There is a point in most stocks of successful products where they become predictable. The new model, built from the triumphs of its previous version, maintains the same look and feel while introducing more subtle improvements. Apple used this tactic with the iPhone and iPad for several generations, and Microsoft did the same with Surface Pro in recent years. Do not swing the boat; do not fix what is not broken.
So, if you've seen Samsung's Galaxy S8 last year, you've seen the Galaxy S9 this year. With the content of the design and appearance of the S8, Samsung focused its efforts on small changes, mostly invisible, that result in a better overall experience, but not a dramatically different one. Of course, Samsung is Samsung, there are a lot of new features tricks embedded in it, so there's something to show in the ads.
That's not to say that the Galaxy S9 and the larger S9 Plus are bad phones; the S8 was an excellent phone last year, and the S9 is based on that. If you plan to buy a new phone in 2018 and are willing to spend between $ 700 and $ 900 (the unlocked S9 sells for $ 719.99, while the S9 Plus costs $ 839.99, the operator price varies), the S9 or S9 Plus surely one of the best options available will be the most popular Android smartphones launched this year, without a doubt.
But three years after Samsung's big design change, we already know what a Samsung premium phone is. It is predictable, both good (screen, design) and bad (software). The Galaxy S9 is the most predictable Samsung phone yet.
The design, the screen and the specifications of the S9 provide zero surprises, but they are the things that influence your daily use of the phone more than anything else. For the most part, Samsung came up with the basics.
Although the overall design and appearance of the S9 pair are the same as those of the S8, it is no less attractive or impressive to look at. Even the toughest gadget bloggers, such as Verge's editor-in-chief Nilay Patel, were still impressed with the appearance of the S9 when I showed it to them for the first time. The phone has an unlimited pool effect that, combined with its extra high aspect ratio screen, makes it look like it's just holding a screen.
Samsung screens are still the best you can get with an Android phone
There are curved crystals in the front and back that make the phone comfortable to hold and that is narrower than other phones with screens of similar size. Like last year, both the S9 and the S9 Plus have curved screens; You can not buy a flat version of either. My complaint with the design is the same as that of any other glass-backed phone: it can be slippery to hold, is a horrible fingerprint magnet, and is less durable than a metal backing would be.
But it's certainly beautiful.
The screens on the S9 and S9 Plus are exactly as you expected on a Samsung flagship, and they are still the best screens you can find on any Android phone. The S9 has a 5.8-inch screen, while the S9 Plus has a large 6.2-inch screen. Both are high resolution, both are OLED panels with vibrant colors (sometimes very vibrant), and both have excellent viewing angles. The screens are also a little brighter this year, which is always appreciated on sunny days. The extra-high aspect ratio of the screen allows minimal bevels above and below, which helps the perception that you are only holding a screen in your hand and nothing else.
But the upper and lower frames of the S9 are not as small or minimal as the iPhone X, its main competitor or several other devices. In the time since Samsung converted the small bevels into a tabletop betting feature, other companies have improved and iterated into the concept to produce even more immersive designs. Samsung tells you quickly that the S9 does not have a notch that interrupts the screen, but neither does it have the most immersive screen.
The S9 also has other Samsung hardware resources: fast wired and wireless charging, IP68 water resistance and 3.5mm headphone jack. If you are looking for a high-end phone with a headphone jack in 2018, you have fewer options than ever, so I am very happy to see that Samsung did not change this aspect of the phone.
Last year, Samsung debuted with a dedicated button for its virtual assistant Bixby on the S8, and is in the same spot just below the volume buttons on the left side of the S9. Now you can disable Bixby startup, which is progress, but Samsung still does not provide a native way to reprogram it for something more useful. In the worst case, it's annoying, at best, it's a small button that you can press without having to worry about it doing something.
So, what is really new? Two things: the fingerprint scanner has moved to a much easier place to reach on the back of the phone, and the single speaker has been updated to a stereo pair.
The fingerprint scanner of the S8 was a frustrating experience: it was small, hard to reach, and right next to the camera, which meant most of the time, I ended up with fingerprints on the camera lens. The S9's scanner has moved just below the camera, which makes it much easier to reach, especially in the large S9 Plus. It is still small, especially compared to the scanners of other phones, and it is still too close to the camera. I have often found myself sliding the lens of the camera when I try to use the gesture to open the notification tray.
