Samsung’s yearly “S” flagship is the biggest phone of the year in the Android world. Last year, the company completely overhauled basically everything with the debut of the Galaxy S8. For 2018, however, we’re getting a very iterative update, to the point where it feels like the same phone all over again.
The easiest way to sum up the Galaxy S9 is that it takes the years of refinement we saw in the Galaxy S8, and fixes all of its problems. That said, is it worth paying the price for a flagship that isn’t all that different from the one before? Let’s take a closer look.
Nomad case for Pixel 3
It’s pretty much the same…
Samsung’s design language since the debut of the Galaxy S6 has been pretty gorgeous, but when the Galaxy S8 debuted, the company took things up a notch (without an actual notch, mind you). With the S9, we’re getting basically the same thing, but that’s not a bad thing.
The Galaxy S9 is a gorgeous smartphone, with a metal and glass design that will turn heads, especially in some of its more unique colors like the “Lilac Purple.”
However, just because it looks the same doesn’t mean it is the same. The Galaxy S9 has some serious improvements that are basically invisible. The obvious one is the fingerprint sensor. It’s still way too small, but on the S9 family, it’s actually in the right place. On the S9+ I tested, that meant I was able to comfortably reach the sensor every time.
The other major improvement is the metal frame around the edges. On the S8 family, it was glossy, making a slippery phone even slicker. On the S9, though, that’s swapped out for a matte texture that feels great in the hand, provides a lot more grip, and actually makes the phone more durable.
Long story short, the hardware isn’t what’s compelling about the Galaxy S9. Samsung basically slapped a new logo on a slightly better version of what it already had, and that’s totally fine in this case. The Galaxy S8 was a major overhaul, so the S9 never needed to be. That said, I’m hoping we get some much bigger changes next time around.
Samsung’s displays cannot be beat
One of my favorite things about using any Samsung device is the display. It’s well-known that Samsung makes the best displays on the market today, and with every flagship, they just keep getting better.
The 6.2-inch SuperAMOLED display on the Galaxy S9+ unit I tested is absolutely fantastic, to say the least. The colors are very saturated, admittedly, but it’s extremely pleasing to look at day in and day out.
Further, the brightness here is astounding. At its lowest setting you can comfortably look at the display in a pitch black room, and at its max, this is the clearest smartphone display when you’re in direct sunlight.
No display is completely perfect, of course, but with every iteration, Samsung is making it harder and harder to say that…
SOFTWARE & PERFORMANCE |
Nothing’s changed since last year, but it has Oreo out of the box
Personally, I’m not a massive fan of Samsung’s take on Android, but it’s been getting better and better over the years. On the Galaxy S8, Samsung made its biggest improvements yet. However, on the S9, basically, nothing has changed.
The skin has gotten a lot of minor tweaks for “Samsung Experience 9.0,” although the most meaningful to me is the arrival of emojis that aren’t totally horrible.
As I said last year with the Galaxy S8, Samsung’s software is honestly not that bad anymore. Personally, I still prefer what Google brings to the table, but Samsung has improved a lot over the years. The UI is cleaner, better thought-out, and just has a better look and feel overall compared to what we used to see even just two years ago.
The skin has its perks, like a fantastic launcher and settings that let you tweak just about every bit of the phone to your choice, but sometimes that’s overwhelming. Samsung is overdue for a cleanup, but right here right now, things are still pretty good overall.
What is notable, though, is that Android Oreo is on this device out of the box. Of course, it should be since this phone is being released months after the debut of Oreo on Pixel devices.
With that, the Galaxy S9 supports Project Treble. For the sake of updates, that’s a huge positive because Treble makes it much easier on Samsung’s end to keep up with Google’s release schedule.
Please don’t buy this phone if you want timely updates
That said, you should not buy this phone if you ever want timely updates. Samsung’s track record for updating devices is absolutely terrible, even when carriers aren’t involved. With Project Treble in place, Samsung could totally surprise us and start updating its devices quickly, but for now, do not buy this phone if you want updates in a timely matter — they (probably) won’t come.
