The Samsung Galaxy S9 is a great phone, but one that hasn’t really kicked on from the Galaxy S8, bringing a very similar design and screen to 2017’s version. The improved biometrics were sorely needed, and the camera is a leap forward, but the amazing low light capabilities have resulted in sacrifices elsewhere. A top, top phone, but the S9 Plus outshines it.
- Swift biometric security
- Awesome low-light performance
- The most powerful Android phone out
- Design is identical to S8
- Some camera snaps lack vibrancy
Samsung Galaxy S9 deals
At first glance, the Samsung Galaxy S9 might not look like much of an upgrade – it’s very, very similar in design to the Galaxy S8 from last year.
However, that was an excellent handset, and Samsung has decided to stick with the design this year and put its efforts into making the phone sturdier, faster and more useful day to day.
It’s easily one of the most powerful phones on the market, has novel features in the shape of AR Emoji that are created in your own image, and a camera that’s utterly unlike anything we’ve seen on the market before.
Samsung has also been hard at work fixing the biometric issues that plagued the Galaxy S8, making some subtle tweaks that aren’t apparent until you’ve used the phone for a while and find that it’s just so much easier to unlock securely.
But these plus points are all set against a backdrop of a very high price; we’re not talking iPhone X levels here, but it’s still one of the more expensive options you can buy.
So if you’re looking to replace a 2016 phone do all the new features really offer enough to make the Galaxy S9 a worthwhile upgrade, or is the cheaper Galaxy S8 still the best phone in the world?
Price and release date
SAMSUNG GALAXY S9 SPECS
Dimensions: 147.7 x 68.7 x 8.5 mm
Screen size: 5.8-inch
CPU: Snapdragon 845 / Exynos 9810
Camera: 12MP rear, 8MP front
The Samsung Galaxy S9 release date has been set for March 16, with pre-orders having been open for a while around the world.
We know the Galaxy S9 will cost £739, $719.99, or AU$1,199 SIM-free directly from Samsung, but exact pricing for other markets is currently unclear.
In the UK, that’s a huge price jump over last year’s handset, which cost £689 at launch, and it’s the same price our sources reported before it was made official.
In terms of a UK cost on contract you can expect to pay between £35 and £50 per month for a decent slug of data, although with many contracts you’ll need to pay a little upfront too.
In the US, we’re seeing around $30 a month for the contract, and between $720-$800 for the phone itself.
There aren’t any storage variants of this phone though, with only the 64GB option on sale.
- Too much of a novelty
- Needs a more powerful facial recognition
It took us a little while to come around to the idea of AR Emoji… and then not too long to get bored by them again.
Let’s be honest here: these are a clear response to Apple’s Animoji, which gained a lot of attention when the iPhone X launched, and which make use of the TrueDepth camera on the front of the iPhone X.
Samsung’s offering feels like a watered-down version of this, albeit one with a bit more personality. To create your own little avatar you simply smile into the front-facing camera, and the Galaxy S9 creates your own digital version of you.
Once it’s created, you can change your avi’s hair and skin color and choose an outfit – it’s a shame there aren’t more customisation options here, as the outfits are a bit limited and the hair colors aren’t particularly nuanced.
This may seem like a tiny thing, but if you can’t make your AR Emoji look like you then you – and your friends – are going to struggle to engage with it.
In our testing we found that we needed to create our avatar a few times, as there were occasional glitches like a weird face shape or the wrong-colored eyes.
We also had to get used to the fact that it doesn’t look like us all the time, although in some of the instantly-generated GIFs you can use for social media we suddenly saw that our AR Emoji mimicked some of our features well from different angles.
Those GIFs are probably the best thing about this new feature – and they get tiresome relatively quickly. You send a few to friends on compatible apps (the AR Emoji GIFs are baked into the Galaxy S9’s keyboard, but you can’t add them in Twitter or Gmail, only in apps like WhatsApp at the moment), but the novelty wears off pretty quickly.
The other thing you can do is record a video of yourself speaking as the AR Emoji… and this is where things start to unravel. The Galaxy S9 picks up most of your features, but also gives your avatar a little flickering mouth or eye at times when the camera loses you.
It shows that, to make this feature work properly, brands need a more powerful camera, rather than just relying on software and the front-facing option.
AR Emoji are fun for a little while, but on their own they’re certainly not a reason to buy this phone.
Bixby is back… and better
- Bixby Voice is still behind
- Bixby Vision is far more useful
We were thoroughly disappointed by Bixby on the Galaxy S8 last year, as it promised to be the ultimate digital assistant and, well, it wasn’t.
