Samsung Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+ review: An eclectic mix of refinement and new features

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The Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+ are to the Galaxy S8 and S8+ what the S7 and S7 edge were to the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge: Refinements to an existing design that took the world by storm, with a few new features thrown in. Also common between the S9 and S7 lineups is the introduction of a world-first smartphone camera feature. Where the S7 and S7 edge introduced us to lightning-fast autofocus, the S9 and S9+ come with a camera that can switch between two different apertures. While every smartphone manufacturer claims to offer great low-light photos these days, Samsung is saying that “hey, we want you to take great photos even when there’s too much light falling on the camera,” that low-light shots aren’t the only ones that matter.

That’s not all: Samsung also realized that slow-motion videos are a thing and have built in “super slow-motion” recording that takes videos at a whopping 960 frames per second. It’s not a new feature for smartphones, but the company has been advertising it harder than the dual-aperture camera. The same goes for AR Emoji, which lets you create emojis that look and act like you. Samsung says it hasn’t copied Apple’s Animoji, and while that may or may not be true, a lot of folks have wondered how AR Emoji works in practice. The same goes for the stereo speakers, which have taken ages to make it to the Korean giant’s flagship lineup.

Well, those and more questions will be answered in our Galaxy S9 review, so let’s get to it.

This year, Samsung is shamelessly accepting the fact that its new flagships are thicker and heavier than the ones that came before. There’s stronger metal on the S9 and S9+, and the glass is also more resilient. Thanks to the re-positioned fingerprint sensor, Samsung says making the phones fatter was a necessity, which also enabled the company to keep the same battery capacities as the S8 and S8+.

But the S9 and S9+ are shorter than the S8 and S8+, and that’s because Samsung has ever so slightly made the bezels above and below the display narrower. The bottom bezel has gotten a more noticeable trimming, and if you’re one for uniformity, you will quickly notice the smaller lower bezel when the screen is on. The top bezel, meanwhile, has also been made darker to reduce the distraction caused by the array of sensors. You can still see all the sensors (including the front camera) if you look at the right angle, but at least the iris sensor isn’t easily visible unless it’s lit up when scanning your eyes.

Do any of these changes make a huge difference to how the S9 and S9+ feel in the hand? Not really, and both devices are as compact and comfortable to use as their predecessors given the screen sizes. They are also beautiful to look at. Samsung has opted for a matte finish for the metal rim and combined with the sober implementation of colors that the company has been going for since the Galaxy S8, it makes for a classier overall look. Naturally, all that glass makes for a slippery build, mandating a case if you’re not fond of the risks attached to dropping such a costly device.

Now, about that fingerprint sensor. Located below the camera sensor, it’s easier to reach for both left and right-handed users. But, sadly, thanks to the vertically laid out dual camera sensors on the S9+, the fingerprint sensor may be a tad too low on the bigger model for those with long fingers. They will also end up smudging the camera if they intend to use the gesture that lets one swipe down on the fingerprint sensor to access the notification shade. It’s not as much of an issue on the Galaxy S9, though, and that’s because it’s lighter and more compact, so one doesn’t grip it as high as the S9+. Of course, folks with big hands will eventually get used to the fingerprint sensor on these phones, but it might take some time.

Before we forget: The Galaxy S9 and S9+’ Bixby button cannot be remapped, only disabled. And, yes, both devices are water and dust resistant with IP68 certification. They can be dunked in 1.5 meters of water for 30 minutes without getting damaged, and in real-world terms, you can easily use them in the shower (as long as the pressure’s not too high) and out in the rain for a few minutes without worrying about a few drops sneaking in and wreaking havoc.

The 5.8-inch and 6.2-inch Super AMOLED Infinity displays on the Galaxy S9 and S9+ are as awesome as they were on the S8 and S8+, but Samsung has fixed a few shortcomings and made improvements elsewhere. For example, there’s no purple or pinkish hue at the top and bottom edges of the display, something that caused a huge outcry when the Galaxy S8 was launched and required dedicated color balance adjustment just for the edges. The screen is also slightly warmer by default, although this is only noticeable when compared side-by-side with the S8. The same goes for the viewing angles, with less distortion at an angle according to DisplayMate’s detailed tests, but it’s not something you’ll notice in day-to-day usage.

