(Pocket-lint) - The Galaxy S9 is now on sale. For the last few years, only one big name Android phone maker has made a success of offering a non-compromise flagship phone and charging a premium for it: Samsung.
The Galaxy brand has developed over the years to become the yardstick by which all other Android flagships are measured.
For 2018, the the big question was whether or not the new Galaxy could improve on last year. The S8 was almost flawless. Would the same be true of the Galaxy S9?
- Samsung Galaxy S9+ review: If it ain't broke, don't fix it
- A timeline of Samsung's flagship Android phones in pictures
- 147.7 x 68.7 x 8.5 mm
- IP68 water and dust resistance
- Corning Gorilla Glass 5
Samsung didn’t have any reason to change the design up from the Galaxy S8, it was comfortably one of the best looking phones launched in 2017 thanks to the gorgeous curved glass and metal finish. So when it came to the S9, there wasn’t really anything to improve, and that’s why we only see a subtle evolution in the company’s 2018 flagship. The top and bottom bezels are a little slimmer, and the fingerprint sensor has been placed more sensibly on the back, but that’s about it.
Colour-wise, Samsung has seen fit to colour match the metal frame around the edges with the almost iridescent glass finish on the back. This year, that’s the handsome Lilac Purple, Coral Blue or Midnight Black. It’s a restrained colour palette this year, but very attractive nonetheless.
Like last year, the metal edges up the left and right side of the screen is slimmer than the top and bottom, and that’s due to the curves in the glass. It adds a sense of symmetry between the front and back of the phone, but also helps give the phone that edge-to-edge screen appearance.
Being covered in shiny, shimmery Corning Gorilla Glass 5 on the back means it’s very prone to attracting fingerprints. In fact, you only have to think about holding it, and the greasy smudges appear. In other words, be prepared for regular wiping against your t-shirt.
On the back is also where you’ll find the primary rear camera, housed in slightly protruding rectangular housing, along with the fingerprint sensor in the centre, and alongside the LED flash and heart-rate sensor. Then, around the ages, you’ll spot the usual suspects: power button on the right, SIM tray up top and a bottom edge made up of the speaker grille, USB-C port and 3.5mm jack.
Perhaps the one questionable choice here is the permanent Bixby button on the left edge, below the volume rocker. It was a bold move from Samsung to give a permanent fixture such a specific function last year, especially a functionality with questionable usefulness. Clearly, the company believes in the future of its smart assistant, because it’s back. Thankfully, it’s easy enough to ignore.
Otherwise, the design is impeccable. One of our favourite minor elements was how Samsung has managed to hide a handful of sensors and camera in the top bezel. In the right light, you can make out six of them (including the notification LED), but the only one you see most of the time is the regular front-facing camera. That’s some crafty camouflage from the Korean tech giant.
This is all built into a device that’s very comfortable to hold in one hand. It’s impressively portable and narrow, although - due to the long display - it’s still a little difficult to reach the top corners.
To top it all off, the phone is IP68 rated against water and dust ingress. So it’s not just a good looking phone, it’s really durable too, although with all that glass, we do worry about how a few too many tumbles onto a hard floor might take their toll.
Magnificent media machine
- 5.8-inch Super AMOLED
- QHD+ 18.5:9 ratio display
- AKG tuned stereo speakers
Like the design, the display remains largely unchanged from last year. It’s Samsung’s Super AMOLED technology, built into a 5.8-inch 18.5:9 panel that completely dominates the front of the phone. With its resolution of 1440 x 2960, it boasts an incredible pixel density of 570ppi, and this in a screen that takes up almost 85 per cent of the entire front surface.
For those reasons alone it could be considered among the most impressive screens around, but then you start watching Netflix on it, and it takes things to another level.
As well as being among the sharpest displays on any smartphone, it’s also really, really, ridiculously good looking and we all know there’s very little more to life than that.
Being AMOLED means you get great contrast and saturation, giving a really vibrant quality to pretty much anything that’s on there. App icons, wallpapers and images all pop onscreen. There is even more to it than that even. This display is primed for Netflix binging. It’s compliant with HDR10, which makes it even more dynamic than AMOLED already is, naturally, and there’s a “Video Enhancer” setting in the phone that you switch on to automatically make content more vibrant in video playing apps.
The end result is fantastic, especially when watching Netflix Originals. Although it must be said, the curves and the rounded corners on the display do tarnish the experience ever-so-slightly. With 18:9 content, and the display not being 18:9, we found the rounded corners look a little jarring on the flat edges of the video. There are times in dark scenes where the images is just far too dark, and it can be hard to see.
