It's no surprise that Samsung has announced a new flagship smartphone at MWC 2018 in Barcelona and it's even less of a shock that it's called the Galaxy S9. The S8 was almost a perfect phone so can Samsung really make it even better? Find out in our hands-on review.
(Also read our Samsung Galaxy S9+ review.)
With LG and Huawei not launching new flagship smartphones at the mobile tech show, more focus is on Samsung and focus is an apt word here as the Galaxy S9 is largely about new and improved camera technology.
PRICE AND RELEASE DATE
You can pre-order the Galaxy S9 starting today (25 February) at 6pm ahead of the Galaxy S9's release date of 16 March. Those who pre-order with get the phone a week early on 9 March.
As per rumours ahead of the launch, the price has increased to £739 which is £50 more than its predecessor. That's resonably understandable and remains a cheaper than some rivals. The iPhone 8, though, is a little cheaper at £699.
There will also be a global trade-in program so you can upgrade from an older Galaxy phone. Samsung hasn't given us specific details of this yet.
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.
With an almost identical design to its predecessor, you'd be hard pressed to notice which one is the Galaxy S9. Especially from the front which is only minorly tweaked in that the bezels above and below the screen are a fraction smaller – it's not something that's obvious but largely down to the decent job Samsung did with the S8.
The device is a little shorter than the S8 and it's actually a bit thicker and heavier at 8.5mm and 163g, but none of these 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.
It's now 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. We've also spotted what looks like Samsung's Orchid Grey colour in some demo videos so perhaps this will arrive at a later date.
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.
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.
Processor, memory and storage
With a new flagship comes a new processor and Samsung has fitted the Galaxy S9 with a new Exynos 8910 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.
We're confident the new SoC is perfectly capable of handling all you can throw at it, especially as we didn't have any issues with the Galaxy S8 or earlier models. We will, of course, benchmark it fully when we get a final sample.
Some markets will come with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 instead; something Samsung has done for a while in the US and China.
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 with the same storage options.
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.
Sadly there's no Quad DAC like the LG V30, but Samsung has improved the audio in terms of the speakers. There's now stereo speakers with the usual down firing one on the bottom and now one where the earpiece is above the screen.
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.
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'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.
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. We're keen to try this out when we have a sample.
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 go down to f/1.5 - the best of any phone on the market. Samsung was already the leader at f/1.7 but now the phone lets in 28 percent more light.
We need to test it out properly in the real world but the idea here is that the phone automatically adjusts between f/1.5 and f/2.4 depending on the shooting conditions. It's 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.
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.
We're still not totally convinced by Bixby but the camera part, Bixby Vision, has been improved and can now do live translation, better place recognition and more food features such as calories and recipes. The latter will be market dependant.
After some hands-on time we're pretty impressed and 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, you take a photo of yourself and the S9 will create an emoji that looks like you – 18 animated gifs are automatically generated but you can make your own custom ones. And you can send them to anyone, not just those who also happen to have an S9.
We haven’t tested battery life after some hands-on time, of course, but what we can say is that we're not expecting a huge change compared to the Galaxy S8.
This is because 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.
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 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.
We'll test out the software further once we have a review sample.
- Android 8.0 Oreo
- 5.8in Quad HD+ (2960x1440) 18.5:9 SuperAMOLED Infinity Display
- Exynos 8910 octa-core processor
- 4GB RAM
- 64/256GB internal storage
- Micro-SD card slot (up to 2400GB)
- 12Mp rear-facing camera with OIS and f/1.5
- 8Mp front camera
- Pressure sensitive home button
- Fingerprint scanner (rear mounted)
- Heart rate monitor
- 11ac dual-band Wi-Fi
- Bluetooth 5.0 with aptX
- 4G LTE Cat 16
- Headphone jack
- 3000mAh non-removable battery
- Wireless charging
- IP68 dust & waterproof rating