We might have a grudge with some of Samsung’s hard-headed smartphone decisions, be it the impractical curved display or heavy software. But it’s hard to overlook the many things that the Korean giant gets right. Things like the unrivaled S-AMOLED display and first-rate camera performance, as well as important details like IP68 ingress protection, microSD slot, wireless charging, and a headphone jack, can push the distaste to a relatively minor consideration.
The Galaxy S9 and S9+ can be undeniably summed up as a polished S8 and S8+. That’s not as bad as it sounds. Samsung diligently addressed wide complaints like the terrible fingerprint scanner placement and sub-par mono speaker. Most on-lookers won’t see a difference, but there’s actually many more refinements that meets the eye (which we covered in a separate post). This Synopsis sums up the important details and what you can expect in real-world use.
The forms of the Galaxy S9 and S9+ are virtually identical to last year, namely, the 5.8″ and 6.2″ screen sizes, subtly curved sides, stretched 18.5:9 aspect ratio, and minimized (but non-notched) bezel. This means that they feel exactly the same in-hand. Fragility is still a major concern, but you’ll be doing less hand gymnastics this time if you primarily use the fingerprint scanner instead of IRIS for unlocking the phone.
- Immaculate and eye-catching build
- King of smartphone displays
- Dual, stereo speakers
- First-rate camera speed and quality
- All important details like IP68 protection, microSD support, wireless charging, and headphone jack
- Well-optimized software
- Same predominantly glass design still very fragile
- Heavier and thicker than last year
- Slightly over-exposed images at f/2.4
- Battery life pretty much the same as last year
- Samsung software still heavy and imposing
What it’s like to use
- The screen-to-body ratio of the S9 and S9+ may look the same, but they’re actually about 2mm thinner on the bottom bezel. This also means that the phone bodies are about 1mm shorter than last year. This is great for such tall phones, but they’re very small changes. You’ll barely notice a difference coming from the S8 – they still feel exceptionally tall in the hand (especially the larger S9+); not the best design for manageability of an extremely fragile glass phone.
- In our comparison, we covered the fact that the S9 and S9+ are slightly thicker and heavier than the same design last year. The weight is the more effective change, especially on the 16g increase on the S9+ (as opposed to 8g on the smaller S9). This is probably in part to the S9+ gaining the Note 8‘s secondary, 2x telephoto camera sensor.
- The shifted fingerprint scanner is one of the more drastic changes in the S9 line. They’re in a way more reasonable location underneath the camera sensor(s). Strangely, they’re uncommonly shaped. The scanner’s area is more narrow than usual, which makes you register more of your finger tip. This doesn’t cause any inefficiency, but you do have to calibrate your aim. At first, my finger tip kept landing more on the camera cover. I got oriented with practice. It also doesn’t help that there’s little there to distinguish what you’re touching.
- The reworked speaker setup is a big improvement. Bottom, mono speakers are always sub-par compared to sound firing at you. The addition of an earpiece loudspeaker in the S9 contributes a lot to an appropriately fuller, more-rounded, and louder sound. Watching videos on the S9 is much better experience than before.
- The angle of the curve on the glass/display feel identical as last year, for better or worse. We never liked how the taper on the sides reduce grip area. If the curved display added value, then okay, but it doesn’t. It’s totally a fashion over function thing.
- We welcome the change in the metal frame’s finish. The gloss last year was just too much in our opinion. This matte finish on the S9 looks more sophisticated. Unfortunately, it’s still very smooth and feels as slippery as before.
- It’s said that the Galaxy S9’s use thicker glass than before. That probably means more for drop resistance, as we found the glass to scratch just as easily as before (it’s still Gorilla Glass 5).
- We’re glad that the pressure-activated Home button makes a return. Many reviewers gloss over it, but this is a feature that sets Samsung phones apart. We use it all the time to quickly unlock the phone. It’s an efficient way to navigate if you set the bottom nav bar to hide – eliminating the extra step to pull up the bar when you need to jump Home.
- With respect to S-AMOLED quality, Samsung hasn’t made any updates in the S9 line. This is okay – things were close to perfect last year. But even though Samsung holds the top AMOLED crown, they aren’t exempt from color shifting. With a critical eye, you can see a slight rainbow effect when changing the viewing angle. That said, it is very slight and easily discountable. All OLED displays do this actually, and Samsung’s is the most minimal we’ve seen.
- Brightness, on the other hand, has been improved. The Note 8 outdid the S8 line by upping the brightness cap to an unmatched 1,200 nits. Samsung naturally brought that capacity to the S9 line. Though, it’s technically 1,130 nits, but close enough. And it makes a difference in day-to-day use. Even in direct sunlight, we always felt like we had plenty brightness.
- Samsung is still not setting the phones to their native resolution out of the box. That is, they ship with a 1080P equivalent (for the unique aspect ratio) instead of QHD+. Maybe it’s to help battery life, because the phones have the batteries as before…who knows. Nonetheless, it’s an odd thing to do.
- We covered the new camera in depth in our comparison with the Note 8, so we’ll just focus on the main points here.
- The most highlighted feature of the S9 line is that neat, first-time smartphone use of a mechanically variable aperture. But it’s pretty primitive compared to a real camera, only being able to switch between the widest f/1.5 stop and f/2.4. This fact means that it sounds cooler than actual practice is.
