Another year, another Samsung Galaxy S flagship. How do you take a flagship device that’s nearly perfect and improve it in any meaningful way? This is the conundrum Samsung faced creating the Galaxy S9, but the company seems to have found a few areas to improve its popular handset.
The Galaxy S8 was nearly perfect. It delivered an immersive smartphone experience, thanks to the Infinity Display, and pushed the boundaries of smartphone design more than ever before. The camera improved a little over the Galaxy S7 and the Galaxy S8 Plus was a big phone for those who wanted something a little larger.
With the Galaxy S9, Samsung has kept similar design but tweaked it to create a better overall experience. There are two devices again this year. While the form factor and display size are the same as last year, both devices have a slightly smaller overall footprint. The Galaxy S8 Plus especially was a pretty tall device but the Galaxy S9 Plus is a little more manageable in the hand; by reducing the bezels above and below the display, Samsung has managed to shave 1.2 mm off the height of the Galaxy S9 and 1.4 mm off the Galaxy S9 Plus.
The displays themselves have also been tweaked a little, offering 15 percent higher peak brightness. The Galaxy S8 topped out at around 600 nits, while the Galaxy S9 is expected to achieve closer to 700 nits. For those bright sunny days, this extra brightness should help with overall legibility. The phones’ curves are not as steep as the S8 line, nor do their displays run all the way to the edge. Samsung says this is designed to prevent accidental touches along the edge of the screen and it will hopefully also address the light banding issue when watching a video.
The Galaxy S9 also bring stereo speakers to a Samsung smartphone for the first time. After its acquisition of Harman Kardon last year, the Korean manufacturer set about improving the audio on its devices, previously one of the poorest experience on any smartphone. This year, there are two speakers — a forward facing one joins the bottom-firing speaker from last year.
Both have been tuned by AKG. As a result, the speakers are noticeably louder. Samsung says the overall output is 1.4 times louder than the Galaxy S8. Samsung also partnered with Dolby to add the Atmos codec to the Galaxy S9 — once enabled, it offers spatial sound playback which helps to add to the overall immersive experience.
The most controversial part of the Galaxy S8 family was the fingerprint sensor, which Samsung chose to place right next to the camera in a very awkward position. The company has finally addressed this in the S9 by moving it to the center, beneath the camera. The new positioning works well enough and means the sensor is useful again. On the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy Note 8, the positioning was awkward enough to be uncomfortable.
Those are the small improvements over the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus, but the big improvements are in the camera. As part of its theme of being able to express yourself, the Galaxy S9 camera brings a collection of new camera features, as well as some tweaks to the Galaxy S8 camera.
The Galaxy S9 camera features the same hardware as the Galaxy S8 with a 12 MP super speed dual pixel sensor with optical image stabilization. The Galaxy S9 Plus also features the secondary camera found on the Galaxy Note 8, a 12 MP telephoto lens with OIS and f/2.4 aperture. Both devices feature 8 MP front-facing cameras with f/1.7 aperture.
The low light performance on Samsung phones previously let down the camera experience, but the Galaxy S9 looks to improve this with dual aperture and multi-frame image processing. The Galaxy S9 has a mechanical lens that opens and closes. For bright scenes, it’ll use the tighter f/2.4 aperture and for low light scenes, it’ll use a wider f/1.5 aperture. As a result, Samsung says there is 28 percent more light coming into the system than the Galaxy S8, which should improve the low light camera performance. The mechanical aperture is hardware based and doesn’t offer any aperture stops between the two. By default, the Galaxy S9 automatically picks which aperture to use but in Pro mode, you can control it.
The multi-frame image processing is also new to the Galaxy S9 and it’s designed to help with noise reduction. The Galaxy S9 comes with DRAM on the camera sensor itself, which means the camera can capture four times as many photos at four times the speed. In a split second, the camera takes 12 images which are then sorted into batches of four. The software then uses all the detail and information for processing and noise reduction. It does this three times to give you the best three photos from each batch. The software then does it one more time on the three photos to get the overall best photo.
The DRAM isn’t just used for multi-frame image processing, but also for super slow-motion video. The Galaxy S8 offered 720p super slow-motion video at 240 fps, but the Galaxy S9 now offers it at 960 fps. This isn’t new to smartphones but the automatic mode is definitely a step above other devices. Instead of having to time exactly when to press record, the Galaxy S9 will also do it for you and all you have to do is press record.
The automatic mode works rather well and once you take a super slow-motion video, it also saves several shareable GIFs including effects such as loop and reverse. For those who want to relive a great super slow-motion video, you can save the video as your lock screen wallpaper. The software also automatically adds background music to the video, which you can then change to one of the preset sounds or a song from your music library.
The Galaxy S9 follows the lead of the iPhone X and brings a new feature called AR Emoji. This feature captures your face, analyzes it, and allows you to make an animated version of yourself which can be customized further. The customization options include two different types of animation, either more life-like or more cartoon-like. You can also change the hair, skin tone, glasses, clothes of the image. After you’ve finished customizing your AR Emoji, it’ll save 18 GIFs to your phone’s gallery, as well as the Samsung keyboard, so you can easily share it with your friends. AR Emoji lets you record either photos or videos. While you can talk and move your head, it’s doesn’t seem to pick up as many facial expressions as the iPhone X.
Camera aside, the Galaxy S9 also brings a series of other improvements to Bixby, connectivity, and security. Bixby has gained a new food mode, which allows you to point the camera towards a piece of food and get nutritional information about it. Using the selfie camera, the new makeup mode allows you to try on makeup from Sephora or CoverGirl and buy it straight from Bixby.
The Galaxy S8 had two different biometric security options — Face Unlock and the Iris Scanner. The Galaxy S9 combines these into a new feature called Intelligent Scan. Samsung says both of these were great in certain scenarios and by combining them, it gets around the issues faced especially by the Iris Scanner. Intelligent Scan uses Iris Scanning as the primary security option for applications that need higher levels of security, like banking apps or Samsung Pay. For day-to-day unlocking of your phone Intelligent Scan uses the convenient super-fast experience of Face Unlock. How well does it work? This remains to be seen but we’ll find out in our Galaxy S9 review in the near future.
The Galaxy S9 is the first smartphone powered by the Snapdragon 845 processor and brings Gigabit LTE support. The regular Galaxy S9 comes with 4 GB of RAM, while the Galaxy S9 Plus has 6 GB of RAM. Both devices are IP68 water and dust resistant, offer fast wireless storage, and have a headphone jack. Both come with 64 GB of internal storage, which can be expanded by up to 400 GB using a microSD card.
The Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9 Plus will launch in three colors in the U.S. — Midnight Black, Lilac Purple and Coral Blue. The fourth color — Titanium Gray — isn’t coming to the U.S. It’s not entirely certain how much they will cost, but pre-orders launch on March 2, ahead of its March 16 release. Samsung is also offering its first-ever global pre-order offer called Trade Up and Save, allowing you to get up to $350 off the cost of the Galaxy S9 when you trade in last year’s flagship from any manufacturer. Trade Up and Save offers tiers so those with a Galaxy S7 or two-year-old flagship from another OEM will receive a little less.