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HolidayBuyer's Guide

Samsung Galaxy S8 review:

The most beautiful phone ever has one wildly annoying issue

Bixby Voice is most like Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa. So far it's only launched in South Korea, and I've never had a chance to test it. It'll start off by only working with phone settings, such as vocally dimming the screen, turning on Wi-Fi, rotating a picture and so on. It has its own dedicated button beneath the volume rocker, which you will not be able to remap from the settings menu. Boo.


I was able to test the other two Bixby features, though. The more visible of the two, Bixby Home (confusingly called "Hello, Bixby" when you sign in), is like Google Now for other Android phones. There are cards for the weather, upcoming appointments, your step count, headlines and so on. I'm not convinced it adds much value beyond Google Now, which also gives me flight alerts and tells me when my packages are set to arrive. However, you will be able to see Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter cards. You'll be able to turn off Bixby Home, but I'm not sure if it'll be easy to add Google Now (the one with the cards) if you prefer that instead.

Bixby is a three-part app.

Josh Miller/CNET

Finally, Bixby Vision is a camera filter like Google Goggles or Bing Vision on a throwback Nokia Lumia. You can use it to scan words on a business card or package of food and translate it into 52 languages, with varying results. It can identify a book cover, landmark location or a bottle of wine through partner Vivino, a feature that worked for some bottles, not all. Partners such as Pinterest help handle the image search. I'm still looking for a natural reason to use this.

By the way, you'll need a Samsung account to use any Bixby feature, which is one more thing to sign into, or sign up for if you didn't have a Samsung account before.

Bixby is ambitious and brand new and I'm willing to give Samsung some leeway to develop it over the coming months. But from what I've seen so far, it's by no means a reason to buy the Galaxy S8. It rankles that you won't be able to reprogram the Bixby Voice key to launch any app you want -- this is something you can do on, say, the Alcatel Idol 4S -- but at this point I wouldn't boycott the S8 because of it.

No dual camera, and that's (mostly) OK

Standard photos on the Galaxy S8's single 12-megapixel are consistently good. They're crisp, colorful and eminently sharable. Low light shots are relatively bright and detailed (the darker the scene, the more image noise you'll see), and selfies on the 8-megapixel front-facing camera are also terrific. I especially like the new auto-focus feature, which frees you from having to stretch out your arm and tap the screen to focus.

You can double-tap the power button to launch the camera. This is baked into Android Marshmallow and up, but Samsung only implemented it now and it's great.

In addition, there's a pro mode and a heap of editing tools that really let you fine-tune colors, brightness and tone. If the camera recognizes a face, it'll offer up a Portrait editing option, which lets you blur the background to approximate the same kind of bokeh effect you can get from the iPhone 7 Plus ($998.11 at Amazon.com)' second camera lens. Result: enthusiastic overblurring that might cut off an arm or wipe out the background if you overdo it.

A word on the single-versus-double camera lens. Apple, LG and Huawei have phones with two lenses on the back. These, respectively, help achieve portraits with that cool, blurred effect I just mentioned, get wide-angle shots or take crisp black-and-white images. By sticking with a camera that's similar to last year's model, the Galaxy S8 can't do any of that as well as competitors. (I have high hopes for the Note 8 doubling down on cameras.)

Videos shoot by default in 1080p HD, but you can uplevel to quad HD (1440p). If you do, you'll lose a few features and effects, including video stabilization. You'll have hyperlapse and slow-mo modes for extra video fun.

Battery life is very good, and still no overheating problems so far

The million-dollar question: Is the Galaxy S8 battery safe? We haven't heard reports of overheating so far. I sure hope Samsung's eight-point safety check will keep the S8 and other future phones from the Note 7's fiery fate.

Wirelessly charging won't be as speedy as wired, but it sure is convenient for top-ups.

Josh Miller/CNET

I will say that my Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus test units, the first ever phones (in some markets) with the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset, never felt dangerously hot. The glass-backed phones do get warm when charging and playing demanding games (such as Riptide GP Renegade or Clash of Clans), but so do other phones.

