The Samsung Galaxy name is ubiquitous in the world of Android. We saw the first Galaxy phone back in 2009 but it wasn’t until 2010 did the name mean anything. That was when Samsung launched the first Galaxy S phone, which quickly became the de facto Android phone for many. Over the years, the Galaxy S devices cemented Samsung’s position in the smartphone race, turning it into the market leader that it is today. Fast forward seven years, and the Galaxy S devices are the only ones that can hold their own against the juggernaut that is the iPhone in the market, with millions of devices sold worldwide and no signs of stopping.
Like clockwork, this year we got the Galaxy S8 and, as has now become tradition for Samsung, a larger Galaxy S8+. No doubt these phones will go on to sell in millions again, so it doesn’t really matter what I say here. Still, I have some thoughts to share after using the phone for a few weeks and regardless of whether you choose to buy one, I thought you might want to know more about what is undoubtedly one of the most important smartphones of the year.
In this first part, I will primarily talk about the design of the S8, with subsequent parts dedicated to other individual aspects. I think this way it will be easier and less overwhelming than being faced with several thousand words at once.
To really appreciate the design of the S8, one has to look at its predecessors. It’s no secret that despite their overwhelming success, the Galaxy S series of phones were some of the most mediocre looking devices on the market. While early models blindly aped the iPhone design — something that got Samsung in deep legal trouble with Apple later on (actually I’m not sure if that ever finally concluded) — the later designs made you wish Samsung was still copying Apple. As someone who owned a Galaxy S III for a good part of two years and loved it immensely otherwise, I have no qualms with admitting that the design was the least likable thing about the phone.
But more than pure aesthetics, it is the choice of materials that often irked everyone. While Apple was pushing out glass and aluminum phones since the iPhone 4, Samsung was still recycling PearlPET jars. It wasn’t until the Galaxy S6 that the Galaxy S series saw a major shift in the choice of materials. And what a shift it was.
Launched in 2015, the Galaxy S6 was one of the prettiest phones launched that year. Of particular note was the Galaxy S6 edge, which was the first phone to have a gorgeous curved display on both sides. The design, in combination with the use of glass and aluminum, marked a notable shift in how people saw Samsung smartphones. The plasticky build quality of earlier Galaxy phones was practically a meme. No one makes fun of Samsung phones’ build quality anymore.
But while the S6 was major shift in the choice of materials, if you looked closely, it still looks like the Galaxy S III I mentioned earlier. And considering the Galaxy S7 didn’t change the design much either, it too looked like a phone launched four years prior.
All of that changes with the S8. It doesn’t look like any phone Apple has ever made. It doesn’t look like any phone Samsung has ever made. It’s all glass and metal. And it’s beautiful.
The main talking point here is the change in the display aspect ratio, which has dictated the rest of the design. Somehow, both Samsung and LG had the same idea of going for a taller display this year. Either there are some double agents working in the company or they both visit the same Korean BBQ joints and loudly talk about their future design plans. Regardless, the Galaxy S8 has an 18.5:9 aspect ratio display, which is just a smidge taller in theory than the 18:9 display on the LG G6. I will talk about the display in detail in the next part but for now we will focus on its impact on the design.
The change in aspect ratio of the display literally takes the design in a different direction. Having a large display on a phone is always desirable but the biggest hurdle is the corresponding increase in size of the phone as well, and our hands can only accommodate so much. By switching to a different aspect ratio, the extra display size can be piled on vertically while keeping the width manageable, so you get the advantages of a larger display without the larger size. That’s the theory, anyway.
But it’s not the taller display that’s interesting. It’s how the display has been implemented that’s interesting. Samsung could have very well put in a taller display on the phone and still have had large bezels at the top and bottom. But instead, the Galaxy S8 is roughly the same size as the iPhone 7 and the display fills out practically the entire front surface of the phone, leaving two tiny slivers at the top and bottom. This is what’s so iconic about the S8 design, not that the display is taller but that it goes nearly edge to edge.
One of the ways Samsung achieved this is by getting rid of that chin that has been in the family for generations. Even as other manufacturers switched over to on-screen controls and a fingerprint sensor on the back, Samsung resolutely stuck to its chin that had the iconic squared home button in the middle flanked by the back and multitasking key. Samsung would even keep the back button on the right, a decision bemoaned by many but I personally thought was convenient since I am right handed and use the back button more often.
With the S8, the chin is now gone in favor of a featureless little bezel at the bottom. The controls have now been moved to the display, much to the joy of many. Amusingly enough, Samsung still sets the on-screen keys with the back button on the right by default but you can easily flip this in the settings. Although I prefer having the back button on the right, I liked it when the button wasn’t constantly visible on screen as it does look visually jarring when it’s on the right. So that’s why with a heavy heart I flipped it over to the left, just so it would look right.
Underneath this unassuming area, however, is a pressure sensitive surface where the home button is. Samsung couldn’t quite let go of the physical home button so it made the area pressure sensitive so if you want you can still press on the screen instead of tapping the home button. This is a bad idea for three reasons.
