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TORONTO — After Samsung announced its new flagship Galaxy S8 and larger S8+ smartphones in New York City last week, a group of Canadian journalists were invited to try the devices and speak with company representatives in Toronto shortly afterward.
Though a lot of information was reiterated from the original event, there were some additional takeaways on how things will work and what will be included in the device north of the border once it launches on April 21. Here are some initial thoughts after spending time with the new smartphones.
LOOK AND FEEL
From the moment you hold the phone and turn it on, the Galaxy S8’s screen and form factor is admittedly impressive. After an hour of constant use, the device still felt comfortable in the hand and wasn’t slippery despite all of that glass. The back is a definite fingerprint magnet, however.
On the smaller S8, the screen is 5.8-inches diagonally, which is already larger than Apple’s larger iPhone 7 Plus’ 5.5-inch display. Meanwhile, the S8+ has a 6.2-inch screen and, though that might sound excessive, the important thing to remember with these figures is that the screens are curved. This means the total screen size includes the part of the screen that is wrapped around the sides.
That curved screen though. I was skeptical going into the preview after the Galaxy S7 Edge, which had a curved screen that felt more tacked on and wasn’t truly utilized. This time around though the curved screen on the S8 feels natural and seamless, at least on first impression.
When you factor in the minimal (and almost non-existent) bezel, the new S8 and S8+ smartphones actually feel smaller than current generation iPhone models despite the larger screen sizes. You get more screen with less real estate, which I’d argue is a more valuable proposition for consumers than the trend of simply trying to make phones thinner since you can see and do more.
The larger screens may prove more difficult for one handed use though, especially for those who have smaller hands. Built into the operating system is a feature that will let you essentially shrink the screen down to the corner so you can access everything with one hand.
The fingerprint sensor, which has been move to the back, doesn’t have such a fix. It’s awkward to reach if you’re left handed, small handed or are simply using the larger S8+ phone because it isn’t centred nor low enough. Instead, it’s up by the camera, which is what’s centred on the back and what you’ll be hitting first while trying to find the sensor, therefore adding fingerprints to the lens. Perhaps muscle memory will kick in after a more extended use. Plus there are other ways to unlock your phone, such as through iris scanning or image recognition, so you may not even need the sensor on the back.
Physical home buttons are gone and instead live on the screen digitally, which I didn’t mind because you could turn on a light rumble feature to give you the sense of feedback when tapping. The 3.5-mm headphone jack remains though, despite rumours that it may be disappearing in this model, and each phone will come with US$100 AKG by Harman headphones.
If you want to go wireless, the S8 does have the new Bluetooth 5.0 protocol, which should be noted. It’s actually the first phone to have 5.0 built in, which means faster speeds, better range and you can have two different audio wireless headphones connected at the same time. We weren’t able to test any of this yet, however.
The back camera remains the same as the Galaxy S7, while the front facing camera got a spec boost with autofocus and built-in Snapchat-like filters because selfies are still all the rage. We didn’t get to truly test the cameras in real-world situations though, so I’ll reserve any camera opinions until a full review.
There isn’t a whole lot to say about the software side of things yet, since the phone has yet to be released and Samsung Canada said it’s still working on getting things in place for the phone’s launch on April 21. In short, not all the features were available to us yet.
That said, the operating system felt responsive in its default state. Unlocking the phone via my face or retina scanning was fast, and they’d more than likely be my choice for opening the phone on a regular basis. Facial recognition in particular is designed more with convenience in mind, as Samsung even admits it isn’t the most secure method. This is why in order to make payments with Samsung Pay, where security is crucial, you have to use iris or fingerprint scanning when it comes to biometric options.
Meanwhile, the phone’s flagship artificial intelligence-based virtual assistant Bixby is still in its early days and fairly bare bones before its launch, but Samsung said it is still in discussions with partners on service integration. For launch, Bixby will integrate with popular apps like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Uber, Foursquare or LinkedIn, plus you can swipe to the right to get a Google Now-like interface with things such as news, appointments and weather.
There is a dedicated Bixby button, so Samsung things you’re really going to want to use it, plus you can open the camera and allow you to scan the world around you to do things like find more information on a popular building or tourist attraction (such as the CN Tower). You also will be able to scan physical items and — if they are available to purchase through places like Amazon Canada or Etsy — quickly order them for yourself. Again, Samsung said it’s in talks with other companies to integrating more purchasing options, so for now it is a little light before launch. The company did confirm Amazon will be available here, though.
Bixby will be able to understand contextual commands on your phone, so you can tell it to send a picture you just took to someone in your contacts or change settings in your device like adjusting brightness. The pitch for Bixby is it’s not just an assistant that accesses a database of knowledge, but it can also make changes to your phone itself through voice while you’re busy doing other things. Unfortunately, we couldn’t actually test these functionalities during our hands-on, so for now my opinion on Bixby is fairly non-existent until I can properly try it.
Otherwise, there wasn’t much time to play around with the software in-depth. One of my biggest complaints in the past with Samsung devices is the amount of unnecessary software always added on to its phones, which then can bog down the device after extended use. Then there is also the carrier applications that Samsung tosses on once you install a SIM card, so you often get a double whammy of unneeded apps. It’ll be interesting to see how the S8 performs after extended use with all of the extra software and how much is actually needed.
After just an hour with the device, I can say I was impressed with the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+’s design and form factor. I already like the design much better than the Galaxy S7, as the new curved screen and thicker width actually make it much more comfortable to hold.
But how does it fair under the intensity of day-to-day, real-world use? How useful will Bixby actually be at launch? Are there any quirks hidden in the software? We’ll have to wait until the phones launch on April 21 to find out.