Samsung Galaxy S8+: A Review

I’ve been using Android phones for about 5 years now and they’ve come a long way in that time. When I got my first Android phone (an HTC One) there was little doubt that the comparative iPhone of the time was the superior product. It’s now 2017 and that is no longer the case. Today, flagship Android phones stand side-by-side with iPhone and often come out on top. For a long time I shied away from Samsung phones for various reasons that I’ll get into later but this year after reading a lot of reviews I thought it was time to give them a shot. I’ve had the device for a few months now and here are my thoughts.

Hardware

The newest trend in smartphones seems to be the bezel-less display and the Samsung GS8+ is no exception. The screen goes from one side to the other with nary a bezel to be seen. It has a slight curve on each side which gives the illusion that the display disappears over the edge. The top and bottom bezels are minimal in order to avoid the “notch” issue that the upcoming iPhone X suffers from. I must say that the screen is, in a word, excellent. The edge-to-edge design really makes it feel like the entire device is screen (unfortunately putting it in a case pretty much destroys this illusion) It begs to be used as a tiny TV and videos look fantastic. There’s a big caveat here, however. Because the entire front of the device is display it leaves no room for front facing speakers and I have found that the speaker location can be very problematic when you are watching videos. My hand tends to cover up the speaker and I have to adjust my grip to hear the sound clearly. This may seem like a trivial issue but it begs the question: is the bezel-free display actually better for users or is it just a marketing ploy to make the phone look more unique compared to its competitors. That screen does looks fantastic on the poster:

The new Pixel 2 by Google was announced last week and it takes a more pragmatic approach by leaving large bezels on the top and bottom but using that space for front facing speakers. Now, I haven’t had the opportunity to use this device but I can imagine that the overall experience of watching video on the Pixel 2 is more enjoyable than the S8+. Once you’re engaged in what you’re watching do you really notice the bezels anyway? Probably not. You will, however, notice if you suddenly can’t hear anything because your hand is covering the speaker.

The other major flaw which has been well documented is the location of the fingerprint sensor. Generally speaking I think the fingerprint sensor works a little better on the back than the front of a device since it’s where your finger tends to rest naturally. However, in this case, Samsung really dropped the ball placing the sensor right next to the camera near the top of the back panel. This is a problem for 2 main reasons: 1.) It’s hard to reach, especially on a tall device like this one and 2.) You end up smudging the camera with your finger all the time. I imagine there was a valid reason for the decision whether it be technical issues or efficiency reasons but it just feels like a major miss on hardware that gets lots of other things right. I suspect this will be remedied in the GS9.

There is a headphone jack. I use it a lot. Thank you Samsung. Do me a favor and keep it moving forward.

Battery Life

Battery life so far has been very good. I usually go to bed with between 40 and 50% power remaining and have forgotten to charge it overnight a few times without worrying that it would die out the next day. Check back in a few months though as my experience with Android phones and battery life is that it falls off rather quickly and, in the case of my LG G3 took a total nosedive when I upgraded from Lollipop to Marshmallow.

Software

This is the first Samsung device I’ve owned but I’ve known a bunch of people that have had other Galaxy phones and I’ve always been critical of the amount of crapware, redundant apps, and extraneous features that Samsung tends to ship. With the GS8 I feel like they’re getting better but there are still a ton of duplicate apps that are just Samsung versions of existing Google apps. That being said, the Samsung apps that I do use seem fine. There is one piece of software that Samsung insisted on adding that does need some discussion:

