Samsung Galaxy S9+ review: Camera tweaks make for a superb phone
Samsung's Galaxy S9+ is without a doubt an iterative release rather than something truly new, but it's been built on a superb foundation.
- Dual aperture camera works well
- Great application performance
- Landscape icon mode
- Great battery life
- Headphone jack still present
- Fingerprint sensor still tricky to hit
- AR Emoji is a dumb gimmick
- Bixby button can't be easily remapped
As you'd expect, there's a lot of hype around Samsung's new handsets, but then, let's face facts. The vast majority of premium Android handset sales go to Samsung, so it's very much Samsung's market to lose to competitors such as Sony, LG, Huawei or Nokia to name but a few.
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Any of Samsung's competitors would kill to have its market position, and that means its flagship devices really have to deliver to keep wowing the masses.
Hype is one thing, but in a mature smartphone market where the points of differentiation between premium and mid-range devices are blurring with astonishing rapidity, you've got to have something to live up to that hype.
Galaxy S9+ Design
The Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+ (which is what we've had the opportunity to test) have adopted the old "if it ain't broke" mantra when it comes to design because they're very similar to last year's Galaxy S8 family, right down to the 18:9 "infinity edge" displays. Put the two side by side in the same colours, and you would be hard pressed to pick them apart. Still, it's an elegant design that feels good in the hand, and the curves do make it easy to grip as well.
It's only when you flip them over that you see this year's design innovation. Precisely nobody liked the positioning of the Galaxy S8's fingerprint sensor, located to the left of the camera sensor, so for this year's model, it's been shifted to below the sensor instead.
However, this is an improvement that still needs a little refinement. Most Android handsets with rear-mounted fingerprint sensors place them distinctly away from the sensors so they're easy to find without smudging the lens. That's not what Samsung has done because the fingerprint sensor is right beneath the lens with little separation.
The fingerprint sensor on the Galaxy S9+ can optionally be used to open or close the notification tray with an upwards or downwards swipe, and this can be very handy. However, doing so is an easy recipe for finger smudges on the lower lens.
One easy way to minimise this problem is with a case that makes the fingerprint sensor ridge more evident. One nice touch here is that there's one in the box when you buy the Galaxy S9 or Galaxy S9+. It's only a simple TPU clear case, so you could still opt for a third-party model. Either way, a case is a good investment for a premium smartphone because everybody drops their phone at some point.
In physical terms, what you're looking at is a device that measures in at 158.x73.8x8.5mm with a carrying weight of 189g, or 147.7x68.7x8.5mm and a weight of 163g for the smaller Galaxy S9. This year sees the introduction of a new lilac purple colour scheme, although if you want that (or the coral blue) in the higher 256GB capacity, you'll have to get it directly from Samsung Australia.
The standard midnight black colour is available everywhere in 64GB or 256GB variants, and you can get the lilac purple or coral blue with 64GB through retail outlets and carriers as well.
Controls stay consistent to last year's model, which again is a mix of good and bad news. Samsung has stayed the course in keeping a headphone jack present on its premium handsets, and that's a very welcome inclusion, although they'd no doubt be thrilled if you also picked up some Gear IconX headphones to go with the Galaxy S9+ anyway.
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The right side of the Galaxy S9+ houses the power button, while the left features the volume control and the dreaded Bixby button. Yes folks, Samsung is steadfastly pushing forwards with its own AI assistant, and you can't map the button to anything else, although you can disable it.
There will no doubt be hacks around it, but it really would be much more consumer-friendly if Samsung instead opted to give you the choice as to what to use it for.
One very welcome design change is the shift, finally, to stereo speakers on the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+. Yes, there's only so far you can go with stereo in a body this small, but if you do enjoy sharing your tunes, or just inadvertently having that autoplay ad fire up when you're on the train, the Galaxy S9+ will do a fine job of bringing everyone in on the fun.
