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Samsung Galaxy S8 looks amazing, but Bixby assistant is a wild card (hands-on)

Its comeback flagship phone looks and feels awesome, but Samsung will have to work out its new digital assistant's kinks.

Jessica Dolcourt Senior Editorial Director, Content Operations
Jessica Dolcourt is a passionate content strategist and veteran leader of CNET coverage. As Senior Director of Content Operations, she leads a number of teams, including Thought Leadership, Speed Desk and How-To. Her CNET career began in 2006, testing desktop and mobile software for Download.com and CNET, including the first iPhone and Android apps and operating systems. She continued to review, report on and write a wide range of commentary and analysis on all things phones, with an emphasis on iPhone and Samsung. Jessica was one of the first people in the world to test, review and report on foldable phones and 5G wireless speeds. Jessica led CNET's How-To section for tips and FAQs in 2019, guiding coverage of topics ranging from personal finance to phones and home. She holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).
Expertise Content strategy, team leadership, audience engagement, iPhone, Samsung, Android, iOS, tips and FAQs.
Jessica Dolcourt
7 min read

The Samsung Galaxy S8 is simply gorgeous. Gone is the S7's flat screen, and in its place is a tall, narrow drink of water with two curved sides. This is a phone that felt at home in my hands when I went hands-on with it for several hours at a journalist briefing in San Francisco. Better even than the LG G6 , which has similar proportions but no curved screen, and sleeker than the iPhone 7 Plus, which puts a smaller screen on taller, wider body. For the first time, every major Samsung phone is an "Edge" model, with the Edge and Note's curve-screen software and all.

But elegant as it is in metal and glass, the S8 (and larger S8 Plus) is also the first marquee Samsung phone in a long time that leaves me with uneasy doubts. And those doubts have nothing to do with the disastrous Galaxy Note 7 and everything to do with a couple out-of-place choices and a work-in-progress digital assistant called Bixby, which we also spent some hands-on time with.

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Good stuff first. Samsung's redesign makes the S8's 5.8-inch screen absolutely pop. There's no more physical home button, and barely a bezel. That means the screen takes up roughly 83 percent of the phone's face for tapping and viewing. If the S7's display felt generous before, this is positively expansive.

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

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For Samsung fans who've never owned an Edge or Note phone, this'll be the first time you'll experience those curves. Until you try it for yourself, it's hard to explain exactly why the S8 feels more polished and luxurious than any other perfectly nice flat-faced phone. It just does.

Ready for the "but"? But. There are also some head-scratchers with the design of the S8 and 6.2-inch S8 Plus. This time, the fingerprint reader sits so close to the rear camera that I fear you'll smudge the lens when you're just trying to unlock the phone -- that happened in a few tests with a prefinal unit. Samsung also acknowledges that its face unlock feature is more convenient than secure. And while Apple, LG and Huawei have embraced twin rear camera lenses, Samsung is sticking with its single 12-megapixel shooter. On paper, that isn't very impressive. (See full specs below.)

Then there's Bixby, Samsung's answer to Apple's Siri, Google's Assistant and Amazon's Alexa. The three-in-one feature is a mishmash of voice assistant, Google Now cards and Google Goggles optical recognition. It's confusing, limited and, at this admittedly embryonic stage, very incomplete. (More below.) Samsung is asking for patience. This is up in the air right now, but there's a chance that Bixby may not come preloaded on the S8. It might be that you see a prompt to update the software as you set up the phone, but Samsung will give us more details closer to launch. New Bixby capabilities will roll out over time.

Morgan Little/CNET

I really enjoyed my hands-on time with the S8 and S8 Plus so far. But even at this early stage -- with full testing to come -- it feels like Samsung's holding back. That makes sense. The company had to clean up the mess of its exploding Galaxy Note 7, and scramble to make sure that the S8 won't do the same. And after Samsung mobile chief DJ Koh promised CNET an "innovative" Note 8, I expect refinements to the design, Bixby assistant and the camera tech to make their way onto that phone.

For now, I'm cautiously optimistic about the S8 as an all-rounder that helps Samsung recover from its charred reputation. But it'll be our real-world tests on the final review unit in April that will show how close Samsung has truly come.

Pricing and availability

You can preorder the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus on March 30. The phone will sell globally, starting April 21 in the US and other major regions. In the UK, the S8 has been priced at £689. In Australia, it will cost AU$1,199.

You also get a pair of AKG earbuds in the box, valued at $99 (Samsung finalized its sale of AKG parent company Harman last month). Everyone who buys a new S8 will receive Samsung Rewards Platinum level with bonus points, if they register for the program by May 14.

