In the first part of this review I talked about the design of the phone. This second part will be dedicated entirely to the display. I feel the design and display are really the highlights of this device and as such decided to dedicate entire sections to them. I will be shoving everything else about it in the third and final section, which should be coming… soon. I think.
There are quite a lot of interesting things to talk about the Galaxy S8 display but the most interesting by far is the aspect ratio, so I will begin with that.
As I talked about it in my first part, both, LG and Samsung, decided to put their bets on ultra widescreen displays for their respective flagships this year. While the G6 has a neat 18:9 display, meaning the height is exactly twice the width of the screen, the S8 has a slightly awkward (on paper) aspect ratio of 18.5:9. I tried to figure out what the significance of this aspect ratio is, and there are a lot of aspect ratios out there beyond what we usually see, but I couldn’t find any use of 18.5:9. Even the 18:9 (or 2:1) used by G6 is not commonly used anywhere. Concluding it’s a case of ‘just because’, I gave up looking into it any further.
Moving on, we haven’t had a big change in aspect ratios in quite some time. Back in the day when phones primarily had a keyboard below the screen, the displays were very close to 4:3 or 1:1 ratio. When the keyboards went extinct and the touchscreens came in, we saw some longer displays, such as the original iPhone’s 3:2 ratio (also what is commonly used by DSLR cameras). Around the time the iPhone 4 came out, some of the Android phones had adopted 16:9, the most commonly used widescreen aspect ratio today. (Note that the iPhone itself didn’t go widescreen until the iPhone 5.)
16:9 (or 1.78:1) has stuck around with us for years now. Our TVs use it. Out computer monitors use it. It’s what broadcast television uses (and some movies) and what most cameras shoot in. Naturally, it was the right fit for the smartphone. But it was especially a right fit for the smartphones because a wider aspect ratio meant when you held the phone vertically, as you normally do, it also meant a taller display, and that worked really well considering how much of our everyday content is on a scrolling lists or timeline.
When the time came to improve upon it, both Samsung and LG decided to make it taller. The goal really was to fill out the bezels at the top and bottom but the end result was a screen that can now fit more content vertically. And because the S8 display is 18.5:9 as compared to 18:9 on the G6, it can show a couple of lines of extra content. Compared to a 16:9 phone, there is significantly more content here to see. Now without scrolling you can see the entire Instagram picture along with the shitty caption and hashtags below it. Terrific.
In the screenshots below you can see the difference in the level of content visible at a time between the S8, G6 and 3T. In the first two devices you can see the entire third row of images while the S8 even show a bit from the fourth row. I must specify here that all three devices are set to high DPI setting. Out of these three, only the 3T is by default set to a higher DPI setting. Both the S8 and G6 have a low DPI setting, which means everything appears huge by default and there is a lot less content visible. Increasing the DPI value from the Settings, commonly labelled ‘Display size’ in Nougat, lets you have lot more content on the screen at a time while keeping everything at a reasonable size.
But the taller aspect ratio has two problems. The first comes in the way it is measured and the general air of misconception around it. Displays are normally measured diagonally, so, say, from the bottom left edge to the top right edge. However, the diagonal measurement tells you very little about the area of the display. Normally, this is not a concern if the aspect ratios are identical. So, for example, a 5.5-inch 16:9 display will always have greater area than a 5.0-inch 16:9 display. The problem comes in when aspect ratios change. A 5.5-inch 16:9 display does not have the same surface area as a 5.5-inch 18.5:9 display. In fact, the 18.5:9 display has less surface area than the 16:9 display. There is some math involved here that relies on the good ol’ Pythagoras theorem but the simplest way to understand it is this; for a given diagonal, a quadrilateral has the highest surface area when it is a perfect 1:1 square and the more you stray away from the square dimensions while keeping the diagonal constant the area reduces. Hence, a 16:9 display with a certain diagonal size will always have greater surface area than an 18.5:9 display of the same diagonal size because the former is closer to a square.
