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Samsung’s Galaxy S8: Curious Choices

The magic words are $71 more. That’s how much the Samsung Galaxy S8 reportedly costs above the price of an iPhone according to published reports. Before I get to its features, this again puts the lie to people who continue to rant about Apple’s alleged high prices for iPhones.

When you do such comparisons, it’s important to make sure the products actually match. Samsung earns most of its money, but not much profit, from cheap gear. The flagship stuff is what directly competes with iPhones at similar prices. Well, not always similar, because I’ve seen new Samsung gear discounted from Day One with two-for-one sales.

When you look at the specs of the new Samsungs, you might believe the company’s product planners have been reading the rumors about the so-called iPhone 8, and have tried to respond with more. Well, more or less.

Now Samsung also has to try to polish its tarnished reputation as the result of the failure of the Galaxy Note 7, which was discontinued due to a much higher than normal number of failures due to overheating or bursting into flame. Some suggest that Samsung rushed it to market to beat the iPhone 7 by a few weeks, and thus the battery design wasn’t properly tested.

Samsung can reassure all it can, but the reliability of the new gear won’t be obvious until a few million people have been using them for a while. Meantime, the specs appear to obviate the need for a new 5.7-inch phablet.

So there will be two versions, an S8 and an S8+, with curved edge-to-edge displays of 5.8-inches and 6.2-inches. To maximize available physical space, there is no physical Home button. Typical for Samsung, the fingerprint enter is lodged at the rear, next to the camera. It’s an awkward reach to be sure.

But you might not need it, because the new model will have both iris and facial recognition, which may end up being a better solution — if it works. But is it quicker to raise the handset to your face, or just use your finger to unlock the unit? Well, if you can find the sensor quickly enough in that absurd spot. I’m just asking.

Other features include Harman Kardon stereo speakers, a USB-C port, a headphone jack, wireless charging and the ability to feed Bluetooth audio to a pair of headsets or speakers simultaneously. Another tentpole feature is something called a Samsung Dex dock, an add-on that reportedly allows you to connect the device to an external display and input devices, so it can be used as a PC. Well, that assumes PC functions will work properly with Android. When you consider the fact that very few Android apps are optimized for a tablet, how well will it scale up to a full-sized computer display even if the onboard processor and graphics are up to the job?

Oh, and don’t forget Bixby, which is Samsung’s digital assistant that was reportedly developed with help from the folks who created Siri. Or at least the ones who aren’t still working at Apple.

Typical of new Samsung smartphones, the features and specs often sound better than real world performance. I’ve avoided mentioning the processor and onboard RAM, since it doesn’t really matter. Consider the fact that iPhones usually tend to match or exceed the benchmarks of supposedly competitive Android gear even though specs may seem, on paper, to be inferior.

While I can’t say I’m an expert on Samsung gear, the time I spent with a pair of different Galaxy handsets some time ago was disappointing. Performance was erratic, sometimes reasonably fluid and sometimes laggy. Android’s inefficiencies have forced handset makers to use the most powerful components they can get to compensate via brute force.

Google continues to claim that they have been making Android run faster, and we’ll know soon enough once the new Samsungs hit the hands of reviewers. I’m debating whether I should request a review sample. It depends on whether the promise of the new gear can be realized.

I also wonder whether Samsung will release loads of Galaxy S8 variants to confuse the marketplace, or will try to slim the lineup down sensibly to make it easier for customers to figure out what they want.

A big question is how many potential customers were turned off by the Note 7 debacle. I’ve seen surveys that appear to indicate most people don’t care, and one that revealed potential trouble spots. Remember, too, that sales of the iPhone generally beat the high-end Samsungs. The South Korean electronics giant gains most sales from cheaper stuff, and that’s proven to be a problem in China, where there are a number of manufacturers vying for a piece of the low-end market.

As a practical matter, I am very much in favor of vigorous competition. If Samsung’s gear proves to match or exceed the next iPhone, that will, one hopes, spur Apple to do better. Unfortunately, Samsung has a notorious habit of touting fancy features that do not perform as well as they should. So let’s see how well iris and facial recognition work in the real world with real people. The recent arrest of the company’s CEO for corruption, however, has mostly flown under the radar outside of financial publications and, of course, in South Korea.

In the meantime, despite the announcement of the new Samsung smartphones, Apple’s stock price continued to soar to record levels.