For those planning to buy the phone, it’s worth making sure you dig into the settings a little, if only so that you can ensure it’s running at its full resolution. By default, despite being a QHD+ display, Samsung sets the screen resolution to Full HD+ (1080 x 2220). It means better battery performance, but content isn’t as quite as sharp.
In addition to having probably the best display that’s ever been in a smartphone, there are dual stereo speakers and “Dolby Atmos”, which takes the media experience to another level.
Just to be clear, this Dolby Atmos isn’t the same amazing 3D surround sound you’d get from a high end home cinema setup, but it does make everything sound brilliant. It boosts the volume, and increases the bass and middle tones. More importantly, it gives you a great stereo audio effect when you’re holding your phone centrally to your face.
It took us completely by surprise that two relatively small speakers in a smartphone could produce this immersive experience. It’s comparable to HTC’s BoomSound of old, perhaps even better. Having had it switched on, we found we didn’t want to switch it off, ever.
Couple these speakers with the surprisingly capable AKG earphones that come bundled with the phone, and you have a phone that offers the best out-of-the-box audio experience of any major flagship.
AR Emoji and Bixby assistant
- Android Oreo
- Bixby Vision translates and detects objects
- AR Emoji is Samsung's answer to animoji
Samsung isn’t shy about loading up its Android skin with tonnes of additional features. Just looking at the camera interface is enough to give you a headache. That said, there are a couple of features Samsung was keen to highlight during the launch: Bixby and AR Emoji.
The former has its own button on the side, but can also be set up to respond to voice commands in a similar way to Siri and Google Assistant. (Which yet again, brings up the question: why the physical button?).
The best way to think of Bixby isn’t as a smart, connected assistant with all the answers to everything. But rather, the smart assistant with access to all your phone’s controls. You can use it to send messages, upload photos to Facebook, or control parts of the phone’s hardware, like turning on the flashlight or Bluetooth.
It works most of the time, fairly well, but sometimes doesn’t correctly understand what you’ve asked. Like Siri when it first came out, the name “Elouise” proved to be a constant challenge. Bixby heard it as “other ways”. As an example.
Similarly, Bixby Vision - which is part of the camera interface - can be used to detect items, or translate text in real-time through the camera. Again, it more often than not didn’t have a clue what it was looking at. Half the time it thought apples were peaches, or bread, and a box of porridge cereal was a DVD, or stuffed Jalapenos. In other words, it’s not so smart.
Its translate feature was slightly more useful in that it was better at reading and translating text than it was at detecting objects. We translated several English signs into Welsh in testing, and for the most part, it got them all right, bar a few words missing here and there. It was certainly enough to get the gist. Sadly, it's unable to translate the other way around, from Welsh to English.
As for AR Emoji, in reality, this is somewhere between Snapchat filters and Animoji. It’s a little janky in use, and doesn’t look as smooth in motion, or as polished, as Apple’s iPhone X-loaded feature. Perhaps the most insulting element is that when it creates your own personalised emoji character, it doesn’t look much like you at all.
Still, the filters are a fun way to communicate for at least a few hours, until you get bored and go back to plain old GIFs. In regards to the rest of the software, it's exactly the same as what's in the S9+ and covered in more depth in that review.
- 4GB RAM
- Exynos 9810 processor
- Intelligent scan
As you’d expect from a 2018 Samsung flagship, the fluidity and performance is first class on the S9. Everything it does, it does quickly and effortlessly. Even if you’re a heavy user, you won’t notice any stutter or lag.
The one thing that does take a tiny bit longer than we’d hoped is the Intelligent Scan. Because it’s matching both your irises and face, it’s not quite as instant to unlock as a fingerprint scan might be, or as fast as a simple face unlock is on devices like the OnePlus 5T. Still, it’s certainly within a second, and isn’t what you would describe as sluggish.
- 3,000mAh battery
- Adaptive fast charging through cable
- Fast wireless charging
Last year’s S8 wasn’t the top battery performer in its class, not by any stretch of imagination. With the same 3,000mAh capacity this year, we weren’t too hopeful of much improvement. And we really didn’t get much more from it.
S9’s problem it seems, is efficiency when the screen/phone is in use. On one of our heavier testing days, we lost eight per cent, just chatting in Slack for roughly 10-15 minutes. During the morning we tested its camera a fair bit, watched a short episode on Netflix, recorded a couple of super slow-mo videos, among other bits and pieces like reading and web browsing. In total, the screen was on for less than three hours. On that heavy use day, it didn’t even make it to 5pm. And that’s without using it for gaming, or excessive amounts of phone calling.
