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Galaxy S9 review: Samsung raises the bar yet again

by Brandon Russell | March 20, 2018March 20, 2018 12:00 pm PDT

There aren’t too many bad things you could say about last year’s Galaxy S8. The design is phenomenal and the camera produces some of the nicest images ever seen from a smartphone. It represents Samsung at its best, and proves once and for all the company is an innovative leader, not a follower.

But the device isn’t perfect. The fingerprint sensor is awkwardly placed, and Bixby feels undercooked compared to Google Assistant. It feels as though Samsung nailed every move on its floor routine but stumbled on its final dismount.

With the Galaxy S9, Samsung has confidently addressed the Galaxy S8’s biggest shortcomings. The fingerprint sensor is now in an easier-to-reach location, and Bixby has evolved into a powerful digital assistant. But are these changes enough to complete Samsung’s pursuit of the perfect smartphone?

Note: We used the Galaxy S9 Plus for two weeks before beginning our review

Still one of the best designs

Simply put, the Galaxy S9 Plus is the most beautiful phone available right now. With a large, vibrant display, beautiful all-glass design, and powerful guts, devices simply don’t get better. So what if it looks nearly identical to the Galaxy S8.

It’s a testament to Samsung that a recycled design still holds up so well. It’s as striking as ever, achieving a level of elegance only rivaled by Apple. We see a lot of devices pass through our offices, and Samsung’s engineering continues to dazzle.

Like last year, the Galaxy S9 Plus features curved glass on the front and back, along with a narrower than normal footprint, making it easy and comfortable to hold. The seamless lines, subtle curves, and solid construction all combine to complement the device’s display, which is shockingly good—and notch-free!

Samsung makes the best smartphone displays on the market, and the Galaxy S9 Plus once again raises the bar. Colors are vibrant, images are sharp, and it just looks better than anything else out there. And it’s brighter than last year’s S8, too, which is nice for outdoor viewing.

The only thing that comes close is the display featured in the iPhone X, of which Samsung is the supplier.

As we mentioned, Samsung has finally moved the fingerprint sensor to below the S9 Plus’ camera. Not only is it much easier to reach, but its placement means you won’t accidentally smudge the camera lens. The change isn’t drastic, but it’s confirmation Samsung made a poor choice last year.

Another change includes the addition of stereo speakers, which utilizes the phone’s earpiece to pump out audio in conjunction with the bottom-firing speaker. Music and video sound awesome, but the S9 Plus doesn’t get nearly as loud as something like the iPhone X.

Where it does trump the iPhone X is in the amount of biometric options it offers. In addition to the fingerprint sensor, the S9 Plus includes iris and facial recognition technology. Both can be used together to unlock your device, acting as fallbacks in case one doesn’t work. So, if iris scanning doesn’t pickup, then facial recognition will kick in, and vice versa.

Samsung’s biometric technology isn’t nearly as complex as Apple’s Face ID, nor does it work as well. Even Samsung doesn’t allow S9 Plus owners to use intelligent scan for payments, which should tell you all you need to know about the feature’s security.

Inside, the device features a Qualcomm 845 chip, 6GB of RAM, 3,500mAh battery, 64GB of storage with microSD support, and Android 8.0 Oreo. It’s not the latest version of Android, but Samsung fans should just be glad they’re getting a recent version at all.

Whether these specs make a marked difference over the S8 remains to be seen. During day-to-day use, I didn’t notice any significant improvements in speed or operation, nor did the battery suddenly last hours longer. Getting the Galaxy S9 Plus just means you’re a little more future proofed compared to the S8.

Samsung’s software is as polarizing as ever

The thing about Samsung’s software is you either love it or hate it, there’s really no in between. The Galaxy S9 Plus offers the latest Samsung experience, which is a mixture of clever features and unnecessary fluff. Why does there need to be so many email apps, gallery apps, etc.?

The software is essentially the same story as last year, only this time Bixby has been improved to the point where you might actually use it. However, if you’re more invested in Google Assistant, which I suspect the majority of Android users are, then Bixby will be of no use to you; it might actually become somewhat of a nuisance.

If you decide to shun Bixby, then you’ll quickly learn to hate the AI’s dedicated button, which proudly sits on the side of the S9 Plus. Sadly, Samsung still doesn’t allow users to reprogram the button to perform a custom function, though you can turn it off.

