The first new flagship phones of 2018 are here and the Samsung Galaxy S9 is the first to hit the market. The S8 was almost a perfect phone so can Samsung really make it even better? Our review and testing shows that it can, but not by much.
With LG and Huawei failing to launch new flagship smartphones at MWC 2018, more focus is on Samsung and focus is an apt word here as the Galaxy S9 is largely about new and improved camera technology. Also read our Samsung Galaxy S9+ review.
Price and release date
Black Friday deal: You can get £140 off the Galaxy S9 in Samsung’s sale.
You can buy the Galaxy S9 now although anyone who pre-ordered will have had the phone a week ahead of the 16 March release date.
As per rumours ahead of the launch, the price has increased to £739/US$719 which is £50 more than its predecessor. Ok, so it’s a lot of money, but it remains a cheaper than some rivals. The iPhone 8 is cheaper at £699/$699, but is arguably only just about worth that amount and is last year’s model.
There will also be a global trade-in program so you can upgrade from an older Galaxy phone. You can find out more here.
Design and build
It’s immediately clear that the Galaxy S9 is very much a new version of the Galaxy S8, rather than a radically new device. Like a point upgrade in software terms if you like so this is essentially the ‘Galaxy S8.1’ or ‘Galaxy S8s’.
With an almost identical design to its predecessor, you’d be hard pressed to notice which one is the Galaxy S9. The front has had only minor tweaks: the bezels above and below the screen are a fraction smaller. It’s not that obvious, but you’ve got to bear in mind the S8 already had very small bezels.
The Galaxy S9 is a little shorter than the S8 and it’s actually a bit thicker and heavier at 8.5mm and 163g, but neither measurements are things you’ll really notice.
At the back, the change is more obvious with the fingerprint scanner moving to below the camera. Samsung clearly listened to feedback on this so not only does it look nicer, it’s also much easier to reach and use. You might still smudge the camera up occasionally but it’s bound to happen far less.
There’s actually not much else to say about the Galaxy S9 in terms of design and build since it’s so similar to last year’s model. The overall look and feel is the same with a sleek combination of metal and glass. There’s still a pressure sensitive home button embedded in the screen and a dedicated button on the left side for summoning Bixby.
It feels nice to hold but is a slippery phone due to the glass rear cover. The design, particularly the curved edges of the front glass make it more susceptible to cracks than a more traditional shape. Here’s our round up of the best Galaxy S9 cases to keep your S9 smudge free and protected.
Also see: Samsung Galaxy S8 vs Galaxy S9
It’s now, since the S8, standard for both models to have the display with curved edges and Samsung has made sure to retain key features like the IP68 waterproof rating and the headphone jack.
This year there are three colours to choose from: Midnight Black, Coral Blue and a new Lilac Purple. There’s also a Titanium Gray option and this is now available in the UK exclusively from Carphone Warehouse – you can get it for as little as £499.
Specs and features
So Galaxy S9 isn’t very different in design so is it a big jump in specs and new technology? Well not really but Samsung has made improvement to what was already a very impressive smartphone.
It may be good news to you – it is to us – that Samsung has not gone down the same route as Apple with a notch at the top of the screen. In fact, the display is one area that hasn’t changed since the Galaxy S8, so it’s still 5.8in on the regular model and jumps to 6.2in if you get the Galaxy S9+.
As mentioned earlier both phones have the curved Infinity Display so you only really need to choose which size you want – the S9+ does have different camera technology and a couple of other benefits, though (see below).
Samsung is sticking to its 18.5:9 aspect ratio, Quad HD+ resolution and Super AMOLED technology. It’s still one of the best screens on the market and compared to our Galaxy S8, looks a little brighter, too.
See our list of best Galaxy S9 screen protectors.
As previously, you can take advantage of features like Edge screen – where you can swipe in from the side and flick through various panels of things like popular contacts, apps and more. There’s also the always on feature which displays important information on the lockscreen when the phone is off.
There are plenty more smaller features, many of which have been around a long time, hidden away in the settings menu so it’s worth exploring what the S9 can do – especially if this is your first Galaxy device.
Processor, memory and storage
With a new flagship comes a new processor and Samsung has fitted the Galaxy S9 with a new Exynos 9810 chip. It’s still an octa-core chip with four 1.7GHz efficiency cores but the faster four have jumped from 2.4- to 2.7GHz.
