Where the S8 was great, the S9 is only fine.
The Samsung Galaxy S9 is a great phone, but one that hasn’t really kicked on from the Galaxy S8, bringing a very similar design and screen to 2017’s version. The improved biometrics were sorely needed, and the camera is a leap forward, but the amazing low light capabilities have resulted in sacrifices elsewhere. A top, top phone, but the S9 Plus outshines it.
At first glance, the Samsung Galaxy S9 might not look like much of an upgrade – it’s very, very similar in design to the Galaxy S8 from last year.
Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9+ Plus Unboxing
However, that was an excellent handset, and Samsung has decided to stick with the design this year and put its efforts into making the phone sturdier, faster and more useful day to day.
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It’s easily one of the most powerful phones on the market, has novel features in the shape of AR Emoji that are created in your own image, and a camera that’s utterly unlike anything we’ve seen on the market before.
Samsung has also been hard at work fixing the biometric issues that plagued the Galaxy S8, making some subtle tweaks that aren’t apparent until you’ve used the phone for a while and find that it’s just so much easier to unlock securely.
But these plus points are all set against a backdrop of a very high price; we’re not talking iPhone X levels here, but it’s still one of the more expensive options you can buy.
So if you’re looking to replace a 2016 phone do all the new features really offer enough to make the Galaxy S9 a worthwhile upgrade, or is the cheaper Galaxy S8 still the best phone in the world?
Price and release date
The Samsung Galaxy S9 release date has been set for March 16, with pre-orders having been open for a while around the world.
In the China, Galaxy S9 Pre order price $330.
There aren’t any storage variants of this phone though, with only the 64GB option on sale.
SAMSUNG GALAXY S9 SPECS
Dimensions: 147.7 x 68.7 x 8.5 mm
Screen size: 5.8-inch
CPU: Snapdragon 845 / Exynos 9810
Camera: 12MP rear, 8MP front
- Too much of a novelty
- Needs a more powerful facial recognition
It took us a little while to come around to the idea of AR Emoji… and then not too long to get bored by them again.
Let’s be honest here: these are a clear response to Apple’s Animoji, which gained a lot of attention when the iPhone X launched, and which make use of the TrueDepth camera on the front of the iPhone X.
Samsung’s offering feels like a watered-down version of this, albeit one with a bit more personality. To create your own little avatar you simply smile into the front-facing camera, and the Galaxy S9 creates your own digital version of you.
Once it’s created, you can change your avi’s hair and skin color and choose an outfit – it’s a shame there aren’t more customisation options here, as the outfits are a bit limited and the hair colors aren’t particularly nuanced.
This may seem like a tiny thing, but if you can’t make your AR Emoji look like you then you – and your friends – are going to struggle to engage with it.
In our testing we found that we needed to create our avatar a few times, as there were occasional glitches like a weird face shape or the wrong-colored eyes.
We also had to get used to the fact that it doesn’t look like us all the time, although in some of the instantly-generated GIFs you can use for social media we suddenly saw that our AR Emoji mimicked some of our features well from different angles.
Those GIFs are probably the best thing about this new feature – and they get tiresome relatively quickly. You send a few to friends on compatible apps (the AR Emoji GIFs are baked into the Galaxy S9’s keyboard, but you can’t add them in Twitter or Gmail, only in apps like WhatsApp at the moment), but the novelty wears off pretty quickly.
The other thing you can do is record a video of yourself speaking as the AR Emoji… and this is where things start to unravel. The Galaxy S9 picks up most of your features, but also gives your avatar a little flickering mouth or eye at times when the camera loses you.
It shows that, to make this feature work properly, brands need a more powerful camera, rather than just relying on software and the front-facing option.
AR Emoji are fun for a little while, but on their own they’re certainly not a reason to buy this phone.
Bixby is back… and better
- Bixby Voice is still behind
- Bixby Vision is far more useful
We were thoroughly disappointed by Bixby on the Galaxy S8 last year, as it promised to be the ultimate digital assistant and, well, it wasn’t.
It simply couldn’t do enough – it wasn’t able to work out what you wanted contextually, and it wasn’t able to start or control enough apps. We could forgive the gestation period for this feature if it wasn’t for the fact that Google Assistant is already on the phone, and incredibly capable.
