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Samsung Galaxy A8 Impressions: a new design can't hide what lies beneath
Samsung’s new Galaxy A8 had been rumored for some time now, but it was only last month that leaks started making their way onto the Internet. The device itself is somewhat of a hybrid of sorts given that it is essentially a mid-year refresh for the Galaxy A7 which released back in January, yet it has a new body and some of the positive changes that were introduced in the Galaxy S6.
After spending roughly a week with the phone, I wanted to present to you my initial impressions of the device, with a full review to follow in coming weeks. Please be aware that while the phone has been announced for both China and India, this piece (including the specs themselves as well as the $615 price tag) all pertain to the Korean model.
Of specs and such
The Galaxy A8 looks like it should be a top tier phone, given the aluminum unibody design and large display which borders on bezel-less-ness. Assuming the tacky packaging isn’t a give away however, the specs themselves serve as a minor reminder of the parts inside, in an effort perhaps, to temper the expectations one might have.
The Galaxy A8 features a 5.7-inch Full HD Super AMOLED display, a 64-bit octa-core Snapdragon 615 processor backed by 2GB of RAM, 32GB of on-board storage and microSD expansion up to 128GB. It also has a 16MP rear-facing camera, 5MP front-facing shooter, and a 3050mAh battery. It runs the most recent version of Samsung’s TouchWiz overlay atop Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, and also comes with the same fingerprint sensor as seen in the S6. The device measures just 5.9mm thin and weighs only 151g, making this the thinnest smartphone Samsung has released to-date. It also retails, in Korea at least, for 714,000 won (about $610), though current pricing on sites like eBay has it going for around $800+
On paper, the phone seems like a fairly solid mid-ranger, even if still considerably less impressive than a flagship-level product. Unfortunately, after using the phone for even just a few minutes, its limitations become quite obvious. Between the Snapdragon 615, the 2GB of RAM, and TouchWiz, the phone is constantly lagging and stuttering. At times it takes seemingly ages for Swiftkey to load up or to open an application and, coming from the Galaxy S6, this is egregiously problematic. Even something as simplistic as opening the Settings menu has lag with the background loading up a pure white screen, followed by the actual listing. After many of these apps are running in the background, reloading them doesn’t take quite as long, but suffice to say from the software side of things, the A8 is probably not going to make any top-10 lists this year.
Running a benchmark test on AnTuTu, the device scored 45233 placing it on-par with some 2014 flagships. Curiously the app reported the SoC as a 32-bit variant, and didn’t prompt for side-loading of the 64-bit version.
Battery life is relatively good, with the A8 easily lasting throughout the day with moderate use including liberal web surfing, texting on several applications including Line and Slack, and a few phone calls. Tethering seemed to drain it quickly however, and I have opted to wait for the full review before evaluating it with respect to games and heavy-handed tasks. All-in-all, the battery performed better than that of the S6 and at no point during the day did I actively worry the phone would power down before getting home.
Sold in South Korea but aimed at Asia
In an almost comical way, the A8 doesn’t seem to be made for South Korea. Despite featuring the same “Dual SIM” set-up that is found in the Chinese model, the second slot is strictly relegated to microSD even though you can technically put a nanoSIM inside it. The primary tray is even labeled as “SIM 1”, clearly indicating Samsung didn’t bother to create an original part for this model. Likewise the software is puzzling given that the dialer has not a shred of Korean-language text on it, something that I had yet to ever notice on a Samsung device. In standard Korean models, the “ABC” markings are all replaced with Hangul characters, regardless of the device’s language setting.
This, coupled with the lack of LTE band support compared to the Korean Galaxy S6 model truly serve to emphasize the notion that this phone is literally an “Asian market” product. Through tinkering with a hidden menu, I was able to enable LTE support, but at the expense of any voice. Altering the band settings again, voice was possible but no data. Given that testing for this impression piece was carried out in Japan there is somewhat of a caveat, but in testing the Korean Galaxy S6 this troublesome problem didn’t occur at all.
An Acceptable Display
The display, while a Full HD SAMOLED panel, fails to have the same ultra-sharp, vibrant in-your-face colors and crispness that the Galaxy S6 has. The phone does support multiple screen modes, thus allowing for those who hate over-saturated colors to dial-back the concentration. It also has the fantastic auto-brightness “outdoor” automatic setting Samsung has championed as of late, where using the device in extremely bright conditions results in a high contrast color enhancement making it easy to see. This feature is definitely worth having and makes switching back to a standard phone all the more difficult afterwords.
The sound quality of the Galaxy A8 is not much different than that of the previous A-models, including the grating high pitched clicking sounds that accompany input -they can be turned off however. This is largely due to the fact that once again, the product’s sole, tiny speaker is located on the rear of the device, next to the protruding camera module. We question Samsung’s design given that the bottom side of the phone clearly could have supported the inclusion of a downwards-firing speaker a la the Galaxy S6. Just take a look:
Notice the empty space to the left of the USB-port? Compare it to that of the Galaxy S6 or S6 Edge as seen below:
The speaker placement smacks of cost-cutting to say the least, something that is further emphasized by the software.
