Now that the dandelions (kudos to Samsung for the Galaxy S3 reference) from Samsung’s Galaxy Unpacked 2018 event have long settled down, we can sit down and look back with a bit of objectivity at what the Korean giant unpacked for us. The two new flagship offerings from Samsung, which may yet again reign as the top Android smartphone(s) of 2018, are the S9 and S9+. While in appearance they do look nearly identical to their predecessors, we've discovered bit by bit signs of the intricate differences between them and last year's S8 and S8+.
So if you haven't had your share of the Samsung news mill yet or if you prefer to have all your information put together in one page, we have just the thing for you. Read on to see what's new with the Galaxy S9 and S9+.
Samsung has carried over its design language from the S8 series, with an all-glass back and a low-bezel display adorning its front. The two sides are held together by a metal frame that seems to be an “upgraded aluminum material” which has been given an oh so sweet satin gloss finish. The frame is supposed to be more resistant to scratches because Samsung is now using the stronger AL7003 aluminum compared to the AL6013 used in the S8. AL7003 allows less shock (1.2x less to be exact) to be transferred to the glass making the phone more durable. Oh, and the frame's color matches the phone’s for a more seamless design.
The back has a single camera on the S9 and a dual setup on the plus model. Both have a better placed fingerprint scanner, which sits under the camera this time. The heart rate sensor, a second ambient light sensor (yes there’s one at the back as well and it was already there on the S8), and dual tone flash follow the status quo by staying next to the camera. Talking about the heart rate sensor, Samsung has upgraded it to a more advanced one that is now able to measure blood pressure. The Korean giant has partnered with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) to release the “My BP Lab” app for research on blood pressure and stress (I can’t find this on Google Play yet).
The front has the signature 5.8” or 6.2” Quad HD+ "Infinity Display" on the S9 and S9+, respectively. There is an array of sensors on top of the display which are hidden under the glass. The sensors include (from right to left) an RGB LED notification light, iris sensor (emitter), proximity (detector) and light sensor (RGB), proximity (emitter) sensor, front camera, and lastly an iris sensor. The first part of the AKG tuned stereo speakers, that doubles as the earpiece, sits in the middle of the phone above the screen.
The bottom has a 3.5mm headphone jack (has to be mentioned since it's considered a unique selling point nowadays) and the second part of the stereo speakers flanking the USB-C port, which supports fast charging. On the right-hand side, we have the power button and on the opposite side, the dedicated Bixby button below the volume rocker. The Hybrid SIM slot - which supports Nano + Nano or Nano + microSD (up to a whopping 400GB) - sits flush on top of the phone. If you want to get real technical about the dimensions compared to the S8 and S8+, you should know that both the new flagships are slightly shorter and wider than their predecessors but weigh a bit more (8g and 16g more, respectively). Finally, wireless fast charging and IP68 water resistance haven't gone anywhere. Here is a side-by-side comparison chart showing the differences between the S9 and S8 series.
The moniker of "Infinity Display" is here to stay, but this time Samsung stuck a new term with it: "Uninterrupted Display" (might be a dig at fruitphone X’s notch). The 18.5:9 Quad HD+ AMOLED display and 5.8”/6.2” sizes carry over from the S8/S8+, but that's where the similarities end. The new display has been given a performance-enhancing injection. On a microscopic level, the display has a Diamond Pixel arrangement with a ppi of 570 for the S9 and 529 for the S9+.
Samsung has shifted its focus to optimize and enhance the "Absolute Picture Quality" and "Absolute Color Accuracy” (0.7 JNCD - Just Noticeable Color Difference) of the screens through precision factory display calibration process implementation. DisplayMate stated that the new display is now up to “Outstanding” levels and gave it its highest A+ grade. The display has set a record for color accuracy which is “Visually Indistinguishable From Perfect” for all of the calibrated modes offered (DisplayMate).
It is 20% brighter than the previous generation and shows record small shifts in color and brightness with different viewing angles. The display is also certified by the mobile UHD alliance for Mobile HDR Premium.
Always-On Display has been enhanced as well with four levels of brightness from day to night. Day mode brightness reaches 40 nits, making it readable in indoor lighting (outdoor viewing may require a hand shade) and night mode brightness dives down to as low as 1 nit. This stops you from being blinded in dark environments and does not distract you if you use it as a desk clock. Viewing angles are much better with a modest 29% decrease in brightness at 30 degrees. This is considered to be much better than the 55% or higher drops in brightness that LCD displays exhibit at the same angle.
Samsung has also managed to achieve a new record for maximum peak brightness, with auto brightness enabled, of 1,130 nits (a new record for smartphones!) which is needed for HDR content.
