As much as smartphone makers like to trumpet a plethora of new features every time they launch a new flagship phone, it's primarily only improvements to two features -- a phone's display and rear camera -- that have had much success in recent years at driving strong upgrade activity. Apple's (AAPL) iPhone 6/6-Plus launch, which satiated huge pent-up demand for iPhones with displays larger than 4 inches, is a good case in point. So are, to a lesser degree, Samsung's Galaxy S6 Edge, whose curved OLED display turned heads, and Apple's iPhone 7-Plus, which saw demand outstrip supply thanks in large part to its dual-lens rear camera.
With their large, widescreen, edge-to-edge displays -- well-suited for an era in which consumers are constantly scrolling through content feeds -- both driving strong pre-orders and underpinning positive reviews -- Samsung's Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus, which officially launch on Friday, appear set to join this group. But with Samsung also leaving the other main feature shown to drive upgrade cycles -- the rear camera -- mostly unchanged, Apple and other rivals still have a big opening to differentiate themselves this fall.
A quick scan of the dozens of Galaxy S8 reviews that were published this week reveals plenty of headlines filled with steep praise. "The most beautiful phone in the world," reads the headline for Business Insider's review. "Leaves competitors in the dust," says ZDNet's. "The Samsung phone you've been waiting for," writes Time.
Such headlines are unsurprisingly typically followed by glowing commentary about the 5.8-inch and 6.2-inch displays respectively found on the S8 and S8 Plus. ZDNet declares that the iPhone 7 Plus' design "instantly looks dated" when compared with the S8's, given how the latter's curved display both looks good and fits comfortably in one's hand. VentureBeat writes that "doing normal things such as checking email, tweeting, and posting on Facebook on this device is very different than before." Engadget states the OLED panels found on both S8 models provide great color reproduction and viewing angles.
The phones' build quality also gets high marks -- like their predecessors, the S8 and S8 Plus have front-and-back glass panels held together by a metal frame. Some reviewers also praised the revamped front camera, which now has an 8-megapixel sensor and autofocus support. Battery life was found to be decent, though not spectacular, with the S8 and S8 Plus respectively lasting about as long on a charge as the S7 and S7 Edge.
On the other hand, many reviewers have criticized the placement of the S8's fingerprint scanner -- it's right next to the rear camera lens -- as well as Samsung's much-hyped Bixby assistant. "Bixby is useless," The Verge flatly states in its S8 review even as it gives both models a score of 9.0 out of 10. It notes that Bixby's home panel, which pulls in content from Facebook, Twitter and other sources, isn't too different from services found on rival Android phones, and that Bixby Vision (an object-recognition tool built into the S8's camera software), while neat in theory, doesn't do much that can't be quickly accomplished by an Amazon product or Google image search.
And Bixby's voice assistant, which Samsung claims will do a better job than rivals of understanding the context of commands and queries, won't be available until the spring. Fortunately, though, Alphabet's (GOOGL) Google Assistant is. With the big head-start that Google and others have in developing AI-powered voice assistant and improving them with the help of user data, it feels as if Bixby is less an attempt to provide a useful and well-differentiated service than a questionable attempt to become less dependent on Google and offer a software feature that rival Android devices lack.
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Editor's Pick: Originally published April 19
Regardless, the S8 and S8 Plus' displays are overshadowing any imperfections. Even before the reviews were published, Samsung had announced S8 pre-orders had topped S7 pre-orders; the phones officially go on sale in three days. Healthy S8 demand should provide a lift to suppliers with strong exposure, such as Skyworks (SWKS) , Broadcom (AVGO) and Universal Display (OLED) .
But certain review headlines notwithstanding, Apple doesn't need to be too frightened, even if there is some risk that the S8 could ding iPhone 7 sales in the short-term. Both iPhone and Android customer loyalty rates remain quite high, as consumers wedded to one mobile OS and software/services ecosystem prove hesitant to jump ship for another. And reports abound regarding the upcoming launch of an iPhone 8 with a curved, edge-to-edge, 5.8-inch, OLED display.
Moreover, when it comes to rear cameras -- a key part of the decision-making process of phone-buyers used to constantly recording scenes from their daily lives -- the S8 arguably can't match the iPhone 7-Plus, whose dual-lens camera can do things like take wide-angle shots, create blur effects and enable optical zoom. Though its software is improved, the S8's 12-megapixel rear camera is unchanged from the S7's from a hardware standpoint. It's a quality single-lens smartphone camera, but nothing more.
Apple, meanwhile, reportedly plans to have the iPhone 8 build upon the 7-Plus' dual-lens array with a revamped camera system featuring lenses with a vertical rather than a horizontal layout. There's speculation that such a layout will enable better depth-of-field effects for augmented reality (AR) applications. Apple is also reportedly looking to include a dual-lens front camera that features 3D sensing technology; potential uses include 3D face and object modeling.
Today's announcements from Snap Inc. (SNAP) and Facebook (FB) drive home the extent to which such features could be used by content-creators in the coming years. Snap rolled out "world lenses" that place digital imagery on top of a rear camera view. And Facebook unveiled a developer platform that lets third parties build their own AR content for use within photos and videos taken via Facebook's apps, and also showed off the use of AI to identify objects, environments and locations to assist in adding AR content to a scene.
Google, which has been working on its Tango AR platform, can't be ignoring all of this as its preps its second-generation Pixel phones. Other high-end Android vendors, some of which have already launched phones with dual rear camera lenses, must be paying attention as well.
Like Apple, these firms should have an opportunity to claim a camera edge against Samsung. Even if they can't quite match the Korean phone giant on the display front.