They're stunning but are they worth the premium price? We take Samsung’s new flagship phones for a spin.
There’s no getting around it: the Samsung Galaxy S9 is likely to be the best phone of 2018 – or perhaps second best, with the larger Galaxy S9+ arguably even better.
The Galaxy S8 and S8+ were already the best in the business, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Samsung has stuck with essentially the same design, with most enhancements largely incremental. Most notably, however, the Galaxy S9 and S9+ offer major upgrades to their already excellent rear cameras.
As with the previous models, the Galaxy S9 has a 5.8in screen, while the S9+ has a 6.2in display. Another difference is the rear camera, with the S9+ now coming with stunning dual cameras.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the Galaxy S9’s rear camera – in fact, it has the best low-light camera we’ve seen.
We managed to get our hands on the both new smartphones at this year’s Mobile World Congress to see what they offer. We’ll review them in depth when we’ve spent more time with it and run them through our benchmarks, but in the meantime, here are our first impressions of the Galaxy S9 and S9+, which are available for pre-order from today (27 February), with shipping to start from 12 March.
Here’s a quick comparison of the specs.
|Samsung Galaxy S9||Samsung Galaxy S9+|
|Outright price||From $1,199||From $1,349|
|Display||5.8in curved Super AMOLED, with 2960 x 1440-pixel resolution (570ppi) and 18.5:9 aspect ratio||6.2in curved Super AMOLED, with 2960 x 1440-pixel resolution (529ppi) and 18.5:9 aspect ratio|
|Processor||64-bit octa-core Samsung Exynos 9810 (2.7GHz quad + 1.7GHz quad)|
|Memory||4GB RAM||6GB RAM|
|Storage||64GB or 256GB + MicroSD Slot (upto 400GB)|
|Rear camera||Super Speed' Dual Pixel 12MP with OIS (F1.5/F2.4)||Dual camera with dual OIS: Wide-angle: Super Speed Dual Pixel 12MP AF sensor (F1.5/F2.4); Telephoto: 12MP AF sensor (F2.4)|
|Front camera||8MP AF (F1.7)|
|Water and dust resistance||IP68|
|Size||147.7 x 68.7 x 8.5mm, 163g||158.1 x 73.8 x 8.5, 189g|
|OS||Android 8 (Oreo)|
We’ll look in more detail at the Galaxy S9+ later, but first, the flagship.
Next: Samsung Galaxy S9 first looks
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.
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
Samsung Galaxy S9+
The Samsung Galaxy S9+ is the second of two Galaxy S9 phones launched by Samsung and on first impressions it’s the better phone of the two. Unlike last year, there’s a little more to differentiate this year’s Plus-sized Samsung flagship than simply a slightly larger display and a bigger battery.
That’s because Samsung has mirrored Apple’s iPhone range and extended the dual-camera capabilities from the Note 8 into the middle model. And the result is that the Galaxy S9+ now has a lot more to recommend it than the S8+ did last year.
Camera, key features and design
Of course there’s a lot more to the Samsung Galaxy S9+ than just that. As with the regular S9, the S9+ looks as pretty as a picture.
It has a 6.2in display with an aspect ratio of 18.5:9 and a qHD+ resolution of 1,440 x 2,560 pixels just like last year’s S8+ so it’s a bit bulkier in the hand than the regular Galaxy S9 – not much, but enough to be noticeable. Samsung has also moved the fingerprint reader on the S9+ to just below the second camera in the middle.
This is much more sensible positioning; Samsung has also improved the fingerprint enrolment process so it takes only two to three dabs of the finger instead of the 16 or so it required previously.
The key selling point, as with its smaller sibling, is the dual-aperture camera. For low-light shots, the camera switches to a super-wide f/1.5 aperture, which captures 28% more light than the S8+’s rear camera, while above 100 lux the secondary f/2.4 aperture comes into play and is used to ensure sharper photographs in good light.
The second camera on the rear, meanwhile, is designed to provide a telephoto view – a zoom, effectively – but has a more conventional single aperture of f/2.4.
Otherwise, both cameras have optical image stabilisation (OIS) and snappy dual-pixel phase detect autofocus, while the front-facing camera is an 8-megapixel f/1.7 unit.
In demonstrations the f/1.5 dual-aperture camera performed astonishingly well, and was able to capture a surprisingly noise-free photograph in less than 1 lux of light – partly due to the bright aperture, but also to the ISP’s (image signal processor) ability to shoot 12 frames in a fraction of a second and combine them to all-but eliminate noise.
If the camera lives up to its promise, we could well have a Google Pixel 2 killer on our hands but Samsung hasn’t stopped there.
The S9+ can now shoot super slow motion footage in 720p resolution at 960fps, just like the Sony Xperia XZ Premium, with object detection tech to help you capture the moment at the right time. You can play back your favourite slow-mo clips every time you unlock your phone and you can use the camera on the front to generate animated GIF-based emojis of yourself to embed in your WhatsApp messages.
Other new features include a user interface that auto-rotates into landscape even on the homescreen, app drawer and settings menus. There’s support for slightly faster 4G – up to 1.2Gbits/sec this time from 1Gbit/sec. The phone now gets stereo speakers, “tuned by AKG” that are more “immersive” than before.
And, finally, Samsung DeX – the phone’s built-in desktop OS – has been improved as well.
There’s a new, cheaper dock for connecting the phone to a desktop monitor: this now holds the phone flat so the screen can double as a touchpad where the previous version held it upright at an angle. And there are new features aimed at IT managers allowing them to block certain apps when DeX is initiated.
Performance and battery
Powering the Samsung Galaxy S9+, just like the S9, is a Samsung Exynos 9810 chip – or the very similar Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 in other countries such as the US. The 9810 is an octa-core processor that comprises twin quad-core processors, one running at 2.7GHz, the other at 1.7GHz. It should be quicker than last year’s chip but the differences are unlikely to be huge.
The screen has the same specifications as the S8+’s and the chip is still manufactured on a 10nm process. The battery is the same size as last year as well (3,500mAh), so anyone looking for a significant bump in stamina is also likely to be disappointed, although to be fair, the battery life of the S8+ is excellent.
Still, the Samsung Galaxy S9+ should be at least as fast as its many rivals in 2018 and the rest of the specifications are as good as you’d expect them to be. The processor is backed up by 6GB of RAM and either 64GB or 256GB of storage, plus a microSD card slot that will support cards up to 400GB in size. Running on top of Android 8 Oreo, the phone felt snappy and responsive when we gave it a short test drive.
The Samsung Galaxy S9+ will be an attractive proposition for anyone with an older Android phone. The question is: is it enough of an upgrade to entice Galaxy S8 or S8+ owners? The dual-camera setup makes it an easier sell than the Galaxy S9 and, coupled with the attraction of ultra low-light photography, it’s clearly set to lead the way in 2018 – at least until the Galaxy Note 9 arrives later on in the year.
It is expensive, however, with outright pricing starting at $1,349 for 64GB of storage or $1,499 with 256GB. Again, you’ll pay a premium for a plan on the major carriers too, with Telstra charging $101 and Optus $94 per month for 2GB of data and the 64GB model – although Virgin offers a similar plan for $74. And again, you’ll get a bonus wireless charger if you pre-order before 12 March (with Telstra offering a tablet too).
Still, if you want the very best phone 2018 has to offer, the Samsung Galaxy S9+ currently looks like it’s the handset to choose.