If you preorder the S8, you get:

  • Gear VR (2017) and Controller
  • Oculus game pack

A limited edition bundle for an extra $99 gets you:

  • AKG over-ear Bluetooth headphones (as well as the earbuds)
  • 256GB memory card

The deal with Bixby

Bixby is a little tougher to explain. It's a three-parter that combines elements of voice commands with Google Now-style cards and image recognition. And Samsung has named each part.

Bixby Voice is the Siri/Google Voice Search/Amazon Alexa component that you speak commands to. But it'll be limited at launch. You can ask it to toggle your Wi-Fi settings, share a photo with someone and perform other phone-centric tasks, but you can't launch an internet search, like looking up the weather or asking when your favorite restaurant's going to close.

You start it by pressing and holding the Bixby button beneath the volume keys (like a walkie-talkie), or with a wake word -- Samsung will provide more details closer to the S8's sale date.

Bixby Home is like Google Now cards and it lives one swipe left of the home screen. It's a scrolling list of things like the weather and news stories, your step count, plus some recommendations for things you habitually do. For example, if you call the same person at 4 p.m. every day, Bixby Home will suggest the same when 4 o'clock rolls around. You can customize what you see in the settings, and share items with others.

Bixby Vision will feel eerily familiar to anyone who's ever used Google Goggles or Bing Vision on a throwback Lumia phone. A camera feature, it uses optical image recognition to extract text (OCR), identify objects and read QR codes. You can scan a book cover to shop for it, and learn more about wine through partner Vivino. It uses Google Translate to translate text in 52 languages, and Pinterest to assist with image search.

How did Bixby do?

Enlarge Image

With Bixby, Samsung takes on Siri and Google Now.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

Some demos worked well and some worked... partially. For example, the Bixby Vision portion wouldn't let me select all text on the Korean seaweed package I brought with me to the demo.

This was a prefinal version of Bixby, which Samsung is constantly updating and will continue to do so long after launch. It's much too soon to make a solid determination.

The only thing I can say is that the Bixby team will have to work around the clock to get the holes plugged before buyers receive it shortly after buying the S8 and S8 Plus.

Read more about my take on the Bixby digital assistant here.

Did Samsung make a safer battery?

The specter of the Note 7's exploding battery hovers over the S8. The truth is, we can't be 100 percent sure that Samsung made a safer battery until the final units are incident-free. But what we do know is that Samsung has instituted an eight-point battery test that it used on the S8 and S8 Plus, and on all phones going forward. My colleague Shara Tibken toured a Korean battery facility to see how it's done.

In addition, Samsung also claims that the S8 battery is about long-term performance rather than a short-term benchmarking burst. It's expected to hold a longer charge after 6 months, a year and two years compared to the S7.

An inside look at Samsung's new battery tests

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"Where most batteries hold about 80 percent of their charge after two years, this battery should be capable of 95 percent of its original capacity," said Oh Boo-keun, vice president of Samsung's mobile R&D team.

The S8 and last year's S7 both have 3,000mAh batteries, while the S8 Plus drops a tick from the S7 Edge: from 3,600mAh to the 3,500mAh you get today. (By comparison, 2016's S7 Active has a 4,000mAh battery.) If what Samsung says pans out, the raw numbers are much less important than the battery's performance as time goes on.

Important hardware features

  • Water-resistance rating: IP68 (up to 3 feet or 1 meter of water for up to 30 minutes)
  • Wireless charging (you buy a separate dock)
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor or Samsung Exynos 8895 (varies by region)
  • Gigabit-class LTE (for when networks start supporting 5G speeds)
  • Qualcomm QuickCharge 2.0 support (not 3.0; Samsung says its own fast-charging solution is just as fast)
  • 64GB storage, microSD expansion to 2TB (you can buy 256GB cards today)
  • Haptic home button is always active even with the screen off
  • Colors: midnight black, arctic silver, orchid gray, maple gold, coral blue (varies by region)

Want to control your robot vacuum from your phone? Now you can.

