Samsung Galaxy S9 Review: Finally a Flagship with Everything

Starting with a (ahem) mock drama set in Samsung’s boardroom, I present my assessment of the brand new Galaxy S9 (and, by extension, the S9+, since most of the hardware and software are identical). It’s perhaps the ultimate do-everything smartphone for the man in the street, and Samsung knows its market – this will sell by the tens of millions. Is it perfect? Not quite, as you’ll see, but it’s darned good and worthy of heaps of praise here.

This then is the possible scene in Samsung’s boardroom in mid-2017.

“Guys, we need to start speccing out the S9 for Spring 2018. People already seem to love the S8 as it is… What can we add?”

“Faster chipset? Check. Better camera? Check – loads of plans in this department. Stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos? Check. Give the design a facelift in terms of stronger materials and dimensions? Check. OK, we’re done?”

“Wait, wait, what are we going to get rid of?”

“Get rid of??”

“Yeah, we’ve got to. All the other manufacturers are getting rid of things, it’s a sign that a phone is err… more premium… apparently.”

“Do we have to? We’re not ditching the Bixby button, if that’s what you’re getting at, it’s my pet project!!!”

“Oh. Err… what about the 3.5mm headphone jack?”

“Are you out of your mind? Our users LOVE plugging in headphones, we did loads of surveys. Besides, if HTC and Sony and Google and Huawei want to ditch that jack then there’s even more sales we’re going to hoover up with the S9 range. Kapisch?”

Well, they might not say “Kapisch” in South Korea, but you get the drift. The Galaxy S9 is the phone that has everything, every feature, every specification that you’ve ever heard of or wanted. Really. I’m struggling to think of anything that this misses out – and I like to complain a lot.

Hardware

Samsung Galaxy S9 Review: Finally a Flagship with Everything

But I have to start with the physical – the S9, especially in this new lilac purple colour, is stunning. Perfectly formed, curved, smooth, almost identical to the older S8 in form but slightly shorter and with the fingerprint sensor on the back now (more conventionally) centred, below the camera island – but more on the sensor later.

Galaxy S9 - back

Yes, you’ll still probably need a case, despite all this Gorilla Glass 5, which is claimed to be 20% thicker than on the S8, and with an upgraded aluminium chassis. And you’ll also probably need insurance, since this will cost a small fortune to repair if you drop it. But the S9 is lovely, isn’t it? Just lovely.

Galaxy S9 - multitasking

And there’s no notch. As with the 3.5mm audio jack, of which more in a moment, Samsung deserves credit for not following the herd in copying the latest iPhone X, with its notch for front sensors. Here they’re lined up with no need for breaking into the display at all.

Mind you, the iris recognition system works just as patchily on previous Galaxy flagships, not working at all with my varifocals, even after training, plus it’s now paired with standard camera-based face unlock into something Samsung calls ‘Intelligent Scan’, for faster results overall. However, it’s not in the same league as the iPhone X’s Face ID, and in anything other than favourable lighting it all falls apart and it’s usually far faster to just use the fingerprint sensor, for example while pulling the phone out of your case or pocket.

The Bixby button on the left still can’t be reassigned, though you can now disable it, thankfully, and the buttons on the right are standard.

Down the bottom is the aforementioned 3.5mm jack. Fully ‘there’, fully waterproof, and yet fully functional. Proof that other manufacturers are bending the truth when they say they need to zap the jack.

Jacks!

Output is top notch too, with a 32-bit DAC onboard working up to 384KHz to drive most consumer headphones.

Plus the now standard USB Type C jack, supporting Quick Charge 2.0 (up to 9V/2A) and with a matching charger in the box, no extra expense needed. Or you can charge wirelessly via Qi support – yes, that’s squeezed in too, amazingly, Samsung’s 3D design is jaw dropping in terms of what they’ve packed into the S9 (and S8 before it).

Bottom edge

There’s also the bottom speaker, which is a similar component to that in the older Galaxy devices, but here tuned by AKG, essentially meaning that in the same way as the Mate 10 Pro, the output pushes as much left channel audio from a stereo soundtrack as possible through the S9’s earpiece, with subtle changes to what the main speaker would normally push out. The illusion is of two roughly equal speakers, since the ear latches onto the top end, but as with other phones, it’s ‘faux’ stereo, not true stereo.

