SAMSUNG GALAXY S9 REVIEW: PREDICTABLY GREAT, PREDICTABLY FLAWED

There comes a point in most successful products’ existences where they become predictable. The new model, building off of the triumphs of its prior version, maintains the same look and feel while introducing more subtle enhancements. Apple’s used this tack with the iPhone and iPad for multiple generations, and Microsoft has done the same with the Surface Pro in recent years. Don’t rock the boat; don’t fix what isn’t broken.

And so, if you’ve seen last year’s Galaxy S8 from Samsung, you’ve seen this year’s Galaxy S9. Content with the design and appearance of the S8, Samsung focused its efforts on small, mostly unseen changes that result in a better overall experience, but not a dramatically different one. Of course, Samsung being Samsung, there are a bunch of new gimmicky features crammed into it so there’s something to show on commercials.

That isn’t to say the Galaxy S9 and the larger S9 Plus are bad phones; the S8 was an excellent phone last year, and the S9 builds on that. If you’re planning to buy a new phone in 2018 and are willing to spend between $700 and $900 (the unlocked S9 sells for $719.99, while the S9 Plus goes for $839.99; carrier pricing varies), the S9 or S9 Plus will surely be one of the best options available. They will be the most popular Android smartphones released this year, without a doubt.

But three years on from Samsung’s big shift in design, we know what a premium Samsung phone is already. It’s predictable — both the good things (display, design) and the bad things (software). The Galaxy S9 is the most predictable Samsung phone yet.

The design, display, and specs of the S9 bring zero surprises, but they are the things that influence your day-to-day use of the phone more than anything else. For the most part, Samsung nailed the basics.

Though the overall design and appearance of the S9 pair are the same as the S8’s, it’s no less attractive or impressive to look at. Even hardened gadget bloggers, like Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel, were still impressed with the S9’s appearance when I first showed it to them. The phone has a seamless, infinity pool effect that, combined with its extra-tall aspect ratio display, makes it feel like you’re just holding a screen.

There is curved glass on both the front and back that makes the phone comfortable to hold and allows it to be narrower than other phones with similar size screens. Like last year, both the S9 and S9 Plus have curved screens; you can’t buy a flat version of either one. My complaint with the design is the same as any other glass-backed phone: it can be slippery to hold, is a horrible fingerprint magnet, and is less durable than a metal back would be.

But it certainly is pretty.

The displays in the S9 and S9 Plus are just as you’d expect them to be on a Samsung flagship, and they remain the best screens you can get on any Android phone. The S9 has a 5.8-inch screen, while the S9 Plus has a spacious 6.2-inch display. Both are high resolution, both are OLED panels with vibrant (sometimes too vibrant) colors, and both have great viewing angles. The screens are also slightly brighter this year, which is always appreciated on sunny days. The display’s extra-tall aspect ratio allows for minimal bezels above and below it, which aids the perception that you’re just holding a screen in your hand and nothing else.

But the S9’s top and bottom bezels are not as small or minimal as those on the iPhone X, its main competitor, or a number of other devices. In the time since Samsung made small bezels a table stakes feature, other companies have improved upon and iterated on the concept to produce even more immersive designs. Samsung is quick to tell you that the S9 doesn’t have a notch interrupting the screen, but it also doesn’t have the most immersive display anymore, either.

The S9 has Samsung’s other hardware standbys, too: fast wired and wireless charging, IP68 water resistance, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. If you’re looking for a high-end phone with a headphone jack in 2018, you have fewer choices than ever, so I’m quite happy to see that Samsung didn’t change this aspect of the phone.

Last year, Samsung debuted a dedicated button for its Bixby virtual assistant on the S8, and it’s in the same spot just below the volume buttons on the left side on the S9. You can now disable it from launching Bixby, which is progress, but Samsung still doesn’t provide a native way to reprogram it to something more useful. At its worst, it’s annoying, at its best, it’s a little fidget button that you can press without having to worry about it doing something.

So, what is actually new? Two things: the fingerprint scanner has been moved to a much easier-to-reach spot on the back of the phone, and the single speaker has been upgraded to a stereo pair.

The S8’s fingerprint scanner was a frustrating experience: it was small, hard to reach, and right next to the camera, which meant most of the time, I ended up with fingerprints on the camera lens. The S9’s scanner has been moved to just below the camera, which makes it much easier to reach, especially on the larger S9 Plus. It’s still small, especially compared to scanners on other phones, and it’s still too close to the camera. I’ve found myself frequently swiping on the camera lens when I try to use the gesture to open the notification tray.

