Hands-on with the Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9+

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Hands-on with the Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9+
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Samsung Galaxy S9

This year, more than ever, the Samsung Galaxy S9 is all about the camera and for a number of different reasons.

Combining new 12-shot multi-frame noise reduction and the widest aperture yet seen on a smartphone, the Galaxy S9 can capture relatively noise-free images in almost-pitch-dark environments. Its 12-megapixel rear camera has an aperture of f/1.5, which is the brightest ever on a smartphone. It’s a huge 28% brighter than last year’s S8.

Samsung demonstrated this by mounting the phone on a box full of flowers lit at lower intensity than 1 lux (0.87 to be precise) and comparing the results with those achieved by a Google Pixel 2 XL. Unsurprisingly, given that this was set up to make the S9 look good, the results were impressive, with the flowers looking very dark in the Pixel image but clearly distinguishable on the S9. The noise levels and colour retention were impressive, too.

It’s clearly a very good camera, but the wide aperture isn’t its only trick.

The second is that the aperture can change. In another first among smartphones, the Galaxy S9 has a two-position aperture that flicks from f/1.5 to f/2.4 when the light level rises above 100 lux, which is about the brightness of a dingy, grey winter’s day.

This allows the phone to keep the phone from overexposing images in strong light and to ensure better sharpness at the edges of the frame. It is not, we should point out, about adding creative options such as decreasing the depth of field. That’s what you use aperture on a DSLR for. Instead, it seems it’s about ensuring that shots in good light aren’t compromised in terms of sharpness across the frame.

It’s also worth noting that you can take manual control of the aperture in the phone’s pro mode and that there’s now a better ultra-slow-motion mode, capable of capturing 0.2 seconds of video in 720p resolution at 960fps (when played back this stretches out to six seconds) – just like the Sony Xperia XZ Premium.

Samsung implements this slightly better than Sony, though. Acknowledging the difficulty of capturing precisely the right moment in the limited 0.2 seconds you get to record your slow-motion footage, Samsung places a yellow box onscreen that you can move around – the camera only goes into slow-motion mode when an object enters this box. And, in a nice touch, it’s also possible to set clips to your lockscreen background, so they play whenever you unlock your phone.

Finally, Samsung has added extra software to allow the 8-megapixel f/1.7 front-facing camera to capture your expressions and create animated, personalised emoji.

It’s a clear copy of Apple’s Animoji, the difference being that Samsung creates its emoji in the form of animated GIFs so you can more easily view them on other platforms.

Other key features, design and first impressions

Aside from the headline-grabbing camera, the improvements to the new Samsung flagship are relatively low key.

The bezels above and below the screen are slightly slimmer than before so the screen fills the front even more completely. There are new colours – as well as ‘midnight black’, there’s ‘coral blue’ and a rather lovely ‘lilac purple’ (Pantone’s colour of the year, if you didn’t know). Just check out the pictures to see how beautifully this catches the light. It’s much, much nicer than any pink phone we’ve come across before.

The Galaxy S9 is slightly heavier than the S8 but only by 8g; it’s also a millimetre shorter, 0.6g wider and 0.5mm thicker. None of these numbers will make any difference to the way the phone feels in your pocket.

What is likely to make a difference to the way you use the phone is the location of the fingerprint reader: Samsung has seen the light and repositioned its fingerprint reader module from beside the camera lens to below it.

Inside, there’s a faster Exynos 9810 processor. Other countries such as the US are likely to get the more widely used Qualcomm Snapdragon 845, but there’s likely to be little difference in performance between the two chips. Indeed, it appears to be Qualcomm’s technology behind the camera’s ability to merge 12 images into one and keep noise down to such a remarkable degree.

The rest of the Exynos’ features are similar as well. Built on a 10nm manufacturing process, the Exynos chip has eight cores, four of which run at 2.7GHz and four at 1.7GHz. There’s also 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, plus a microSD slot that this time will accommodate cards up to 400GB in capacity – if you can find and afford one, that is.

Based on what we know of the Snapdragon 845’s performance, it’ll certainly be nippier than last year’s phone, but not to the degree that you’ll notice day to day. It’ll also, hopefully, be more efficient. However, with the battery at the same capacity as last year (3,000mAh), the chip still produced on a 10nm manufacturing process and the display sticking with the same size, resolution and panel technology as before, any improvements here are likely to be small – although the S8’s batter life was already pretty good.

Apart from the core components, there are a few other differences between this year’s Galaxy S9 and last year’s, but the differences aren’t obvious or particularly glamorous. The speakers are louder and have support for Dolby Atmos, and there are a couple of minor improvements to Samsung’s DeX system. First introduced on the Galaxy S8, DeX allows the phone to be plugged into a dock and display a desktop operating system on a connected monitor.

There’s a new, cheaper DeX dock that holds the phone flat, exposes the headphone jack and allows the screen to double as a touchpad. IT managers can now also apply policies that display their logo on the desktop wallpaper and lock out certain apps in the desktop environment.

But perhaps the update that’s most likely to make a big difference to the way you use the phone is the fact that it can now be used in landscape 100% of the time, with icons and other elements adapting on the homescreen, the app drawer and settings menus. That’s great news for those who prefer to mount their phones in landscape when they use it as a satnav in the car.

Otherwise, everything with the Samsung Galaxy S9 is very similar to the S8. It has IP68 dust and water resistance, slightly quicker Gigabit LTE compatibility (it goes up to 1.2Gbits/sec now) and it still has facial recognition and iris-scanning capabilities.

Early verdict

There’s little doubt the Galaxy S9 is an outstanding smartphone that’s well worth considering if you have an older Android handset.

It may not be enough of an upgrade to entice Galaxy S8 owners, however – particular as the S9 is more expensive than its predecessor, starting at $1,199 with 64GB of storage or $1,349 with 256GB. You’ll pay a premium for a plan on the major carriers too, with Telstra charging $94 and Optus $89 per month for 2GB of data and the 64GB model – although Virgin offers a similar plan for $68.

You’ll get a bonus wireless charger if you pre-order before 12 March (with Telstra offering a tablet too).  

By comparison, however, you can still buy for a Galaxy S8 outright for $999. Given the previous model is still an excellent smartphone and the Galaxy S9+ gains dual cameras, there’s a danger that the Galaxy S9 could become the forgotten man of Samsung’s smartphone lineup.  

Next: Samsung Galaxy S9+ first looks

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Copyright © Alphr, Dennis Publishing

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