(Pocket-lint) - The Galaxy S9+ is now on sale. But looking at the new phone and you'd be forgiven for thinking it's the Galaxy S8+.
To think that would be a mistake. It might look the same - and arguably it is a design to be preserved - but Samsung has tweaked and improved this phone in almost every area. If you haven't yet succumbed to Samsung's charms, the Galaxy S9+ might make it hard not to do so.
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Samsung Galaxy S9+ design
- 158.1 x 73.8 x 8.5mm, 189g
- IP68 water and dust protection
- Visually similar design to Galaxy S8
- New fingerprint scanner position
- Black, blue and lilac colours
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That's a very apt expression to apply to the Samsung Galaxy S9+. Measuring 158.1 x 73.8 x 8.5mm and weighing in at 189g, the Galaxy S9+ only slightly larger than the Galaxy S8+ of 2017, but we're talking fractions of a millimetre. So the look and the feel of this phone is very much the same as it was before.
It's still noticeably smaller than the Galaxy Note 8, but stretches over the regular Galaxy S9, its partner handset for those who want something a little more compact. The glass front meets the glass back with luscious curves, sandwiching in that aluminium core. It's a design story that's familiar, stretching back to the S6 edge.
The display is the same aspect as the Galaxy S8+, only retaining a small section of bezel to the top and bottom of the display. Samsung has tweaked this to make the sensors that it houses a little more subtle and has avoided the temptation to move to a notch design.
Waterproofing stays in place with a solid IP68 rating, while this slim design also hangs on to the 3.5mm headphone socket. Samsung's trait has long been choice; while others shed expandable storage or convenient audio connections, Samsung holds on to them.
Yes, there's a familiarity to the S9+ and on one level that might deter you from considering it an upgrade. We'll admit that it's a harder sell for someone with an S8+ or a Note 8 already, but for those with older devices or considering moving to Samsung, we still think this is one of the most striking designs on the market right now.
Samsung Galaxy S9+ security options
- Intelligent Scan combines face and iris scanning
- Fingerprint scanner on the rear
- Bixby Voice can unlock your phone
One distinct change in design is the location of the fingerprint scanner. Last year's implementation wasn't as natural or easy to hit as it was on other devices, like the Pixel 2 for example. Samsung has listened to this feedback and shifted it to below the camera rather than beside. At first we weren't convinced this would be enough of a change, but very quickly we found we could hit the fingerprint scanner and not the camera with no problems at all.
So fingerprint scanning is now a win for Samsung. As with previous devices, Samsung is offering a range of other biometric unlocking options, including face and iris scanning. While both these measures exist independently, Samsung has combined them into something called Intelligent Scan. This will use both measures to assess who you are and it deals with one of the shortcomings of previous implementations, which was not working in the dark.
We found this to work reliably in a wide range of conditions - you can just look at your phone and it opens - but in reality, we prefer fingerprint scanning. Using your fingerprint means you can unlock your phone as you get it out of your pocket or as you pick it up.
There will be an argument raging about Intelligent Scan not being as secure as Apple's Face ID, but relative security is a moot point. Neither are more secure than your PIN or password. Why? Because your password or PIN is always the backup option when biometrics fails; ergo, biometrics is about convenience rather than absolute security and it's armed with that knowledge that you should choose how you unlock your device.
It's worth noting that Bixby Voice can also be trained to unlock your device should you so wish.
Samsung Galaxy S9+ Infinity Display shines
- 6.2-inch ALOMED with curved edges, 18.5:9 aspect
- 2960 x 1440 pixels, 530ppi
- UI better optimised for landscape use
With this phone being all about the display, it's worth running down the headline specs: the S9+ is still AMOLED with curved edges, it's still 6.2-inches and it still has the 18.5:9 aspect. But this is a whole new display panel and it is brighter than it was before - if more brightness was something you needed.
The headline 2960 x 1440 pixels is something of a misnomer; the panel will run at that resolution, but the default out of the box is Full HD+ or 2220 x 1080 pixels. Reducing resolution saves battery and while it won't give you the absolute quality that Quad HD+ will, it's arguable whether you'll notice the difference on this size of device. While there's a distinct difference between 720p and 1080p, but as you move above that, you need to have very keen eyes indeed to spot the real world differences.
