Galaxy A8: Samsung’s getting really good at making mid-rangers

Intro

Ask anyone who has some experience with searching for the best bang-for-buck smartphone and they’ll probably tell you to avoid big brands when you’re on a tight budget. Stick to something like Xiaomi, for example, and you’re bound to get something that’ll give you way more smartphone for your money.

But that doesn’t stop big brands like Samsung from making entry and mid-range smartphones. And the thing I noticed with something like Samsung’s brand new Galaxy A8 is that they’re getting dangerously good at doing this.

“What are Samsung Kool Aid have you been drinking Rory? How can Samsung’s mid-range phones ever have better specs than Xiaomi?” I hear you say, and I will admit that you have a fair point. When you’re buying big-brand smartphones, you’re not just paying for the phone, you’re paying for the brand, the prestige, and the support structure that gave birth to this handset in the first place. Apple, for example, is a good case in point.

However, there’s also one thing spec-sheet warriors tend to forget when evaluating the value of these big-brand smartphones, something I’ve also been guilty of in the past. When you buy from someone like Samsung, you’re not just buying the phone, you’re also buying into their ecosystem and all the little advantages of having a massive range of smartphones bring.

The phone I have here, and that I’ve been using for a short while as a secondary device, is a child of the massive chaebol that is Samsung. It’s not their first mid-range handset to bear the Galaxy A name and I doubt it’ll be their last. In the hierarchy of Samsung Mobile’s handsets the Galaxy A sits just above the entry-level Galaxy J and just below the flagship Galaxy S series. And you can really tell that they tried really hard to keep right where it is, which has both its pros and cons.

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A pro, for starters, is how phenomenally built this smartphone is. It sheds the “cheap” feeling of the Galaxy J and replaces that with a truly stunning glass and metal sandwich that’s sturdy and machined really well. Not quite to the level of precision as the Galaxy S — the edges are just a little bit rougher — but very impressive nonetheless.

Sure, past versions of the Galaxy A have had really good builds too, but this is by far the best to my hands. Samsung polished the metal band around the handset to a shine so that it matches this year’s flagships, making it feel a lot like a mini S8. What’s more, the body isn’t just for show, it’s also IP68 dust and water resistant, something that’s still not as ubiquitous as I’m sure we’d like even on today’s flagship handsets.

Being so similar to the Galaxy S, I was initially concerned about whether they were going to put the fingerprint scanner in the same dumb spot as the Galaxy S8/S8+ and Note8, but I’m happy to report that it is in a far more sensible spot now. It’s easier to reach and harder to mistake for your camera lens. Samsung also included “Face unlock” which is quick, but I don’t trust it anywhere near as much as a fingerprint scanner.

I think this is also the most “new” Galaxy A smartphone yet. In contrast to 2016 and 2017’s “facelift”, the Galaxy A8 — along with its new name which I suspect is to bring it in line with the Galaxy S line — is as much of a breath of fresh air as the Galaxy S8 was. Gone are the thick forehead and chin, and sandwiched inside the slim(ish) bezels you’ll find a gorgeous 18.5:9 aspect ratio 5.6″ FHD+ Super AMOLED display.

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Despite the fear surrounding AMOLED screens *coughV30andPixel2XLcough* Samsung’s displays continue to impress. It’s got great viewing angles, gets super bright and has that classic vibrant Samsung look.

While the panel looks good, I really think the bezels could have been a little smaller. Instead, you’re left with a relatively fat band around the smartphone’s screen which isn’t very attractive. Sure, Samsung might also call this an “Infinity Display” but it’s not curved so it doesn’t bleed over the edge like Samsung’s flagship models.

You do get an Always-on Display with the A8 that’s pretty much identical with the S8 and Note8, right down to the virtual home button. Oddly, that area of the screen isn’t pressure sensitive like its flagship relatives so you can’t press down on it to wake the screen. You’ll have to double tap it which isn’t nearly as intuitive.

Performance is also pretty solid. The Galaxy A8 doesn’t have a super crazy spec-sheet. It’s powered by an octa-core Exynos 7885 processor mated to 4GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage. So far, it has been able to handle conventional smartphone tasks pretty well but I’ll get back to you on well it holds up as more stuff fills my phone in the full review.

Other spec-sheet highlights include a 3,000 mAh battery and dual-SIM support. There’s also fast-charging via a USB Type-C port which is always a great addition.

But the Galaxy A8 isn’t just about what it borrows from high-end flagships, it’s also about what it keeps from the rest of the world which can be both good and bad.

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Great things they kept, for example, is the 3.5mm headphone jack and a dedicated microSD card which are slowly disappearing from many smartphones. There’s also Samsung Pay which is an excellent mobile payment service and something you can only find on Samsung devices.

It also comes running Samsung’s software which I think has come a long way since the early days of TouchWiz. I thought it was excellent on the Galaxy S8 and that much holds true on the Galaxy A8. Sure, you’ll have staunch TouchWiz haters but if you’ve given the new software a try, you’ll know that it’s nowhere near as rubbish as it was. It’s actually great now.

However, you’ve also got the bad stuff that Samsung couldn’t shake. The Galaxy A8 I have here is running on Android 7.1.1 Nougat, for example, which means it’s already running dated software. Then there’s the weird placement of the single mono speaker.

It gets pretty loud but not as loud — or as satisfying — as a pair of stereo speakers and its placement makes it hard to cup with your hand for when the speaker isn’t loud enough. I remember this being a very entry-level smartphone “feature” so I’m disappointed that it still haunts a device that feels this good.

Finally though, we get to the most iffy part about the Galaxy A8. A part that, ironically, Samsung pushes the hardest: Its camera.

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