Samsung Galaxy S9 review: Are you better off with an S8?

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Samsung Galaxy S9 review: Are you better off with an S8?
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The biggest competitor to Samsung’s latest flagship phone could be its predecessor. We compare the two handsets.

In some ways, the Samsung Galaxy S9 is a serious step up from last year’s flagship phone. In particular, its new 12-megapixel f/1.5 rear camera performs far better in low light than its predecessor. Its new Exynos 9810 processor also promises significantly faster performance.

However, the S9 looks a lot like last year’s Galaxy S8 and rather than reinventing the wheel, builds on previous accomplishments. Consider the fact that the S9 is a decidedly premium phone, while the price of the S8 has dropped significantly, and it becomes very tricky to know which phone to buy.

With the Samsung Galaxy S9 now available (as of 16 March), we’ve put together this handy comparison to help you can decide if you really need the refinements that come with the S9, or whether you should opt for the more affordable S8.

Design and display

The Galaxy S8 and S9 look so alike that you’ll probably struggle to tell them apart. Samsung has only made minor tweaks to the S8’s design, and that’s certainly no bad thing because the S8 is still one of the best-looking phones we've seen.

For the S9, the top and bottom bezels have been reduced in size ever so slightly, so its screen-to-body ratio is slightly higher than the S8.

The S9 offers multiple screen resolutions and colour profiles to choose from in the phone’s display software settings. The default is FHD+ (1,080 x 2,220 pixels) and Adaptive but you can drop the resolution to 720 x 1,440 pixels and change the colour profile to Basic (sRGB), AMOLED Cinema (DCI-P3) or AMOLED Photo (Adobe RGB). In each of these modes the screen returned coverage percentages of 99.3% and 98.8%. As good as it gets, in other words.

Colour accuracy is decent, too, contrast is effectively perfect and maximum brightness is stupendous. We recorded 992cd/m2 with a 10% white patch displayed on a black background and with a full white screen the brightness peaked at 465cd/m2. Note that, as usual with Samsung devices, you’ll only see maximum brightness if you leave the phone in auto-brightness mode. In manual mode, the screen peaked a far-lower 302cd/m2.

However, our results from testing the Galaxy S8’s screen were also excellent, and essentially you get the same brilliant 5.8in QHD+ display with 18.5:9 aspect ratio on both handsets.

Along the bottom of the S9, you’ll find a USB Type-C port and a 3.5mm headphone jack (hooray!) and on the right side, there’s a power button, volume rocker and dedicated Bixby button, just like on the S8. Both phones share the same microSD and nano-SIM card slot and also feature IP68 dust- and water-resistance.

One small design improvement with the S9 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, although we still think it’s a little too small and flat.

Overall, however, both phones display and design are similar that neither one has the edge over the other.

Winner: Draw

Features

One subtle update that gives the Galaxy S9 an edge over its predecessor is to do with the phone's iris and facial recognition systems. The Galaxy S8 and S8+ introduced these biometric login options last year, but the Galaxy S9 brings them together, under the name “Intelligent Scan”.

If you enable this, the phone unlocks using one method, falling back to the other if it fails. It's a simple idea, but we found it greatly reduced the occurrence 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 we found Samsung’s implementation faster and more accurate.

There are of, course, other upgrades to speak of, but they’re mostly minor. The speakers are louder, for instance, and now support Dolby Atmos. They sound great, with more body and volume than before.

There are a couple of minor improvements to Samsung’s DeX system, too. 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.

Here, there’s a new, cheaper dock, called the DeX Pad, that holds the phone flat, exposing the headphone jack and allowing 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.

The final change of note is another software tweak. The S9 can now be used in landscape 100% of the time, with interface 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. Previously, you'd have to turn your head on its side or remove your phone from the dock if you wanted to use the homescreen or menus.

So, the Galaxy S9 has the edge over its predecessor as far as features are concerned, but no single difference should be important enough to weigh heavily on your decision. Having said that, the S9 is also likely to get software and security updates for longer than the S8, so if you always want the latest version of Android, the S9 will keep you happier for longer.

Winner: Galaxy S9

Next: Performance, battery life, cameras and verdict

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