Phones are stale. Whether it's an iPhone 7, Huawei P10, Sony Xperia XZ Premium or any other flagship phone, they all look and feel the same. But just when I thought a phone couldn't surprise and delight me any more, the Samsung Galaxy S8 proved me wrong.
From the moment I picked up the S8 – and its larger, 6.2-inch sibling the Galaxy S8+ – I realised it was even more special than I expected. On this evidence, Samsung has surpassed anything we've seen before. There are one or two concerns ahead of our full Galaxy S8 review, but right now things are looking bright.
The Galaxy S8 goes on sale globally on April 28 for £689.
Let's start with the design, where nothing comes close to the Galaxy S8. It's the best-looking phone I've ever seen. The curved back nestles perfectly in your palm, while the glass shimmers as light hits it. The three colours – a dark black, bright silver and a grey with a blueish tinge – are all subtle. There’s no ugly white front plate in sight.
The S8 is thin, and incredibly light at 155g, but it feels sturdy and precisely made. It's IP68 water- and dust-resistant, so it's good for 30 minutes to depths of 1.5 metres. The glass is a little fingerprint prone, but no worse than any other glass phone I've used.
Like the recently launched, and still excellent, LG G6, the front of the Samsung Galaxy S8 is almost all screen. And this is really what makes the S8 stand out. Unlike with the G6, though, the display here melts away into the sturdy metal rim. There’s no ‘Edge’ version this year, because both versions have a sloping panel.
It’s a much subtler curve than on the Galaxy S7 Edge, just like on the Note 7, and that makes it a lot easier to use. There’s still a bit of extra reflection on this portion of the screen, but it’s a small trade-off for such an eye-catching look.
Having such a big display and tiny bezel means there’s no room for the fingerprint-sensing Home button to sit on the front. Instead it’s on the back, next to the camera. It's one of the few things I don't like – I hit the camera multiple times when testing it out – but maybe I'll get used to it.
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There’s more to the display than just the curves – actually a lot more. First off, it has a new aspect ratio of 18.5:9, rather than 16:9. This means it’s taller, essentially giving you more space in a body that isn’t that much bigger than the S7's. While the Galaxy S7 had a 5.1-inch display, the S8 has a 5.8-inch one. It sounds huge, but the phone itself feels compact and Samsung is keen to point out that it can still be used comfortably in one hand.
Like the majority of Samsung phones, the panel is AMOLED and has a slightly odd 2960 x 1440 resolution. It’s also ‘Mobile HDR Premium’ certified, so you’ll be able to stream HDR (high dynamic range) shows from Amazon Prime and Netflix when those apps are updated. HDR is arguably the most important evolution in TV tech is recent years, giving you better contrast and a brighter picture.
If you have used an S7, or an S6, you won’t be surprised to hear this is a stunning display. Colours are glorious, but it manages to avoid oversaturating brighter shades. A short HDR clip showed off inky blacks, and blues and reds that looked like they were painted on the display.
Photos struggle to do it justice, but it’s easily as good – and probably better – than the HDR display on the LG G6 and the 4K one on Sony’s Xperia XZ Premium.
Related: What is HDR?
Under the stunning body is a serious amount of power, though it depends where you live as to which chip you’ll get. Brits, and others in Europe and Asia, will get Samsung’s own Exynos 8895 chipset, while those in the USA will get a version with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835.
Whichever CPU you get, it shouldn’t make a huge amount of difference. Both are the fastest out there and they're built using a 10nm production process for improved efficiency that’ll hopefully eke some more battery life out. There’s 4GB of RAM – Samsung clearly didn’t see the need to bump that to 6GB – and a roomy 64GB of internal storage with support for 256GB microSD cards.
Phone performance isn’t something that causes concern any more, especially on flagship devices. The Snapdragon 821 CPU in the LG G6 might be six months old, but there isn’t an app or daily task that can cause it to break sweat. So why does Samsung really need to push things further?
Well, aside from hopefully improving battery life, that extra performance is being used to power a new feature called ‘DeX’. I like to think of this as Microsoft’s Continuum, but without being terrible.
Like Continuum, DeX requires a sold-separately £150 dock that connects to an HDMI-equipped monitor and turns your Galaxy S8 to a mini PC. The dock also has power, two USB-A ports and an Ethernet connector along with a smattering of fans in the base to keep the phone from getting too hot.
