When Samsung announced the Galaxy S9, “that’s it?” wasn’t exactly an uncommon reaction. The Galaxy S9 is, frankly, kind of boring. But when you’re the most successful manufacturer of premium Android phones in the world by a wide margin, you can afford to be a little boring every once in a while.

Samsung knows this. As such, the Galaxy S9 and S9+ don’t represent a sea change. Rather, they’re an affirmation of success. Everything that made the Galaxy S8 and S8+ great phones is still to be found here. Wireless charging, Samsung Pay, headphone jacks, brilliant displays, extremely refined industrial design, and IP68 waterproofing make these phones extremely feature-rich. Few boxes go unchecked.

Some of the shortcomings of their predecessors have been addressed, too. New silicon provides a smoother performance experience, a relocated fingerprint scanner proves much less frustrating, and a revamped rear camera makes the case that Google’s Pixels don’t dominate every aspect of mobile imaging.

But you can’t escape that, as good as they are, these phones are iterative. Nothing they do really challenges competitors in new ways. They aren’t breaking new ground. And they still aren’t perfect. Though, when perfect is the bar you’re aspiring to, that’s saying a lot - the Galaxy S9 and S9+ are great smartphones, even if they don’t exactly do much to change the larger conversation about them.

The Good

Display An absolutely brilliant screen - the best on any smartphone out there. Amazing brightness, colors, and viewing angles.
Fingerprint scanner The fingerprint scanner is back in a location where it won’t give you constant frustration. Good job, Samsung.
Fast The Galaxy S9+ feels pretty quick - and hopefully it stays that way.
Camera The new rear camera is a real improvement, especially in low light. 960FPS slow-motion video is a great bonus.
Headphone jack Samsung still includes this increasingly endangered feature.

The Not So Good

So much glass I mean, this should be obvious - the Galaxy S9 looks kind of fragile. There’s a lot of glass on this phone. Use a case.
Updates Even with Project Treble, Samsung still avoids committing to a period of Android OS updates, let alone timely ones, for its flagship handsets. That’s bad.
Camera again For all their improvements, the S9’s cameras have left me convinced that Samsung just can’t catch up to Google here. The front-facing camera is also pretty meh.
Bixby At least let us remap the Bixby key, Samsung. Also: die, Bixby, die.
More refresh than revolution Compared to the Galaxy S8, the Galaxy S9 is a pretty incremental update overall.

Our Samsung S9 review is sponsored by dbrand, crafters of fine-lookin' mobile skins. Check out how their hottest material yet, Black Camo, looks on the new S9 after the conclusion.

Design and materials

I want to start on a tangent about dimensions here, so bear with me if you will (or if you won’t, you can just skip ahead a few paragraphs). You might be surprised to learn that the Galaxy S9 and S9+ are both thicker and heavier than their predecessors. And the batteries aren’t any larger. The reason for this wasn’t exactly clear to me, particularly on the standard S9, but I think it may be a case of the tail wagging the dog.

You see, moving the fingerprint scanner on a phone isn’t quite as simple as cutting and pasting in Photoshop. It requires significant changes to the internal layout of the device to accommodate the components and connections. I know what you might be thinking: “It’s a fingerprint scanner, how big can it really be?” But if you’ve looked inside a smartphone, you know how tightly packed those components are. Moving the fingerprint scanner farther down the phone probably would have infringed on some of the space previously reserved for the battery. So, in order to keep the size of the battery the same, the easiest solution was probably to make the phones thicker. You also kill two birds with one stone here by essentially eliminating the camera hump, which everyone hates anyway.

That in itself is fine - I don’t think many people, phone enthusiasts included, are going to lose sleep over the millimeter or so of additional thickness on the S9+. But, when you make a phone thicker, you also increase the amount of physical material required to build it - which probably means adding weight. On the S9+, the second camera module plays a role here, too, but even the smaller S9 is half a millimeter thicker and 8 grams heavier than the Galaxy S8. So, long story short, that’s my theory: move the fingerprint scanner, make the phone thicker and heavier. Which, considering the truly awful placement of the scanner last year? That is completely fine with me. It also gives the phones a slightly reassuring heft that last year’s didn’t quite have, but that’s quite a subjective consideration.

Why linger on a relatively minor footnote of the phone’s overall design? Quite simply, there isn’t much else to talk about relative to the S8 and S8+ when it comes to the aesthetic or construction of these phones. Sure, there are some other small differences - the aluminum is now of the stronger 7000-series variety like the Note8 (the S8 used a softer 6000-series alloy), and the exposed band of it on the black version comes in a glossy satin finish, not a polished enamel. The bottom-firing speaker has a much deeper cutout. The S9+ is 1.4mm shorter, increasing the reachability - ever so slightly - of the large display. Beyond that, you won’t find many other differences.