Galaxy S9+ Camera
Where Samsung's tagline for the S8 family was that it was "unboxing" the phone, the S9 series is meant to be all about "reimagining" the camera. It's the key plank of the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+'s value proposition, although not all the parts of the camera experience are equal.
The clear winner in the "gimmick" stakes has to be Samsung's take on Apple's Animoji, which it has dubbed "AR Emoji". Creating an AR Emoji is a simple enough affair that involves using the Galaxy S9+'s front 8MP f/1.7 camera to take a selfie of yourself. The S9+ then converts that into a cartoon avatar that you can use with a range of pre-defined animated emoji or optionally create your own.
There are a couple of issues here, but the key one is that the faces that AR Emoji creates are terribly generic and highly reminiscent of the avatars that Microsoft tried to force on owners of Xbox 360 consoles, right down to the limited selection of "hip" clothing styles. It's feasible to create a version of yourself that looks mostly like you, but only in a Taiwanese wacky news broadcast kind of way.
Even when you choose to map your own expression, you're limited in the ways that AR Emoji will read your face, including limits on how open your eyes are or where your teeth are positioned. Trying to match your AR Emoji to what you're saying is an exercise in limited functionality.
Sure, you'll probably play with it at first just because it's there. Certainly, when I showed the feature to a number of finder staffers, they were initially wowed, but this was quickly replaced with complaints about the limited visual styles or how badly it handled certain ethnicities.
Samsung might make AR Emoji much more capable in later software, but in its current iteration, will we see a flood of AR Emojis all over the Internet?
The front camera is also used for Samsung's latest take on biometric unlocking, which combines a facial data map and iris scan for what it calls "Intelligent Scan". It's designed to get past the issues of Samsung's simple facial recognition, which isn't terribly secure, and the slower speed of iris scanning.
Intelligent Scan mostly works for unlocking the handset, but like Apple's FaceID, not always, and when it doesn't, you're left wondering why you didn't simply opt for a fingerprint unlock in the first place.
Flipping around to the rear cameras, you come to one of the most significant differences between the Galaxy S9 and the Galaxy S9+ because only the Galaxy S9+ features a dual camera array. Both feature Samsung's new dual aperture camera, but it's only on the Galaxy S9+ that you'll also get the benefit of a 2x optical zoom secondary lens. Given the strong focus on camera features as a key selling point of the new phone experience, it makes the S9+ a much more appealing prospect.
Samsung has also incorporated new slow motion video features in the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+, although, strictly speaking, they're only "new" to Samsung phones. While plenty of phones have offered 240fps slow-mo previously, the Galaxy S9 features 960fps shooting, albeit only for 0.2 seconds at a time, stretched out into a six-second clip.
That's a feature already present on the Sony Xperia XZ Premium, and one that's outdone by the upcoming Sony Xperia XZ2 because that phone will offer shooting at up to 1080p quality, where the Galaxy S9 only allows for 720p video shooting.
Slow motion video can be a lot of fun if you get it right, and the Galaxy S9 attempts to automate this process with a selection square that fires up slow motion if it detects movement within the square.
However, in my tests, this was very hit and miss as to whether it got the moment that was desired. You can opt to manually select when you want the slow motion effect to kick in, and while that has a learning curve, it's generally much better.
Switching to slow motion also requires much better lighting than regular video, so if you're in a darkened area, expect significant noise in your final video. We've assembled some examples of the S9+'s slow motion video prowess below:
Finally, there's the question of still photography using the rear lenses. The Galaxy S8 was no slouch in this regard, but it was essentially just a slightly tweaked version of the camera that was already in the Galaxy S7. Clearly, work needed to be done in the highly competitive premium smartphone space, and the Galaxy S9+ doesn't disappoint.
Samsung's key point of differentiation is in having a variable aperture lens that switches between f/2.4 and f/1.5 to try to capture the sharpest images in any given circumstance. If you're shooting in auto mode, the Galaxy S9+ handles aperture switching automatically, but you can opt for a specific aperture within the camera's pro mode with just a couple of taps.