Some markets will come with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 instead; something Samsung has done for a while in the US and China.
As you can see from the benchmark results, the Exynos outpaces the Snapdragon 845 a little bit (figures via Qualcomm’s reference design), but neither can match the raw power of the iPhone’s A11. We’ve included the OnePlus 5T so you can get an idea of the performance on offer at a much lower price.
It’s important to note that performance isn’t an issue here and the S9 is clearly capable of handling all you can throw at it.
Like the Galaxy S8, you get 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage and although you can find more elsewhere (even in cheaper phones like the OnePlus 5T) it should be enough for most people. If it’s not enough storage then there’s a 256GB option and a microSD card slot which can now take up to 400GB.
If you are more of a power user, then the S9+ has 6GB of RAM and double the amount of storage as standard.
Connectivity and Audio
There’s not much Samsung or other manufacturers can do to improve connectivity on a 2018 flagship smartphone. Like the S8, the Galaxy S9 has all the things you’d expect including 11ac dual-band Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, NFC, GPS, USB-C and a headphone port.
Unlike most, Samsung continues to offer heart rate monitor. The S9 can reach 4G speeds of 1.2Gbps which is impressive, but in real life you’re not going to see that kind of grunt.
There’s no Quad DAC for better headphone audio like the LG V30, but Samsung has improved the speakers on the S9. There are now stereo speakers with the usual down firing one on the bottom and now one where the earpiece is above the screen.
It’s the same setup Apple uses for recent iPhones, and also one Sony has adopted with the XZ2.
It might sound a little odd with both firing in different directions but we’ll take it over a mono speaker any day. There’s still tuning from AKG and this time Samsung has also added Dolby Atmos which you can toggle for a bigger, more spacious soundscape.
There’s a noticable improvement compared to the S8, particularly in the on-board speakers. They’ve got a lot more power but aren’t flawless with the audio quality getting a bit rough at higher volumes. We do like the optional Dolby Atmos mode, which can make content a lot more immersive – especially video.
It’s worth noting that the supplied AKG headphones are once again very good, so most users won’t be rushing out to find a replacement pair.
Samsung’s upgrades in the audio department are welcome, but the S9 isn’t the best phone around for audio – that’s still the LG V30.
Fingerprint and Iris scanners
As mentioned earlier the fingerprint scanner has been moved to a more convenient location below the camera. It’s also easier to register each new finger according to Samsung with only three swipes rather than many more touches needed previously.
We actually managed to register two fingers in just two swipes each. The fingerprint scanner is quick (not the fastest around but plenty fast enough) and accurate and can now be used to pull the notification panel down – just switch it on in the settings.
We’d rather the Galaxy S9 had the fingerprint scanner embedded in the screen as the tech is out there but it seems we’ll have to wait for that.
Samsung hasn’t explicitly said the iris scanner is better than before which is a shame but it keen to point out that it’s embedded in the front of the phone without a notch like the iPhone X. There’s also a new Intelligent Scan option which combines iris and facial scanning.
One thing is for sure, there’s a dramatic improvement over previous iterations. Generally it works quite well, but it’s not as consistent compared to rival phones just doing face unlock. Even switching to just facial scanning it’s not as good as phones like the iPhone X and OnePlus 5T.
The biggest change on the Galaxy S9 comes in the camera tech, as teased by Samsung before the launch with its ‘The Camera. Reimagined’ campaign.
Sadly it’s the Galaxy S9 that’s not as impressive as you’ll have to get the S9+ to get a dual-camera setup. We’d like to see dual-cameras as standard on both phones but it’s understandable that Samsung wants more than just size to differentiate the two.
Still, the S9’s camera is improved from before even though it remains at 12Mp with 1.4µm pixels and OIS. The main upgrade is an adjustable aperture that can automatically switch between f/2.4 and f/1.5 depending on the shooting conditions – the fastest of any phone on the market.
Huawei temporarily had the fastest lenses (on the Mate 10 Pro) at f/1.6, but the S9’s lens now lets in 28 percent more light than on the S8.
The iris is mechanical like DSLR camera and should mean better results in both daylight and low light. What Samsung calls the ‘Super Speed Dual Pixel’ package now has DRAM so it can do things faster and more intelligently. The camera now takes 12 shots together instead of 3 to improve noise by 30 percent.
DxO has awarded the Galaxy S9+ a score of 99 for the camera, the highest of a phone to date. The regular model might not have the telephoto lens but it’s still excellent on its own.
