable battery mode. At its highest setting, the S8 only runs core apps. But with battery mode enabled, its estimated battery life approaches around 100 hours of standby. On its moderate settings, it gets around 40-50 hours of standby. And with all the bells and whistles turned on, battery life comes out to around 25 hours.
My numbers came out to around 4 hours of screen-on-time and a full day of heavy use (or two days of regular use). As far as battery life goes, the S8 offers excellent power efficiency for a 3000 mAh battery.
How Is the S8’s Network Performance?
I tested and compared the S8’s cellular reception on T-Mobile against a Google Pixel XL. The S8’s use of materials, such as glass, should give it a fundamental edge against the Pixel’s aluminum unibody. Furthermore, the modem inside of the S8 is supposedly improved. But how did it perform?
Signal Strength and 4G
As mentioned above, Samsung made some tradeoffs between metal and glass. While the S8 is more fragile than phones made from plastic or aluminum, its wireless capabilities should be much stronger. Using a Wi-Fi and cellular strength analysis tool, this theory seems borne out. Going off the information below the S8 (left) received a dBm of -110 vs the Pixel’s -120. That may not seem like a big difference, but it meant that the S8 could hit 4G speeds, while the Pixel was stuck on 3G.
More or less, the cellular reception of the Samsung Galaxy S8 is leagues better than anything else out there.
Bluetooth 5.0 is really amazing. Not only does it further improve battery consumption and transmission reliability, it also adds simultaneous audio output to multiple speakers. Here’s MKBHD’s take on it:
In previous versions of Android, you could only use one device per smartphone. Now you can control multiple Bluetooth audio devices from a single source. That opens the door to wireless home stereo systems controlled by a single device. It’s a big deal.
Not Everything Is Perfect
As with all smartphones, the S8 falls short of perfection. Some of its failings include a lousy fingerprint scanner, Bixby, a lack of an IR blaster, and an awful stock launcher. None of these failings are deal-breakers.
Terrible Fingerprint Scanner
The fingerprint scanner’s placement leaves a lot to be desired. On top of that, its accuracy doesn’t seem very good. For example, on a Google Pixel, pressing your finger on the fingerprint sensor unlocks the phone. On the S8, it seems to do nothing most of the time. On rare occasion, pressing it unlocks it, but I might be pressing the camera instead, because they feel almost exactly the same.
Bixby Is Mostly Absent
Unfortunately, Samsung’s personal assistant software, Bixby, doesn’t really work. Right now it looks like a clone of Amazon’s Firefly app, which identifies objects and finds them on Amazon. It’s pretty clear that Samsung had high hopes for it as it dedicated an entire physical button toward running the app. It even issued firmware updates to disable apps that allowed users to remap the button to use more useful services. As it stands, pressing the button brings up a placeholder, which looks a lot like Google Now, but without any kind of functionality.
No IR Blaster
The Samsung Stock Launcher Is Garbage
Samsung apologists may love the stock TouchWiz launcher, but by most standards, it sucks. While it uses a standard launcher formula, like folders and an app drawer, it’s not particularly interesting and lacks the kind of depth that you find in Arrow Launcher, Nova, or even the Google Now launcher. Fortunately, there are a lot of better free launchers out there.
Enter to Win a Galaxy S8!
Should You Buy the Samsung Galaxy S8?
Buy it if you’ve got lots of disposable income. It’s the king of all smartphones. Otherwise, it’s completely unaffordable. Let me put that in perspective: for most people, $800 pays a month’s rent. It can buy several months of groceries. It can drive you across the United States at least four times over. Is a phone really worth that much?