The number one Android flagship gets the 2018 makeover
Samsung’s Galaxy S family of products is considered one of the top alternatives to Apple’s iPhone, and there’s a good reason for that.
The South Korean firm has been using this high-end model to introduce the best it had to offer, even though in some cases, the bigger Note series was the device of choice for pioneering select features, as it’s the case of the dual-camera system.
But the Samsung Galaxy S is undoubtedly the first name that comes to mind when thinking of an iPhone rival, and naturally, the Galaxy S9 is Samsung’s response to Apple’s recently-launched iPhone X.
As compared to Apple, however, Samsung has decided to stick to a more conventional approach and stay away from controversial features that could always backfire. I’m talking about the notch, which was received with mixed feelings by Apple customers worldwide and is now making its way to the majority of Android phones across the world.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Samsung hasn’t brought anything controversial to the market with the release of the Galaxy S9. And we’re going to talk about this right away.
For 2018, the Galaxy S lineup isn’t necessarily an entirely new generation, but a facelift to the predecessor that includes both hardware and software refinements.
Just like before, there are two models included in the lineup, one with a 5.8-inch screen and another one with 6.2 inches, both of them featuring Super AMOLED panels that look unbelievably good. This is actually no surprise. Samsung is the company that built the acclaimed iPhone X display, so its phones featuring super-high-quality screens is certainly something to be expected.
When it comes to build quality, there’s no other term that describes the Galaxy S9 than “top notch.” Just like its predecessor, the S9 is made of glass front and back, and it feels super compact and solid in hand. But it’s just a feeling because dropping the Galaxy S9 to the ground can only end in just one way: with a shattered display or back.
At 163 grams, the S9 is a bit heavier than the S8 (155 grams), with slightly different dimensions: 147.7 x 68.7 x 8.5 mm (5.81 x 2.70 x 0.33 in) versus 148.9 x 68.1 x 8 mm (5.86 x 2.68 x 0.31 in).
Both the old and the new models use Gorilla Glass 5 protection and an aluminum frame, with no change in this regard on the new-generation devices.
“Facelifted Galaxy S8.”
When viewed from the front, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the S9 from the S8. They have nearly the same dimensions and design, with similarly-sized bezels allowing for an 83.6% screen-to-body ratio.
The whole magic happens on the back, where the S9 comes with changes that Samsung customers have been waiting for since the first Galaxy S8 leaks reached the web.
The South Korean firm spent a little more time improving the ergonomics on the S9, so the fingerprint sensor is no longer positioned in a super-inconvenient place, but in a new one that’s only a little less inconvenient.
The vertical layout that Samsung has embraced for the small S9 consists of the camera at the top of the module, while the fingerprint sensor is just below it. On the right, there’s the camera flash.
At first glance, this is exactly what this phone needed from the very beginning, but the position of the fingerprint sensor is not as flawless as you’d expect it to be. I still have a hard time scanning my finger, and I still touch the camera glass occasionally. If you ask me, the central position of the fingerprint sensor on the Google Pixel 2 makes a lot more sense, but I’m more inclined to say it’s probably just a matter of time until you get used to the S9 as well. Don’t be too surprised if you occasionally have a greasy camera glass though.
Other than that, there’s very little to be impressed with in terms of design on the S9, especially when coming from its predecessor. Not that the device leaves too much to be desired, but when comparing it with the Galaxy S8, those who wanted to upgrade and rely exclusively on cosmetic changes can barely find a reason to buy the new model.
If in terms of design the S9 is a slightly improved S8, there’s a lot more happening under the hood of the handset.
First and foremost, it’s worth noting that for this year’s generation, Samsung has made the switch to the same strategy as Apple and it made a better difference between the smaller and the bigger models by offering upgraded hardware on the latter.
If Apple customers have to purchase the iPhone 8 Plus to get a dual-camera system, Samsung buyers need to go for the Galaxy S9+ to get a better shooter plus upgraded hardware.
“Super AMOLED display.”
The smaller Galaxy S9, however, isn’t very much left behind, and its specs are still among the best you can find right now in the Android ecosystem.
In addition to the stunning Super AMOLED 5.8-inch display with Always On and the already-annoying 18.5:9 aspect ratio, the phone comes with a choice of two processors, depending on region. My testing model runs on Exynos 9810 because it’s the European version, but Americans can purchase the one powered by the Snapdragon 845.
Both are paired with 4GB RAM (versus 6GB on the bigger model) and 64GB storage. This is one of the biggest drawbacks on the Samsung Galaxy S lineup because no matter how much you’re willing to pay, you can’t get more storage. Micro SD card support is indeed offered, but built-in storage is faster and more convenient to use, but for some reason, Samsung still wants to limit customers to 64GB.
Samsung spent way too much time dissecting the Galaxy S9 camera during the press unveiling, but at some level, this does make sense given the rather subtle improvements on the rest of the phone.
“The Camera. Reimagined.” was Samsung’s tagline for the Galaxy S9, as its flagship has finally been upgraded to a dual-lens system a la iPhone X.
“Camera. Reimagined. Really?”
What’s important to know, however, is that only the bigger Plus model features the dual-camera system, while the standard S9 still comes with a single-lens unit.
That’s not such a big drawback as you might expect because the secondary camera is a telephoto lens that’s mostly used for analog zoom and other features that we're going to discuss in the Galaxy S9+ review. If you’re a casual amateur photographer, there’s no reason to purchase the bigger model because the main lens is identical on both phones.
Spec-wise, the rear camera uses Samsung’s Super Speed Dual Pixel technology and a 12-megapixel sensor with autofocus, 1/2.55” sensor size, 1.4 um pixel size, and 4:3 sensor ratio. The sensor camera has a FOV of 77 degrees, and the big star for this generation is the variable aperture of F1.5/F2.4. Additionally, you get OIS, digital zoom up to 8x, and selective focus for background blur effect, also on the Galaxy S8.
