The smartphone as we know it today has been around for about a decade now and while the recent shift in form-factor did breathe some new life into it, there doesn’t seem to be much more “revolutionary firsts” left with this blueprint. Instead, it’s now a battle of perfection and I think Samsung’s brand new Galaxy S9 is evidence of that.
Looking at the device, you might be wondering: What’s new besides the regular refresh in specs? Well, not that much — certainly nothing revolutionary. But, if you think about everything Samsung’s included in this smartphone, you’d probably be hard pressed to think of what else you could want.
I know I was. In fact, when I was making my list of pros and cons for this review, it was disproportionately skewed to the “pros” favour. All things considered, the Galaxy S9 is basically today’s perfect smartphone. Or at least it would have been if it didn’t have this one problem.
And I’d like to say that it is just a personal quibble, but it’s not. It’s pretty major and I think it’s something you should be concerned about too if you were considering buying the Galaxy S9.
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When you’re reviewing high-end flagship smartphones throughout the year, it’s easy to get desensitised to things like a “premium build”. Nearly all of them have the usual glass-and-metal-sandwich or full aluminium unibody done so consistently well that it’s almost formulaic.
And because I’m constantly switching devices, I almost forget what a truly well-engineered smartphone feels like to use. A phone that when you pick up, you immediate go “Whoa” because it just feels so right.
Samsung’s Galaxy S9 feels so right.
There’s just nothing quite like it. The S9’s gently curved sides, accentuated by the slightly more prominent metal frame (which I think helps with grip), fit as well as ever in your hands. Wake that screen and you’ll be greeted with the most stunning smartphone displays ever.
Sure, you could argue that curving the 5.8” Quad HD+ Super AMOLED Infinity Display is Samsung’s way of hiding the bezels, but it’s hard to argue with the effect it has on your viewing experience. You’ll probably either love it or hate it and I personally love it.
It’s almost as if the screen is popping out of the phone, and it’s a look that is as instantly recognisable as the iPhone X’s notch.
There are also subtle tweaks that Samsung made to the IP68 dust and water sealed body. For example, they tinted the front glass panel just a little more to hide the elements in the forehead and they shaved the bottom chin by a hair, because why not? They didn’t have to do any of that because I don’t think it was something anyone minded on its predecessor, but they did it anyway.
You will have those who rag on it for looking nearly identical to last year’s S8, and they’d be right because it does look nearly identical. However, I think that’s more of a testament to how far ahead of the curve Samsung already was with the S8’s design because, even a year later this phone looks as jaw-dropping as ever. It’s still got that “next-level” feeling to it and that’s really impressive considering it’s a “recycled” body.
Sticking to procedure, when you get a new phone, you get new internal hardware. Samsung’s Galaxy S9 ups performance with a brand new Exynos 9810 processor mated to 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage. If you get the S9+, you’ll get 6GB of RAM and up to 256GB of internal storage in Malaysia.
Even with the “small” 4GB of RAM, Samsung’s S9 performs really well. Everything’s smooth in the usual Samsung fashion and I like that the new Samsung Experience 9.0 Android skin, now built on top of Android 8.0 Oreo, improves upon the already good one that debuted with the S8 last year. You get support for landscape on your homescreen and — my personal favourite — you can also do stuff like turn the backgrounds of your notifications banner transparent on the lockscreen.
With the new software, and everyone’s obsession with “Face Unlock”, Samsung debuted Intelligent Scan which is apparently a combination of Iris Scanning and Face Recognition for more reliable performance. Though they don’t specify if it’s an “Iris and Face” or an “Iris or Face” situation, when I unlocked it I could tell when it was scanning my irises or my face. This is because when I line up my eyes properly, it unlocks much faster than if my face was off-axis, unlike the iPhone X which maintains the same kind of speed.
That said, neither are as reliable nor as fast as the fingerprint scanner (now mounted in a proper location with an awesome new swiping gesture to record your prints) and also suffers from the same problems as Apple’s Face ID where you need to pick the phone up to unlock it. And when you’re already holding the phone in your hand, why don’t you just use the vastly superior fingerprint scanner?
Thankfully, a slightly worse way to unlock your phone wasn’t the only thing Samsung debuted with the S9. I can finally stop whining about it because Samsung has finally strapped a pair of stereo speakers (earpiece and loudspeaker combo, tuned by AKG) on the Galaxy S9. FINALLY. And they sound good.
Not quite as good as the BoomSound on HTC’s U11+, but it’s so much better than any of Samsung’s previous flagships. Even from just the loudspeaker I can hear that the sound is a lot fuller than the S8’s so it’s so much better for watching videos on your phone. There’s also a Dolby Atmos mode that you can toggle in the quick settings but in my experience that only increases volume and makes the highs more unbearable to listen to. Still, a boost of volume is sometimes exactly what you need.
The best part? Samsung did all of this and still kept the 3.5mm headphone jack.
But now, now we get to the most “revolutionary” thing about the Samsung Galaxy S9: Its “reimagined” camera. On paper, it’s certainly impressive. The S9’s camera features a 12MP sensor with large 1.4-micron pixels, a DRAM buffer and a variable aperture lens, making it one of the most advanced camera modules ever put into a smartphone.
The DRAM buffer’s purpose is pretty straightforward: It allows the Galaxy S9 to shoot epic 960 fps slow-motion like we saw on the Sony Xperia XZs. However, its quality is capped at 720p and it is unfortunately just as bad as I remembered from the XZs. Plus, it won’t look decent in anything but the brightest of scenarios so you’ll have to keep that in mind.