Still, a lot better than nothing and the bass chucked out of the S9’s AKG-tuned bottom is really rather impressive. And then you spot that the physical speaker system has an extra trick up its sleeve – you can turn on Dolby Atmos from the notification controls and this significantly boosts the top end, giving extra, if slightly artificial, clarity. Put it all together and I was blown away by how good the audio was in practice, in terms of volume and frequency range.

Corners and curves

The 5.8” QHD Super AMOLED display (6.2” on the S9+) is stunning. Samsung is the world leader in AMOLED screens and has been for a decade now, and it shows. This is probably the best display I’ve ever used on a phone, bar none. The corners are gently rounded, laterally (as well as physically!), which still seems a little odd from a technical point of view, but it does fit the curves of the device.

Imaging

S9 camera island

The biggest improvement Samsung has made for 2018 is probably the S9’s main camera. Yes, the S9+ gets a second lens for telephoto and ‘Portrait’ depth effects, and maybe that’s another review for another day. But the principal camera is the most interesting, with a Fast2L3 Sensor, meaning essentially that there’s an extra layer of silicon beneath the pixel electronics, comprising half a Gigabyte of dedicated camera RAM.

The idea is that imaging information can be grabbed far faster than ever before, i.e. you don’t have to wait for the main phone processor and RAM to store the pixel information. The camera RAM grabs and stores, all on its own, making for very fast capture when needed. Some photos captured by the S9 will actually comprise as many as 12 separate exposures, grabbed fast, processed and analysed for best results, reducing noise and increasing clarity.

Further, video can be at up to 960 frames per second, at 720p, at least. That’s starting to be equivalent to industrial slow motion cameras and this is all in your pocket. A motion-trigger system works to start the slow motion capture when movement is detected within an on-screen square in the viewfinder. In practice, you do need very good light and lots of patience, making this rather a gimmick and not that useful in the real world. It’s just for fun.

Also new is a dual aperture system, f/1.5 and f/2.4, the former for maximum light ingress in low light and for arty bokeh effects, the latter for maximum depth of field and – in theory – better handling of bright conditions with normal shutter speeds. Selection of aperture is automatic (and roughly 50:50 across my test subjects in all light conditions), but you can override it manually if you need to.

You can see the results here, with crops and comments where needed:

Sample photo from the Galaxy S9
Sample photo from the Galaxy S9, shot on a gloomy day yet the photo is definitely HDR-ish and hyper-real. Probably for the best…
Sample photo from the Galaxy S9
Natural low light bokeh from the f/1.5 lens. Very pleasant, without being dramatically over the top.
Sample photo from the Galaxy S9
Sample photo from the Galaxy S9 at dead of night. The multi-exposure system means no noise and great results, though over-sharpening gets in the way a little – of which more in a moment…
Sample photo from the Galaxy S9
Sample photo from the Galaxy S9, shot in gloomy light…
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above – details are crisp and sharp. Samsung’s algorithms love a regular-lined subject like this!
Sample photo from the Galaxy S9
Gloomy light again, but lots of fine detail…
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, the sharpening works wonders on the mass of pipes and wires!
Sample photo from the Galaxy S9
Sample photo from the Galaxy S9, the clock face had a glass front, yet…
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, the S9 pulls out amazing detail, thanks to its multi-exposure system and sharpening…
Sample photo from the Galaxy S9
Sample photo from the Galaxy S9, here of a ceiling in a VERY dark room. I was staggered how light this came out.
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, showing heavyish edge enhancement, but still very impressive detail shooting upwards into a dark ceiling.
Sample photo from the Galaxy S9
Sample macro photo of a model…
1:1 crop from the photo above
1:1 crop from the photo above, note the artefacts for sharpening, which trigger from the small imperfections in the model’s plastic…
Sample photo from the Galaxy S9
Sample photo from the Galaxy S9, and the only use case which really trips the S9 up horribly…
1:1 crop from the photo above
The S9’s (typical Samsung) sharpening and edge enhancement just can’t cope with greenery. So grass and trees are a no-no. Oh well. Stick to plane models and paintings, that’s what I say!!

Photos are very good on the whole though and right up there with my previous champions, the Huawei Mate 10 Pro, the iPhone X, the Lumia 950 XL, and the Pixel 2 XL.

From bright light (with aperture stopped down automatically) to low light (with aperture increased), from macros to landscapes, the Galaxy S9 camera is excellent. I’d argue that Samsung still sharpens its JPGs way too much, it makes a right hash of the grassy scene above, for example, but most people seem to like the extra crispness, so who am I, Mr Photo Purist, to complain?

