Phone or computer? Samsung closes in on phone as PC dream

Top-notch specs, revamped S Pen among highlights of new Galaxy Note9

The newly unveiled Samsung flagship - the Galaxy Note9 - may boast largely incremental upgrades when compared with its predecessors, but the phone still presents some clear indications about the direction the South Korean tech giant wants to move in as it continues to seek an edge in a competitive market.

By boosting every key phone specification - from screen size to memory to battery capacity - as well as including functions that can mimic a desktop, Samsung is presenting a vision of a device that can one day replace a computer.

To pull it off, Samsung needs a phone that is as - or more - powerful than anything else on the market and so has packed the Note9 with top-grade components.

The 6.4-inch Note9 uses a 4,000mAh battery, up 21 per cent in terms of battery capacity from the Note8; it has doubled internal storage from that of its predecessor, with a basic 128GB model and a high-end 512GB model; and it is offering a model with 8GB of RAM.

The result is a phone that, during my first hands-on experience with it, was able to handle everything I could throw at it.

I played the popular, if resource-demanding, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds survival shooter game for a while and found the performance to be really smooth.

By boosting every key phone specification - from screen size to memory to battery capacity - as well as including functions that can mimic a desktop, Samsung is presenting a vision of a device that can one day replace a computer.

When it comes to productivity, plugging the Note9 into a PC monitor turns on a desktop-like interface that Samsung calls DeX. In this mode, the device also serves as a touchpad.

And while the external design hardly looks different from last year's Note8, save for a welcome repositioning of the fingerprint sensor, this year's phone is slightly larger - presumably to accommodate the beefier internals.

The Note9 is slightly thicker at 8.8mm - an increase of 0.2mm from the Note8. It is also 1.6mm wider and 6g heavier.

However, it is 0.6mm shorter than its predecessor, at 161.9mm. This change is probably due to some complaints that the Note8 is too long.

But the Note series has never been about one-hand use. It has always been about using it with the S Pen stylus.

Speaking of the S Pen - the little stylus that has been a trademark of this series - Samsung appears to have once again found some novel yet useful things to do with it. In fact, most of the biggest changes introduced this year are found in the S Pen.

The pen comes with Bluetooth Low Energy support and charges when you stow it away in the phone.

This allows it to be used as a remote control within a 10m radius. You can also use the S Pen as a clicker for slide presentations and as a remote control to pause and play videos.

Plus, you can now use it to activate and control the camera remotely.

Press and hold the S Pen button to launch the camera. Once the camera is on, you click once to take a picture. Double-click to change from the rear camera to the front-facing camera to take a selfie.

I think the camera function will be the most-used feature of the S Pen. I can already imagine using it as a remote shutter-release button when shooting fireworks to minimise camera shake.

In Singapore, the Note9 will come in three colours - Midnight Black, Metallic Copper and Ocean Blue. Unfortunately, for those who like purple, the Lavender Purple model will not be available here.

I like the blue model the most as it looks really striking. But it is the only model that comes with a yellow S Pen, while the other models have an S Pen of a matching colour. A blue stylus with the blue model would have been more apt.

The Note9 does not come cheap. It starts at $1,398 for the 128GB model and goes up to $1,728 for the 512GB model.

Samsung is holding a Note9 preorder promotion in which those who successfully purchase the 128GB Note9 during the pre-order period (till Tuesday, 11.59pm, depending on availability) will be entitled to a free upgrade to the 512GB model at the point of collection or delivery upon full payment. That is savings of $330.

The phone will be available in stores here from Aug 25. Stay tuned for the full review of the Note9 next week.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2018, with the headline 'Samsung closes in on phone as PC dream'. Print Edition | Subscribe