Samsung Galaxy S8 has the looks and specs: See our hands-on first impressions

Samsung's Galaxy S8 is here, and it's everything you hoped it would be. But the question remains, is that enough to make up for the Note 7?

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Samsung on Wednesday announced the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8 Plus. The pair of smartphones are the company's first new smartphones since the Note 7's launch and ultimate cancellation.

Samsung will begin taking pre-orders for the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus starting Thursday, March 30. Shipments will start arriving, along with retail availability, on April 21.

To say a lot is riding on Samsung's latest pair of smartphones is to put it mildly. After the disastrous Note 7 launch and recall, the company has a lot to prove to those scorned by faulty batteries.

The company is acutely aware of just how important it is to regain user trust, and has already taken steps towards doing so. After three independent investigations found two different batteries made by two different manufacturers were to blame for causing roughly 100 Note 7 devices to catch fire or explode, Samsung has since implemented an eight-point system to check each battery put into one of its phones is safe.

Before Wednesday's announcement, we already knew a lot about the S8. Over the course of the last few months, a steady stream of details and photos surrounding the S8 lineup had leaked. As it turns out, the majority of those leaks were legitimate.

From the nearly bezel-less display, removing the home button, to moving the fingerprint sensor to the back of the phone -- the S8 we got acquainted with from blurry photos, and ever-so-brief videos are real.

This past Monday I had a chance to sit down with Samsung representatives, learn more about the approach to the S8 lineup and spend some time with a broad range of new products.

Before we dive into initial impressions, let's take a look at the official specifications of the S8 and S8 Plus:

Galaxy S8 Galaxy S8+
Size 148.9 x 68.1 x 8.0 mm, 155g 159.5 x 73.4 x 8.1 mm, 173g
Water/dust resistance IP68 IP68
Display 5.8-inch Quad HD+ (2960x1440) 570 ppi 6.2-inch Quad HD+ (2960x1440) 529 ppi
Storage 64 GB with microSD support up to 256 GB 64 GB with microSD support up to 256 GB
Memory 4 GB RAM 4 GB RAM
Battery 3,000 milliamp-hour 3,500 milliamp-hour
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 in US, Samsung's Exynos in regions to be announced Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 in US, Samsung's Exynos in regions to be announced
Camera Rear: Dual Pixel 12-megapixel. Front: 8-megapixel with autofocus Rear: Dual Pixel 12-megapixel. Front: 8-megapixel with autofocus
Operating System Android 7.0 Android 7.0
Connectivity USB-C, NFC, Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth USB-C, NFC, Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth

Design

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

What's stunning about either device is just how small it feels, even though it has a relatively large display. According to Samsung, the S8 is 1.5 millimeters narrower than the S7 but has a larger display than the 5.5-inch S7 Edge. To achieve a larger screen, the company made the phone slightly taller.

Samsung is calling the new display form factor -- which is rounded from top to bottom just as the Note 7 and S7 Edge screens before it -- Infinity Display. It's a fitting name, considering 83-percent of the front of the phone is made up of Samsung's AMOLED display.

What was amazing to me is that even with such large screens, both phones felt easily manageable in my hand. I fully expected the added height of either phone to make it feel top heavy, forcing me to find a balance point in my hand. For most, the Galaxy S8 will be the sweet spot of size and screen real-estate. Those who prefer phablets will find the S8 Plus an ideal upgrade.

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

With the majority of the top and bottom bezels now replaced by a display, a physical home button is no longer possible. Instead, a pressure sensitive on-screen button is always on, even if you can't see it.

For example, when playing a game in full-screen mode, the navigation buttons disappear. Instead of having to swipe up from the bottom of the screen to show the navigation buttons, you press on the area where the home button lives, and it will tap you back, much in the same way Apple's 3D Touch on the iPhone works. The button is then visible, active, and ready to interact.

Without a physical home button, the fingerprint sensor needed a new home as well. As previous photos have shown us, the fingerprint sensor is now to the left of the camera lens on the back of the phone. It's a horrible spot for the fingerprint sensor, considering you're likely to smudge the lens on your camera when attempting to unlock the phone.

All is not lost, however, as the S8 and S8 Plus now include Iris Scanning and Facial Recognition technology for unlocking the phone.

With either feature, you can wake the phone, look at it, and it magically opens. In the demonstrations I watched, the Iris Scanning feature seemed to be the same speed as what I recall the Note 7 being. Facial recognition, however, appeared to be faster.

Overall, it's awesome tech, but if Samsung somehow bungles the integration and it's more work than placing a finger on the back of the phone, then the new features are nothing more than fluff.