In CNET's battery drain test, the S8 averaged about 16 hours in our looped video playback test before huffing out. That's less than the Galaxy S7 by about an hour, and about 2 hours shy of the Note 7 straight out of the box. This still falls at the high end of the scale. In real life, the phone lasts a full day of moderate use, and not quite a full day under heavy use.

One day, I started at 7 a.m., kept the screen on pretty much all day at full brightness, and took tons of photos and video. Twelve hours later, I was down to 13 percent. I backed off, and was at 6 percent when I got home at 10 p.m. Another day, I streamed music videos and played Spotify for 3 hours (both over Wi-Fi), navigated around and did all the usual stuff, and it lasted much longer. Bottom line: Plan on charging the phone before bed.

Importantly, Samsung has said that the S8's long-term battery life will surpass the S7's long-term life in six months, a year or two years down the road. So that will hopefully mean that as the battery naturally loses capacity, you're getting closer to 15 hours than you are, say, 8.

Wireless charging on the new fast charger is convenient, but much slower than charging through the included USB-C. When the phone's turned off it takes under two hours to completely charge the S8 through its cable and closer to three and a half hours to power it up wirelessly.

Everything else you need to know about the Galaxy S8

  • The glass body is super reflective and smudgy as hell (tradition!)
  • It runs Android 7.0 Nougat under custom Samsung software
  • Don't expect an Android O update right away when the new OS is ready to go (based on past experience, it could take six months)
  • A cleaner Samsung interface comes with nice changes: swipe up on the home screen to see apps, touch and hold an app icon for more options
  • Audio sounded tinny pumped through the main speakers
  • Songs and video sounded rich through the included earbuds -- great for in-box headphones
  • Very fast Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor (tested)
  • Some regions come with Samsung Exynos processor instead
  • Support for Gigabit-class LTE, when available with carriers (aka Category 16 LTE)
  • Water-resistant IP68 body up to 3 feet of water and up to 30 minutes (it survived a dunk in a bucket -- a foot of water -- for 28 minutes)
  • More convenient one-handed operation than S7
  • Bluetooth Dual Audio lets you connect to two Bluetooth devices, like wireless headsets
  • Colors: midnight black, orchid gray, arctic silver, maple gold, coral blue (varies by region)
  • Will work with Samsung DeX accessory, Gear 360 ($84.99 at Amazon.com) cameras, Samsung Gear VR
  • Call a doctor in Samsung Health app through Amwell (takes insurance)

Galaxy S8 vs. iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, Google Pixels, LG G6, Galaxy S7

The S8 is right up there with other top-tier phones (full specs below), and it comes with AKG in-ear headphones worth $100, so that helps offset some of the cost. I'd also start looking for deals around major holidays. In testing, the camera's image quality is very high, and overall evenly matched (except for the portrait effect). We'll have an in-depth photo comparison soon.

iPhone 7 and 7 Plus: The S8 is taller than the iPhone 7 and shorter and narrower than the 7 Plus. In both cases, the Galaxy S8 gives you more screen (5.8- versus 4.7- and 5.5-inch, respectively). Samsung Pay works where Apple Pay doesn't, and the S8 has a microSD card slot, which makes storing media cheaper than buying an iPhone with more storage. The 7 Plus's second camera lens helps it demolish the Galaxy S8 in portrait mode as the S8 uses software, with inferior results. A new, redesigned iPhone is expected to be unveiled in September.

Google Pixel and Pixel XL: The S8 is taller and wider than the Google Pixel, but thinner. Smaller than the Pixel XL -- with more screen space than both. Google phones will always get the next Android updates first, since they run "pure" Android. You can get double the storage space on the regular Pixel (128GB) for the same price as the S8. A new Pixel could be coming in October if Google follows last year's release schedule.

The S8 has a blur tool for portraits.

CNET

LG G6: The Galaxy S8 costs anywhere from a little more to about the same, depending on the carrier. It's definitely prettier than the G6, and edges it on photos. But LG's phone is very nice in its own right and has almost the same slim dimensions. Plus, the G6's second camera takes wide-angle photos. Also its fingerprint reader and power button is infinitely more accurate.

To go a little deeper, read this: Galaxy S8 versus LG G6: Which is the smarter buy?