Bixby. Samsung…seriously just stop. There is just no reason for Bixby. It tries to do the things that Google Assistant already does but it doesn’t do them as well. They even went as far as adding a hardware button on the side of the phone entirely dedicated to launching Bixby. Thankfully, they recently rolled out an update that allows you to turn this off because it was so easy to accidentally hit this button and find yourself staring at the Bixby Home screen instead of your actual home screen. It’s very clear that Samsung wishes they controlled the entire ecosystem but since they’re tied to Android and Google, the only way to do that is re-invent the wheel in the hopes that no one will notice. They try so hard to make everything feel like a “Samsung” experience instead of an Android experience. Now, maybe this makes good business sense. Separate yourself from the pack of other Android devices so that customers don’t realize that they can get virtually the same experience on any one of Samsung’s competitor’s phones. Unfortunately, this means that the customer gets an inferior experience because no matter how hard they try, Samsung can’t out-Google Google. So, users who aren’t as tech-savvy as myself will use Bixby, as well as Samsung’s apps and they’ll sync their data with Samsung’s cloud and they won’t realize that they don’t need any of that stuff.

Another software feature that I feel needs to be mentioned is Face Recognition. Apple is making a big deal about face recognition on the iPhone X because they have to. By removing the fingerprint sensor, face recognition becomes the only viable option for unlocking the device securely using biometrics. Here’s the thing, face unlock has been available on Android for a few years now. That being said, I would have expected it to work much, much better than it does on the S8+. It is extremely unreliable. Sometimes it works almost instantaneously and the next time just not at all and I’m forced to use my fingerprint or my unlock code. I seriously hope that Apple has figured this one out because this inconsistency make the technology essentially useless in my opinion. If you can’t rely on it to unlock your phone every time it just becomes an annoyance rather than feature.

Other than that the skinning that has been done to the OS and the overall feel of the phone is very polished and slick. There are some nice little touches here and there that are actually welcome additions to the stock Android experience. I especially like the always on display and the “swipe up” gesture that brings up the app drawer from the home screen.

Camera

As an amateur photographer I would love to do a more in-depth review of the camera some time but for now I’ll just say this: The camera on the GS8+ is excellent. Is it the best camera on any smartphone right now? I have no idea. But it takes sharp pictures, performs admirably in low light, and is packed with all of the software features you would expect in a modern smartphone camera like: HDR, manual controls, Instagram-like filters, portrait mode, and even some Snapchat-esque augmented reality filters. I haven’t played around with a lot of these features but I will say that the portrait filter, while rather impressive technologically seems a bit heavy-handed.

Speaking of those software features: It’s starting to become clear that smartphone cameras have begun to reach the maximum of what can be done from a hardware perspective. I mean, there is only so much you can do with a sensor that small. Because of these limitations companies are moving more and more to software in an effort to provide higher quality photographs. In recent years we’ve seen the addition of dynamic HDR, cameras that take multiple photos and merge them, real-time software filters that provide blurred backgrounds (portrait mode), and now, with the newest iPhone, even dynamic lighting control all done by AI powered software. As I mentioned above, these features are very new and are only pretty good at the moment. That being said, it’s very easy to project a couple of years into the future and imagine improvements to this software that would make it possible for these devices to compete toe-to-toe with much more expensive mirrorless cameras. It will be interesting to see how far the can push those boundries in the coming years.

Verdict

It’s interesting, because when I started writing this review I generally felt as though this was an excellent phone with very few flaws and, in many ways, it IS a great phone. The screen is beautiful, it’s fast, the battery life is very good, and the camera is excellent. However, the more I wrote about the devices flaws, the more I realized that Samsung is trading the best user experience for the best profit experience. They are building phones that are designed to lock people into an virtual walled garden that doesn’t need to exist. Even the hardware is optimized for commercials and posters and not for actual use. I bit the bullet on this phone and I’m stuck with it for at least the next 2 years. Now, honestly, I’m fine with that. It does all the things I need it to do, it looks good, and I’m savvy enough to ignore all the Samsung nonsense and use the phone the way I want to use it. But barring a major change in how Samsung approaches the way it builds phones, this will probably be my last phone made by them.