It’s amazing that for all the positive or interesting changes Samsung brought to the table with the Galaxy S6, it has gone right back to the traditional comfort zone with the A8. Gone is the motion-sensitive background effect seen in the S6, and gone is the ability to select multiple lock screen backgrounds. Hybrid Download, a feature which allows users to download files over 30MB using both Wi-Fi and LTE, is missing. There is no setting menu for “Accessories” allowing for features like an “S-Window” type cover. There is no high-sensitivity mode for those who want to use the device with gloves.
This, in addition to the lag mentioned earlier, basically relegates the Galaxy A8 to the same type of user experience found in the original A-models. The only real exception is the presence of a full Theme Store.
The build is paradoxical
As mentioned earlier, the build of the Galaxy A8 is fantastic, especially at first glance. The sides in particular have a modified version of the “pointed oval” design motif seen on the Galaxy S6, but instead of being flat, curve along with the contour of the device. It is extremely thin as well, though for a device this large the lack of girth actually makes it a bit more difficult to hold than were it to be a bit thicker.
The lack of a notification LED is a major sore point, however. Samsung has been including this on phones even back when they were made of plastic, yet seems to arbitrarily distribute it. Why the Galaxy A8 lacks the LED, yet paradoxically has capacitive buttons that vanish from sight when not lit, seems to hint at a very haphazard design aesthetic. The front camera has also been moved from the right-hand side of the device, to the left, and vice-versa for the sensors.
While arguably no one will find the Galaxy A8 to be an ugly looking phone by any means, after using it for a bit, it’s more probable that the faults will become more apparent than any semblance of appreciation for the new frame, especially given how the large size makes the barren bumper all the more mundane.
On a final note, given the size of the device, it is going to be immediately compared with the Galaxy Note 5 and Galaxy S6 Edge+ when they launch next week. Perhaps Samsung’s timing was done to get the A8 out beforehand, allowing those with more meager budgets to “get in” on the big-screen action.
The pricing problem
The idea that Samsung Korea is charging 714,000 won (about $610) for this phone is truly an impressive proposition, and one that reflects the fact it’s sold on local carrier SKT. Ideally, those individuals living inside the country will purchase the A8 on-contract and thus receive subsidiaries and discounts. This is not unlike what goes on here in Japan, where devices are often sold at prices far higher than in the rest of the world, but with no down-payment and the potential of saving hundreds and hundreds of dollars via monthly discounts.
Even when considering the price in India (Rs. 32,500; $506) we are still talking about a sizable stash of cash to part with. How Samsung deemed this to be an acceptable figure is mystifying to say the least, with the upcoming OnePlus Two and even Moto X Play offering more-for-less. If the whole idea to create the Galaxy A-series was to better compete with top-tier offerings from Xiaomi, HUAWEI, OnePlus, OPPO, Micromax, or any number of other rivals, one might be forgiven in assuming the cost would be an area of concern.
Based on my impressions of the A8 however, Samsung has basically sought to justify a premium price tag simply based on the presence of a thin aluminum construction and fingerprint sensor. There is very little else inside (or about) the device that actually serves to elevate it beyond what would otherwise be a much cheaper, plastic packing product. At the very least without the lag present the experience would be much, much better.
The Galaxy A8 is somewhat of a puzzling phone, to say the least. From all the press renders and pictures that had been leaked and later officially released, the device looked like it would be a truly stunning piece of kit. The new design flourishes for example: the way the side curves ever so slightly. Indeed the material itself looked to be of somewhat “better” quality, a belief perhaps fostered by use of the Galaxy S6/S6 Edge for the past few months.
Ultimately the only real problem with the Korean Galaxy A8 is the price, as charging $610 for a device that can’t even hold a candle to last year’s OnePlus One is a bit hard to swallow. Truth be told the experience with the A8 is quite similar to that of the previous installments in the A-series, and not unlike what we had with the HTC Desire 626 earlier this year. Unfortunately while HTChad enough Sense to price its product to better compete with rival offerings, Samsung has opted to charge above and beyond what some flagships retail for.
Even at the lower price points the device is being sold at in Asia unfortunately doesn’t compensate for the lag issues however, as there are undoubtedly cheaper local products with similar build quality and better performance.
It is highly unlikely that the Galaxy A8 will ever see release in North America, though given the release of the A3 in the UK, there is a possibility Europe might get it. While we suggest waiting for the full review, based on our initial time with the device, there are seemingly far better, cheaper products that can be purchased that offer similar (or better) specs at much more competitive prices, including Samsung’s own Galaxy Alpha -if you can still find it.