Can Samsung's Galaxy S8 save us from phone fatigue?

The phone world has gotten a little predictable. Samsung hopes to shake things up.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
5 min read

There's a lot at stake with the Galaxy S8.

Screenshot by Roger Cheng/CNET

Samsung has teased a "new beginning" to go with its upcoming Galaxy S8. The company could certainly use a fresh start.

This week, the Korean consumer electronics giant is set to show off the latest version of its flagship phone, the Galaxy S8. To say expectations are high for this phone would be an understatement.

Samsung is hoping to wipe away the bitter taste left from the Galaxy Note 7, whose tendency to catch fire prompted two recalls and left customers frustrated and -- in a few rare cases -- literally feeling burned. The Galaxy S8 marks the first big opportunity to win back the public trust.

"It's enormously important that Samsung gets it right," said Avi Greengart, who covers consumer electronics for Global Data. "And not just to atone for the Note 7."

Mark the date: Samsung will hold its Galaxy S8 launch event in New York at Lincoln Center on Wednesday starting at 11 a.m. ET (8 a.m. PT), and CNET will bring you all the details and full coverage as it happens.

But the stakes aren't just isolated to one company -- phones in general need a jump start, a spark of innovation to get us excited again. Samsung is banking the Galaxy S8 is just that catalyst.

Because let's face it, there's been a general malaise creeping into the phone world as the innovative jumps between versions of phones get smaller and smaller. Sure, phones boast faster processors, better cameras and brighter displays -- but that's all kind of expected now, right?

It's telling that amid all of the new phones released at the Mobile World Congress trade show last month, it was the reboot of a 17-year-old feature phone -- the Nokia 3310 -- that captured everyone's attention. Keep in mind this was a show where household names like LG and Sony rolled out their big phones and BlackBerry mounted yet another comeback attempt with the KeyOne (courtesy of Chinese phone maker TCL).

But did anyone care? Nope.

I'll readily admit that I suffer from an extreme form of phone fatigue. It's hard not to when you deal with the next greatest smartphone seemingly every month. It can't just be me, right?

We seemingly hit peak boring in 2016 when it came to eye-catching phones. Samsung's last flagship, the Galaxy S7, hit all its marks, but did it really rev you up? The best features it added were the return of a water-resistant body and microSD slot for expandable memory. It wasn't just Samsung. Apple unveiled an iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus that used the same body for the third year in a row.

Watch this: Samsung Galaxy S8 leaked for the 2,128th time?

You can also see it in the sales: The global market for smartphones rose by 7 percent in 2016, or roughly half the growth it showed in the previous year, according to Gartner. What little growth that's left is happening in Asia/Pacific region, the firm said.

"This is now a mature market, where the biggest pain points of the past are mostly solved, so it's mostly about incremental improvements," said Jan Dawson, an analyst at Jackdaw Research. He notes that for people who upgrade their phones every two or three years, the leaps are more meaningful.

But 2017 could get everyone (including jaded tech journalists!) pumped up again. It starts with Samsung this week, but Apple is widely expected to make a big leap with its 10th anniversary iPhone later this year.

Addition by subtraction

Samsung's biggest shakeup could be the removal of a key feature that's been on a Galaxy S phone since the original launched in 2010: the physical home button.

Every rumor and leaked photo points to Samsung dropping the home button and trimming the frame in order to jam a larger display into a smaller body. Even its own teaser video has a not-so-subtle silhouette of the purported Galaxy S8.


The newest purported images of the Samsung Galaxy S8, as tweeted by Evan Blass (@evleaks), with colors given as "Black Sky," "Orchid Grey," and "Arctic Silver."

Evan Blass

The smaller version of the Galaxy S8 is supposed to get a 5.8-inch display, while the larger version gets a 6.2-inch whopper. In comparison, the Note 7 had a 5.7-inch display, while the iPhone 7 Plus has "only" a 5.5-inch screen.

It may mark a radical design shift for Samsung, although it's hardly the first to go that route. The Xiaomi Mi Mix has a nearly all-display front, and LG last month unveiled its G6, which similarly shaves off much of the bezel.

Is it enough of a leap for consumers? Some are skeptical.

"I don't think I see anything in what's being reported for the S8 that would make me think it's going to change things dramatically," Dawson said.

Other key rumors include a revamped home button that sits in the back of the phone, a USB-C port (like the dearly departed Note 7), facial recognition and the inclusion of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chip, which in theory should make it both faster and more power-efficient.

(For the latest rumors on the Galaxy S8, check out CNET's Galaxy S8 roundup.)

Samsung doesn't respond to rumors and speculation.

The X factors

One feature we know will show up in the Galaxy S8 is Samsung's new voice assistant, Bixby.

The usefulness of Bixby could go a long way toward determining whether the Galaxy S8 is seen as a breakthrough device. At least early on, Bixby looks limited in what it can do. It's less a search engine than Google Assistant and more a "sidekick" to help you control your phone.

And Samsung readily admits that it's early days for the artificial intelligence assistant. The company plans to add to Bixby's capabilities with acquisitions it made last year, including AI startup Viv Labs, which was co-created by one of Siri's original makers.

The other factor, of course, is the next iPhone. Apple is reportedly also looking to trim down its bezels, as well as eliminate the home button. The prospect of a big change could cause consumers who are looking for a premium phone to hold off on Samsung's product.

Or Samsung could have something amazing up its sleeve. We'll see on Wednesday.

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