Reading Bucket List: A Confederacy of Dunces

Reading Bucket List is an ongoing series in which I read a classic book and share my notes and thoughts about it. This is the second post in the series

This book is considered a modern classic by many and, although highly entertaining, I found it difficult to deduce exactly what the author was trying to tell us beyond “here’s how not to live your life” The book’s protagonist, one Ignatious J. Reilly is a rotund individual of questionable sanity and even more questionable morals. He spends the majority of his misadventures blaming his plight on the mythical Fortuna, his mother, some “mongoloid’ or another, or even his misbehaving pyloric valve. Ignatious is the model of fecklessness. Constantly pointing blame at anyone or anything but himself.

Much of the story centers around Ignatious attempting to hold down a steady job to help his mother pay back a small debt she owes. The absurdity that ensues is no doubt some of the more ridiculous and creative (mis)adventure ever put down on paper. It is a cautionary tale about what happens when a person has an unyielding world-view, has no regard for how his actions impact the people around him, is willing lie to protect himself, and refuses to take responsibility for his own actions. In many ways he is the worst manifestation of a human being that you can possibly think of. That being said, I think everyone will probably be able to find a little bit of themselves somewhere in Ignatious. And once you see it you’ll almost certainly be motivated to make some changes so as not find Ignatious so relatable.

One interesting fact about the book that I didn’t pick up on initially is that it’s really all about money. Ignatious needs to work because his mother owes money. Jones needs a job because he doesn’t want to be picked up for vagrancy but is constantly complaining about only making $20 an hour. Ignatious is always trying to squeeze an extra dollar here and there to pay for his movie habit. Mr. and Mrs. Levy are sued for $500,000 due to Ignatious’s actions. Really, the only part of the book that isn’t about money is the ill-fated attempt to create a political party.

Overall I found the book extremely readable, amusing, entertaining and insightful in many ways. It is, without question, one of the most creative and unique books I’ve ever read and it’s because of this that I would recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat.

Reading Bucket List: The Swiss Family Robinson

Reading Bucket List is an ongoing series in which I read a classic book and share my notes and thoughts about it. This is the first post in the series

The Swiss Family Robinson, published in 1812 by Swiss novelist Johann David Wyss tells the story of a family (of Swiss origin no less) stranded on an island somewhere in the East Indies after their ship was wrecked. The story was written as an instructional guide on “family values, good husbandry, the uses of the natural world and self-reliance.” 1 The author’s goal becomes self-evident early in the story when, soon after arriving on the island of New Switzerland the father, William, spends little or no time securing the family’s rescue. Instead, the family dives head-first into working toward a permanent settlement on the island. It’s clear that the author used the shipwreck as a means to get the family together in one place without outside influence so that the lessons could begin in earnest.

The story spins out as a series of lessons masquerading as adventures that teach all kinds of things from how get sugar out of a fictional sugarcane plant, to creating shoes, to training all sorts of animals. Although the individual lessons are mostly useless in the modern world (and probably even if you were stranded on a deserted island), the major underlying points regarding the evils of idleness, cooperation, and self-sufficiency are always in the background making themselves known. In fact, Wyss cleanly summarizes his own story with an excellent statement near the very end of the book:

Children are, on the whole, very much alike everywhere,
and you four lads fairly represent multitudes, who are
growing up in all directions. It will make me happy to think
that my simple narrative may lead some of these to observe
how blessed are the results of patient continuance in well-doing,
what benefits arise from the thoughtful application of knowledge
and science, and how good and pleasant a thing it is when
brethren dwell together in unity, under the eye of parental love.

As an aside, one aspect of the story I felt was rather odd was the way in which the family treats the wildlife on the island. Certainly the animals they domesticated for use as beasts of burden makes perfect sense given the resources available to them not to mention the state of technology in the early 1800s. That being said, there were a number of occasions where mischievous animals (mostly monkeys) were subjected to capital punishment for simple acts of trespassing. All manners of methods were used for the execution from shooting, to traps, to poison with only the slightest hint of regret. It was, of course, a very different world 200 years ago when the book was published but I have to wonder if this was the prevailing mentality on the treatment of animals at the time then it’s no wonder humans did so much damage to the natural ecosystem in those times.

