It might be more appropriate to call it the S8 mk2, but the Samsung Galaxy S9 is stunning smartphone across the board. Find out what’s new in this full review.
SAMSUNG GALAXY S9 REVIEW
The first new flagship phones of 2018 are here and the Samsung Galaxy S9 is the first to hit the market. The S8 was almost a perfect phone so can Samsung really make it even better? This review and testing shows that it can, but not by much.
With LG and Huawei failing to launch new flagship smartphones at MWC 2018, more focus is on Samsung and focus is an apt word here as the Galaxy S9 is largely about new and improved camera technology.
PRICE AND RELEASE DATE
You can pre-order the Galaxy S9 now ahead of the Galaxy S9’s release date of 16th March. Those who pre-ordered will have had the phone delivered a week early on 9th March.
As per rumours ahead of the launch, the price has increased to £739/US$719 which is £50 more than its predecessor. Ok, so it’s a lot of money, but it remains cheaper than some rivals. The iPhone 8 is cheaper at £699/$699, but is arguably only just about worth that amount and is last year’s model.
We’ll have to wait and see how this price compares to upcoming rivals like the LG G7 and Huawei P20. The Sony Xperia XZ2 isn’t much cheaper at £699.
There will also be a global trade-in program so you can upgrade from an older Galaxy phone.
DESIGN AND BUILD
It’s immediately clear that the Galaxy S9 is very much a new version of the Galaxy S8, rather than a radically new device. Like a point upgrade in software terms if you like so this is essentially the ‘Galaxy S8.1’ or ‘Galaxy S8s’.
With an almost identical design to its predecessor, you’d be hard pressed to notice which one is the Galaxy S9. The front has had only minor tweaks: the bezels above and below the screen is a fraction smaller. It’s not that obvious, but you’ve got to bear in mind the S8 already had very small bezels.
The Galaxy S9 is a little shorter than the S8 and it’s actually a bit thicker and heavier at 8.5mm and 163g, but neither measurements are things you’ll really notice.
It’s now, since the S8, standard for both models to have the display with curved edges and Samsung has made sure to retain key features like the IP68 waterproof rating and the headphone jack.
This year there are three colours to choose from: Midnight Black, Coral Blue and a new Lilac Purple. There’s also a Titanium Grey option but for now this isn’t available in the UK.
SPECS AND FEATURES
So Galaxy S9 isn’t very different in design so is it a big jump in specs and new technology? Well not really, but Samsung has made improvement to what was already a very impressive smartphone.
It may be good news to you – it is to us – that Samsung has not gone down the same route as Apple with a notch at the top of the screen. In fact, the display is one area that hasn’t changed since the Galaxy S8, so it’s still 5.8in on the regular model and jumps to 6.2in if you get the Galaxy S9+.
As mentioned earlier both phones have the curved Infinity Display so you only really need to choose which size you want – the S9+ does have different camera technology and a couple of other benefits, though (see below).
Samsung is sticking to its 18.5:9 aspect ratio, Quad HD+ resolution and Super AMOLED technology. It’s still one of the best screens on the market and compared to the Galaxy S8, looks a little brighter, too.
As previously, you can take advantage of features like Edge screen – where you can swipe in from the side and flick through various panels of things like popular contacts, apps and more. There’s also the always on feature which displays important information on the lock screen when the phone is off.
There are plenty more smaller features, many of which have been around a long time, hidden away in the settings menu so it’s worth exploring what the S9 can do – especially if this is your first Galaxy device.
Processor, memory and storage
With a new flagship comes a new processor and Samsung has fitted the Galaxy S9 with a new Exynos 8910 chip. It’s still an octa-core chip with four 1.7GHz efficiency cores but the faster four have jumped from 2.4- to 2.7GHz.
Some markets will come with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 instead; something Samsung has done for a while in the US and China.
It’s important to note that performance isn’t an issue here and the S9 is clearly capable of handling all you can throw at it.
Like the Galaxy S8, you get 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage and although you can find more elsewhere (even in cheaper phones like the OnePlus 5T) it should be enough for most people. If it’s not enough storage then there’s a 256GB option and a microSD card slot which can now take up to 400GB.
If you are more of a power user, then the S9+ has 6GB of RAM and double the amount of storage as standard.
