Samsung Galaxy S8 hides home button and gains Bixby AI

Samsung's latest flagship phones have ditched the physical home button found in their predecessors and introduced a new virtual assistant.

The screens of the Galaxy S8 and bigger S8+ are also larger despite the devices being about the same size as last year's S7 and S7 Edge.

This time, both models feature displays that curve round the phones' sides.

The launch follows Samsung's botched release of the Note 7, which was recalled twice after fires.
The South Korean firm blamed the problem on battery faults and said it had since put in additional safety measures, including X-ray scans of batteries.

The company has also become mired in a corruption scandal in its home country.

"The Galaxy S8 is arguably the most important launch of the last 10 years for Samsung and every aspect will be under the microscope following the Note 7 recall," commented Ben Wood from the CCS tech consultancy.

"The S8 is a unquestionably a strong product but Samsung must now deliver a faultless launch to move on from its earlier difficulties. If this happens it will emerge in an even stronger position."

The new devices will be released on 21 April.

The S8 is priced at £690 and the S8+ at £780 - a jump on last year's entry prices of £569 for the S7 and £639 for the S7 Edge.

Longer screens
The displays of the S8 and S8+, measuring 5.8in (14.7cm) and 6.2in (15.7cm) respectively, mean a more stretched aspect ratio than before, pushing the screens closer to the top and bottom of the handsets.

As a consequence, Samsung's logo no longer features on the front, and the physical home button is replaced with an on-screen icon - in a similar manner to rival Android phones from Huawei and LG.

A pressure sensor and vibration module have, however, been built into the space behind the new virtual button to provide feedback.

Samsung suggests the displays' 18.5:9 ratio makes them better suited to running two apps side by side. For example, there is now space to watch a video, use a chat app and still have room for a full touch-keyboard.

Samsung was the bestselling handset manufacturer for 2016 as a whole, according to market research firm IDC.
However, Apple overtook it in the final three months.

The screens are the same resolution as before but are now brighter, supporting high dynamic range (HDR) playback of videos for extra clarity.

The S8's body is a little narrower than that of the S7, while the S8+'s is a bit wider than the S7 Edge but lighter - Samsung says both new devices can still be used one-handed.

Hello Bixby
The phones also introduce Bixby - a virtual assistant based on technology acquired from some of the original developers' of Apple's Siri.

The helper is activated by a dedicated side-button and allows 10 built-in apps - including a photo gallery, messages and weather - to be controlled by voice.

It is "context-aware", meaning users can ask follow-up questions and assume it is aware of what is currently displayed.

Samsung said it expected owners to mix together voice commands and physical controls - for example asking to see all the photos taken today, then tapping the ones they want, before verbally requesting they be messaged to a friend.

Bixby works with Google Play Music, and Samsung intends to open it up to other third-party apps in the future but has not said when.

At launch, it is only designed to recognise US and Korean voices.

"If what Samsung demoed works well in practice, Bixby will be interesting because it offers features absent from Siri and Google Assistant," commented Francisco Jeronimo from IDC.

"The race is on to have the best digital assistant, since that will drive hardware sales.

"But in the past, some of Samsung's features have looked great in presentations, but when you use them on a daily basis they have not been as good."

While Bixby offers new ways to control a phone, it lacks Google Assistant's pre-emptive smarts - it does not interject in chats to suggest places to visit, for example.

However, the search giant's rival artificial intelligence can still be summoned via the home button.

Enhanced cameras

The software can also be used to recognise objects seen via the phone's camera. This can be used to identify a landmark, for example, or tell the owner how much a product would cost to buy online.

Other improvements over last year's models include:
  • a more detailed eight megapixel front-camera with faster autofocus
  • the rear camera remains 12MP but promises to take photos with improved sharpness and contrast by snapping additional frames from which extra data is extracted
  • new processors - the central processing unit (CPU) is said to be 10% more powerful and the graphics processing unit (GPU) 21%. A shift to 10 nanometre-chip technology should also make them more energy efficient
  • an iris scanner, allowing "eye-prints" to be used as an ID alternative to fingerprints
  • a new Samsung Connect app that can be used to control smart home appliances

Samsung also has a range of accessories including a revamped virtual reality headset that is now accompanied by its own motion-sensing controller, and a second-generation 360-degree camera capable of more detailed images than before.