All four display modes offered by Samsung (Adaptive, AMOLED Cinema, AMOLED Photo, and Basic) have received DisplayMate's seal of approval for the different scenes the calibrations target. In short, the new AMOLED screen on the S9/S9+ has the largest native color gamut (113% DCI-P3/141% sRGB/Rec. 709), highest contrast ratio - Infinite, lowest screen reflectance of 4.4%, and highest contrast rating in ambient light (257).
For more technical details and tests that were conducted, you can check out DisplayMate’s report.
TLDR: MUCH NEW RECORDS! BEST DISPLAY EVER!
SoC Showdown - Exynos 9810 vs. Snapdragon 845
With new flagships come new SoCs. Samsung’s baby, the Exynos 9810 is a 64-bit octa-core CPU with 4 M3 Mongoose and 4 A55 ARM cores. The advertised clock speed from Samsung Semiconductor is 2.9 GHz for the M3 cores but Anandtech did some analysis on the MWC demo units and found some interesting results. The M3 cores average at 1.794 GHz when all 4 cores fire and reach a max clock speed of 2.7 GHz only when 1 core is active. The A55 cores are clocked at 1.95 GHz. In the benchmarks conducted, the demo unit showed high gains in CPU performance bringing it close to Apple’s A10 and A11 chip levels. On the GPU side, the Exynos 9810 is bundled with an 18-core Mali G72 GPU clocked at 573 MHz which Anandtech considers “quite conservative”. The GPU was advertised to have a 20% performance improvement over last generation’s Mali G71 which has 20 cores.
The demo unit’s GPU showed modest gains in performance when it came to Manhattan 3.1 while it showed performance gains close to the advertised numbers in T-Rex. Since these are results from demo units running demo software, they should not be considered as final results. Do note that the GPU performance is lower than the Snapdragon 845 GPU while the CPU takes a huge leap forward.
The new modem on the Exynos 9810 is a Cat.18, supporting 6CA (6 band carrier aggregation) giving downlink speeds of up to 1.2 Gbps and 2CA uplink speeds up to 200 Mbps.
The Snapdragon 845, destined for the U.S. variants of the S9/S9+, has a lot to offer as well. The new octa-core (A75 and A55 cores in a 4 + 4 configuration) design brings a 25% CPU performance improvement over the 835. There's also a 30% improvement over the previous generation Adreno GPU found in the 835. The new Hexagon DSP is touted to be 2 to 3 times more powerful for AI tasks. The ISP also received an upgrade supporting capturing of HDR video (S9/S9+ may not support this) and the new Cat.18 X20 modem is much faster. It supports 5CA speeds up to 1.2 Gbps for downlink, 150 Mbps for uplink, and true dual-SIM LTE.
Both the Exynos 9810 and Snapdragon 845 are built on 10nm FinFET process for more performance and less power consumption. You can check out our benchmarks of the Snapdragon 845 reference phone compared to the S8, OnePlus 5T, and others to have a better idea of what may be offered.
Samsung’s keynote highlighted how the new S9 series’ focal point was the camera. At the keynote, the presenters touted that the company has reimagined the camera and stuck a single 12MP Super Speed Dual Pixel OIS (that was a mouthful…) camera and a dual 12MP (wide+telephoto) SSDP dual OIS camera on the S9 and S9+, respectively, with zero-shutter lag.
For video recording, both devices can capture 4k at 30 fps or 60 fps. They also hav video digital image stabilisation, continuous autofocus, face detection, playback zoom, 1080p 240fps slow-mo, 1080p hyperlapse, and more. The S9 pair also support video recording in HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) format. This is given as an optional feature which can be toggled from the camera app: HEVC or H.265 uses close to half the space as the older H.264 compression format.
So what else is different this year? Both the S9 and S9+ have a mechanical aperture which shifts between F/2.4 for well lit and F/1.5 for low light environments. This is a new leap forward for smartphone cameras since mechanical apertures are mostly found in point-and-shoot cameras and DSLRs, so I guess you could give Samsung a pass for its “Camera Reimagined" tagline since it is the first company to do this on a flagship in recent times.
Conventional image sensors are usually made of 2 layers, one being a pixel array and the other an analog logic layer. The dual pixel sensor on the S9/S9+ is Samsung’s new ISOCELL Fast 2LS3 which is a high-speed 3-stack CMOS image sensor that has a DRAM slotted in à la Sony. The DRAM is used to power the Super Speed sensor for all that time bending 720 p 960fps slow-mo. The DRAM helps to reduce the “jello-effect” in slow motion videos since it captures the frames at high speeds (Samsung Newsroom).
