Samsung Galaxy S9 In Depth Review: Hallmark Camera, Iterative Update
- Sleek Design
- New Camera Technology
- Good Low Light Camera Performance
- Great multitasking performance
- Feature packed software
- Poor Battery Life
- Little difference from S8
A Samsung flagship is usually defined by one feature which changes the game. Last year, this was the Infinity display which brought a new 18.5:9 aspect ratio to the industry. It also changed the way Galaxy Flagship users consumed their multimedia on their device. This year, Samsung takes a sharp focus on the way users are using the camera on their smartphones. The camera(s) on the Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9+ are as the South Korean company puts it, “Reimagined”. While a single feature update can sell a phone, is the single feature enough for to justify you spending your hard earned money? We’re about to find out.
The Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9+ probably stand out the least when it comes to design changes. The devices inherit a lot of the design queues of the successful Galaxy S8 which came before. However, that in no way undermines the overall design of the S9 and S9+ which make it one of the best feeling smartphones in hand. At its most basic, Samsung took a “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” approach when it came to the overall look and feel of the S9 and S9+. They kept what worked and made the Galaxy S8 successful and perfected what little flaws they were able to find.
The first and most obvious change you’ll notice on the Galaxy S9 and S9+ is the change in the position of the fingerprint sensor. The sensor has been moved from its slightly awkward position beside the camera and biometric sensors to a more natural position below the camera module. That’s not the only thing that has changed. The camera and fingerprint sensor while flush with the back of the device is surrounded by a metal frame which is raised just enough to allow you to differentiate between the two modules. I found this particular design choice thoughtful and also very useful especially when trying to unlock the phone in darker places.
A lot of the other changes are more subtle. Samsung has made small changes in the way the glass body and metallic frame meet to make the device more natural in hand. You will only notice this if you have both the S8 and S9 side by side. The S9’s glass meets its metal frame at a slightly less drastic angle which allows its to sit more naturally in the hand and also gives it a less blade-like finish. This also makes holding it slightly more grippy than the S8. In addition to this, the meeting between the glass and metal on the Galaxy S9 is also more fluid. You won’t be able to notice the gap between the materials unless you really, really, really look for it. I’m also guessing this helps with the IP certification of the S9.
As side from this, other changes made to the S9 in the overall design compared to the S8 are too minute to even mention. However, the culmination of these minor changes is a device which feels more natural in hand and has a more cohesive, fluid design which makes it that much more appealing to use and look at.
Perhaps worth mentioning here is the colour selection which the Galaxy S9 and S9+ come in. This year’s flagship comes in Midnight Black, Coral Blue and Lilac Purple. The Midnight Black looks more corporate and professional; a little more understated than the other two colours. The Coral Blue is a deeper hue than the Coral Blue of yesteryear. However, the deeper blue also gives it a more alluring and mysterious feel compared to the striking, lighter hue we saw last year.
The most flashy of the trio is the Lilac Purple and that’s the one we’ve got for review. This is one colour that is both striking and a challenge to work with in front of the camera. The colour was hard to capture on camera as it changed under different lighting and angles. It’s also the most striking of the trio and will definitely be the choice for those looking for a statement piece.
The hardware on the S9 and S9+ are iterative. But that doesn’t mean that its a slouch. It still packs quite the punch when it comes to performance and is definitely one worthy of being called a Samsung flagship.
|Processor||Samsung Exynos 9810 (8 Cores)
Quad-Core @ 2.8GHz
Quad-Core @ 1.8GHz
|RAM||4GB (S9) | 6GB (S9+)|
|Memory||64GB (S9) | 64/128/256GB (S9+)
Expandable with MicroSD (Up to 400GB)
|Graphics Processing Unit (GPU)||Mali-G72 MP189|
|Display||Super AMOLED panel
5.8-inches (S9) (~570ppi) | 6.2-inch (S9+) (~529 ppi)
1440p Quad HD+, 18.5:9 ratio (1,440 x 2,960 pixels)
Corning Gorilla Glass 5
|Operating System||Android 8.0 Nougat with Grace UX|
3,000mAh (S9) | 3,500mAh (S9+)
Fast Charging (Quick Charge 3.0)
Qi/PMA Wireless Charging
Wi-Fi IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
USB Type-C (USB 3.1)
(S9) Single Sensor
(S9+) Dual Sensor
(S9+) Dual OIS
(S9+) 2x Optical zoom
Dual Pixel technology
4K Video recording (30fps)
Quad HD video recording (30fps)
|Miscellaneous||Samsung DeX (desktop experience support)
Samsung has optmised their overall user experience when it comes to software and user interface. The revamp came last year in the form of the Grace UX which was announced by the company together with the S8 and S8+. This year, the Galaxy S9 and S9+ continues to inherit the optimisations. The Grace UX overhaul of Samsung’s TouchWiz skin on Android has made the interface smoother, more intuitive and also much prettier to look at. Gone are the clunky, cartoony icons and animations of old. Instead, the interface is refreshed with a more simplistic, minimalist approach to icons and the overall user experience. The new approach not only makes navigating the S9’s interface more intuitive, it makes the overall experience more enjoyable and less of a hassle – something a lot of other manufacturers need to work on.
