Samsung Galaxy S8+ review: Infinity and beyond
Infinity and beyond
Dual Pixel got even smarter
Samsung's tried and tested 12MP Dual Pixel shooter is present and accounted for on the Galaxy S8+, ready to power another generation of flagships. The Korean giant deemed it worthy and held off on any fancy dual-sensor setup for yet another year. Perhaps, the Note8 will be the first Galaxy to see double in a few months.
That is still solely in the realm of speculation. As for the S8 and S8+, honestly, after spending some time shooting around, we can safely say that Samsung has no reason to regret its decision to build upon the already excellent camera experience of the Galaxy S7 generation. That's the thing, on paper, it does look like practically nothing has changed. This is likely true from a pure hardware standpoint. You get the same f/1.7 aperture, 26mm equivalent lens, phase detection autofocus, OIS and a single LED flash.
What has changed, however, is the brains behind it all - the processing. The S8+ has picked up a few new tricks and they're not just generic "improved camera performance" entries in a change log somewhere. Well, to be perfectly frank, Samsung has been downplaying its camera improvements quite a bit, only mentioning things like "enhanced image processing" and "improved low-light performance".
The biggest novelty, in our opinion, is probably the addition of a smart image stacking mode. It was only mentioned briefly by Samsung on a couple of occasions, during presentations, but there's definitely something to it, as most low-light samples can testify. As far as we managed to gather, the feature is officially called "Multi-Frame Image Processing" and is similar to the HDR+ on Google's Pixel XL - a phone widely praised for its camera prowess.
Unlike the latter, however it does not require a toggle on the S8+ and simply works seamlessly in the background. The idea is that instead of a single shot, the phone captures a substantial burst of them every time you hit the shutter. The S8+ actually keeps taking photos all the time and then just picks out the last 10 or so when you press the shutter, but we can't really be sure how the exact process runs under the hood.
Supposedly, the handset blends these shots together, trying to pick up as much detail and produce an image as clear as possible. Typically, this involves pixel by pixel comparisons to isolate noise and other undesired artifacts and to gauge sharpness and all this is done in the background as you shoot. An impressive feat.
To be fair, if you start hitting the shutter button quickly, you will notice a few delays between shots, from time to time. Still, the user experience is perfectly tolerable.
While on the topic of shutter buttons, the camera interface is worth briefly looking into. It is a pretty familiar sight, but a few extra controls are added to the mix, here and there. Everything is conveniently laid out, for the most part, but we do have a couple of complaints.
First of all, there is no dedicated video recording UI. This shouldn't really be an issue for most real-world scenarios, but precisely framing is immensely more difficult without seeing the proper viewfinder before you start recording. The other thing we aren't quite so happy about is that Samsung felt the need to place a dedicated shortcut to its new effects permanently on the viewfinder.
As long as we are on the topic, we might as well take a look, since, we're sure the younger crowd will find it intriguing. There are a total of four categories here. The first two hold filters, apparently divided according to their appropriate use for selfies or lack thereof. Of course, you can go nuts and apply them as you see fit and there are even extras available for download.
Then there are stamps. They are all black and white and use some impressive typography. They also come with convenient controls for move, resize and even rotate. Actually, we have to admit, these are quite cool. The only problem is, you can't have more than one enabled. You can't really mix and match any of the effects, for that matter. Perhaps in a future update.
Last, but not least, you have the dynamic overlay effects. They employ face detection and tracking and typically do a pretty good job of positioning and scaling themselves. Obviously, these make a lot more sense with the selfie camera, but you can use them with either shooter, just like the rest of the effects in the other three categories.
You might have also noticed that there is another small icon in the camera UI (just below the bear hat icon). It opens a few more traditional effects, targeted at portraits and selfies. The main shooter only gets skin tone correction. However, a quick swipe gesture up or down to get to the 8MP front-facing camera and the menu suddenly gets a few extra options. These include Large Eyes and Slim Face - pretty self-explanatory. There is also a spotlight effect, which lets you simulate a shining spotlight from either left or right. All of these have sliders to adjust intensity. There is also an Automatic Shape correction toggle, for smoothing out some odd lines in faces.