It also offers a new dock that connects the phones to a monitor, keyboard and wireless mouse, allowing them to act as a kind of Android-powered PC.

"Although Microsoft has done this in the past, the performance of the S8 makes it a very compelling experience," commented Mr Wood.

"But while I'm impressed with the dock from a technology perspective, the practicality of it for consumers is questionable."

I'm not sure I share Samsung's bold declaration that the S8 is "a work of art" - but the slimmer handset definitely sits more easily in one hand than its predecessor.

And once you see the surface, which is nearly all-screen, you wonder why you ever needed a physical home button or any other furniture around it.

The tech giant has high hopes for its digital assistant Bixby. What I tried was a limited demo model, which only seemed to understand a few predetermined cues such as searching photos and telling you the weather.

The idea of using the camera as Bixby's "eyes" is neat - but is it enough to draw people away from the more familiar Google Assistant, which will also be preinstalled, as it is on other Android devices?

I'd like to be able to tell you more about the battery life of what I imagine is a power-hungry little device - but Samsung was coy about that. Batteries are still a sensitive subject.

Samsung Electronics's stock has shrugged off months of bad news, thanks in part to the popularity of last year's Galaxy S7, strong sales of its OLED screens and other components to rival manufacturers, and the fact that investors hope the firm has learned from its mistakes.

Even so, the company will hope its latest launch will demonstrate it has turned a corner.

21 Feb 2016: Galaxy S7 phones unveiled - handsets bring back expandable storage and water resistance

24 May 2016: Sued by Huawei - Chinese rival claims patent infringement - Samsung later countersues

8 July 2016: S7 Active fails test - Consumer Reports finds phone fails to survive submerged as advertised

20 July 2016: S7 Active fix found - Samsung acknowledges and resolves production line fault

2 Aug 2016: Galaxy Note 7 revealed - Pen-controlled phone gains iris scanner and attracts positive reviews

24 Aug 2016: First Note 7 "explosion" report - News from South Korea of a burnt-out phone

2 Sept 2016: First Note 7 recall - 2.5 million handsets called back because of battery fault

1 Oct 2016: Note 7 returns to sale - Devices return to sale a few days later than planned

5 Oct 2016: Viv assistant acquired - Tech forms basis for the Bixby helper

11 Oct 2016: Second Note 7 recall - Action taken after incidents including a fire on a plane

4 Nov 2016: Washing machine callback - 2.8m machines recalled in US after reports of excessive vibrations

8 Nov 2016: HQ raided - Seoul office raided as part of corruption probe

4 Jan 2017: Brighter TVs - QLED-branded TVs, laptops and smart skin sensor unveiled at CES tech expo

17 Feb 2017: Chief arrested - Vice-chairman of Samsung Electronics, Lee Jae-yong, faces bribery allegations

27 Feb 2017: Two new tablets - New devices, but Galaxy S8 was not ready for launch at Barcelona's MWC tech expo

29 March 2017: Galaxy S8 launch - New flagship phones unveiled in New York

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THIS IS THE SAMSUNG GALAXY S8, COMING APRIL 21ST

The Samsung Galaxy S8 is the nicest phone I’ve ever held. It’s a beautiful combination of glass, metal, and an absolutely massive screen in a body that’s much smaller than you might expect.

And that might not be enough to make it stand out anymore.

There are two versions of the S8: the standard Galaxy S8 with a 5.8-inch screen and the larger S8 Plus with a 6.2-inch screen. Both are available for preorder on March 30th and will be shipping in the US on April 21st. Pricing, as always with Samsung, is up to the carriers — but you can expect them to command a premium price. The early word is that it will start at $720.

