Samsung Galaxy S8 review: The best phone ever made, only smaller

The Galaxy S8 is every bit as great as its plus-sized brother. It's just smaller, and less expensive.

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Bixby isn’t ready yet

Nowhere is the “like Google but not as good” vibe as strong as it is with Bixby, Samsung’s run at building an AI assistant. Because every giant tech company has to have its own AI assistant now.

Bixby, put plainly, is not ready to be released. At the last minute, support for voice commands in English were delayed, so this is one of the only major AIs you actually can’t talk to. And you can’t type at it, either.

galaxy s8 buttons Jason Cross/IDG

There’s a prominant button dedicated to Bixby, just below the volume rocker. I can’t imagine ever wanting to press it.

So what’s left? Well, there’s a Bixby hub on the leftmost home screen, where the Google Now feed lives on stock Android. Like Google Now, it’s a series of cards that are deliver at-a-glance info. Check the weather (the home screen widget does that already), look at News headlines, count your daily steps, and so on. Only it’s mostly garbage. The Twitter card, for example, doesn’t show your latest likes, retweets, and DMs. It’s just a list of trending topics. The news card is just headlines from Flipboard, rather than personalized data mined from your search history to cater to your interests. There’s an Uber card that doesn’t really save you time from just launching the app, and a Foursquare card that shows you places nearby but doesn’t seem to personalize its picks.

The world does not need another “cards full of at-a-glance info” feed. I’d much rather have the Google Now feed.

Then there’s Bixby Vision, which at least seems to have some real future potential. You can launch it from the Camera app, the Gallery, or the top of the Bixby home screen. Point your camera at something and it will try to identify it, and give you options to shop for it, or look up similar images on Pinterest. Yeah, only Pinterest, not the entire web. It frequently fails to identify objects correctly, though books and wine labels are relatively successful. Perhaps the most useful feature is the ability to scan a business card and import the information directly into the Contacts app.

To say Bixby has a long way to go would be a grand understatement, and yet Samsung is so invested in it that there’s a unique Bixby button below the volume rocker that can’t be assigned to anything else. It summons Bixby, and that’s all it does, so now there’s a prominent button on my phone for a feature I never want to use. Fortunately, Google Assistant is still where it belongs, hiding behind a long-press of the virtual home button or a spoken “OK Google” prompt.

A conservative but top-quality camera

A great smartphone needs a great camera. For high-end phones, a killer camera is now table stakes. In a world where dual rear camera setups are all the rage and crazy stacked DRAM sensors are coming, Samsung has taken a conservative approach. There’s just a single 12 megapixel rear camera, and a single 8 megapixel front camera.

galaxy s8 pixel flower2 compare Jason Cross/IDG

Samsung’s tendancy to oversaturate a bit can cause it to lose detail in some high-color areas, like these flowers.

Samsung has optimized for quality and ease of use, and it shows. The rear camera is similar to the excellent shooter in last year’s Galaxy S7 at 12 megapixels with dual-pixel autofocus, optical image stabilization, and an f/1.7 aperture. But it is a new sensor with new optics, and Samsung has improved its image processing algorithms. The result is more consistent and even photos in a range of conditions. 

galaxy s8 pixel walle compare Jason Cross/IDG

In low indoor light, the S8 outperforms even the Pixel, thanks in part to OIS.

galaxy s8 pixel walle closeup compare2 Jason Cross/IDG

In this closeup of the above image, notice how much less noise is in the GS8 shot. OIS lets the camera use a longer shutter speed and lower ISO.

The front camera has been bumped up from 5 megapixels to 8, and the added autofocus really helps you take a clear selfie every time. It’s a marked improvement.

Samsung’s camera software, too, is top notch. It’s not too different from last year’s, where it made a big leap in usability. There are new filters and stickers, and the interface is cleaned up a little, but you still get a super fast and easy Auto mode, a powerful Pro mode, selective focus, slow motion, time lapse, and even a new Food mode that blurs out the edges and punches up the color.

galaxy s8 pixel dinner compare Jason Cross/IDG

The Food Mode punches up colors and blurs edges, but the Galaxy S8 does great even without it.

It’s going to take some serious head-to-head comparison to tell if this is the very best camera on a smartphone, but I feel comfortable claiming it to be among the best.

It’s the best phone, warts and all

Bixby has landed with a dud, but you can ignore it easily enough. The fingerprint sensor is disastrously placed, but an excellent iris scanner helps minimize its necessity. Samsung’s interface and app bloat is still needlessly...Samsung-y...but you have more options than ever to smooth away most of the annoying bits.

These blemishes only slightly detract from what is otherwise a killer phone. Whether it’s the gorgeous display with a fantastic new aspect ratio, the overall industrial design and ergonomics, the fast and power-efficient new processor, or the absolute flood of features new and old, this is one phone that seemingly does everything and does nearly all of it with grace and aplomb. 

At $720 it is very expensive, but the 64GB of storage and fantastic AKG earbuds take a some of the sting out of the price. If you want the best phone on the market, period, you only have to ask yourself if you want the Galaxy S8, or the bigger Galaxy S8+.

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At a Glance
  • No phone is perfect, and the Galaxy S8 is no exception. But it's better than the best Samsung has ever made in almost every way.


    • Stunning display in a useful new aspect ratio
    • Industry leading performance with excellent battery life
    • Bluetooth 5, fast wireless charging, waterproofing, and micro SD support


    • Bixby is a flop
    • The fingerprint sensor is located in the worst possible place
    • It's still full of bloatware and duplicative Samsung apps
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