Although The Swiss Family Robinson is clearly a book aimed at children of the day, the dedication the family shows to each other and their resourcefulness is nothing to be ignored and can be rather inspirational at times. Certainly the lessons that Wyss is trying to teach have value no matter the century. As a father of 3 myself, I would love to see my kids working harder towards their goals, and enjoying the satisfaction of being self-sufficient. If nothing else, reading this book has encouraged me to try to work harder to instill these values into my own children so that they may reap the rewards of a life well-lived.


1 quote taken from Wikipedia article

Why I Switched from Wordpress to Hexo - Part 2

In my last post I talked about the reasons that I’ve decided to move away from Wordpress toward a static site generator called Hexo. In this post I’m going to go into some detail about how Hexo works and discuss some pros and cons.

In a nutshell, Hexo uses NodeJS to convert a number of configuration files, template files, and content files (written in markdown) into a static HTML website. If you’re interested in getting started you can find information in the Hexo documentation.

Workflow

Because there is no database or admin panel like there is in other content management systems, working with Hexo really requires the use of a source control tool like git. Once you get all of your files into git your workflow is very straight forward. You can create a new post with a simple command:

$ hexo new my-post-title

This creates a new markdown file in the source/_posts folder. Simply open this file in your favorite text editor and get writing. You can add a title, tags, and categories at the top of the file. When you’re ready to see what your post looks like on the site you can run it locally with the command:

$ hexo server

This will spin up a local web server at localhost:4000 where you can view your site in real-time. Once your post is up to snuff, you can run the hexo generate command:

$ hexo generate

This will create your HTML website. It’s then a simple matter of publishing the generated site to your webserver. There are built-in deployment commands that can publish your site automatically but I’ve had mixed results trying to deploy in this way.

Themes

One area that I haven’t spent too much time playing around with yet is themes. There are a number of themes available for download on the Hexo themes page but I have yet to dive into creating my own theme as of yet. There’s a good chance that I will do that in the future and I’ll be sure to post about the process.

Hexo Pros

  • No database or server-side code to deal with!
  • The resulting site is very light-weight and blazing fast (remember, there are no server-side calls or database table look-ups, just raw HTML)
  • The entire site can be managed within a text editor
  • No security concerns
  • No updates that can break your site

Hexo Cons

  • No wysiwyg editor for managing content (although there are plugins that provide this functionality)
  • Requires more technical know-how in order to manage your site
  • Dependency on Disqus for comments
  • Built-in deployment is hit or miss

Why I Switched from Wordpress to Hexo - Part 1

We’ve been working with Wordpress a lot lately over at Solar Sail. A lot of our clients are interested in implementing a content management system to make it easier for them to update the content on their websites. Over the years Wordpress has become the big man on campus in the world of content management systems so it is often requested by name. The problem is that our clients don’t tend to have huge budgets that allow us to bring in a designer to create a custom design for them. Instead, what we tend to do is go out and find a free or inexpensive theme that they like and then “tweak” it for our needs. Often, these themes are purchaed from a theme shop such as Theme Forest. And, although they always look nice on the surface they tend to be absolute nightmares to work with. These theme developers go out of their way to make things as difficult as possible to modify. I don’t know how many times I’ve been trying to do something as simple as change the background color of a div so I take a look at the source code and see this:

1
<div style="background-color: #FFF !Important;">Awesome Content!</div>

So much for modifying the CSS…and of course this HTML is nowhere to be found in any template file. No, no, it’s being generated by Wordpress so it’s time to start wading through what can be literally hundreds of php functions trying to find the one that creates this code. It’s just a horrible experience.