In an obvious attempt to replicate Apple’s Face ID system, Samsung has introduced a new combination face-scanning / iris-scanning feature that can be used to unlock the phone instead of the fingerprint scanner. It will use either the more-secure iris scanner or the quicker-but-less-secure face scanner, depending on the lighting conditions you’re in. However, it’s slow, blinks an annoying red light when it activates the iris scanner, and never feels as seamless as Face ID. Good thing the fingerprint scanner is easier to use now.

The new stereo speakers are more successful: they are louder, clearer, and more enjoyable to listen to than the S8’s single speaker. Samsung is playing catch-up here — many other phones have had stereo speakers for years now — but I’m glad to see (and hear) them finally on a Galaxy phone. They aren’t the best speakers I’ve heard on a phone, but they are more than good enough.

The rest of the S9’s improvements are under the hood: it’s running Qualcomm’s latest processor (in North America; other markets will see Samsung’s own Exynos processor), 4GB (S9) or 6GB (S9 Plus) of RAM, and a new LTE modem that supports even faster gigabit speeds. Those are specs we’re likely to see in almost every Android flagship this year, but Samsung is the first with them out of the gate.

Performance, at least during my review, has been great: the phone is snappy and responsive, with smooth scrolling and fast app launches. The network performance has also been just as impressive as the S8’s, and noticeably better than my experience with the iPhone.

The size of the battery and internal storage are unchanged: you get a 3,000mAh battery in the S9 and a 3,500mAh battery in the S9 Plus, with 64GB of storage and microSD card support in both. I’d really have liked to see Samsung increase the battery size this year. The battery life isn’t bad on these phones, but it’s merely average, and heavy users will deplete even the S9 Plus’ large battery after a long day.

The big new thing that Samsung wants everyone to know about is the S9’s new rear camera. The 12-megapixel image sensor is new and improved, with better image processing, but the major change is found in the lens, which can now physically switch between a very bright f/1.5 aperture and a smaller f/2.4 aperture, similar to how larger cameras work. The S9 Plus model gains a second camera for zooming and portrait mode effects, much like Samsung released with the Note 8 last year.

Samsung claims significant low-light improvements with the new camera, thanks to its new lens that can capture more light and improved signal processing to reduce image noise. In my experience, the S9 can certainly take great photos in low light, but they aren’t necessarily better than what Google’s Pixel 2 or even the iPhone X can capture most of the time. There’s less noise than images from the S8 and the colors are pleasing.

But all of the images have a specific Samsung “look” to them, which is warmer, very saturated, and has imperfections (and sometimes detail) smoothed out. It’s quite different than what Apple’s or Google’s cameras produce and deciding between them often comes down to personal preference. On a technical level, all of the high-end phones available now can capture excellent photos. Chances are, if you weren’t a fan of Samsung’s image processing before, you still won’t like it now.

I’m less impressed with the switching aperture feature. It feels more like a parlor trick than anything else. The S9’s automatic mode will switch between the settings based on lighting conditions, but the pro mode lets you decide which aperture you want to use. Since the camera can just increase its shutter speed to compensate for more light, I don’t know why I’d ever use f/2.4 when an f/1.5 lens is available. I’d rather have a faster shutter speed or lower ISO setting than a slightly smaller aperture in virtually any situation.

The ability to switch apertures is enticing, and the principle is photographically sound. On a larger camera, controlling the aperture could result in sharper images or better exposure in bright conditions. It also allows for more creative control to produce long exposure effects or separate your subject from the background. But those assumptions about larger camera lenses don’t directly apply to the small lenses and sensors found on a phone.

Left image capture at f/1.5, right image captured at f/2.4. The differences between them are minimal.

Based on my testing, there isn’t an appreciable difference in sharpness between the two apertures. Since the small lens and sensor already have very deep depths of field, closing down the aperture on the S9 has a minimal effect on what’s in focus. Further, the amount of aperture control provided isn’t enough for advanced photography techniques, such as long-exposure shots during the day, so you still have to rely on add-on accessories for those.

The S9 Plus’ second telephoto lens is similarly gimmicky: Samsung’s Live Focus portrait mode isn’t as good as Apple or Google’s at separating a subject from the background, and in challenging lighting conditions, the image quality is rather bad. You should buy the S9 Plus over the S9 if you want a bigger screen or longer battery life, but not for its second camera lens.

The S9 can shoot 4K video at 60 frames per second, or 1080p slow-motion video at 240 frames per second, which catches it up with what the iPhone can do. (I expect all Android flagship phones to have these two video modes this year.) Both modes produce very nice quality video, but you have to make sure you have plenty of light for the slow-motion mode, or you’ll see a lot of image noise.