Samsung Galaxy S7: The S8 is far sexier, with a larger screen. It's also faster. You won't get Bixby on the S7, but you will get the same perks with Samsung Pay, wireless charging and waterproofing. Plus, the fingerprint reader in the S7's home button is much easier to use. Unless you've gotta have the latest and greatest hardware specs and the S8's curved-screen lusciousness, there's no pressing need to upgrade.

HTC U11: We've gone hands-on with the HTC flagship phone you can squeeze to take a picture. Stay tuned for how the two compare, after we have a chance to fully test it.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8: We know nothing official except that it's coming. I have a hunch that it'll address some of the S8's design issues and refine the software experience, including Bixby. If history is a guide, it'll be closer to the S8 Plus' size, cost more and, of course, come with a stylus. We'll know more in four months, if Samsung launches the Note 8 in August. Here's what I think the S8 means for the Note 8.

Galaxy S8 versus LG G6, Google Pixel, iPhone 7, OnePlus 3T


Samsung Galaxy S8 LG G6 Google Pixel Apple iPhone 7 OnePlus 3T
Display size, resolution 5.8-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels 5.7-inch, 2,880x1,440 pixels 5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels 4.7-inch; 1334x750 pixels 5.5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels
Pixel density 570ppi 565ppi 441ppi 326ppi 401ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.9 x 2.9 x 0.31 in 5.9 x 2.8 x 0.31 in 5.7 x 2.74 x 0.34 in 5.44 x 2.64 x 0.28-inches 6.01 x 2.94 x 0.29 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 149 x 68 x 8 mm 149 x 72 x 7.9 mm 144 x 70 x 8.6 mm 138 x 67 x 7.1 mm 153 x 75 x 7.4 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.5 oz; 155g 5.7 oz, 162g 5.04 oz; 143g 4.87 oz; 138 g 5.57 oz; 158g
Mobile software Android 7.0 Nougat Android 7.0 Nougat Android 7.1 Nougat Apple iOS 10 Android 7.0 Nougat
Camera (megapixels) 12 13 (standard), 13 (wide) 12.3 12 (wide) 16
Front-facing camera (megapixels) 8 5 8 7 16
Video capture 4K 4K 4K 4K 4K
Processor Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (2.35GHz + 1.9GHz) or octa-core Samsung Exynos 8895 (2.35GHz + 1.7GHz) 2.35GHz Snapdragon 821 with Adreno 530 GPU 2.15GHz + 1.6GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 Apple A10 chip (64-bit) 2.35GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 821
Storage 64GB 32GB 32GB, 128GB 32GB, 128GB, 256GB 64GB, 128GB
RAM 4GB 4GB 4GB N/A 6GB
Expandable storage Up to 2TB Up to 2TB None None None
Battery (all nonremovable) 3,000mAh 3,300mAh 2,770mAh 1,960mAh 3,400mAh
Fingerprint sensor Back cover Back cover Back cover Home button Home button
Connector USB-C USB-C USB-C Lightning USB-C
Special features Water-resistant (IP68); wireless charging; Gigabit LTE-ready 18:9 aspect ratio; wireless charging (US-only); water-resistant Google Assistant; unlimited cloud storage; Daydream VR-ready Water and dust-resistant, Taptic Home button Dual-SIM, Dash Charging
Price off-contract (USD) AT&T: $750; Verizon: $720; T-Mobile: $750; Sprint: $750; US Cellular: $675 AT&T: $720, Verizon: $672 T-Mobile: $650, Sprint: $708, US Cellular: $597.60 $649 (32GB); $749 (128GB) $649 (32GB); $749 (128GB); $849 (256GB) $439 (64GB), $479 (128GB)
Price (GBP) £689 £649 £599 (32GB); £699 (128GB) £599 (32GB); £699 (128GB); £799 (256GB) £399 (64GB), £439 (128GB)
Price (AUD) AU$1,199 AU$1,008 AU$1,079 (32GB); AU$1,229 (128GB) AU$1079 (32GB), AU$1229 (128GB), AU$1379 (256GB) Converts to AU$590 (16GB), AU$650 (128GB)

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