Samsung launched sleek new Galaxy S8 and S8+ smartphones Wednesday with features including facial recognition, an intelligent agent called Bixby and Samsung Pass for secure e-commerce mobile payments.
The phones have significantly larger displays than the previous S7 models as well as rounded edges and corners. They both have an edge-to-edge, near-bezel-less screen enclosure called an Infinity display, picking up that styling from the S7 Edge.
The phones also connect, as before, to Samsung's Gear VR virtual reality headset and a new, smaller Gear 360 video camera. Visitors to the New York launch event received a free Gear 360 and were asked to record the event in unison to post later on social media.
Samsung also introduced a hockey-puck-shaped docking station, the DeX, that connects to a monitor, keyboard and mouse.
Samsung said the S8 and S8+ will go on sale April 21. Pricing will be expensive, compared to earlier phones, and will vary by carrier. Prices start at $720 for the S8 on Verizon under a $30 a month plan. AT&T and T-Mobile will charge $750 for the S8.
A humble new start with battery safety
D.J. Koh, president of Samsung Electronics' mobile communications business, headlined the event which was livestreamed globally. He quickly called attention to the Note7 battery-related problems that caused overheating and fires and led to a global recall.
"As you all know, it has been a challenging year for Samsung [with] valuable lessons and important new beginnings," Koh said, without mentioning the Note7 by name.
"We're humble enough to learn from our mistakes," he added, near the end of the one-hour event. "This is how new doors are opened; the impossible becomes possible."
Justin Denison, senior vice president of Samsung Electronics America, said the new phones have gone through Samsung's new 8-point battery-safety check "that goes beyond the industry standard — quality and safety is and remains our top priority."
Jefferson Wang, an analyst and senior partner at IBB Consulting, said even as the recall of 4 million Note7s was a "black eye on the company's reputation, consumers seem to have largely shrugged off the setback." He noted that Samsung still earned $2 billion in income in the fourth quarter of 2016, a 12% increase.
Facial recognition, a new approach
To quickly unlock the S8, Samsung announced facial recognition technology that takes a user directly to the home screen without the need for a password or fingerprint touch.
Gartner analyst Werner Goertz called the facial recognition capability in the S8 devices "innovative and disruptive."
Face recognition was described by Samsung as just one type of the phone's security, alongside pattern recognition, passwords, iris scans and fingerprint scans (with the fingerprint scanner moved to the rear of the phone).
Find the security options "that work best for you," Denison said.
A relatively new Samsung Pass service will rely on iris and fingerprint scans to provide users a quick way to log into an e-commerce site to make transactions, Denison added. The service will work with Bank of America, US Bank, MasterCard and Visa. Samsung originally announced Samsung Pass for the Note7 last August in Korea, but the Note7's demise apparently delayed the rollout.
Denison also described a feature, in a partnership with telehealth service company Amwell, that allows S8 users to quickly connect with a medical expert for health-related questions. Denison didn't say whether the service will rely on the fingerprint, iris or other authentication method.
Bixby's contextual features
The new Bixby intelligent assistant will provide a "new type of interface that learns and evolves with you," said Sriram Thodla, senior director for intelligence at Samsung Electronics America.
Other digital assistants, like Apple's Siri and Google Assistant, use voice to interact. But Thodla said voice is "isolated and doesn't understand what's on a phone's screen." Bixby, he said, knows the context and what's on a screen and can "move seamlessly between voice and touch."
In one example, to text a location of a restaurant to a friend, Thodla opened a maps app on the S8, then pressed the Bixby physical button on the side of the device and said, "Capture this and send to Cindy." With multiple Cindys in his phone's directory, he was directed to touch the right one, moving the map information to the text to the correct Cindy.
With Bixby, users also can point the phone's camera to landmarks and images to gather information and translate some languages.
Thodla also described Bixby's ability to anticipate a user's needs by swiping from the right to show a personal page of various cards that revealed information a user accessed from apps like Facebook and Uber.
Bixby would then be able to organize the cards depending on the time of day. If a user commonly uses Uber for a ride to work in the morning, the Uber card would show up at the top of a group of cards every morning, along with morning news and weather. Or, Thodla said, Bixby could provide a reminder to read an article later when the user arrived home.
Bixby will also connect to smart devices in a home, using a new Samsung Connect Home service. "It turns the phone into the universal remote for your life," he said.
Analysts who have seen Bixby in action said they are eager to try it to see how it compares with voice-activated agents like Siri. Since Bixby is late to the game, it is "the vision that Samsung still has to deliver on," Goertz said. "Today, it is not in direct competition to Alexa from Amazon, Google Assistant and others."
Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, said Bixby will be measured by how well users can command and control Samsung devices and features. "Bixby should not yet be compared to Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa or [Microsoft's] Cortana because it's not yet designed to be a free-form intelligent agent."
Stunning design can make a competitive difference
Moorhead said the 5.8-in. display of the S8 and 6.2-in. display S8+ with their curved glass and high resolution images "are stunning." He said these devices are closer to the concept envisioned a decade ago of a smartphone designed to look like a slab of glass.
Given the fast processors, new services and features in the S8, he said Samsung's "value proposition is very strong... It appears Samsung has a winner on its hands."
How much of a winner is another question. Three analysts said they didn't see Samsung's S8 stealing away many iPhone users. IBB's Wang said Apple is rumored to be incorporating its own curved display in its 10th anniversary iPhone this fall.
"IBB does not expect a considerable number of either brand's fans to defect to the other in the 2017 upgrade cycle," Wang concluded.