In all but a few minor regards, the Galaxy S9 and S9+ resemble their predecessors to such a degree that an ordinary person would have a lot of trouble telling them apart. Sure, the phones’ bezels have been nipped and tucked, the location of the fingerprint scanner - mercifully - changed, and the S9+ now sports a second camera around back. These are differences, but ones that were as inevitable as they are iterative.
The fingerprint scanner on the S8 and S8+ was in a terrible location. It had to move. Apple is pushing dual camera, Samsung had to respond. Minimal screen bezel is so hot right now, Samsung should at least pay lip service to improving screen to body ratio (the phones are 1.2 and 1.4mm shorter than last year's, respectively), having now ceded its narrative advantage here to the iPhone X.
In fact, so much of what is new about the Galaxy S9 twins simply feels obvious - not that there's anything wrong with that. They have the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chipset, because of course they do. The screen gets a little brighter outside, because this happens every single time Samsung announces a new phone. The Galaxy S9 and S9+ are, without a doubt, the "tick" the S8 and S8+'s more substantial "tock."
It’s easy to get a little jaded, then, when looking at the Galaxy S9. “What’s really different?” you might so reasonably ask.
But when you’re absolutely destroying any other single model of Android phone on Earth in terms of sales, it’s probably prudent not to get too radical with changes in any one generation of phone. Samsung has a huge legacy customer base to play to, and has long avoided taking major risks with its flagship handset.
The little (but still sometimes big) stuff
The latest version of don’t-call-it-TouchWiz (I refuse to say Samsung Experience) looks almost exactly like the last one. And that’s fine! Samsung’s UI layer is many revisions removed from the dark days of the Galaxy S5 and its Crayola Acid Trip palette. It looks clean, grown-up, and performs smoothly. There’s nothing so horrible about it anymore, despite what Android purists may say. The worst part, easily, is dealing with Samsung’s glacial software updates, which always come too late and often with too many bugs. To that point, I asked Samsung if the S9s - which are running Android 8.0 Oreo - feature Project Treble, but I’ve yet to receive an answer.
And yes, there is still a Bixby button. Samsung tried to play up a few new improvements to Bixby in our prebrief presentation, but really, there’s still nothing here worth getting excited about. The Galaxy S9 and S9+ probably had their industrial designs finalized before the openly hostile response to Bixby from consumers really unfolded, and they’ve likely committed to pushing their lackluster virtual assistant for at least a few generations. (By the way, there is still no way being offered to remap the Bixby key to something actually useful.)
You’re probably getting tired of me telling you about the things that haven’t changed and the things that have but don’t matter at this point, though. What’s the big sell with Galaxy S9? Is there a reason to care about this phone any more than last year’s?
To the Android enthusiast subset: sure. Oreo still hasn’t landed for the Galaxy S8 and S8+ in most places, and generally phones that are developed on a particular version of the Android platform run better and are less buggy than phones which are updated to that version of the platform post-release (the reasons for this are numerous, but it’s something we’ve observed consistently). So, you get Oreo now, and the phone that runs it was designed to run it.
You also get Qualcomm’s latest silicon (or the new Exynos chip, depending on region), which adds a significantly more powerful GPU and notable gains in efficiency all around. In fact, the Snapdragon 845 has been touched in nearly every corner - the CPU, DSP (used for tasks like machine learning and AI), ISP (Image Signal Processor), GPU, and modem have all received significant upgrades compared to the outgoing 835. What does that translate to in terms of end user experience? Hopefully, better performance and battery life, metrics that should be improved further yet by Android Oreo.
Oh, and the Galaxy S9 and S9+ finally have stereo speakers - the earpiece speaker fires in unison with the bottom speaker, which should increase the maximum volume of the phone by around 40% over last year’s. The big changes, though, have occurred in the imaging department.
The camera is the story Samsung wants to tell you
The rear camera has received a major overhaul on both the S9 and S9+. While only the larger S9+ features a “2x zoom” telephoto lens, both have the all-new primary camera, which sports a mechanical adjustable aperture for enhanced low-light performance. The aperture is “adjustable” in a very binary sense: you can configure the rear camera to shoot in either f/2.4 (standard) or f/1.5 (low light mode) on demand, but only in the “pro” camera UI. In automatic shooting mode, the phone will switch to the f/1.5 aperture setting automatically when ambient light is detected as being below 100 lux.
The way this mechanical aperture works is, well, mechanical. A small electric motor controls a ring that surrounds the lens of the camera. When you set it to f/1.5 mode, the ring “opens” up, revealing more of the lens. This allows more light to filter into the sensor, which means that at a fixed shutter speed and ISO, a scene will look substantially brighter in f/1.5 mode than it will in f/2.4. A wider aperture also theoretically increases the “bokeh” effect of the lens, though I wasn’t able to get a sense of just how much of a difference it really made in this regard during our time with the phone. Smartphone lenses are quite short, so the difference may be quite minor outside macro conditions. As far as we know, this is the first modern smartphone ever to use such a system not counting oddities like the Galaxy K Zoom or ASUS ZenFone Zoom, which were essentially bad point-and-shoot cameras strapped to the back of a phone.