However, Samsung has upgraded Bixby on the Galaxy S9, and kept the Bixby button on the side of the device to allow you to interact with your assistant. You use the button as on a walkie-talkie, pressing to talk to Bixby and releasing when you’ve delivered your command… but it’s a bit slow to catch up.
Bixby can be too literal – wanting to set a timer preset rather than just starting a countdown for example – and while you can ask it to take a picture and send it to a friend the whole process takes around 30 seconds – and that’s assuming Bixby can find the friend to start with – in which time you’d rather just do it manually.
The Galaxy S9 also keeps telling us that we can dictate using Bixby, but this was never 100% accurate – it was pretty darn good, considering that you’re essentially talking to a baby robot, but we needed to edit our words before sending.
Bixby Vision has come a long way though – and the fact that it’s turned off by default is just beautiful. No longer do the little green fireflies automatically dance across your viewfinder when you’re trying to take a picture of your car, dog, mother or laundry basket (to show her you’ve done it all) as the phone tries to work out what’s being looked at.
However, when you do turn on Vision the features are pretty useful. Bixby is much, much better at being able to work out what it’s seeing than what it’s hearing, and can give accurate results on the web for things like comics, lamps and nature scenes.
The translation tool is also very strong – it comes up with some weird answers here and there, but on the whole it’s very easy to work out what you’re looking at. Samsung is making a big deal about this feature, although in reality it’s a bit niche… you’ll need to be in a foreign country, with data, and completely unable to work out what you’re looking at.
So while it’s good that Bixby has been upgraded, to at least bring some sense to having that button on the side of the phone, it’s still a novelty rather than a must-have feature.
Mapping the button to Google Assistant is still a far better way to get the most from your phone with your voice (although you’ll need to download a third party app to do it), despite it being more limited in scope… at least it manages the things it can do very well.
- Intelligent scan is accurate, but not as secure
- Far easier to unlock your phone
Anyone who read our Galaxy S8 review last year would have realised quite quickly that the biometric unlocking features of that phone almost made it unusable. The fingerprint scanner was too hard to reach, the iris scanner too unreliable and the facial recognition just too poor.
Samsung needed to do something, and it has, with all three features now working seamlessly and interchangeably. Intelligent Scan marries the iris scanner and facial recognition to make unlocking your phone with your face a far, far simpler task, and as mentioned the fingerprint scanner is much easier to hit.
The speed of the Intelligent Snan feature is so much better than last year… where the iris scanner and facial recognition on the S8 were between 30% and 50% accurate, the two together on the Galaxy S9 yield success almost every time.
In low-light the iris scanner is still a bit slow to react, and not always pleased to let you in (in this case, Apple’s Face ID absolutely destroys it for accuracy and ease of use), but it’s so simple to just flick your finger to the scanner on the back that we never had an issue.
There are a couple of flaws with the biometric system. First, the 2D scan of the face the S9 makes to recognize you isn’t as secure as other methods, like the fingerprint scanner or Apple’s Face ID.
That’s not a huge problem for us – the fingerprint scanner is a better way of paying for things anyway, and really biometric unlocking is more about convenience than it is security.
We weren’t able to dupe the Samsung Galaxy S9 with a picture of our face, so if you lose your phone you can feel secure in the knowledge that the thief isn’t getting in, which is what most of us really want.
Second, and more frustratingly, you can’t really unlock the phone when it’s placed on a table – the field of vision for the scanner is limited, so unless you weirdly shove your head over it you won’t get in, whereas Apple’s Face ID offers a much wider viewing angle.
- AKG tuned sound is loud
- A tiny bit lacking in punch, but a big upgrade on the S8
The other key feature that Samsung is talking up on the Galaxy S9 is the improved speaker setup. If you’re tired of hearing sound shoot out the bottom of your phone, you’ll appreciate that the top earpiece is now able to fire out sound towards your face.
These speakers have also been tuned to support Dolby Atmos sound, giving you a sense of space from the audio coming out from your phone.
Given how thin this phone is, the overall volume and quality of sound coming out of it is impressive. If anything the volume can go a little too high, and we found ourselves turning it down on occasion, despite only watching videos on social media.