What this tells us is that when Samsung tells you that the S8 has a 5.8-inch diagonal, you really have no idea what it means because the only thing you can compare it to is another 18.5:9 display and that’s on the S8+. There is no way you can compare it to the Pixel or iPhone 7 or even S7 display because they have totally different aspect ratios.
The second problem is an actual real problem and not just an annoyance that I have. As you would expect, there isn’t a lot of content for this aspect ratio. Like I said, most of the content out there is in 16:9. Take YouTube videos for example, majority of which are in 16:9. When you watch them on the S8, you can either choose to have black bars on either side of the display or use the zooming control that pops up every time you watch a video to fill up the screen, which crops out the top and bottom of the video. Neither solution is ideal but I always go with the former to avoid cropping anything out.
The problem with doing this, however, is you lose out on extra width advantage. The 16:9 area on the S8 display is actually roughly equivalent to about 5.2-inch diagonally. This means when you watch a 16:9 video on the S8, you get the same experience as watching it on a 5.2-inch display.
The only content that can sufficiently fill up the display are movies. Film these days, and for the past several years, is primarily shot in 21:9 (or 2.39:1). It’s actually wider than even the S8 display, which means when you watch a movie on it there are still some black bars on the top and bottom. However, they are much smaller than the black bars you get when watching a movie on a 16:9 display. The S8 display is at its best when watching a movie and you get the full advantage of the added width.
Samsung’s own apps fill up the screen properly. I didn’t see any particularly interesting use of the extra space like what LG does with the G6 camera app (it uses the extra space to show photos you take right there at the top like a film strip) and they usually just show more of the same content. When it comes to third party apps, a lot of the ones I used filled up the screen just fine but in some cases they show black bars at the top and bottom. There is a button that appears in the multitasking menu that lets you stretch out that app to fill the screen. In my experience it mostly worked fine with apps but not so much with games, as they are usually designed with very specific aspect ratios and resolutions in mind. Stretching a game just zooms it in like a video and everything at the edges gets cropped out.
The other interesting aspect of the S8 display is the curved corners. Like the G6, the S8 has curved corners but they are way more aggressively curved here with a much larger radius. They are so significant, in fact, the Samsung had to design the top status bar to show the icons much farther away from the edge so they don’t get truncated.
The way the curved corners work in software is basically by not knowing about its existence. Simply put, the phone’s software has no idea the display has curved corners. It sends a straight square image to it. The display simply has no pixels in the corner to display the pixels present in the software so things appear fine at first. Like I said, Samsung has cleverly designed the status bar to show the icons away from the edges so they appear normally when seen on the display. However, look at a screenshot and they look quite odd, so far away from the corners.
The problem comes in some third party apps. Snapchat, for example, has this volume bar, which appears as a thin row at the top. Because Snapchat gives zero fucks about the corners of your display the volume bar has chunks cut off from either side. Same with Instagram that also has a volume bar at the top (because of course it does) that also gets truncated. This is less obtrusive on the G6 that has less pronounced corners. It will take a while before developers start adopting the same tricks as Samsung and avoid the corner areas to display content.
Moving on from curved corners let’s talk about those damn curved edges. I am not a fan of Samsung’s curved displays. I hated it when I first used it on the Note Edge. I hated it on the S6 edge. I hated it on the S7 edge and now hating it on both the S8 where it’s not even an option. It has always been a gimmick and although I admit it is one of the most technically impressive gimmicks around and also helps make the phone look like it has no bezels on the side, I still don’t like it. First of all, the curves reduce the usable area of the display. I mean, it’s there but not really there. The stuff on the edges is too warped to look any good. The edges also catch distracting glare a lot more than a flat screen does and make it a nightmare to swipe down the notification shade while watching a video in landscape. To avoid accidental touches, Samsung has not put any touchscreen layer in the last few millimeters of the edges, which is annoying if your thumb ever wanders there to intentionally scroll. Not to mention there are still plenty of accidental touches when you don’t want them to. It’s just more trouble than it’s worth and I wish it would just go away.