Morgan Little/CNET

Software changes from Galaxy S7

  • Android Nougat 7.0
  • Press and hold virtual home button for Google Assistant
  • Swipe up for app tray
  • Cleaner interface
  • Customizable Edge display works like shortcuts
  • Samsung Connect app works with SmartThings to let you control smart home appliances remotely

New camera tricks

  • Double-press power button to launch (worked well)
  • Autofocus on front-facing camera (8 megapixels)
  • Easy-access filters and image decorations
  • Floating shutter button (optional)

Unlocking the phone with your face

  • This is not the same as iris scanning, which is a biometric tool you can use for mobile payments (you can't use face unlock for this)
  • It's fast and it worked in my demo, even in indoor lighting
  • You have to hold the phone level with your eyes; you can't unlock by looking down into the phone
  • I couldn't trick it with a life-size color photo of my face
  • Samsung says this is more convenient than it is secure. "If you need strong [security] technology, you can use the iris or fingerprint," said Kim Gae-youn, vice president of Samsung's smartphone product planning and product manager for the Galaxy S8.
Enlarge Image

Samsung DeX gives you a much larger screen for working from your phone.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Make the S8 your 'computer'

  • The Samsung DeX is a standalone dock that displays your phone apps and media on a monitor
  • You have to buy it separately
  • You'll also need a monitor, keyboard and mouse in addition to the dock and cables
  • It worked well in my demo, so I'm hopeful it won't experience the lag of Microsoft's Display Dock for the Lumia 950
  • Samsung envisions road warriors using it with Microsoft Office, Photoshop and business tools such as Citrix and VMWare

Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus specs versus the competition

Samsung Galaxy S8Samsung Galaxy S8 PlusGoogle PixelLG G6Apple iPhone 7OnePlus 3T
Display size, resolution 5.8-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels6.2-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels5.7-inch, 2,880x1,440 pixels4.7-inch; 1,334x750 pixels5.5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels
Pixel density 570ppi529ppi441ppi565ppi326 ppi401ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.9 x 2.9 x 0.31 in6.3 x 2.9 x 0.32 in5.7 x 2.7 x 0.34 in5.9 x 2.8 x 0.31 in5.4 x 2.6 x 0.28-inches6 x 2.9 x 0.29 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 149 x 68 x 8 mm160 x 73 x 8.1 mm144 x 70 x 8.6 mm149 x 72 x 7.9 mm138 x 67 x 7.1 mm153 x 75 x 7.4 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.5 oz; 155g6.1 oz; 173g5.04 oz; 143g5.7 oz, 162g4.87 oz; 138g5.57 oz; 158g
Mobile software Android 7.0 NougatAndroid 7.0 NougatAndroid 7.1 NougatAndroid 7.0 NougatApple iOS 10Android 7.0 Nougat
Camera (megapixels) 121212.313 (standard), 13 (wide)12 (wide)16
Front-facing camera (megapixels) 8885716
Video capture 4K4K4K4K4K4K
Processor Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (2.35GHz + 1.9GHz) or Octa-core Samsung Exynos 8895 (2.35GHz + 1.7GHz)Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (2.35GHz + 1.9GHz) or Octa-core Samsung Exynos 8895 (2.35GHz + 1.7GHz)2.15GHz + 1.6GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 8212.35GHz Snapdragon 821 with Adreno 530 GPUApple A10 chip (64-bit)2.35GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 821
Storage 64GB64GB32GB, 128GB32GB32GB, 128GB, 256GB64GB, 128GB
Expandable storage Up to 2TBUp to 2TBNoneUp to 2TBNoneNone
Battery (all nonremovable) 3,000mAh3,500mAh2,770mAh3,300mAh1,960mAh3,400mAh
Fingerprint sensor BackBackBackBackHome buttonHome button
Connector USB-CUSB-CUSB-CUSB-CLightningUSB-C
Special features Water-resistant (IP68); wireless charging; Gigabit LTE-readyWater-resistant (IP68), wireless charging, Gigabit LTE-readyGoogle Assistant; unlimited cloud storage; Daydream VR-ready18:9 aspect ratio; wireless charging (US-only); water-resistant Water and dust-resistant, Taptic Home buttonDual-SIM, Dash Charging
Price off-contract (USD) $750$850$649 (32GB); $749 (128GB)AT&T: $720, Sprint: $708, T-Mobile: $650, Verizon: $672, US Cellular: $597.60$649 (32GB); $749 (128GB); $849 (256GB)$439 (16GB), $479 (128GB)
Price (GBP) £689£779£599 (32GB); £699 (128GB)TBA£599 (32GB); £699 (128GB); £799 (256GB) £399 (16GB), £439 (128GB)
Price (AUD) AU$1,199AU$1,349AU$1,079 (32GB); AU$1,229 (128GB)AU$1,008AU$1079 (32GB), AU$1229 (128GB), AU$1379 (256GB)Converts to AU$590 (16GB), AU$652 (128GB)