Aside from the visual overhaul of the interface, the new Grace UX of the Galaxy S9 has been further optimised to perform better and with less lag. While performance has been enhanced overall, the phone’s battery still suffers due to some of the software features including the always on display. That said, the overall experience of the new Grace UX is sleek, enjoyable, easy to use and intuitive.
A major component of the new user experience is device and data security. With Samsung’s Knox backbone being baked into all devices running Android 7.0 and above, It has become even more important for the company to be able to be at the vanguard of the platform’s security endeavours. To be frank, it’s hard to find another Android manufacturer who has innovated in this space aside from Samsung.
The biggest difference when it comes to unlocking your Samsung phone compared to any other phone on the market is the ability to use your irises to do so. We first saw this feature in the Note7 where it performed admirably. On the Galaxy S9 and S9+, the feature performs even better.
The iris sensor on the S9 and S9+ have been improved to detect the irises more accurately and also in less optimal conditions. If you’re like my friend, you won’t be seeing the “Please open your eyes wider” notification as often as before or maybe not at all. The iris sensor is also much faster on the S9 and S9+. While in previous iterations it could take up to 2 seconds to unlock the phone with the iris sensor, on the S9 it unlocked near immediately. I hardly had time to press the power button to turn on the screen.
With the S9 and S9+, Samsung introduces a new way to unlock your device with intelligent unlock. It’s a feature which hybridizes the facial recognition and iris sensor on the S9. This allows the phone to either use your face or your iris based on the conditions you’re in. In brighter, more well lit conditions, the phone will default to facial unlock; while in darker situations, the phone will use the infrared-based iris sensor. This gives you an uninterrupted, quick experience when unlocking your device and getting to that message or Facebook status.
If you still need a back up biometric to the face and iris unlock, the Galaxy S9 comes with a pretty robust fingerprint sensor. The fingerprint sensor is one of the fastest I’ve actually used in a while. There were times when it unlocked just by me taking it out of my pocket. Of course, this was a plus for me cause when I’m taking the phone out of my pocket it was generally to use it; be it a quick glance at social media or to make a call. That said, the fingerprint sensor has also been moved to a more sensible place under the camera module. Not only that, Samsung has made it even easier to identify the fingerprint sensor thanks to its new design which has the sensor recessed ever so slightly. This made it easy to not mistakenly try to unlock the phone with my camera.
Bixby does make a return to the Galaxy S9 and S9+ bringing along with it th Bixby button which has been hit or miss with a lot of S8 and Note8 users. Let me tackle this connundrum from 2 aspects: the assistant itself and the button.
When it comes to the assistant, Bixby is a commendable effort. The personalisation and ability to teach it complex, compounded tasks make it a little more useful than other assistants out there. However, my biggest question when it comes to Bixby is “Why reinvent the wheel?”. The Bixby platform could have been built as a complementary platform to the pre-exisitng Google Assistant giving Samsung devices a more compelling assistant feature.
That aside, given that Bixby is already existing and being shoehorned into Samsung devices, the question I’m going to need to answer is “Is it even useful?”. As mentioned earlier, Bixby is either hit or miss. During my experience with the S9, Bixby was useful in getting pre-existing information from calendars or emails. However, when it came to doing menial tasks such as navigation and even a simple internet search, there were times when Bixby would just fall flat.
The other big problem with Bixby is voice recognition. When using English, Bixby failed to understand what I was saying unless I put on a British or American accent. I had to make sure I accentuated every syllable of what I was saying for Bixby to understand the instructions.
Be that as it may, Bixby’s ability to learn what I want to do when I say “Hi Bixby, Good morning.” is what makes the assistant more bearable. For me, this command was a combination of reading out my appointment for the day, pertinent items on my to-do list and playing my daily podcast after. This ability to chain actions together for a single command is what made the pain of dealing with a nascent assistant bearable. In fact, if Samsung were able to iron out the other issues with Bixby, I dare say that it could be the virtual assistant to rule them all.