The new matte finish on the enhanced 7000-series aluminum frame is a bit nicer than last year's gloss.

Samsung’s hardware buttons are nice and clicky (the power button is bigger this year, too), the phone feels like one solid glass and metal piece, and this black version basically lets the phone melt away around that brilliant OLED display. Considering most people will be hiding these phones away in a case, I find Samsung’s understated hardware language and extensive use of glass to be less of an issue. Like the S8 before it, the Galaxy S9 is a very striking phone from a perspective of sheer industrial design appreciation. It’s incredibly sleek and tightly put together, giving the phone a precious quality Google’s Pixel 2 or HTC’s U11 just can’t live up to. Samsung has the whole “building phones” thing down pretty well, and while i do think the S9 is worth praise for all the same reasons the S8 was, the non-evolution of the design language just makes me ever more curious about where Samsung’s next flagship is going to take us.

Functionally, most of the same issues that the Galaxy S6, S7, and S8 had are still going to be here. I have no doubt these phones are fragile - the S8 and S8+ were notoriously easy to break (the S9’s tougher aluminum and thicker glass may help), and I doubt the S9 will be much different. Walking through Barcelona during Mobile World Congress, every time I pulled the S9+ from my pocket I winced at the thought of dropping it on the old cobbled streets. Between all that glass and its generally slippy surface characteristics, going naked with a Galaxy S9 is a risky proposition. You’ll want a case.

And while the fingerprint scanner location is leagues better than it was on last year’s phones, I still don’t find myself a fan of it on the S9+. The cutout for the scanner is very shallow, and the glossy surface of the scanner area still feels exactly like the lens cover glass over the camera module, making it hard to feel out. I think a good case - which, again, you should get - will solve this problem, so it may end up a non-issue for most.

Other usability concerns come from the very edge-to-edge curved display, which I have had the occasional palm rejection problem with in the week or so I’ve been using the phone. Generally, I’d say I notice it no more than I did on the S8+ last year, and again, a case will all but assuredly solve this. (What I’m really saying here is: I wish Samsung had provided a case with this thing.)

On the bottom of the phone, you’ll find that Samsung has thankfully retained the 3.5mm jack, along with a USB-C port. With so many manufacturers ditching the headphone jack, it’s nice to see that the market’s most dominant Android smartphone maker isn’t using its position to push consumers into buying adapters or headphones they don’t want. Given all that we hear about how much more difficult a headphone jack makes waterproofing or cramming in a sufficiently large battery, it all kind of rings hollow to me when Samsung still includes it.

The fingerprint scanner

An entire section devoted to the fingerprint scanner? Yes, it’s silly, but given how controversial the fingerprint scanners on the Galaxy S8, S8+, and Note8 were, I believe a closer look is warranted.

Last year, Samsung placed the fingerprint scanner to the side of the camera module on all of the phones named above. Nobody actually liked this. I heard plenty of apologizing for Samsung, remarks on how it really didn’t matter all that much, and even suggestions that using iris scan was easier anyway (it’s not - this is a bad and very blatant lie). But this year, every single article I’ve seen about this phone has applauded Samsung for moving the scanner below the camera.

Left: bad, right: better

I think it’s time to just own up and admit it: Samsung screwed up last year on the fingerprint scanner. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it was annoying, and it was a problem you only had if you purchased a Samsung phone. No other company was so silly as to think this was an acceptable design. So, how’s the new scanner? Even having only really used the S9+ for a week, I can say that moving the fingerprint scanner was definitely the right call. The new location is far more natural, I’m smudging the camera lens far less often, and I think that - once a case is applied - it will be basically just as good as any other phone’s fingerprint scanner. It also seems faster, at least if you ask me.

Don't do this. Samsung is wrong and it makes the scanner suck.

The one real flaw I’ve noticed comes with the new enrollment process. When you add a fingerprint to the scanner during setup, Samsung suggests you swipe the finger across the scanner to speed up the registration. This is true: swiping your finger over the scanner usually takes it from 0% to 75% enrollment completion instantly. The problem, though, is that far less of your finger actually ends up registered this way, and I’ve tested this. Enrolling my fingerprints via the swiping method consistently caused unlocking problems, where the phone wasn’t able to recognize my prints. The solution? Enrolling those fingers a second time, but by tapping and releasing on the scanner at various angles. Once I did that, my rejection rate dropped dramatically.

In short, don’t set up your fingerprints like Samsung suggests: it’s definitely not the same as the tried and true tap-and-shift method.

