Samsung's smartphone portfolio in India is organised into six broad tiers. The 'Note' and 'S' ranges sit at the top, with the 'A', 'E', and 'J' ranges lined up below them, and then all the low-priced Grand, Core and Star models grouped as 'Others' at the bottom. The 'A' range is right below the flagships, offering features and design that put them almost at par with the flagships. A-series models offer nearly as much as the top-of-the-line Galaxy S6 or Galaxy Note 4, saving the buyer a little bit of money.
The new champion of the range is the Samsung Galaxy A8, which comes as close to flagship-grade as it can without actually being one. It is priced significantly lower than the Galaxy S6. With a fingerprint reader and a slim 5.9mm frame, this phone looks and feels like it belongs up there with the best. Does it live up to our expectations? Let's find out.
Look and feel
One of the biggest complaints that people have had about Samsung over the years is that all its phones look very similar. Samsung has stuck to the same look for a long time. The Samsung Galaxy S6 (Review | Pictures) and Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge (Review | Pictures) did a little to change that impression, looking fresh while still maintaining that signature Samsung styling. The Galaxy A8 borrows those cues, with just enough of an update to set it apart from the lower priced devices in the portfolio.
The front of the A8 retains that familiar Samsung look, but the metallic edges and frame give it the kind of sophistication that we've come to expect from flagship devices. The dull metallic finish of the edges and buttons looks fantastic, as does the slight slope and curvature along the edges. The thin bezel on the front helps as well, with an impressive 73.8 percent screen-to-body ratio. Our only complaint is that the edges along the front of the device are a bit sharp, making the phone feel slightly bothersome in the hand. The USB and 3.5mm ports are at the bottom, the SIM card slots and volume keys are along the left edge, and the power key is on the right edge. The top has only a microphone for the video camera and voice recorder.
Samsung is one of the few major manufacturers to still use a solid home button rather than a soft or capacitive one. The fingerprint scanner is integrated into this button, making its use incredibly easy. We had no trouble waking and unlocking the device with the solid home key and fingerprint scanner, which means that the added security doesn't make the phone any harder to use. Furthermore, a double tap of the home key quickly launches the camera, which makes it easy to take quick shots.
The back of the Samsung Galaxy A8 isn't quite as impressive as the sides. In an effort to keep weight down, Samsung has opted to use a plastic back panel. Although this might bring back memories of the low-quality feel that had become synonymous with Samsung's entire smartphone lineup, the plastic back on the A8 actually feels great. It's grippy and has a nice finish, looking somewhat metallic from a distance. The matte texture and lack of flex contribute to the Galaxy A8's premium feel, while doing the job it was meant to do. The A8 is slim, light and easy to hold, despite being phablet-sized at 5.7 inches. The speaker, camera and flash are lined up across the back in that order, right above a Samsung logo.
The Samsung Galaxy A8 has a fantastic 5.7-inch full-HD Super AMOLED screen, which is among the best we've seen in the 1080p category. It's bright, sharp and detailed, thanks to the AMOLED technology. Blacks are deep, while colours are vibrant and full of life. Motion and touch sensitivity are also excellent, and despite the size and relatively low pixel density (by today's flagship standards), there's very little to fault here.
Specifications and software
Although Samsung has used the Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 SoC in global variants of the Galaxy A8, the Indian version uses the Korean company's own octa-core Exynos 5430 SoC. The four primary cores operate at 1.8GHz, while the four secondary cores operate at 1.3GHz. There is an integrated Mali T628 GPU. Apart from that, the rest of the device's specifications are the same across global variants. There's 32GB of internal storage (expandable by up to 128GB using a microSD card), 2GB of RAM, a 16-megapixel primary camera and a 5-megapixel secondary camera, and a 3,050mAh battery.
The A8 is a dual-SIM device with both SIM slots supporting 4G SIM cards. However, 4G can only be used on one SIM card at a time, with the other dropping to 3G. Furthermore, the second slot is a hybrid slot, which means it doubles up as the microSD slot. You essentially have to choose between dual-SIM connectivity and storage expansion, which as we've said before, is not a choice that users should have to make, especially at this price level.
The Samsung Galaxy A8 runs on Android 5.1.1, with the company's TouchWiz user interface layered on top. Although the UI has improved vastly over the last year or so, it's still far behind the stock Android UI used by Nexus and Motorola devices. TouchWiz is now smooth and functional for the most part, but is still lacking in terms of control and customisability. While most necessary functions and options are in place, you can't help but feel that a device such as this should give you a bit more control.