This isn’t my only problem with Wordpress. It has gotten seriously bloated over the years. The wordpress core files along with a theme and a handful of plugins can easily be thousands of files and be gigabytes in size. Not to mention the MySQL database that needs to go along for the ride. Now, if you’re managing a large site and you’re using WooCommerce or somethign similar for ecommerce on your Wordpress site than maybe all of this is necessary. But, if you’re running a blog or small-scale site do you really need to be managing all of those files. Not only that, but Wordpress is constantly needing to be updated to account for all of the security vulnerabilites.

A Different Approach

So, what are the alternatives? Are other content management systems better? Joomla! maybe? Or Drupal? No, these platforms all suffer from the same problems in my opinion. I really started to think that maybe the best thing to do is just manage static HTML files in a source control system. I mean, I know HTML, it would be no problem for me to edit posts and pages directly as opposed to the wysiwyg editor that comes with Wordpress. But there are problems with this approach of course. First of all, Wordpress provides a lot of functionality that you may take for granted such as categories, tagging, comments, archives, and friendly URLs. Although the HTML files themselves would not be hard for me to manage, this other stuff would be very difficult.

In Steps Hexo

I began doing some research and came across the concept of a static site generator. This was something new to me but as I read more I realized how much sense it makes! Without server-side code and databases you are virtually eliminating security vulnerabilites. Not to mention the fact that you are streamlining your entire development and maintenance workflows down to editing a bunch of text files. After dealing with Wordpress and all the complexities that come along with it, the idea of going back to basics really intrigued me. So, I did some research and came across staticgen.com. This site lists all of the most popular site generators available today. I took a look at a few of them and finally settled on Hexo because it was blog-focused and a blog is exactly what I was looking to build.

In the next post I’ll go over how Hexo works and talk about some of its pros and cons.

Next: Working with Hexo

Book Review: Off To Be The Wizard

In Off To Be The Wizard author Scott Meyer tells the story of Martin, a regular guy living a regular life who discovers a hidden file on the Internet that controls the entire world. A simple edit to the file can teleport Martin to new locations, send him back in time, or even fill his bank account. This last one gets Martin in a little bit of hot water with the authorities so he decides that the obvious solution is to go back to medieval England and become a wizard. Little does Martin know that not only is he not the first person to find this file but he’s also not the only one to think it might be a good idea to go back in time in order to use the files powers to be the next Merlin. Martin soon meets a wide variety of colorful characters who ultimately need to team up to defeat a Rouge wizard who is using the file to violate the natural order of things.

Despite the very far-fetched plot line, I found Off To Be The Wizard to be a very entertaining read. The story is fast paced with just enough action and humor to keep you turning pages. The humor in the book leans heavily on geek culture and the book is clearly geared towards readers who are self-described “geeks.” Meyer uses a lot of computer vernacular when describing how the wizards interact with the file that may be a turn-off to anyone who isn’t very computer literate.

On the character front, Off To Be The Wizard is really dominated by the the wizards themselves and their interactions with each other. There is really only one or two scenes in which the wizards have any lengthy interaction with the common folk of medieval England. This doesn’t really pose a problem since much of the story revolves around Martin coming to grips with his new found power and the community of wizards he is trying to become a part of. I’m interested to see if Meyer takes the story in a different direction in the second book of the series.

Off To Be The Wizard is not without its flaws. As I mentioned before, the plot line is very far-fetched. There is only a brief discussion of the implications of time-travel. The changes that the characters make in the past have no effect on their future. However, they really don’t get into how the changes will impact some other future. Meyer is hoping you don’t spend too much time thinking about the paradoxes that his world produces. There is also the matter of how all these wizards end up going back to the exact same time in history. This is discussed briefly but seems like another area where the author is just hoping you suspend your disbelief.

In conclusion, if you are a self-described geek who enjoys computers, time travel paradoxes, and fantasy then I think you’re going to enjoy the first novel in Scott Meyer’s Wizard 2.0 series. If you find any of these things boring you may want to stay away.

3.5/5 stars

Buy Off To Be The Wizard from Amazon