Samsung Reborn - Hands on with the S8
The Galaxy S8 is an Android Saviour
It's 4pm in the heart of a bustling Brisbane City. I'm waiting at a cross sign on my weary way home from work, longing for nothing but a beer and a nap, thanking god I had the rest of the evening off to shut myself away and sleep. Just then my phone buzzes, and I read a clandestine-like message from an acquaintance I've come to know. "Are you in the city?".
Fifteen minutes and three mysterious texts later I followed my instructions and was ushered into a dark corner of a quasi-deserted cafe down the end of an alleyway, like an unsuspecting victim in a bad James Bond film. And then I saw it...
Jokes. But such was the occasion where I had to put my phone away lest I take a photograph, and we really did go in to a dark corner of a dark cafe away from prying eyes. And then I spent 45 minutes one on one with a Samsung rep (for which I am very grateful) who showed me every nook and cranny of what the Samsung Galaxy S8 was, and what it could do.
Ahem... This is terrible timing. I honestly believed no Android phone would impress me any more, and yesterday I said so. Whoops!
I feel mighty hypocritical, but as I caressed the sublime metal and glass texture that wrapped around what is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most gorgeous looking phone I've ever seen, I realised I've never been adverse or close minded to a good piece of hardware. Now, as I laugh out loud at the thought my colleagues, friends, family - anyone I know really - simultaneously shouting 'Bullshit!' at that last statement, it would be remiss of me to say I've had some bias towards Apple in the past. And that hasn't changed. But more on that at the end of the article. On to the review!
It's been a difficult 12 months for Samsung. Between exploding phones, exploding recalled phones, exploding dishwashers and a string of horrid J-series releases, Samsung needs the Galaxy S8 and S8+ to pull a mighty rope-a-dope move and come out swinging to get Samsung back in the game. As such, they've pulled out all the stops for their Comeback-Kings - and what Kings they are! QWHD+ (Quad Wide HD+) screen (5.8" for S8, 6.2" for S8+), 4GB ram, dual-sensor 12mp rear camera with f1.7 aperture, new wide-angle 8MP front-facing camera with auto-focus and face detect, IPX68 water and dust rating and fortunately, in Australia, a world first 10nm architecture Exynos chipset developed in-house by Samsung. Quick note for my tech peeps: The Exynos is vastly superior to the Snapdragon chipset, but the US models do have the new Snapdragon 835, which is naturally better than the 820 or 821 in current flagships. Because it's obligatory to address the rest of the specifications in reviews; it has fast wireless charging, 64GB internal memory (expandable of course), and a ****ing headphone jack.
But what defines these phones has nothing to do with numbers. It can't be described on paper or seen on youtube. It must be felt and experienced to truly understand how much Samsung engineers must have been neglecting their sleep, kids, husbands and wives to produce this model. Yet, other than the screen, Samsung neglected to mention most of the jaw-dropping features of the S8/S8+ in their ad campaigns.
First off - the bezels are gone. There is a slight chin on the top and bottom of the phone, but the curved glass on the sides that melds seamlessly into the aluminum is executed flawlessly, delivering a much more exquisite and natural feel than what the S7 Edge features. The Note 7 had a similar edge, but the S8 is done better. The fact that I was holding a 5.8" phone was completely lost on me, as it felt much smaller in my hand than my bulky 5.5" iPhone 7 Plus. But it's impossible to forget that screen size when you watch any media. When a YouTube clip is loaded, the display will default to a familiar 16:9 ratio display, cropping out the edges in a landscape setting (though you wouldn't know it, the black perfectly matches the phone chins). It's a bizarre feeling - but it honestly felt like that was an amazing picture already filling the whole screen - and then the Samsung rep blew my mind: pushing a simple button on the edge of the display allows the clip to take up the entire screen. The edges of the phone disappear, and all of a sudden you are holding a clear piece of glass like something out of Iron Man and you feel involved in whatever clip you're watching. It is most certainly revolutionary.
But being the cynic I am, this got me questioning the edges. Since the edges really do go so far around, surely my fingers will be constantly touching the screen and registering as a touch like the infamous S7 Edge issue, accidentally ruining my experience with the entire interface. Not so - the palm (or touch) rejection technology is excellent. The entire time I used the phone, nothing I did felt unnatural or out of place. I never inadvertently touched anything by holding the phone or wiping the screen whilst a clip was playing, yet any time I intended for a piece of the phone to work, it performed flawlessly.
And this really sums up what is impressive about the hardware. The chip is faster, yes, the speakers are great, the iris scanner works well with face detection biosecuriy technology and could be genuinely useful. That's all kind of cool, however nothing overly revolutionary jumped out at me about the rest of the hardware - it was more evolutionary. That screen though.
The software, on the other hand, really blew my mind. There are some outstanding features which really worked well and they are NOT android features: they belong to Bixby. Bixby is Samsung's new version of Siri or Google Assistant, but better. Here are some awesome things I did with Bixby: Took a screenshot that contained text, then using the edge-swipe menu drew a rectangle around some of that text and a dialogue option of 'Extract Text' pops up - and you can then share whatever text was contained in that screenshot as an actual document to notes, emails, reminders, calendars, pdf's, docs, you name it. The really impressive part? It did this with photo's too. I took a photo of a menu that had custom fonts at the cafe in poor lighting and then was able to perform the same procedure and it worked (almost) flawlessly. Think of all the applications of that. And it was not difficult at all - I stumbled upon it almost immediately, it was that easy.
