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Samsung Galaxy S8 review: Say hello to 2017’s best smartphone

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Samsung Galaxy S8 review, The Best Smartphone 2017 – The presumptive heir to the best Android crown is here: the Samsung Galaxy S8. A few years ago, the race to be the world’s favourite Android phone designer was wide open. HTC would win it one year, and then LG would dazzle the next. Recently, the list has become more predictable: Samsung Galaxy S5, Samsung Galaxy S6, Samsung Galaxy S7, and now the Samsung Galaxy S8 is here to make its predecessors obsolete.

Two things have changed to make this less a foregone conclusion than it was a couple of years ago, however. The first is that specifications have improved to the degree that even a cheap smartphone is good enough for most people. The second is the burnt-out corpse of the Galaxy Note 7, removed from the market after less than two months for being just a bit more flammable than advertised.

In short, we always knew that the Samsung Galaxy S8 was going to be good, but the stakes have been raised. It needs to be really good, and good enough to justify the enormous price tag too. It’s £689 SIM-free, with contracts starting at around £45.99 per month with an additional upfront cost.

And it’s good. Very good indeed. The best smartphone you can buy, bar none. Whether it’s worth the cost, though… that’s strictly between you and your wallet, but hopefully the next few pages can at least help you justify the loan to your bank manager. Print this out if you think it will help.

Samsung Galaxy S8 review: Design

Let me begin by saying that Samsung’s teaser for the S8 was more than a little overblown. The video, released ahead of the phone’s reveal last month, suggested something that would make you rethink what a phone looks like. The Galaxy S8 doesn’t really do that, unless you’re terminally devoid of imagination. It’s still a block of metal and glass; it’s just a particularly beautiful one.

What the video alluded to is that the physical home button is gone. That’s significant, but it isn’t the first Android phone to do that; my trusty HTC One M8 had no physical home button, either. What is different is its dimensions: it’s now quite a bit taller than its predecessors, making it extremely comfortable in the hand.

I use a Samsung Galaxy S7 as my main phone at the moment, itself a slim and attractive handset, and the Galaxy S8 leaves it in the dust. Putting them side by side, the differences are obvious. It isn’t much bigger, but it uses its space much more effectively with around 84% of the front occupied by the screen – a not inconsequential upgrade on the S7’s 72%. It’s only 3g heavier, and is just 0.1mm thicker – which is odd, because if you put them next to each other on a table, the Samsung Galaxy S8 looks substantially more svelte.

This time around, you’re getting curved edges whether you like them or not, with a gentle radius on either side of the screen that swoops down to meet the phone’s slender metal frame. You can argue about its utility, but you can’t argue that it looks great. Do be sure to get insurance, though, because it looks like it’ll cost a lot to replace otherwise. My initial gut feeling about this has been confirmed by SquareTrade, who report that the Samsung Galaxy S8 “performed significantly worse than their predecessors” in their hard-to-watch breakability tests.

The phone inherits three design features from the previous generation: it’s IP68-certified, which means it’s waterproof in 1.5 metres of water for up to half an hour; it supports wireless Qi and PNA charging; and it has expandable storage for microSD cards up to 256GB in size, should the 64GB of onboard storage prove insufficient. USB Type-C is in, which is better in the long run – but awkward if your house, like mine, has become a retirement home for micro-USB cables. To make the transition less painful, Samsung has included an adapter in the box, along with the dedicated charge cable, which means that one of your existing cables can make the upgrade, like a pawn crossing the Chess board to become a Queen.

There’s even room for a 3.5mm headphone jack. Odd to think that’s a controversial move, but Apple, HTC and Lenovo’s recent decisions to remove it have made including the 60-year-old port a major selling point in a 2017 flagship. To get the most out of this, Samsung has included some rather nice AKG earbuds in the box. While they’re no substitute for a good pair of over-ear headphones, they are substantially better than the standard pack-in earphones, and the braided fabric cable prevents too much tangling. Samsung has since confirmed that they will be in every box, so worth trying before you return to your old trusted cans.

There are just two issues you can legitimately have with the design. The first is that a whole button is dedicated to Bixby, Samsung’s AI assistant, which at the time of writing doesn’t do a great deal. For now, it’s essentially a second home button, but the fact that Samsung has given it such prominence suggests it won’t be for ever, so you can give the company a pass on that. (Previously a handful of apps on the Google Play store promised to let users repurpose the Bixby button for their own ends, but a new firmware update has apparently stopped this mod in its tracks.)

The second is harder to defend: the location of the fingerprint scanner. It’s right next to the camera lens on the rear of the device. While I was able to get used to this for unlocking over my time with the Galaxy S8, it was never as comfortable as one placed below the screen, as on the Samsung Galaxy S7 or Apple iPhone 7, or on the side of the device as with Sony’s recent smartphones. Placing it right next to the camera lens also means you often find yourself touching the lens, rather than the scanner, so you’d best get used to giving it a good polish before you take a photo.