The Camera app UI has been overhauled again, it’s swipe-tastic in terms of mode and parameter changes. But there’s a slight sting in the tail, in that it’s far too easy to swipe by mistake – either when dismissing the Android controls (of which more in moment) or when adjusting a Pro mode parameter, and then you’ll find yourself in Selfie or Super Slo-mo mode or similar and panicking while your subject gets away from you. I do think Samsung has made things a bit too fiddly here.

All of the physical imaging goodness does mean that there’s a camera island, i.e. it stands proud of the S9‘s back, though only by a millimetre and I’d much rather have it this way round than compromise on image quality.

Also in the camera island is an optical heart rate and blood oxygen sensor, both of which work first time and well, accessed by the Samsung Health application. I’m really not sure how many real users utilise these features of the Galaxy S range, but Samsung seems keen and there’s little downside in terms of space taken up.

cameraisland 2

I do take issue slightly with how close the fingerprint sensor is to the camera glass – when an index finger (print) is nicely centred on the sensor, the finger tip will press on the lower half of the glass, potentially putting finger grease on part of it. Now, this doesn’t get in the way of the optical part of the glass, in fairness, but I thought it still worth noting.

Internals

In terms of computing internals, we have an Exynos 9810 chipset with 4GB of RAM. The larger S9+ gets 6GB, for no particular reason other than to have higher specs on paper, it seems. And, as usual, the USA’s cell network is different enough from the rest of the world that the Americans get the Snapdragon 845 instead, which is comparable.

64GB storage is on this review handset, though other capacities are available on the S9+ and in other markets around the world, but they’re all plus microSD up to an extra 400GB, which can’t be overstated. With more and more flagships dropping expandability, Samsung is yet again listening to what customers want and keeping maximum flexibility and future proofing.

A 3000mAh battery (3500mAh on the S9+) is all that could be squeezed into this svelte frame, but it’s quite sufficient and I had no issues getting through my days of testing. Plus the Qi charging means that it’s a doddle to rest the S9 on a pad when it’s not in use, for example on your office desk, so it’s almost trivial to keep the phone fully charged most of the time.

The Samsung Experience

Now, this is a Samsung phone and with it by default comes Samsung stuff – quite a lot of it. From the Bixby system, which is still next to useless for most people, I argue, to the initial constant nagging to sign in with a Samsung account – you’ll give in eventually, I guarantee, as I did – to the duplicate applications. So you get:

  • Samsung Pay/Google Pay
  • Samsung Calendar/Google Calendar
  • Samsung Email/Google Gmail
  • Samsung Internet/Google Chrome
  • Samsung Gallery/Google Photos
  • Samsung Galaxy Essentials/Google Play Store

Then there are a number of Samsung services that run all the time even if you never use them – Samsung Cloud, Samsung Health, Samsung Reminder, Samsung Notes, Samsung Themes – I could go on. These are all running all the time, having been started when the phone boots, and it’s a bit of a job to try and disable them.

So, for a phone geek, although it’s tempting to hide as much of the Samsung stuff as possible, for example removing the icons from the home screen, hiding them in a ‘Junk’ folder in the app drawer, and so on, you can never really get away from the fact that this isn’t a better, faster, more flexible Google Pixel 2 XL, it’s very much a Samsung creation and that comes with some extras and some branding that you might as well get used to.

But it’s very definitely not all bad. The Samsung Internet browser has plenty of fans for its flexibility and ad-blocking, something you’ll never find in Chrome. Samsung Gallery has some great editing functions and doesn’t use cellular bandwidth, Samsung Pay can be used at more terminals than Google Pay because it uses both NFC and the older MTS magnetic standard. So pick and choose from what Samsung offers, take your time to customise and prune and you’ll end up with something that’s uniquely capable, once your own applications are all on board too.

Samsung’s ‘Experience’ (née TouchWiz, née Grace UX) has gotten closer to stock Android and, in this case, the Pixel Launcher, over time. So you swipe up on the homescreen to show the app drawer, all the icons are sanitised in small squircles, and so on. I was switching backwards and forwards between the Pixel 2 XL and this S9 quite a bit, both in Spigen cases and it’s only really the wallpaper that gave the game away in the first few seconds as to which phone I’d picked up.

There’s Samsung’s usual Always on display, with a choice of widgets, but typically showing time, date, battery status, and selected notification icons. There seems to be little battery impact, maybe 1% per day, which is neither here nor there.

