Samsung had a tough 2016. The company suffered debacles in several of its divisions, but the main headline grabber was the Note 7 and its penchant for exploding. An exploding phone is not a good thing, but the way Samsung handled the issue, and the ensuing recall, was worse.
Had it been a lesser manufacturer, had this been HTC struggling to stay upright, the disaster of the Note 7 would have been the final note in a long, drawn out swan song. But this is Samsung, the second half of the smartphone duopoly that dominates the market, the yang to Apple’s yin. If ever there was a company that could withstand the onslaught of bad press and disgruntled consumers, Samsung is it.
It’s hard to say where last year’s disaster is in the mind of most consumers. We know it’s still in the minds of those who pay close attention to the consumer technology industry, but they only make up a small fraction of the millions of people who buy Galaxy devices. My inkling is that most don’t care. We live in an age where the news turns over so quickly that we are conditioned to move on just as fast. And, to Samsung’s benefit, more pressing news, and a lot of it, has occurred in the months since Note 7s began catching fire.
Still, Samsung needed to deliver in a big way with its next device, and the Galaxy S8 is the perfect phone to push the company forward. There are numerous features that differentiate smartphones for consumers, and the S8 has a multitude. This includes a new virtual assistant, Bixby, a microSD card slot, a headphone jack (!!), but the first, most consumer facing and best feature is its design. After months of leaks, we knew something special was coming with the latest addition to the S line. Now that it’s real and officially in the world, there is no denying the S8 is one of the best smartphones ever made from a design and hardware perspective. It is certain to turn heads and draw eyes in carrier stores across the country, and world. It may even be good enough to push the bad memories of 2016 out of the minds of the most concerned buyers.
It’s especially effective given the onslaught of mediocrity smartphones have offered us from a design perspective the last few years. Though there have been high points, the fallen Note 7 among them, recent smartphone history has been defined by exceedingly pedestrian, often downright boring, hardware. Part of this is due to the life cycle of the form factor and the relative maturity it has reached 10 years after the debut of the iPhone. There’s not much you can do with metal and glass after three or four iterations. The next design shift was always going focus on the screen, a feature Samsung helped prove the importance of years ago. Many lampooned the company when the original Note was unveiled, but the Korean giant reaped the benefits, and has since been refining its design language to keep those big screens while reducing the devices’ overall footprints.
The result is the magnificent S8, which comes in two sizes, both packing an absolute wallop in the display department. The standard version has a 5.8-inch panel while the S8+ offers an enormous 6.2-inch display. Yet neither device feels unwieldy; nowhere near the behemoth Google and Motorola threw into the market in 2014 with the Nexus 6. The effect is instant the moment you see either. Instead of remaining reserved and considering the handsets with a healthy dose of skepticism, I’m enthralled.
My jaw opens, and saliva begins to pour out. I want to immediately pre-order one, though I don’t need a new phone, don’t have the money and they don’t even work with my carrier (Project Fi). I imagine there are hordes of people out there just like me, who aren’t looking at these new devices and thinking about the images of burned Notes they saw last fall. All they’re thinking is: Where can I get one, and when?
It’s an astute move by Samsung to focus on the aspect that appeals most to consumers in an immediate way. Sure, once we’ve seen a phone, we’ll consider its specs and its battery and its additional features, like a microSD card slot or fingerprint reader. But that first impression, based entirely on design, often segments buyers into two camps: Yes or No, Want or Don’t. There are certainly cases where minds change. My initial reaction to the Nexus 6P, a phone I ended up loving and whose design I came to appreciate far more after I spent time with it, was not dissimilar to the face I make when someone asks if they can use my toothbrush. With the S8, though, the reaction is overwhelmingly positive.
Photo by Getty Images / Jason Kempin
In that way, Samsung is like a parent using the sparkle of a piece of tinfoil to distract their child from the knife they were very recently enamored with, which they would have likely, accidentally, used to Joker themselves given the usual breakdown of how babies handle curiosity: First, look and then, taste. Samsung is using the beauty of its new device to beseech us to forget about the danger of the Note 7, and it’s working.
Now, that analogy doesn’t give the company enough credit. Samsung isn’t merely pulling a bait and switch with the S8. The company has created a truly remarkable device, one that is shaping up to be an all-around great handset, not just a pretty one. The company also isn’t, unlike Marvel’s Iron Fist, avoiding its ugly past. It has been forthright about the new battery testing process it implemented to hopefully ensure no more explosions, and it did not overdo it with battery size in the new phones. This does not mean we shouldn’t be wary. There is still reason to be skeptical. The Note 7 calamity was unprecedented, and Samsung claimed to have fixed the problem after the first recall only for the flames to return. Do I think S8s will explode? No, and I would be immensely surprised if they did. If you’re particularly worried about that issue coming back for an encore, follow your gut, don’t let the beauty of the S8 hoodwink you.
But I don’t think there are many that are particularly worried, or even thinking about where Samsung was half a year ago. They’re simply looking at the Galaxy S8, finding themselves impressed and ready to get in line. Precisely where Samsung wants them.