Are you old enough to remember the shift from tube televisions to flat-screen TVs? Or perhaps you recall ditching your giant beige computer monitor for a flat-panel LCD display. As someone who has been covering the mobile industry for as long as I have, something else comes to mind: The feeling I had in 2007 the first time I put down my Symbian smartphone and picked up an iPhone.
I’m not sure Samsung’s new Galaxy S8 marks a paradigm shift on par with any of those examples, but parallels can absolutely be drawn. Simply put, it feels like the future.
Earlier this week, Samsung took the wraps off its new flagship smartphones for 2017. Every new flagship phone from Samsung instantly becomes the best flagship phone from Samsung, but the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ are different. They’re special.
After years of stagnant smartphone design, this year marks the dawn of a somewhat exciting new day. The move toward all-screen displays began with LG’s G6, at least where widely available smartphones from global vendors are concerned, but the G6 became an also-ran the moment Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and S8+ were unveiled. It’s a shame, because the G6 is a nice enough phone, but the S8 duo is better in literally every way, and it’s backed by Samsung’s multi-billion dollar marketing and advertising budget.
I spent a couple of hours with Samsung’s new Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ ahead of the company’s big press conference earlier this week, and I shared my initial impressions in my hands-on Galaxy S8 preview. I won’t reiterate everything I wrote in that post, but suffice it to say I was impressed. In fact, everything about Samsung’s new flagship phones is impressive, from specs and performance to display quality and design.
But it’s that last item — design — that I want to focus on for a moment. Design is hugely important for smartphones in 2017, because design is the only area where we’re seeing improvements that aren’t purely iterative.
Every year, new flagship phones come along to replace the previous year’s models. They always have better specs, better screens, better cameras, and other minor improvements. When is the last time we saw major changes in the smartphone market that were truly exciting and novel? The Moto Mod system on Lenovo’s Moto Z phones might be as close as we’ve come in the recent past, and those phones represent less than 1% of smartphone sales in 2016.
All-screen phones are exciting. At least, they will be in a couple of years once they finally arrive. In the meantime, smartphones like the Galaxy S8 and S8+ will serve as stepping stones that move us in that direction. With displays that take up 83% of the phones’ faces, top and bottom bezels that are thinner than ever, and side bezels that are almost non-existent, the Galaxy S8 and S8+ offer an immersive experience that is unlike any other widely available smartphone. It feels like you’re holding content in your hand as opposed to a gadget.
Meanwhile, the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus feature a screen-to-body ratio of about 66%.
Regular readers will likely know that I’m a longtime iPhone user. And just about everyone who follows tech news at all knows that Apple is moving in a direction similar to Samsung’s with its upcoming iPhone 8. According to at least a half-dozen independent reports from reliable sources, the redesigned tenth-anniversary iPhone that Apple will release alongside the iPhone 7s and iPhone 7s Plus later this year will feature a new OLED display and no physical home button. Like the Galaxy S8 and S8+, the iPhone 8’s display will take up a much larger percentage of the front of the phone.
This is important for several reasons. First, it means you can fit a larger screen into a more compact device. I love my iPhone 7 Plus, but it’s far too big to use comfortably with one hand. In fact, the phone’s size is my least favorite thing about it, even though I could never go back to using a smaller display.
Second, as I mentioned before, it makes the experience so much more immersive. Many people probably don’t remember what smartphones were like before the iPhone, but on top of everything else, displays were completely different. Touchscreens used resistive technology, and there was a big air gap between the actual LCD display panel and the glass or plastic above it. Then the iPhone came along with its capacitive screen that was fixed directly to the glass cover.
This change was huge because it brought the user closer to the content, both literally and figuratively, and the capacitive screen was infinitely more responsive. The was no lag whatsoever and it felt like you were actually touching the content on the phone, which was a massive improvement to the overall user experience.
The Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+ mark the next big shift in this area (actually, 3D Touch and Apple’s Taptic Engine are a big deal as well, but that’s a topic for another post). And the problem for me is that experiencing it and then going back to an “old” iPhone 7 Plus is actually more painful than I thought it was going to be. It’s not like going back to a phone with a resistive touchscreen or going back to a giant tube TV, but my iPhone simply doesn’t feel like a cutting-edge device anymore.
Why not just switch to a Galaxy S8? Good question, and I only wish it were that easy.
As has been the case in years past when Android phones have tempted me, Apple’s iOS platform is just too good. The iOS user experience, the third-party apps, the speed and fluidity, the instant access to software updates, the customer service, the integration across devices… Apple’s mobile experience is so much better than Android in so many ways that it’s impossible for me to give it up. But knowing that the S8 is sitting in my office is going to make using my iPhone pretty painful for the next six months. The iPhone 8 can’t come soon enough.