Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: As good as it gets

As per usual, Samsung’s flagship is top drawer, but it struggles to justify its huge price tag

5
Price when reviewed 
899
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The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 first appeared in the unforgettable must-read page-turner of July: the press release accompanying the Samsung Electronics Second Quarter 2018 financial results. No? Well, anyway, buried deep in the 2,109 words was our first confirmation of the Galaxy Note 9. It would, Samsung assured, offer “exceptional performance for a reasonable price.”

Well, Samsung was bang on with the former. The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is the best smartphone you can buy right now, period. It doesn’t put a foot wrong. The problem is that it isn’t that much better than its rivals, and that “reasonable price” turned out to be £30 more than last year’s Note 8 – a handset Alphr previously described as “far too much for a phone.”

This time around it’s £899 for the 128GB model or £1,099 for the 512GB model. Yikes.

Our perception of value hasn’t changed. It’s still too much, and if anything the world of phones has gotten even more competitive. But if you have more money than sense, then step right up because this is as good as it gets.

Read on to find out why.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: Design

Like the Samsung Galaxy S9, the Note 9 doesn’t look hugely different from its predecessor. That would be unforgivable if the Note 8 had taken a beating from the ugly stick but, fortunately, if Samsung knows how to do one thing well, it’s making phones that look stylish. The plus-sized screen wraps about both curved edges on the front of the phone, and it’s rounded off with very mild bezels at the top. No identikit notches in sight here.

Its beauty is even more impressive when you consider that Samsung hasn’t bowed to pressure and used eye-catching design as an excuse to dump useful features. In fact, if you can name a top-end feature in a smartphone right now, the Note 9 has it – as well as a few that its main rivals have jettisoned.

So not only do you get wireless charging and IP68 water resistance (it’s resistant to 1.5 metres of fresh water for half an hour), but it keeps the 3.5mm headphone jack and ability to expand its capacity with a microSD card. The last of these is particularly generous when the Note 9 already has the biggest capacity we’ve ever seen in a smartphone: 128 or 512GB.

And, of course, it keeps room to house the new and improved S Pen. The Note’s USP is back and better than ever, thanks to its added Bluetooth connectivity. It’s a little thing, but being able to take selfies, control video playback and present slideshows with a click of the S Pen’s button is just really, really useful. Not to mention that doodling and note taking on the phone is an utter joy as well.
 
In short, the Galaxy Note 9 is beautifully designed, but it’s hardly revolutionary. With the exception of the S Pen’s Bluetooth party trick and the crazy amount of storage, I could have written all of the above about the Note 8 and it would still be true. But if it ain’t broke...

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: Screen

Given Samsung makes some of the best smartphone panels in the business, it would be a bit of a shock if its most expensive handset ever had been shortchanged. Thankfully that isn’t the case. The Note 9’s screen is, again, about as good as it gets.

The 6.4in Super AMOLED display keeps last year’s 2,960 x 1,440 resolution and our colourimeter confirms our eyes’ glowing testimony. The screen is capable of producing the full 100% of the sRGB colour gamut, and because it’s an AMOLED its contrast is effectively Infinity:1.

To complete the hat-trick of positive screen benchmarks, the display hits a searing 950cd/m2 at maximum brightness, which would have been really handy with the recent sunny weather we’ve had in the UK. Suffice it to say, you’ll always be able to see what’s on screen, even in the brightest conditions.

If I were to find one fault with the Note 9’s screen, it’s that the colours – by default – are a little oversaturated and bright. But as always getting them down to something more natural is as easy as opening up the settings menu.    

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: Performance

It’s a similar story on the inside: top-notch components as you’d expect. Powering the phone is Samsung’s own Exynos 9810 chip or a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 if you live in the US – performance is indistinguishable, so you’re not being shortchanged.

Backing this up is a faintly silly 6GB of RAM in the 128GB model and a really silly 8GB RAM in the 512GB version. Given both variants accept a microSD card of up to 512GB in size, you can carry around 1TB of stuff in your pocket if you really want to. For most people this is plainly overkill, but at least you won’t need to use up all your data syncing with Dropbox, I guess.

