Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus hands on review: Look amazing, but Bixby assistant is a wild card

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.

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.

Some phonemakers use the larger model as the pro device, giving it features like a better camera or more impressive hardware, features the smaller phone misses out on. Not so with the S8 Plus. This phone is simply the Galaxy S8 with a larger screen — 6.2 inches versus 5.8.

Its bigger size means slightly more weight, a bit more battery capacity to light up the display and, of course, a higher price — $850 over $750 for the S8. (In the UK it’s priced at £779, and AU$1349 in Australia.) All other specs between the two phones — including the camera, processor and features — are totally identical.

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Galaxy S8 all colors

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Galaxy S8 and other mobile phone comparison

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positive view

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Negative view

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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.

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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.

As for the near bezel-less trend kicked off by Xiaomi’s Mi Mix and the LG G6, which Samsung now adopts on both the S8 and S8 Plus, it’s easy to see a battle forming around which company can put the largest screen in the smallest package. It’ll be a game of millimeters.

So far, the Galaxy S8 Plus seems like a phone capable of bringing even more screen real estate to buyers who just can’t get enough, but we’ll have to wait for the final review unit to see how well it really fits and feels day to day, especially against big-screen rivals like the iPhone 7 Plus and Google Pixel XL.

Hardware specs

What’s different than the S8:

  • Screen size: 6.2-inch versus 5.8
  • Phone dimensions (a little taller, wider and thicker)
  • Larger battery (3,500mAh versus 3,000mAh)
  • Price: We don’t have this yet

Galaxy S8 Plus and S8 versus the other guys

Samsung Galaxy S8 Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus Google Pixel XL LG G6 Apple iPhone 7 Plus OnePlus 3T
Display size, resolution 5.8-inch; 2,960×1,440 pixels 6.2-inch; 2,960×1,440 pixels 5.5-inch; 2,560×1,440 pixels 5.7-inch, 2,880×1,440 pixels 5.5-inch; 1,920×1,080 pixels 5.5-inch; 1,920×1,080 pixels
Pixel density 570ppi 529ppi 534ppi 565ppi 401ppi 401ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.9 x 2.9 x 0.31 in 6.3 x 2.9 x 0.32 in 6.1 x 3 x 0.34 in 5.9 x 2.8 x 0.31 in 6.2 x 3.1 x 0.29 in 6 x 2.9 x 0.29 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 149 x 68 x 8 mm 160 x 73 x 8.1 mm 155 x 76 x 8.6 mm 149 x 72 x 7.9 mm 158 x 78 x 7.3 mm 153 x 75 x 7.35 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.5 oz; 155g 6.1 oz; 173g 5.92 oz; 168g 5.7 oz, 162g 6.63 oz; 188g 5.57 oz; 158g
Mobile software Android 7.0 Nougat Android 7.0 Nougat Android 7.1 Nougat Android 7.0 Nougat Apple iOS 10 Android 7.0 Nougat
Camera (megapixels) 12 12 12.3 13 (standard), 13 (wide) 12 (telephoto), 12 (wide) 16
Front-facing camera (megapixels) 8 8 8 5 7 16
Video capture 4K 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) 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 821 2.35GHz Snapdragon 821 with Adreno 530 GPU Apple A10 chip (64-bit) 2.35GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 821
Storage 64GB 64GB 32GB, 128GB 32GB 32GB, 128GB, 256GB 64GB, 128GB
RAM 4GB 4GB 4GB 4GB 3GB 6GB
Expandable storage Up to 2TB Up to 2TB None Up to 2TB None None
Battery (all nonremovable) 3,000mAh 3,500mAh 3,450mAh 3,300mAh 2,900mAh 3,400mAh
Fingerprint sensor Back Back Back Back Home button Home button
Connector USB-C USB-C USB-C USB-C Lightning USB-C
Special features Water-resistant (IP68); wireless charging; Gigabit LTE-ready Water-resistant (IP68), wireless charging, Gigabit LTE-ready Google Assistant; unlimited cloud storage; Daydream VR-ready 18:9 aspect ratio; wireless charging (US-only); water-resistant Water and dust-resistant; portrait image mode Dual-SIM, Dash Charging
Price off-contract (USD) $750 $850 $769 (32GB); $869 (128GB) AT&T: $720, Sprint: $708, T-Mobile: $650, Verizon: $672, US Cellular: $597.60 $769 (32GB); $869 (128GB); $969 (256GB) $439 (16GB), $479 (128GB)
Price (GBP) £689 £779 £719 (32GB); £819 (128GB) TBA £719 (32GB); £819 (128GB); £919 (256GB) £399 (16GB), £439 (128GB)
Price (AUD) AU$1199 AU$1349 AU$1,269 (32GB); AU$1,419 (128GB) TBA AU$1269 (32GB); AU$1419 (128GB); AU$1569 (256GB) Converts to AU$590 (16GB), AU$652 (128GB)

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