We also didn’t see how the screen is sharper or brighter out in the sun compared to the S8 and S8+. Samsung has built in something called Adaptive Contrast Enhancement to allow for crisper visuals out in bright sunlight, but there wasn’t any noticeable difference between the S9 and S8. Not that that’s a bad thing, as you can rest assured the Galaxy S9 and S9+ displays will be perfectly legible no matter how bright the surroundings get. They also offer the same vivid colors as every Samsung AMOLED display, with the option to change to more neutral color tones through the display settings and even manually adjust the red, green, and blue values for a fully custom color balance.

Like the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy Note 8, the Galaxy S9 and S9+ come with software navigation keys. Yes, there’s no physical home button here, but if you’re moving from a Samsung phone with the traditional physical and capacitive key setup, you don’t have to worry. While not a physical key, there’s a haptic engine underneath where the home button is located, and you press it similar to a physical key to turn on the phone. The home button is always active, so you can push it when the screen is off or even when you’re viewing full-screen content to wake up the device or go to the home screen.

The level of pressure required to make the home button work can be adjusted, just as it could be on the S8 and Note 8. Last but not the least, you can also change the order of the back, home, and recent apps key and the color of the navigation bar background. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the slightly smaller bottom bezel doesn’t affect the vertical finger movement required to access the navigation keys.

The Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+ come with a 12-megapixel primary rear camera, and the big talking point here is the camera’s ability to switch from f/1.5 aperture, the lowest ever on a smartphone, to f/2.4. In simple terms, the camera can adjust its aperture depending on how much light is available in a scene. In low-light conditions, f/1.5 allows for more light capture without increasing noise in a picture, while f/2.4 is used in daytime shots to ensure things aren’t overexposed and everything is crisper and sharper, something a wide aperture of F1.5 wouldn’t allow. For those unaware, the aperture decides how much light enters the camera. A wider aperture (denoted by a lower number, such as f/1.5) allows for more light to come in, while something narrower, like f/2.4 on the S9 and S9+, allows for less light to filter through.

How does Dual Aperture (Samsung’s name for the feature) work in practice? Well, if you thought the differences would be huge, you’d be disappointed. At f/1.5, Samsung is playing something of a balancing game here, though a good one at that. In scenes where it’s not exceptionally dark, the camera focuses on reducing noise. Since the lens can take in more light at f/1.5, the camera chooses to reduce the ISO value. ISO decides the brightness of the sensor, and increasing ISO increases the noise in a picture. On previous phones with f/1.7 aperture, Samsung would jack up the ISO to make things a little brighter at the expense of more noise creeping in. On the S9 and S9+, that’s no longer a requirement, so photos in general low-light conditions have lower noise and, as a result, sharper detail.

What about when it is exceptionally dark? Well, in such cases the camera jacks up the ISO value and shoots at f/1.5 to ensure you see more. Noise is much higher in such scenes, but still slightly lower than what the camera on the Galaxy S8 or Note 8 would produce owing to the wider aperture. Also helping is the fact that the camera uses up to 12 different frames to combine into a single image, further enhancing noise reduction. We’ll do a comparison between the S8 and S9 cameras in the coming days to show how low-light photos differ on the two, but if you’ve been wondering how the wider aperture affects a photo, well, don’t expect to see much differences other than reduced noise in most scenarios with indoor and/or poor lighting and slightly more detail.

So, how about when photos are captured at f/2.4, which is pretty much all outdoor scenes and when you are inside a well lit room? Here, the photos from the S9 and S9+ seem to have slightly more detail in faraway objects and text since the narrower aperture allows things to be better exposed, but it’s marginal and not always easy to notice. An instance where f/2.4 seems to help is when you’re capturing a scene where the sky is visible, like the photo you see below. Generally, trying to focus on one of the buildings would blow out the skies as the camera would want to better expose the object you want to focus on. This is the case on the S9 and S9+ as well, but since you’re shooting at a narrower aperture, the skies don’t blow out as much as they would on the same picture taken with a Galaxy S8.

But no matter what aperture the camera shoots at, you get excellent picture quality. There’s plenty of detail, good dynamic range, and the photos also have faithful color reproduction most of the time. Video recording is similarly excellent, and Samsung seems to have worked extra magic into audio recording in videos, possibly to ensure that those stereo speakers are put to good use. The camera managed to capture some impressive audio at a concert we went to, with the live music coming in quite clean and distortion-free.