Here’s everything we learned about these two phones after using them for an hour or two last week.

GALAXY S8 HARDWARE
Holding the S8, I’m struck by the fact that nothing about it feels especially surprising, and not just because damn near everything about it has been leaking for the past few months. The boldest feature is every phone’s more important feature: the screen. On the S8, it extends up and down to cover nearly the entire front of the phone. It also curves around the left and right, something Samsung is calling the “infinity display,” which gives it the look of not having any bezels at all. And speaking of curves, the four corners of the screen are also slightly curved instead of squared-off, which adds some elegance and perhaps some screen durability.

The S8 and S8 Plus fulfill Samsung’s promise of fitting a big screen in a smaller body, and so they’re quite a bit more usable than other large-screened phones. I didn’t experience some of the accidental touch issues that I still get with the Galaxy S7 Edge. But I also only had about an hour with the phone, so it’s possible that it could still be an issue.

More than anything else, the S8 is nice. It may seem like table stakes in 2017, but these phones are incredibly well-designed. There are no seams, only the barest of camera bumps, and everything seems milled down to sub-millimeter tolerances. They feel inevitable in a way that almost becomes boring. Many of the design touches are evolutions of the S7 Edge and Note 7, but refined to their Platonic ideals.

Extending the screen to near the bottom of the phone means that there’s no room for Samsung’s traditional hardware home button. Instead, it uses software buttons like other Android phones. It also uses some haptic feedback like Apple’s iPhones to create a virtual feeling of pressing a home button, though it only works on the very specific spot where the software home button appears. One neat feature: some Android apps hide those main Android buttons when they go full screen, but you can still firmly press the bottom of the screen to activate the home button.

Getting rid of the physical home button also means that Samsung had to move the fingerprint sensor. It’s on the back now, right next to the camera. That’s not a very convenient place for it, honestly. It’s too high up on the phone to comfortably reach and it’s also right next to the camera module, which might mean you’l be getting fingerprints on the camera more often than you’d like.

Speaking of fingerprints, because the S8 is nearly all glass, you’ll see them on the back a lot, but they’re not as prominent as you might expect (they’re worse on the LG G6, for example).

Both the USB-C port and the 3.5mm headphone jack (hallelujah) are located on the bottom of the phone. You have power on one side and volume buttons on the other, underneath which you’ll find a whole new button that’s dedicated to the big new software feature on the Galaxy S8, Bixby. There’s much more on Bixby below, but for now I’ll just note that dedicating a hardware button to this software feature is a big bet on Samsung’s intelligent assistant. If Bixby ends up being not that great, I expect many people will be looking for ways to remap that extra hardware button (or decrying that it’s vestigial).

GALAXY S8 SPECS
As you’d expect, the S8 has the best specs you can get on an Android phone. Depending on the region, you’ll either get Qualcomm’s newest (and slightly rarer) Snapdragon 835 or Samsung’s own Exynos. In both cases, Samsung is touting that they’re built on a 10nm chip, which should theoretically help with power consumption. In my brief time with it, everything was whip-fast. Hopefully it will stay that way over time — Samsung phones often don’t.

The standard S8 has a 570ppi 5.8-inch screen, with a resolution of 2960 x 1440. The S8 Plus has the exact same resolution on its 6.2-inch screen, which works out to 529ppi. For my money, the standard S8 is the way to go. It still feels like a massive screen and the body is significantly smaller. The height of the screen is interesting, too: the aspect ratio is a super-tall 18.5:9, which adds a bunch of screen real estate to scroll through. I didn’t get to test a bunch of third-party apps, so hopefully we won’t see too much weirdness with the new aspect ratio. Even if we do, Galaxy phones are popular enough to prod developers to update their apps to support it.

In terms of other specs, it’s pretty bog standard stuff: 4 gigs of RAM, 64 gigs of onboard storage, and an expandable SD card slot.

