Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus review: A great phone with minor flaws
DEAL ALERT: Vodafone, via uSwitch, is currently running a nifty little deal on the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus. If you can stomach paying £200 upfront, it will only cost you £23 per month to have a 128GB Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus. This 24-month contract includes unlimited minutes and texts, and comes with 4GB of data. To get your hands on this deal, click here.
Jonathan’s original review continues below
The Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus is, as you’d expect it to be, a bigger version of the Galaxy S9. It has a larger screen and a bigger battery than its smaller sibling, and (inevitably) a significantly higher price. It’s a familiar formula you can see repeated across the mobile industry. Bigger phone, more feature = higher price.
The trouble is that, last year, that’s where the differences ended between the two Galaxy S8 phones and I was reluctant to recommend the Plus. This year, the gap has widened and there’s more to differentiate the two.
That’s because Samsung has finally added dual-camera capability to one of its mainstream flagship phones and the result is that the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus now has a lot more to recommend it.
READ NEXT: Samsung Galaxy S9 review
Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus review: Camera, key features and design
Of course there’s a lot more to the Samsung Galaxy S9+ than just that. As with the regular S9, the S9 Plus looks as pretty as a picture and comes in the same range of colours as the Galaxy S9. So we have Midnight Black, Coral Blue and that oh-so-lovely Lilac Purple, which catches the light in all the right ways. No sign of pink this year and that has to be a good thing.[gallery:9]
It has a 6.2in display with an aspect ratio of 18.5:9 and a qHD+ resolution of 1,440 x 2,560 pixels just like last year’s S8+ so it’s a bit bulkier in the hand than the regular Galaxy S9; not much, but enough to be noticeable.
Samsung has also moved the fingerprint reader on the S9+ to just below the second camera in the middle, which is much more sensible, although it’s still too small and not inset far enough for my liking. This is something Samsung still needs to do some work on.
Samsung has also improved the fingerprint enrolment process so it takes only two to three swipes of the finger instead of the 16 dabs it required previously. That’s not a huge benefit because although it is a little quicker, you have to swipe rather than simply tap your finger on the reader, so it’s more awkward.[gallery:16]
The key selling point of the Samsung Galaxy S9+, though, as with its smaller sibling, is the dual-aperture rear camera. For low-light shots, the camera switches to a super-wide f/1.5 aperture, while above 100 lux the secondary f/2.4 aperture comes into play and is used to ensure sharper photographs in good light.
At f/1.5, this is the brightest aperture I’ve ever seen on a smartphone camera and it great news for low-light photography. It captures 28% more light than the Galaxy S8+’s camera did last year. There’s another camera on the rear, too, and this is designed to provide a telephoto view – a 2x zoom, effectively, just like on the Apple iPhone X and this has a more conventional single aperture of f/2.4.
Otherwise, both cameras have optical image stabilisation (OIS) and snappy dual-pixel phase detect autofocus, while the front-facing camera is an 8-megapixel f/1.7 unit.
In demonstrations and in use, the f/1.5 dual-aperture camera performed astonishingly well and was able to capture a surprisingly noise-free photograph in less than 1 lux of light. That’s partly due to the bright aperture but also to the ISP’s (image signal processor) ability to shoot 12 frames in a fraction of a second and combine them to all-but eliminate noise.
Is it better than the Pixel 2? Just. Here’s a selection of side-by-side low-light images for your enjoyment. The differences are small but it’s clear to see that the S9+ records low light images that are cleaner and have better colour retention, while in good light, there’s bundles of detail and exposures are generally well-judged.
The HDR system works well, too, in preventing blown out highlights and over-dark areas of shadow without creating an unnatural look or adding unsightly halos around object edges.
The question is, what’s the point of the dual-aperture system and is this camera noticeably different from the S8+? In a DSLR, adjustable aperture is used to do two things: adjust depth of field and control the amount of light that falls on the sensor. Opening the aperture increases the amount of light you can capture, while reducing the depth of field and creating a blurry background. Narrowing the aperture increases the depth of field ensuring a crisper photograph from the front to the rear of a scene, but reduces the amount of light falling on the sensor.
Smartphone cameras are different. Because they have tiny sensors and lenses, there isn’t that much difference between f/1.5 and f/2.4 on a smartphone camera when it it comes to depth of field. So, on the Samsung Galaxy S9+ it’s all about controlling light – in this case, preventing too much light – falling on the sensor.
