Right, first up is my daily driver, and Samsung’s yearly iteration on their Galaxy S line. Okay, now, I know what you’re thinking: “Eh, I thought the whole point of this blog was a review for affordable phones… but the first review is for a £739 flagship?” I hear you, this is just to get the review wheels greased up for the affordable things to come. Work with me here, alright?
The S9 is very much an incremental iteration on the S8 from last year (which I also owned, albeit with the larger S8+ model). Design wise, the phone is very, very similar. In fact, looking at it from the front, you’ll be hard pressed to tell which phone it was you are looking at. This is forgivable though, the design of the S8 was so good last year that not a huge amount of work needed done on this front. One important change is the move of the fingerprint sensor from the left hand side of the camera to underneath it this year. The is a welcome improvement, and something that Samsung was lauded for last year. Many speculated that the choice of placement on the S8 happened very late in the design stage (due to them not managing to quite nail down embedding the fingerprint scanner within the screen – something Vivo has managed to successfully show off at this year’s CES), resulting in them having to stick it beside beside the camera to preserve symmetry on the back. Regardless, the placement now is in a much better place, and remains my go-to way of unlocking the phone: the unlock time is very fast, up there with the best in the industry. The S9 brings over the iris scanner and the face unlock feature from the S8, however this time it combines the two of them with something called Intelligent Scan. If the face unlock is struggling to identify, the idea is that the iris recognition kicks in to help out and hopefully manage to recognise the user. If I’m honest, I rarely use this feature, as I found it to be just unreliable enough that I find myself reaching for the fingerprint sensor automatically instead.
Additionally, I decided to branch out from my usual “black or nothing” decision when it came to the colour and opted for the frankly lovely “Coral Blue” option. I was initially skeptical at my potentially bold colour choice but I actually really like it. It’s quite muted and not at all garish, and makes me feel like I have a fresh new phone since the design is so similar to last year’s phone.
Just to round off the design, on the right hand side of the phone we have a single button for power (double click for camera, always handy). Left hand side is the volume rocker above the Bixby key, which launches Samsung’s annoying (in my opinion) AI assistant. I’ve found this button to be too easy to press when putting the phone in my pocket and has resulted more than once in my phone clicking away through menus in my pocket unbeknownst to me (I’ve since turned it off). On top is the SIM/microSD card slot (up to 400GB!) and noise reduction mic, and on the bottom we have a 3.5mm headphone jack (huzzah!), decent loudspeaker and USB C port.
Paired with that loudspeaker on the bottom, Samsung has finally put a secondary speaker in the earpiece module in the top of the phone, meaning that videos play with stereo sound, and is a vast improvement over the S8. On the back, you have the camera (one on the S9, and two on the S9+ – both setups pretty much flush with the body of the phone), plus the aforementioned fingerprint sensor, along with the usual camera flash, and the health sensors (heart rate and blood oxygen sensor) to use with Samsung’s S-Health suite of apps. Samsung has continued fully waterproofing its phones to IP68 rating – which is quickly becoming a standard feature for phones of this price. The phone also features quick charging and wireless charging (similar to the S8 before it).
I hold the quality of a screen on a phone up there amongst the most important feature of the device – after all, it’s the primary method of interaction between the user and the phone. Having a bad display means that everything else on the phone will look naff. Turning on the screen of the S9, and you are greeted with simply one of the best screens that has ever been put on a mobile device. It’s 1440 x 2960, 5.8″ (6.2″ on the S9+), no notch (!) and uses Samsung’s sAMOLED technology. In the past, Samsung has faced some criticism of this technology for being too vibrant and blowing the colours out of proportion, but now, after years of continual improvements, I’d say they are now nailing the colour balance, and have created a very natural looking, yet vibrant display, and one of the best in the market. There appears to be almost no gap between the physical glass and the pixels, so it appears that you are almost touching the icons themselves. The screen is also 18.5:9 aspect ratio, which is a slightly weird shape. This means some apps do not display perfectly, with some apps putting a bar at the bottom of the screen. Tapping this bar will force the app to display full screen, which comes with a warning informing the user that this may cause certain apps to look strange on the screen, but I’ve not yet come across any apps that don’t display properly using this method. The display curves very slightly over the left and right edges of the phone to create the experience of the phone being bezel-less (Samsung markets this as the Infinity Display). There’s a couple of other tricks that this curve allows, such as displaying notifications in a stock ticker style along the edge of the screen, and puts a little tab on the side of the screen which gives you quick access to settings and apps. One very useful feature is the Always On Display carried over from the S8. This shows the time, date and the most recent notifications when the screen of the phone is off, and is something that I find to be very useful for just glancing at the phone and seeing whats going on. When playing music this can also be used to control the currently playing music without even turning the screen of the phone on. Great feature.
