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Samsung Galaxy S8 review: The most beautiful phone ever has one wildly annoying issue

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The Samsung Galaxy S8 is without a doubt the most beautiful, polished phone I've ever held. These words were true when I first reviewed it in April, and are still true a month on. I do have some additional insights since then -- scroll down a bit for those.

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8.8

Samsung Galaxy S8

The Good

The best-looking phone around crushes it in performance, battery life, water-resistance and wireless charging. An external storage slot lets you keep more photos, videos and music.

The Bad

Its awkwardly placed fingerprint reader leads to camera smears and longer unlock times, which is aggravating when you use it to unlock your phone dozens of times a day.

The Bottom Line

The Samsung Galaxy S8's fast speeds and fantastic curved screen make it a top phone for 2017, but the annoying fingerprint reader could sour your experience.

OK, so the S8 is pretty. But it's also the most important Samsung phone right now, at least until the Galaxy Note 8 comes along. It's been helping restore buyers' confidence after the double Note 7 battery disaster (the S8's apparently selling like hotcakes), and it's a chance to cement the Samsung name as the top Android brand against upcoming rivals: the pure Android Google "Pixel 2," squeezable HTC U11 and cut-price OnePlus 5. It helps that soon, you'll be able to use the Galaxy S8 in Google's Daydream headset.

What makes the Galaxy S8 so special is this: A tall, narrow shape that fits snugly in my palm and curved sides that scream "classy." And the screen? 5.8 inches of colorful gorgeousness with a display that stretches from edge to edge with just a whisper of a bezel. For its looks alone, Samsung's flashiest phone lands at the top of the class. Trust me, when you see the S8 and larger, pricier S8 Plus, you're gonna want to put your hands all over them.

I did everything with these two phones at home, in the office, around town and at the beach. I took scores of photos and videos, watched tons of YouTube and Netflix movies, chatted my fingers off. I sat on them in my back pocket (no Bendgate yet). I've unlocked these things 100 times in four different ways (fingerprint, eyes, face, PIN). So I'm confident pointing out the S8's problems -- because, let's be real, there's always something.

Samsung Galaxy S8, S8 Plus and Bixby pix: Come and get 'em

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In this case, I can boil it down to the awkwardly placed fingerprint reader -- you will curse this -- and the still-up-in-the-air Bixby AI software, which combines Siri, Google Now and a camera add-on. (Samsung's Siri-like Bixby Voice tool is live in South Korea, but nowhere else and I use the rest of the Bixby features... never.) Also, while photo quality is great, it's weird to me that Samsung, usually so on top of trends, opted for one camera lens on the back instead of two.

So far, the battery has made the S8 warm, like most phones get, but not dangerously hot. Hopefully Samsung's new eight-point battery test has done its job keeping all future handsets combustion-free, unlike the poor Note 7. The battery reserves have lasted a good, long time (but I'm keeping an eye on idle drain as the months march on). Overall, it's zippier than the Galaxy S7, but not so much better at its core that S7 owners should dash to upgrade.

Decorate yourself and your buddies.

CNET

What you really need to know is that the S8 is an extremely fast, highly competent, visually stunning device that you'll probably want to use with a case. Yes, this will hide most of its beautiful lines. Tough luck: It's just too costly and pretty to risk dropping.

And the Galaxy S8 is expensive. At $750, £689 or AU$1,199, you want to know that your phone is going to go the distance, and that you won't regret getting something cheaper -- like the midrange but awesome-for-what-it-is OnePlus 3T (which is being phased out in preparation of the OnePlus 5, so hurry if you want one) -- or holding out for the next iPhone, Google Pixel or Note 8, each of which should debut in the next four to six months.

So long as you aren't hanging all your hopes on work-in-progress Bixby (Google Assistant is an easy alternative to invoke) and have the patience of a saint when unlocking the phone, the Galaxy S8 is a sound buy that will make your friends jealous of its tall, curved, crazy-elegant screen. If you're serious about buying, I'd make a special trip to test out the fingerprint reader before taking the plunge. And if your current phone isn't yet on its last legs, it doesn't hurt to wait and see how the S8's battery continues to fare in the wild. So far, though, it appears to be incident-free.

