For years, consumers have complained, derided and disowned brands for not listening to their input. For years, we have chastised decisions to remove ports, adjust materials, reduce access and increase the costs associated. For years, we have criticized companies for not pushing the envelope and simply falling in line. But lately there has been one brand within the Android space that finally seems to be taking note of this user input: Samsung.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is the culmination of several incremental iterations that may seem underwhelming in their own right, but when combined, we get the finest Android device of the year and potentially the most complete Android experience for a long time.
Let me explain. My opening monologue alluded to our often one-sided view that ‘we’ — those who buy these phones— know best. There is uproar when an often much used or much-loved hardware feature is removed or discontinued. The headphone port, removable batteries, SD card slot; there are just a few of the things that often end up on the endangered species list.
Now how does this analogy fit into the Note 9 story? Well, despite the insane $1,000 cost and ‘lack of real innovation’, Samsung has delivered a device that hits all the right notes (pun definitely intended) and then some. There is almost no compromise anywhere inside and outside this device at all. Notice how I said ‘almost’, because there are a few touches and features that don’t need to be included but don’t hinder the overall package.
It’s easy to level criticism at any company that churns out more than one flagship-tier device per year as getting lazy or lax with their design. Whilst it’s a relevant point — especially when the Note 8 is so similar in stature and style to the current iteration — anything other than incremental changes can, and do polarize the fickle community even further (see the all but confirmed Pixel 3 XL redesign).
So with that in mind, what you get with the Note 9 is a tried and tested design that doesn’t fall foul of the notch-centric 2018 design principles of literally every manufacturer on the market right now. Samsung are sticking to their guns with this attempt to decrease bezels and increase screen size — which in a weird way is refreshing to see.
Side bezels are slim, and the tapered glass that leads to the metal frame feels somewhat softer than with the previous model. Whilst that is likely a placebo effect, the entire handling experience feels decidedly sturdy. That’s despite this being two pieces of glass encasing prime internals. There’s no doubt that Samsung knows how to put a smartphone together, but I do fear the consequences of a drop without adequate case protection — a list of my favorite cases will be forthcoming soon.
I had an issue with my Note 8 whereby the sim card tray didn’t quite seem to sit flush with the outside bezel. This seems to be a non-issue with my Note 9 model — which I must state is not a review unit — where the SIM card tray sits flush with that satin black bezel. The bezel is less rounded and flatter – which makes it feel boxier than the previous model. I didn’t think this would be something I’d notice, but you get a slightly larger surface area for extra grip when without a case.
The screen manages to be 0.1 inches larger, which again isn’t instantly noticeable, but any increase in that simply astounding screen found on the last three Galaxy variants is always welcome. So in that 6.4-inch footprint, we find an almost standard 18.5:9 aspect ratio at 1440p, with a pixel density of 516 ppi. When written down that sounds impressive, but it’s when you use this device that you learn why Samsung make the best panels in the business.
The curved glass edges of the screen also seem much less pronounced on this model, for a better usage experience than on the previous variant too. In direct sunlight, it’s just an absolute beast, with a peak brightness up to 27% higher than the Note 8s panel. Gorging on YouTube videos even in the sun is not going to be a problem whatsoever.
Speaking of problems, the often criticized positioning of the fingerprint scanner on the Note 8 has been altered for this model. It’s now found below the dual camera module — more on this later — for a reduced finger-stretching unlocking experience. Those with smaller hands will welcome this change, although I still can’t say I’m a fan of the size and orientation of the reader. I’d like to see a larger target to be hitting with my fingertip in future releases, but at least this boxier shape and new position is a start.
The headphone port remains an ever-present, making this one of the very few ‘true flagships’ to keep persisting with the seemingly doomed old standard. I personally don’t expect Samsung to support it forever, but it kind of feels like they are sending a message to all the other OEMs with each inclusion. I would be sad to see it disappear, it’s always welcome in my book.
The S Pen is now, in reality, the sole differentiator between the Note line and the Galaxy S line. In previous generations, these devices targeted very different market sectors, with the S Pen being key to the Note. Last year there were a host of minor additions to the S Pen repertoire, but nothing earth shattering or truly game-changing. Whilst the ability to control your camera or manage your playing music might not be earth-shattering, it might finally increase S Pen usage all around.
Internally, the S Pen now has true Bluetooth built-in for connectivity to your Note 9 from up to 30 feet away. The button on the side of this super-stylus can be programmed to control your camera shutter — ideal if you want to take pictures and get in the frame yourself — or even open and control apps themselves. Specific actions will come in a future update, allowing developers to add support to their applications should they wish. This could be and exciting addition for those that really do use their Note devices in a professional setting.
Beyond these neat new tricks, it’s business as usual for the best smartphone stylus on the market. IP68 rating, great clicky feedback on the button release, pinpoint drawing and handwriting emulation — nothing else on Android comes close. Oh, it also comes in a cool yellow option with the blue unit only — I’m still a little bummed out that I could get that with my black variant.
The Galaxy S9 originally addressed the poor sound issues that plagued older models by adding a stereo speaker setup. The Note 9 also benefits from the addition of this change from one down-firing speaker to a combination of the earpiece and downward speaker for better audio.
I still find myself covering the bottom speaker when holding the phone, but instead of completely muffling the audio like it did on the Note 8 it’s still pretty clear and crisp. In an ideal world, we’ll see dual front-facing speakers on every high-end device, but this is a pretty fair compromise as we move towards that bezeless future.
It’s also worth mentioning that there is a Dolby Atmos feature included within the software, but it’s disabled as default. It works by adjusting the audio nuances to try and improve the audio experience either via headphones or these new stereo speakers. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you it makes a massive difference. Instead, I’d say it’s akin to knowing your way around an equalizer but in auto mode.