Display

The Galaxy S9 and S9+ have screens of the same size and shape as last year’s S8 and S8+, so there’s really not much to report on there in terms of difference. They do have slightly reduced bezels, making the phones a hair shorter, but most people aren’t going to notice this - you’d have to hold them side by side to even see it. The bezels are already so small on these phones relative to anything this side of an iPhone X that it’s really just nitpicking to say Samsung could shrink them further, though I wouldn’t mind if that bottom lip just disappeared entirely, personally.

As to the screens themselves, Samsung is the world’s leading manufacturer of OLED panels, supplying everyone from Google (on the smaller Pixel 2) to Apple (on the iPhone X), and dozens of phones in between. Each year, Samsung generally manages to introduce an improved display on its Galaxy phones, and while 2018 looks like a fairly minor improvement overall, it’s not nothing.

Samsung says the Galaxy S9 should be 15% brighter than the S8 in direct sunlight, the most challenging condition for any smartphone, so that’s definitely worth noting. In general, though, this is basically the same display we saw on the Note8 in all but strict technical benchmarks, just at a different size. It’s the best smartphone display on the market, and Samsung’s color modes make tuning it to your particular taste easy, be it insanely colorful or hyper-accurate (I find the out of the box “adaptive” mode a little too intense, but I understand many people like it).

The curvature of the screen just makes it feel like it’s popping right out of the top of the phone, as the small black bezels sort of fall away around the content. Samsung, if nothing else, knows how to make a truly excellent display. As I sit here in a cafe typing our review, I find my eyes a little transfixed by the perfectly-even tone of the display, which barely shifts in color or brightness at any angle. Samsung’s OLED panels really are a marvel, and the Galaxy S9 is the best showcase yet for Samsung Display’s handiwork.

Battery life and charging

The Galaxy S9+ offers the same 3500mAh of battery capacity as the outgoing S8+. While the new Snapdragon 845 chipset is supposed to be substantially more efficient than the one in last year’s phone, I can’t say the battery life has wowed me - it’s very good, but it’s not really much better in my experience.

With always-on display enabled, I think five or so hours of screen-on time in a full day is readily doable. I felt about the same about the S8+ last year. Turn always-on display off and I think you can stretch that figure both in terms of screen time and idle battery life a bit longer. This is roughly in line with what I expect of my Pixel 2 XL (no always-on display), which still makes it very good. But I’m not seeing the leap in battery life I kind of expected given the newer silicon. Maybe Samsung is tuning more for performance this year, thinking that last year’s phone offered enough longevity for most users. I can’t really say.

You probably won’t be disappointed with the phone’s battery life, though, at least not relative to phones from the likes of Google, LG, and OnePlus. The S9 and S9+ certainly can’t stand up to battery life behemoths like Huawei’s Mate 10 Pro, but few phones can. I’ve only managed to get a few full days of use in since receiving it a little over a week ago, so I still have impressions to form here. I don’t think there’s anything concerning or worrying - the battery life is very good. But I don’t think it’s going to set Samsung apart this year, at least in regard to the US Snapdragon model of the phone.

Charging is still achieved via Samsung’s Quick Charge 2.0-based Adaptive Fast Charge technology, which has a maximum charge rate of 15 watts. That’s substantially less than phones like the OnePlus 5T (20W), Essential Phone (27W), and Mate 10 Pro (22.5W). Still, even Google’s Pixel 2 supports only up to 18W, so while 15W is on the lower side, it’s not exactly slow - a full charge should be doable in well under two hours (an hour and forty minutes is a good guess).

Storage, wireless, and call quality

The Galaxy S9 will only be available in the 64GB storage configuration here in the US, regardless of whether you buy from a carrier or unlocked. Given Samsung is now doing direct US sales on its own website, I have to wonder how hard it would really be to make at least a small supply of 128GB and 256GB SKUs available for those who want them. You do get a microSD slot to augment that storage if you so choose, but it’s not really the same thing. Even Google, shipping in its comparably tiny volumes, has 128GB versions of its Pixel 2 available - in multiple colors! Surely Samsung could do the same.

On the wireless connectivity side, the Galaxy S9 supports Wi-Fi ac (Samsung seems to have passed on utilizing the Snapdragon 845’s Wi-Fi ad support, which I guess is understandable) and Bluetooth 5.0. The US version packs Qualcomm’s latest and greatest Snapdragon X20 LTE modem, allowing peak download rates on LTE of up to 1.2Gbps. You won’t see those speeds in real life, but the underlying technology allowing them like Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) LTE and support for aggregating up to five carrier bands will still improve network performance if your provider implements them.