Editors' note: This review originally published April 18, 2017, and was updated May 26 at 11 a.m. PT.

What I've noticed since my initial review

  • A case helps make the fingerprint reader easier to hit, but there are a lot of false scans compared to the Google Pixel and Huawei phones like the P10, Honor 8, etc.
  • Top-level controls in the native camera app's manual mode are easy to access, so that's good
  • The sides of some games and apps cut off when you go full-screen (Clash of Clans is one example)
  • I'm not loving the jerky scrolling on the Recents tab
  • If you use a third-party app to remap the Bixby button (like Bixby Remapper), you might notice lag using it

If you already have a Galaxy S8, here are our best tips and tricks.

All-new design is thumbs-up

Not to be dramatic, but the Galaxy S8 really is a feast for the eyes. It adopts a new dimension -- 18.5:9 (that's almost 2:1 like the LG G6) -- which means that it's tall and narrow. That makes it easier to use one-handed. Extremely slim bezels mean there's much more screen stuffed into the shape: 83 percent of the phone's face is all yours for tapping and viewing. The S8 is almost the exact same height as the G6, but those curved sides make the S8 feel narrower, slimmer and, in truth, much more vulnerable.

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Don't want this to happen? Get a case.

Luke Lancaster/CNET

I was extremely nervous I'd drop it. It almost seems more like a museum piece than a tool I'm going to use every day. I've had a couple close calls so far, but it hasn't smashed to the ground yet. When it inevitably does, because butterfingers, I have a feeling those rounded edges will be easier to crack than a device with straight sides. I can't say for sure, but the bigger problem may be the glass back.

Last year's GS7 shattered when I dropped it (oops), and my colleague Luke Lancaster in Sydney said his S8 slipped and slid out from under him, resulting in a bash. With the Galaxy S8's newer Gorilla Glass 5 topper, time will tell just how often this happens for others, too.

See what happened when we purposely tried to smash it up.

There's no more physical home button, and honestly? I didn't miss it at all. The onscreen control you see on pretty much every other Android phone felt completely natural. In fact, going Home on the S8 was faster than going Home on a lightly used S7. By the way, you can swap the placement of the Back and Recents buttons if you want to.

The S8 is the first standard Galaxy S phone (as in, not an Edge or Edge Plus) to have curved sides and the Edge display. You can use it as a kind of speed dial for your frequent apps and contacts, news headlines and so on, which you can call up from any screen (and tweak the tab location so it's easy for you to grab). You can add a lot of panes in the settings, but I like it best when kept to two -- otherwise you waste time trying to find what you're looking for.

The best Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus cases are now hugely discounted

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Oh, one more thing about the screen. It's a very high-resolution, 2,960x1,440-pixel display, and that makes text, images and video absolutely pop, even in direct sunlight. You should know, though, that the off-standard dimension means you'll have to either be cool with black bars on the sides of videos you play (called pillarboxing), or you'll need to tap a screen control to crop-to-fit. In some videos, doing so reduced image quality. At other times, it looked just as good.

The S8 falters when you give it the finger(print)

That fingerprint reader is mighty close to the camera.

CNET

My biggest problem with the phone design is the fingerprint reader, which moved from the home button on the S7's front face to a narrow strip on its backing that looks a lot like a Tic Tac, just left of the camera mount. I have no idea what Samsung was thinking putting it here. Other rear-mounted fingerprint sensors, such as the LG G6 and Google Pixel, are closer to the middle center of the phone's body, well clear of the camera and flash. They're round and easier to completely cover with your fingertip.

Muscle memory has somewhat taken over and I've grown more used to the placement. I got a lot of setup errors, and the accuracy is still less "hit" and more "miss," especially when I haven't unlocked the phone for a stretch. And yes, I did often smear the camera with finger grease (yum) on the way to the scanner.

