Just 12 hours after Samsung officially unveiled its new Galaxy S8 and S8+ flagships to the world in New York, I got my hands on the two new phones at a launch event in Singapore’s Raffles Place.
My first thoughts on the phones after reading about them on paper were that they looked sexy, but I questioned the choice of screen size (and aspect ratio) and the odd placing of the fingerprint scanner.
Upon getting my hands on the S8, my initial thoughts were confirmed, but it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected it to be. The 18.5:9 aspect ratio beats LG’s G6 for the Weirdest Aspect Ratio of the Year Award (thus far), but it doesn’t look weird or out of place. Will people joke about the elongated screen just like how they joked about the elongated screen of the iPhone 5? Perhaps. But the S8’s shear sex appeal will quickly make naysayers forget about all that.
Yes, the phone is gorgeous. It’s slender, sleek, curved, and looks futuristic. The G6 was a (sexy) brick but this more closely resembles a pebble (RIP Pebble).
I won’t go into the specifications of this phone as I’m sure the internet is filled with those now. What I will give are my first impressions of the device: Is it the dream phone I’ve been waiting for? Spoiler: no.
For all the effort that Samsung put in to redeem themselves in the wake of the Note 7 disaster, the S8 is a decent attempt. But these days when companies like OnePlus and Xiaomi exist, “decent” isn’t good enough to justify the top dollar pricing that traditional flagship phones have. This is why legacy “major player” OEMs like Sony, HTC, LG are just not raking in the profits. But that’s a whole other topic for another article.
Here are the issues that I had with the Galaxy S8 after handling it for a couple of hours:
1. Dat fingerprint scanner
Presumably, one of the head designers in Samsung thought that symmetry took precedence over practicality when deciding the placement of the fingerprint scanner.
“It’s kinda ugly if we put it in the middle, let’s put it next to the camera lens, because, yknow, we can have a symmetry thing going on with our flash/heart-rate sensor” – some Samsung designer, probably.
It’s just another example in the recent worrying trend of “aesthetics > practicality” in the tech industry (again, a whole separate article of stuff worth talking about).
Thankfully, on the smaller S8 model, this isn’t that much of an issue as I am still able to reach the fingerprint scanner with minimal hand adjustments. On the larger S8+ however, it is practically impossible to reach the fingerprint scanner without substantially shifting your grip. Simply frustrating.
In the settings menu, I found an option for enabling a swipe down on the fingerprint scanner to bring down the notification shade, a trick taken from the Google Pixel. This is great, because now that the screen is so tall, it’s really uncomfortable to reach the top of the screen to pull down the notification shade. Now if I want to check my notifications all I have to do is reach for the fingerprint scanner which is conveniently located at… oh wait… never mind.
2. The software
Let’s pretend that I’m starting on a clean slate here, that I’ve never had the misfortune of meeting TouchWiz back in the ol’ Galaxy S3 days. Even then, this software bewildered me and the two other media folks sitting at my table because of how unintuitive it was. One of the media folks remarked “you’re not a Samsung user?” when I was trying to figure out what the little square on the bottom of the display does when the phone is on its “Always On Display” (picture below), a comment which deeply insulted me as a veteran smartphone user who’s navigated everything from BB10 to Windows Phone 7. Well tapping on the square didn’t do anything, so why the hell was it there?
Turns out I wasn’t tapping on it right. I had to “3D Touch”/”Force Touch” (ie press really hard on) the square for it to do anything. Wow. Though to Samsung’s credit I did figure it out on my own, so maybe it’ll only bewilder the average consumer for 10 minutes tops.
What treasures await you for figuring out this puzzle? The Always On Display gives way to reveal… the lock screen. Oh, so now there’s two layers of lock screens I have to get through if I want to unlock my phone with a PIN. Cool. Must be part of the “added security features” that Samsung was talking about.
Since we’re on the topic of Force Touch, you’d think that Samsung would’ve implemented this on the whole screen so that, like on Apple’s iPhones, you’d be able to bring up contextual menus when Force Touch-ing various items on the screen. Nope. Force Touch is only present on that tiny area where the virtual home button resides. Its sole purpose? To provide peace of mind to people who like their buttons physical. It vibrates when you tap on it hard. Sploosh.
One last complaint about the software before I move on: you’d think that with the taller screen Samsung would’ve implemented some sort of intuitive software feature whereby swiping down anywhere on the homescreen would bring down the notification shade. Nope. Swiping down opens the app drawer. Ah! I was wondering where that went.
So what does swiping up do? It opens the app drawer too. Ok, at least that’s consistent with common sense (and stock Android). What’s not consistent with stock Android is the app drawer itself: it has horizontally-scrolling pages, which is fine but makes the interface feel rather inconsistent.
On a side note, you also have to consider the fact that Samsung’s software doesn’t age well. Many people complain about lagginess and poor battery life on their S7 phones after owning them for several months. The S8 may be fast and snappy at launch, but will it continue to be so after several months of use? Given the fact that, during my time with the S8, the animations already didn’t feel as quick as a Google Pixel or OnePlus 3/3T, I am sceptical about performance several months after your initial purchase.
3. Other stuff
Samsung included its new assistant, Bixby, into the S8/S8+ duo. It’s supposedly a big deal, but:
a) There is already Google Assistant included on the phone, so what’s the point of Bixby?
b) The Samsung reps here didn’t even bother talking about this feature, a telltale indication of how much s**** (read: socks) are given about Bixby by Singaporeans in general
Double tapping on the new software home button doesn’t launch the camera anymore, but thankfully double pressing the lock button does so I’m ok with that.
The battery capacity of the S8 is unchanged from that of the S7. For the S8+ the battery capacity actually decreased from the S7 Edge.
What I get from my time with the Galaxy S8 is that Samsung is trying to hide the fact that it’s a mediocre upgrade over the S7 behind the vastness of its new “infinity display”. The rear camera is literally exactly the same as the S7’s. The battery capacity is exactly the same (smaller, even, for the S8+ vs S7 Edge). Samsung is hoarding all the Snapdragon 835’s to itself in the hopes that it will give them a competitive advantage, but the truth is that in terms of real world usage last year’s Snapdragon 820/821 is more than beastly enough. RAM is still at 4GB when companies such as OnePlus started offering 6GB a year ago. The taller display and new placement of the fingerprint scanner are more inconvenient than last year’s S7/S7 Edge. So really, how much of an upgrade is it other than the display?
Maybe we’ve reached a peak in smartphones and manufacturers are running out of ideas. Maybe the market demand is pushing manufacturers to create senseless pretty things like borderless displays instead of practical things like front facing stereo speakers and a larger battery.
Will the S8 sell? You bet it will. Because despite its flaws, it’s pretty. And the average Joe who walks into a store will lap it all up without realising that other than the screen, pretty much nothing’s changed. Can smartphone manufacturers keep relying on aesthetics instead of actual, practical innovation to sell their phones? Only time will tell, and that’s a whole other topic for a whole other article.
Samsung kept quiet about the exact date of availability, but I overhead one of them saying that it’ll launch here in Singapore on 21 April.
Let’s end off on a positive note: here’s some pretty pictures of the S8