What do we want from a smartphone in 2017? Some of us want a device with “augmented reality” cameras, smart virtual assistants, OLED displays and wireless charging. The rest just want something we can use with one hand, that fits in the pocket of our skinny jeans, with a battery that lasts all day (and does not explode).
Samsung wants you to believe that its new Galaxy S8 is all about the former, with its Bixby assistant and “infinity display” combining to “reinvent smartphone design”.
If you fall in the latter group (as the vast majority do), try not to be put off by the jargon. Above all, Samsung has created the most comfortable, usable and downright beautiful smartphone in years.
The S8, which goes on sale in the US and Korea on Friday and in Europe next week, is more an iteration of its predecessor, the S7, than a radical reinvention. Yet after several years of producing distinctive curved screens, Samsung has refined considerably both the hardware and the software.
If you do want to get into tech specs, the most important number to look at in smartphones this year is screen-to-body ratio: how much of the front of the device is useful display versus dumb frame. The basic version of the S8, which I have been testing over the past week, has a screen-to-body ratio of 83 per cent — far above the 66 per cent of Apple’s iPhone 7.
In practical terms, that means that the forehead and chin of the S8 — the surfaces above and below the display — are each half as thick as their equivalents on my iPhone 7 Plus.
Combined with the fact that the screen curves around the edge of the device and is slightly taller and narrower than other smartphones, this means you get roughly the same amount of screen as an iPhone 7 Plus in a device that is the same size as the regular iPhone 7. (As a bonus, the Galaxy has no protruding camera bump.)
That means the S8 does not poke out of the top of my jeans pocket or get in the way when I ride my bicycle or bend over to tie my shoelaces. I can text or take photos with one hand and not feel like it might slip and smash. These are small but meaningful day-to-day refinements.
In years gone by, even Samsung’s best hardware meant putting up with so-so software. That is less of a problem with the S8. Samsung’s customised version of Android, called TouchWiz, is now faster and less intrusive. An elegant home screen shows incoming messages at a glance. Even the system’s fonts and app icons look better.
However, in other aspects Samsung’s software is a long way behind Apple or even Google’s own Pixel device. Nowhere is that more obvious than Bixby. The English-language voice-control aspect of Samsung’s new artificial-intelligence sidekick has been delayed so I did not get chance to test it, but the remaining aspects could have done with some more testing.
Swipe sideways from the home screen and Bixby presents a list of trending topics on social media, some items from your calendar and bits and bobs from installed apps such as Spotify or Giphy. It all seems pretty basic compared with Google’s all-knowing Assistant.
Bixby Image, meanwhile, is a flawed attempt to bring AI smarts to the camera. For instance, automatic business card scanning sounds great, but after Patrick became Fatrick, Wales became Sales, the letter O in an email address was replaced with a zero and .com became corn, I gave up.
I became frustrated with the S8’s face recognition system, which Samsung offers as a faster (if less secure) way to unlock the phone. Although it sometimes recognised me even when I was wearing glasses or a hat, its frequent and inexplicable failures made it impossible to rely on. The awkward placing of the fingerprint reader on the back of the phone is almost as hard to use.
If Samsung stumbles in some of its more ambitious software features, that should not detract from the S8’s elegant hardware and much-improved software. My iPhone 7 Plus looks and feels enormous — clumsy even — compared with Samsung’s sleek and slender rival. These days, it takes more than just good design to make people switch smartphones: Samsung still cannot compete with Apple’s interwoven “ecosystem” of products. Nonetheless, the Galaxy S8 is the most desirable smartphone on the market.
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