The very bottom of the screen also has a pressure sensitive area which means that applying a bit of a hard press to this area acts as pressing the home button (which disappeared with the S8 after the screen fully covered the entire front of the phone).
Samsung has made advances in the camera with the S9, indeed it seems to be the spearhead feature with this model, with Samsung going with “The Camera. Reminagined.” as the strapline for the S9. This “reimagining” that is being referred to is the S9’s ability to switch the aperture on the 12MP sensor from 2.4f for typical shooting environments to 1.5f for low light situations. The camera controls this feature completely automatically unless you have the camera set to pro mode, but even then the option to switch aperture is hidden behind another icon – it would have been good to be able to switch this with a single tap. Samsung has added a super slow mo video function to this year’s model as well, something that Apple and Sony have featuring on their phones for a while now. Samsung’s offering gives you the ability to capture 720p video at 960fps. That’s 4x slower than the best offering from the iPhone X, though is limited to only 0.2s of real time capture, equating to 6s of playback. This also needs to be done in a very well lit environment – the slow mo requires a lot of light due to the sensor only capturing images for a very short space of time. Samsung has also introduced “AR Emoji,” a poor imitation of Apple’s Animoji, and not nearly as well implemented. You can take a scan of your face using the front facing camera, and the phone will generate a digital “emoji” version of yourself, which you can share as an image or a gif in your favourite messaging app. I think I’ve used only once since getting the phone, and that was during the initial phase of playing around with the phone, but I’m sure other people will find more use of it, and I guess I can admit it’s quite fun! Below are a sample of images taken with the S9.
Performance wise, the phone flies. Here in the UK, the phone is equipped with Samsung’s own Exynos 9810 (across the pond you get a Snapdragon 845), paired with 4GB of RAM (or 6GB on the S9+), with 64GB of storage. I won’t drown you in benchmark numbers which doesn’t really mean much, but rather say how it performs in real life. I’ve not noticed any slowdown at all whilst flipping about between apps, and the latest games run without any noticeable slowdown or drops in framerate (at least when I’ve played some PUBG Mobile and The Room 4).
Samsung is using the latest version of its TouchWiz launcher running atop Android 8.0 Oreo. Thankfully, Samsung has made massive bounds on scaling back all the garish, cartoony elements of previous versions of TouchWiz and have created a perfectly usable, tidy interface to interact with. Being a previous owner of an S2 and S3, it’s a night and day difference. There are quite a number of in built Samsung apps that I have since relegated to a folder on my app drawer and rarely open, but have kept incase I may need them in the future. Amazingly, most of the Samsung apps can actually be uninstalled if you prefer e.g. Google’s suite of apps or if they are not required, which is a welcome ability instead of having tons of pointless apps littering your phone.Kudos to Samsung for allowing this – most other manufacturers force you to leave these apps on your phone and not allow you to remove them. Bixby, Samsung’s software assistant going up against the Google Assistant, Siri, Cortana and even Alexa, lets you control certain aspects of your phone with your voice. There is a dedicated hardware button on the left of the phone devoted to it (and sadly cannot remap for another use); one press opens Bixby Home – a panel on the home screen than aggregates news, weather and posts from your social networks, and holding the button lets you talk commands to the phone to control certain aspects of the phone e.g. you can ask it to open specific apps for you or set reminders. However, I find the interface to be far too slow to be usable. Sometimes when holding the button, the voice recognition doesn’t kick in for a second or two, by which time I’m half way through my command, thus registering an incorrect action. This sort of thing needs to be ironed out so that it is very fluid before more people pick it up as an alternative to doing tasks manually instead.
Wrapping up, the S9 is definitely an iterative update to the S8 of last year. Much of the design remains the same, but those areas that required a bit of tidying up last year have been dealt with. Some elements, such as Samsung’s insistence of Bixby and the addition of the AR Emoji feels a lot like Samsung trying to keep up with Apple, but feel a bit half-baked and not totally thought out, and may have been better not adding these gimmicks in at all. But all in all, this is a great addition to the S family, and looking forward to where Samsung takes it for the 10th anniversary edition next year!