I suppose at some point I should talk about the actual image quality of the display. Both the S8 and S8+ have identical 2960×1440 resolution panels. The very first thing that got my goat about this is that out of the box Samsung sets the resolution of the phone to 2220×1080. This means everything is rendering on the screen at a lower resolution, making it slightly blurrier in the process. I suppose this is done to improve battery life but I didn’t bother testing it as that meant actually using the phone at that absurd sub-native resolution. The phone actually lets you take it even further down to 1480×720, at which point you should just consider donating your eyes while you are still alive because you would be wasting them. This shit is really annoying because now I know for a fact there will be millions out there who will buy this phone and will never know this setting exists and will use this ultra expensive phone with 2960×1440 display at 2220×1080. And they will never know.
That mind fuckery aside, once you set the phone to its native resolution, things look tack sharp. We are still looking at a RGBG PenTile display here but let’s be real, at this pixel density, which is something along the lines of 570 PPI, you’re not seeing shit.
Color performance is where Samsung always ranks high above other Android OEMs. Out of the box, the display will make even black and white images look color but hop into the settings and you can easily tone it down. The automatic adaptive setting aside, the phone has three other options, Basic, AMOLED photo, and AMOLED cinema, each of which corresponds to sRGB, Adobe RGB, and DCI-P3, respectively. Unfortunately, color management is still non-existent in Android as of Nougat, which is why these modes are necessary to begin with. Switching to any of these applies the setting to the entire display. If you are viewing any content that natively uses the aforementioned color spaces, switching to the respective setting will make that content look accurate but the rest of the UI will be oversaturated because that’s just how we roll in Android. I personally just set it to Basic as practically all the content we consume on our phones is in sRGB anyway. Android O is supposed to bring native color management so let’s hope things get better.
The overall image quality of the display is just spectacular. It’s just an absolutely phenomenal screen and a joy to behold. Samsung has always been good with displays but this one is just that extra bit good. When this phone goes back and I look back at the time spent with it, the display is probably what I would miss the most.
I will finish this part by talking a bit about HDR. HDR, for those not aware, is a new video standard that goes beyond just resolution and aims to actually increase the quality of those pixels. HDR video has much greater contrast due to higher required brightness levels and a wider dynamic range, so you see a lot more details in the shadows and the highlights. It also has a wider color gamut, so you see a wider range of colors. The end result has the potential to blow your tits off if done right. Unlike higher resolution, which is not something everyone can perceive, increased brightness, contrast, dynamic range, and color gamut is something most people can easily make out.
Last year, the Note7 was the first phone ever to have HDR on a mobile display. The S8 builds upon that and has a Mobile HDR Premium certification from the UHD Alliance. Technically, the phone is capable of displaying HDR content. But what content exactly? This is where things get tricky. Out of the services available in India, only Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube stream in HDR. Out of these, only Amazon Prime is actually streaming right now on the S8. Netflix seems to have some exclusivity deal with LG for the G6 so you don’t get that on the S8 and because Google is busy sucking its own dick, YouTube HDR is only available on the Chromecast Ultra and maybe couple other things, none of which are mobile devices. You can download and play HDR files locally on the device but apart from trailers and some demo videos there aren’t really any HDR files you can download.
As for image quality, unfortunately the HDR settings are locked to a particular profile that Samsung has chosen. Once you play any HDR content, the display automatically switches to this profile. You know that has happened because your eyes will start bleeding. Seriously, Samsung has gone way overboard with color settings for HDR and everything looks obnoxiously oversaturated. I watched a few episodes of The Grand Tour on Prime and Jeremy Clarkson was orange, James May was red and Richard Hammond was still short. I appreciate the added brightness and the extra dynamic range (although the latter totally depends upon the content) but I can’t stand the colors for too long. It’s a bit too much really and I’m not sure which is worse, this clown casserole or the Dolby Vision HDR on the LG G6 that looks fucking identical to the non-HDR version.
Anyway, that’s all for this part. I plan to wrap it all up in the next one because honestly it’s all the boring stuff that’s left. If you have stuck around so far, well done. See you in the next part and in the meantime, consider leaving a tip if you are willing.