Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus review: Redemption is here

The S8 and S8 Plus also double as solid video cameras. They capture quality footage at up to 4K with great colors and minimal jittering. I just wish Samsung offered more flexibility — there’s a record button, and that’s about it.

There is an improved 8-megapixel front camera with a wider field of view for group selfies. It has a f/1.7 aperture too, so it’s decent enough in low light and in general it’s a great performer. Selfies were clean, detailed and nicely colored, especially when viewed on the punchy AMOLED screen. Even better, you can hold up a palm to snap a selfie, no fumbling with buttons required.

Samsung also spent time cleaning up the camera interface, which was already pretty elegant. You switch between the front and rear cameras with a swipe up or down, and the list of usual photo modes — food, selective focus, slow motion and “pro” — is smaller and more streamlined. This time, though, swiping right opens up a list of Instagram-friendly color options to give your photos a little more character. And speaking of character, Samsung took a page from Snapchat’s playbook and added face-tracking filters that are bizarre and fascinating. They range from the cutesy (kawaii cats and rabbits eating carrots) to stranger fare, like a cowboy filter that fires a pistol when you blink. The S8 and S8 Plus come with 31 of these filters, and if nothing else, they’re perfect for amusing toddlers who are otherwise busy getting loaded on Easter candy.

Performance and battery life

I’ll be brief: The S8 and S8 Plus are effortlessly fast machines, and hardly anything I threw at them over a week of testing got them to stutter. This is mostly due to the shiny new Snapdragon 835 and 4GB of RAM onboard. Bixby is often a little slow to launch, but swiping through Samsung’s improved interface and jumping between running apps was painless. If this is what the 835 is capable of, I can’t wait until these things are everywhere. Workday multitasking, games like Hearthstone and Dead Trigger 2, even playing emulated GameCube games — it all ran fabulously. I unconsciously stopped thinking about performance altogether. As you’d expect, the S8s killed it in our usual suite of benchmarks, too — hardly anything came close.

Anyway, none of this would matter if the phones had lousy batteries. News flash: They don’t. The smaller S8 routinely lasts between a day and a half and two days of consistent use. The S8 Plus’s bigger battery gets me closer to two full days of use on a single charge. That’s with the screen set to its maximum resolution, too — expect even better battery life if you dial the displays down to Full HD+ or lower.

They also fare well in our standard video rundown test, where we loop an HD video at 50 percent screen brightness while the phones are connected to Wi-Fi. The S8 and its 3,000mAh battery stuck around for 13 hours and 27 minutes — just a hair better than the S7 and the Google Pixel and well ahead of the bigger 3,300mAh battery in the G6. The clear winner, though, is the S8 Plus and its 3,500mAh battery. It clocked in at 15 hours and 8 minutes, longer than the Pixel XL, Note 7 and Moto Z Force.

The competition

We’re not even halfway through 2017, so some of the best smartphones of the year may still be waiting in the wings. For now, though, there aren’t many devices with the chops to stand up to the S8 and S8 Plus. The biggest competitor is probably LG’s G6, a device with a long screen of its own. It’s far more sensible than last year’s G5 and, while it can’t win when it comes to pure power, it’s surprisingly flexible dual camera and great screen make it a solid alternative.

If we’re considering the G6, we might as well throw in the Google Pixel and Pixel XL since they pack the same chipset. Beyond having a choice of device sizes, the Pixels also double as incredible cameras (I think they’re still a little better than the S8’s), and the phones are guaranteed to get updates from Google as quickly as possible. Sure, the S8’s interface has improved dramatically, but some people will always prefer the cleanliness of stock Android.

And in case you haven’t pledged allegiance to a mobile platform yet, there’s also Apple’s iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. I still personally prefer the breadth and quality of Apple’s app ecosystem… though the S8’s impeccable design might get me to switch teams soon.

Wrap-up

The Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus aren’t perfect, but they’re as close as Samsung has ever gotten. That’s a hell of a rebound for a company whose phablets… well, you know. Beyond the gorgeous design and the boost in horsepower, they feel like devices built in response to our preferences and nitpicks. That’s not something you see everyday. Bixby’s limited functionality and lack of consistency is a real bummer, but it’s not a deal-breaker. (We’ll return to this review when Bixby Voice is finally up and running.) In most other areas, Samsung has outdone itself. The year is still young and we’ll certainly see strong responses from Google and Apple. But for now, if you’re looking for a new smartphone, the S8s should be at — or very close to — the top of your list.

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