The quality isn’t the best on the market – there’s definitely a little more punch and clarity from the iPhone X, where the Galaxy S9 is a little bit muddier – but the idea here isn’t to replace a Bluetooth speaker, but rather provide a decent experience when listening to music or podcasts without earphones.
It would be too easy to say the Samsung Galaxy S9 is just a carbon copy of the Galaxy S8… but it’s very, very close.
There are a few slight changes that make a big difference though, starting with the materials used to make this phone. The fact it’s using Gorilla Glass 5 is a big step forward, as it means the phone is even better able than its predecessor to withstand knocks and drops, removing the need for a case if you’re not into encapsulating your new expensive phone.
The aluminum used in the construction of the device is also more robust, so less twisting is possible should you accidentally feel the need to warp your phone.
One thing we noticed during our first few weeks of using the phone was the lack of scuffing – if you’re using a modern smartphone without a case these days you’ll often find that it soon picks up a few nicks – further evidence of an upgrade on the materials used.
But overall it’s a very similar design to last year, and only turning the Galaxy S8 and S9 over to reveal their backs will reveal the main difference: the fingerprint sensor has been moved below the camera, rather than being located to the right of it, in a bid to make it more accessible.
And, thankfully, it is more accessible. Where last year the placement of this sensor nearly ruined the Galaxy S8, the fact that it’s now so easy to land a finger on it makes the Galaxy S9, well, as simple to unlock as a phone should be.
Thanks to packing a 5.8-inch screen and very little bezel above and below the display, the Samsung Galaxy S9 is easy to manage one-handed while still offering a lot of screen to look at.
Samsung continues to offer a headphone jack, which will be welcomed by the reams of people who haven’t invested in a pair of Bluetooth headphones, or don’t want to use a dongle adaptor with their favorite pair of wired cans.
It’s well placed on the bottom of the phone to the left, and easily lets the phone slip into the pocket with a pair of earbuds connected.
Unfortunately, the Bixby button remains on the left-hand side of the phone, right in the middle.
As you’ll see later, Bixby serves a better purpose on this phone, but it’s still not enough to warrant a dedicated key – and one that feels like a volume switch when sliding your finger down the side looking for it in the pocket.
Holding the Samsung Galaxy S9, you’ll definitely feel that you’ve got a phone that’s worth a little more money.
The design is still as attractive as ever, the glass shimmering nicely, the buttons offering a perfect travel and the balance in the hand feeling like just the right mix of strength and a lighter weight.
The only thing we can really criticize (apart from the Bixby button’s presence) is that it really sucks up fingerprints. The back of your phone will be a smudgy mess in no time – but that’s a natural result of it being made out of glass, and a quick wipe will restore its looks.
- Same technology and resolution as last year
- Maximum brightness is boosted
The Samsung Galaxy S9 screen has already been independently judged to the very best on the market, bringing with it the best in color reproduction, brightness, accuracy and overall sharpness.
It’s also been dubbed, by DisplayMate, which conducted the tests, as the least reflective display on the market, meaning you’ll be able to see more of the on-screen action when you’re in bright sunlight, or in a room with a strong light behind you.
But those are official findings made in lab conditions – the bigger question is whether the 5.8-inch display Samsung has slapped on the Galaxy S9 is actually any good in real-life testing.
The good news for those looking to buy this phone is yes, the screen offers phenomenal quality. The color reproduction, the brightness, the clarity of the screen are all faultless in our eyes, and actually Samsung has managed to make the Super AMOLED technology used for the display deliver images that are more true to life than ever.
Previous Samsung phones have been overly colorful when it comes to color rendition, being known for images that have an almost cartoon-like character, but if anything we’d like a dash more color from the Galaxy S9.
You can get this by heading into the settings and choosing a different color mode, and if you’re willing to tweak some settings, you can alter the color and white balance of the screen yourself.
It’s a world away from what Apple does with its screens, not allowing the slightest alteration, but Samsung wants to make sure that, if you’re willing, you can get your perfect color balance.
However, while the display technology is good, the auto-brightness still has issues – and it feels like we say this far too often about Samsung phones. The device always errs on being too bright, and that’s a battery-sucker.
