Just minutes after getting my hands on Samsung’s latest flagship S Series smartphone, one fact was abundantly clear — if you weren’t fond of the Galaxy S8 and S8+, then you’re going to have similar feelings about the S9 and S9+.
Over the last few days, I’ve described the South Korean manufacturer’s latest flagship as its iPhone 8.
S8+ on the left and the S9+ on the right.
Here’s why: there’s nothing really wrong with the S9 or S9+. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Samsung’s latest S series smartphones are the pinnacle of the Android ecosystem, surpassing even the beleaguered Pixel 2 XL in some respects.
It’s just that the S9 isn’t a significant improvement over the S8.
The smartphone features an impressive, versatile camera — complete with a variable aperture — that still shoots slightly over-processed photos, a design that’s a cut above competitors and, as expected, unrivalled build-quality in the Android space.
That’s not to say that there aren’t improvements in Samsung’s latest flagship. Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 845 (the phone features Samsung’s own Exynos 9810 processor in Europe and other regions) provides an impressive 35 percent improvement in speed. The S9+ also now features 6GB of RAM, an update I found helped the phone run smoother when the device was under heavy load.
The problem is that, from an aesthetic perspective, the S9 looks identical to the S8. Given that Samsung is synonymous with Android in North America, the average consumer often purchases a new device based solely on how it looks.
If the S8 is just as flashy as the S9 at first glance, why would someone opt to purchase the newer, more expensive device, when the S8 is sure to be sold at a significant discount?
And therein lies the problem.
So what’s actually new?
Though most of the S9’s new features are software-related, the smartphone includes a couple of hardware improvements as well.
The most significant change to the S9’s exterior is the new location of the fingerprint sensor. It’s now located below the camera, instead of to the right of the lens like with the S8/S8+ and Note 8. This means it’s no longer necessary to awkwardly claw your hand around the device in order to reach the fingerprint scanner. That said, the S9’s fingerprint scanner is still tiny and I did encounter instances where I found it difficult to locate.
I’m also not completely satisfied with the location of the S9’s fingerprint sensor. While I’m pleased Samsung moved it to a more sensible location, I’d prefer if it were located still farther down the phone, similar to the Pixel 2’s scanner.
Beyond the fingerprint scanner shuffle, there are other improvements, too. The S9 includes 4GB of RAM, while the S9+ has an even more sizeable 6GB of RAM.
S9+ on the left and an iPhone X on the right.
Other new features include improved camera functionality, a revamped camera app and AR Emoji — Samsung’s interesting, but ultimately lacklustre take on Animoji (more on this later).
The firm also claims the S9’s speakers are 40 percent louder than the S8’s. While the S9’s stereo audio quality is an improvement over the S8 in fidelity, I found the phone only slightly louder. The phone also now supports Dolby Atmos virtual surround sound with headphones.
Dolby Atmos is above standard stereo sound, but the jump in quality isn’t as significant as some might expect. Those who watch a lot of video content on their phones — through streaming services like Netflix, for example — will definitely be pleased with this addition though.
On a side note, the S9 features a working FM tuner. This isn’t a feature I have any interest in, but it’s something S Series fans have been asking for a while. Your headphones act as the antenna and the tuner is active even when data is turned off, as long as the S9 hasn’t been set to ‘Airplane Mode.’
Here’s what’s the same
S9 on the left and the S9+ on the right.
The S9 features the same 18.5:9 aspect ratio, curved sides and glass front and back as its predecessor. The 5.8-inch S9 and 6.2-inch S9+ also include 2960 x 1440 pixel Super AMOLED displays that are identical to the S8’s. While Samsung says the S9’s panel is brighter, I didn’t notice much of a difference when comparing both displays head-to-head. HDR10 compatibility is back, too.
The S9’s screen is just as stellar as the S8’s and this makes sense given the reputation Samsung has built in the display industry over the last few years.
The phone also looks and feels the same as last year’s S Series devices, which is its most significant obstacle. This means that if you liked the S8’s glossy, fingerprint prone design, then you’ll love the Galaxy S9. Delving into the details, the S9 and S9+ are millimetres taller than their predecessors, and also weigh slightly more. Both of these changes likely won’t be noticed by the average user.
Just like last year, the phone includes 64GB of storage, which is expandable up to 400GB via a microSD slot. The S9 also supports 1.2Gbps data transfer speeds, though this is just future-proofing, given that a real network hitting this speed right now is purely theoretical.
Finally, the S9 is IP68 dust- and water-resistant and supports both wired and wireless fast charging, just like the S8.
It’s all about the camera>
The camera is the S9 and S9+’s most impressive feature and most significant upgrade.
The rear camera’s lens is capable of switching between f/1.5 (this is even wider than the LG V30’s f/1.6 aperture) and f/2.4 depending on lighting conditions, when set to automatic. The brighter aperture allows 28 percent more light into the sensor when compared to the S8’s f/1.7 aperture, with the f/2.8 aperture preventing overexposure under sunny conditions — for example, on a tropical beach.>
Galaxy S9+ photo shot at night in manual mode – 7.9-megapixels, f/2.4, 1/4 shutter speed, 4.3mm ISO100.>
Galaxy S9+ photo shot at night in manual mode – 7.9-megapixels, f/1.5, 1/4 shutter speed, 4.3mm ISO100
To be clear, its not possible to switch to f-stops between these numbers like with a DSLR. The S9’s variable aperture is binary and jumps between either f/1.5 or f/2.4. The ability to change apertures when shooting in Auto Mode improved low-light performance significantly. Under extremely bright conditions when shooting with f/2.4, the highlights were toned down a small amount.
The aperture can also be changed when the S9’s revamped camera is set to manual mode (called Pro in the camera app), though the option is buried in the shutter speed section. When I first learned that the S9 would feature a variable aperture, I had high hopes this would allow for mechanical depth-of-field effects. ‘Live Focus’ with the S9’s dual shooter looks great, but still has a heavily processed feel to it.