GALAXY S8 BATTERY
Nearly 900 words in and I haven’t made an exploding phone joke (you’re welcome, Samsung). But now is the time to point out that the last time the phone maker released a phone this big and beautiful, it literally set itself on fire on a disturbingly regular basis. The company’s responses to this issue were botched and bad for some time before it pivoted, apologized, and introduced a new process for checking battery safety. Those safety checks are important, but Samsung still has to own all the exploding phone jokes and hear them at every mention of its phones for a while.

So on the S8, Samsung did not push the envelope when it comes to capacity. The S8 has a 3,000mAh battery and the S8 Plus has a larger 3,500mAh battery — the same capacity that the Note 7 had. But neither is especially large when you consider the fact that they need to power towering screens. Samsung claims it has tweaked the battery chemistry to help the batteries last longer after a year or two of use.

To make up for it, Samsung is offering the usual suite of power options: Qualcomm Quick Charge and support for both major wireless charging standards. But I still have reservations about how long the batteries will last on these phones. In fact, it may be a reason to seriously consider getting the larger S8 Plus.

GALAXY S8 CAMERAS
Another place where Samsung hasn’t really pushed the envelope is the camera. The S8 uses the exact same rear camera as the Galaxy S7, a 12-megapixel sensor with OIS. Samsung says it’s done work on the software side to improve picture quality, and in my short time with it I found it to be significantly faster than the camera on the Galaxy S7 Edge.

It is notable that the S8 Plus doesn’t get a better camera or a dual-camera setup. Excepting screen and battery size, both phones are identical.

I suspect it’s using the “take pictures all the time in the background and just save them when you hit the shutter button” trick we’ve seen on other phones. It also borrows another trick from other Android phones: the shortcut to launch it is double-pressing the power button now (since the home button is virtual).

The front-facing camera (aka the one you really care about) has gotten an upgrade. It’s an 8-megapixel sensor now, but more importantly it has autofocus. Switching between cameras was fast and easy, as was swiping over to get to Samsung’s kajillion photo gimmick settings. But some of those gimmicks are pretty neat, I’m especially fond of the GIF mode, though I do wish it was just automatic like you can do with Apple’s Live Photos and the Motion Stills app.

In any case, the competition for the “best smartphone camera” is way more interesting now than it was a year ago, when just Samsung and Apple were at the top. Now, Apple and LG are sticking multiple cameras in their phones while Google’s Pixel has jumped to the top of the Android camera quality game. It’s too early to say that Samsung is resting on its photography laurels with the S8, but it is fair to say that there’s probably nothing here that will give other companies reason to worry.

GALAXY S8 SOFTWARE
That Samsung is capable of making great hardware should come as no surprise to anybody. It’s the software where we have reason to be skeptical. Running all the way back to the bad old days of TouchWiz, Samsung has a well-earned reputation for taking Android and mucking it up with bad ideas.

For the past few years, though, the common refrain has been restraint, and I’m going to repeat it again today. Samsung has done a pretty good job keeping its worst instincts in check. There are a ton of weird features to find in the dark recesses of the settings menu, but out of the box the basic look, feel, and functionality of Samsung’s Android skinning is pretty good.

And there are some genuinely great parts, too. The iris scanning that lived all-too-briefly on the Note 7 is back, if you’d like to unlock your phone that way. But the best way to unlock the phone is Samsung’s new face detect system. It takes about 20 seconds to set up and once you do, it works really well. It’s not the same, bad face unlock that was introduced in Android years ago, it’s an entirely new system Samsung made.

In my 10 minutes or so of playing with it, it didn’t fail to unlock a single time. In fact, it was so fast that we a hard time filming it. I had to point the phone away from my face and then just tilt it up to look at myself. I unfortunately forgot to print a glossy 8 x 10 of my face to test with, though, so I can’t say if maybe it’s tuned to be a little too forgiving when it tries to see if it’s you. Samsung admits the face-detect system is less secure than the other ways of unlocking, so you will still need to set up the iris or fingerprint scanners to make payments.