The Super AMOLED display retains the characteristics it's known for: deep blacks and punchy vibrant colours. There are a number of screen modes you can choose from; arguably the "basic" is what some people are now calling "natural" although we prefer a little more verve to our display. Stick to "adaptive" as it really does get better performance out of a wide range of conditions, whereas the others don't all look so refined.
There's no dramatic colour shift at angles, there's no problem with using it with polarised glasses (the black-out point is on the diagonal), but it doesn't perform particularly well with dark video content. Watch something like Daredevil on Netflix and you'll find that some of the shadows are crushed into oblivion. This is also something that even the latest TVs can struggle with, but it's a weakness in an otherwise fine display. Watch something loaded with brightness and colour and the Galaxy S9+ will verifiably blow you away.
The video enhancer mode is also worth using. Fire up The Revenant on Netflix and the video enhancer brings this movie to life, giving it the sort of HDR brilliance that wowed us on the best televisions.
There's also now a landscape option for the home screen. This will let you use the phone in landscape to watch videos, returning to the home screen and opening the apps tray without needing to constantly rotate your phone. It's a handy addition, but you might decide that sometime you want to lock rotation so it's not switching around when you move the phone.
Overall, we still think the Galaxy S9+ is one of the best looking displays out there. It's certainly the brightest and when you step out in sunny conditions, it can ramp up the brightness to cut through reflections, and in this regard it remains unrivalled.
Samsung Galaxy S9+ hardware and battery life
- Exynos 9810 or Snapdragon 845 hardware
- 6GB RAM, 64GB storage + microSD expansion
- 3500mAh battery
- Fast wired and wireless changing
Samsung has two different versions of the Galaxy S9+, one powered by its own Exynos 9810 and the other with the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 845. For those in the UK, it's the Exynos 9810 version that you get. The boost to 6GB RAM in this model sees it get a little bump over the 4GB of the smaller Galaxy S9.
In the past it has become clear that there's little practical difference between the two versions of the phone and we certainly can't complain about the performance. This is one of the first devices we've experienced on this new generation of hardware: it's not a leaps and bound ahead of the previous version, but it's still very slick in operation. Alongside the Note 8 running on the previous generation hardware, it has a little more snap.
For those wondering whether the hardware boost warrants an upgrade from the previous year, we'd say that you can probably hang onto your existing device without feeling that you're falling behind. There's a standard 64GB of storage with microSD available for expansion supporting up to 400GB, which is truly massive.
The Galaxy S9+ also carries a 3500mAh battery, which is the same as last year's device. This generally betters the smaller S9 when it comes to endurance, but there's plenty that will eat it - slow-motion video, that vibrant display running at full resolution as well as those now-boosted speakers. It can be a Jekyll and Hyde experience: on low use days, you can reach the evening with 70 per cent in the tank; but when things fire up, you'll burn through the battery by mid-afternoon.
While there are optimisations in place to kill apps in the background or reduce the power consumption of the hardware, the Galaxy S9+ is unlikely to win awards for all-out endurance.
Some of that comes down to pure capacity: the Huawei Mate 10 Pro for example gets itself a 4000mAh battery and higher capacities simply last longer. There is fast charging from both the wired and wireless sides, but this isn't quite as speedy as Dash Charge on OnePlus devices. An hour and a half on the wall plug will see you in good stead, however.
So, plenty of power for the latest apps and features, but not quite the largest battery around.
Oh, but those new AKG speakers
- Stereo speakers tuned by AKG
- Dolby Atmos enhancement
Remember the halcyon days of HTC ruling smartphones? Remember how glorious it was the first time you experienced BoomSound? HTC dashed itself against the rocks of smartphone speakers and now there are BoomSound-rivalling speakers on the Galaxy S9+.
We don't say that lightly. For many generations, the speakers on Samsung phones have been perfunctory; they made noise without really coming to the party. Now those speakers are the party and you'll be surprised by the lift that they bring to things.
