Samsung on Wednesday revealed two new flagship smartphones, a move the company hopes will help it recover from the financial and public relations debacle sparked by its problem-plagued Galaxy Note 7. Those devices, released last fall, were recalled shortly thereafter due to overheating batteries.
The Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+, as the new phones are named, will go on sale April 21. The price will vary depending on the carrier: Verizon will sell the Galaxy S8 for $720 (or $30 per month) and the Galaxy S8+ for $840 (or $35 per month.) T-Mobile will be offering the Galaxy S8 for $750 (or $30 per month) while the larger model will cost $850 (or $30 per month).
A new pair of flagship handsets is always a big deal for any smartphone maker. But the latest Galaxy models bear the extra burden of helping Samsung retain its spot atop the Android phone market after the Note 7 recall, as well as amid increasing competition from rivals like Apple, Google and Huawei. Apple is expected to introduce new iPhone models in September, Google launched its first truly self-made device last year to rave reviews, and Chinese manufacturers like Huawei and OnePlus are making inroads in the U.S. market and abroad.
In an effort to prevent issues like those that affected the Note 7, both of Samsung's new phones have been built following the company's new battery protocol, which calls for an eight-point safety check. If that new quality control process works as planned, the Galaxy S8 and S8+ could succeed in reversing the company's misfortunes. Based on the time I spent with the phones during a media preview, both devices appeared to be promising contenders, thanks to new features like an impressive edge-to-edge screen, a new virtual assistant, and facial recognition technology.
Pick up one of the Samsung's new Galaxy devices and the first thing you'll notice is how big the screen looks. The Galaxy S8 features a 5.8-inch display, while the larger model boasts a 6.2-inch display, both of which are notably larger than the Galaxy S7's 5.1 inches and the Galaxy 7 Edge's 5.5 inches. Samsung here ditched the home button in favor of a touch sensor, allowing the screen to be embiggened without making the device physically larger.
A slimmer profile, meanwhile, helps the devices feel more manageable to hold than their predecessors. On the software side, a simpler interface also makes the new phones easier to use — instead of an app launcher, users tap the bottom of the screen to view their app library.
Samsung diehards will be happy to learn the Galaxy S8 and S8+ inherit fan-favorite features like dust and water resistance, a microSD card slot for expanding storage, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. (Samsung's doubling the default storage this time around, offering 64GB instead of 32GB.)
The Galaxy S8 and S8+ also herald the arrival of Bixby, Samsung's new voice-activated assistant. The company is aiming to differentiate it from rival services like Apple's Siri by making it better at understanding situational context, as a human aide would. (Apple, Google, Amazon and other technology firms are also hard at work improving their digital aides in this way.)
Samsung claims that Bixby can accomplish any task a user might otherwise do via taps and swipes, though it's unclear which third-party apps will work with it. Both devices have a dedicated button on their sides for summoning Bixby. And Bixby can use the phones' camera to scan items and retrieve information about them — one might, for example, get food pairing suggestions by scanning a bottle of wine. (Amazon's ill-fated Fire Phone also attempted to use its camera in a similar way.)
Both the Galaxy S8 and S8+ boast facial recognition and eye-scanning technology allowing owners to unlock their phone by looking at it, the latter of which Samsung debuted on the Note 7. Photography-wise, the new devices show little improvement from the Galaxy S7, though the front-facing camera has been upped to 8 megapixels from 5 and has face-detecting autofocus. Samsung also claims the new phones have better image processing technology, which should help them take better photos in low light and reduce blur.
Samsung is additionally pitching its new devices as multi-purpose computers. Both phones can control household gadgets compatible with the company's SmartThings platform and work with its DeX dock, which simulates the experience of using a desktop. When attached to this dock, the S8's interface looks like that of a computer rather than a smartphone. Apps optimized for the accessory run full-screen rather than in smaller windows, and the phone will work with enterprise software to run a virtual version of Windows. Microsoft announced a similar feature for its Lumia 950 phone in 2015 called Continuum. Still, it's unclear how much consumer demand exists for such a feature outside the workplace.
Samsung's Galaxy S8 and S8+ face the formidable challenge of convincing buyers it's worth taking another chance on the company's smartphones after the Note 7 fiasco. To some degree, the company can bank on its brand, having long made some of the best Android handsets available. And based on my limited hands-on time and the spec sheet, these phones might just have what it takes to get Samsung back on track — provided there are no fiery surprises on the horizon.