Connectivity and Audio
There’s not much Samsung or other manufacturers can do to improve connectivity on a 2018 flagship smartphone. Like the S8, the Galaxy S9 has all the things you’d expect including 11ac dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, NFC, GPS, USB-C and a headphone port.
Unlike most, Samsung continues to offer heart rate monitor. The S9 can reach 4G speeds of 1.2Gbps which is impressive, but in real life you’re not going to see that kind of grunt.
There’s no Quad DAC for better headphone audio like the LG V30, but Samsung has improved the speakers on the S9. There are now stereo speakers with the usual down firing one on the bottom and now one where the earpiece is above the screen.
It’s the same setup Apple uses for recent iPhones, and also one Sony has adopted with the XZ2.
It might sound a little odd with both firing in different directions but we’ll take it over a mono speaker any day. There’s still tuning from AKG and this time Samsung has also added Dolby Atmos which you can toggle for a bigger, more spacious soundscape.
There’s a noticeable improvement compared to the S8, particularly in the on-board speakers. They’ve got a lot more power but aren’t flawless with the audio quality getting a bit rough at higher volumes. We do like the optional Dolby Atmos mode, which can make content a lot more immersive – especially video.
It’s worth noting that the supplied AKG headphones are once again very good, so most users won’t be rushing out to find a replacement pair.
Samsung’s upgrades in the audio department are welcome, but the S9 isn’t the best phone around for audio – that’s still the LG V30
Fingerprint and Iris scanners
As mentioned earlier the fingerprint scanner has been moved to a more convenient location below the camera. It’s also easier to register each new finger according to Samsung with only three swipes rather than many more touches needed previously.
We actually managed to register two fingers in just two swipes each. The fingerprint scanner is quick (not the fastest around but plenty fast enough) and accurate and can now be used to pull the notification panel down – just switch it on in the settings.
We’d rather the Galaxy S9 had the fingerprint scanner embedded in the screen as the tech is out there but it seems we’ll have to wait for that.
Samsung hasn’t explicitly said the iris scanner is better than before which is a shame but it keen to point out that it’s embedded in the front of the phone without a notch like the iPhone X. There’s also a new Intelligent Scan option which combines iris and facial scanning.
One thing is for sure, there’s a dramatic improvement over previous iterations. Generally it works quite well, but it’s not as consistent compared to rival phones just doing face unlock. Even switching to just facial scanning it’s not as good as phones like the iPhone X and OnePlus 5T.
Still, the S9’s camera is improved from before even though it remains at 12Mp with 1.4µm pixels and OIS. The main upgrade is an adjustable aperture that can automatically switch between f/2.4 and f/1.5 depending on the shooting conditions – the fastest of any phone on the market.
Huawei temporarily had the fastest lenses (on the Mate 10 Pro) at f/1.6, but the S9’s lens now lets in 28 percent more light than on the S8.
The iris is mechanical like DSLR camera and should mean better results in both daylight and low light. What Samsung calls the ‘Super Speed Dual Pixel’ package now has DRAM so it can do things faster and more intelligently. The camera now takes 12 shots together instead of 3 to improve noise by 30 percent.
DxO has awarded the Galaxy S9+ a score of 99 for the camera, the highest of a phone to date. The regular model might not have the telephoto lens but it’s still excellent on its own.
The phone might not be doing the same level of clever software processing that makes images look great on the Pixel 2 phones but it’s still very impressive.
Overall, the S9 has a camera that can achieve excellent results in all conditions partly thanks to that dual aperture. You get crisp shots in decent light – although some can be a little washed out, stunning detail in macro and most noteworthy is how well the S9 copes in low light, without excessive levels of noise.
There’s no doubt that the S9 offers a fantastic all-round photography experience.
Super slow motion
Furthermore, the S9 can now match Sony’s flagship Xperia phones and shoot super slow motion video at a whopping 960fps. That means 0.2 seconds in real life becomes six seconds of video and Samsung has some clever tech to make it easier to make great slow motion videos.
With Sony’s phones we found it hard to press the super slow mo button at the right time while recording a video of something that happens very quickly like a balloon popping. Since 960fps can only be switched on in a short burst, it’s easy to miss the moment.
