When the Galaxy S9 and S9+ launched, everyone’s immediate reaction was: “It looks just like last year’s S8 and S8+”. And while that is true for the most part, when we got the device in-hand, our closer eye noticed quite a few more tweaks than we were let on by news outlets. Sure, Samsung obviously didn’t want to deviant from this form just yet, but that didn’t stop them from nit-picking bits to refine. We think there’s value in these tweaks, so we’re laying them out.
We’ve been using the Note 8 for a while now, and were able to get a sample of both the S9 (in Coral Blue) and S9+ (in Midnight Black) recently. We already posted up a camera comparison between the old and new camera systems (which produced some interesting results); but then putting the devices back-to-back revealed that there’s more than meets the eye with the designs, and we’re not talking about the apparent changes like the more ideal fingerprint scanner placement or modified bottom speaker grill to support the new dual speaker system.
New metal finish
Last year’s S8 changed the Galaxy’s Aluminum finish from matte to glossy. Really glossy, like mirror-like. Not many reviewers made a point of it, but it was a contention for me. Why would you want to make these large phones more slippery than they already are??
So when the S9 dropped, I couldn’t help but draw my eyes there and see if there was a change. And there is! I’m so glad that Samsung agreed.
The company didn’t revert back to the exact finish as before. It is matte, but more smooth to the look and touch. It’s kind of a hybrid between the S6/S7 and S8. However, in-hand, it feels more like the latter. It’s like if you took the frame of the S8 and frosted it. So in other words, it’s still a slippery sucker. But it looks a lot more sophisticated, doesn’t it?
If you put an S8 and S9 side-by-side, anyone would be hard-pressed to say they’re different (ignoring the changed fingerprint scanner placement and second camera on the S9+). But you’ll probably notice a difference at your first pickup – they weigh more. We noticed it more on the S9+ than the S9, which made sense when looking at the numbers. The standard S9 gained a minimal 8 grams while its bigger brother put on a substantial 16 grams. Yikes. So our immediate question was, if these phones are almost a spitting image of each other (and the battery capacities are the same), what constitutes the weight gain?
And it’s not just the weight. They’re both thicker too, both by about half a millimeter. We don’t have the complete answer, but are sure the new components have something to do with it (and the shifted fingerprint scanner may too). We have a larger speaker on the earpiece (to accommodate the new dual speaker system), and the S9+ gained a secondary, telephoto camera sensor.
Camera hump makes a comeback
From the S6 to the S8, we saw a gradual elimination of the rear camera hump. Samsung succeeded in making it flush with the rear panel on the S8, putting an end to the camera hump era. Or did it?
Something else that many reviewers overlooked with the S9 is the fact that it took a step backwards in this respect. Although very slight, the rectangular arrangement of sensors on the back do noticeably protrude. We had to put a close eye to it to see that it’s not flush like on the Note 8.
That said, it’s in no way intrusive. We didn’t even notice it at first. We don’t have those camera hump pains where the phone rocks when set down. And Samsung thankfully maintains all the sensors slightly recessed within a protective outline, so there’s no extra comprise against the elements.
Slimmer bottom bezel
When the S8 dropped, everyone immediately noticed Samsung’s aggressive work to eliminate those pesky bezels around the screen. However, it looks like they didn’t touch the bezels at all with the S9. That’s not true…technically.
The top bezel is the same, but the bottom bezel shaved roughly 2mm of width. This doesn’t mean much to usage, and most people won’t know it, but it’s noticeable when you compare it to last year’s device. What’s more, the phones are about 1mm less tall – which is welcomed considering how tall the wonky 18.5:9 aspect ratio makes them.
Something different in the S9’s that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere is the slight tweak to the physical buttons. Granted, they’re not easy to notice, but if you haven’t guessed, I have a keen eye for details.
The form and material of the power, volume, and Bixby buttons are equivalent, and even their width. But up against one of last year’s flagships and you’ll notice that the buttons are longer. It’s more noticeable on the power and Bixby buttons, being about 1/3 longer. The volume rocker is barely longer.
We guess that Samsung got feedback that the buttons were too small last year. We like the change, and have noticed that the power button is more natural to locate. But one drawback is that there’s more chance that you’ll accidentally press the Bixby button – a repeated contention of users.
Flash and heart rate sensor updates
A change we didn’t hear about, but we certainly noticed was different, is the flash element for the rear camera(s). Where on the Note 8 the LED was recessed, it now fills out the entire opening. We couldn’t find information about this change, so just compared it ourselves. There isn’t a lot of difference with the light between the Note 8 and S9, but we did notice that the S9’s flash looked better diffused whereas the Note 8’s was harsher. This makes sense when visually comparing them. The Note 8’s flash shoots straight out while the S9’s appears to have a diffuser panel.
Here, you can also see that the heart rate sensor element is longer. If you look this up, you’ll see that Samsung updated the optics so that it can capture blood pressure.
“New app leverages revolutionary optical sensor on the Galaxy S9 and S9+ to provide contextualized feedback about participants’ blood pressure and stress levels” – via Samsung
As of right now, this function works with an app called My BP Lab through a partnership with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).
The Note 8 was a minimal update from the S8+, but what most people probably don’t know is that it made a big stride in display brightness. It’s max brightness could reach a whopping 1,200 nits, which was significant compared to the S8/S8+ (and most other smartphones). So naturally, Samsung passed that quality to the S9/S9+.
They top out at about 1,130 nits, which is shy of the Note 8’s peak, but still a welcomed 20% brightness capacity than their predecessors.
I personally wasn’t very excited about the Galaxy S9 announcement. It could be my lowered expectation, but it’s a different story when I got my hands on this new duo. Don’t get me wrong, they definitely feel just like the phones they replace, but the refinements that Samsung made end up adding much more value than I initially thought. The variable aperture camera is a questionable update, but the fingerprint scanner shift and new dual speaker system makes quite a difference.
The matte metal frame really makes for a sophisticated look that Samsung should’ve had from the get-go, and the brighter screen is valuable in everyday use. Regarding the dimensional changes, there’s more good than bad. You get a slightly shorter phone, less bezel, and a better power button. But the weight gain, especially on the S9+ model, is a con.