Last year with the S8, Samsung pushed the expectations on what smartphones can be. The all-glass front, curved edges, and overall design made it one of the best smartphones of 2017. Now Samsung is at it again with the Samsung S9.
All the great things we raved about last year are still here. Samsung has pushed the specs to fit with the progression of technology, but the overall design remains the same.
The Samsung S9 remains one of the most attractive smartphones currently on the market, but this iterative move also means there is no "wow" factor to push buyers to upgrade. If you were to see a Samsung S9 in the wild, you would be hard-pressed to notice a difference at a quick glance. Samsung build a stunning device in last years Galaxy S8 and S8 plus, so to see them using that same basic design this year is far from a bad thing. It takes the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach, and honestly, I am okay with that.
Even with this iterative step in mind, the S9 and S9 Plus respectively, will without a doubt be some of the best Android-based smartphones you can buy in 2018. Samsung has made it a habit of being the flagship to beat in the Android space, and this year is no different. If you are looking to pick up a smartphone and have $1,000 to spend, few phones would work better then the S9 series of devices, even with this iterative step forward.
As mentioned before, the S9 is a stunning phone. Samsung has to be commended for their use of simple lines, all glass front and back, and the overall aesthetic of the device. It is a smartphone that will turn heads. It may not have that excitement factor that the iPhone X has, but it is within striking distance. The curved front and back glass are a joy to hold in the hand. As with any all-glass device, you will need to be aware and alert, because it can be slippery, will gather fingerprints by simply looking at it, and should you drop it, be prepared for some cracks.
Now that we have that out of the way, let's touch on the screen, and as one would expect from Samsung, the S9 comes with what will without a doubt be one of the best screens on Android phones this year. The colours are vibrant and crisp, the viewing angles are good, and once you get used to the aspect ratio, the overall user experience on the 2,960 X 1,440 is overall fantastic. Even outdoors the S9 has quickly become the new smartphone screen to beat, and even gives the iPhone X a run for its money.
Beyond the great display, the Samsung S9 comes with all the bells and whistles we have come to expect from the S9 flagship range of devices. We have IP68 water resistance, ensuring should you spill your tea on the phone or, heaven forbid, you were to drop it in the toilet, it will survive the ordeal. It also comes with the handy 3.5mm headphone jack that many manufacturers have forsaken in recent years. Since I am a big fan of using my studio headphones on my phone, this is one aspect I do hope Samsung sticks to moving forward.
To round things off and increase the already ample 64GB onboard, Samsung has kept the expandable storage, allowing up to 400GB extra with a micro SD card. And because everyone asked for it, the Bixby button is back ensuring you can jump into Samsungs virtual assistant should you, for whatever reason, want to jump into this app. While I do like the fact the Bixby assistant quick key can be disabled, with no easy way to reassign it, this quickly becomes a useless key should you go about this path.
With so many things kept the same, the big question is what did Samsung change with this years device, at least on the exterior. One of the biggest things beyond minor adjustments to design is that they have listened to users and moved the fingerprint scanner. And for anyone that loves using their phone as a media device, Samsung has included a stereo pair of speakers for your listening enjoyment.
On the fingerprint front, this move is a welcome one. While I still feel the placement puts it a tad too close to the camera lens, it is a great deal more comfortable to use than the placement on the S8. It makes for what I feel the best way to unlock the device. It is quick, never gave issue with bad reads, and one of the best fingerprint readers I have used, when I am not missing it and hitting the camera.
Should you, for whatever reason, want to opt for the smart scan unlock feature, a face-scanning/iris scanning hybrid feature, you may be a bit more frustrated with the results. While in theory, it works, and in ideal situations, it does what it needs to. I often found it slow, inaccurate, and more of a gimmick than a useful feature. As I tested the phone, I found it significantly faster to just use the fingerprint scanner, or even a code, then to bother with the smart scanner. But as with anything, your mileage may vary based on your case and needs.
While I did not love every new feature the S9 comes with, the stereo speakers are one I adore. The inclusion of Dolby Atmos and the clarity the speaker's offer make the Samsung S9 a brilliant media consumption device. Flicking on Netflix, or even YouTube was a joy. The sound was crisp, clear, and loud, and while I will not claim this is the best sound on a smartphone, it is without question in the top 10 and more than good enough to use for gaming, media or even music in a pinch.
Under the hood, the S9 has the usual increase in specs we expect from a new flagship device. The S9 is running the latest powerhouse chip from Qualcomm, the Snapdragon 845, ( It will be running Samsung's own Exynos processor in other regions), comes equipped with 4GB RAM, 6GB on the S9 Plus, a new LTE modem that supports even faster speeds should your network carrier allow it.
Now let's be honest here, none of these specs are beyond what we should expect from a new flagship Android smartphones in 2018, but Samsung is first and they have set the bar for all other phones hitting this year. These specs also mean the S9 is no slouch, the phone is snappy, and has more power then most people will need to their day to day use. Achieving a Geekbench score of 2183 Single Core, 8115 multicore, and an overall Antutu score of 263883, you will be hard pressed to push this phone to its limits even in games.
