They may look almost identical to last year’s Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+, but the South Korean company’s Galaxy S9 and S9+ still stand out from the crowd, with other big Android phones – from the upcoming Huawei P20 to OnePlus’ next releases – all copying the iPhone X’s notch design for its front-facing camera.
By sticking with the tried and true, the S9 and S9+ will be among the very few big-name, globally available smartphones to offer a real alternative to Apple’s idea of what a handset should be.
Design and hardware
The contrast with Apple’s flagship handset doesn’t stop at the display edges. The Galaxy S9+ (the unit reviewed here) still has a 3.5mm headphone jack, the dying port whose demise was triggered by Apple and immediately followed by other Android phone makers – for no good reason, by the way.
The industrial design language that Samsung initiated with the Galaxy S6 mostly returns here. The OLED display panel (5.8 inches on the S9 and 6.2 inches on the S9+) still curves at the sides, and it gets even brighter than that of the Galaxy Note 8, Samsung’s other flagship phone release of 2017. This is about as flawless as a mobile display can get right now.
The S9+ reviewed is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, which Samsung uses for phones released in the United States, China and Hong Kong (because of Qualcomm processors’ compatibility with the CDMA wireless communication protocol in use in those markets). It is a bit more powerful than last year’s Snapdragon 835, a fact only really noticeable in benchmarks.
The prowess of mobile processors surpassed real-world usage needs a year or two ago – nobody is going to use the Snapdragon 845 and notice much difference from last year’s 835, or perhaps even the 821 from late 2016.
The biggest hardware change on the S9 and S9+ lies in the main camera, which now has mechanical shutters that open and close to allow the camera to switch between two apertures. The S9+ has a second camera; it’s the same set-up found on the Note 8, and by 2018 the second-lens bokeh effect trick is nothing newsworthy.
The Galaxy S8 was my favourite phone in terms of in-hand comfort, and the same holds true for the S9. The 18.5:9 display aspect ratio and the curved sides make the phone slimmer than other slim phones, and the difference, while small, counts for something. I can use the S9, with its 5.8-inch display, one-handed more easily than I can the iPhone X, also with a 5.8-inch display, because the Samsung handset is nearly 2mm narrower.
Likewise, the Galaxy S9+, with its 6.2-inch-display, is easier to grip than the LG V30 or Huawei Mate 10 Pro, both of which have 6-inch displays.
Software and features
Samsung’s software, however, is still not so great. Not only does the S9+ ship with an outdated version of Android Oreo, Samsung’s software skin is still unnecessarily bloated. Much of the fault for that lies with Bixby, Samsung’s AI assistant, which the company has been shoving down users’ throats since last year.
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To be fair, Bixby isn’t completely useless – in contrast to Samsung’s previous attempt at a digital assistant, S Voice; it can pick up my voice commands fairly well, and its AR camera features do useful things such as translating text in real time or identifying objects and pulling up related images. But these features rely on third-party services by Google, so why do we need Bixby on top of phones running Google’s software to begin with?
Not all of Samsung’s features are half-baked, though: its Always On Display, one-hand mode, and newly implemented “intelligent scan” – which uses a combination of facial recognition and iris scan for faster screen unlock – work well and do make for a more pleasing user experience.
Performance and battery life
With either 4GB or 6GB of RAM and the newest Snapdragon chip set, the S9+ is a powerhouse. In my week of testing I encountered no slowdowns or app crashes. New to the S9 and S9+ is a set of stereo speakers that improves the media consumption experience.
Battery life on the S9+ is solid – it can go almost an entire day – but the S9, with a smaller battery, will probably not make it past dinner for heavy users.
The outstanding feature of the S9+ is its camera with adjustable aperture – it that can jump from f/2.2 to f/1.5. In general, the lower the f number the better for mobile phones, because it allows the camera’s sensor to pick up more light. But if the aperture is locked at a low stop, it can take in too much light in scenes with a lot of artificial lighting (Hong Kong at night is a perfect example). That’s why phones with low f numbers, and therefore wider apertures, such as the LG V30 tend to overexpose shots unless the user manually tweaks lighting settings.
The camera on the S9+ is mostly free of that problem because it will switch to the low aperture (f/1.5) only when needed – in dark environments. Otherwise it defaults to f/2.2, which is a more neutral stop.
In testing I did notice the S9+ produced more balanced shots, but I’m most impressed by the camera’s lowlight capabilities. In dozens of test shots, the S9+ pulled in more light with less noise in really dark scenes (in an apartment with no lights on and curtains closed; in a dark alley; at Kowloon Park after 10pm) than the iPhone X or Galaxy Note 8.
However, it’s worth mentioning that the S9+ is a 2018 flagship competing against last year’s phones. There’s no guarantee the S9+ will still keep the title of “best low light shooter” even a month from now, when Huawei’s much hyped triple-camera phone becomes available.
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Looking at the S9 and S9+ on a micro level, they offer refined updates to existing, and great smartphones. Those who own an S8+ (or S8) probably don’t need to upgrade, but those who don’t would find little to complain about if they bought the Galaxy S9+.
On a macro level, I see the S9 and S9+ as handsets that take an important stand against Apple’s domineering influence. No matter how Huawei, LG or others market their next phones, the fact that almost every upcoming Android will copy the iPhone X’s notch is a bad look that reinforces the erroneous idea that only Apple innovates and everyone else just follows.