The Samsung Galaxy S9 is an impressive handset, but there’s not enough here to justify the steep price
- Excellent low-light camera
- The fastest Android smartphone yet
- Slightly worse battery life
- More expensive than Galaxy S8
Chances are, you already know all about the Samsung Galaxy S9. Leaks, rumours and educated guesses have been rampant, and there were certainly no gasps of surprise when the Galaxy S9 was finally, officially revealed at MWC 2018.
It’s true that not all of the pre-release buzz had been entirely positive. But the Galaxy S9 is a serious step up from last year’s effort. In particular, its new low-light camera promises to raise the stakes for smartphone photography.
Samsung Galaxy S9 review: What you need to know
The Galaxy S9 looks a lot like last year’s S8; to an extent, it builds on previous successes, rather than reinventing the entire shebang. However, it features a new 12-megapixel f/1.5 rear camera, which should perform far better in low light than its predecessor – and a new Exynos 9810 processor, which promises drastically faster performance.
Samsung Galaxy S9 review: Price and competition
Samsung’s latest flagship isn’t cheap. SIM-free, the Galaxy S9 will set you back an eye-watering £739 at launch – £60 more than the original launch price of the Galaxy S8.
And at that price, the S9 faces competition from all four corners. There’s Apple’s iPhone 8 of course, which starts at £699, Huawei’s Mate 10 Pro at £529, and Google’s Pixel 2 for £629. Last year’s Galaxy S8 can now be had for just £500, too – which makes it a very tempting proposition, even if it’s no longer the latest and greatest phone on the market.
Samsung Galaxy S9 review: Design and display
At first glance, you’ll struggle to tell the S9 apart from the S8. That’s no big surprise, as Samsung has a habit of coming up with flashy new designs once every few years, and only making minor tweaks in the interim.
In this case, it’s certainly not a bad thing: the S9 is one of the best-looking phones I’ve seen. The top and bottom bezels have been shaved off ever so slightly, so its screen-to-body ratio is slightly higher than the S8’s. Other than that, it’s the same handset we fell in love with this time last year.
That means we’re once again treated to a 5.8in 18.5:9 QHD+ (2,960 x 1,440) display – and, since this is one of Samsung’s Super AMOLED panels, it looks fantastic. Our X-Rite colour calibrator found it covered 99.3% of the sRGB colour gamut space, with an average Delta E of 1.94, which means you can expect bright, accurate colour reproduction across the board – albeit images are a tad overexposed in the phone’s default “Adaptive” display mode.
AMOLED technology also delivers unbeatable contrast levels – our colourimeter reported a perfect infinity:1 score – and the S9’s maximum brightness reaches a very respectable 299cd/m2. Switch on auto brightness, and that figure rockets up to a blinding 996cd/m2.
Along the bottom edge you’ll find the same ports as on the S8 too: a solitary USB Type-C port for charging and (huzzah!) a 3.5mm headphone jack; at the right sit a volume rocker and dedicated Bixby button on the right. The microSD and nano-SIM card slot is at the top, the power button is on the right and the whole thing is IP68 dust- and water-resistant.
Samsung Galaxy S9 review: Performance and battery life
The real differences from the Galaxy S8 are on the inside. Like the rest of this year’s flagships, the S9 features an octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor – although to be precise, UK models come equipped with Samsung’s own 2.7GHz Exynos 9810 equivalent – paired with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, expandable via microSD. That makes this easily Samsung’s fastest handset ever – indeed, it’s the fastest Android handset we’ve tested from any manufacturer.
To put that into figures, the Galaxy S9 achieved a single-core Geekbench 4 result of 3,659 and a multi-core score of 8,804 – massive improvements of 45% and 25% over the ‘s Galaxy S8. This phone is seriously quick.
It’s a similar story with GPU performance. Running GFX Bench’s on-screen and off-screen Manhattan 3.0 test, the Galaxy S9 achieved average framerates of 45fps and 77fps at native resolution.
All this power takes its toll on the Galaxy S9’s battery life, mind. With the screen set to our standard 170cd/m2 brightness and flight mode engaged, we were able to watch 14hrs and 23mins of video before battery levels fell flat – a decent score, but some two and a half hours behind the S8.
There’s some good news, though: once the battery does hit zero, the Galaxy S9 can be fast-charged to full in just under an hour and a half.
