Samsung Galaxy S9 review: Very nearly brilliant, with a new lower price
DEAL ALERT: Now it’s been knocked off the flagship by its successor, the S10, you can now pick up the S9 at the sorts of prices we haven’t seen since Black Friday. If you head to Carphone Warehouse, you’ll find a number of awesome deals: with Vodafone, for example, you can get the phone with 15GB of data for a monthly cost of just £30 and an upfront cost of the same amount. Of course, you should read our review below before you make up your mind.
Original review continues below
It’s a sad fact, but the only chance the Samsung Galaxy S9 had to stand out in an ocean of equally competent Android smartphones in 2018 was if its camera was the very, very best – better than all the rest. And, to a certain extent, Samsung has pulled that off with the Galaxy S9.
First, by fitting it out with an f/1.5 aperture camera – the brightest aperture ever seen on a smartphone – and second, adding to that by implementing dual aperture, so the camera can adapt to different ambient light conditions. Samsung has managed to stretch out the tiniest advantage over the competition.
And by combining this with a new 12-shot multi-frame noise reduction, Samsung is hoping to maintain its position as the manufacturer of the world’s best smartphone for yet another year.
READ NEXT: Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus review
Samsung Galaxy S9 review: That camera
This year, more than ever, the Samsung Galaxy S9 is all about the camera and for that reason, I’m going to break with tradition in this review and start with that, rather than discussing the merits of the new Lilac Purple colour and its repositioned fingerprint reader.
And, on paper, it’s a winner. The Samsung Galaxy S9 gets a 12-megapixel rear camera with an aperture of f/1.5 – the brightest ever on a smartphone – which is a huge 28% brighter than the primary camera on last year’s S8. Woosh.
At the launch, Samsung demonstrated this by pointing the phone at a box full of flowers lit at a lower light intensity than 1 lux (0.87 to be precise) and comparing the results with those achieved by a Google Pixel 2 XL. Unsurprisingly, given that this was set up to make the S9 look good, the results were impressive, with the flowers looking very dark in the Pixel image but clearly distinguishable on the S9. The noise levels and colour retention were good, too.
But how well does it work in the real world? In some ways, brilliantly. When I got my hands on one for this review, it continued to perform superbly in all conditions and particularly in low light, capturing colours with uncanny vibrancy and managing to keep noise at bay. Meanwhile, in good light, the camera captured sharp details across the board with automatic exposures, in general, judged to perfection.
But this doesn’t appear to be due to the larger f/1.5 aperture. In fact, in some circumstances I found that in Auto mode using the f/1.5 setting the camera would actually trigger the use of a higher ISO level than the same scene captured in Pro mode with f/2.4 selected. I’d have thought the whole idea of using a larger aperture with more light-gathering capacity would be to reduce ISO levels and thus produce cleaner, less noisy images. It seems that’s not always the case here.
How about the dual aperture then? That, at least, appears to be more effective. With larger apertures, you typically see a fall-off in sharpness towards the edges of the frame and that’s very much in evidence here. You have to look closely but it’s fairly clear that in f/1.5 mode shots are far softer at the top, bottom, left and right edges of the frame than they are in f/2.4.
The narrower aperture also stops the phone from overexposing images in strong light. It is not, I must stress, about adding creative options such as changing the depth of field; the difference between f/1.5 and f/2.4 on a camera with a sensor this small is minimal when it comes to depth of field.
READ NEXT: Samsung Galaxy S9 cases
Overall, though, despite the slightly bizarre and inconsistent implementation of the bigger f/1.5 aperture, the Samsung Galaxy S9 has an excellent camera and, once you take into account the quality of the video, I’d say it was better than the Pixel 2.
It can, of course, record in 4K resolution at 60fps, but it is unable to record this fully stabilised like the iPhone X can. The footage looks great, though. It’s crisp and highly detailed, and there’s little of the focus hunting that so badly afflicts other rivals, such as the Huawei Mate 10 Pro.