On the front camera, things are unchanged from last year. It’s the same 8-megapixel camera as the S8. It has autofocus, which no other front camera has yet to replicate, but its portrait mode and image quality aren’t as good as Google or Apple’s. By default, the selfie camera applies a lot of image smoothing and other effects to try to beautify the photo, but they just make it look out of focus and unattractive to me.

The S9’s design, performance, and cameras are all predictably good enough to keep it at the top of the smartphone pile for 2018. But, Samsung being Samsung, there are a ton of other things it is pushing with the S9 this year, and in my estimation, they all qualify as gimmicks. Unsurprisingly, the things that don’t work invariably involve software.

There are AR Emoji, Samsung’s take on the iPhone X’s Animoji feature. It scans your face and then produces a 3D Bitmoji-looking character based on 100 points of your face that kind of maybe sometimes looks like you. Then it takes this character and creates a bunch of reaction GIFs with it that you can send through the keyboard. There are also some weird-looking animals that you can create video clips with like you can do with Animoji.

There are a couple issues with Samsung’s AR Emoji. First, Samsung isn’t using any special tech to capture your face or movements, it’s just relying on the front or rear camera, so tracking is bad. Second, the characters it creates are on the wrong side of creepy, and everyone I’ve tested it with has been completely turned off with the results. The animal characters are similarly weird. It’s definitely something that Samsung built just to compete with Apple, and it’s not very good.

Next is the new Super Slow Motion mode in the camera. On top of the 240 frames per second slow-motion capture previously mentioned, the S9 can shoot up to 960 frames per second. That sounds really neat, but the S9 can only do it for 0.2 seconds at a time (which stretches to six seconds when played back) and at only 720p resolution. There are two ways to shoot this: you can manually try to trigger it to capture the 0.2 seconds of action you want, or you can use an automatic mode that looks for movement in a specific area of the frame and captures slow-mo when it detects it. Both are really hard to use and more frustrating than anything else: after 10 takes of trying to get a slow-motion shot of my six-year-old throwing a snowball, both her and my patience wore out and we gave up. Worse, the feature needs a ton of light to work, and even if you have that, image quality is still crappy.

Bixby isn’t new, but it’s still here, and it’s just as bad as it was when it launched last summer. It’s gotten a fresh coat of paint and it’s slightly faster than before, but it’s still way slower than Google Assistant and isn’t as good at parsing my voice commands. The virtual assistant has a couple of new features: there’s an integrated makeup store that lets you try makeup on virtually and then buy it directly from Sephora or Cover Girl, and a calorie detection feature that uses bad science to guesstimate how many calories are in the donut you’re about to eat. (Neither features is something I expect anyone will use more than once.) It’s fair to say that at this point, Bixby is a colossal failure as a smartphone assistant.

And then there’s the perennial complaint with Samsung’s software: why are there so many duplicate apps? The unlocked S9 I’ve been testing has two email apps, two gallery apps, two browsers, and two app stores. The carrier versions will surely have even more duplicative apps. A couple of Samsung’s apps are good — namely the Samsung browser and Samsung Pay — but the rest are inferior to the Google apps that are also installed on the phone, which just makes them annoying. If you care at all about software updates, Samsung is one of the worst manufacturers when it comes to delivering new versions of Android. As of this review, last year’s Galaxy S8 still doesn’t have Android 8.0 in the US, and that was released by Google over six months ago.

Without a new design or other new obvious advancements in technology to distract from Samsung’s usual problems, the software issues on the S9 become more obvious than they were with the S8. The upshot of most of this is that you can ignore Samsung’s marketing-focused gimmicks and really enjoy the Galaxy S9 (and none of them fall to the level of other Android manufacturers’ software problems). You can turn off Bixby, never bother to use AR Emoji or super slow motion, and disable most of Samsung’s apps. That leaves Samsung’s poor software update history as the big sticking point for a lot of people.

The rest of the S9 and S9 Plus is as great as we’ve come to expect. It has a head-turning design, fast performance, a great screen, and a very good camera. Outside of the display, the S9 isn’t a class leader in any category, but it’s good enough in all of them that the whole package makes for a great phone.

Owners of the S8 probably don’t need to upgrade this go-around — the differences aren’t great enough to warrant splurging on the S9 — but if you’re using a Galaxy S7 or any other phone from two years ago, the S9 is a significant step up in every respect.

Predictably, Samsung has made yet another excellent flagship phone. But, just as predictably, it still has plenty of room for improvement.

8.5
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