Dock the phone via the USB-C port inside the cradle and a new desktop – which looks a lot like Windows 10 – pops up. Your apps are displayed in a very familiar layout and there’s a dock along the bottom that lets you access all the phone and text functions of the phone.
What makes this so much better than Continuum is app support. Apps are resizable and bounce between phone and tablet versions depending on how much you stretch them, and you can have loads open at the same time. I opened the browser, Lightroom, Google Photos, Facebook and the whole suite of Microsoft Office apps and there wasn’t even the slightest hint of slowdown.
You can even stream your actual Windows desktop if mobile apps aren’t quite enough. It won’t completely replace your PC, but it’s the best interpretation of this feature yet, and something I'm interested to try more.
The S8 is a sizeable improvement over the S7 in almost every area, but the camera has the fewest upgrades. There’s no dual-sensor system here, no wide-angle lens or variable aperture. Instead, there’s a single 12-megapixel sensor behind a wide f/1.7 lens that uses the same dual-pixel tech as the S7.
The only obvious addition is a new multi-frame image processor that takes three shots every single time you snap, reducing blur and leaving you with a sharper shot. The S8 might also benefit from speed improvements thanks to the faster processor, but the core camera is very similar to the S7's. Of course, the S7 still has a fantastic camera, but I'll have to use the S8 more to see if its snapper's now as good as the Pixel's.
The front camera has seen a bigger upgrade, with a new 8-megapixel sensor. It also has an f/1.7 aperture and there’s autofocus too, which is still a rarity on selfie cameras. There’s a secondary camera on the front, but this one is for the iris scanner that Samsung says is much improved over the version on the Note 7.
Software used to be one of Samsung’s weaknesses, but that’s not the case any more. In fact, the software layer on top of Android 7.0 is good-looking and functional. Icons are much more mature, and the on-screen buttons – a first for a Samsung S-series phone – are all angular and edgy.
The stark white colour scheme is clean and crisp, and all of Samsung’s native apps have adapted that look. Google Assistant is on board, although I doubt there will be Daydream support, as that sort of clashes with the newly updated Gear VR and its snazzy motion controller.
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The biggest software addition is Bixby, Samsung’s Siri rival. This personal assistant is stuffed into the software and pops up everywhere. There’s a dedicated Bixby button on the side, so you don’t need to call out an awkward phrase to get it going, and the camera has a setting for scanning everyday items and searching online for the best price.
The leftmost homescreen is Bixby’s home, and it feels like a souped-up Google Now. It displays news, steps, your heart rate, suggested YouTube videos and so on. You can talk to Bixby, but on release it’ll only support Korean and US English. British English is coming later in the year, as are other languages.
Another new app is Samsung Connect. This is like Apple’s Home, and connects to a SmartThings hub to let you control your entire smart home from one screen. It’s cool I guess, but you’ll need to be heavily invested in the SmartThings ecosystem to make full use of it.
The final piece of the puzzle is the battery and it’s an important part for obvious reasons. Samsung is taking battery safety very seriously, as those constant TV adverts running you through its procedures demonstrate.
There’s a 3000mAh cell inside the Galaxy S8, which feels very small to me. Considering it has to power that 5.8-inch Mobile HDR-ready display, I feel it should be bigger. Still, Samsung says it’ll get you through the day thanks to the more efficient processor. Wireless charging is still here (even on the European model – take note, LG) and Adaptive Fast Charging too.
The Samsung Galaxy S8 is a new beginning for flagship phones. It’s a gorgeous sliver of tech that utilises its power for extending the experience beyond the 5.8-inch display, thanks to DeX.
It crams a huge screen into a compact body, without sacrificing features such as water-resistance and expandable storage, and takes phone design to the next level. Once you’ve picked up an Galaxy S8, all other phones feel somehow less interesting.
My only reservations are minor. Will the battery last the day? And can that camera go one better than the Google Pixel's? Oh, and it's going to be expensive – but what flagship phone isn't these days?
Unless Apple finally innovates again with the iPhone 8 then Samsung will once again have the best phone you can buy.
These are our first impressions based on initial hands-on time with the new Samsung Galaxy S8. We'll be publishing a full review of the phone close to the Galaxy S8 release date on April 28.