Speaking of games, the S9 was a fantastic device for many of the mobile games out today. The bright, vibrant screen ensured colours popped when they needed to, and the OLED ensured blacks where rich and crisp. Testing games such as Mortal Kombat, Fallout Shelter, Lara Croft Go and even Hearthstone, I never experienced any slowdown, stuttering or loading issues. The stereo speakers made headphones a choice, not a necessity, and the power under the hood ensured everything ran as you would hope, even in intensive situations.
Playing all these games and watching all that media will take a toll on the battery. Packing only a 3,000mAh battery (3,500mAh on the Plus) will mean, without some charging, you will not last through the day. In our testing, the phone made it to around 9 PM without needing a charge with moderate use. Thow in some gaming, videos and music and you will be hard-pressed to make it through your nightly commute without needing a bit of a top-up. Thankfully the quick charge is alive and well in the S9, meaning it is a trivial task giving your device a charge, even if you only have 30 minutes to spare.
With smartphones quickly becoming many peoples go-to camera for on the go, it is no surprise Samsung is putting a lot of effort into promoting the new camera features of the S9. The new 12-megapixel rear shooter comes with a new, and improved sensor that offers users better image processing. Yet the real thing that Samsung is boasting with the S9's new camera is the variable aperture. The lens now allows you to alternate between the f/1.5 and a smaller, less bright f/2.4.
Lowlight on the Samsung S9 is good, it is hard to say if it is truly better then the competition, but in testing, I had no problem capturing some stunning images, even at a low-light Ubisoft event. When compared to the Google Pixel 2 or the iPhone X though, it is a tossup as to what phone offers better pictures, but compared to last years Samsung S8, there is a noticeable improvement with noise and overall image clarity.
This does bring us to the question if Samsungs unique brand of image processing is for you. As someone who likes using RAW images, with little to no processing, the Samsung approach is a bit too processed for my liking. The colours are very vibrant, warm and saturated and some detail and imperfections will be smoothed out. It is a specific Samsung look, and for those who like it, the S9 does a great job of it, but for anyone who wants a more natural look, the S9 will do little to convince you this processed look is better.
Now, let's talk about this switching aperture feature that the S9 boasts. The way smartphones work, automatically switching the shutter speed for whatever condition you may find yourself in, it is hard to see what advantage the different aperture really offers. In auto mode, the camera will pick the best settings to suit your conditions, and you will never even deal with this feature, but when you are in pro-mode you can decide what works best for any situation. In testing, I did not see much difference between the two settings in standard lighting, and when I took most of my photos on the S9, I just left it at f/1.5 and forgot about it.
Overall in testing, due to the size of the lens and sensor, It did not make any notable difference to switch the aperture. On larger cameras, the change in aperture can allow for a sharper image, allowing you to control the amount of light the lens lets in, but with the size of smartphones, the difference is minimal, and honestly, unless you are a trained photographer you will not even be able to fully utilize the advantages. But since it is included, there is no downside to having it, but don't go expecting it to replace your Canon 5DMIII anytime soon.
The S9 can shoot 4K video at 60 frames per second, or should you desire that nature documentary feel, the S9 also offers a Super-Slow-Mo feature that allows you to record 720P video at 960 frames per second. This is limited though, allowing only 0.2 seconds at a time, with your choice of automatic mode or manual. In practice, both these modes can be cumbersome, not always catching the action you want. Add too that the sheer amount of light needed to take advantage of the super-slow-mo and you are left with a feature that is neat, but tedious at best. I am curious to see what people do with it on twitter and youtube, but I don't see anyone swapping out their specialized camera for an S9 anytime soon.
Speaking of odd features, to compete with the iPhone X's Animoji, Samsung introduced AR Emoji to this year's S9 range of devices. This mode scans your face and based on 100 points builds a 3D character that at times can look something like you, and at worst can be described as "nightmare fuel". Since the S9 relies on the front facing camera to build these characters and to map your face, it never felt accurate. Even using the pre-build animal characters, it always felt like a tacked-on feature, built more to compete with the iPhone X then offer any notable value to the end user.
If it sounds like I was upset with this years S9, it could not be further from the truth. All in all, I believe Samsung have knocked it out of the park in terms of design, tech and overall feel of the device. The problems come from the value-add features that try to differentiate the S9 from last years offering. These features do little to make the device better, but at worst they are menu choices you neglect as you go about enjoying your new, shiny S9.
Samsung, with the S9, have built the best possible iteration to last years steller S8 range of devices. They have improved on much of what I would have hoped for, and have added a few great additions, notably the fantastic stereo speakers. While not all the new additions are as amazing as Samsung would have you believe, what you are left with is a flagship device that is worthy of that title. The Samsung S9 is a great phone, and the new standard all other Smartphone makers will have to strive to beat in 2018.
A retail version of this device reviewed was provided by the manufacturer. You can find additional information about CGMagazine's ethics and review policies and procedures here.
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