Louder and clearer was the promise and that's very much the reality. You can turn the volume up to share content or enjoy things that would have had you reaching for your headphones before. They are now AKG-tuned according to Samsung and good job AKG, because they are a delight.
There's also a boost you can bring with Dolby Atmos. First a disclaimer: this isn't the same Atmos experience you'll get from a 5.1.2 channel home cinema system, but sound is wider and better articulated with it on rather than with it off. Accept that it's a software-based system and accept that it's carrying the Dolby Atmos name, but otherwise don't think too hard about it.
It's also a toggle option so you can enable it at any time (don't even asking about whether you need an Atmos-encoded source, we told you not to think too hard about it), and we'd certainly say that watching movies with Atmos turned on leads to a better experience; there's the option to change the sound profile for movies, music or voice, but you'll probably find that leaving it in auto is good enough.
Galaxy S9+: A tale of two cameras
- 12-megapixel dual rear camera with 2x optical zoom lens
- OIS on both cameras
- Dual aperture on main camera f/1.5 and f/2.4
- Video at 960fps with motion detection
- 8-megapixel front camera
Despite smartphones being a super-computer companion in your pocket, the focus of all phone advertising now seems to be the camera. It's the lead element of any shoot-out between phones as each tries to out "photograph" the next. Samsung's uniqueness in the Galaxy S9+ comes down to a dual-aperture main camera, paired with a telephoto lens. It's also here that this camera differs from the smaller Galaxy S9 which doesn't get the second telephoto lens. As a result, this is also the largest section of our review.
But where to start?
The aim of the dual-aperture lens is to give you the benefits of a larger aperture - f/1.5 - without the drawbacks of a large aperture when you don't need it - a depth of field that's so shallow the subject isn't all in focus. So that larger aperture is partnered with a reasonable f/2.4, a better aperture for general photography in good lighting.
Out in the real world the S9+ will choose the aperture for the scene based on the lighting conditions. Typically, it's f/1.5 all the time in lower light conditions and ISO is used to bring in brightness in low light conditions that might not otherwise be there, but not aggressively so. Taking photos in dark conditions delivers some outstanding results thanks to this, while noise is less prevalent than on older devices, like the Galaxy Note 8.
Compared to something like the Google Pixel 2, the Samsung Galaxy S9+ is clearly better in dark conditions - and it's better than the Note 8, both of which will give you a photo from a dark scene that the Pixel 2 can't get near.
In daylight, however, the Galaxy S9+ loses out in a number of areas. Pitch it against that Pixel 2 XL again and you'll find that it doesn't have the contrast in daylight shots, giving brighter results, but losing detail in shadow areas as a result. The handling of typical "HDR" shots isn't as adeptly executed, so while we have reasonable daylight results, there's less detail in clouds for example. Much of this comes down to processing and can potentially be enhanced, but it feels like Google's AR is giving it the edge.
The Pixel's advantage extends to "dim" conditions, where it generally has better colours and balance, but once it gets too dark, the Galaxy S9+ streaks away and becomes many times better. On the whole, to complete this comparison, the Galaxy S9+ appears to be tuned to be a little on the warm side, so things can look a little more yellow than you might like.
Where the Galaxy S9+ offers an advantage over some rivals is in the second camera with a telephoto lens. This is conditional on good light, again. Step indoors and you're not actually using that second lens, the camera switches to 2x digital zoom on the main camera - you can test this by putting your finger over the lenses and seeing what's obscured. But in good light the S9+ gives you nice sharp closer shots than single-camera systems will, with clarity and detail.
The second lens also plays its part in the Live Focus mode the camera offers. Not only does it use all the information from those lenses to create a depth map and give you that bokeh effect if you want it, but it offers dual capture that will give you both a wide angle and close-up shot at the same time. That Live Focus mode is great for bokeh, but again, others offer this using AI rather than physical optics (this is really a combination of both).
The front camera will do the same - offering you selfie focus which essentially a bokeh portrait mode. The results are pretty good, but keep an eye on face shape correction and the beatification offering - if you don't look like you, then that's because you've been digitally corrected. It's not a great low-light selfie camera, so if it's dark, use the flash.