If you’re a light user; someone who checks their phone a handful of times a day, maybe plays the odd game here or there on a toilet break, makes a couple of phone calls and listens to 30-60 mins of music, you should get to the end of the day before needing to charge it back up again. But even that might be a stretch. On one of our lightest days, it had less than 10 per cent left over at bed time (around 11pm).
It is worth noting, we had the screen resolution set to its highest, and had Dolby Atmos switched on the entire time, which will impact battery somewhat. What’s more, it’s become clear in testing that the Super Slow-Mo feature is very battery intensive.
The short takeaway from this is that if you use your phone a lot during the day, and don’t want to have to carry a charger with you, the S8+ is going to be a better option. The extra 500mAh capacity means you should comfortably get through your work day.
On the plus side, Samsung’s wireless charging is among the fastest out there, even you buy the company’s optional fast wireless charger. If not, the Adaptive Fast Charging adapter in the box gives you a fairly speedy top-up. Again, not as speedy as something like OnePlus’ Dash Charge, but it’s enough to give you a useful top up within 30 mins. Still, it takes more than 90 minutes to fully charge the phone.
- 12MP dual-aperture dual pixel camera
- Super Slow-mo 960fps
- 4K video at 60fps
The Galaxy S8’s camera was always going to be a tricky act to follow. It was comfortably one of the best, if not THE best mobile camera available in 2017. This year, the company took the pretty much the same sensor, and beefed up the optics.
Specifically, there’s now some added DRAM which enables Super Slow-mo shooting at 960fps. In reality, this is a feature that takes a little practice and a lot of purposeful framing. When you get it right, it’s fantastic in bright light. It’s just hard to get it exactly right. And it really doesn't get on well with low light scenes.
After selecting the Super Slow-mo option within the camera app, you have to choose where on the screen you want the motion-activated square field to be. Once you start recording, it automatically kicks into Super Slow-mo mode whenever it detects deliberate movement within that square. You have to keep the camera still, or it won’t record it, and if your subject mistimes the movement even slightly, you can end up with the wrong part of the motion sequence slowed down.
That’s predominantly because it only records at the high frame rate for a fraction of a second, before kicking back into regular video speed. If you have time and patience, this feature can be fantastic. Just don’t expect to be able to just select the slow motion option and get it right the first time.
As for the camera stills in general, photos look good. Photos are sharp with natural colour, good depth of field and clarity. We had mixed results in harsh lighting conditions though. Often times, we found the camera blew out the highlights, bleaching elements like clouds in the sky, or even subtle reflections.
In low light, the dual aperture lens comes into its own. We tested in various low light shots against the Pixel 2, and other scenes against the iPhone 8 Plus. In very low light situations, the S9 was in a league of its own, pulling in more light than either of the others. At dusk, taking sunset shots, the Pixel 2 - by comparison - was darker and with contrast that was too high. Samsung’s image was brighter, had more light, but at times in certain bright parts of the image, was overexposed. In these instances, the iPhone took better overall images. The colours were more vibrant, there wasn’t as much overexposure as the Galaxy, and not as much contrast as the Pixel.
While it’s not perfect, the Galaxy S9 is a fantastic device. It’s got a brilliant display, great camera, brilliant performance all-round, and in a body that’s easily one of the most elegant ever released. Its stereo sound makes such a difference to media consumption too.
Its camera could do with slightly better performance in regards to overexposure, and the battery isn’t great, but it’s still a top drawer device with a top drawer price. At £739, it's a serious investment. But it you want all the latest, best features in a device that looks good, you'll need to pay for it.
The original version of this review was published on 8 March 2018.
Google Pixel 2
Google's Pixel 2 differs from the Galaxy S9 in a number of ways. It has a more conventional 16:9 ratio display, a more minimalist approach to design and runs a pure version of Android. It also has one of the best cameras going, and a battery that's more efficiently managed. It's perhaps a bit more boring, but it gets things done, effortlessly and without showing off.
Read the full article: Google Pixel 2 review
Apple iPhone 8
For the last seven years, Apple's iPhone and Samsung Galaxy have been each other's biggest rivals. The same is true this year. If you want a small, powerful phone with a great camera, the iPhone 8 is an easy recommendation. It runs Apple's iOS software which is kept up to date for years after the phone is launched. It's quick, easy to use and has all the best apps available to it.
Read the full article: Apple iPhone 8 review
Samsung Galaxy S8
We don't often recommend older phones, but in the case of the Galaxy S9, we really don't think you'll be missing out much by going for last year's model. Especially now that the price has dropped to around £500. It's comfortably cheaper than the S9, without any real compromises.
Read the full article: Galaxy S8 review