Samsung’s phones have generally offered strong wireless signal characteristics and implemented the full suite of modem technologies on offer from Qualcomm, and so far, I’ve found the S9 to perform well on LTE, even roaming here on Spain’s rather spotty and congested Vodafone network. I’ll need to spend more time with the phone to get a full sense of its capabilities, but I suspect Samsung won’t have done anything to compromise its typically excellent performance in this area.

On the calling side, here in the US the Galaxy S9 supports VoLTE on all four major carriers, and I strongly suspect that will continue to make a far greater difference in the call experience than microphones or the earpiece speaker. I had a standard voice call the other day on my Pixel 2 XL, and after being used to mostly VoLTE calls in the last year or two, going back to narrow-band voice was absolutely terrible. Until wideband (“HD”) voice protocols fully work across all carriers, this will continue to be an issue, and I don’t think a regular voice call is going to sound meaningfully better or worse on the S9 than it did on the S8 or probably even the S7 and S6.

Audio and speakers

The headphone jack on the US Galaxy S9 is powered by the same Qualcomm Aqstic audio codec found in last year’s phones (the 845 features a very slightly revised version), so there shouldn’t really be any notable difference in terms of audio quality or output. I don’t have an Exynos version of the phone to test, so I can’t comment on how that one sounds, but my S9+ powered a pair of on-ear headphones without too much trouble. I’m mostly using Bluetooth earbuds and headphones these days, though, and so the headphone jack output is personally of less concern to me. On that note, my S9+ paired and played well with a number of wireless earbuds and my Bose QC35 II headphones.

Samsung claims the speakers on the Galaxy S9 and S9+ should be around 40% louder than those on the S8, owed largely to the fact that the earpiece speaker now fires in addition to the bottom-facing driver. Given how many phones do this, I found it odd it took Samsung quite so long to get on the bandwagon, but it’s nice that they have. Output from the speakers is quite loud, and quality is reasonably good. And unlike my Pixel 2 XL, the earpiece speaker doesn’t buzz annoyingly when certain frequencies are played. For those who use their phone’s external speakers frequently, this is certainly an upgrade over last year’s model.

Camera

The camera is undoubtedly the single biggest upgrade Samsung has bestowed upon the Galaxy S9, and it’s going to be the thing most reviews really focus on. I’m doing my best to take as many side-by-side snaps using the S9 and my current favorite smartphone camera, the Pixel 2 XL, and I’ve been comparing results. Here are my thoughts so far on what Samsung has achieved.

First off, the S9’s primary rear sensor (that is, the variable aperture one) is a very notable improvement over the one on the S8, S8+, and Note8. Scene exposure balance is superior, fine detail is very clearly improved, and processing is less aggressive. Photos on the S9 generally, though not always, look less overdone to me than they have on previous Samsung phones, giving them a more natural, less touched-up appearance.

 

Believe it or not, the Pixel 2 on the right got the light in the scene is more accurate, but the S9's detail blows it away. This is a digital zoom shot.

In particular, low-light performance has seen a positively massive boost. The S9’s f/1.5 wide aperture mode, combined with the enhanced multi-frame composition on the camera, manages some extremely impressive results in dim conditions. I’ll tell you now: in a dark room, the fine detail and contrast of the Galaxy S9 and S9+ are often noticeably superior to even the Pixel 2. The sensor is gathering more light, and the result is sharper, brighter, and more vivid images. The Pixel 2 can manage overall scene balance - especially highlights - better, I’ve found.

But overall, this is an extremely capable low-light camera, and I’m definitely wanting to spend some more time with it to get a feel for what it can do. I think some people might prefer the output of the S9 in a dark environment to the Pixel 2, and I do think the quality is objectively superior in two important regards - sharpness and noise.

 

The Galaxy S9's slow shutter in low light causes a lot of blurriness - the Pixel 2 (right) handles this much better.

One downside I’ve noticed is that Samsung’s low-light mode favors a very long shutter time, meaning you’re significantly more likely to blur a moving subject (like a person). It’s kind of annoying, and it’s a problem the Pixels don’t suffer as much from. For a data point, I can tell you that in a dim room, the Galaxy S9 seems to zero in around 1/10 of a second for the shutter speed, whereas the Pixel 2 usually bottoms out around 1/17 of a second (and generally prefers 1/33). Given that there’s a “pro” shooting mode if you want to set your shutter speed manually, it’s not the end of the world for serious mobile photographers.

If you want more control over the camera, pro mode is your friend.