The Galaxy S9+'s camera performance is exceptional in the right circumstances, although as with any smartphone camera, it's possible to take more ordinary photos as well. Switching between apertures to pick between low light and sharpness works well, and while it's not exactly going to threaten the DSLR market, it shows just how far we've come in smartphone photography. Here's some sample pics taken from the Galaxy S9+:
|Samsung Galaxy S9+ Sample Photos|
Galaxy S9+ Performance
As it has done for the past few generations, Samsung actually produces two different variants for the Galaxy S9/Galaxy S9+ family, utilising either Qualcomm's Snapdragon 845 SoC or its own Exynos 8910 silicon. It's the latter version we'll see in Australia, but some direct importers may offer the Qualcomm variant if you shop that way.
Generally speaking, the Exynos versions of the Galaxy S series phones have tended to sip at the battery a little less than their Qualcomm siblings, but with lower app performance. Lacking both models, I couldn't compare those for this generation. Still, the Galaxy S9+'s general benchmark scores show that it's no slouch in any aspect. Here's how it compares using Geekbench 4's CPU test:
Apple's A11 Bionic still rules the roost when it comes to straight line benchmark speed, but the practical reality here is that even last year's Snapdragon 835 processors are going to fulfil the needs of most users. Where the higher performance of a smartphone like the Galaxy S9+ may have an impact is for those who pair it up with one of Samsung's DeX docks for some desktop-style multitasking.
In gaming performance terms, again the Galaxy S9+ is a serious contender, especially when using the Vulkan API, where it recorded the highest scores we've seen on 3DMark's Slingshot Extreme test. Here's how it compares against a range of premium handsets:
Benchmarks can be a useful comparative tool, but they're never the entire story. The Galaxy S9 runs on Android 8.0 ("Oreo") at launch, which means it's at least up to date. Samsung's track record in Android security updates is quite good, with rapid releases, but less so on the full OS upgrade path, with the Galaxy S8 family still waiting to see Oreo Down Under.
Samsung has played it relatively light in terms of its own inclusions, although you do still oddly get its own apps alongside Google's, which means, for example that the default browser on installation is Samsung's own clunky one, rather than Chrome, which is already present anyway. Still, it's Android, so you can easily switch to your preferred apps with ease.
One very welcome addition is the ability to switch to a full landscape mode for the home screen, making the most of the Galaxy S9+'s 6.2 inch display. Weirdly, though, it's disabled by default, so if you didn't know it was a feature, you might never realise it was an option.
Galaxy S9+ Battery life
The Galaxy S9+ features a 3,500mAh battery within its slender frame. That's not the largest we've seen in a smartphone, but understandably Samsung tends to play it rather conservative when it comes to batteries in its smartphones these days.
While there's often a strong focus on the performance increases of new processors, it's worth bearing in mind that they're often also optimised for improved battery performance. With the larger display of the Galaxy S9+ in mind, and all that raw processing power on display, I was keen to see how the Galaxy S9+ would compare against its premium competition.
The answer was that it emerged as the new champion in battery life terms, and this isn't just an on-paper kind of result, either. Geekbench's battery drain is a heavy but constant one that gives a good comparative figure, but doesn't entirely reflect the on-again, off-again usage that most actual phone owners will put their smartphones through.
The Galaxy S9+ flawlessly made it through real-world single-day usage, even on my generally heavier usage days. Samsung provides its own fast charger in the box, and it's also compatible with both Qi and PMA wireless chargers if that's your preferred charging method, so you really should have no power worries with it.
Galaxy S9+ Verdict
The Galaxy S9+ is an upgrade over the Galaxy S8+, but that's absolutely to be expected. Frankly, something would be badly wrong if it wasn't.
The question is whether you should buy one, and as always that's a strongly circumstantial matter. If you're a long-term Samsung fan who invested in a Galaxy S8, Galaxy S8+ or Galaxy Note 8 in 2017, you're still sitting on a very good smartphone in its own right even though the Galaxy S9+ is better.
