Aside from last year’s exploding Note 7, Samsung has been on a roll the last few years with unique phone designs and innovated hardware features.
The new Galaxy S8 continues that tradition.
Like its last few predecessors, the S8 beats the iPhone when it comes to design and must-have extras like wireless charging. It’s a drop-dead gorgeous device.
But based on my short time with the phone last week, the Galaxy S8 also appears to have the same drawbacks as previous Galaxy phones. The software is loaded with Samsung-made extras that were built on top of Android, resulting in a needlessly bogged-down user interface when the stock version of Android is amazing on its own. And now Samsung is adding its own digital assistant, Bixby, in addition to the excellent Google Assistant that ships with all the latest Android phones.
It’s the same story from Samsung that we’ve seen since 2015: beautiful, powerful hardware running on iffy software. It’s not horrible, but it does show the benefits of Apple’s control over the iPhone’s software and Google’s decision to make its own Pixel Android phones.
One way around the confusion is supposed to be Bixby, the new digital assistant built by Samsung that’ll make its debut on the Galaxy S8. Samsung promises that Bixby will let you control everything you normally do on the phone with your voice.
But in a controlled demo of an early version of Bixby that Samsung showed me last week, I didn’t see much promise. Bixby was slow to respond to commands for adjusting brightness and flubbed a few times when asked to beam a video from the phone to a nearby connected Samsung TV, for example. I’m also not convinced talking to your phone is always better than using the controls on the screen, and I’m definitely not convinced this is the solution to Samsung’s confusing user interface problems.
Samsung says it’s still working on Bixby behind the scenes so that its servers are ready to go by the time the Galaxy S8 launches on April 21. It’s entirely possible the bugs I saw will be ironed out in time for launch.
Still, Bixby will be extremely limited at first and will only work with Samsung apps at launch, with more functionality added over time thanks to Samsung’s recent acquisition of the artificial intelligence company Viv. I’m also doubtful that Samsung will be able to rally a significant number of third-party developers to adopt Bixby controls for their apps.
Samsung’s hardware and design is ahead, but Apple is about to catch up
Samsung has enjoyed a nice couple of years staying ahead of Apple’s iPhone hardware thanks to bigger screens and svelte designs that continue to approve with each generation. And the Galaxy S8 is the best-looking phone the company has ever made without compromising on key features like water resistance, expandable memory, and wireless charging.
But Samsung’s position on top may also be short-lived. Just about every leak and rumor about the next iPhone points to a major change in design and features as Apple gears up to celebrate the device’s tenth anniversary, with a lot of the ideas like OLED screens and lack of home button sound a lot like what we’ve seen in Galaxy phones recently.
Apple sounds like it’s about to catch up hardware-wise, and the strength of its ecosystem surrounding iOS will give it an opportunity to leapfrog Samsung.