- The system defaults to f/2.4 (when lighting is ideal), which produces slightly sharper, less blurred shots, and switches to f/1.5 when 100 lux or lower of light is detected. Our argument is there isn’t reason to not use f/1.5 all the time. F/2.4 shots don’t have an advantage.
- As it stands, we feel like Samsung made a variable aperture system just to say they did. They have no justification as to why you’d want the feature. That said, it does open the door to a future development in smartphone cameras. Like on dedicated cameras, a wider range of aperture control is useful.
- What doesn’t help the current cause is that upon our close examination of the same shots at f/1.5, f/2.4, and the Note 8’s f/1.7, we found that the f/2.4 setting slightly over-exposes shots, for some reason. This is probably too aggressive post-processing on Samsung’s part to counter the lower light that the smaller opening lets in. We hope Samsung addresses it with a future update. In our comparison, we often preferred the Note 8’s f/1.7 shots over the S9’s f/2.4. The f/1.5 setting, on the other hand, greatly improves light-low shooting compared to f/1.7.
- The S9+ gains the extra 2x zoom sensor that the Note 8 had, and the specs and function are the same as far as we can tell (12MP like the main sensor, f/2.4, and OIS).
- This also means that the larger smartphone has Portrait-mode advantage (aka Live Focus). The low f/1.5 aperture can’t yet replace the benefit of a Portrait mode, as we observed better subject isolation and blurring in our comparison. The standard S9 can do something called “Selective Focus” that emulates it but doesn’t do as well of a job (particularly, the outline of the subject can be hit or miss).
- The addition of dedicated memory to the camera module is mostly to benefit slow motion capture. It’s said to allow the system to simultaneously retrieve up to 12 frames of a shot behind the scenes and what you’re given is the best one (done automatically, not user controlled), but it’s hard to determine how helpful that is in real use. We talked to Samsung about it, and they said it picks the best image based on scene settings and what ends up with technically better results in the image characteristics. We wish that it also accounted for timing. Like, to capture multiple shots around when you press the stutter button, in case the animate subject moves or blinks at just the wrong time. Ghosting can still happen with the S9 camera, despite how quick it is.
- The 960 fps slow-mo mode is new, as well a helpful box in the interface to assist to capturing the very short interval just right. It’s far from the perfect solution, but does help. You’ll still get hits and misses with the motion you desire to capture. Resolution takes a big hit to 720P, as well as lighting. The feature is almost unusable indoors.
- Despite Samsung not being able to keep up with software updates on their existing devices, you’ll always catch the latest on newly launched ones. Well, mostly. The S9 dropped with Android 8.0 (Oreo) instead of the newer 8.1.
- The Samsung Experience UI is bumped to 9.0, but is largely the same experience as last year. The more apparent changes come with Oreo. Samsung thankfully embraces Google’s additions rather than doing its own thing.
- Picture-in-Picture (PnP) is one of these new features that we’ve come to love. If you back out of an app that’s playing media, it will continue within a small floating window. This even works for Maps Navigation. You’ll still be able to see where you’re going while you’re doing something else on the phone – no longer having to keep jumping between apps.
- Two other features impactful to us are the more organized notification cards on the drop-down panel and quick, custom shortcuts when long-pressing app icons. Samsung left these updates from Google intact. See our Google Pixel 2 XL Synopsis for more about the Oreo update.
- The 3,000 and 3,500 mAh (S9 and S9+, respectively) battery capacities are the same. Samsung is once again only accounting for battery life improvements from the upgraded chipset. While last year’s Snapdragon 835 did mean a lot for battery optimization, in the real world, the Snapdragon 845 is minimal in comparison. Battery life for both devices was virtually the same for us. That is, they reliably get you through the day with a full charge and moderate-to-high usage, and not much more. The S9+ fares a little bigger than its smaller brother. With a little extra care, the S9+ can last through the next morning.
- If Samsung has improved inadvertent touch rejection, it’s very minimal compared to the S8 line. Accidental touches because of the curved displays are aplenty.
- The 6GB memory advantage of the S9+ (from 4GB on the S9) is of little consequence in real use. It may be that it helps keep apps stay open in very heavy multitasking, but we really didn’t notice any performance difference between the two devices. We wouldn’t know it if you told us they had a different amount of RAM.
- Speaking of performance, the S9 line is a bit smoother of an experience overall than the S8, but nothing major. Samsung is getting close to the seamless response of Google’s own phones. Scrolling, in particular, is silky smooth, and moving in and out of apps is very quick. The common Samsung stutter creeps in occasionally, but it’s more minimal than ever.
The Camera Samples
What Samsung has presented to us this year begs us to question, more than ever, if we should opt for the much cheaper flagship from last year over the “new” model. This is the smallest update we’ve ever seen from Samsung. Certainly, if you have a S8, S8+, or Note 8, don’t sweat about upgrading.
With the S9, Samsung puts so much weight on the camera tech, but we don’t think it entirely paid off. The real benefit is the very low f/1.5 aperture, but that could’ve been accomplished without a dual-aperture system. And it doesn’t help that we prefer the previous f/1.7 over the default f/2.4 of the new system.
The most impact gains with the S9 line are the corrected fingerprint placement and dual speakers. But these are hardly reasons to pay hundreds more for. The upgraded chipset and chassis tweaks are minimal improvements, and the battery life is virtually the same.
The S9 line moves Samsung closer to smartphone perfect, albeit a very small step. More could’ve been done. But that doesn’t mean you won’t be thoroughly satisfied with an S9. These are about the best you can buy. Samsung has the most complete smartphone package here.