The S9 has an auto detect function so you can tell the phone where within the shot to watch for movement. As soon as it does, it will kick into the super slow motion. You can then share as a gif, do things like reverse the video and even set it as a moving lock screen wallpaper.
You can also shoot in manual mode, selecting when you want to do the slow motion shooting which is easier for some situations. In either mode, you can shoot 20 different slow mo sections within one video.
Sony’s new Xperia XZ2 phones might be able to do 960fps in 1080p now but we’d rather have the functionality offered by the S9 to make better content in 720p.
There’s more to talk about with the front camera which remains at 8Mp with an f/1.7 aperture but on the software side Samsung has created AR Emoji to provide users with something similar to Apple’s Animoji feature.
Instead of the phone tracking your face to animate various animals and the like (although there are some to choose from), you take a photo of yourself and the S9 will create an emoji that looks like you.
It’s quick and easy but we’re not exactly blown away with the likeness (and it cannot handle beards at all) – the three men we got to try it were all given very similar characters. You can edit them a bit to help and choose from one that incorporates the selfie you took or a more cartoon option.
Once you’re done 18 animated gifs are automatically generated and you can send them to anyone, not just those who also happen to have an S9. They’re pretty cool and really easy to access via the default keyboard.
However, one of the ideas is that you can animate the character yourself but doing this is extremely glitchy and the emoji of you spends most of the time flinching. The tracking on the iPhone X is leagues ahead.
It might be fun but let’s face it, this is another gimmick feature just like Animoji.
It’s a shame the battery remains at 3,000mAh and Samsung has not made any claims on the subject. The Galaxy S9 will offer fast charging via the USB-C port and with wireless charging, though.
With the supplied charger, we managed to charge the S9 from 0 to 36 percent in 30 minutes. That’s pretty good, although the HTC U11+ beats it slightly at 38 percent.
With no change in battery capacity, it’s no surprise that the phone isn’t going to last you any longer than before. The S9 will last a day of average usage and perhaps a little bit longer for light users. Fast wired and wireless charging will help you keep it topped up.
Software and Apps
As you would expect, the Galaxy S9 phones come with Android 8 Oreo and Samsung own user interface. There’s not a huge change in the way things work compared to previously but that’s to be expected.
There are still pre-loaded apps from Google and Microsoft, but Samsung has made a few tweaks here and there to tighten up the experience.
For those using various different Samsung apps for other devices, you’ll be pleased to know that there’s now one app to rule them all. SmartThings is now the one place where you can manage all your devices and it will also do useful things like provide your new Samsung TV, for example, with the Wi-Fi details and logins to all your services.
As mentioned already, there are improvements to Bixby (which still has a dedicated button on the side of the phone.
One of the main changes is that you can now use the phone in landscape mode, whether you’re browsing the home screen panels or your apps. When you are, notifications will pop up at the top but in an unobtrusive way.
There’s also a new DeX Pad dock so you can connect the phone to a monitor and use it like a PC. This time it’s flat so you can use the screen as a trackpad or even keyboard.
Samsung Galaxy S9: Specs
Android 8.0 Oreo
5.8in Quad HD+ (2960×1440) 18.5:9 SuperAMOLED Infinity Display
Exynos 8910 octa-core processor
64GB internal storage
microSD card slot (up to 400GB)
12Mp rear-facing camera with OIS and f/1.5
8Mp front camera
Pressure sensitive home button
Fingerprint scanner (rear mounted)
Heart rate monitor
11ac dual-band Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 5.0 with aptX
4G LTE Cat 16
3000mAh non-removable battery
IP68 dust & waterproof rating
SHOULD I BUY SAMSUNG GALAXY S9?
We’re going to have to wait for big jumps in technology, but although the Galaxy S9 only brings a disappointingly small bunch of minor improvements it’s still an amazing smartphone that will be hard to beat in 2018. Samsung has expertly combined design, hardware and software to make a phone that will appeal to all kinds of users.
The incremental updates will mean S8 users might struggle to justify upgrading. However, those on an S7 or earlier Galaxy will notice a huge difference, but might want to simply grab the S8 at a lower price.
That been said, it’s still one hell of a smart phone, if you’re looking for a new one or due an upgrade.
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Author: Chris Martin
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