You can get some nice detailed 4K video out of the camera - although limited to 10 minute bursts - with a 60fps option (limited to 5 minutes) for those wanting to push it higher. There's no HDR video option as you'll get from the Xperia XZ2. But Samsung's highlight is now super slow-motion and at that 960fps rate that Sony was pushing in 2017. It's limited to 720p and it needs good light - attempt "super slow-mo" in low light and firstly the camera struggles to focus and secondly it's a very grainy result.
Slow-mo can capture some great things, but timing is always an issue. Samsung has introduced an "auto" motion detection which allows you to position a box where you want it to capture action. Once something enters the box the slow-mo capture notionally starts. It's great if you have the phone steady, nothing moving and the only motion will be at the point when the slow-motion capture is supposed to start. In short, it's fiddly to use and getting a decent result isn't always that easy as it only really works for deliberately set-up scenes.
So in this duel of the dual cameras there's a lot that's good, but some basics that hold things back. The real downside for us is that this isn't a class-leading daytime camera. The Pixel 2 XL beats it, with an HDR advantage bringing balance and contrast that Samsung sometimes lacks. In the low-light stakes, the Galaxy S9+ is a much stronger performer, with pro options to let you get a little more creative, as well as many more photo options in the app.
Samsung Galaxy S9+ software and experience
- Android Oreo with Samsung Experience UX 9
- SmartThings connectivity
When Android hit the big time as a software platform for smartphones, it was a raw mess. Samsung launched the Galaxy S with TouchWiz, applying some of its own stylings to Android to make it a lot more user friendly and fully-featured. Samsung's re-working of Android is still the most aggressive, but it's also the most mature. Of all the Android devices on the market, Samsung has the most features out of the box and the now-rebranded Samsung Experience UX betters the likes of EMUI in terms of sheer usability.
From a software point of view, choice is very much on the agenda. That's long been the case and with each new iteration, Samsung adds more choice - how do you want your navigation bar? What do you want the always-on display to show? What minuscule device behaviours to you want to change? While Experience UX is accomplished, it's also complicated once you scratch the surface.
We could write a whole book on the software - in fact we have an extensive tips and tricks right here - but suffice to say that some will find the additions unnecessary over the now mature Android Oreo that runs underneath. Importantly, however, the Samsung Galaxy S9+ doesn't feel slower than purer Android flagship phones, like the Google Pixel 2 XL - although the restart time is a good deal longer than stock Oreo.
There is duplication - the gallery and browser for example - which are fuelled by Samsung's own app store. For each service that Google offers, Samsung seems to have an alternative: your Samsung account can handle backups rather than Google, Samsung Pass wants to remember your passwords (rather than Google) and Bixby wants to do the stuff that Google Assistant is so very good at. Being Android at its core, you get the option of either or both, so we can sympathise with those who think it's bloated and confusing.
Of the Samsung apps to kill, we'd recommend you ditch the keyboard, calendar, browser and messages app. Google's stock apps are more visually engaging and sync across your Google account. But the beauty of Android is that these apps are quick to change and you'll never look back.
One of the areas where Samsung is cleaning things up is in connectivity. For a number of years, Samsung Connect has offered to manage your connected devices, as well as some of your sharing - for example with your Samsung TV or your Bluetooth headphones. In a world of increasing connected devices, SmartThings is now the single central app, now offering a much wider scope beyond direct connections to controlling compatible smart home devices. Basically, it's Samsung's answer to Google Assistant's smart home skills.
You'll need a SmartThings hub to really take advantage of it, but it does tidy things up. Would we choose it over Alexa or Google Assistant? Not at the moment, but if you're invested in the SmartThings ecosystem, you might think otherwise.
Bixby similarly wants to address Google Assistant's skills by returning information and offering device controls. It's a bundle of AI features crossing Bixby Vision - an equivalent of Google Lens - and Bixby Home - an equivalent of Google's feed. While Bixby Vision's live translation is useful, the key skill it really offers is finding controls on your phone by voice. Otherwise, there's still a feeling that Google Assistant has wider scope through a single point of interaction - with the advantage of being natively linked to Google's other services.