On paper, this sounds like a substantially-upgraded camera, and it really is. Most of the time, the Galaxy S9 shoots high-quality photos with vivid colors, good contrast, and high level of details, though I’d say that the post-processing tends to oversaturate pictures occasionally. But that's something that Samsung is known for doing anyway.
As on the Galaxy S8, I recommend switching the screen mode to Basic from Settings > Display > Screen mode to see the actual color of your photos because the way the screen is optimized in the Adaptive display mode makes everything look super-vivid and sometimes unrealistic.
The Galaxy S9 focuses very fast, and the Dual Pixel technology allows it to offer similar performance in low-light conditions as well. But there’s something I noticed and which I wonder if this is truly the behavior that Samsung was aiming for.
There are moments when the camera appears to focus correctly, but the photo looks blurry, as it’s the case of the sample below. At first glance, if you’re too close to the subject, the camera attempts to change the focus point to be able to take the picture, and this is the reason why everything appears to be OK at first, but returns blurry details at closer inspection. In other words, the phone does focus and it seems it's taking a correct photo, but on a bigger screen, the blurry details are more than obvious.
I’ve seen the same behavior on both the Galaxy S9 and the S9+, and I think this is caused by the camera software, so hopefully Samsung improves performance in future updates. In most of the cases, you can avoid getting blurry photos by simply refocusing manually once again or moving to a slightly different angle.
When it comes to video, the camera hasn’t changed much, but it does offer Super Slow-motion video support with 720p at 960 fps. Such videos indeed look great with the proper light, and it’s certainly great for marketing purposes, but honestly, how often do you record videos in slow motion?
“Super-slow-motion. Now what?”
I know I’m not, so while it’s great to have such capabilities on a phone, I highly doubt I’ll use it too often. This feature also comes with its own limitations, including HD resolution and 20 shots per video with approximately 0.2 seconds of recording and 6 seconds of playback for each shot.
The camera comes with the typical modes that include food, hyperlapse, panorama, and pro, which is a delight to use if you have the time and knowledge to change settings manually.
One of the best things about the Galaxy S9 is that it comes with stereo speakers. This is an eagerly-awaited feature for the Samsung flagship, especially because rival Apple has been offering it since the iPhone 7.
The stereo speakers on the Galaxy S9 are tuned by AKG, the company that Samsung has previously worked with for the headset offered with the S8, and they do offer super-high-quality audio. This is awesome for watching YouTube videos in 4K, movies, or playing games.
There’s no upgrade in terms of battery, and the Galaxy S9 comes with a 3,000 mAh unit. The addition of new features and improved hardware, but maintaining the same battery as on the previous model, means that you’re not going to get the same battery life per charge. On average, however, the smaller model needs to be recharged every 18 hours if you’re close to becoming a heavy user, but with SOT (screen on time) of around 4 hours per day you have to do this more often.
Recharging, however, shouldn’t be such a big headache because the S9 is offering fast charging (literally, not like the one on the iPhone X), as well as wireless charging.
Given the rather subtle improvements in terms of hardware, Samsung has tried to make the Galaxy S9 a bigger deal in terms of software, so it introduced new features, some of which look a lot similar to those of Apple. The best example is AR Emoji.
Using the front camera to create animated emoji based on your look, AR Emoji is pretty much a clone of Apple’s Animoji, which is available exclusively on the iPhone X. Even Samsung’s officials mistakenly called this feature “Animoji” during the official announcement, so nobody can deny the two aren’t similar.
Samsung, on the other hand, used a slightly different approach, but given the lack of 3D sensing cameras, the animated emoji don’t reproduce your face as accurately as Apple’s Animoji. Instead, what I liked was that it worked pretty well with glasses on, and every blink of the eye is captured.
Of course, just like I said when I reviewed the iPhone X and played with Animoji, this is the kind of feature that I won’t use too often. A kid would certainly love it a lot more, but for me, it’s just a gimmick that doesn’t make any difference.
Both the Snapdragon and the Exynos chips provide outstanding performance, and if the Galaxy S8 seemed snappy and responsive, the Galaxy S9 pushes things even further. There’s no slowdown on this phone, and everything is performed blazing fast.
Also, Samsung paid more attention to the security of the operating system, and at this point, it offers one of the most secure Android experiences out there. KNOX is still there, and so is the Secure Folder, which provides extra protection should you want to add a new layer of security for individual apps and files.
The phone looks exquisite, to say the least, but the glass body also makes it very prone to physical damage. Every drop to the ground means the display is very likely to shatter, and despite the Gorilla Glass 5 protection, which was also available on the S8, the phone is still surprisingly easy to scratch.
Despite bringing several good things to the table, the software experience on the Galaxy S9 has downsides as well, and Samsung’s approach for system updates is one of them.
The S9 launches with Android 8 out of the box, and just like before, the company promises monthly security updates to keep all data secure and patch vulnerabilities. It remains to be seen if the company does deliver this, but this certainly didn’t happen on the S8, where many users are still waiting for Oreo, while others are running the November 2017 security update.
The number of changes that it brings versus its predecessor is disappointing for someone who waited one year for a new flagship, and for Samsung customers who hoped the company would bring a worthy alternative to the iPhone X, this isn’t really the best news.
What I was curious to find out when I first received the review unit was if it is worth buying the Samsung Galaxy S9 if I already have the Galaxy S8. At this point, I don’t think so, and as it turns out, many people feel the same way. Samsung’s orders for the S9 are well below expectations, and it’s no wonder why.
Without a doubt, however, Samsung knows exactly what it's doing.