Of course, there’s also the new ultra-slow-motion mode, capable of capturing 720p resolution at a frankly silly 960fps, which is fun, but if that’s your bag, check out Sony’s latest Xperia XZ2 and XZ2 Compact phones, which have trumped Samsung Galaxy S9 phones by doing the same with its XZ2 phones at Full HD resolution.
To be fair, Samsung does implement this slightly better than Sony, though. Acknowledging the difficulty of capturing precisely the right moment in the limited 0.2 seconds you get to record your slow-motion footage, Samsung places a yellow motion-detection box on-screen that you can move wherever you want in the frame. The camera only goes into slow-motion mode when movement is detected in the box, making it far easier to set up shots.
Finally, Samsung has added extra software to allow the 8-megapixel f/1.7 front-facing camera to capture your expressions and create animated, personalised emoji – dubbed AR Emoji by Samsung. This is a bit like Apple’s Animoji, the difference being that Samsung creates its emoji in the form of animated GIFs so you can more easily view them on other platforms. The places you can use them is still limited, though. I was able to get them to work in the phone’s standard messaging app, in Facebook and Twitter, but not WhatsApp or Slack.
READ NEXT: Are AR emoji likenesses any good?
Samsung Galaxy S9 review: Other key features and design
Aside from the headline-grabbing camera, the new Samsung flagship is relatively low-key. Samsung hasn’t dramatically overhauled the design; instead, this version sees an incremental improvement.
And, yes, it is an improvement. The bezels above and below the screen are slightly slimmer than before so the screen fills the front even more completely. There are new colours – coral blue and the rather lovely lilac purple, which catches the light beautifully, in addition to black of course. It’s much, much nicer than any pink or rose gold phone I’ve come across before.
The Galaxy S9 is slightly heavier than the S8 but only by 8g. It’s also a millimetre shorter, 0.6g wider and 0.5mm thicker. None of these numbers will make any difference to the way the phone feels in your pocket.
What is likely to make a difference to the way you use the phone is the location of the fingerprint reader: Samsung has seen the light and repositioned its fingerprint reader module from beside the camera lens to below it. Thank the Lord, although in my opinion it’s still to small and too flat. I prefer my fingerprint readers to be inset a little more than this one is.
Otherwise, the phone retains all the features of the previous Samsung flagship. It’s IP68 dust- and water-resistant, it still has the Bixby button on the left (Bixby has a couple of minor improvements here, including live language translation), the SIM tray has space for a microSD card so you can expand the internal storage by up to 400GB and there’s still a 3.5mm headphone jack.
Samsung Galaxy S9 review: Performance and battery life
Inevitably, the Samsung Galaxy S9 is quicker than the S8 and this is courtesy of its faster Exynos 9810 processor. This is an octa-core chip, built on a 10nm process in the same forge as the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 (only in the US does the Galaxy S9 run an 845) and this comprises two quad-core CPUs, one running at 2.9GHz, the other “low-power” core running at 1.9GHz. This is backed up by 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage.
Just like the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus, this results in significantly quicker performance than last year. See the graphs below. Note, the graphics-based GFXBench tests were run at native resolution. The phone can get higher benchmark results if you leave the screen resolution at the default FHD+ setting (1,080 x 2,220) or drop it to its lowest HD+ setting (720 x 1,480).
While performance is certainly nippy the battery life is a tiny bit disappointing. Capacity is at the same level as last year 3,000mAh, and my experience of it is that, while it comfortably lasts a day and a little bit into the next, it falls a long way short of the phones like the Huawei Mate 10 Pro, which I found lasted me nearly two days at a time.
In our video rundown test, the S9 lasted a reasonably respectable 14hrs 23mins, but this is two-and-a-half hours short of the S8’s performance from last year, and well short of the 20hrs 52mins returned by the far cheaper OnePlus 5T.