It’s hard not to pick up a Samsung smartphone these days and notice the distinct difference in how, as a brand, they feel that Android should function. I almost exclusively used Nexus devices until last year, when I finally picked up a Note 8 as my main device. This was partly due to the hardware, but mainly due to the software changes being toned down enough for me to truly want to take on Samsung Experience as the driving force behind my main piece of everyday tech.
The overall OS bloat is becoming less and less of an issue as device storage and RAM increases with each hardware refresh — the Snapdragon 845 CPU or Exynos 9810 also help in that regard. To be completely honest, I’m not personally sure that ‘Samsung lag’ is something I even noticed or experienced on the Note 8 and the S9 during my time with both smartphones. Yes, I did experience crashing issues with some specific apps, but I’m certain that these crashes were due to the apps themselves rather than the skin in which they were running on.
Whilst it’s disappointing that the Note 9 doesn’t come with Android Pie installed as standard — instead coming pre-loaded with Android Oreo 8.1 — it’s still very, very slick. Everything loads pretty much instantly in my experience, granted I’m definitely expecting comments from people stating that they can see ‘Samsung lag’ from a mile away. I get it, people don’t seem willing to forgive Samsung for unleashing TouchWiz on the unsuspecting public. It’s not all roses now either, I still hate the app duplication problem massively. Although I suspect that some of these first party apps are needed for Bixby to operate problem — which begs the bigger question, who uses Bixby? I know I definitely don’t.
In all honesty, the general day-to-day software experience is almost identical to the Note 8 and the S9+. AR emoji make their way to the Note line for the first time, and the S Pen has a few neat new tricks. You’ll find more changes made to the camera and its software than the interface and app usage.
I find this difficult to admit, but I’m a very lazy photo taker. To be honest, I want and need something that just works without much fiddling. The S9+ introduced the ability to control the aperture for the first time, but I never felt the need to mess around in Pro mode to really get the most out of it. I still find myself simply pointing and shooting with Auto Mode enabled to guarantee that I get something worth looking at later on. For me, it’s pretty much the same again when I take photos with Note 9 and those dual cameras.
You’re working with a similar dual 12-megapixel camera arrangement found on the Note 8, with the cameras side-by-side rather than above and below — I much prefer this layout myself purely from a device aesthetic perspective. That means that much like the Note 8 prior, there is a wide-angle and a telephoto lens, with the wide-angle lens including that dual f/1.5 – f/2.4 aperture found on the S9+. Up front is an 8-megapixel sensor and iris scanner for quick unlocks — which is somewhat faster than on older models.
Whilst the hardware remains pretty predictable, there are a few software changes that have been added to help make taking stellar photos that bit easier. Samsung couldn’t let the AI buzz pass them by, so they’ve added a little AI tech of their own to the camera processing.
Scene Optimizer is Samsung’s way of added AI to their camera app, and my limited experience with it has been mixed to say the least. The system is said to be able to distinguish between 20 preset scenes, everything from snow to streets, animals to people and food to mixed lighting scenarios. I personally struggle to see the difference in results, especially as I find the Auto mode great for just taking a picture without worrying about exposure, aperture and ISO settings. I have a dedicated camera for more hands-on photography so I want simplicity in my pocket. That being said, I have dabbled with the Pro mode and found that a little cumbersome for my tastes, I’ll be making a conscious effort to use it more in future.
Battery life is still one of the areas that almost every single smartphone leaves us wanting, no matter who makes it. With a 4000mAh capacity, Samsung has tackled one of the crippling inadequacies of the previous Note and now we finally have a full day functioning workhorse device. It’s difficult to give an accurate indication of what you can expect, which is often why I steer clear of pronouncing a device to have ‘all day battery life’, but the Note 9 actually does deliver.
Update: I have heard reports from our very own Ben Schoon that his review unit has suffered some battery issues after updating to the August Security Patch. I have refrained from this update until we get more information about whether this is the root cause.
Within the first 4 days, I had screen on time readings well above 5 hours, sometimes closer to 7 hours. Although it isn’t mind-blowing, it’s still miles ahead of my Note 8. Although this probably doesn’t need to be said, the Always On display and sheer size of that panel are naturally the biggest drains on that allowance. Rogue apps might be an issue that sometimes plagues Android, but I have yet to experience a problem with these sapping away at my battery life, granted it’s still early days.
Getting that battery fully charged takes a little while too, mainly as, disappointingly, we still don’t have QuickCharge 3.0 in any Samsung smartphone as yet. This means to go from 0 to 100% will take around 1 hour and 40 minutes with the included charge brick, which is the same time as the S9+ but with a 14% larger overall capacity.
Samsung seems to have come a long way in a short space of time. From a time when they were universally slated and derided for poor quality, copycat devices that ended up in a laggy mess after only a short space just under a decade ago; to the top of the Android OEM tree, in hardware at the very least. Despite criticism and experimentation, a long-running series of minor iterations has now led us to their apex smartphone: the Note 9.
We find ourselves looking for flaws in devices rather than what they truly do well, especially given the entry price. Well, whilst the entry price is high, this is the only no-compromise smartphone on the market. I mean just look at what you get: A good battery, exceptional camera, the best display on the market, ample storage, an SD card slot, headphone port, no notch, stereo speakers, slim bezels, exceptional build, wireless charging, IP68 rating, S Pen, fingerprint scanner and so much more.
If you were on the fence, or are seriously looking to upgrade, then it’s time to hop over and truly enjoy the experience.
Where to buy the Note 9
- Available unlocked from Samsung from $999 shipped.
- Available unlocked from Amazon from $999 shipped.
- All other carrier availability information.