Other features in Bixby such as active translation had limited use during my review period. That said, features such as identifying my location and the temperature and forecast felt gimmicky more than anything.
Benchmarks are good indicators of what to expect from the Galaxy S9. However, often times, the benchmarks do not translate to day to day performance. As such, I won’t dissect the benchmark performance here. For those of you who want to know how it did, the screen caps are here for your reference.
The Galaxy S9 performed commendably overall as a smartphone. The response of the device was quick and without lag. It was also able to handle multitasking like a boss. Switching between apps and even running split screen was a breeze; and remember – this was with the Galaxy S9 which has only 4GB of RAM. The biggest pain point when it came to performance on the S9 for me was the battery. I found myself looking for a power-bank a little too often when I was using the S9. This was a stark contrast to the Note8, the Note FE and even the Galaxy A8. Frankly, it wasn’t something I was expecting from a flagship device. Let me break down the performance even further.
The Galaxy S9 has one of the better speakers and mics on the market. Call audio was crisp and clear. With good signal, there was no robotic noises or static. Noise cancelling on the Galaxy S9 is also one of the best I’ve seen on a smartphone. Even in the noisiest of situations, the person on the other end of the line didn’t have much issue catching what I was saying. The speaker performed pretty well. The sound was crisp, warm and full; unlike a majority of devices on the market where you can get a rather static-y mess.
Multitasking has become a key feature of not only Android, but also the latest iteration of Samsung’s own skin. The focus on multitasking has made a lot of Android devices, including the Galaxy S9, go to devices for on the go productivity.
The Galaxy S9 has split screen and picture in picture multitasking built in. The latter is automated especially with apps such as Google Maps. This allows you to keep navigation on top of other screens while you launch any other app you need. This was particularly useful in situations where apps didn’t support split screen. That said, split screen multitasking was one of my most used multitasking features. This feature allowed me to refer to emails and websites while writing or even playing YouTube videos while taking notes.
But you may be wondering, how is the S9 geared for multitasking with its measly 4GB of RAM? To be honest, I personally don’t see the need for more than 4GB of RAM on any mobile device. This bodes true for the Galaxy S9. The smartphone is able to multitask like a boss and it does this without noticeable stutter and lag.
Gaming & Media Consumption
The Galaxy S9 may not be a Razer Phone but that doesn’t mean that it’s any slouch when it comes to gaming. Games like Injustice 2, Power Rangers: Legacy Wars and Onmyoji ran without issue. There was little to no lag even when going into multitasking with gaming. The game launcher which comes pre-installed helps optimise the gaming experience by blocking incoming notifications and also killing apps which are running in the background. This allows the game to run smoother, without lag or stutter.
Media consumption on the Galaxy S9 has been improved thanks to the inclusion of dual front firing speakers. This brings a new dimension of immersiveness to watching media on platforms such as Netflix, YouTube and iflix. The Dolby Atmos certified hardware makes watching movies and series on the S9 a really enjoyable experience. Having the sound resonate from around you while watching movies such as Pacific Rim or series such as Altered Carbon allows you to immerse yourself in the content.
In addition to having immersive sound, the picture quality of the display also adds to the experience. The high dynamic range (HDR) certified display gives deeper blacks and better colour saturation bringing better picture quality. This allowed me to see more details in the movies and series that I was watching.
The overall experience when consuming media on the Galaxy S9 is a step above the competition. The more immersive sound quality and better-detailed pictures allowed me to lose myself in the content even on the smaller 5.8-inch screen.
This has to be the only thing which irked me the most. I was disappointed by battery life of the S9. While it is commendable that Samsung is proactively taking steps to prevent a repeat of the whole Note7 fiasco, the smaller battery in the S9 really left me wanting more battery life from the flagship.
On average, I was getting about 6 to 9 hours of battery life from the Galaxy S9. This was worse on the first day with the initial setup. It only lasted me about 5.5 hours on the first day. The 3,000mAh battery of the Galaxy S9 struggles to keep up with the power that it packs. This leads to a somewhat compromised user experience. Although, a powerbank is a quick and effective fix for the problem.
While it may seem like this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, I have to note that my usage is what most people would consider a “power user”. I was syncing more than 5 email accounts and also used multitasking very regularly during my review period. Considering this, I would expect that a regular user would get about 10 to 11 hours of battery life from the S9 on average. This would put the device on par with other flagships on the market. However, having had much better battery life on devices such as the Note FE and even the J7+, it’s safe to say that Samsung has set the bar higher for themselves. We have an even more detailed rundown of the first 24 hours with the S9 here.