In an obvious attempt to replicate Apple's Face ID system, Samsung has introduced a new combined face-scan / iris scan function that can be used to unlock the phone instead of the fingerprint scanner. You will use the safest iris scanner or the fastest, but least secure, face scanner, depending on the lighting conditions you are in. However, it is slow, an annoying red light flashes when you activate the iris scanner, and it never feels as perfect as Face ID. The good thing is that the fingerprint scanner is easier to use now.
Most of the hardware features of the Galaxy S9 work very well, including its new stereo speakers
The new stereo speakers are more successful: they are louder, lighter and more pleasant to listen to than the S8's only loudspeaker. Samsung is trying to catch up here, many other phones have stereo speakers for years, but I'm happy to see them and finally hear them on a Galaxy phone. They are not the best speakers I've heard on a phone, but they are more than enough.
The rest of the S9 improvements are under the hood: you are running the latest Qualcomm processor (in North America, other markets will see Samsung's own Exynos processor), 4 GB (S9) or 6 GB (S9 Plus) of RAM , and a new LTE modem that supports even faster gigabit speeds. Those are the specs that we're likely to see in almost all Android browsers this year, but Samsung is the first one with them out the door.
The performance, at least during my review, has been excellent: the phone is agile and responsive, with smooth scrolling and fast application launches. The performance of the network has also been as impressive as the S8, and markedly better than my experience with the iPhone.
The size of the battery and internal storage have not changed: you get a 3,000 mAh battery in the S9 and a 3,500 mAh battery in the S9 Plus, with 64 GB of storage and compatibility with microSD cards in both. I really would have liked to see Samsung increase the size of the battery this year. The battery life is not bad on these phones, but it is simply average, and heavy users exhaust even the big battery of the S9 Plus after a long day.
The big news that Samsung wants everyone to know is the new rear camera of the S9. The 12 megapixel image sensor is new and improved, with better image processing, but the main change is in the lens, which can now physically switch between a very bright f / 1.5 aperture and a smaller f / 2.4 aperture , similar to larger cameras work. The S9 Plus model gains a second camera for zoom and portrait effects, just like Samsung launched with the Note 8 last year.
Samsung says it has significant improvements in low light with the new camera, thanks to its new lens that can capture more light and improve signal processing to reduce image noise. In my experience, the S9 can undoubtedly take excellent photos in low light conditions, but they are not necessarily better than Google Pixel 2 or even the iPhone X can capture most of the time. There is less noise than the images of the S8 and the colors are nice.
The images of the S9 have been improved with respect to the S8, but it is still undeniable that Samsung
But all images have a specific "look" of Samsung, which is warmer, very saturated and has imperfections (and, sometimes, details) softened. It's quite different from what Apple or Google cameras produce and deciding between them often comes down to personal preferences. At a technical level, all the high-end phones available now can capture excellent photographs. Most likely, if he was not a fan of Samsung's image processing before, he still does not like it.
I am less impressed with the switching opening function. It feels more like a saloon trick than anything else. The automatic mode of the S9 will change between the settings depending on the lighting conditions, but the professional mode allows you to decide which aperture you want to use. Since the camera can increase its shutter speed to compensate for the greater amount of light, I do not know why it would ever use f / 2.4 when a f / 1.5 lens is available. I prefer to have a faster shutter speed or a lower ISO setting than a slightly smaller aperture in virtually any situation.
The ability to change openings is tempting, and the principle is photographically sound. In a larger camera, controlling the aperture could produce sharper images or better exposure under lighting conditions. It also allows more creative control to produce long exposure effects or separate the subject from the background. But those assumptions about larger camera lenses do not apply directly to the small lenses and sensors that are in a phone.
Left image capture in f / 1.5, right image captured in f / 2.4. The differences between them are minimal.
Based on my test, there is no appreciable difference in the sharpness between the two openings. Since the small lens and the sensor already have very deep depths of field, closing the aperture in the S9 has a minimal effect on what is focused. Also, the amount of aperture control provided is not sufficient for advanced photography techniques, such as long exposure shots during the day, so you should still rely on complementary accessories for those.
The second telephoto lens of the S9 Plus is similar: Samsung's Live Focus portrait mode is not as good as Apple's or Google's to separate a subject from the background, and in difficult lighting conditions, the quality of the image is quite bad. You should buy the S9 Plus above the S9 if you want a larger screen or longer battery life, but not for your second camera lens.
The S9 can shoot 4K video at 60 frames per second, or 1080p slow motion video at 240 frames per second, which catches you with what the iPhone can do. (I hope that all Android flagship phones have these two video modes this year). Both modes produce videos of very good quality, but you must make sure that you have plenty of light for the slow motion mode, or you will see a lot of image noise.