First, unlike the pressure sensitive Home button on the iPhone 7, the home button on the S8 can be activated by just tapping it, which is always easier. Second, Samsung couldn’t get the pressure sensitivity right; on the default setting you have to press is way too hard to activate the home button. You can make it more sensitive but you still have to press with some amount of force. This makes it more ridiculous because again, you can just tap the damn thing. Third, the haptic feedback is garbage. Apple nailed the haptic feedback on the iPhone 7 home button to the point many people using it have no idea it is not an actual button that moves. On the S8, not only does the vibration not feel like pressing an actual button but it comes from somewhere near the middle of the phone, way too far from where the home button is. This is because while the iPhone 7 uses the superior Taptic Engine, which is a massive linear oscillating vibrator and places it near the bottom of the phone, Samsung uses a standard circular oscillating vibrator that is placed near the top of the phone. It seems like a small detail but makes a big difference in everyday use.
The thing about the pressure sensitive area is, however, that it is always active, much like a physical home button. While on other Android phones when the buttons go off the screen you first have to bring them back before using them, on the S8 you can just press near where the home button would be and it works. It even works when the screen is off; just press the home button and it lights up and you can even set it to unlock the phone immediately. In fact, Samsung keeps the icon for the home button visible on the screen even when the phone is locked so you know where to press (the icon is shifted slightly to avoid burn-in). This is nice but I wish Samsung works more on the pressure sensitivity and the haptic feedback. There are also times, such as immediately after locking the screen, where the ‘button’ is unresponsive for a while and you have to wait a couple of seconds before you can press it. This, too, needs to be fixed.
Moving on to the upper bezel, at first glance there doesn’t seem to be much happening here but closer inspection reveals a whole bunch of stuff hiding underneath. Going left to right we have the notification LED, the iris detection LED, the proximity and ambient light sensor, the earpiece, the front facing camera and finally the actual iris scanner camera. Samsung made the wise choice of having black front bezel on all color options. Not only does black look better on the front it also hides the plethora of sensors underneath the top bezel well.
The bezels, or really the lack thereof, are really the talking point of the phone, so much so that Samsung even uses the outline of the phone in all its marketing material, with just the top and bottom bezels visible like two brackets containing the display. What about the side bezels? Well, they are mostly irrelevant here considering how small they are. One of the (or rather the only) advantages of the curved display is that it gets rid of the side bezels almost entirely. So now where you’d normally have a bezel you have more display. This effect was noticeable on the past two generation of Galaxy S as well but now with the top and bottom bezels also reduced it really makes you feel like you are just holding on to the display with barely any of the rest of the phone in sight.
What further drives home this point is the all-glass back. Like the Note7, the S8 not just has a glass back but it is also curved at the sides with a matching radius of curvature as the front glass. There is metal sandwiched between the two on the sides but it’s so insignificantly small and very nearly seamlessly integrated that you barely feel it there and the front and the back glass feel like one cohesive surface in your hand.
It’s this feeling in hand for me one of the biggest selling points of this phone. The S8 feels incredible to hold, like you’re holding one smooth, curved piece of glass with just the right dimensions width-wise and perfect weight. It feels expensive, even luxurious. I wish they had managed to make the metal and glass flow more seamlessly and you can still feel the edge of the aluminum as it meets the glass but it’s still quite impressive what they have managed. I’ve tried the larger S8+ and it feels a bit ungainly but the smaller S8 feels like it was built for the human hand. It’s something you need to experience for yourself.
Getting back to the aesthetics, the back of the phone is where Samsung has let us down big time. The back side of the S6 and S7 were plain and uneventful but the S8 is almost bad. I would have settled for uneventful but the awkward cluster of flash/heart rate sensor, camera, and fingerprint sensor at the top is just unsightly. All the shapes are too square considering the softer curves of the front and look like they were plucked out of another phone altogether. I don’t know why Samsung insists on having the heart rate sensor on the back and who even uses it but it adds unnecessary distraction under the flash. But it’s the absurd positioning of the fingerprint sensor that takes the cake.
First of all, the positioning is an ergonomic nightmare. I’ve tried using only the fingerprint sensor as my primary security measure for a few days and it was an utterly frustrating experience. You think you’d get used to it but you don’t. It’s too far up and too oddly located to be found at first try without looking. On top of that Samsung fingerprint sensors continue to not be great, which means unless your finger is perfectly located and covering the entire sensor it won’t work. Considering how hard it is to locate the sensor in the first place, ensuring your finger lands on it perfectly needs some superhuman level of precision to get it right at first attempt every time.