(Interlude: My colleague Patrick Holland tested the effect of fingerprint smudges on a bunch of phones, and noticed that the S8 still takes great pics regardless. We'll see if this holds up over time, or if the protective exterior coating wears out and image quality begins to suffer.)

Back to the fingerprint reader. Wait, you say! You can always use face unlock (which Samsung calls more convenient than it is secure, so no thanks) or the iris scanner, which is deemed secure enough for Samsung Pay. I tried both. The iris scanner takes longer than an accurate fingerprint reader on a rival phone, plus you have to hold it level to your face, and lift your sunglasses if you're outside. It doesn't always work in every lighting situation. But it worked fine with my glasses, even though I registered my peepers with contacts.

Best combination: Fingerprint reader with the iris scanner as backup, plus a PIN or pattern for times when the other two take too long.

One other thing about the fingerprint reader and Samsung Pay. Using both the fingerprint and iris methods to authenticate a payment took longer than on the Galaxy S7 and Note 7 (where the reader's on the home button), which made me feel like a jerk for holding up the line. Having a credit card ready is frankly faster, even though it's way less cool.

Bixby AI assistant still half-baked

Oh, boy. So much. Bixby is the blanket name for a feature that's actually broken into three parts: Voice, Home and Vision. It does not replace Google voice search or Google Assistant, which comes preloaded on the S8 and which you can invoke by long-pressing the home button.

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.

16 hidden Samsung Galaxy S8 features

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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.

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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.

How good is the Galaxy S8 camera? See for yourself

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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' 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.

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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 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.

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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.

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 S8LG G6Google PixelApple iPhone 7OnePlus 3T
Display size, resolution 5.8-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels5.7-inch, 2,880x1,440 pixels5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels4.7-inch; 1334x750 pixels5.5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels
Pixel density 570ppi565ppi441ppi326ppi401ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.9 x 2.9 x 0.31 in5.9 x 2.8 x 0.31 in5.7 x 2.74 x 0.34 in5.44 x 2.64 x 0.28-inches6.01 x 2.94 x 0.29 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 149 x 68 x 8 mm149 x 72 x 7.9 mm144 x 70 x 8.6 mm138 x 67 x 7.1 mm153 x 75 x 7.4 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.5 oz; 155g5.7 oz, 162g5.04 oz; 143g4.87 oz; 138 g5.57 oz; 158g
Mobile software Android 7.0 NougatAndroid 7.0 NougatAndroid 7.1 NougatApple iOS 10Android 7.0 Nougat
Camera (megapixels) 1213 (standard), 13 (wide)12.312 (wide)16
Front-facing camera (megapixels) 858716
Video capture 4K4K4K4K4K
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 GPU2.15GHz + 1.6GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 821Apple A10 chip (64-bit)2.35GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 821
Storage 64GB32GB32GB, 128GB32GB, 128GB, 256GB64GB, 128GB
RAM 4GB4GB4GBN/A6GB
Expandable storage Up to 2TBUp to 2TBNoneNoneNone
Battery (all nonremovable) 3,000mAh3,300mAh2,770mAh1,960mAh3,400mAh
Fingerprint sensor Back coverBack coverBack coverHome buttonHome button
Connector USB-CUSB-CUSB-CLightningUSB-C
Special features Water-resistant (IP68); wireless charging; Gigabit LTE-ready18:9 aspect ratio; wireless charging (US-only); water-resistant Google Assistant; unlimited cloud storage; Daydream VR-readyWater and dust-resistant, Taptic Home buttonDual-SIM, Dash Charging
Price off-contract (USD) AT&T: $750; Verizon: $720; T-Mobile: $750; Sprint: $750; US Cellular: $675AT&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$1,199AU$1,008AU$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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8.8

Samsung Galaxy S8

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 9Camera 8Battery 9