Speaking of updates, Samsung still hasn’t adopted the A/B “seamless updates” feature that Google introduced with the original Pixel. Samsung, why are you like this?
The Snapdragon 845 is a beast, but 6GB of RAM is what solves Samsung’s lag
As far as performance goes, you shouldn’t expect anything less than the best, and the best is exactly what you’re getting. The Galaxy S9 is the first phone shipping with the Snapdragon 845 processor, and it’s an absolute beast. The phone is quick in day-to-day use, handles games well, and never skips a beat.
You can attribute a lot of that to the Snapdragon 845, but I’d give the real credit to the extra RAM found on the S9+.
When I was using the S8, there were already signs of lag just a week or two into using it. So far on the S9+, performance has proven nearly Pixel-like with no signs of slowing down. I didn’t have the smaller S9 to compare, but based on what we saw with the Note 8 versus the S8, I think it’s safe to say extra RAM is what every Samsung device needs at this point.
Bixby is still a thing you shouldn’t care about
And finally, there’s Bixby. Samsung’s attempt at building its own AI assistant debuted on the Galaxy S8 last year. In the time since, it’s picked up some new tricks like being able to recognize food and let you “try on” makeup.
However, Bixby is still something that basically no one needs to care about. To call Bixby a legitimate competitor to Google Assistant or Siri, Samsung has a lot more improvements to make. For now, it’s just an annoying button on the side of the phone (which has somehow gotten more annoying in the past year. If you do choose to ignore it, you can easily disable Bixby altogether.
Iris scan and Face scan combined still aren’t as good as Face ID
Samsung has been leading the charge when it comes to unlocking your phone in different ways on Android. We saw the company mess around with iris scanning a couple of years ago, and since then it’s been refining the tech.
On the Galaxy S9, we get a new feature called “Intelligent Scan.” The idea here is to speed up the process of unlocking the phone with your face. In ideal conditions, it uses simple facial recognition to unlock the device. When it’s too dark to do that, however, it switches over to iris scanning, which works in a wider variety of conditions.
Face unlock, however, isn’t all that secure, so when the phone knows it needs a more secure method of verifying your identity, it will switch over to iris scanning.
In practice, these features work really well. However, they’re not as good as the competition. Apple’s Face ID is clearly what Samsung was going after with Intelligent Scan, but even with its two methods combined, you still end up with something slower and less secure than Apple’s solution.
There are some wins for Samsung here, though. For one, using this approach unlocks the phone when you turn the screen on, not requiring a swipe to access. Further, there’s still a fingerprint sensor if you want to access your phone like a normal person.
BATTERY LIFE & CHARGING |
It lasts a day, no more, no less
Samsung’s 2018 flagships are also using the same batteries as their 2017 counterparts. For the Galaxy S9+, that means a 3,500 mAh pack and it is great. You won’t quite get the same power as something like the Pixel 2 XL, but for the most part, this phone will easily last you through a full day of usage. On heavier days I’d end with around 15%-20% remaining, and on lighter days I had as much as 45% left when I hit the hay.
Your results will vary, though, as everyone is different here. The heaviest users may run into trouble once in a while, but I can confidently say that the majority of users probably won’t ever have this battery dying early on them.
Every charging method in one place
If, however, you do need a top off, Samsung has a variety of methods available. The S9 family is equipped with USB-C for wired charging, and there’s a fast charging adapter in the box as well. Further, these phones fully embrace wireless charging with support for Qi charging, the dying PMA, as well as fast wireless charging.
Stereo speakers have finally arrived
One of the things that has really bothered me in the past about Samsung devices is their audio. While other OEMs have found creative solutions to improving audio, Samsung has stuck with terrible down-firing speakers. Now, though, that’s changed a bit.
The primary speaker on the Galaxy S9 is still a down-firing driver, but it sounds much better, and is now flanked by the earpiece which cranks up its volume to create a stereo soundstage. It’s nothing mind-blowing, and still not as good as the Pixel 2, but it’s excellent nonetheless.