While Samsung was notorious in the past for overloading its devices with unwanted bloatware, the Galaxy A8 is surprisingly light. There are a few proprietary services such as the Galaxy Apps marketplace, S Voice, S Planner and Smart Manager. Security is also a big USP of the Samsung Galaxy A8. Apart from the fingerprint scanner, there is also a private mode, an virus and malware scanner, and Samsung's Knox enterprise mobile security solution.
Samsung is well known for producing great mobile cameras, and the S6 and S6 Edge have what are widely considered the best Android smartphone cameras around. Although the Galaxy A8's 16-megapixel rear camera and 5-megapixel front camera sound like the same as the ones on the S-series flagships, the Galaxy A8 uses a slimmer ISOCELL LSI3P3 camera sensor to fit into its 5.9mm frame. This sensor has smaller 1.0um pixels and a maximum video resolution of 1080x1920. The lower pixel size does lead to a slight reduction in image quality, and video buffs will miss the ability to record in 4K.
The camera is decent in ordinary light and in bright settings. Sharpness, detail and colour reproduction are definite strong points. Colours have a tendency to pop, and the camera has tremendous ability in accurately reproducing well-lit and poorly-lit parts of the same surfaces. Zooming deep into pictures also tends to reveal a lot of detail.
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Close ups and low-light shots are equally impressive, rendering textures and detail with a remarkable level of accuracy. Video is good as well, and is sufficiently stable and clean with motion and accuracy. Autofocus and shutter speed are all in line with the general pace of the device, and all of this makes for an excellent camera experience. All in all, the Samsung Galaxy A8 produces good pictures and video, and any shortcomings compared to the Galaxy S6 can easily be explained by the price difference between the two.
The camera app is easy to use and has all important controls positioned comfortably around the screen. Advanced options are accessible from within the settings menu, staying out of the way at other times. A great feature that Samsung has incorporated into the device is the ability to quickly launch the camera, which can be done with two quick presses of the home button. Even if the device is locked, this triggers the camera in a little over a second, allowing you to take shots of spontaneous action.
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The Samsung Galaxy A8 phone is smooth, quick and efficient at most tasks, from running just the UI to loading intensive apps and games. Basic functionality such as the camera and Internet-based services are quick to load and an absolute pleasure to use.
In AnTuTu and Quadrant, the A8 produced scores of 49,247 and 25,198 respectively, which are considerably higher than the scores we've been recording on the steady stream of Snapdragon 615-powered devices that we review. 3D Mark and GFXBench returned scores of 7,015 and 30fps respectively, which were again higher than we've seen on Qualcomm-powered phones. The Samsung Galaxy A8 does cost a fair bit more than most Snapdragon 615 smartphones, so these numbers should come more as an expectation than as a surprise.
The Galaxy A8 also performed admirably with our test videos. The most heavily encoded videos ran without a hitch. Sound quality through the speaker was surprisingly good, despite the size of the speaker itself. Call quality and sound through headphones were all excellent as well.
We tested the Samsung Galaxy A8 with some graphics-intensive games, including Angry Birds 2 and Dead Trigger 2. Both resulted in slight warmth on the back of the device, which was much less of an issue than what we've experienced on other smartphones we've reviewed recently. Finally, the Galaxy A8 ran for a remarkable 17 hours, 22 minutes in our video-loop battery test, which is incredibly high for a phone of this size and slimness. Even in day-to-day use, the battery lasted much longer than what we're used to, going a full two days before giving up.
We've previously expressed our feelings about why spending more money on a phone from a top brand makes sense, and the Samsung Galaxy A8 is a perfect mascot for that opinion. It's a well-designed, well-built device that is easy to hold and use despite being phablet-sized. It performs as per expectations and offers remarkable battery life. The camera is as good as it can get at this price as well, and features such as the fingerprint sensor and Indian 4G connectivity on either SIM also add value to the equation.
In short, the Samsung Galaxy A8 is a few small (and perhaps inconsequential) steps short of the flagship experience at a price much lower than users are now accustomed to paying. This phone is an absolute pleasure to use, and has no real flaws apart from the TouchWiz user interface being slightly sub-par. If you're looking for a quality high-performance device with a flagship feel, but you don't feel like shelling out big bucks, the Samsung Galaxy A8 should be on your wishlist.