It simply couldn’t do enough – it wasn’t able to work out what you wanted contextually, and it wasn’t able to start or control enough apps. We could forgive the gestation period for this feature if it wasn’t for the fact that Google Assistant is already on the phone, and incredibly capable.
However, Samsung has upgraded Bixby on the Galaxy S9, and kept the Bixby button on the side of the device to allow you to interact with your assistant. You use the button as on a walkie-talkie, pressing to talk to Bixby and releasing when you’ve delivered your command… but it’s a bit slow to catch up.
Bixby can be too literal – wanting to set a timer preset rather than just starting a countdown for example – and while you can ask it to take a picture and send it to a friend the whole process takes around 30 seconds – and that’s assuming Bixby can find the friend to start with – in which time you’d rather just do it manually.
The Galaxy S9 also keeps telling us that we can dictate using Bixby, but this was never 100% accurate – it was pretty darn good, considering that you’re essentially talking to a baby robot, but we needed to edit our words before sending.
Bixby Vision has come a long way though – and the fact that it’s turned off by default is just beautiful. No longer do the little green fireflies automatically dance across your viewfinder when you’re trying to take a picture of your car, dog, mother or laundry basket (to show her you’ve done it all) as the phone tries to work out what’s being looked at.
However, when you do turn on Vision the features are pretty useful. Bixby is much, much better at being able to work out what it’s seeing than what it’s hearing, and can give accurate results on the web for things like comics, lamps and nature scenes.
The translation tool is also very strong – it comes up with some weird answers here and there, but on the whole it’s very easy to work out what you’re looking at. Samsung is making a big deal about this feature, although in reality it’s a bit niche… you’ll need to be in a foreign country, with data, and completely unable to work out what you’re looking at.
So while it’s good that Bixby has been upgraded, to at least bring some sense to having that button on the side of the phone, it’s still a novelty rather than a must-have feature.
Mapping the button to Google Assistant is still a far better way to get the most from your phone with your voice (although you’ll need to download a third party app to do it), despite it being more limited in scope… at least it manages the things it can do very well.
- Intelligent scan is accurate, but not as secure
- Far easier to unlock your phone
Anyone who read our Galaxy S8 review last year would have realised quite quickly that the biometric unlocking features of that phone almost made it unusable. The fingerprint scanner was too hard to reach, the iris scanner too unreliable and the facial recognition just too poor.
Samsung needed to do something, and it has, with all three features now working seamlessly and interchangeably. Intelligent Scan marries the iris scanner and facial recognition to make unlocking your phone with your face a far, far simpler task, and as mentioned the fingerprint scanner is much easier to hit.
The speed of the Intelligent Snan feature is so much better than last year… where the iris scanner and facial recognition on the S8 were between 30% and 50% accurate, the two together on the Galaxy S9 yield success almost every time.
In low-light the iris scanner is still a bit slow to react, and not always pleased to let you in (in this case, Apple’s Face ID absolutely destroys it for accuracy and ease of use), but it’s so simple to just flick your finger to the scanner on the back that we never had an issue.
There are a couple of flaws with the biometric system. First, the 2D scan of the face the S9 makes to recognize you isn’t as secure as other methods, like the fingerprint scanner or Apple’s Face ID.
That’s not a huge problem for us – the fingerprint scanner is a better way of paying for things anyway, and really biometric unlocking is more about convenience than it is security.
We weren’t able to dupe the Samsung Galaxy S9 with a picture of our face, so if you lose your phone you can feel secure in the knowledge that the thief isn’t getting in, which is what most of us really want.
Second, and more frustratingly, you can’t really unlock the phone when it’s placed on a table – the field of vision for the scanner is limited, so unless you weirdly shove your head over it you won’t get in, whereas Apple’s Face ID offers a much wider viewing angle.
- AKG tuned sound is loud
- A tiny bit lacking in punch, but a big upgrade on the S8
The other key feature that Samsung is talking up on the Galaxy S9 is the improved speaker setup. If you’re tired of hearing sound shoot out the bottom of your phone, you’ll appreciate that the top earpiece is now able to fire out sound towards your face.
These speakers have also been tuned to support Dolby Atmos sound, giving you a sense of space from the audio coming out from your phone.
Given how thin this phone is, the overall volume and quality of sound coming out of it is impressive. If anything the volume can go a little too high, and we found ourselves turning it down on occasion, despite only watching videos on social media.
The quality isn’t the best on the market – there’s definitely a little more punch and clarity from the iPhone X, where the Galaxy S9 is a little bit muddier – but the idea here isn’t to replace a Bluetooth speaker, but rather provide a decent experience when listening to music or podcasts without earphones.