What’s interesting on the Galaxy S9 is that phone actually learns your brightness preferences, noting when you boost or dim the screen in certain situations, and mimics those settings for you in similar conditions.
We had to reset this to try and get a more useful brightness level, as we were artificially boosting it to look at certain elements of the display, but it’s an advanced move from Samsung, and shows just how much the brand is trying to make its phones more useful without the need for settings tweakery.
Users of recent phones, such as the Google Pixel 2 XL, have reported color shifts when viewing the screen at an angle, and while the Galaxy S9 does have a more blue tinge when moved around, it’s far from terrible.
That said, place it next to the iPhone X and you’ll see that Apple has tuned Samsung’s technology to be much better looking from an angle.
The low screen reflectance really does come to the fore in day-to-day use – we found it possible to watch an episode of a Netflix TV series with a bright window behind us. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, as the reflections were visible, but given it wasn’t that long ago that we weren’t able to use our smartphones in the sunlight, we’ve come an incredibly long way.
The Samsung Galaxy S9 has also been certified for use with Mobile HDR Premium content – there’s not a lot of that around at the moment, but Samsung has been careful to make sure its displays can handle the top standards on the market.
That said, the S9’s display doesn’t support Dolby Vision, the brand’s advanced HDR format, which is a shame given that Dolby’s Atmos audio platform is supported on the phone.
The Edge display is back from Samsung, making use of the curved edges rolling into the side of the chassis. Using the Edge screen to set your favorite apps, key contacts or record a section of the screen as a GIF seem like really cool things to be able to do… but in reality, we just forget it’s there.
What’s it like to use?
- An incredibly powerful phone
- Keyboard needs a lot of work
The Samsung Galaxy S9 isn’t really that different to the S8 in terms of its interface. It’s running Android 8 Oreo out of the box, and it’s also signed up to Google’s Project Treble, meaning we’ll be seeing faster upgrades to the latest versions of Android in the future.
We’d argue that Samsung has one of the best implementations of an Android skin out there, with the settings, the notifications bar and the icon management on the home screen among the easiest to use.
The Galaxy S9 apes the iPhone’s 3D Touch feature on the home screen, allowing you to long-press an app and have a selection of items pop up – be it playlists on Spotify, most-contacted friends on WhatsApp or the option to take a selfie with the camera – and jump straight to the one you want.
Like the Edge screen on the side of the phone, where you can swipe your finger across and get access to quick shortcuts for apps, we just forget to use it so often., and it’s the same with the extra menu for the home screen apps.
One thing we’re still perplexed about: why the Samsung Galaxy S9’s inbuilt keyboard is so bad. It’s not that it’s inaccurate (although it’s a long way from being perfect), but it learns but it learns wrong words, or capitalizes words randomly, then suggesting odd replacements when you correct it.
Again It’s not a massive issue, but given that you need this keyboard to use AR Emoji GIFs properly we’d have expected Samsung to make it bulletproof on what could be one of the top-selling phones of 2018.
- Low light performance is incredible
- Some photos seem oddly washed out
- Overall quality is still amazing
According to the marketing materials, the single-sensor 12MP camera on the Samsung Galaxy S9 is the big change that’s going to inspire you to buy this phone.
‘The Camera. Reimagined.’ would be a bold statement from any photography brand, let alone a smartphone maker, and in reality Samsung has been over-dramatic here.
The key upgrade is the fact that the sensor can now switch between an aperture of f/1.5 (for great low-light shots) and f/2.4 (for better brighter scenes), while improving the intelligence of the sensor so that it can analyse and improve your images more effectively.
On top of this, Samsung has refined the photography modes on offer, allowing you to take myriad different styles of shot – and nearly all of them are useful and worth playing with.
Let’s focus on the auto mode though, as that’s going to be the one that most Galaxy S9 users snap through. It’s excellent as ever, but possibly not that big of an upgrade over the Samsung Galaxy S8.
In bright light, the pictures from the Galaxy S9 are without equal in terms of clarity; there’s a sharpness, brightness and overall quality that still stuns when you learn it’s come from a smartphone camera.