So Bixby is still very much waiting in the wings (and we can see Bixby controlling SmartThings as a logical next step in smart home dominance to rival Google Home or Amazon Alexa). There's still a Bixby button and a Bixby Home screen and we still feel they don't really contribute much to the Galaxy S9+ experience. Both can be disabled too - as we tell you here.
But let's not detract from the accomplishment here: Samsung's phone goes beyond just about all others in offering features, you just have to dig them out.
The last word on AR emoji
- Samsung's answer to animoji
- Feel free to skip this section
AR emoji are a headline feature of the Samsung Galaxy S9+, taking a chunk of stage time when the phone was announced at Mobile World Congress. AR emoji is Samsung's answer to Apple's animoji that launched on the iPhone X. We've broken this down into a separate section, so you can skip straight to the verdict, if you've no interest in AR emoji at all.
AR emoji essentially give you the opportunity to capture your face and turn yourself into an emoji character. It's basically an animated avatar of yourself that you can customise to a degree, before 18 emoji are created from that image. You can use these on common messaging platforms as gifs in place of regular emoji characters.
From the same foundation, you can also record custom video of your AR self, as well as applying a number of other AR elements, like masks, stickers, glasses or hats, very much in the spirit of Snapchat. It's all simple and works well enough, if that's what you want to do with your time.
AR emoji is integrated into the camera, presenting itself as a camera mode, so you can also apply AR elements to other people using the rear camera - or multiple people in groups. It doesn't quite have the charm of Snapchat's filters so if you still want dog face to share on Instagram, we suspect you'll stick with Snap.
The Samsung Galaxy S9+ is possibly the most fully-featured smartphone on the market. It offers out-of-the-box functionality that exceeds most other devices. It's one of the leaders of a new generation of hardware, pushing one of the nicest quality designs with one of the best displays around.
The user interface is one of the most loaded with features giving vast customisation to this slick and powerful handset, which benefits from the introduction of excellent speakers. Boosted audio brings a lift to games and movies, giving immediate appeal, but the battery life doesn't really break new ground.
But Samsung started from a very strong place. The best smartphone of 2017 has evolved into this device, so in some ways it's an incremental step over something that was already very good. Most of the attention pours into the camera and while there's innovation and some impressive low-light performance - as well as the benefit of that second zoom lens and features galore - the daytime performance of this camera isn't quite class leading.
We can't hesitate to recommend the Samsung Galaxy S9+: it will be many things to a great many people. But with prices rising, those with a Galaxy S8+ or Galaxy Note 8 don't need to rush to upgrade, for while there's a lot that's new, many of the important features Samsung had nailed the last time around.
The original version of this review was published on 8 March 2018.
Alternatives to consider
Huawei Mate 10 Pro
There was a time when we wouldn't consider recommending Huawei as an alternative to Samsung, but this demonstrates how far Huawei has come in smartphones. You get a quality build and a great camera, but with battery life being Huawei's killer stroke. Like Samsung, Huawei heavily customises Android Oreo with its EMUI software and that takes some tweaking to get it back to an Android state of mind. It can't quite match the display chops, but you can get at a good deal cheaper than the Galaxy S9+.
Samsung Galaxy Note 8
A similar software experience will be boosted when the Note 8 gets updated to Android Oreo, but if you're looking for hardware parity, this is as close as you'll get to the Galaxy S9+ in an existing device. It offers those dual cameras on the rear and while it lacks the dual aperture function, it gains the S Pen and is a little larger in size, carrying with it better battery life. You can also get it for the same price as Samsung's latest phone, with more display on offer.
Google Pixel 2 XL
While the Pixel 2 XL can't compete with Samsung's design or the quality of the display, it does have a couple of advantages. The first is that the Android software is the first to be updated and it's free from bloat - there's no duplication of quirky services, just Google goodness. The second is that the camera makes better use of daylight with greater HDR results. It won't touch the Galaxy S9+ in low light, but for daytime shooting, we actually prefer it. If camera matters, always consider the Pixel 2.