In daylight, I’m impressed by the S9’s output so far, but I’m not blown away. Its propensity for highlighting is more of a liability in bright daylight, and this is where the Pixel 2’s HDR+ really shines (or dims). The S9’s photos are more likely to suffer from blowouts, and it can just make the world look a little too… illuminated at times. Some photos the S9 has grabbed that should have been pretty easy to balance just come out looking bad. I’ve noticed the same thing in night shots: the S9 errs heavily on the side of overexposing to increase contrast and the “pop” factor of an image. Many people will like this, though - it’s not an objectively bad thing by any means. I do think it tends to result in images that are less representative of reality, but even I can admit sometimes reality could use a little sprucing up.

This photo was taken in a very dark restaurant - the Galaxy S9 makes it look incredibly bright.

But the bottom line is that the Galaxy S9’s camera ends up feeling much less predictable to me than the Pixel 2’s when you consider all of the above. You could get a very impressive low-light shot, or your subjects could be blurred to the point of uselessness if they were moving. Equally, even in brightly-lit scenes, the S9 struggles with dynamic range, blowing out highlights and sometimes simply producing unpleasant photos. This very rarely happens with the Pixel 2 - it’s an issue consistently with the Galaxy S9.

The good news, I think, is that Samsung can continue to tune its camera software and processing algorithms to improve performance. When the Galaxy S9 gets a good photo, it gets a really good photo. The very wide aperture on the lens in night mode results in a lot less noise in especially dark spots. This is a real issue on the Pixel 2, which tends to use a higher ISO when shooting at night, meaning more noise.

And if you’re wondering, I think that in terms of overall still image quality, Google’s Pixel 2 still comes away with the crown. It just gets a better shot more often, and while it does fall short of the S9’s performance in some non-trivial regards, I’m pretty confident in my assertion here. I’ve done a lot of comparing, and the Pixel’s photos just generally look better - more realistic, more balanced, more naturally lit, more vivid - than the S9’s.

For all its low-light prowess, the S9's (left) contrast, white balance, and detail in low light sometimes just don't fare well against the Pixel 2 (right).

If we’re talking in terms of features and overall capability, well, I think the story changes. The Galaxy S9’s 960FPS slow-motion recording is pretty awesome, and Samsung’s pro mode on the camera means you can take control of the shutter speed, white balance, and even the aperture setting. Samsung has a ton of camera features packed into its phones, and the Pixel’s more minimalist approach may just not be for everybody, I acknowledge. If you’re looking for the camera that does it all and lets you take control of the imaging experience in a more direct way, the Galaxy S9 absolutely will not disappoint - it’s great. Not to mention, that telephoto camera can certainly be useful.

Anyway, I’ll let the sample photos tell the rest of the still image story.

And for those of you wondering about the f/2.4 versus the f/1.5 mode outside of low light, I’d advise you to just let the camera decide which aperture setting to use. The f/2.4 is almost definitely going to yield sharper images, and that’s just down to optics. So, if you’ve got the light and a steady hand, there’s really no need for the f/1.5 setting. If things are dark, though, you’ll certainly be glad it’s there. Samsung says the f/1.5 aperture mode will activate if ambient light is detected as being below 100 lux. If you’re wondering, 100 lux isn’t all that dark speaking in absolute terms, so I wouldn’t worry about the phone not switching down to the faster aperture at night. It should do so pretty reliably, and it’s worked well for me during my testing.

Performance

The Galaxy S9 is the first phone on sale to use Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 845 chipset, and as such, all eyes will be on it to see how the new silicon fares. (As a side note, we don’t have the international Exynos variant, and while that new chip does benchmark insanely well, there remain major questions about its real-world performance chops.)

My experience with the Galaxy S9 in the first week of use has been quite good in regard to performance. Of course, anyone who’s used a Samsung phone in recent years might tell you that while the phones are fast out of the box, that feeling tends to fade considerably with time - and I still found that true of the Galaxy S8. But it seems Samsung may be turning over a new leaf, according to our senior editor Ryan Whitwam, starting with the Note8: that phone has remained fast in the months since he started using it, and I’ve seen few long-term performance complaints on the web.

The S9 is already noticeably snappier than even a brand-new Galaxy S8 or Note8, and so I’m hoping that Samsung’s reputation for slowdown over time is one that we can finally get past. I’ll continue using the S9+ for a while after this review just to see how it ages.

As you may know, Samsung sets its smartphones to a logical resolution of 1080p by default, despite the fact that Samsung phones have been using Quad HD panels since the Galaxy Note 4... in 2014. Samsung claims this is for performance reasons. This is silly - LG, Google, and Apple don’t do this - why does Samsung? I set my S9 to QHD+ resolution after the first day using it for two reasons. First, I don't game on my smartphone, meaning a higher resolution will carry essentially zero battery penalty. Second, the Adreno 630 GPU is the most powerful graphics chip Qualcomm has ever produced, and it should easily be able to handle rendering the OS at that resolution without any hiccups whatsoever. When I switched resolution modes, the phone felt no slower to me, and I’ve had it on QHD+ since.