Check out out gallery below where you can see how the S9 coped in a range of different conditions. The phone might not be doing the same level of clever software processing that makes images look great on the Pixel 2 phones but it’s still very impressive.
Overall, the S9 has a camera that can achieve excellent results in all conditions partly thanks to that dual aperture. You get crisp shots in decent light – although some can be a little washed out like our shot of St.Pancras -, stunning detail in macro and most noteworthy is how well the S9 copes in low light, without excessive levels of noise.
In the gallery you’ll see an extreme low light shot, which if taken on other phones is essentially a blackout. There’s no doubt that the S9 offers a fantastic all-round photography experience.
We’re still not totally convinced by Bixby but the camera part, Bixby Vision, has been improved and is quickly accessible from the camera app. It can now do live translation, better place recognition and more food features such as calories and recipes. The latter will be market dependent.
Super slow motion
Furthermore, the S9 can now match Sony’s flagship Xperia phones and shoot super slow motion video at a whopping 960fps. That means 0.2 seconds in real life becomes six seconds of video and Samsung has some clever tech to make it easier to make great slow motion videos.
With Sony’s phones we found it hard to press the super slow mo button at the right time while recording a video of something that happens very quickly like a balloon popping. Since 960fps can only be switched on in a short burst, it’s easy to miss the moment.
The S9 has an auto detect function so you can tell the phone where within the shot to watch for movement. As soon as it does, it will kick into the super slow motion. You can then share as a gif, do things like reverse the video and even set it as a moving lockscreen wallpaper.
You can also shoot in manual mode, selecting when you want to do the slow motion shooting which is easier for some situations. In either mode, you can shoot 20 different slow mo sections within one video.
Sony’s new Xperia XZ2 phones might be able to do 960fps in 1080p now but we’d rather have the functionality offered by the S9 to make better content in 720p.
There’s more to talk about with the front camera which remains at 8Mp with an f/1.7 aperture but on the software side Samsung has created AR Emoji to provide users with something similar to Apple’s Animoji feature.
Instead of the phone tracking your face to animate various animals and the like (although there are some to choose from), you take a photo of yourself and the S9 will create an emoji that looks like you.
It’s quick and easy but we’re not exactly blown away with the likeness (and it cannot handle beards at all) – the three men we got to try it were all given very similar characters. You can edit them a bit to help and choose from one that incorporates the selfie you took or a more cartoon option.
Once you’re done 18 animated gifs are automatically generated and you can send them to anyone, not just those who also happen to have an S9. They’re pretty cool and really easy to access via the default keyboard.
However, one of the ideas is that you can animate the character yourself but doing this is extremely glitchy and the emoji of you spends most of the time flinching. The tracking on the iPhone X is leagues ahead.
It might be fun but let’s face it, this is another gimmick feature just like Animoji.
It’s a shame the battery remains at 3,000mAh and Samsung has not made any claims on the subject. The Galaxy S9 will offer fast charging via the USB-C port and with wireless charging, though.
With the supplied charger, we managed to charge the S9 from 0 to 36 percent in 30 minutes. That’s pretty good, although the HTC U11+ beats it slightly at 38 percent.
With no change in battery capacity, it’s no surprise that the phone isn’t going to last you any longer than before. The S9 will last a day of average usage and perhaps a little bit longer for light users. Fast wired and wireless charging will help you keep it topped up.
Software and apps
As you would expect, the Galaxy S9 phones come with Android 8 Oreo and Samsung own user interface. There’s not a huge change in the way things work compared to previously but that’s to be expected.
There are still pre-loaded apps from Google and Microsoft, but Samsung has made a few tweaks here and there to tighten up the experience.
For those using various different Samsung apps for other devices, you’ll be pleased to know that there’s now one app to rule them all. SmartThings is now the one place where you can manage all your devices and it will also do useful things like provide your new Samsung TV, for example, with the Wi-Fi details and logins to all your services.
As mentioned already, there are improvements to Bixby (which still has a dedicated button on the side of the phone.
One of the main changes is that you can now use the phone in landscape mode, whether you’re browsing the homescreen panels or your apps. When you are, notifications will pop up at the top but in an unintrusive way.
There’s also a new DeX Pad dock so you can connect the phone to a monitor and use it like a PC. This time it’s flat so you can use the screen as a trackpad or even keyboard.