There is one gimmick that in theory I should be excited about but in practice I’m just not: DeX. It’s a feature where, after buying a specialized dock, you can plug your Galaxy S8 into a monitor, keyboard, and mouse and get a full desktop mode. Unlike solutions we’ve seen in the past (RIP Motorola Atrix), the desktop mode here simply offers Android apps instead of a full desktop browser. It looks well-designed for what it is, offering full access to your notifications and resizable windows. But it can’t escape the fact that outside a few apps like Samsung’s own browser, Microsoft Office, and Adobe’s creative suite, Android apps are bad on big screens.

People who unironically call themselves Road Warriors like they’re IT managers in 1999 will love it. The rest of us probably won’t use it. And that’s fine.

BIXBY, SAMSUNG’S PERSONAL ASSISTANT
Samsung may not have put a ton of effort in changing its hardware design language, updating its camera, or packing in a bigger battery. But it has been focused on figuring out how to make software that people actually like, and it’s all centered on a new virtual assistant called Bixby.

As I mentioned above, Bixby is launched by pressing an honest-to-god dedicated physical button. It has basically three modes:

A short-press of the button takes you to Bixby Home (you can also swipe over to it from the home screen).

Long-pressing the button turns on Bixby’s voice features.

There’s a small button on the camera app for Bixby’s augmented reality features.

Let’s start in the middle with voice, because speaking to Bixby is the most interesting and challenging set of features here. Essentially, what Samsung is trying to do is create a new kind of virtual assistant, one that helps you use the device directly in your hands rather than ask random questions from the cloud.

I wasn’t able to test this myself, unfortunately, but Samsung did run us through a couple demos. In one, you can open the gallery app and then issue voice commands for editing a photo rather than trying to dig through the interface to find the right button. “Bixby, rotate this photo left,” and “Bixby, send this photo to Dan.” If you live that Samsung Life, you can use Bixby to send videos to your TV or turn off your smart lights, too.

The goal is that “anything you can control with touch, you can also control with voice.” It’s a laudable goal, but it’s also one I very seriously doubt Samsung can achieve. For one thing, it only works with about 10 Samsung apps at launch. Also, it can only work with apps that are written to support Bixby. Unlike Google Now on Tap, Bixby doesn’t do any screen reading to try and guess what’s on the screen. So it might be a virtual assistant, but it’s very far from an artificial intelligence.

The other big question with Bixby is how exactly is it differentiated from the Google Assistant. It seems pretty clear, but then you discover that there’s a bunch of overlap. For example, you can do things like set alarms with Bixby. There’s also Bixby Home, which so far as I can tell is a giant, random set of information cards for things like your smart light bulbs, fitness data, local news and weather, and whatever else Samsung thinks belongs in a virtual assistant home screen. It looks like every widget screen you’ve ever seen on a phone, which is to say it looks like sort of a mess that you probably won’t use very much.

Last but certainly not least are Bixby’s camera features, which are Bixby’s best features. You can launch it either directly in the camera app or from Bixby Home, and what it essentially does is turn your camera into a photo search machine. Point the Bixby camera app at anything and it will identify it and suggest web searches for it. I tried on flowers and it gave me options to buy flowers on Amazon or look at more flowers on Pinterest. It wasn’t able to precisely identify my Android Wear watch, but it did know it was a round watch and offered to let me buy a real one on Amazon.

It also works with more prosaic things. Samsung ran a demo with wine labels and book covers, both easily identified and given options to buy. Samsung says it’s working with specific partners for Bixby — including Amazon and Pinterest — but it doesn’t appear that it works with the biggest search engine of them all, Google. That’s not really a surprise.

GALAXY S8 RELEASE DATE, COLORS, AND PRICE

In the US, the S8 and S8 Plus will come in black, gray, and silver. Gold and blue are options internationally.

The Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus are available for preorder starting tomorrow, March 30th, and you should get a free Oculus headset with a controller and a set of games along with your preorder. The official release in the US is on April 21st. Unfortunately, Samsung won’t confirm pricing, leaving that to its carrier partners — again, it looks like it’ll start at around $720.

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