Samsung bets big with Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus handsets

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      It sounds strange to say it, but the problems with "exploding" batteries in the Galaxy Note 7 smartphones may have been the best thing to happen to Samsung. It has forced Samsung to simplify the product line and to truly innovate for the first time in years.

      Last week, the company pulled the ribbon off its new handsets in New York. For now, anyway, there are only two: the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus, releasing in Canada on April 21 for $1,035 and $1,115, respectively.

      The two devices are largely identical, save for their dimensions and screen size. And that's where we see the biggest change from previous Samsung smartphones.

      The S8 and S8 Plus are tall and thin compared to previous models, with an aspect ratio of 18.5 x 9. What that means is that we still get plenty of screen real estate, but it's easier to hold the devices in one hand. Never before has a Samsung handset been so comfortable for me.

      The wraparound screen that gave the Edge devices their name has been imported to the S8 and S8 Plus, and it is the wrapping screen that allows these new handsets to have the generous screen size that Samsung calls the Infinity Display.

      The screen goes on forever?

      It really does seem like the screen goes on forever. There is a minimal bezel at the top and the bottom of the handset, but other than that, the front of the S8 and S8 Plus is all display. And in some cases, you're getting a bigger screen in a smaller phone. 

      The iPhone 7 Plus, for example, has a display size of 5.5 inches. The Galaxy S8 has a larger display, 5.8 inches, in a handset that is actually smaller than the iPhone 7 Plus (a quarter of an inch shorter and a quarter of an inch narrower).

      The Galaxy S8 Plus is about the same size as the iPhone 7 Plus, but with a screen size of 6.2 inches, more than half an inch larger. And these are OLED screens that deliver rich detail.

      Samsung needs for the S8 and S8 Plus to be a hit. The company took a hit, both corporately and in terms of brand, with the worldwide recall of the Galaxy Note 7 due to well publicized battery problems.

      The new handsets have more to offer than pretty displays. With 64 GB of onboard storage, they can be expanded by up to 256 GB with a MicroSD card. Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity means you can have two different wireless headsets listening at the same time, to either the same thing or even different audio tracks. The devices will ship with wired Harman AKG earbuds.

      They also introduce new biometric security features, a digital assistant, and the ability to use the smartphones the way you would a computer.

      At a media event in Tofino, B.C., this week, I got a chance to use a Galaxy S8 Plus for a couple of days and was able to try out some of the new tricks.

      Security features scan fingerprint or iris

      In addition to using your fingerprint, you can also set up the S8 and S8 Plus to scan your eye's iris, as individual to you as your fingerprint, to unlock your device. That worked pretty well for me except for those moments I was in bright sunlight.

      And you're going to want to avoid using the fingerprint scanner because it's now located on the back of the handset, right next to the camera lens. Imagine how your pictures are going to look through all those finger smudges.

      Samsung is launching its virtual assistant, Bixby, with the S8 and S8 Plus. It was only running in a beta version during my hands-on time, so I wasn't able to fully assess Bixby's capability, but Samsung representatives seemed confident that it will compete with Apple's Siri, Google Assistant, and Microsoft's Cortana.

      One feature that has great potential is Dex, which enables the S8 and S8 Plus to be docked, connected to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and used like a computer. In a demonstration, a Samsung rep showed how Microsoft Word files could be edited on a docked device. With cloud-storage functionality, Dex provides a glimpse at how desk jockeys may be able to ditch computers and tablets and get away with carrying around just a phone.

      Samsung has also updated the Gear 360 camera and Gear VR headset. Preorder a Galaxy S8 or S8 Plus before end of April and you'll get a Gear VR, which includes a controller.