The S8+ comes with a few extra camera modes. All of them are pretty self-explanatory. Selective focus captures a pair of shots and lets you readjust the effect afterwards. And we did also give the virtual shot a spin (yeah, we'll show ourselves out), but it wasn't all that impressive. The end result is more of a video than a photo and requires a special viewer on the phone to work. Plus, it doesn't really make an effort to compensate for any difference in framing while you spin around.
On the other hand, Pro mode is really impressive. It is full-featured and offers varied granular controls at your disposal - ISO, white balance, shutter speed, exposure compensation and even options for metering and manual focus with focus peaking. You name it, it's there.
In most scenarios, the Galaxy S8+ camera is just as good as that on the Galaxy S7 edge. This is quite a compliment in itself, since Dual Pixel tech has more or less established itself as the industry's fastest autofocus.
The S8+ can capture stills at up to 4032x3024 pixels with the 12MP snapper. This does mean a native aspect ratio of 4:3 for the sensor. Of course, you could shoot in 16:9 instead, but this isn't really recommended. The thing is, there is no way to capture video in the new native 18.5:9 aspect, regardless of any resolution or quality concerns. That means you are stuck with some significant letterboxing when viewing on the phone itself. Stills do offer a 18.5:9 option, however awkward that might be.
JPG is a natural default, but there is also a convenient option to save a RAW photo, along with every shot you take in Pro mode. There are also toggles for focus tracking and automatic shape correction in the settings menu.
There are a few quick launch and voice control options to explore as well. The Floating Camera button is a new addition to the mix. It is pretty straight-forward, just a second shutter button you can drag around and place freely on the camera interface. It can be a lifesaver when trying to shoot one-handed at tricky angles.
In broad daylight, we honestly had trouble differentiating between the pair. All the shots came out with plenty of detail and great dynamic range. Colors look good as well, although we will admit, this is a subjective point. Furthermore, in typical Samsung fashion, there is plenty of sharpening - also a perceivably pleasant effect for many users.
There is very mild softening near the edges, but we're only throwing it out there for the sake of completeness. We've seen way, way worse.
Of course, we couldn't skip on our usual set of samples as well. The S8+ managed to capture plenty of fine detail.
HDR on the S8+ is rather subdued. Then again, this has been a pretty typical Samsung trait in recent years. HDR can be set to HDR Off, Auto or On. The Auto setting seems to do a pretty good job at detecting where the effect could come in handy, so no complaints there. However, we will note that most scenes we tried with and without HDR came out looking pretty identical.
Interestingly, the HDR samples in the last set are both softer than the normal photo and both exhibit moire around the white panels on the balconies. We guess this is due imperfections in the HDR image stacking algorithm.
Here are a few more HDR shots for comparison. The last pair did finally manage to push the HDR algorithm a bit harder, making it more apparent.
This is all pretty great, but nothing you can't already expect from a S7 edge or S7, both significantly cheaper than the S8+. However, when the lights go down, the new flagship really starts to shine. These are the scenarios in which the photo stacking we mentioned earlier really starts flexing its muscles.
Of course, noise suppression is still easily visible, but there is a surprising amount of detail and sharpness shining through. We took the liberty of including some sample shots from the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge as well. These were taken under the exact same conditions, so they should be good for some preliminary comparisons. We will definitely revisit the pair more in depth in a future shootout.
There is also the photo compare tool for you to check out.
We have to note that shooting at a shutter speed of 1/10s in our low-light scenario is a bit of a gamble. However, it paid off big time and we're willing to attribute that to cunning awareness of the presence of a tripod.
The S8+ captures detail-rich panoramas. Sharpness is also great. However, there is some visible banding in the samples. To be fair, the particular scene was really difficult to capture in terms of exposure, as we essentially panned from almost directly looking into the sun, through a shadowy park and back to a sunny street. Still, it appears the S8+ is trying to dynamically adjust exposure, which comes off as a rookie mistake.
There is also a motion panorama feature that captures video as you pan. It's a cool concept and works great when viewed directly on the phone. However, all the video data gets saved within the panorama JPG itself. That makes it quite beefy in size and also leads to compatibility problems with many desktop image viewers.