When it comes to displays, Samsung has always been one of the best on the market. The 5.8-inch Super AMOLED screen on the Samsung Galaxy S9 is no different. The colours produced by the screen are vibrant and bring the images on the screen to life. In addition, the wider 18:9 aspect ratio makes content consumed on the screen more immersive than before. The 4K UHD+ plus resolution of the screen gives extra pixel real estate which comes in handy when multitasking. The screen is one of the only ones that could overcome the glare of bright lights and the sun. This made it so much easier to use outdoors.
While some people may find issue with the overly saturated colours and vividity of the Super AMOLED screen, for me, it allowed me to get lost in the details of the images and videos that I was watching on the S9.
The hallmark change in the Galaxy S9 is the introduction of a new
variable dual aperture camera sensor. The main camera sensor is able to toggle between f/1.5 and f/2.4 apertures thanks to the inclusion of blades which open and close accordingly. What this translated to in actual usage is the ability to control the amount of light entering the sensor. In addition, the manipulation of the camera aperture can also translate into a slight increase in the colour depth and detail of the photos that were taken.
While the auto mode in the camera app adjusts the aperture according to the intensity of light on the subject, the manual mode allowed me to play around with the aperture and take pictures with a little more artistic flair and control. That said, the controls in manual mode could use a little tweaking as some of the controls were too small and resulted in me triggering other controls which I didn’t want to trigger. One of my biggest gripes was actually triggering the controls for the aperture. The area was so small that I’d always end up toggling the shutter speed or accidentally triggering the brightness or contrast.
On the selfie front, the camera performs well – in the correct lighting. The low light performance of the selfie camera actually leaves some room for improvement. That said, the performance of the front facing camera is not bad. In fact, it’s one of the better cameras on the front of a device. The pictures taken in low light still have a good amount of detail and clarity. Just the overall quality in challenging conditions can be a little grainy and there is some loss of overall detail.
One of the major features that’s on the camera is the AR emoji feature.This feature allows you to create a digital avatar of yourself. It does this by scanning your likeness into the device using the front camera. Once you’ve completed the scanning and customized the look to your liking, the S9 will generate 18 GIF which you can send to any of your contacts on any platform. That said, the usage situations of this feature is relatively limited. In fact, aside from the gif creation and a few hours of fun, I don’t see people using this feature. It feels gimmicky and a retort to the competition; a me too feature. Given the limited resolution and depth sensing of the front facing camera, the movements and expressions of the emoji are also limited.
Another major feature of the camera is the inclusion of the ability to shoot slow motion video at 960 frames per second. While this isn’t a new feature in the industry, the way Samsung has implemented it in the S9 brings a level of usability that was sorely lacking in other implementations. Samsung has made it easy to capture “the moment” with a mode which automatically detects any change in movement in the frame and slows it down. This allows you to capture more accurately that exact moment you intended to. That said, as with all slow motion video recording so far, it only functions under the right conditions which also includes the correct lighting. This posed a bit of a challenge as it immediately made indoor slow-motion video a little more challenging. In addition, to shoot the slow motion video, the sensor kicks into a different mode which lessens the amount of light that enters the sensor. What this means is that you’ll need an even brighter setting to get that shot. This necessity bleeds into the auto shoot feature and makes it hard to get the S9 to prepare for the slow motion event. However, when it works, the results are mesmerizing. Although not at 4K or FullHD 1080p, the resolution is enough to capture the details in the moment.
In a nutshell, the Galaxy S9 is a device which pushes the bar when it comes to the technicalities of a camera. However, its overall package may leave regular consumers wanting more. The look and feel of the device, while premium and feels great in hand, shares too many similarities to the s8 of yesteryear. That said, the overall performance of the S9 is commendable. It’s able to handle even more processor heavy tasks with ease. The only let down when it comes to the device is the mediocre battery life. The mediocrity is not by anyone else’s standard but Samsung’s own. The average of 5 hours battery life isn’t going to cut it for many people.
Would I recommend the Galaxy S9? Yes, I still would. The Galaxy S9 is still a compelling flagship with performance that excels in all areas except one. That said, the device would suit people who are looking for a more robust camera and don’t mind carrying a power bank with them at all times. The Instagram driven millennial or perhaps a corporate type looking for something stylish to complement demeanor. Should you upgrade from an S8 or Note8? I don’t think so. The S9 is too much of an incremental update to justify paying the same price for. I would recommend you wait for the next Galaxy to show up if you are really itching to upgrade.[