On the left side of the frame is a dedicated Bixby button, with volume up and down buttons just above that. On the right is the power button that also locks and wakes the phone.

Samsung ditched microUSB for USB-C, which still includes Samsung's fast-charging tech -- of the wired and wireless varieties.

A total of five different colors will be available, with some colors limited to select regions. In the US, Samsung will offer midnight black, orchid gray, and arctic silver, with maple gold and coral blue available in select regions.

Bixby

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Samsung already unveiled its approach to a voice activated personal assistant, Bixby.

Bixby isn't yet a replacement for Google Assistant or even Apple's Siri. Instead, it's meant to fill in the gaps of what Samsung's competitors can't do.

Instead of dishing out answers about the world's tallest building, Bixby is designed to carry out actions you regularly make on your phone.

For example, with a press of the dedicated Bixby button on the left side of the S8, you can ask the phone to show you all of the pictures you captured on your vacation to the Grand Canyon. With another press, you can then tell Bixby to send a photo to a contact.

Another option is to tell Bixby to turn the display's brightness up or down or control various device settings. At launch, Bixby will work with a "handful" of Samsung's apps, with updates expected on a regular basis.

Eventually, Bixby will answer questions, but Samsung is thus far quiet on when exactly that will happen. Remember, the company's acquisition of Viv -- a personal assistant from the same team behind Siri -- isn't included in Bixby right now.

Another aspect of Bixby is Bixby Home. With a swipe to the right from the main home screen or a quick press of the Bixby button on the S8, you can view the Bixby Home feed.

Within that feed you will find things like your S Health step count, current settings for Smart Things home automation devices connected to your account, weather reports, and news updates. Samsung also announced a new mesh Wi-Fi system that functions as a Smart Things to further push its home automation platform, in combination with Bixby.

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

One demonstration showed using Bixby Home to remotely view the contents of Samsung's smart (and expensive) fridge before heading home to make sure you have all of the ingredients to make dinner.

Bixby Home looks a lot like Samsung took some of Google Now's feed and mixed it together with iOS 10's widget screen. The Home feed is supposed to get smarter the more you use your phone, recommending contacts to call or message based on your past behavior.

Using the S8's camera, you can scan products, text, or landmarks and Bixby will attempt to identify it. I used it to scan my Apple Watch, and an Amazon listing of Apple Watch accessories came up after a few seconds. I'm not sure how often I would use a feature like this, but then again the extent of experience with a product scanning service was with the Amazon Fire.

The Galaxy ecosystem

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Alongside the S8 and S8 Plus, Samsung also announced new accessories and products designed to work with its Galaxy phones. Actually, in the case of the new Gear 360 camera, it will now work with iOS and Android devices outside of Samsung; a feature that should have been available with the original Gear 360, as opposed to locking it to Galaxy smartphones.

The second generation Gear 360 is smaller, boasts 4K capabilities, and 2K live streaming. Pricing isn't available, but Samsung representatives have stated the goal is to make it more affordable for everyone to use. It will be available this spring.

The previously announced Gear VR headset will launch alongside the S8. Galaxy S8 pre-orders will include a free Gear VR, the new controller, and a bundle of games.

A business use case beyond screen size

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

The most compelling accessory Samsung announced is DeX. Samsung DeX is a docking station with ports to connect your Galaxy S8 to a large display, a keyboard, and a mouse.

With the S8 docked, the monitor presents an Android desktop experience -- complete with multi-window support.

All of the apps you have installed on your phone are available through DeX. However, only those apps that have been optimized by the developer will support window resizing.

At launch, optimized apps include Microsoft's Office Suite and Adobe's Creative apps, with more apps expected in the future.

What's more, Samsung is working with the likes of Citrix and VMWare to optimize virtual machines. Samsung provided a brief demo of Citrix running Windows 10, with a full copy of Microsoft Word, all powered by the S8 without any hiccups.

Converting a smartphone into a makeshift desktop computer is something we've seen fail many times over the past few years. There's no telling if Samsung's approach will take off or fall flat, but it's something companies keep coming back to -- for better or worse.

Setting the bar

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Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

The elephant in the room is whether or not the S8 is going to be attractive and shiny enough that users will forget about the Note 7. Will it get the job done? It's too early to tell.

One thing is sure, Samsung is setting the bar for smartphones in 2017 regarding design.

Apple's old and tired design of large bezels to make room for the home button and sensors has been out of place for the past couple of years.

It's time to play catch-up, Apple. Samsung has you beat in design, and it's not even a close fight.

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