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Samsung has finally beat Apple at its own game.
While the Galaxy S has been regarded for years as the best Android phone money can buy (at least until the Pixel came around), it’s always existed in the iPhone’s lengthy shadow. Even with a higher market share, a dominant OS, and a years-long lead on features like screen size and water resistance, the Galaxy S has stayed just out of reach of the iPhone zeitgeist. No matter how much it tried to create its own end-to-end experience, Apple fans saw it as a copycat and Android enthusiasts lamented its aggressive TouchWiz interface overhaul.
All that has changed with the Galaxy S8+. With a stunning design that absolutely needs to be seen and a harmonious integration between hardware and OS, the Galaxy S8+ is the first phone in a long while that truly changes the conversation and resets our expectations. It might be a touch hyperbolic to compare it to the original iPhone, but it’s hard to deny that the S8+ is a watershed moment for modern smartphones, despite the tragic and confounding placement of its fingerprint sensor. After years of barely-distinguishable rectangles jammed with features of dubious usefulness, Samsung has brought something entirely new to the table.
And when the iPhone 8 comes out in September, people might not look at it quite so admiringly.
If I didn’t know better I would have though Samsung sent me the wrong phone. The S8+ doesn’t look or feel anywhere near as big as it is, with a screen that makes other phablets seem small by comparison, despite a much smaller frame.
Even after using it for several days, it’s still hard to believe that the S8+ has 6.2-inch display. At 159.5mm tall, it practically defies logic. Consider this: it’s smaller than the HTC U Ultra, and only a few millimeters taller than Galaxy S7 Edge, Pixel XL, and LG G6 but somehow adds a full half-inch of screen (and in the case of the Pixel and S7, nearly three-quarters of an inch). It’s like holding an optical illusion.
And the Infinity Display, as Samsung is calling it, is an absolute pleasure to behold. The curved edges rest gracefully in your hand, and whether you’re using one hand or both, its natural contours and glass-and-metal craftsmanship give it a smooth feel without it being too cumbersome or slippery. Which is good, because it’s practically a crime to put it in a case.
Slim is in
Unlike some other slim-bezel smartphones, the Galaxy S8+ is blissfully symmetrical, with perfectly proportioned slivers of bezel above and below the screen. But where the S7 was available in white, silver, and gold, the S8+ only comes with black front plate, a move meant to seemingly put even greater emphasis on the screen. Every phone I’ve ever owned has had a black frame, so I’m on board with the decision, but some are sure to grumble over the silver and grey-backed versions having black bezels on the front. I think such a small area of color at the top and bottom of the screen would have been distracting.
The only quibble I have with the design is the same one I have with other Galaxy phones: the placement of the charging port. Where the speaker and the headphone jack are centered on the bottom edge of the device, the new USB-C port is a just a touch too low, otherwise ruining the perfect equilibrium. For a phone that pays such fastidious attention to its design, it’s a head-scratcher.
Samsung has sculpted a real work of art with the Galaxy S8+. Features that would grab headlines on either phones, like IP68 water resistance and wireless charging, are practically an afterthought, and its competitors, including Apple, are going to have their work cut out for them. And the fact that Samsung was able to do all his without removing the 3.5mm headphone jack makes Apple’s “courageous” decision seem all the more outlandish.
As if to drive that point home, Samsung has bundled a pair of AKG wired earbuds, which are far and away the best sounding earphones I’ve gotten inside the box. I’m no audiophile, but the bass, balance, and volume of these things are top-notch, rivaling the sound I get from my PowerBeats3.
With an 83 percent screen-to-body ratio, Samsung didn’t leave much room on the Galaxy S8+ for much of anything else. Aside from the sensors, the front of the device has no distinguishable markings, and that includes the Samsung logo. However, even without its name emblazoned below the display, the S8+ is unmistakable, easily as identifiable as an iPhone 7.
For the first time, Samsung is also doing away with the physical home button and back/recents buttons; hardly an innovation in Android land but new territory for Galaxy phones. And it kind of shows. While the pressure-sensitive virtual on-screen home button is a winner, the fingerprint button is in the worst possible place. Surely you’ve seen images of its location to the right of the camera, but it’s even more awkward than the pictures would have you believe.
It took me longer to set up a single fingerprint than it does for multiple ones on other phones. A left-handed colleague actually had a slightly easier time, but I consistently missed the target when trying to use it. At times when I needed to use the fingerprint sensor for apps like Mint or 1Password, it took me several tries, sometimes to the point where it would have been quicker just to type in my password. (However, on the off chance that I hit it on the first try, it worked extremely quickly.)
Thankfully (or perhaps consequently), Samsung has provided multiple ways to unlock the S8+. In addition to the standard passcode and password options, there’s face and iris unlocking, both of which are quick but require you to stare at the front-facing cameras above the screen. The iris scanner is particularly impressive as well as being far more secure. It worked flawlessly nearly every time, even when I was wearing glasses. The only time I had difficulty was in direct sunlight, when the infrared sensor struggled to lock onto my irises until I took my glasses off.
I quickly learned how to position my phone so my eyes would unlock it as quickly as possible, but I had a harder time adjusting to the face scanner. All in all, I would still prefer using my fingerprint. I also would have liked the ability to tap an area other than the virtual home button to wake the screen, but even so, the new unlocking methods are a nice upgrade for the S8+. Just keep in mind that face recognition could be spoofed by a picture, as Samsung warns, so iris scanning is your best bet here, unless you happen to have fingers like Elastigirl.