Pros: The Galaxy S9 once again proves Samsung’s formula of a gorgeous 5.8-inch screen, sexy dual-curved design and terrific camera for well-lit shots can’t go wrong. Whiplash-fast speeds, wireless charging and water resistance complete the package. And it looks stunning in purple and blue.
Cons: Low-light photos often look blurry and lack the fine texture and contrast of competing phone cameras. The Galaxy S9’s camera frequently, accidentally switches between modes. 3D avatar software is tragically bad, and a new face-unlock tool is inherently insecure. The Galaxy S9 costs more than 2017’s Galaxy S8.
In General: The Galaxy S9 can still hold its own among 2019’s smartphones, but wait for it to go on sale after the Galaxy S10 launch.
Nearly a year later, the Galaxy S9 is still an excellent phone that delivers some of the best hardware, performance and photography of any handset you can buy today. But it’s about to meet its replacement in the Galaxy S10.
While that means the Galaxy S9 and the larger Galaxy S9 Plus will no longer be the most competitive phones for 2019, there’s also good news for anyone shopping around for a deal. Samsung, the carriers, and retail stores usually lower the price of previous models.
The Galaxy S10 could also be more expensive than the Galaxy S9 was at launch, creating even more potential savings between the two devices. Samsung has steadily raised its phone prices since 2016, and there are elements within the Galaxy S10 that will cost Samsung — and you — more money, including an in-screen fingerprint reader (rumored, but very likely) and the faster Snapdragon 855 chipset inside (confirmed).
Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy S10 is also rumored to have as many of six total cameras, and perhaps a 3D front-facing camera to unlock the phone with a secure scan of your face.
These would all be exciting changes to nudge the Galaxy S10 toward the future while a small portion of the population ventures to try Samsung’s upcoming 5G headset and daring foldable phone. But for those who’d rather sit back and wait for the kinks to be worked out — and save a buck while doing it — will find a powerful, faithful phone in 2018’s Galaxy S9.
What the Galaxy S9 does really well
- Bright, 5.8-inch AMOLED screen with a dual-curved display.
- It looks awesome in lilac purple and coral blue. You can also buy it in midnight black and titanium gray.
- Fast Snapdragon 845 processor gets tasks done, handles graphic-intensive games (some models use Samsung’s Exynos 9810).
- A full battery should take you from morning to night. Navigation and streaming will drain it faster.
- Bright, pretty outdoor photos with the 12-megapixel camera.
- Dual-speaker system makes for loud, rich audio.
- Good old-fashioned headphone jack!
- Improved placement of the fingerprint reader makes mobile payments more convenient.
- Wireless charging and water-resistant rating (IP68, and it passed our dunk test) give it an edge over most phones, just like previous Galaxy models.
Where the Galaxy S9 falls short
When you dive into the details, some nagging problems snap into focus that could break the experience for certain people. For example, the industry-first dual-aperture lens that Samsung put in both Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus phones absolutely makes photos as bright as promised, but it also often makes them blurry if there’s any movement. And the 3D avatars and new face unlock tools meant to match similar features in the iPhone X are either half-baked or fundamentally flawed.
While it’s easy to overlook or simply avoid the Galaxy S9’s weaker additions, Samsung wants these particular tools to set the Galaxy S9 apart from the competition — and from the Galaxy S8 before it — and they just don’t live up to the claim.
- Dual-aperture camera makes many low-light photos unrealistically bright and blurry. There’s less contrast and texture than other phones have.
- The 3D avatars you make with AR Emoji track your expressions poorly and need far more customization options.
- Intelligent Scan, a new unlock option that uses your face, isn’t secure and doesn’t seem to solve an existing problem.
- The camera switches too easily among modes, which is frustrating when you’re not where you want to be.
- With super-slow-motion video, automatic mode isn’t that useful, and image quality is lower resolution than regular slow-motion. Stick to manual mode.
- Lacks the second rear lens of the step-up S9 Plus. This is by design, so Samsung could give the S9 Plus an advantage.
Galaxy S9 price: How much will it cost you?
One look at the price tag at launch will tell you the Galaxy S9 is no discount phone. In some countries it costs about the same as last year’s Galaxy S8. In others, it’s more expensive. At this point in the Galaxy S9’s lifecycle, you should start seeing that price dip, especially as the holidays approach.
That’s because prices fluctuate throughout the year based on retailers’ seasonal discounts and other promotional deals, so patient shoppers may find it for less
The Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus will sell in lilac purple, coral blue, midnight black and titanium gray, but not every country will get every color. For example, the phones don’t sell in gray in the US.
Galaxy S9 vs. S9 Plus: What’s the difference?
If you’re deciding between the two new Galaxy S9 phones, rest assured that you can’t really pick wrong. That’s because they share most of the same core features, with a few exceptions, including their size, weight and price.
The most obvious difference is the second camera lens on the back of the S9 Plus, a telephoto lens that’s dedicated to creating those depth-of-field portrait shots that blur the background to make people and objects pop.