Why have a Quad HD phone if you're never going to use the pixels? VR is a lame reason.

The current benchmark for smartphone performance in the Android world is undoubtedly the Pixel 2. With Google working closely with… Google to optimize the phone’s performance and deeply integrate with Android to enhance the user experience, it’s little wonder that the Pixels set that practical performance bar. How does the Galaxy S9 stack up? For the most part, very well.

The S9 can load some apps noticeably faster than the Pixel, and web pages consistently finish loading more quickly. Task switching on the S9 is insanely fast, and it’s been very hard to make the phone feel like it’s bogging down. The Snapdragon 845 and Samsung’s various performance tweaks seem to be working well: this is a speedy phone.

There are a few areas where I feel it doesn’t quite live up to Google’s phone. First, animations jump and start a bit more; they feel less progressive and slightly more janky. Second, scrolling just doesn’t feel as good. Google’s scrolling algorithm is the best on any Android phone I’ve ever used, and while Samsung’s is good, it’s still not as responsive as what you get with a Pixel. These things are, though, obviously very minor nitpicks. The Galaxy S9 is definitely going to best the Pixel 2 for gaming, outright single-thread performance (important for things like browsing), and LTE networks speeds (assuming your operator supports all the needed features). With newer, more powerful silicon, these things are a given, but they’re still worth pointing out.

Taken as a whole, the Galaxy S9 feels like an extremely competent smartphone from a performance perspective, and it’s the fastest Samsung phone I’ve ever used. Sure, it doesn’t have the insane, sped-up feeling of the OnePlus 5T or the Pixel 2’s extremely natural scrolling, but it’s very fast to respond and act when asked. If your very reasonable concern was that Samsung had avoided speeding up its new phones in order to maximize their battery life or increase bloat, I think you can rest easy. This generation actually has seen a considerable boost in overall performance.

Testing notes

This section will just contain some of my more anecdotal and random observations about the Galaxy S9+. Some of these may be mentioned elsewhere, but consider it a summary of things I considered interesting or notable.

  • Glove mode is back - kind of. The Galaxy S9 has a toggle to increase touch sensitivity for screen protectors, but it works OK with leather gloves, too.
  • For whatever reason, Samsung has removed the grayscale display mode from the Galaxy S9.
  • Always-on display now turns off entirely when the phone is in your pocket, instead of just dimming.
  • There’s no visual indicator for the home key on the always-on display anymore, but the hard-press function is still present.
  • The Galaxy S8 and Note8 both seem to support it, too, but the S9+ charges quickly with my Pixel 2’s USB-PD charger.
  • Intelligent scan (Samsung’s riff on Face ID) would be more useful if the S9 had a raise-on-wake feature, but it doesn’t.
  • The curved screen is still prone to accidental touches at the edges - I’d have to get a case just to avoid this.
  • The new location of the fingerprint scanner is good, but it’s still not very easy to feel out.
  • Iris scan on the S9 does seem faster than on the S8 or Note8, but that’s just my gut feeling after using it, not something I’ve measured.
  • Samsung still puts the soft navigation keys in the backwards order by default, so you’ll probably want to change that.
  • Samsung’s launcher is pretty good, and it gets a few new options on the S9 like toggles for unread badges, automatically adding newly installed apps to the homescreen, and an orientation toggle.
  • Oreo features like collapsed notifications, notification channels, and autofill (set to Samsung Pass by default - you’ll need to switch to Google if you want to) just make using a Samsung phone a little nicer.
  • Samsung’s crazy “Max power saving” mode is still pretty unmatched for extending your phone’s battery life, though you have to dig through some annoying settings to even find it.
  • Samsung’s browser (Samsung Internet) is worth a look if you haven’t checked it out - it has tons of features and is pretty slick.

Software

In this section, I’ll be going through some of the Galaxy S9’s new software features, ending with a more general analysis of Samsung’s newest TouchWiz revision. For the purpose of what constitutes “new” software in this review, I am comparing the Galaxy S9 to a Galaxy Note8 running Android 7.1.1 (we don’t have an S8 with Oreo, unfortunately).

AR Emoji

Hah. I’m kidding. I’m not going to subject you to that. AR Emoji is bad and weird and Samsung should feel bad for doing it.

Trust me, I am sparing you.

