It’s easy to look at the new Galaxy S9 and S9+ and say Samsung didn’t even try this year, but that couldn’t be more wrong.
Yes, the glass-and-metal Android sandwiches are virtually identical to last year’s Galaxy S8 and S8+, right down to the same screen sizes and rounded corners. But take a closer look and you’ll see everything — especially the camera — has changed for the better, even if the design is still essentially the same.
Stale-looking or not, the S9 and S9+ are still distinctly Samsung phones. They’re iconic in the way iPhones are, and I dig it.
Once again, Samsung is launching its flagship phone in two screen sizes. The S9 has a 5.8-inch display and the S9+ has a larger 6.2-inch screen. Both models sport 18.5:9 aspect ratio Super AMOLED displays and have the same 2,960 x 1,440 resolution. The S9’s screen works out to 570 pixels per inch and the S9+ packs in 529 ppi. That’s seriously sharp.
As if you needed anyone to tell you, the colors are bright and vibrant. I applaud Samsung for showing restraint for not copying the iPhone X’s notch.
Small changes that make a difference
The fingerprint sensor has moved to a more accessible spot below the camera. On the S8, the sensor was positioned too high, which makes it hard to reach if you don’t have long fingers. Its placement to the right of the camera also made it easy to accidentally smudge up the lens. Having the sensor on the back still has its problems, but the S9’s sensor is in a better location overall.
The S9 also join the iPhone 7/8/X and Google Pixel 2 by brandishing stereo speakers. Just like on the iPhone, the stereo speakers fire out of the earpiece and speaker next to the charging port.
Samsung says the speakers are tuned by AKG and are 1.4x louder than the Galaxy S8. The stereo speakers also support Dolby Atmos 3D simulated surround sound. In a side-by-side listening test with the S8, the S9’s stereo speakers definitely sounded richer and louder.
Samsung has also improved face unlock, which debuted on the S8. On last year’s phone, you could unlock it using either the iris scanner or face unlock. The iris scanner is more secure and works with Samsung Pay, but it often struggles to work properly under bright lights. On the other hand, the face unlock is faster to unlock but less secure, and therefore doesn’t support Samsung Pay, and doesn’t work well in the dark.
To address this, Samsung’s added a new “Intelligent Scan” feature on the S9 that gives you the best of both worlds. Now, if you have have both the iris scanner and face unlock set up, the phone will automatically detect which one to use depending on the lighting. It’s another neat little change that most people will probably gloss over, but power users will greatly appreciate.
Next level photos, slow-mo video, and AR Emoji
The S9 and S9+’s biggest upgrade is the rear camera. Whereas all smartphone cameras have a fixed aperture lens, the S9 and S9+’s 12-megapixel camera is a new “Super Speed Dual Pixel” shooter with two apertures and OIS (optical image stabilization).
On the S9, the camera automatically switches between its two apertures based on shooting conditions. If there’s sufficient light (like for daylight photos), it’ll select the f/2.4 aperture so photos are sharp from corner to corner. But if the scene is too dark, the camera will switch to the f/1.5 aperture to let in more light. It’s one or the other; there’s no way to select apertures in between the two.
I didn’t get a chance to test the dual apertures in any real-world scenarios during my hands-on. But in theory this makes the S9 and S9+’s cameras more like a real camera, which typically comes with a lens with an adjustable aperture that can be widened to let in more light and narrowed to let in less light.
On the S9+, there’s a dual-camera system. The second camera, right below the main shooter, has an f/2.4 aperture and includes optical image stabilization. The dual cameras work just like on the Note 8. You can use it take a “Live Focus” photo with a blurred-out background and then adjust the intensity of the blur afterwards, or shoot both a Live Focus photo and a wide-angle shot simultaneously.
There’s also a fancy “multi-frame” technique that takes three sets of four frames to reduce image noise. It’s similar to how an HDR (High Dynamic Range) photos is created by compositing multiple differently-exposed shots to create a single photo with greater dynamic range.
This multi-frame technique results in 30 percent less image noise compared to photos shot on the S8. Samsung showed me a photo of dog cropped in to 100 percent its original size and the difference was night and day. Of course, I’ll believe it when I take my own photos and compare the differences.
For video, the Super Speed Dual Pixel camera sensor can shoot slow-motion video at 960 frames per second in HD resolution. To put that into perspective, the iPhone X only shoots slow-motion at up to 240 fps. Other phones like Sony’s Xperia XZ already had the ability to shoot slow-mo at 960 fps, but they don’t use on-device AI to detect motion in a video and slow things only for the duration of that moment.
Selfie addicts will find an 8-megapixel camera on the front with f/1.7 aperture with autofocus. But my favorite thing involving the selfie camera is the new AR Emoji, which is so clearly an answer to the iPhone X’s Animoji.