Actually, there’s a third factor that comes into play, too: the aperture on a DSLR also dictates how sharp the image is out to the edges of the frame, with that sharpness usually dropping away slightly the larger the aperture becomes. Is this visible with the S9+’s camera? Interestingly, yes it is, but only if you zoom right in.
So does it it add up to better pictures? Well, yes and no. In Pro mode, if you take the time to adjust the settings yourself, absolutely. More light equals lower ISO, less noise and cleaner photographs in low light while in better light, f/2.4 gives you sharper details
But if you stick with Auto mode, the benefit is less obvious. After capturing a series of photographs at f/1.5 in Auto then forcing the camera to f/2.4 in Pro mode, my conclusion is that the Samsung Galaxy S9+’s auto exposure algorithm is somewhat confused.[gallery:3]
Let me explain why. The whole idea here in putting an f/1.5 aperture in a smartphone camera is to capture low-light images at a higher level of quality. The way it SHOULD do that is by reducing ISO and, therefore, noise. Except that what the Samsung Galaxy S9+ does is to brighten the image slightly instead, leaving the ISO level either very similar to the same scene captured at f/2.4 or even upping the ISO in some circumstances.
That’s just bonkers and means the images this camera produces in Auto mode in low light are often no better (in fact, they’re objectively worse) in low light than if Samsung had stuck with a narrower aperture. The flipside, and perhaps what we should talking about more, is that photographs taken in good light are better than before, packing sharper details in across the frame.
Samsung Galaxy S9+ review: Video quality, ultra slow-motion and AR Emojis
Of course, it’s not all about the dual-aperture camera. You also get a very good f/2.4 telephoto camera on the rear and this takes excellent photos, the one caveat being that zooming in while you’re recording video isn’t quite as smooth as it is on the iPhone X and iPhone 8 Plus.
If you can live with that, video recording on the Samsung Galaxy S9+ is pretty darned good. You can shoot stabilised footage at 4K at 30fps (but not 60fps) and there’s now the ability to shoot super slow motion in 720p resolution at 960fps. On that front it’s just been overtaken by Sony’s latest flagships, the Xperia XZ2 and XZ2 Compact, which can both shoot 960fps at 1080p. The Xperia XZ2 phones also beat the S9+ by being able to shoot 4K 10-bit HDR video.[gallery:12]
Where the Galaxy S9+ does better than the Sony is with the way it implements super slow-motion. Instead of relying on the lightning reactions of the user the S9+’s slow motion video capture is motion-triggered.
Drag a small yellow box around the screen and whenever motion is detected within it, the camera goes into super slow-mo mode. This is important, because although the resulting slow-motion clips end up being six seconds long they’re only 0.2 seconds long in real-time. It’s also nice that Samsung gives you the option of playing clips every time you unlock your phone.
Finally, on the camera side at least, we have Samsung’s animated GIF-based emojis, a feature the company is calling AR Emoji. These allow you to create animated GIF emojis based on a highly stylised photo of your own face. It’s a feature you can have some fun with, especially as Samsung adds the resulting emoji to the phone’s keyboard – although only for some apps. At the time of writing that included Twitter and Facebook but not WhatsApp or Slack.
READ NEXT: Are AR emoji likenesses any good?
Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus review: Software and other features
Other new features include a user interface that auto-rotates into landscape even on the homescreen, app drawer and settings menus. There’s support for slightly faster 4G – up to 1.2Gbits/sec this time from 1Gbit/sec. The phone now gets stereo speakers, “tuned by AKG” that are more “immersive” than before.
The Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus also gets improved iris and facial recognition scanning. On their own this news isn’t all that exciting. The Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus introduced these biometric login techniques last year and owners will be used to using them by now. In the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus (and its smaller S9 sibling), however, Samsung is combining the two together and calling it Intelligent Scan.[gallery:4]
If you turn on the S9 Plus’ Intelligent Scan the phone essentially tries to unlock using both methods instead of forcing you to choose between one or the other. It’s a simple idea, but it does reduce the frequency of failed recognition attempts.
Finally, Samsung DeX – the phone’s built-in desktop OS – has been improved as well. There’s a new, cheaper dock for connecting the phone to a desktop monitor, which now holds the phone flat so the screen can double as a touchpad where the previous version held it upright at an angle. And there are new features aimed at IT managers allowing them to block certain apps when DeX is initiated.
Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus review: Performance, battery life
So far, I have to say, I’m a little underwhelmed. Can the performance and battery life help lift my malaise? A little bit, yes. First, let’s get into what’s under the hood. Powering the Samsung Galaxy S9+ is a Samsung Exynos 9810 chip (it only gets a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 in the US), which is an octa-core processor comprising twin quad-core CPUs, one running at 2.7GHz, the other at 1.7GHz. It’s backed up by 6GB of RAM, 64GB of storage and microSD card expansion.
And this produces much faster benchmark results than the S8+, as you can see in the graphs below. Both CPU and graphics speed are up significantly, although it isn’t quite as fast as the Apple iPhone X with its hexa-core A11 Bionic processor.
Alas, as far as battery life is concerned, it’s back to disappointment. I’ve been using the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus for a week now, and its GSAM Battery Monitor rating was at 22hrs 39mins per complete charge versus 18hrs 44mins on the regular S9. Neither of those scores are particularly impressive. To give you some context, the OnePlus 5T after a week or so was up well above a day while the Huawei Mate 10 Pro was closer to two days than one.
In our battery rundown test, the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus’ performance was equally middling. It lasted 14hrs 36mins, or around 13 minutes longer than the Galaxy S9. In this test, neither phone comes close to the best in the flagship category; in fact, both the OnePlus 5T (much cheaper) and the S8+ (much cheaper) did considerably better, reaching out and beyond 20 hours.
Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus review: Display
Still, one thing that you can at least rely on Samsung for is tip-top display quality and it’s fabulous here. As usual, you get an AMOLED panel and this one is the same resolution as on last year’s: 1,440 x 2,960 arranged across a screen with an aspect ratio of 18.5:9. This fills most of the front of the phone, leaving narrow strips across the top and bottom.
And just as it did last year, Samsung is shipping the phone with the display rendering in FHD+ (1,080 x 2,220). Because, you know, you don’t really need a higher resolution than this.[gallery:1]
As far as quality goes, that’s great but not as great as previous Galaxy phones. You’re getting a display here that delivers 98% sRGB coverage in Basic mode and an average colour accuracy Delta E score of 1.94. These are very good numbers and the bottom line is that anything displayed on this screen will look good, HDR content included.
Peak brightness is great, too, pretty much matching previous Galaxy handsets. In our tests, the phone reached peaks of 992cd/m2 in our tests with a 10% white patch displayed against a black background, and 465cd/m2 with the screen filled with white with auto brightness enabled. As is typical with Samsung smartphones, you’ll only see the screen hit its brightest level in auto-brightness mode – in manual brightness, mode this display reaches a lowly peak of 302cd/m2.[gallery:10]
Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus review: Price and verdict
All of which brings this review of the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus to a rather spongy, limp end. Don’t get me wrong, I do like the S9 Plus. It’s a great phone with two great cameras that shoot fabulous photos and video. It’s quick, too – the fastest quickest Android phone we’ve ever seen – and it’s pretty darned gorgeous, particularly in Lilac purple.
In fact, it’s probably, all things considered, the best phone money can buy. But I do have problems with it. First, it’s expensive. The Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus is £869 SIM-free. Wow. That’s a huge amount to drop on a smartphone, notwithstanding the fact that the iPhone X is even pricier.
And there are other things about it that irritate. Low light photography is amazing, but it isn’t as good as it could and should be. The battery life is fine, but it isn’t quite as good as the best its rivals can muster.
In short, the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus is a great phone and, if you do want the best it’s the phone you want to buy. It’s just that it isn’t much better than its predecessor; if push came to shove, I’d advise you save a few bob and buy an S8 Plus instead.
Huawei P20 Pro
Price: £799 inc VAT, SIM-free | Buy now from Amazon.co.uk
Huawei has been building up to something great for a while now and, with the P20 Pro, it has finally hit the heights. The Pro’s rear triple camera is nothing short of phenomenal and the design makes us go weak at the knees. Huawei’s software still occasionally annoys but in terms of performance, camera quality and looks, this is a serious rival for Samsung’s flagship.
Price: £469 inc VAT, SIM-free | Buy now from O2
If you like the idea of owning a top-end smartphone but don’t quite have the funds to splurge on a Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus or the Huawei P20 Pro, the latest generation OnePlus is very nearly as accomplished but at £469, it’s considerably cheaper. Featuring a massive 6.3in screen, a lovely Gorilla Glass-clad design and a superb camera, it’s a flagship smartphone for mid-range phone money.
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 8.5mm|