8MP selfie shooter
The main camera might be borrowed from the S7 generation, but the selfie cam isn't. It's a totally new setup - it's now upgraded to 8MP with f/1.7 aperture, autofocus and Auto HDR. The front camera gets a mode selector of its own. We did notice that video collage and the Download button for more modes that were on the Galaxy S7 generation are currently missing from the S8+.
As far as resolution goes, the selfie also captures stills in 4:3 natively. Video is captured at QHD or 1440p.
Our samples turned out pretty great both outdoors and around the office. There is no shortage of detail and no apparent softness, even near the corners. Quality is probably comparable to something along the lines of the Galaxy S4's main camera, so we've really come a long way. Be advised, however, that the selfie does come with a modest level of skin tone correction enabled out of the box. That might need some adjustment to match your personal taste.
Speaking of effects, we already mentioned Samsung has provided quite a few to boost your selfie game. Going overboard with any of them is not a really good idea, as made clear by the samples.
Spotlight is one of the weirder effects. You get individual control over fictional fill lights aimed at your left or right side. Large Eyes and Shape correction, we found to be quite subtle. Slim Face, on the other hand worked great.
On top of that, there is also Wide selfie. The panning motion it utilizes does require some getting used to, but the end result is exactly as advertised.
Selective focus, on the other hand, was hit and miss. Since there is no second selfie camera to work with, the software is pretty much on its own in determining the depth of any given scene. The effect is enjoyable overall, but pixel-peeping quickly reveals lots of imperfections. That's just how it is.
Last, but not least, we also gave the selfie a spin in less than ideal lighting conditions. In this case, we set our studio lights to the same 28 lux setting we use for out low-light sample shots. The results are pretty impressive, in our opinion.
The Galaxy S8+ is capable of capturing footage at up to 4k@30fps, so no real change there, compared to its predecessor. Video gets saved in MPEG-4 AVC, with a bit rate of a little over 48 Mbps and 48 KHz stereo audio. Not bad. A more advanced codec, like HEVC would have shrunk clip file size, but it is still a hassle uploading it to YouTube. The S8+ has no such issue.
There is also support for 1080p capture at 60fps. That one ends up with a bit rate of around 28 Mbps. That's all great on paper. However, before we get to the samples themselves, it is worth noting that both of these recording modes are limited to 10 minute clips at a time. At least on our review unit, that is. This is particularly strange, since the S7 edge has no such cap. We really hope this won't remain a permanent thing.
Since the Multi-Frame Image Processing we kept raving about in the photo section can't really do much when it comes to video capture, there is naturally hardly any real improvement here over the S7 generation to speak of.
To be fair, the S8+ now offers EIS in all resolutions, all the way up to 4K. The S7 edge only had it at 1080p. OIS is still available across both generations, but it's not really meant for video capture to begin with. Good to have around, though.
In any case, the S8+ seems to do better at "de-shaking" footage at 4K than its predecessor. However, in 1080p the system works even better. Here are a couple of samples to illustrate.
Again, this is hardly criticism. Far from it. 2160p videos are packed with detail, you can extract frames and almost have them pass as an 8MP photo. Interestingly enough, despite the S8+'s tendency to oversharpen stills and exaggerate colors a bit, processing in video seems to be a lot more natural and laid back. Again, it all comes down to personal taste, but there is a notable difference in our opinion.
1080p retains what we consider flagship-grade quality, although, there is a noticeable increase in noise over 4K footage. We are happy to report that there is no more focus-hunting in 60fps mode, which used to be a problem on the S7 edge.
But, a sunny day is one thing, what happens when the lights go down? We got a few samples at dusk and at sundown for you to check out. Despite the natural increase in noise levels, the S8+ managed to produce fairly detailed footage at both 4K and 1080p. Buildings stayed sharp even down to individual distinguishable windows. We also like how the S8+ handles light.
For some extra pixel-peeping pleasure, we are also including shorter, uncompressed versions of all the samples:
4K at 30fps (11s, 68MB), 1080p at 60fps (10s, 36MB), 1080p at 30fps (11s, 23MB), 4K at 30fps at dusk (10s, 60MB), 1080p at 30fps at dusk (10s, 22MB), 4K at 30fps low light (11s, 68MB), 1080p at 30fps low light (13s, 28MB).
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