Snap a photo of yourself and the camera will create an emoji based on your likeness. They’re kind of like 3D Bitmoji. You can customize your face, hair style, and even outfit. The software then creates 18 GIFs with different expressions based on your AR Emoji, which you can then share wherever you want. And just like Animoji, you can record short video clips of your AR Emoji that are mapped to various points on your face.
It’s weird and creepy, and strangely a lot of fun. You don’t have to make an AR Emoji of your face if you don’t want to. There are a bunch of different quirky AR face filters and cartoon characters similar to those offered by Instagram and Snapchat Stories that are also entertaining to play with.
While many phone makers are subtracting features like the headphone jack and microSD card slot, the S9 maintains them — something Samsung customers have made clear they want.
The S9 and S9+ are powered by Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon 845 chip, which comes with many benefits. The S9 comes with 4GB of RAM, and the S9+ has 6GB of RAM. Both phones come with 64GB of storage. And as mentioned earlier, they both have a microSD card slot for adding up to an additional 400GB of storage.
The only spec that Samsung seems to be playing it safe with is the battery size. The S9 has a 3,000 mAh battery and the S9+ has a 3,500 mAh battery. These are the same-size batteries as the S8 and S8+. Given Samsung’s previous attempt at increasing battery capacity, which ended up with the Note 7 literally blowing up, it’s not surprising to see them being conservative here.
And of course, the phones also have all the other requisite Samsung pillars like IP68-rated water- and dust-resistance, fast wired and wireless charging, and the 3.5mm headphone jack.
The S9 and S9+ ship with Android Oreo, skinned once again with Samsung’s own TouchWiz UI. I noticed a few small nips and tucks around the OS, but nothing that deviates from Samsung’s own software designs of past. If you’ve used Samsung’s phones before, you’ll know what to expect.
Power users will appreciate the new DeX Pad. The accessory still converts the S9 and S9+ into a desktop-like computing experience when connected to a monitor, keyboard, and mouse. But its new flat design also means you can use the phone’s screen as a trackpad or as a virtual keyboard if you only have a monitor or TV (like in a hotel). In my opinion it’s no replacement for a real mouse, but it works in a pinch.
The DeX Pad sure isn’t as sleek as the upright dock for the S8 and S8+, but it does have some advantages the previous didn’t. For example, it can output to a monitor at a higher 2,560 x 1,440 resolution (the previous DeX could only output at 1,920 x 1,080), and the headphone jack is now accessible for private listening.
Samsung says the accessory is backwards- and forwards-compatible, meaning it’ll work with the S8 and S8+ as well as future phones. Pricing is TBA, but it should cost about the same as the previous DeX, which retailed for $150.
Bixby’s here to stay
Like it or not, Samsung’s Bixby AI assistant isn’t going anywhere. The S9’s still have a dedicated Bixby button on the left side and the company’s not letting users re-map it to activate a different assistant like Google’s or launch an app or shortcut.
While I’m sure many users would love to see Samsung dump Bixby or de-emphasize its presence, the company’s doing no such thing. On the contrary, it’s doubling down on Bixby’s abilities by injecting it with more intelligence.
Sam’s Club and Nordstrom are the two latest shopping partners where users can buy things from after Bixby’s identified items. And a partnership with Sephora and Cover Girl will let users try on different types of makeup (i.e. lipstick and eyeshadow) on their faces using augmented reality, and then purchase them directly.
Bixby’s also smarter when it comes to identifying places. Now when you point Bixby Vision at, say, a hotel, it’ll use geotagged data to suggest nearby places of interest.
Same goes for scanning food. Aim Bixby Vision at different foods and it’ll tell you how many calories are in it.
The biggest and probably most useful Bixby upgrade is to Live Translations. The feature can now translate foreign language text in real-time using AR much like Google Translate. Want to translate a menu that’s written in Spanish into English? Just hold Bixby Vision over the Spanish text and the English translation will be superimposed over it.
Winning without a redesign
At the end of the day, a phone’s features are designed to service its user, and the S9’s definitely do in many ways.
The engine’s all new. The camera’s variable aperture and 960-fps slow motion are impressive. The sound’s louder. The fingerprint sensor’s in the right spot. Bixby’s more intelligent. AR Emojis look fun to mess with. And the plus-sized model has more performance and dual cameras to better differentiate it from its smaller sibling.
The S9 and S9+ will launch globally on March 16 and will be available for pre-order starting on March 2. In the U.S., it’ll be offered in three colors: Midnight Black, Lilac Purple, and Coral Blue. A Titanium Gray model will also be sold internationally along with these three colorways.
Pricing is TBA by carriers. Unlocked versions will also launch on the same day as carrier versions at the following prices: $719.99 for the S9 and $839.99 for the S9+.
We’ll have a full review once we get the devices in for testing, but so far I have a really good feeling they’re winners even if they don’t have a brand-new design.