Always on

Power is conserved in various ways – through Android 8’s cleverness in optimising so-called wakelocks and the latest iteration of the Doze schema, through Samsung’s code shutting down inactive applications, and through Samsung running the S9 by default at 1080p rather than the full 1440p screen resolution. I had actually forgotten it was doing this for the first 48 hours and when I spotted the reduction and upped the resolution I couldn’t tell the difference, admittedly with 50 year old eyes! Great to have the option though – you can even run the interface at 720p if you really want to.

Screenshot
Samsung’s OS implementation is hard on inactive applications in RAM, but it all helps to save battery; (right) S Health tracking my blood’s oxygen saturation! All very clever – and seemingly very accurate.

Samsung has come a long way since a physical home button and capacitive controls that were the ‘wrong way round’ – the home button is now a pressure sensitive area at the bottom of the display, working to wake the phone when the screen’s off, and the navigation controls can be reversed to standard order if you like – I did.

Even more intriguingly, just as with Windows 10 Mobile, the navigation controls can themselves be removed – there’s a setting to pop up a little dot on the left. This locks the bar in one of two states – in the second, the controls get out of the way after you’ve used them, to give maximum space for application content all the time, and then you simply swipe them up from the bottom (or right) as needed. Best of both worlds!!

AR emoji example

Samsung can’t resist copying Apple in little ways, you know. AR emojis are a direct clone of Apple’s Animojis and equally irrelevant to me. And probably you. I get that these appeal to teenagers, but which teenagers can afford flagships like the S9 and iPhone X, along with repair and insurance, and the rest? AR emojis only really make sense further down the device ladder – maybe this will happen with time.

What else? Bixby is Samsung’s digital assistant, which sits uncomfortably outside the core Google Assistant (also on board here with a long press of the home control. Bixby is, in theory, for speaking things instead of doing them on the phone. So, for example, “Show me the photos I took on Sunday afternoon.” “Rotate the fifth one by twenty degrees.” It all works, though most operations took quite a bit longer than just doing them with touch. So why would you use voice? Maybe it’s a play on the accessibility market?

Testing voice assistants
Testing voice assistants – Bixby makes a right mess of my reminder request and asks for help in training itself, while Google Assistant (right) gets it right the first time!

I ended up turning the Bixby button and the left-swipe homescreen pane off. I didn’t miss them.

Bixby vision is something different, sitting inside the Camera app effectively. The idea is that metrics from what you point the camera at are sent up to the Samsung Cloud and are then matched, giving you search options (usually for products) based on the match. And it’s terrible. For example, a simple cricket ball against a plain white background in good light was matched to scented balls, bath bombs and a number of other items, none of which was a cricket ball.

Screenshot
More Bixby annoyance. It refused to recognise a cricket ball, insisting it was, among other things, a perfumed bath bomb, I think! (right) Bixby’s main ‘info’ pane, off to the left of the homescreen actually includes full-screen advertisements! No thanks, having just paid the best part of £1000 for a phone, I do NOT expect ads thrown into the interface!

Samsung, just give it a rest, you’ve got an incredible phone here, don’t complicate it with Bixby. At least it can mostly all be turned off.

Finally, there’s Samsung’s DeX system (‘turn your phone into a PC, with the aid of monitor, cables, etc.’), made more usable here with a horizontal dock, and aping Windows 10 Mobile’s Continuum even more than it did already. It’s actually more usable than the latter because it’s much faster, thanks to the chipsets used, but neither are really practical in the real world and only Razer’s Project Linda has got practical potential. In my view.

Verdict

It’s absolutely fair to say that anyone with a Galaxy S8 has no desperate need to look at the S9, other than to gain an extra year of support in the future, a slightly better camera, and stereo speakers. And that won’t be enough for most.

But there’s still a huge groundswell of Samsung fans who have gone through the classic Note II and S4, the S6 and S7 with the various Edge experiments, and this is a way to stay with the look and feel they’ve known and loved, to keep the microSD expansion and 3.5mm headphone jack – sadly not a given in 2018 – and to get absolutely up-to-the-minute specs. For them, and for me, the S9 (and S9+, of course) are a huge win.

Is the Galaxy S9 the best Android phone in the world right now, for the man in the street? I’d argue yes, without question. It’s the smartphone that has it all. No compromises. No omissions. No wacky design. And the world is going to love it.