Samsung Galaxy S9 review: Display
And the display, well, that’s just as good as ever. As with the S8, you have a 1,440 x 2,960 18.5:9 aspect ratio screen with an AMOLED panel with multiple resolutions and colour profiles to choose from in the phone’s display software settings.
The default is FHD+ (1,080 x 2,220) and Adaptive but you can drop the resolution to 720 x 1,440 and change the colour profile to Basic (sRGB), AMOLED Cinema (DCI-P3) or AMOLED Photo (Adobe RGB). In each of these modes the screen returned coverage percentages of 99.3% and 98.8%. As good as it gets, in other words.
Colour accuracy is decent, too, contrast is effectively perfect and maximum brightness is stupendous. I recorded 992cd/m2 with a 10% white patch displayed on a black background and with a full white screen the brightness peaked at 465cd/m2. Note that, as usual with Samsung devices, you’ll only see maximum brightness if you leave the phone in auto-brightness mode. In manual mode, the screen peaked a far-lower 302cd/m2.
Samsung Galaxy S9 review: Other upgrades
There are of, course, other upgrades to speak of, but they’re mostly minor. The speakers are louder, for instance, and now support Dolby Atmos. They sound great, with more body and volume than before.
There are a couple of minor improvements to Samsung’s DeX system, too. First introduced on the Galaxy S8, DeX allows the phone to be plugged into a dock and display a desktop operating system on a connected monitor.
Here, there’s a new, cheaper dock, called the DeX Pad, that holds the phone flat, exposing the headphone jack and allowing the screen to double as a touchpad. IT managers can now also apply policies that display their logo on the desktop wallpaper and lock out certain apps in the desktop environment.
Elsewhere, Samsung has improved the Samsung Galaxy S9’s iris and facial recognition systems. On their own, these two aren’t all that exciting. The Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus introduced these biometric login techniques last year but in the Samsung Galaxy S9, however, they’ve been combined together and given a name change.
With this “Intelligent Scan” mode enabled, the phone essentially tries to unlock using both methods at once, the idea being to reduce the frequency of failed recognition attempts. And it works, too. It’s about as quick as the Apple iPhone X’s face unlock feature, but since it unlocks directly to the last screen you were using when the phone locked itself, it’s effectively quicker. It isn’t, however, quite as slick as the OnePlus 5T’s face unlocker, which works almost instantaneously.
The final change of note is another software tweak. The S9 can now be used in landscape 100% of the time, with UI elements adapting on the homescreen, the app drawer and settings menus. That’s great news for those who prefer to mount their phones in landscape when they use it as a satnav in the car. Previously, you’d have to turn your head on its side or remove your phone from the dock if you wanted to use the homescreen or menus.
Samsung Galaxy S9 review: Price and verdict
Taken as a whole, the Samsung Galaxy S9 is impressive. It is better overall than the S8, despite slightly weaker battery life and a rather odd implementation of its low-light camera algorithms. It’s faster, the screen is just as good, it has better speakers, better facial recognition and ultra-slow motion video.
Overall, along with its larger sibling, the S9 is the best phone on the market today. However, these differences are small, and £739 is a lot to pay for a phone that’s only slightly different to last year’s offering, especially given how much cheaper you can pick up a Samsung Galaxy S8 today. It was about £500 on Amazon at the time of writing and I’ve seen it as low as £470.
Eventually, that picture will change. The Samsung Galaxy S9 will fall in price over time to a similar level to the the S8 today and then it will be an absolute bargain. For now, though, Samsung’s latest flagship smartphone isn’t one I’d recommend you buy. It’s simply too expensive.
Samsung Galaxy S9 specifications
|Processor||Octa-core 2.8GHz Exynos 9810|
|Screen resolution||2,960 x 1,440|
|Screen type||Super AMOLED|
|Memory card slot (supplied)||64GB|
|Dimensions||147.7 x 68.7 x 8.5 mm|
|Operating system||Android 8.0|