Unless you're on a contract that allows for automatic swapping to a new device every 12 months, and you really fancy those new camera features, stick with what you've got and wait for the Galaxy S10 next year.
However, if you're rocking a phone that's older than the Galaxy S8, it's an easy recommendation because you'll really feel that uptick in camera quality, design and battery life present in the Galaxy S9+.
However, the Galaxy S9+ doesn't exist in an Apple/Samsung smartphone vacuum. Samsung's pricing for the Galaxy S9+ is quite competitive, especially considering that premium competitors, such as the Google Pixel 2 XL or even the lower-cost OnePlus 5T, don't allow for memory expansion. For those that do, the Galaxy S9+'s camera, processor and power consumption figures still tell a very compelling story.
While you do have choices to make, if you're in the market for a new premium smartphone, the Galaxy S9+ deserves prime consideration.
Galaxy S9+ Alternatives
If your budget can't stretch to the Galaxy S9+'s price point, you should consider the Galaxy S8+, which can be had at serious discount prices now thanks to the appearance of its successor. You could also consider the Galaxy Note 8, which is seeing some budget action, mostly through direct importers, if the dual camera approach has appeal for you.
Looking more widely, one effect of Samsung's dominance in the smartphone space has been that most other vendors tend to slice their prices down rapidly following a new smartphone's debut. While we're still waiting for the majority of Samsung's Android competitors to announce their 2018 flagships, there's plenty of ripe pickings from 2017's flagship phones, many of which can now be had at serious discount prices
If you want the clean and fast Google experience, then you may be interested in Google's Pixel 2 or its Pixel 2 XL. If it's the slow-motion video feature of the Galaxy S9+ that has you entranced, consider Sony's excellent Xperia XZ Premium handset.
LG's V30+ has been updated to the V30+ ThinQ at MWC 2018, but we have yet to see any local release information for the updated version of LG's current flagship. Huawei is set to launch the P20 range quite soon, but in the meantime its Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro are both solid competitors at competitive price points.
Samsung Galaxy S9+: What the other reviewers say
|TechRadar||"You won't find a bigger and better Android phone than the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus."||4.5/5|
|What HiFi||"More evolution than revolution, but that’s still enough to make the S9+ the best big Android phone you can buy today."||5/5|
|CNET||"Samsung's Galaxy S9 Plus is the more robust Galaxy S9, and the one for power users to get."||8.8/10|
|The Verge||"The Galaxy S9 is all of the good and all of the bad we’ve come to expect from Samsung."||N/A|
|Engadget||"Samsung’s improvements to its latest flagship work as promised, but don’t feel like features that you’d miss by not upgrading."||91/100|
|AFR||"In some very important respects, such as the improved camera, Samsung is ahead of the pack, though not consistently."||N/A|
|News.com.au||"If you’re going to choose just one smartphone on which to animate emoji, Samsung’s Galaxy S9 should top your list."||4.5/5|
Galaxy S9+: Pricing and availability
The Samsung Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+ will go on sale in Australia from 16 March 2018, with outright pricing set at $1,349 for the 64GB variant or $1,499 for the 256GB variant. While Samsung will produce a 128GB version of the Galaxy S9+, we won't officially see that model on sale in Australia.
The Galaxy S9+ is also available through a wide range of carriers in Australia on contract terms. Here's the latest pricing for the Galaxy S9+ in both 64GB and 256GB variants through carriers:
Samsung Galaxy S9+ Specifications
- Product Name
- Samsung Galaxy S9+
- Display Size
- 6.2 inches
- 1440 x 2960
- Exynos 9810, Octa Core-CPU (4 x 2.9GHz + 4 x 1.9GHz)
- Operating System
- Android 8.0
- Front camera
- 8MP F/1.7
- Rear camera
- Dual Sensor 12MP F/1.5 & F/2.4 and 12MP F/2.4
- 158.1mm x 73.8mm x 8.5mm
- $1,349 (64GB)/ $1,499(256GB)