The front camera on both devices is the same 8.0MP sensor with F/1.7 as the one on the Note8. Do note that Samsung’s selfie beautification mode still smoothens out a lot of details.
For those who trust DxOMark to be an impartial judge for cameras (we put little stock in DxO's results, because of the conflict of interest in reviewing cameras), it has given the S9+ an overall score of 99, crowning it the king of smartphone cameras. The high score puts the S9+ one point ahead of the Google Pixel 2 and two points ahead of the iPhone X. The S9+ received a 104 for the photo category (highest score for any smartphone) and 91 points for video.
In well-lit conditions (1000 lux), the S9+ captures good details but is still a smidge behind the Pixel 2.
Left: Galaxy S9+, Right: Pixel 2XL - Source: DxOMark
The camera is said to excel in low light conditions, thanks to the mechanical F/1.5 aperture, but the Pixel 2, with its HDR+, edges it out in the textures and details department by a tiny margin.
Left: Galaxy S9+, Right: Pixel 2XL - Source: DxOMark
The S9+ killed in the exposure and contrast test with the widest ever dynamic range. It preserves greater detail and is seen to be much better than the Pixel 2. In certain conditions, the S9+ has that typical punchiness added to it which may look unnatural to some.
Left: Galaxy S9+, Right: Pixel 2XL - Source: DxOMark
For those portrait lovers, fear not. The S9+ comes out on top going against the iPhone X and Pixel 2. Including the iPhone X in this comparison would be ideal since it has the hardware - dual cameras - for better portraits while the Pixel 2 depends on software for processing and creating the Bokeh effect.
Left: Galaxy S9+, Middle: Pixel 2XL, Right: iPhone X - Source: DxOMark
Finally, the S9+ received a score of 91 for video, putting it in the top tier of smartphones. It wasn't the highest scoring phone in this category but performed admirably in all the tested categories: vibrancy, exposure, autofocus, stabilization, and noise reduction. Loss of fine detail and some artifacts pulled down the total score. Some motions could not be compensated for by the OIS system as well.
For more details and images, check out DxOMark's full report.
Storage, Memory, and Battery
The S9 comes in three storage variants starting with the smallest 64GB, followed by 128GB, and finally the monster 256GB. All of them have 4GB of RAM and a 3000 mAh battery. The S9+ comes in the same three storage variants (64GB, 128GB, and 256GB), plus 6GB RAM, and a 3500 mAh battery. Samsung is sticking to its UFS 2.1 storage specification so it should offer high read/write speeds.
As mentioned earlier, both the S9/S9+ support expandable storage up to 400GB so you could get a whopping 656GB with the 256GB variant offered (minus what the OS takes up of course).
The S9/S9+ come with Android 8.0 Oreo (Treble exists!) and Samsung Experience 9.0 which offers all the same features as the S8/S8+ Oreo release and more.
To differentiate the new flagships from the previous generation, Samsung has included some new features in its camera app. The new super slo-mo mode can shoot up to 960 frames per second at 720p. Hardware limitations restrict the S9/S9+ to record only about 0.2 seconds of real-time footage which translates to a 6-second video. To get around this limitation, Samsung has provided a feature which helps to stitch a few slow-mo videos to form larger clips. It has also made sharing these slow-mo videos easier by giving users the choice to turn the clips into GIFs in one of three modes: on loop, in reverse, or in swing. Users can add soundtracks from their choice of music or from the curated list of 35 built-in options. The slow-mo videos can also be set to display on the home screen and/or lock screen for a bit of personalization. The super slo-mo is hardware dependent so don't expect it to come to the previous generations.
The camera UI has been tweaked for better usability, by putting the different modes offered on a slider at the top (in portrait) or right (in landscape) as shown below.
And then there are the AR Emojis. Yes, it is going to be a thing this year so you can expect more of these in your WhatsApp chats and groups or preferred messaging platform. The trend began when Apple introduced it with the iPhone X and it is catching on.
To provide a more personal touch, Samsung’s take on AR Emojis creates a digital version of the person to use instead of standard animal or cartoon characters. A single selfie taken can be converted into a 3D avatar which can be customized further (hair/accessories/clothes/facial features) if you think the device didn't do a good job of capturing the real you. After creating your 3D avatar, the algorithm also spits out 18 different pre-set expressions with visual effects. Samsung claims that the S9/S9+’s machine learning algorithm analyses 100 distinct facial features, including eyes, nose, forehead, and cheeks to accurately model your 3D doppelgänger. The demo during the keynote was not bad, but there was a bit of “lag" in tracking mouth movements when the two Samsung executives were talking to each other with their avatars. It may be pre-production software pains or maybe bad lighting at the keynote, we’ll know more once we review the units. And did I mention that you can set your 3D avatar as Mickey Mouse?