The great thing about Samsung’s software is it looks pretty and is very easy to navigate. But if I had to choose, I’d go with the Pixel 2. By comparison, Samsung’s software feels bloated and overwrought with too many ideas. And it bears repeating, but Samsung’s history of introducing large Android updates is pretty awful.

One of the bigger new features of the S9 Plus is AR Emoji, which Samsung swears wasn’t inspired by Apple’s Animoji. The company says the feature utilizes deep learning to analyze a 2D image of a user, which maps out more than 100 facial features. The 2D image is then added to a 3D modeling form, which results in a Nintendo Mii-like character.

Here’s the thing: AR Emoji achieves what it sets out to do, which is to animate users, but they only vaguely resemble the user they’re based off of. And tracking isn’t nearly as impressive as Animoji. Instead, AR Emoji often feels exactly what Samsung claims it isn’t: A cheap and underdeveloped knockoff of Animoji.

The camera produces fantastic images

The Galaxy S9 Plus includes a dual 12-megapixel camera setup that Samsung claims is new and improved. In fact, the company’s whole marketing campaign for the S9 Plus is: Camera. Reimagined.

The highlight this year is the variable aperture, which allows the Galaxy S9 Plus to switch between f/1.5 and f/2.4. Depending on the lighting of the scene, such as a dimly lit bar, the device will choose which aperture to use. The wider aperture (f/1.5) is great for scenes with low light, while the smaller aperture (f/2.4) is good for the outdoors.

Samsung has also retooled how it handles processing and noise reduction—28 percent better reception to light and 30 percent less noise thanks to multi-frame noise reduction. The results, as we’ve seen from Samsung phones in the past, are pretty spectacular. For what it’s worth, DxOMark believes it’s the best camera on the market for still photos.

However, one of the areas where the S9 Plus falls short is with its Live Focus feature (essentially portrait mode). The feature is largely successful under the right conditions, but it can seriously misfire. In one of our portrait images, it failed to blur out a few areas (in between the body and arms), while the edges are a little jagged.

You shouldn’t buy the S9 Plus over the S9 for its dual-camera setup. Rather, you should buy it for its larger screen and battery. As for the variable aperture, the differences are pretty hard to discern. It’s more of a marketing tactic to differentiate from other competitors on the market. You might notice a slight difference in depth of field, but it’s almost negligible.

Otherwise, the Galaxy S9 Plus’ images are reliably great, whether you’re capturing landscape shots or pictures of loved ones. I wouldn’t say they’re any better than the Pixel 2, but it’s close.

One of the cool new additions is super slo-mo, which records video at 960fps. Samsung says 0.2 seconds of action can be slowed down to approximately six seconds. On the phone, the results can look mind bogglingly awesome. But viewed on a computer, the quality falls apart. Credit to Samsung for trying something new.

This is more of a software thing, but Samsung smartly utilizes the camera as a useful tool. Thanks to the AI of Bixby, users can point the S9 Plus at written text and translate it to a different language. The feature is a lot like Google Translate. Additional camera functions include a feature to identify popular landmarks, and the ability to try on makeup.

The same, but better

With the Galaxy S9 Plus, Samsung has fixed all the issues we had with the Galaxy S8. The fingerprint sensor has been moved and Bixby is finally usable, though not nearly as good as Google Assistant. Users also get Android 8.0 out of the box, along with the latest software experience from Samsung.

But for every change Samsung has made, a new issue is introduced. AR Emoji is a sad attempt at Animoji, and the whole variable aperture thing is just a gimmick. There’s also the nagging feeling that the S9 Plus won’t get Android P at least until this time next year.

If you own the Galaxy S8, there’s no glaring reason to upgrade. The camera, the design, and things like AR Emoji simply aren’t attractive enough to warrant spending another $700+ on a new smartphone. Part of that is because the Galaxy S8 is still a really good device.

Consider the Galaxy S9 Plus more of a Galaxy 8S. There are obvious improvements, but they don’t meaningfully change the experience over anything Samsung has done in the past year. The company has simply raised the bar so high that even something as good as the Galaxy S9 Plus feels a little underwhelming.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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