Second, it looks fucking stupid. You have the smaller cluster of flash and sensor on the lens and then this much larger rectangle on the right, which just upsets the balance completely. A better design would have been to have the fingerprint sensor to be of the same size and below the camera lens and the flash/heart rate sensor in between those two but sideways instead of vertically. From what I’ve heard, the fingerprint sensor was supposed to be on the front underneath the glass but had to be put on the back at the last minute so there was no time to do a clean job. Clearly, Samsung still isn’t at that stage where it wouldn’t ship something at all until it’s right instead of half-assing it despite last year’s fiasco.
The rest of the back is boring. There is the giant ugly Samsung logo in the middle (I guess we can all be thankful that there isn’t one on the front this time) and below are the IMEI, serial number and other nonsense that could have been on a removable sticker but are permanently printed. The only noteworthy thing about the back is the way the paint has been applied underneath the glass surface, which gives it a cool looking luster that shines differently depending upon how light reflects off it. On my gold colored model, the back can look anything from a deep, almost bronze gold to a very light champagne gold depending upon how I see it.
The metal frame that surrounds the phone actually goes through the phone and is a solid aluminum slab that the phone is built around, giving it support and structural integrity. On the outside, Samsung has chosen to paint the visible metal in the same color as the back of the phone, so my gold S8 the metal frame is a light shade of gold. As someone who is not a fan of gold colored phones at all I don’t mind this much considering how light the color is. The frame is also polished this time instead of being matte, which I think looks cool and also enhances that feeling of holding an entirely glass phone as the glossy metal texture almost perfectly matches the glass on the front and back.
It needs to pointed out just how big of a smudge magnet the back of the phone is. It’s incidentally the same Corning Gorilla Glass 5 that is there on the front of the phone but does not have the same level of oleophobic coating. It really does make the back of the phone look unsightly after use, especially on the black model. It doesn’t help that the back looks unsightly even before there are any smudges on it.
Going around the sides there are plenty of things to talk about. On the right is the power button and on the left are the volume controls and the Bixby button. On the top is the SIM card tray that can hold either two nano SIM cards or one nano SIM and one microSD. I found it odd that the tray is made out of plastic when even budget phones these days are making it out of metal. On the bottom are the headphone jack, USB-C connector and the loudspeaker.
Starting with the buttons, I still hate the fact that Samsung splits the power and volume buttons across two sides while most other manufacturers place them on the same side. My biggest problem with this is that when you hold the phone to press the button on one side, you automatically grip the phone on the other side, causing you to press whatever button is over there. Now to make matters worse, there is also the Bixby button on the left.
I also hate how Samsung — for all the design ingenuity it spent on curving the display and the corners and the glass — still can’t align everything on the side along the same axis. The bottom side is a mishmash of ports that are all aligned on different axes. Clearly, they were put there because it made sense for the engineers who were working on the inside and not for the designers who worked on the outside, who probably didn’t give a damn. Take any iPhone and you wouldn’t find ports on the bottom just haphazardly thrown about without proper alignment and symmetry. It probably took Apple to put in a lot more effort on the inside to get them to align like that on the outside but the end result is worth it because as a customer the outside is really all you can see.
In terms of usability, both the S8 and S8+ are helpfully narrow, making them very easy to hold in one hand. Unfortunately, being able to hold them in one hand and use them with one hand aren’t quite the same thing and this is where the critical flaw with the design lies; it’s just too tall to reach the top edge. On the smaller S8 I have to struggle to reach the notifications at the top because I hold the phone at the bottom (like a normal person). With a bit of gymnastics it is possible to reach the top edge with my thumb. On the S8+ it is laughably impossible to do the same and your only choice is to use your other hand or shift the phone itself in your hand so now you’re holding it in the middle, which then makes reaching the bottom keys difficult. So this is the drawback of these tall phones, easy to hold but difficult to use.
As for the build quality, like I said, the phone feels great in your hand. The quality of materials is definitely high; the phone even passed Zach’s bend test with flying colors. However, this is still primarily a glass phone so if you drop it there is a good chance it will shatter upon impact. Fortunately, the corners of the display have been curved to divert the shock of impact around as curved corners help distribute stress evenly (same reason why airplane windows are curved) but a hard enough drop could shatter the display too since now there is very little bezel to protect. You could get a case but then you would be greatly missing the point of this phone. I would suggest getting something else instead if you are the careless sort.
Speaking of careless, the Galaxy S8 is also dust and water resistant. The good thing is that Samsung has not compromised on any ports to achieve this and you still get a headphone jack at the bottom. The IP68 rating means you can submerge the phone in 5 feet of freshwater for up to 30 minutes. It’s best, however, that you don’t do this often as if water gets in somehow the warranty does not protect you from water damage. Also, saunas, jacuzzis, hot showers and other places with steam are a complete no-no as the IP68 rating does not protect against steam, which is a lot finer and can get into places water cannot.
Wrapping up this section and the first part, I really do like the design of the S8. It is the best looking phone Samsung has ever made and one of the best looking phones that has been on the market. Unfortunately, attention to detail is still an issue at Samsung and the aesthetics could have benefitted greatly from keener eyes during the design process. Still, it is an impressive design overall and befitting a phone in this class.
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