Anyway, the point is the specifications are, again, as good as it gets. And as a result, performance is equally top drawer – but damningly, that’s actually not all that different from other, cheaper flagships when put through the standard benchmarking tests.

That’s unsurprising. Every flagship uses the Snapdragon 845, and Android doesn’t really know what to do with the extra RAM Samsung’s generously provided.

Still, it is at least demonstrably faster than last year’s Note 8 – 37% better if you go by Geekbench’s measurements. It’s doubtful you’d notice the difference in practical terms, but you’re all set for bragging rights at least.

Guess how it performs for gaming? If you said “brilliantly”, give yourself a pat on the back. That said, the screen is something an enemy here, as the WQHD+ resolution means that the more demanding games struggle a little bit. Drop it down to Full HD+ however, and everything becomes buttery smooth – even the likes of PUBG: Mobile, Asphalt 9 and Real Racing 3.

This was all true of last year’s Note 8, of course, but one area where the Note 9 does have a convincing upper hand over its predecessor is stamina. As the Galaxy Note 7 proved to be slightly more flammable than is strictly ideal for something that lives in your pocket, Samsung decided to play it safe with the battery in the Note 8, dropping it to a 3,300mAh cell.

Convinced it has the problem licked (figuratively speaking: don’t lick batteries), Samsung has now upped the battery life considerably, packing a 4,000mAh unit into the Note 9. That’s the same size that the Huawei P20 Pro has, and the results are impressive.

In our looped-video test, where the phone is set to airplane mode and 170cd/m2 brightness, the Note 9 went 19 hours and 35 minutes before finally giving up: a big 19% improvement on the Note 8. You’ll get a day and a half out of this easily, and possibly more if you’re a light user.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: Camera

In the battle for the best smartphone camera, it’s really become a three-way race: Samsung, Google and Huawei. While Google will be hoping to take back the crown with the launch of the Pixel 3, for now I’d give Samsung the edge.

Unfortunately, it already had that edge, and the Note 9’s camera is no different to the S9 Plus’ – although that is a step up from the regular S9, thanks to the added 2x optical lens that both phones share.

So to recap both the S9 Plus and Note 9 have the same dual-camera array: two 12-megapixel cameras, one with a f/1.5 aperture, and another f/2.4 telephoto lens for zooming without the distortion. Both lenses have optical image stabilisation (OIS) to ensure a steady shot, no matter how shaky your grip.

The f/1.5 aperture is important: for non-camera buffs, that means it lets a lot more light in, brightening up shots and capturing more detail, particularly in tricky dark environments. It’s a significantly wider aperture than the Note 8’s f/1.7 snapper, and the best part is you don’t need to do anything to benefit: if the Note 9 is in bright conditions, the aperture narrows to f/2.4, and if it drops below 100 lux it will widen to make the most of the limited light.

The results are suitably brilliant. As you can see from the examples embedded, the images are crisp and detailed, with immaculate colour capture. The HDR system does a pretty solid job of lighting up the darker areas, too.

For now – and join in if you know the words – this is as good as it gets. Over to you, Google.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: Verdict

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I really don’t have a bad word to say about the Samsung Galaxy Note 9. By every objective metric, it’s as good as it gets. The design is spot on with no compromises on features, the screen is the best in the business, and the camera takes shots that will flatter the photographer no end. The S Pen is a joy to use, and it’s even more useful than before.

The one fly in the ointment is just how damned much it costs. £899 is a loopy price to pay for a smartphone, and that’s before we even get to the 512GB model which sails past the four-figure mark.

The Note 9 is better than the competition, but it’s not that much better. The Huawei P20 Pro is a great device, and its £800 RRP has dropped to under £700 now. If you just want a phone that matches the Note 9 for speed, then the OnePlus 6 goes for just £469. Is it as good as the Note 9? No, but it's sure as hell not 48% worse.

Most damningly of all, though, the Note 9 isn’t dramatically better than the Note 8 – a phone that has been subject to traditional Samsung price depreciation to the degree that can be had for around £500 if you shop around.

Those looking nervously at their bank balances would do well to consider any of those options. For those who want the best of the best, it’s right here – but your wallet is sure going to feel it.

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