The headphone jack
It has one.
Call quality & reception
One often under-appreciated area of a smartphone and one I’m certainly guilty of rarely mentioning is the call quality. The earpiece on the Galaxy S9 is solid for calls, and on the AT&T unit I tested, the reception was great even if I was calling someone on another network.
One tidbit about calls I noticed, though, is that when you’re making a speakerphone call, it only plays through the bottom speaker, unlike music which uses the earpiece for stereo. Why? I have no idea, but it’s a bit annoying to be honest.
Google’s Pixel finally has a true competitor
For years now, one of the biggest selling points for any smartphone has been the camera. Over time, they’ve just gotten better and better thanks to improvements in hardware and software. In recent years, though, Google has broken through and showed off that it has the best mobile camera. With the arrival of the S9, though, Samsung wants a shot at that crown.
The Galaxy S9 and S9+ now both ship with a primary 12MP sensor, with the larger phone getting a secondary sensor to back it up. Long story short, this is a fantastic camera. In auto mode it can take stunning shots with great detail, The processing has been improved as well, and Samsung’s camera app remains one of the best.
Personally, I still prefer the stills that come out of the Pixel 2 XL on most occasions, but the Galaxy S9 comes closest to changing my mind on that.
Variable aperture is “innovation” I can appreciate, even if it’s not always used
The real story here, though, is the variable aperture technology. While most phones stick to one aperture on every shot, the S9 can adjust it based on available light. That means when you’re outside in broad daylight, it can help cope by letting less of that light in. Whereas at night, the phone can let in more light at f/1.5.
In auto mode, Samsung doesn’t always activate this, and even in manual mode you’re not always going to want it. However, this is the kind of hardware I wish we’d see in more devices. It’s something different, and it provides more flexibility.
‘Super Slow-Motion’ is my new favorite camera feature
My favorite thing about Samsung’s new camera, however, is the super slow-motion mode. When activated, this mode can shoot video at 960 frames per second. That takes a fraction of a second worth of action and turns it into several, creating some really fun effects.
Samsung was smart with this feature, using AI to figure out when to start shooting (if you want it to) and even figuring out when to start and stop a clip. I could do without the background music that’s added by the phone, but this is a super cool feature that I absolutely loved using.
Samsung, you’re so much better than this.
Why do AR Emojis exist, or rather, why are they so bad? It’s clear that AR Emojis are Samsung’s response to Apple’s Animoji, but this is by far the most pathetic feature clone Samsung has ever created.
If you’ve not heard much about AR Emojis, they essentially scan your face and create a digital version of you with customizable clothing, hair, and things like that. The only problem, it doesn’t really work. I’ve tried AR Emojis with a few people, and none of the characters created looked anything like the source. The clothes are also far too limited, and the face tracking when recording a video is just horrible.
Samsung has also included some “animals” with this mode, but they’re somehow worse than the people. The “masks” are also pretty bad, as Snapchat’s filters are much more accurate.
The only somewhat redeeming feature is the Disney add-on which adds Mickey and Minnie Mouse as options. That’s fun, but it’s mostly ruined by the fact that the face tracking is still pretty terrible.
Some people will probably find these features fun, but it’s nothing that will last and it’s definitely not something you should buy the phone for.
FINAL THOUGHTS |
It’s a great phone millions of people will buy, and they won’t be disappointed
When it comes down to it, Samsung has yet again put together what is arguably the best all-around Android smartphone available today. Is it better than the Pixel? That depends on what you need and what you value. Personally, the Pixel 2 XL will be sticking in my pocket, but the S9+ comes close to taking its spot.
If you’re using an older Samsung device, like an S6 or S7, this is a fine upgrade. If you’re using an S8, though, don’t even consider upgrading at this point. The S9 is a refinement for Samsung, not a groundbreaker. If you want that, wait until next year… probably.