Flagship smartphone adds incremental screen upgrades and Bixby voice assistant.
Samsung Galaxy S8:
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The best result Samsung can hope for with its lineup of newly announced mobile-oriented products is that nothing goes seriously wrong with them. After the exploding-battery debacle that was the Galaxy Note 7 – with its recall and cancellation costing billions – the South Korean electronics giant is hoping for smoother sailing this time around.
The lineup’s headliners are clearly the Galaxy S8 and its slightly larger cousin, the S8 Plus, both of which will be available through most major carriers in Canada on Apr. 21 (pre-orders start Mar. 31). I got to play around with them at a press event this week and liked what I saw. Of course, it remains to be seen how their batteries hold up.
Both devices feature a redesigned look where almost all of the surface area – 83 per cent, according to Samsung – is actual screen. There’s almost no bezel around the 5.8-inch S8 and 6.2-inch S8 Plus, and the physical home button has been removed in favour of a virtual one embedded in the screen itself. The fingerprint sensor is similarly hidden.
The practical result is a longer screen that’s more conducive to watching videos. The phones have an aspect ratio of 18.5 x 9, which is closer to the standard 16 x 9 that movies are typically viewed in. It’s probably a good move to align the two, but it’s going to take some getting used to after so many years of displays that are closer to squares.
The Galaxy S8’s more newsworthy new feature is Bixby. Like Apple’s Siri or Google Assistant, Samsung’s artificially intelligent voice assistant can take dictation, set calendar events and answer trivia queries.
It can also learn your habits and offer suggestions and advice based on them. The phone can tell you when to leave for work based on current traffic conditions or remind you to call a loved one at a certain time, for example.
Bixby differs from its competitors with its visual recognition capabilities, according to Samsung. You can scan a product with the camera, at which point the phone will turn up a list of places where the item can be purchased.
My time with Bixby was short, but I came away with a few impressions. Firstly, the voice was female, which was puzzling coming from the male-sounding name of “Bixby.” Samsung reportedly considered have both male and female voices, with the latter named “Kestra,” but it’s not clear what ended up happening. It’s possible both are available, but I didn’t get a chance to delve into it.
Beyond that, Bixby sounded pretty robotic. Siri and Google Assistant approximate human voices pretty well, but Bixby sounds stilted – like a machine taking its early steps in communicating with people.
Lastly, it’s not obvious whether Bixby’s visual intelligence capability is going to be practically useful or not. Scanning and identifying items is neat, even if existing apps such as Google Goggles can already do it, but I’m left wondering why you’d want to order something that’s already in front of you. We’ll have to see where this goes.
Whatever Bixby’s capabilities, the fact that Samsung is investing in an AI assistant is fascinating enough. As Android devices, the S8 and S8 Plus will also run Google Assistant. Amazon is also expanding its Alexa assistant onto smartphones, which means the typical phone owner will soon have multiple, competing AI tools to choose from.
Amazon and Google are seen as the leaders in the space because they’re extending their assistants across platforms and devices. Apple and Samsung, meanwhile, are so far keeping theirs anchored mostly to their respective ecosystems. It’s easy to see the Amazon and Google approach dwarfing competitors and winning out, but again, time will tell.
Either way, there’s no reason to expect the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus to not do well – barring an unforeseen disaster of battery-exploding proportions.
The S8 is likely to be the most successful product in Samsung’s new lineup, but it may actually be the least interesting. More intriguing are a few adjoining accessories. The DeX, for one, is going to get a good long look from a lot of business users.
The idea of a docking station that can effectively turn a smartphone into a computer isn’t new. It’s been tried numerous times, perhaps most notably by Motorola and its Atrix dock a few years ago, but it’s never really taken off for various reasons.
Samsung’s DeX is a puck-like device that hooks up to any monitor with an HDMI slot. Sliding a Galaxy S8 into it automatically activates a computer desktop-like interface on the monitor screen, complete with full-sized web browsers and other tools, including Microsoft Office. Samsung says it’s also working with Adobe to optimize some of its imaging software.
DeX worked smoothly and looked pretty slick in the brief demo I saw. It’s a promising effort that could conceivably allow many workers to do away with their desktops and laptops. No word on Canadian pricing or availability yet.
On the consumer side, the second version of the Gear 360 virtual reality camera could also be a hot product.
At $499, the current version is probably the best affordable 360-camera available. The sequel, which is shaped less like a baseball and has a built-in handle, sports real 4K video resolution and offers live streaming capability too, although image quality is limited to 2K in that case.
Best of all, the new Gear 360 will work with newer model iPhones and other Android devices and not just a handful of Samsung phones, as the current camera does. That’s going to greatly expand its market, which is a welcome development to anyone interested in shooting 360-degree photos and videos.
Samsung says the updated Gear 360 will likely be available this spring, but no word on pricing yet.