My Samsung Galaxy S8+ arrived this morning, and it’s going to take quite a while to get up and running with this new handset. But first impressions matter. And the Galaxy S8+ is stunning.
Leo observed yesterday on Windows Weekly that the tall, edge-to-edge display on the new Galaxy S8 and S8+ would make all previous smartphone designs—most of which feature fairly prominent “forehead” and “chin” bezels at the top and bottom—seem instantly obsolete and old-fashioned. He’s right: From the moment you pull this object of lust out of its packaging, you can feel it welling up inside of you: For the first time in a long time, especially for a non-Apple device, this new Galaxy triggers a Gollum-like sense of want. And you thought smartphones had gotten boring.
It’s OK, I did too. That feeling was driven by a number of factors—Apple choosing to use the same iPhone design for three generations in a row, for starters—but also by the sense that this device type had quickly matured to the point where we’d have to look at very specific, even niche, features to find any real differentiation. The ludicrous 2X optical zoom on the iPhone 7 Plus, for example. Or various quick charge schemes.
My renewed interest in lower-cost phones is a natural side effect of this maturation, though I have, of course, always cared very deeply about value. That is, if smartphones are basically all the same, why not save a ton of money by purchasing a low-end Moto 5G Plus or similar, or a mid-level OnePlus 3T, which outperforms the much more expensive Google Pixel XL?
The Samsung Galaxy S8/S8+ do not collectively obviate this strategy: That OnePlus 3T, in particular, does indeed provide a viable alternative to other high-end, flagship-class handsets like the Pixel or even the iPhone. But that reality suggests that something needs to change in the premium segment, too. It’s not enough to have a brand or a logo. Those devices need to be much better too. They need to justify their price.
Today, I feel that the iPhone 7 Plus does not meet this bar. The camera is a step down from the camera in the iPhone 6 Plus and the design is basically identical to that of the iPhone 6 Plus and 6S Plus. It’s a 6SS, if you will. (I likewise feel that iPhone still offers compelling advantages over any Android handset. That is a different conversation.) Likewise, the Pixel XL does not meet this bar: It is a step down from the Nexus 6P, especially the camera. And it’s so much more expensive, a vain money grab on Google’s part.
Whether last year’s Note 7 fiasco triggered a sense of need or even desperation at Samsung is unclear. To be fair to the company, it has been innovating in large handsets with curved screens for years, and going nearly bezel-less is a somewhat obvious strategy. It doesn’t matter. Whatever the reason, we’re seeing very real form factor innovation here, and the Samsung Galaxy S8+ in particular—I can’t speak to the slightly smaller S8—is proof positive that beauty and elegance still matter. This device makes the iPhone 7 Plus and derivative Pixel XL look pedestrian by comparison. In fact, this handset makes every other phone look pedestrian.
If you’re familiar with Samsung’s previous generation Galaxy handsets, in particular the S7 and S7 Edge, this look will be familiar but enhanced. For anyone who has stuck, lemming-like, to the iPhone, this device will be like a sharp, sudden slap to the face. It’s a wake-up call.
Where the iPhone 7 Plus is squat, thick, and heavy, the Galaxy S8+ is tall and thin, with no sharp edges anywhere. Every corner on this device is rounded, and elegant, from the corners of the device itself to the corners of that gorgeous wraparound screen. When you see it sitting inert in the box, you almost gasp out loud. But when you power it on, you won’t be able to help yourself. It’s that much better looking.
Now there are going to be goofy things to deal with there. The tall, oddly-proportioned, super-widescreen display will no doubt trigger some letterboxing effects with some apps. (I know there are software controls to help mitigate this.) The placement of the fingerprint reader, right next to the camera, is a crime against humanity, and will result in much smudging of that camera; I will investigate the device’s other sign-in capabilities (which include iris scanning). There are Samsung oddities all over this device, and it is still very busy compared to, say, the pristine iPhone experience.
It’s not perfect, in other words.
But my God. It is beautiful. And as any truly pretty person can tell you, that beauty really can make up for shortcomings in other areas. It can make you accept flaws that would be unbearable, shall we say, in one of those more pedestrian devices.
And to be fair to Samsung yet again, it’s not just gorgeous. The Galaxy S8+ is also a monster of a phone.
In the US, it’s powered by an octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, the same platform that Microsoft is pinning its Windows 10 on ARM hopes on. It comes configured with 4 GB of RAM, 64 GB of expandable storage (bless you, Samsung), and a 6.2-inch curved display running at 2960 x 1440 pixels (though it is set to a lower resolution by default for battery life reasons). It has a 12 MP rear-facing camera with optical image stabilization and a f/1.7 aperture and could very well be the best smartphone camera in the world.
There is a lot going on here, a lot to test. And of course, my ongoing testing of less expensive Android handsets too. So I’ll check in from time to time as these tests continue. But know this: Samsung absolutely just raised the bar. And the rest of the industry is going to have to rally to try and catch up.