In the front camera, things have not changed since last year. It is the same 8 megapixel camera as in the S8. It has autofocus, which no other front camera has yet to replicate, but its portrait mode and image quality are not as good as those of Google or Apple. By default, the selfie camera applies a large amount of image smoothing and other effects to try to beautify the photo, but they only make it look unfocused and unattractive to me.
The design, performance and cameras of the S9 are predictably good enough to keep it on top of the smartphone stack by 2018. But, Samsung being Samsung, there are a lot of other things that are driving with the S9 this year and in my estimation, they all qualify as tricks. As expected, things that do not work invariably involve software.
There's AR Emoji, the Samsung version of the Animoji feature of the iPhone X. Scan your face and then produce a Bitmoji-looking 3D character based on 100 points on your face that sometimes looks like you. Then he takes this character and creates a set of reaction GIFs with him that he can send through the keyboard. There are also some strange looking animals with which you can create video clips as you can with Animoji.
The things that do not work in the S9, as expected, all involve software
There are a couple of problems with Samsung's Emoji AR. First, Samsung is not using any special technology to capture your face or your movements, it only depends on the front or rear camera, so the tracking is bad. Second, the characters you create are on the wrong side of chilling, and everyone who has tried it has been completely disabled with the results. The characters of the animals are equally rare. It's definitely something that Samsung created just to compete with Apple and it's not very good.
Next is the new Super Slow Motion mode in the camera. In addition to the slow motion capture of 240 frames per second mentioned above, the S9 can shoot up to 960 frames per second. That sounds great, but the S9 can only do it for 0.2 seconds at a time (which extends to six seconds when played) and with only 720p of resolution. There are two ways to trigger this: you can try to manually activate it to capture the 0.2 seconds of action you want, or you can use an automatic mode that looks for movement in a specific area of the frame and captures the slow movement when it detects that. Both are really difficult to use and more frustrating than anything else: after ten attempts to try to get a slow motion photo of my six-year-old son throwing a snowball, both she and my patience ran out and we gave up . Worse still, the function needs a ton of light to work, and even if you have it, the image quality is still bad.
Bixby is not new, but he's still here and it's as bad as it was when it was launched last summer. It has received a new coat of paint and is a bit faster than before, but it is still much slower than the Google Assistant and it is not so good to analyze my voice commands. The virtual assistant has a couple of new features: there is an integrated makeup store that allows you to test makeup virtually and then buy it directly from Sephora or Cover Girl and a calorie detection feature that uses bad science to calculate how many calories are in the donut you are about to eat None of which are things that I hope someone will use more than once. It is fair to say that at this point, Bixby is a colossal failure as a smartphone assistant.
And then there's the perennial complaint with Samsung software: why are there so many duplicate applications? The unlocked S9 that I have been testing has two email applications, two gallery apps, two browsers and two app stores. The operator versions will surely have even more duplicate applications. A couple of Samsung applications are good, that is, the Samsung and Samsung Pay browser, but the rest are inferior to the Google applications that are also installed on the phone, which makes them annoying. And if you care about software updates, Samsung is one of the worst manufacturers when it comes to offering new versions of Android. As of this review, last year's Galaxy S8 still does not have Android 8.0 in the US. UU., And was launched by Google more than six months ago.
Without a new design or another obvious new advance in technology to distract from the usual Samsung problems, the software problems in the S9 become more obvious than with the S8. The result of most of this is that you can ignore Samsung's tricks focused on marketing and really enjoy the Galaxy S9 (and none of them falls to the level of software problems from other Android manufacturers). You can disable Bixby, never bother using AR Emoji or super slow camera and disable most Samsung applications. That leaves the poor history of Samsung's software update as the big sticking point for many people.
The Galaxy S9 is all the good and all the bad that we expect from Samsung
The rest of the S9 and S9 Plus is as good as we expected. It has a design that turns the head, a fast performance, a large screen and a very good camera. Off the screen, the S9 is not a class leader in any category, but it's good enough in all of them that the whole package makes it a great phone.
The owners of the S8 probably do not need to update it, the differences are not big enough to justify splurging on the S9, but if you're using a Galaxy S7 or any other phone two years ago, the S9 is a significant advance in every respect .
Predictably, Samsung has created another excellent flagship phone. But, as expected, it still has a lot of room for improvement.
A headphone jack!
Average battery life
Gimmicks in abundance
Bixby still stinks
Samsung has a poor history of updating their phones
A headphone jack!
Average battery life
Gimmicks in abundance
Bixby still stinks
Samsung has a poor history of updating their phones
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