Samsung Galaxy S8 hands-on: exciting and almost comfortable
In pictures, the new Samsung Galaxy S8 doesn’t look that different from the Galaxy S7 Edge that preceded it. The chin and forehead of the device have been radically foreshortened, yes, but the really eye-catching aspect of the device remains its wraparound screen, which curves over the left and right edges to provide a completely bezel-free effect.
But in the hand, the rationale for shaving off those extra millimetres from the top and bottom becomes clear. For the first time since phone screens broke five inches, the Galaxy S8 is, almost, comfortable to use one-handed.
Space has been secured at the top of the screen through shoving the selfie camera far to the right, alongside the main speaker grill. At the bottom, meanwhile, the loss of the home button lets the screen extend down to around half a centimetre from the base of the device. In practice, that means that if you’re holding the phone one-handed, less of your thumb’s reach is wasted extending past a bezel, and so more of it can be used to navigate around the actual phone.
It’s still not perfect for those of us who like smaller phones, with the top left of the screen remaining resolutely out of reach for all but the largest-handed of users, but it’s certainly far more ergonomically acceptable than what came before it.
That’s helped by the other major change in the physical dimensions of the device: the decision to go for an odd 18.5:9 aspect ratio for the screen. That means, in portrait orientation, a long, thin screen with a lot of space for the main content.
The trade-off is landscape mode. Samsung was eager to use movies to demonstrate the screen’s video capabilities, and it’s obvious why: the super-wide screen is perfect for cinematic aspect ratios, eliminating the letterboxing that you get on most phones. But watching films on phones feels like a niche pursuit, and most material you will be watching – TV shows and web series – is shot in 16:9 these days. That means the full width of the gorgeous screen gets wasted.
The same problem is present in a few apps as well, prompting Google to urge developers to increase the maximum aspect ratio they support – until they do, some apps will have the same ugly letterboxing. Such is the price of progress.
While Google is helping Samsung out on this issue (though the long LG G6 suffers from the same issue), more generally, the S8 sees the clash between Samsung and Google growing stronger than ever. Samsung’s new virtual assistant, Bixby, is one of the major selling points of the new phone. At the launch of the S8, Samsung couldn’t resist throwing shade at Google and Amazon, telling reporters that “some assistants are optimised for e-commerce and some are optimised for search”, but that Bixby was different, being created to help you whatever you’re doing.
It achieves that goal by being heavily integrated with a number of apps, as well as offering a screen search functionality akin to Google Assistant. Bixby is built into the notification feed, the voice assistant (in the US and Korea only, for now), and even the camera, with a dedicated button on the phone for launching it.
Unfortunately, it also requires you to throw yourself into the Samsung ecosystem: only 10 Samsung apps are supported at launch. That means if you want to replace Samsung’s camera, calendar or email app with Google’s, say goodbye to full integration of your virtual assistant. Or just replace that, too: the S8 comes with Google Assistant, as part of Android Nougat.
It’s a shame, because Samsung’s put some thought into those apps, and how they should work in its new device. Take the camera, for instance: as well as Bixby integration (so you can point your camera at a bottle of wine and find reviews or, less compellingly, point it at a Coke can to find out it’s a Coke can) it’s been updated with a load of Snapchat-style filters, and a control scheme rethought for one-handed use.
Despite some niggles, though, the S8 is the most exciting new phone I’ve held in years. The smartphone market is a mature one now, with little chance for revolution (which is why we all freak out over weird distractions like the ‘new’ Nokia 3310), but as iterations go, the S8 gets it right.
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