Samsung, you’ve grown up - you’re not the company that shamelessly copies every gimmick Apple hand-feeds its fans every year anymore. You’re better than this. Just don’t.

Bixby

Bixby now can recognize food and makeup.

I’m not kidding.

“Makeup mode delivers similar levels of analysis and convenience, allowing the Galaxy S9 to recognize the kinds of makeup that the person in the camera is wearing, and providing direct links to websites that sell them.”

Bixby doesn’t actually do much new in this latest update - it basically just adds some existing features to the camera app (like live translation). What is new is generally very gimmicky (see: food and makeup), and Bixby itself hasn’t undergone any kind of major transformation. It’s still Bixby, it still doesn’t do much, and you’ll still probably want to turn it off!

Bixby, go home. No, not that home. Damnit, Bixby.

Bandwagon Samsung is worst Samsung.

Intelligent scan (face and iris unlock)

Intelligent scan is Samsung’s way of combining its existing face and iris unlock methods into a single authentication tool. The simplest way to think of it is this: the phone will now scan for both your irises and your face when this feature is enabled. If one doesn’t work, it’ll try the other. Either alone is enough to unlock your phone. The idea here is that if you don’t have enough light for face unlock, iris unlock will work fine. And if the glare or angle don’t work for iris unlock, face unlock will take over.

If you were hoping this was Samsung’s version of Face ID, it really isn’t. It’s just taking two existing unlock methods - one secure, one not - and making it so you don’t have to choose between them. And you can still have fingerprint unlock enabled when intelligent scan is on, too.

The thing to note is that face unlock is a non-secure authentication mode, meaning you can’t use it for things like NFC payments or Samsung Pass. You’ll need your irises or fingerprints for that.

Launcher

Samsung’s launcher gets a few near features this go-around, and given it’s a pretty good launcher in its own right, I think they’re worth highlighting. Basically, you’re getting three new toggles.

First, app badges (icon unread counters) now can be turned off in the homescreen settings, which is great. App badges are evil and need to go away. They’re unhelpful and clutter the interface.

Second, the homescreen can now be configured to go into landscape mode when the phone is rotated. That’s neat - I know some people do like this, especially those who use their phones with kickstand cases.

Third, you can have newly-installed apps automatically add an icon to the homescreen. I don’t particularly like this, but given that dragging an icon out of the app drawer on Samsung’s launcher is kind of a pain in the butt, I can understand why some people might want this.

Oreo

If you want to understand how Oreo will change the software experience on your Samsung phone, I suggest checking out our Android O Feature Spotlight series. Many of these changes won’t apply to your phone, of course, but there are a good deal that do, even if some are “under the hood” sort of things. I’ll give you a quick rundown of a few that matter.

Notification channels are a major step forward for managing notification spam on Android. You can control them from an app’s info page in the app settings area of your phone, and some Samsung apps (like Galaxy Apps and Samsung Internet) have even started to implement them, allowing you to enable or disable certain categories of notifications at will. Oreo also offers more compact persistent and low-priority notifications to make better use of your notification shade’s real estate.

Autofill is a huge one. Android Oreo has an autofill API that can work with Google, LastPass, or Samsung’s own Samsung Pass (among other services) to automatically fill in your login or other credentials on your phone. Samsung Pass is set as the default on the S9 (it’s great for a few reasons, like the fact it works with iris scan or your fingerprint scanner), but I personally have been using the Pixels so long that Google’s is the only way to go for me. This makes setting up a new phone so much easier, provided your last phone ran Oreo, too.

Picture in picture video finally came to Android in Oreo, and popular apps like Netflix and YouTube support the feature. Samsung’s had this in its own stock video player app for years, but native platform support in Android now means you get it on non-Samsung apps as of Oreo. It’s super convenient.

There’s more, including stuff that really isn’t user-facing like background execution limits, but those are three big ones that are worth checking out. Autofill, in particular, is one to get set up - if you don’t know that your next phone will be a Samsung, you’ll probably want to switch to another provider before you start setting everything up and entering all your credentials. Otherwise, you’ll just end up doing it again when you buy your next phone if it isn’t a Galaxy.

Software overall

Samsung hasn’t changed its latest incarnation of TouchWiz all that much for Android Oreo. The company once synonymous with software feature creep seems to be taking a much more careful view of how and when to introduce new features, though I’d hardly call TouchWiz “light.”