Biometrics and Security
Samsung debuted the Iris Scanner with the Note 7 and it continued to be included in the S8 series and the Note 8. Using the Iris Scanner and the front camera, the S9/S9+ has a new unlocking method called Intelligent Scan. It uses a combination of facial recognition and iris scanning to provide an easy and secure way to unlock your device. The idea is that facial recognition works in daylight while the phone switches to iris scanning in low light (iris scanning uses IR so it isn’t inhibited by the lack of light). There is also the fingerprint scanner for those who prefer that. All of them can be enabled at the same time giving users more flexibility. The facial recognition is not as robust or secure as Apple's FaceID so iris scanning and fingerprint are used for higher security processes (e.g. Payments/Secure Folder).
Knox is still a unique selling point from Samsung’s perspective since Knox has been certified by many government agencies such as the U.S. DoD and UK’s NCSC (more certifications can be found here for those interested) for its beefed up security. Its features have been expanded for Enterprise use with the latest version. So far Samsung has been relatively regular in pushing out monthly Android security patches (along with its own ones) for its flagships, and even for its other ranges, so the company is trying to keep its devices secure. It has also added a new way to access Secure Folder from the lock screen itself by introducing a Dedicated Fingerprint feature. Users can register another fingerprint other than their main one(s) and set it as the Dedicated Fingerprint to unlock Secure Folder directly from the lock screen (similar to Huawei/Honor’s Private Space). Secure Folder can also be unlocked using PIN/Password/Iris Scanning. You can read more about Secure Folder here.
Samsung Pay is still the widest accepted mobile payment service right now and obviously it's included in the S9/S9+. The engineers at Samsung achieved this by integrating an MST (Magnetic Strip Technology) chip alongside the NFC chip so the phone can be used for payments on both contactless terminals or those machines where you need to swipe your card. Contactless is gaining traction in many countries, but a majority of machines are still chip/swipe based and Samsung Pay just works everywhere (I use it on a regular basis with my S7 edge and haven’t had any problems).
Bixby continues to exist in the S9 series and has grown up a little with real-time AR and deep learning capabilities. It can now do live translation through the camera and features 9 different modes: Text, Food, Makeup, Wine, Shopping, Image, QR Code, and more. The live translation feature can detect 54 languages as of now and even convert foreign currencies, which would be a useful feature for travelers. Bixby can now recognize food (no, not for sharing purposes) and bring up the nutritional content and even recipes of what you’re eating, which you can add to Samsung Health to keep track for a healthier lifestyle. Makeup mode might be an attractive feature for ladies out there. What it does is recognize the type of makeup one is using and provide links to the websites that sell them. Users can even use the AR capabilities to try out different makeups from select brands and place an order for whichever they choose, all through Bixby. This feature is available in select markets: Korea, U.S., Canada, and China (Samsung Newsroom).
Speakers and Other features
Coming back to the stereo speakers, they are supposed to be 40% louder than the previous generation’s mono speaker. The reason I included this in the software section is because of Dolby Atmos. This is more of a software enhancement that gives users a 360 degree sound effect while using the speakers or headphones. This feature analyzes sounds in real time and adjusts it to create the most immersive experience possible (Samsung Newsroom).
Finally, other notable software features, introduced in previous generations, like App Pair, Edge Notifications, Live Focus, Dual Capture, and Always-On Display get honorable mentions here. For VR users, you do not need a new Gear VR headset for the S9 and S9+. The S9's will fit like a glove in the 2017 Gear VR because there is very little difference in dimensions from the S8 series.
Along with the 2 new kids in town, a revamped DeX Pad was also announced. The new Pad expands upon the capabilities that were introduced when the S8 series was released. DeX allows Samsung devices (S8, S8+, Note 8, S9, and S9+ for now) to be transformed into desktops to run Android apps via an external monitor.
The new DeX Pad is flat, unlike the stand-like DeX Station, and it enables the S9/S9+ connected to it to be used as a touchpad or touch keyboard if and when you don’t have external ones handy. The Pad does away with the Ethernet port that the Station had, but now you have the convenience of connecting your headphones while using the Pad so that’s nice. It does come with an HDMI port and 2 USB-A ports. You can read more about the DeX Pad here and about using Linux on the S9/S9+ using DeX here.
Expect a more in-depth review once we get our hands on a review unit. In the meantime, you can read David’s first impressions about the S9 and S9+ and if you can't wait until you get your own hands on an S9, you can scratch that itch by downloading the official wallpapers.