It’s quite rare to see a moving part in a smartphone at all (OIS is technically a moving part - but a passive one), so I asked Samsung whether it considers this mechanism to be a durability concern. For example, could it be rendered inoperative or damaged if the phone was dropped? Samsung’s response was, essentially, that it doesn’t believe this mechanism presents any more of a liability in the event of a drop than the OIS element in the camera. So, we’ll be taking them at their word on that for the time being.
All that aside, there’s no denying this is some pretty tricky smartphone engineering - the kind of thing that piques the geeky interest in me. I’m very curious to try this out once we receive our review unit and compare the results I get in the different aperture settings. For illustration, you can see the lens in its “wide” (f/1.5) and “narrow” (f/2.4) modes, respectively, in the photos below.
That’s not where the changes to the camera end, though. Leveraging the new Qualcomm Spectra ISP and integrated DRAM, Samsung says its processing of low-light photos has been dramatically improved through the use of a more robust multi-frame composite method. Previously, on phones like the Galaxy S8, the camera took a burst of three shots in low-light conditions to create a composite image. The purpose here is obvious to anyone who knows anything about Google’s HDR+: More image data, even if that data has little contrast and exposure in each individual burst, is generally the best way to create a final photo with the maximum amount of detail, dynamic range, and the minimal amount of noise.
Samsung’s new method for processing low-light photos now takes 12 burst shots, breaks those twelve down into three sets of four, combines the images in each set, then combines the three composite images into the photograph you end up seeing. The result? 30% less noise in low-light conditions, supposedly. Samsung showed us a comparison of a low-light photo shot on the S8 versus one taken with the S9, and the difference in noise was indeed quite noticeable. The S9’s image was sharper, cleaner, and just looked better overall. Of course, Samsung would choose an example that it felt demonstrated this feature to the maximum possible effect, so we’ll have to wait and see how it fares in the real world.
960FPS slow motion recording is another new feather in the S9’s camera cap, and the entire camera UI has been overhauled to, in Samsung’s words, make it simpler to navigate. We’ll have to spend some more time with it to really get a feel for these camera changes, but there was one I did notice right off the bat in the front-facing camera. Samsung now has a portrait mode - though they call it “focus selfie” or something like that. The front-facing camera module itself is basically the same one found on the Note8.
As for that second camera on the S9+? It’s the same telephoto lens and sensor Samsung used on the Note8 last year, and they really didn’t seem interested in talking it up all that much. That leads me to think it’s mostly included as a response to Apple, and less so because it represents a very compelling user experience on its own. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the portrait lens on the iPhone X - it was great for framing certain scenes. But the Note8’s telephoto camera often produced grainy, oversharpened images that just weren’t very pleasant to look at. Hopefully the new image processor on the S9+ can improve on that performance, because I certainly do want to use that camera sometimes - just not if the resulting photo is substandard compared to one shot on the primary sensor.
Finally, Samsung has its own version of (prepare groaning) animoji, but they’re more like Nintendo Miis. Basically, the phone scans your facial features and creates a cartoonish facsimile that can then mimic your expressions and movements through the front-facing camera. It’s… a thing. I’m going to leave it at that.
The details: where to get it, when, and more
The Galaxy S9 and S9+ will be available for pre-order starting on March 2nd, with Samsung saying shipping should begin by March 16th. While Samsung wouldn’t give us exact numbers, expect pricing to be basically “in line” with the S8 and S8+ here in the US (they were $720 and $840 unlocked, respectively).
Samsung will be selling US unlocked variants at the same time as the carrier versions, and they should ship at the same time, too. Samsung’s web store and Best Buy were confirmed to us as retail partners.
The S9 and S9+ will be available in three colors at launch: black, purple, and blue. The purple is pretty nice, though I think Samsung’s newest take on its Coral Blue is too understated - it’s more of a steel blue now. The black still looks great, too. All will be in 64GB configuration here in the US, though the S9+ does get 6GB of RAM to the standard S9’s 4GB.
I also explicitly confirmed with Samsung that, even if you do buy a carrier variant of the phone, the hardware on all US versions of the handset is identical. So, if you buy an S9+ on Sprint and later have the SIM unlocked, you can take it to T-Mobile, Verizon, or AT&T and everything should just work.
In conclusion, no big surprises
The Galaxy S9 and S9+ play it rather unashamedly safe. They address some of the issues and shortcomings of the products that came before them, but avoid messing with Samsung's basic formula for smartphone success. So, if your concerns with the brand lie in the issue of software updates, a visual theme that does not align with "stock" Android, or the fragile metal and glass build, you're not going to find something in the Galaxy S9 that you didn't in the S8. Samsung's flagship phones are still very much Samsung phones.
That also means the benefits - like Samsung Pay, IP68 waterproofing, excellent carrier compatibility, wireless charging, a headphone jack, brilliant display, and vast accessory ecosystem - are still good reasons to buy what Samsung's selling. After all, when it came down to it, the Galaxy S8, S8+, and Note8 were all great phones. The Galaxy S9 and S9+ are like those phones, but better in a few notable ways. They have a newer, faster, and more efficient chipset. Their rear cameras have been overhauled for much better low-light performance. The fingerprint scanner is in a much better location. And they run a new-ish version of the Android operating system. These are all good things, but even taken together, they hardly make for a game-changing product.
If you have any other questions about the Galaxy S9 and S9+, leave them in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them.