By all accounts this was a late design decision on Samsung’s part thanks to the fact that the technology for embedding fingerprint scanners in the touchscreen wasn’t quite ready for primetime. That feels plausible to me and I’d be astonished if the fingerprint reader doesn’t move house before the Samsung Galaxy S9 arrives. Maybe even before then, perhaps, in a Galaxy Note 8?

Intriguingly, according to a recent survey – turned into a graph by our friends at Statista – the most appealing of these features is the waterproofing, which has been a feature of Samsung phones for four generations now.

In fact, the features which are specifically new to the S8 make up the bottom four of the list, which does suggest that plenty of people would be happy with an S7. Or an S7 Edge if you must have those curves.

Samsung Galaxy S8 review: Screen

Once you’re done gawking over the lovely design, the next thing you’ll notice is that the screen looks a little different to current phones: it’s long and thin. While most phones work to a 16:9 aspect ratio, the S8 increases things to 18.5:9, with a resolution of 1,440 x 2,960. That’s a slightly taller ratio than the LG G6 with its unusual 18:9 mix. The idea, according to Samsung, is that you can get more screen real estate in a handset that won’t be uncomfortable for the small-pawed among us.

Of course, this isn’t exactly the case. As The Verge points out, a regular 16:9 5.8in handset has a greater area – and, even if you like the newer, tall design, it isn’t without its issues. For starters, most apps currently black out the bottom of the screen, leaving the familiar Android buttons in place. That means that the job could be done just as well by a bezel for the most part.

The real advantage is for pictures and video, but there are issues there, too. 16:9 is the universal standard for video (notwithstanding the circle of Hell reserved for YouTubers, who take video in portrait mode), and if you watch any of those on your S8 then you’re going to have to decide between black bookends at each end, or cropping off the top and bottom of the screen.

Whether or not you think that’s a sacrifice worth making for a stylish, comfortable handset such as this will vary from person to person, but you’ll be unsurprised to hear that this AMOLED screen meets Samsung’s usual standards of high quality. It reaches a pretty bright 415.16cd/m2 peak brightness on manual mode, and a searing 569cd/m2 in automatic in the right conditions. In addition, it covers 99.9% of the sRGB spectrum. For comparison, here’s how that looks against its key competitors:

Pixels per inch Peak brightness sRGB coverage Contrast
Samsung Galaxy S8 570 415.16cd/m2 (manual); 569cd/m2 (auto) 99.9% Perfect
Samsung Galaxy S7 577 353.74cd/m2; (470cd/m2 auto) 100% Perfect
iPhone 7 326 540cd/m2 95.8% 1425:1
LG G6 564 492.2cd/m2 93.2% 1678:1
Huawei P10 Plus 540 587.4cd/m2 98.5% Perfect
OnePlus 3T 401 421cd/m2 93.2% Perfect

In other words, this is about as good a screen as you can get. It’s considerably brighter than last year’s model and closing in on the scores obtained by the IPS screens of the iPhone 7 and the recently released LG G6.

Samsung Galaxy S8 review: Performance

While the year-old S7 still pushes near the top of its class in terms of performance, it would be surprising if Samsung’s latest didn’t deliver a healthy performance boost alongside its cosmetic upgrade. This isn’t a Moto G5 situation: Samsung has indeed stepped up to the plate with newer components that deliver a healthy kick.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that the Galaxy S8 feels incredibly fast and responsive out of the box. That’s partly because no Android handset should feel sluggish from the first boot (although some manage to crash head-first into that insultingly low bar), but also because Samsung has packed the latest technology into its thin frame.

You’re looking at a 2.3GHz octacore Exynos 8895 processor (or Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 for US-based customers), with 4GB of RAM and 64GB storage, expandable via microSD card. It’s among the first smartphones in the world to use a 10nm manufacturing process to produce the chip, which promises to improve efficiency and battery life, as well as provide the best performance around.

That kind of technicality is hidden away from sight, but what I can say with certainty is that the Samsung Galaxy S8 is super-fast. Every benchmark revealed speeds at the very top of the class, as you’d expect in a smartphone closing in on £700. In the Geekbench 4 multi-core test, it smashed past the iPhone 7 and LG G6, with only the Huawei P10 Plus coming close:

As for graphics performance, it was a similar story. The S8 is a powerhouse for mobile games:

To be clear, these graphical tests are intense, with cheaper handsets routinely getting single-figure frame per second scores. While most 2017 handsets should handle the majority of games on the marketplace, it’s pretty clear that the S8 offers far more future-proofing than any other device we’ve seen to date.

If you want further proof of how ridiculously quick the Samsung Galaxy S8 is, you should know that it’s powerful enough to run Gamecube games smoothly via the Dolphin emulator – one of the few phones around capable of doing this.

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