Another amazing feature that is truly understated is that the Galaxy S8/S8+ Is the first phone to have Bluetooth 5, complete with compatible audio codecs. Double the Bluetooth range of Bluetooth 4.3, four times the speed and the ability for two people to use two different sets of Bluetooth headphones and, if desired, listen to two entirely different audio streams from the one phone! How is this not listed as one of the top five features? It's barely mentioned!
The point is, the phone is excellent. But before Apple fans consider me a traitor, write me off as a bad mistake and cast me off to wherever it is Apple fanboys go after being cast aside from the crowd, I'm going to bring it back a bit. Because whilst I genuinely believe the phone is awesome, it's still Android.
And here's where I want to bring an important distinction into the fold. In my last post, I talked a lot about the Pixel vs the iPhone - and on my facebook feed a perturbed reader identified, correctly, that I didn't mention Samsung much. That was no mistake. After all, if Apple ceased to exist tomorrow, the world would move on. If Google ceased to exist tomorrow, we will have lost the primary resource of education of the latter generations, and the world would take longer to adjust.
My last post centred around Google being a service company that is trying to compete with hardware, whereas Apple was a hardware company making software that supported it's own hardware. Two very different approaches by two very different companies to connecting their products to their own ecosystem. And again, in my mind, Google is an astonishingly good software company. Apple is, in my mind, the best hardware company. But Samsung is somewhere in between.
Android phones in general continue to have the same myriad of issues across a range of different categories that it has failed to escape from since it's conception soon after iOS. They're difficult to develop for, because so many phones have so many screen sizes and pixel variations. The coding of Android software needs to account for performance ranges in hardware, and thus is not optimized for any single phone. This is also true of the Pixel. They invariably slow down over time, fail to be simplistic and user-friendly when compared to iOS and for all that extra customization, I'd argue the masses simply buy Android phones because they either don't want to pay for an iPhone, or hate the way Apple do business exclusively. It's very rare that I've had a customer genuinely excited for Android products. It's extremely rare that I've seen people queue anxiously on launch day for the next Samsung product, Huawei or Oppo. The Pixel had some excitement around it due to being attached to the Google brand, but it was certainly moderate when compared to the iPhone 7 launch.
Samsung are a hardware company, adopting Google software. Whilst I am optimistic and hopeful about the S8 and S8 plus, I am often let down by the android half of that equation, quite often after several months. Samsung do not develop Android software. They tweak it, modify it, and give it their own branding (previously: TouchWiz) but that still isn't the same as Apple developing the software for the hardware. They also currently do not have a comparable tablet that runs on Android (because tablet androids are so, so crap) and the Samsung Galaxy TabPro S series, whilst very nice, run on microsoft. And it's simply not possible to have the continuity and cross-platform grace of iOS and MacOS when they continue to be developed by two very, very different companies.
So yet again we come to the point of: "Apple locks you into an ecosystem that's hard to escape from". But I don't think that's true. Apple offer you an ecosystem that's yet to be paralleled. It's very different to 'locking' you in, since it's entirely plausible and easy to migrate away from iOS, if you really desire. But the reality is no company has been able to match the simplicity and ease that is the hallmark of Apple when it comes to switching between devices. Whether it's iMessage, copy+paste on another device, seamless syncing of photo's (and no, Google Photo's does not do this as fluidly as iCloud) or updating and sharing your Apps between your iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, MacBook Pro or iMac, Apple has allowed for all of it to work with all of it. When you buy an iPhone it's not just an iPhone - it's a doorway into the ecosystem that you are likely to already be a part of. Take a photo on your phone, view it on your iPad. Open it up minutes later on your Mac, edit it, instantly export it to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and your iCloud. Buy an App on your iPhone, your family can now download it for free. There's many ways the Apple ecosystem is vastly superior, still, to Google.
The other factor here is the fact that Samsung are a generation ahead of Apple. There is a lot of hype about the iPhone 8, or iPhone 'edition', whichever rumor ends up ringing true. Like every iteration of the iPhone, it is most likely to be launched in the 3rd week of September, and I can't wait to see what it entails. Rumor mills are ablaze and fanboys are loving it. For me, I think the hype is a little too much. I highly doubt a lot of the current rumors will coalesce come September, but they don't need to. There are reasonable rumors and then there are ridiculous rumors, and if the reasonable ones leaked by reputable sources come true, the iPhone will yet again take the crown. (Side note: My most interesting piece will involve what I genuinely believe the future of Apple looks like, and when, and I will be publishing that over Easter. Tune in for that one; it'll be a doozy).
But for now, the Samsung S8 is clearly the best piece of individual hardware in the industry. It's unfettered performance, boundary-breaking screen, and amazing new intelligent assistant slash operating system Bixby is a huge step in the right direction for Samsung. Right now, I will openly admit it overshadows the iPhone 7. And going forward I think it will be good for both Apple and Samsung to have some truly equal-ground territory to brawl on, because for the past 2 generations it's been all iPhone, and deservedly so. If Samsung are able to continue on the trajectory of innovation and even, perhaps, develop their own integration into tablet and 2-in-1 markets that involve their own operating systems then I could see them doing extremely well over the next generation, and will truly lay the gauntlet down to Apple for hardware extraordinaire. But for now, the Samsung Galaxy S8 is an ostentatious and revolutionary milestone towards that goal.
As long as it doesn't blow up.