Bixby, which is nearly useless, is integrated deeply into the launcher, camera, and hardware (button) of the S9. Samsung wants us to believe it’s going all-in on a “serious” AI and voice assistant platform, but I just don’t see it. Bixby is exactly what I’d expect of the old Samsung: a half-baked copycat feature that gets little attention after its big launch, and with no clear direction forward. Bixby, then, is the definition of bloat: it offers nothing, takes up a lot, and is generally annoying. AR Emoji is stupid, but at least it’s easily ignored. Bixby is something you actively have to disentangle yourself from, be it by switching launchers or disabling the hardware key… which you then can’t use for anything else, ever. That feels a little user-hostile.

But, on the whole, Samsung’s software is good. Sure, not everything is where you’d find it in stock Android, but Samsung does bring a lot of its own stuff to the table. Samsung Pay is genuinely useful and convenient. Samsung Internet is a very good mobile browser. Samsung’s file explorer is pretty solid, and Secure Folder is a good app to have if you need it. Samsung Health integrates well with the company’s wearables and is fairly fully-featured. Samsung Pass is a great password manager, provided you only use Samsung phones.

I would never say Samsung’s additions to Android are useless. On the contrary, I think that by avoiding gimmicks and focusing more on its core ecosystem, Samsung is starting to make good on the argument that there are reasons customers would want to stick with a Samsung phone from one generation to the next. Granted, I think the reasons are still fairly small when placed next to the reasons you might want to stick with, say, Google’s services, but at least they’re trying.

The one area I still have to give Samsung miserably low marks is software updates. While security updates do come reasonably often for many of its phones, Android platform updates are painfully slow to arrive, especially here in the US. By the time the first Galaxy S9 orders arrive with customers here in the US, most S8, S8+, and Note8 owners will still not have Oreo on their phones. Most won’t even have any idea when it’s coming. That’s ridiculous. Samsung isn’t even shipping the S9 with the latest version of Oreo (Android 8.1), despite the fact that it’s been available since the end of 2017.

You will probably not see that top number change for... a while.

Samsung doesn’t make promises in regard to how long it will support its handsets, how many Android platform updates they’ll get, or how speedily they’ll receive them. The reason Samsung can get away with this is that they are the juggernaut - Samsung doesn’t have to care. That’s sad, and it’s frustrating. But, you can’t say you don’t know what you’re getting into.

And maybe Project Treble will finally, mercifully, speed things up. Can’t say I’m holding my breath.

Value

At $720 and $840 here in the US, respectively, the Galaxy S9 and S9+ are not cheap. Still, Samsung’s asking $30 less than a Pixel 2 XL for the S9+, and if you’re buying today, it’s very unclear to me why you’d take the Google phone. The Galaxy S9 offers newer silicon with better network performance, a huge aftermarket accessory network, is available on basically any carrier, and has some notable feature advantages (headphone jack, wireless charging, Samsung Pay).

If you’re looking at making your next smartphone purchase in the near future, I don’t think it’s going to get much better than this in the premium segment. And Samsung’s pricing, while high, does actually seem pretty fair when you consider what you’re getting. For the person who wants the most powerful, most fully-featured Android phone you can buy today, the Galaxy S9 and S9+ are hard to beat.

If you’re wondering whether Samsung is doing enough to keep its distance from the likes of OnePlus, Xiaomi, or other manufacturers pushing flagship-tier specifications at bargain-basement prices, that’s going to be a more personal question. But nothing about these new Samsung phones says “rip-off” to me. The fact that you can actually buy them, and almost anywhere, is another huge advantage for Samsung. The only real question is which color you want.

Conclusion

The nice thing about the Galaxy S9 and S9+ is that they hold very few mysteries. Go back to our review of the S8 twins last year, and the majority of what you’ll read there applies here. The Galaxy S8 and S8+ were great phones, and the S9 and S9+ are better versions of them. That’s not to say they’re hugely better - they’re definitely the “tick” to the S8’s “tock.” And, I think, that’s fine. If you’re coming from a 2017 phone, though, there’s not a lot here that you’re going to find to be a game-changer. But if you’re still rocking a Nexus 6P or even a Galaxy S7 edge, the S9 and S9+ will probably impress you - they’re great phones.

I have little doubt that 2019 will bring far bigger changes to Samsung’s flagship lineup. For now, though, the S9 does give us some much-needed tweaks while still clearly commanding the larger Android smartphone market. It’s the first phone with a Snapdragon 845. It’s the only one with an iris scanner. It defiantly, proudly hangs onto the headphone jack. I don’t think Samsung is hurting for a narrative here: there are plenty of reasons to buy its phones. And while I can’t say the S9 strikes a particularly strong chord in me - profound or pugnacious - I think that’s OK.

The S9 and S9+ are damn good, and I’m giving them our Most Wanted award. They may not be revolutionary, but when you’re at the top of your game, you don’t need to rewrite the rules every year.

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