One week with the Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9+: A review in progress

The S9 retails at $1,198, while the S9+ with 256GB of storage space is Samsung's most expensive phone to date, coming in at $1,498.
The S9 retails at $1,198, while the S9+ with 256GB of storage space is Samsung's most expensive phone to date, coming in at $1,498.ST PHOTO: LESTER HIO

SINGAPORE - Samsung's latest flagships, the Galaxy S9 and S9+, don't meddle with the winning design formula of last year's successful S8 and S8+ smartphones.

Instead, the South Korean tech giant has stuck with what is their best smartphone design to date, and made improvements primarily to the phones' camera while also pushing hardware to up to speed.

The S9 smartphones, which will be launched in Singapore on March 16, look fundamentally identical to their predecessors, retaining the edge-to-edge, bezel-less look that made the S8 such a fan favourite.

After a week of using the S9 and S9+, it's safe to say the phones lives up to the premium quality Samsung flagships are known for.

But the phones' high prices may be hard for users to take, considering that they feel more like upgrades to last year's S8 phones instead of being game-changing flagships.

The S9 retails at $1,198, while the S9+ with 256GB of storage space is Samsung's most expensive phone to date, coming in at $1,498.

What users do get, for what they pay, is a souped-up, more advanced smartphone in a S8 body, with one of the best smartphone cameras in today's market.

DESIGN

The S9 continues to sport a 5.8-inch display, while the S9+ has a 6.2-inch screen, both in the same 18.5:9 ratio that Samsung pioneered last year.

Both by default are tuned to full high-definition (HD), adjustable to quad-HD if you so desire. The screen, as per Samsung's exacting standards, is once again the standout feature of both new phones.

The Super Amoled display continues to be a thing of beauty, with great brightness, colour vibrancy and impeccable detail. Crank it up to the max and the screen is viewable even under the harsh midday sun.

Both phones in the S9 line are slightly shorter and just a little wider than their predecessors. The size difference isn't all that noticeable between the S8 and S9, but there is a discernible difference holding the S8+ and S9+. The additional 0.5mm of width gives the S9+ just that extra bit of grip to make it snug and grippy in hand.

The divisive Bixby button, which fires up Samsung's own digital assistant is once again present at the phone's left side under the volume controls.

The most useful cosmetic change is the shift in place of the fingerprint sensor, from beside the rear camera in the S8 to under the camera instead.

It's a more natural position that your index finger rests yet, and also reduces the chances of smudging the rear camera lens.

On the plus side, Samsung updated its fingerprint registration process, making it much faster and easier to set up now. Instead of mashing your finger in all sorts of positions multiple times on the sensor, you now just swipe down on the new sensor a few times - a quicker, easier method.

The S9 comes in black, blue and a new lilac pink colour. I expect the lilac pink to be a hot favourite because it's one of the most distinctive colours in the series for those looking for a phone that stands out.

A pleasant surprise on the S9 phones is that the top speaker grille also functions as a front-facing speaker, giving both phones effectively stereo speakers.

Even though the bottom speaker is still downward-facing, it's much better than having only one speaker.

There are also massive upgrades under the hood, starting with the speedy new Exynos 9810 processor, based on the latest Snapdragon 845 chipset.

It's currently the most advanced chip in the market today, which has greater computing power and better energy efficiency. This translates to better performance and longer battery life.

Another key change to the S9+ is that it comes with 6GB of RAM, up from 4GB in the S8+, making it in line with the Note8.

CAMERA CHANGES

The biggest change Samsung made to the phones are camera improvements, with several new modes added to them as well as upgraded camera performance.

The smaller S9 keeps the single-lens setup on the rear, while the S9+ gets an upgrade over the S8+ by now having two rear cameras, like the Galaxy Note8.

The S9+'s dual cameras let it take Live Focus shots, where the subject is in focus but the background is blurred. But S9 users get a taste of the feature as well, with a Selective Focus mode which digitally simulates the bokeh effect.

By default, photos turn out clear and detailed, with accurate colour reproduction for the most part. With high dynamic range (HDR) turned on, photos becomes slightly over-saturated and vivid, which help them to pop on a phone display but might be too unnatural for those who prefer a warmer, more natural look.

 

A new long-requested for pro mode gives users full manual control over the smartphone camera, allowing them to change anything from shutter speed to manual focus.