Compared to the newly announced XZ2 and its ability to shoot 1080p 960 fps slow motion, the S9 seems a little behind. But, what it trades of in quality, the S9 makes up for in user-friendliness. Unlike the Sony phones that rely on you to decide when to begin recording your 0.2 seconds of slow-motion, Samsung will also let you designate an area for automatic motion detection.
Just move the box there where you want it and hit record. Once the phone detects motion in that box, it will begin the slow-motion recording. It takes a little practice to find the best place to put the box, but when you get the hang of it, I found that it was so much easier to use than Sony’s solution. Keep in mind that every little motion will trigger it, so be careful where you want to place it. Of course, if you prefer to manually trigger it, you can also do so.
While the super slow-motion is interesting, I was far more interested in the variable aperture lens.
What do I mean when I say variable aperture? Well, unlike practically every other smartphone out there which has a fixed aperture lens, the Samsung Galaxy S9 has variable one that can switch between two f-stops: f/1.5 and f/2.4. This means it’s a lot more like a proper camera’s lens, even if you can only switch between those two apertures and nothing in between.
f/2.4 vs f/1.5
A wide aperture lens can let in a lot more light than a narrow one and the f/1.5 aperture lens on the Galaxy S9 is the widest one on the market right now, beating out the LG V30 and Huawei Mate 10’s f/1.6 aperture lens. This usually translates to better low light, however, wide aperture lenses often suffer from being a little soft when you shoot wide open.
This, is where the ability to switch to an f/2.4 aperture comes in handy. When you stop down (make your aperture smaller), you limit the amount of light that comes into your lens but — in theory — you will get a sharper image.
So, the idea here is to have the S9’s camera on f/2.4 for normal shots and then when the going gets dark, switch it to f/1.5 to let in more light. And the Galaxy S9 will do so automatically, so you don’t have to fiddle around with settings all the time — unless you want to, in which case you can do so in the “Pro” mode.
While these are exciting things for camera enthusiasts to geek out over, the important thing is: Does it work? Well, I can tell you that when you shoot with the Galaxy S9, you’re almost always guaranteed a gorgeous shot.
Sometimes, you’ll get some clipped highlights:
Or the HDR might take things a little too far when the shadows and highlights are too contrasting:
But all things considered, including the incredibly snappy camera app, the S9’s a big winner in the camera department.
That said, are these images considerably better than other high-end phones like the iPhone X, HTC U11+ or even last year’s Galaxy S8? Not really. Our camera comparison reveals that it’s better, but I wouldn’t call it a monumental step up.
Does it mean that this variable aperture thing is all just a marketing gimmick? Well, no. For example, if you lock the other exposure settings and just switch the aperture, you can see that the images get noticeably brighter:
There’s even a slight change in depth of field (how blurry the background is) when you switch between them:
All of that is very impressive and Samsung should be mighty proud of themselves for accomplishing so much with a smartphone’s tiny camera module. However, this arguably minor jump in quality just proves that smartphone cameras are already pretty much as good as they can get with the tiny hardware manufacturers have to work with. There’s just not enough space…which, I think, leads nicely into my major problem with the Galaxy S9: Its battery. 3,000 mAh is just too small for a phone this capable.
I’m averaging about 3 hours and 40 minutes of screen on time per charge on the Galaxy S9 with about 9 hours total time on battery with my heavy to moderate usage patterns. Personally, that’s not acceptable, not if you’re anything but the lightest of users. I left everything at default out of the box (Full HD+ display resolution) and on my lightest days I still only managed to eke out 12 hours and 30 minutes time on battery with 3 hours and 30 minutes of screen on time.
Maybe the Galaxy S9+ — with its larger 3,500 mAh battery — doesn’t have this weakness but if you were looking at the smaller Galaxy S9, this is something you need to consider before pulling the trigger.
I mean, you could say that it’s offset by the fast wired charging which can top the device up from 5% in about 1 and a half hours (41% in 30 mins), but when I’m out and about, I have to resort to using my powerbank. Luckily for me my powerbank has support for fast-charging, but not everyone has that luxury.
When I was using the Galaxy S9, I really didn’t find myself needing any other smartphone. It had everything I needed from a flagship smartphone: A great screen, excellent performance, a fantastic camera, a gorgeous build and an iconic look. I can also live with the uncanny valley AR Emoji (I can see why Samsung wanted to cash in on the Animoji hype, but AR Emoji just looks too weird) and even the non-programmable dedicated Bixby button (you can turn it off now, so it doesn’t bother me).
What I definitely needed though, was a powerbank to keep it from dying on me. Had it been any other smartphone, I would have crucified it for having such bad battery life. For me, that’s one of the most important pillars of any smartphone and it hurts me so much that the Galaxy S9 couldn’t keep it going.
But the Galaxy S9 is so good at everything else. So good, that I might even be willing to live with the fact that I will always need a powerbank with me just so I can use this phone.
Here are more photos captured with the Samsung Galaxy S9. Click on each to view its full resolution. If you want even more photos, check out our quick walk around with the Galaxy S9 in Barcelona or if you want to see how it stacks up against the other flagship smartphones, have a look at our camera comparison.
Light test with variable aperture
Bokeh test with variable aperture
Bonus selfie (with selective focus on)
Bonus AR Emoji: