The flagship returns, this time with some exclusive features
For many people out there, the smartphone world comes down to just two companies: Apple and Samsung. Even though this isn’t really the most accurate statement given that there are so many other noteworthy brands on the market, including Google and its own Pixel phones, Samsung has long been considered the only true rival to Apple, especially thanks to its Galaxy S family of products.
And truth be told, Galaxy S phones have always been about delivering the best Samsung had at the time of every new product release.
This means that if you buy such a model on day one following the launch, you basically get the crème a la crème, as every new Galaxy S model is filled with technology and innovations developed by Samsung.
The same thing for the Galaxy S9, though in this case, things are slightly different than for the previous generation.
For 2018, Samsung has adopted a strategy that looks very similar to what Apple did with the iPhone in the past: the bigger model gets some exclusive features over the smaller sibling, in an attempt to convince more buyers to upgrade.
This approach has several benefits for Samsung, two of which are the most obvious. First of all, the bigger the phone, the more space inside to offer additional technologies, which means that it’s easier for the company to include upgraded cameras, more RAM, and other features. And then, a larger phone equipped with more tech means a higher price, so eventually, Samsung can make more money with its devices.
“The plus version finally makes sense.”
As compared to the Galaxy S8, the S9 lineup thus comes with exclusive features for the plus version.
Obviously, it all starts with the dimensions and the display. The S9+ measures 158.1 x 73.8 x 8.5 mm (6.22 x 2.91 x 0.33 in) and tips the scales at 189 grams, whereas the standard S8 has 147.7 x 68.7 x 8.5 mm (5.81 x 2.70 x 0.33 in) in size and weighs 163 grams. The bigger phone comes with a 6.2-inch display with 84.2% screen-to-body ratio and 529 ppi pixel density, while the regular S9 boasts a 5.8-inch screen with 83.6% ratio and 570 ppi.
When it comes to the design, very little is changed, and just like I said when I reviewed the Galaxy S9, the most striking difference happens on the back when comparing the S9+ with the S8+.
Samsung has finally overhauled the back for a more ergonomic approach, so the fingerprint sensor and the cameras (because there are two of them now) are placed in a vertical layout. Technically, this should allow users to have their fingerprints scanned easier than before, though I had a hard time doing this because an outline (or a border, if you wish) does not exist.
“Top notch (no pun intended).”
The build quality is exactly the same as before and remains top notch. The Galaxy S9+ is one of the most exquisite Android phones on the market right now, and the choice of glass for the body makes it look lovely. Samsung has struggled to make glass as durable as possible, and while certain improvements have been implemented, it’s still not as robust as metal, for instance. I’m not the biggest fan of glass, though I admit that it looks stunning, except for the part where it’s full of fingerprints.
The CPU options are the same, so you can choose between the Exynos 9810 in EMEA markets and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 in the United States in China. But the bigger difference comes in terms of RAM, as the S9+ is equipped with 6GB versus 4GB on its smaller brother.
When it comes to comparing the two phones, what sets apart the Galaxy S9+ is without a doubt its dual-camera configuration. While some critics said Samsung is late to the party because rivals like Apple has been offering dual-lens cameras for a while, I don’t think this is the case, as the company wanted to spend as much time as possible refining the experience before finally launching this feature.
The Samsung Galaxy S9+ does launch with a dual-camera configuration, and the South Korean firm has made it a really big deal, both before the public announcement and during it. The camera has been advertised as the most important makeover of this phone and without a doubt, it is. Not necessarily because it represents such a massive upgrade, but due to the fact that otherwise, the Galaxy S9 family isn’t entirely a breathtaking overhaul of the S8 generation.
“Dual-camera system. Finally.”
The Galaxy S9+ thus comes with two different lenses: one with 12-megapixels and offering variable aperture of f/1.5 – f/2.4, 1/2.5”, 1.4 um, and Samsung’s signature Dual Pixel PDAF, and another one with 12 megapixels, f/2.4, 52mm, 1/3.6”, 1 um, and autofocus. The latter is being used for 2x optical zoom, a feature that we’ve seen before on… you’ve guessed it right… Apple’s iPhone.
While I wouldn’t call it copying because this is the direction that the entire industry seems to embrace, the dual-lens camera on the Samsung Galaxy S9+ isn’t as impressive as I expected it to be.
And there are several reasons why, and it all starts with the camera bug that I discovered when reviewing the standard Galaxy S9 and which appears to impact the bigger model as well.
When using the camera, it looks like Samsung has tried to refine focusing with further tweaks, as everything happens faster than you’d normally expect. But there are moments when the phone fails to focus correctly on the subject, and while no problem can be observed on the phone’s screen, blurry details are more visible on a bigger display like a laptop.
“Camera bug ¯\_(ツ)_/¯”
What appears to happen is the smartphone changing the focus point in order to make focusing faster in the case of close-up shots, only that there are moments when the result isn’t as good as it was supposed to be. I included such a sample in the Galaxy S9 review, and you can check more of them in the gallery here as well.
Other than that, the camera is at least as good as it was on the Galaxy S8+, and if there’s indeed this issue, Samsung could fix with a software update. Hopefully, Samsung has also managed to address those embarrassing issues on the S8 which made the camera completely blurry and required users to quickly shake the phone to be able to focus.
Photos otherwise look really good, though again, the color settings of the display make everything look very vivid on the phone’s screen. On a bigger display, on the other hand, you can observe more natural colors (though this depends on the light), good contrast, and high detail quality when zooming.
The variable aperture is supposed to give the Galaxy S9+ the capabilities to take high-quality photos in both bright daylight and super low light. Photos indeed look a bit more vibrant than on the Galaxy S8+, but don't imagine you'll be able to take photos in complete darkness. There's good performance though, and if you're OK with a somewhat average amount of noise, you'll like the S9+.
“All hail the Google Pixel XL 2.”
I’d say the Google Pixel XL 2 continues to have the best camera on a smartphone right now, and despite investing in a dual-camera system, Samsung still hasn’t gotten substantially closer to its performance.
The super-slow-motion video support is a neat addition to the camera arsenal of the Galaxy S9+, yet it’s a nightmare to use. It takes a while to get used to it, and the very first attempts are frustrating, to say the least. Basically, it comes down to recording a video and capturing the movement in a square on the screen, which is nearly impossible for rapidly moving objects, such as a cat.
One of the upgrades that I really enjoy is the stereo speakers. To be honest, every time I try out a phone with mono speakers, everything sounds outdated, and this is exactly the feeling I got when moving from an iPhone X to the Galaxy S8. The Galaxy S9 addresses this problem, and the experience is substantially improved, especially if you’re using your phone for playing games or watching videos.
Given the hardware, gaming should really be an enjoyable activity, and Samsung has clearly spent more time optimizing resource usage when demanding processes are launched. The phone still gets hot, but not too close to the upper limit when it could burst into flames, so the South Koreans have obviously learned its lesson.
This is the good news following the Note 7 fiasco: Samsung and all the other OEMs are spending considerably more time improving cooling systems and making sure batteries can’t explode, so we’re much safer now no matter what. What I’d like to see is Samsung, Apple, and the other tech giants investing in other battery technologies because lithium-ion clearly comes with too many drawbacks.
But before this happens, Samsung has decided to stick with Li-ion for the Galaxy S9+, but somewhat odd is that the company hasn’t increased capacity from the previous model. This means that you still get a 3500 mAh battery, just like on the Galaxy S8+, despite the upgraded hardware and the new features that are being used by the phone and which obviously require a certain amount of power.
If you’re not a heavy gamer, the Samsung Galaxy S9+ should easily get you through the day with a single charge, but otherwise, you should make sure you have a charger or external battery around.
“Fast charging. You gotta love it.”
This is the thing I love the most about Samsung’s phones: fast charging is really fast (not like Apple’s), and Samsung guarantees that performance won’t be reduced as the battery wears out. In fact, Samsung says the battery should still have a health of around 95% after about two years, whereas Apple’s iPhones are estimated to drop to some 80%, down to which point the performance throttling process should already kick in.
Even though it’s not using 3D sensing cameras, the Galaxy S9 (both standard and plus version) come with face recognition and iris scanning, and Samsung says the two features have been substantially improved since the previous version. There’s no noticeable difference, however, though I’d say they work fast enough to replace the typical fingerprint. What’s more important, however, is that they’re not as secure as Apple’s Face ID, so if you care about security, you better stick with passwords and fingerprints.
Also, Samsung says face recognition works even in low light, but that’s not the case. The darker it gets, the more difficult it is for the camera to scan your face without an IR sensor, so you can only use this feature with the proper light.
Samsung Galaxy S9+ comes with Android 8.0 out of the box, and this can only be a good thing given the software update fiasco that’s happening right now at the South Korean firm. Despite promising monthly updates, Samsung releases security updates every few months, and new Android versions typically arrive a half of year or even more after Google makes them available for its own devices.
The rollout of Android 8 for the Galaxy S8, which was until the debut of the S9 the flagship model in Samsung’s portfolio, started in February this year, and believe it or not, there still are many users out there who haven’t yet received the update. Despite the company launching a new generation, that is.
For me, paying that much on a high-end phone that doesn’t receive updates, be they security or new Android versions, is unacceptable, especially because I feel like the company that’s building the phone doesn’t care about users. In terms of security that’s even worse, as vulnerabilities remain unpatched, while for features the loss is less substantial since Samsung’s custom Android version already bundles extra functionality over the stock ROM.
The S9+ is an evolution over the previous generation and leaving aside the camera, I think the most important thing about it is that Samsung shows that it's listening to customers. The need some time to understand the message, but it eventually happens.
The relocation of the fingerprint sensor comes after many of the S8 buyers blasted Samsung for making it nearly impossible to use it, though, after a while, everyone more or less got used to it.
If Samsung learns from its past mistakes, there still are a few things to be resolved, and software updates are the next in the queue. Time will tell, however, if Samsung is ready to go further with this listening-to-feedback strategy.
As I said when I tried out the standard S9, Samsung launched these models with much fanfare and positioned them as a completely new generation, though when comparing them to their predecessors, very little has changed.
That's quite of a problem because when purchased, these phones could fail to meet buyers' expectations, and it's getting worse for those who upgraded from the Galaxy S8.
This already impacts sales of the S9, as it's believed that early orders of the device have been clearly below those of the predecessor. And this subtle upgrade is without a doubt the main reason.
Should you buy the Samsung Galaxy S9+? It depends. If you're already using the Galaxy S8+, then you really don't have a reason to pay that much for an upgrade. I mean, the camera is nice and all, but the S8 and the S9 are so similar that it's nearly impossible to distinguish the two from certain angles.
If you're an iPhone user or own a different Android phone, you're better with the Galaxy S8 because right now, this generation is substantially more affordable. The only problem could be support for the phone, but the S8 will definitely receive the upgrade to Android 9.0 rather later than sooner, so if you don't plan to keep it for too long, this could be a clever investment.
For those who use the camera all day long, the S9 is a must-have if they're committed to Samsung. This is the best camera on a Samsung phone, and if the company refines its performance and irons out the existing bugs, there'll be little to complain about on the S9.
In the end, if you do purchase the S9+, just don't be too harsh on it. It's better not to have too high expectations if you come from the S8, and always keep in mind that this is just a transition model that Samsung uses to buy more time until a bigger upgrade is ready.
So when I say the Galaxy S9+ is the creme de la creme right now, this only applies to Samsung's lineup. Because otherwise, there's so much more to get from other vendors.