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Samsung seems to get it right with crucial new Galaxy S8 smartphone

Samsung Galaxy S8 unbox

Failure was not an option with the launch of Samsung’s new flagship smartphone but a refreshed design, new voice UI and a bunch of clever accessories all look positive.

The New York launch event was hosted by DJ Koh, President of the Mobile Communications Business at Samsung Electronics, and he did a good job of bringing a bit of personality to the event. Samsung launches have historically been uncomfortable, forced attempts to emulate the Steve Jobs style, but Koh looks relaxed and confident – even joking that he fancied a pint of London Pride after the event.

Koh admitted it’s been a tough year for Samsung – presumably referring mainly to the Note7 debacle – and unsurprisingly stressed things like safety and security are paramount concerns. He was also quick to stress how closely Samsung works with Google, perhaps to salve the company’s continued attempts to wrest control of the UI and the customer relationship away from Android.

The product itself was launched with the slogan ‘unbox your phone’, which is a reference both to the new display and all the empowering tools the S8 comes with. The ‘infinity display’ seems to be a continuation of the S7 Edge form factor, with the screen curving around the sides of the device, creating a bezel-free look. The hard home button has finally been replaced with a pressure-sensitive bit at the bottom of the screen, resulting in the impression of significantly increased screen real-estate.

In terms of hardware the rest of it consisted of the kind of incremental component tweaks we have come to expect, including better cameras and a new 10nm SoC that appears to be Samsung’s own Exynos brand, as opposed to Snapdragon, which isn’t great news for Qualcomm. There’s a 5.8-inch S8 and a 6.2-inch S8+, which makes you wonder whether Samsung is planning to ditch the Note phablet brand after all, since the ill-fated Note7 only had a 5.7-inch screen. Here’s the full spec list in comparison with the S7 devices they replace.

Galaxy S8 spec list

So far so standard. The phone itself seems at least adequate and there seem to be no reasons for Samsung loyalists to flee the brand. The special sauce, however, came in the form of Bixby, which is the name Samsung has given to its AI-driven personal assistant. The easy assumption is that this is Samsung’s belated attempt to get into the Siri, Google Assistant or Alexa space but it seems to be designed more to take voice UI to the next level.

It’s apparently context-aware and sensitive to natural language, so you can say things like “send this to Dave” and there’s half a chance it will know what ‘this’ is. The focus seems to be on making control of the phone itself easier and more intuitive rather than introducing some kind of utopian HAL to anticipate your every need.

In fact Bixby seems to refer more to the AI special sauce in general, as Samsung also ascribes that brand to some new augmented reality available through the camera and a Google Now-style handy card system that you access by swiping right on the home screen. Samsung was once more careful to stress Bixby supports some Google apps, and the usefulness of it will probably depend on 3rd-party developers writing Bixby support into their apps.

There were other bits of standard Samsung bloatware such as fitness tracker apps, but one that has promise is Samsung Connect, which is an app designed to give control of a bunch of consumer IoT devices including, inevitably, Samsung smart fridges. Samsung has even produced its own router – the Connect Home – which doubles as an IoT hub.

On top of all that Samsung went pretty big on VR, launching a motion-sensitive controller for the Gear VR and a new VR platform for premium content. There was also a new Gear 360 camera, one of which Samsung bribed everyone in attendance at the event with. The last accessory was DeX – a docking station that not only syncs the S8 with a monitor, keyboard and mouse, but also creates a full desktop environment for all kinds of productivity fun.

Commentators seem pretty positive about the launch. “Hardware design plays a big role in attracting the customer but it’s software and services that keeps them,” said Geoff Blaber, Analyst at CCS Insight. “The latter has long been Samsung’s Achilles heel so the additions such as the Bixby voice assistant and the artificial intelligence engine behind it will be key to Samsung’s future success.

“In the past it has felt like Samsung has added in features and technologies purely to have the most comprehensive spec list in the market. With the S8 Samsung has taken a far more thoughtful approach to delivering a complete product with features that add value for consumers.”

“Samsung was always going to need to pull a seriously large rabbit out of the hat after last year’s Note 7 debacle, and with the Galaxy S8 they may well have done just that,” said Earnest Doku of uSwitch.com. “…it remains to be seen whether their AI interface Bixby becomes a piece of core functionality, as opposed to Samsung’s effort to keep abreast in the fast-paced world of Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home with voice-driven assistants.

“The S8’s decision to hold onto the 3.5mm headphone jack, however, is a crowd-pleasing move that underlines their customer-first mindset in a bid to regain faith in the brand. All in all, it’s a confident step for the brand back into its comfortable smartphone heartland.”

We agree. Samsung deserves credit for moving on from the fawning apology phase necessitated by the Note7 unpleasantness and striking a confident, relaxed tone. This is illustrated by the excellent Gear VR ad below, which amusingly promotes the hashtag #DoWhatYouCant that users should be careful not to misspell. Samsung is even throwing in a pair of $99 Harman earbuds with every phone so, barring unforeseen disasters, the Galaxy S8 phones should be just what Samsung needs them to be – big sellers.

 

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