Well, another year has passed, and you know what that means: every smartphone manufacturer is releasing their latest flagship phones. Samsung is no different, releasing the Galaxy S9 and S9+ models to continue their stranglehold on the title of Number One Smartphone Maker on the planet. It’s been a big year for smartphones; design philosophy has advanced rapidly with the likes of the iPhone X’s all-screen display, and Huawei’s P20 notch display joining in on the action too. Let’s not forget that last year Samsung led the way with the S8 and its Infinity Display which was (and still is) impeccable. I managed to get my hands on the S9 for a couple of weeks, so let’s jump right in and see how it shapes up.
Samsung have stuck largely with the same design that they went with on the S8. The Infinity Display is back with that gorgeous QHD+, HDR screen that commands your attention right from the moment you power up the phone for the first time. It is bright, it is bold, it’s soooooo close to being bezel-less, but we saw it last year and it’s more of the same from Samsung. Don’t get me wrong, the screen is absolutely amazing, but by sticking to basically the same design, Samsung have missed an opportunity to keep themselves ahead of the competition. I suspect that, come 2019, the S10 is going to be an all-screen infinity display that also embraces the notch design philosophy.
OK, so I’ve given the iterative approach a thumbs, down which may seem a little harsh given that it is still an amazing screen, but aside from that almost everything else is absolutely stellar. The S9 is an absolute beast of a handset that delivers the level of performance you expect from their flagship. This is one fast, snappy little number, and I’ll tell you why.
The S9 is 5.8 inches of slim, glassy sleekness. It is lightweight, and the more retangular design of the Infinity Display makes it very easy to hold for what is quite a large device, though it doesn’t seem that excessive by today’s standards. Be aware though that the all-glass design does make it a wee bit slippery at times, and if you drop it without a good protective case, the gorilla glass ain’t saving your expensive phone from unsightly cracking. The QHD+, HDR display comes in at 2,960 x 1440 resolution, which equates to an impressive 529ppi. Hiding under the hood of the S9 is an Octo-core processor running at 2.7GHz and 1.7Ghz, backed up by 4GB RAM, 64GB of storage (expandable to 400GB), and the whole lot is charged by USB-C with support for that fancy wireless charging you’ve heard so much about. All the other standard bells and whistles are in there: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, a headphone jack, and of course the phone is running on Android 8.0 Oreo for a stellar experience.
The S9 runs with the Samsung Experience 9.0 software which is pretty damn customisable but you cannot, I repeat, CANNOT get rid of Bixby. Bixby is a great idea that is yet to reach his potential; what should be a super-advanced personal assistant comes across as that annoying friend you had in school that you only remain friends with because they promise to show you all their cool toys but never do. Show us the toys, Bixby! Perhaps his biggest flaw is that he’s competing with Google Assistant on the S9, who is faster and more reliable than Bixby.
In terms of general performance, the S9 is the Usain Bolt of smartphones. It is super fast and continues to perform time and time again. Calling up apps gives a near instant response, and makes multi-tasking is a breeze. Where the phone really comes into its own is support for HDR10. As we do more and more streaming on our phones, screen quality is more important than ever, and the QHD+ screen combined with HDR10 delivers high-quality, crisp video that is rich with the level of detail and colour palette that only HDR can deliver. I might have had a dig at the iteration of the design, Samsung, but I cannot fault how good the screen itself is.
Battery life on the S9 is an area where Samsung haven’t really advanced. I’m a reasonably heavy user of my smartphone; emails are constantly syncing, I use apps constantly, and I do my fair share of streaming. Taking the phone off charge in the morning I found myself running short of battery at the back end of the day, and by the time I got home at 6pm the phone was in that dangerous below 20% territory, and was definitely in need of a charge by 8pm. There are power saving functions to buy you more time if you need it, but if you keep your Samsung charger with you you’ll be saved because Samsung give you that all important super charger, which gets the battery back up to that 80% range within about 40 mins.
And now for a really important part of the modern smartphone: the cameras! This is a big one for Samsung, because this year the motto is “The Camera. Reimagined”. Unlike many flagship smartphones, the S9 only has one rear camera, a 12MP f/1.5/f/2.4 dual aperture lens. You heard me right, the phone can switch apertures on the fly! What this means is that low-light photos are some of the best you are going to see on a smartphone. At f/1.5, the lens is able to let in a hell of a lot of light which makes low-light shooting a breeze. The trade off, though, is that sharpness is lost due to more light entering the lens. How do you know when you need to change the aperture? You don’t! The phone will automatically detect the light levels and adjust the aperture when and if required. The vast majority of the time it will stick to the f/2.5 setting to deliver richly detailed, sharp, vibrant photos, but when the light level drops it will switch to deliver a low-light picture that is almost flawless. The downside? One camera means no portrait mode. The S9+ does have a dual rear cameras and can do portrait mode but Samsung left that out of the S9. It may not seem like much but Portrait Mode is one of those expected camera settings now, so for Samsung to go with one camera instead of two it seems bizarre. The motto here for Samsung is less “The Camera. Reimagined” and more like “The Camera. Mostly but not completely Reimagined”. For selfie lovers, I’m afraid to say the S9 is not the phone for you, as the front facing 8MP camera from Samsung is decidedly underwhelming. The pictures taken on it are noticeably less detailed compared to even Huawei’s mid-range Nova 2i. I don’t know what happened with the S9’s front facing camera, but they really missed a trick with it.
OK so I’ve given the S9 some rough treatment, but that shouldn’t diminish the fact this is an fantastic phone. Unfortunately, I think the biggest downside is that Samsung have saved the best features for the S9+, bigger screen, dual cameras with portrait mode. The S9 is riducously fast, and performs amazingly well; make no mistake about it, it is another fantastic flagship from Samsung, and the low-light camera in particular is remarkable. But there are some trade-offs, and for S8 owners, there may not be a big reason to upgrade until the S10.