Samsung's camera app has also been updated. The various shooting modes show up on the top of the screen, and users can swipe left or right to quickly move between the different modes. It's a much more convenient and useful interface which gives you quicker access to modes like slow-motion, hyperlapse or Live focus instead of hitting a settings button to toggle between modes.

But the swiping can affect other options as well. It feels like Samsung has integrated so many swiping gestures into the camera app that it's easy to accidentally swipe into a different mode while attempting to do something else.

I've swiped away from Pro mode into Panorama mode countless times, for example, while trying to adjust my shutter speed because I missed the swipe on the shutter reel and hit the main shooting screen instead.

VARIABLE APERTURE

Both S9 and S9+ smartphones, however, now have a variable aperture on their rear camera which shifts between an aperture size of f/2.4 and f/1.5.

When the S9's camera is set to Auto mode, the aperture automatically switches to the bigger f/1.5 one while in low light. This gives the S9 better picture quality while in low light, and where the biggest impact of the S9's camera changes are likely to be felt.

Going wide open at the biggest aperture gives the S9 smartphones some serious low-light shooting capability, keeping noise to a minimum while retaining detail.

Pictures taken in low light get brightened considerably. Test shots in a dim karaoke joint, for instance, appeared to have been taken in a space much brighter than it actually was.

If you want to use that in regular lighting, you can trigger it manually in Pro mode as well.

Under natural lighting, the smaller f/2.4 aperture ensures that shots come out nice and sharp throughout, with little of the softening effect that accompanies a wider aperture.

SUPER SLOW MOTION

Another new feature to the Galaxy S9 smartphones is the ability to record super slow-motion footage in 960 frames per second (fps).

This isn't a new feature to smartphones in general, as Sony smartphones have had the ability to record in slow-motion in similar fps since last April's Xperia XZs smartphone.

  • TECH SPECS

  • Samsung Galaxy S9

    PRICE: $1,198

    PROCESSOR: Exynos 9810 (Quad-core 2.8GHz, Quad-core 1.7GHz )

    DISPLAY: 5.8-inch Quad HD+ Super Amoled, 2,960 x 1,440, 570 PPI pixel density

    OPERATING SYSTEM: Android 8.0

    CAMERA: 12MP dual pixel, f/1.5 - f/2.4 (rear); 8MP, f/1.7 (front)

    MEMORY: 64GB (microSD expandable up to 400GB); 4GB RAM

    BATTERY: Non-removable 3,000 mAh

  • Samsung Galaxy S9+

    PRICE: from $1,348 ($1,498 for 256GB version)

    PROCESSOR: Exynos 9810 (Quad-core 2.8GHz, Quad-core 1.7GHz )

    DISPLAY: 6.2-inch Quad HD+ Super Amoled, 2,960 x 1,440, 529 PPI pixel density

    OPERATING SYSTEM: Android 8.0

    CAMERA: 12MP, f/1.5 - f/2.4 wide-angle, 12MP, f/2.4 telephoto (rear); 8MP, f/1.7 (front)

    MEMORY: 64GB / 256GB (microSD expandable up to 400GB); 6GB RAM

    BATTERY: Non-removable 3,500 mAh

The S9 comes with a more shooter-friendly feature of automatic motion detection which begins to record slow-motion the instant the camera detects motion within the sensor box.

Taking a slow-motion video in a dimly lit restaurant of a cube of sugar dropping into a cup of tea required additional lighting in the form of two other smartphone flashlights beaming down on the subject proper.

As with all slow-motion features, the super slo-mo on the S9 is best suited for outdoor, natural lighting, or under harsh, fluorescent indoor lighting directly on what you want to film.

AR EMOJI

Taking a not-so-subtle leaf out of Apple's book, the S9 and S9+ give users the ability to create AR Emoji - custom animated emojis based on the users themselves.

Creating these uncanny little avatars is a breeze. Once done, users can record themselves saying things while their digital selves move their lips to it, which can then be saved and sent.

The S9 phones also automatically generates 18 animated GIFs of your AR Emoji expressing host of emotions from anger to excitement, which can be saved and best used to annoy friends and enemies alike by sending them in chat apps.

At best, this gimmick provides some initial entertainment before users move on from them to other ways of expressing themselves.

For a more in-depth review of the Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9+, check back on the Tech section in the March 14 issue of The Straits Times.