Samsung Galaxy S9 review: Software and security
One subtle update that could make the phone much pleasanter to use is to do with the phone’s iris and facial recognition systems. The Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus introduced these biometric login techniques last year, but the Galaxy S9 brings them together, under the name “Intelligent Scan”. If you enable this, the phone will try to unlock using one method – then, if that fails, fall back to the other. It’s a simple idea, but I found it greatly reduced the frequency of failed recognition attempts. The fingerprint enrolment process has also been improved, so it now takes only two swipes of your index finger to register instead of the 16 dabs it required previously.
Samsung’s smartphone AI platform, Bixby has had an upgrade too: it can now translate text in real time via the rear camera. That’s an ability that Google’s Translate app has had for years, but I found Samsung’s implementation faster and more accurate.
Samsung’s DeX system has also seen a handful of improvements. First introduced on last year’s Galaxy S8, DeX allows the phone to be plugged into a dock and display a desktop operating system on a connected monitor.
Here, there’s a new, cheaper dock, called the DeX Pad, which holds the Galaxy S9 flat rather than upright, allowing the phone to double up as a touchpad and keyboard. The headphone jack is also now exposed, and IT managers can apply policies that lock out certain apps in the desktop environment, or display the company logo on the wallpaper. My colleague Adam at our sister website, IT Pro has written a more in-depth look at what the new DeX Pad offers.
Samsung Galaxy S9 review: Camera
Superficially, the Galaxy S9’s camera specs are similar to what went before: you get a single 12-megapixel sensor with dual-pixel phase-detection autofocus and optical image stabilisation. As with the S8, there’s no secondary 2x telephoto zoom lens on the regular-sized handset.
What is new is an f/1.5 aperture that’s significantly wider than last year’s. This allows much more light in – brightening up shots and capturing crisper details. And you don’t need to do anything to get the benefit: the camera automatically widens the aperture once the lighting conditions hit below 100 lux, which is about what you’d get on a gloomy, overcast day in the UK.
For brighter scenes, meanwhile, the Galaxy S9 can switch down to f/2.4 on the fly, so you get a bit more depth of field and don’t have to worry about overexposure. Experienced photographers will be very happy to hear that you can also select the aperture size for yourself in the camera’s Pro mode.
In use, the S9’s wide-aperture camera performed remarkably well. Even in pitch-black conditions of around 1 lux, the camera was able to capture a noise-free image, with plenty of detail. This is certainly helped by the image signalling processor’s ability to shoot 12 frames in quick succession and combine them into one practically perfect image.
Indeed, put the S9’s low-light images side-by-side with shots from the excellent Pixel 2 and the S9 is the clear winner, with better colour reproduction across the palette. And in more camera-friendly lighting conditions, heaps of detail is picked up, and shots are well-exposed. The HDR system also does a good job at punching up dark, shadowy areas and softening highlights.
The video hardware gets an upgrade too. The S9 can now record 720p footage at a ridiculous 960fps, stretching 0.2 seconds of activity out into six seconds of video. It’s extremely easy to set up: simply draw a box on the screen, and the slow-motion recorder will kick in whenever movement is detected within that space.
Finally, Samsung is also making a hoo-ha about its alternative to Apple’s Animoji feature. Unlike the Apple implementation, which maps predefined emoji onto your face, Samsung’s system allows you to create your own avatar, Bitmoji-style, and overlays it onto your face via the IR camera. It’s a neat idea, but the results may or may not live up to expectations. Does my digital self look like me, or Paul O’Grady?
Samsung Galaxy S9 review: Verdict
The S9 isn’t a radical departure from last year’s blueprint, but if you’re a keen smartphone snapper then the camera improvements will be very tempting. Pair that with a noticeable performance jump and this is, no doubt, a formidable smartphone.
The only hitch is the price – and the fact that the S9 also has to compete with its own stablemate, the Galaxy S9 Plus, whose dual-camera arrangement promises even more stunning shots.
That makes it hard to wholeheartedly recommend the Galaxy S9, either as a general-purpose smartphone or as a best-in-class camera phone. There’s some impressive technology here, but Samsung needs to offer something more to justify a wallet-wilting £739.
- Processor-Octa-core 2.8GHz Exynos 9810
- Screen size-5.8in
- Screen resolution-2,960 x 1,440
- Screen type-Super AMOLED
- Front camera-8-megapixel
- Rear camera-12-megapixel
- Storage (free)-64GB
- Memory card slot (supplied)-64GB
- Wireless data-4G
- Dimensions-147.7 x 68.7 x 8.5 mm
- Operating system-Android 8.0
- Battery size-3,000mAh