In the Game of Phones, you win or you die. Ten years ago, the iPhone swept to power, unseating The BlackBerry King and laying waste to the kingdom of the dumbphone.
Today, the iPhone’s reign is at its most tenuous, with rival would-be-kings marching united under the banner of Android, beating at the door of the smart-throne room and demanding their share of market spoils.
We, the people, have heard prophecy of the iPhone-slayer, but until now we’ve been stuck with a revolving door of droid flagships simply emulating the Apple device.
Enter the Samsung Galaxy S8, the most original smartphone I’ve used in years, and a device that’s testing my faith in the iPhone.
The industrial design of the S8 oozes confidence and sophistication. It’s built around a tall and skinny 5.8-inch screen with a 2960 x 1440 resolution, packed into a svelte frame that feels incredibly comfortable to hold.
Gone are the traditional hardware navigation keys and the garish “Samsung” brand above the display. There’s no camera bump, and micro-USB has been replaced for the faster-charging, reversible USB-C.
There’s a new finish, a shiny black that apes Apple’s Jet-Black iPhone 7, although the glass backing gives the S8 an original and understated look.
The S8 breezes past its Android contemporaries in terms of design, and makes the bulky-but-beautiful iPhone seem like it’s in need of a diet.
Size is important
When the iPhone became larger with the launch of the iPhone 6, it kickstarted a two-size flagship trend that Samsung has also adopted.
The iPhone 6/6s/7 feels great in the hand — it’s a tiny pocket-rocket but suffers with a dinky 4.7” screen. The iPhone 6/6s/7 Plus takes the other route — it’s a hulking monster with a huge 5.5” screen. Two extremes, neither of which feels just right.
The S8 is a bit larger than the smaller iPhone, but with a screen that’s significantly larger than the iPhone 7 Plus.
It’s still a little difficult to reach up to the top of the display, but no more so than the larger iPhone.
When laying the S8 atop the iPhone 7 Plus, with bottom sides aligned, the apex of the displays more or less align.
Weight is another factor at play here — the S8 is significantly lighter, at 155g, compared to the iPhone 7 Plus’s 188g, making it much more comfortable for watching Netflix or Youtube.
The S8 also comes in a plus-sized version, but while iPhone 7 Plus’s extra screen real estate is absolutely worth the trade-off in girth, the 173g, 6.2” S8+ is too heavy and cumbersome compared to its skinny sibling.
Samsung’s trademark slightly curved aesthetic fits into the design of the S8 better than ever before, but with stunning looks comes accidental taps. For the most part, the S8 does a good job of ignoring fingers on the curved sides of the device, but now and again you’ll find yourself clicking links you hadn’t intended.
The slimline screen bezel also means your thumbs are more likely to accidentally bump the software back button, as there’s little room to hold the device from the front side. This was particularly annoying when browsing the web, as the built-in browser has no convenient way of going forward.
The iPhone isn’t immune to accidental touches, but on iOS, system-wide back and forward gesture support makes the issue of accidental touches far less pronounced. Want to go back? Swipe from the left. Want to go forward? Swipe from the right.
Speed and photos
Compared to other Android devices, the S8 is a speed demon, easily handling any app you throw at it, but when going head to head with the iPhone 7 it’s a different story.
In day-to-day use, the iPhone and S8 both feel fast, but when running anything demanding, like rendering a video or game world, the iPhone blazes ahead. IS rending times can be as little as half that of the Samsung, and this speed divide makes itself known across the experience. The Samsung occasionally lags, even in basic tasks like scrolling a web page, or switching apps, while iOS feels rock solid all day long.
The camera on the S8 is only marginally improved compared to last year’s S7 and in terms of raw imaging is well matched with the iPhone 7 Plus.
Where things get different is on the software side, where iOS is much smarter and, dare I say it, “magical”.
Live photos are my favourite part of the iPhone photography experience. It’s a thrill to save a slice of video alongside every still. The iPhone’s victory was sealed when a friend commented on how much they missed seeing my photos move.
The iPhone’s CoreImage API also does a better job of sharing the abilities of the camera with other applications across the iOS ecosystem, unlocking new potential beyond what the built-in app provides. Mobile photography is the most important and distinctive function of a smartphone for me, and there’s simply no competition between these devices.
Despite packing a relatively large 3000mAh battery, the S8 is a letdown when it comes to battery life. The battery is actually smaller than last year’s smaller-screened S7 edge (3600mAh) and boy does it feel like it.
On my first day out with the S8, I left the house at 60 per cent battery and was surprised to find myself at 30 per cent after 45 minutes of travel. The Samsung was flat by the end of the night, forcing me to catch a very expensive taxi over an Uber. On the iPhone 7 Plus I consistently get over a full day of usage, occasionally even making it through two full days.
There’s a litany of other minor victories between the phones — the iPhone has a much more consistent fingerprint sensor, better speakers and a wider app selection, while the S8 maintains the headphone jack, has optional VR add-ons and a nifty docking solution that enables a PC-like experience. None of these features are system sellers for me but they’re all worthy considerations.
When handling the iPhone 7 Plus, it’s hard not to notice just how heavy and unwieldy the device is. The Samsung S8 is simply a more pleasant phone to hold and use, and the gorgeous screen begs for your attention, but despite all of the S8’s magnificent hardware, Apple’s iOS remains a faster, more reliable and aesthetically consistent experience.
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