If you know you want a phone with a larger screen, or prize taking portraits, the S9 Plus may be worth the cost bump.
The S9 Plus also costs more, though the price difference between the two phones varies by retailer. If you’re considering the Galaxy S9 Plus.
Galaxy S9: Dual-aperture camera highs and lows
The camera is the Galaxy S9’s one real doozy of a feature. It’s the first to bring a mechanical dual-aperture lens from DSLRs to the much tinier mobile phone, a feature that’s designed to let in more light, reduce image noise, and generally make your photos a lot better.
Dual-aperture means that the camera physically switches between two settings of the aperture, the opening that lets in light. A narrower F2.4 setting is used for brightly lit shots, and automatically jumps over to a wider F1.5 aperture in low-light situations like a dim restaurant or your living room while you’re watching a movie.
On the Galaxy S9, the aperture physically changes size when the camera detects low light, automatically toggling you back and forth between the f/2.4 and f/1.5 settings, though you can manually adjust this yourself in Pro mode. Samsung says that the camera lets in 28 percent more light for dimmer scenarios, and it shows.
But image quality on those darker scenes has its trade-offs. Time and again, low-light photos were either too bright (like daylight) or tinted yellow. Slower shutter speeds (1/10, 1/11) let in more light, but also caused subjects to blur with even the slightest provocation. The Galaxy S9 often took scenes with plenty of detail on the subject, but then glossed over background edges, textures and contrast.
So far, the Galaxy S9’s low-light photos are highly usable. The Google Pixel 2 and 2XL, however, remain the best phones for taking consistently low-light pictures with excellent contrast, texture and color reproduction.
As for all the outdoor, indoor and daylight photos that don’t fall into the low-light bucket, these retain Samsung’s generally excellent image quality and processing.
The Galaxy S9 tends to make colors more syrupy than they are in real life, but edges are often clean and contrast is usually pretty high. On balance, you’re going to be pretty happy with the pictures you take.
Intelligent Scan is a poor Face ID copy
As with AR Emoji, Samsung’s new way to unlock the phone with your face feels like unnecessary filler to (poorly) mimic the iPhone X’s face ID
Where Apple’s Face ID uses 30,000 infrared dots to map your physical features, Intelligent scan combines two existing unlock mechanisms from the Galaxy S8 and Note 8: face unlock and iris scanning. Face ID is secure enough to accept mobile payments, but Intelligent Scan is not.
The software defaults to the trickable option, face unlock, and only uses the secure option, iris scanning, when face unlock doesn’t work, like if the scene’s too dark. There’s even a long security disclaimer when you first set it up.
Samsung says Intelligent Scan is a more convenient way to unlock the device for people who aren’t as concerned about security or mobile payments. It just feels like Samsung wanted to add something as a stop gap until it can use a 3D camera scanner like Face ID.
Ironically, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chip inside one version of the Galaxy S9 (remember, the other uses Samsung’s own Exynos chipset) has the ability to map faces with 50,000 infrared dots, making it theoretically even more secure than Face ID and just as fast. Samsung and other phonemakers using this chip just need the hardware and software to make it happen.
Speakers sound terrific
Now for some good news. A second speaker on the Galaxy S9 (located with the microphone on the phone’s bottom edge) pumps up the volume and makes your music, video clips and speakerphone calls not just louder but also richer.
Part of its strength comes from using Dolby’s software technology to help equalize the sound. You’ll need to toggle this on in the settings or quick settings menu to make the phone sound its best, and you can further adjust the audio profile from the sound settings menu.
Android and other software goodies
Android 8.0 Oreo runs the Galaxy S9, but Samsung always lays its custom software on top. With it comes a ton of extras, some useful, others there for power users to dig into.
One of the best new software goodies is the ability to respond to a text message from a pop-up window. When a message arrives, you see a thin band of color briefly flash around the edges of the screen. You can swipe down on the message to expand it into a messaging window, then respond to the message and close the pop-up and get back to what you were doing. You can also just swipe the message away.
The Galaxy S9 can also turn the display horizontal, so if you’re watching a video or playing a game in landscape mode and want to pop out to open a different app, your home screen and app icons shift to the horizontal orientation, too. You turn this on in the settings.
Battery life: Not as long as we had hoped
The battery drain lab test consists of playing a video on loop, in airplane mode and with brightness and audio levels tuned midway, until it croaks. Last year’s Galaxy S8 averaged a 16-hour run time over a whopping seven tests.
That isn’t what happened; in fact, in some cases, the Galaxy S9 battery didn’t last as long as last year’s S8. While in daily usage, battery life will still take you from morning to evening on a single charge, you’ll want to top up before going out for a late night. You’ll also want to completely top up the phone at least once a day. Using the fast charger that came in the box, the Galaxy S9 fully recharged from zero in 1 hour, 40 minutes.
A few extra tips: Wired charging will always power the phone faster than wireless charging. Resource-intensive tasks such as map navigation and streaming video and music will drain that battery much quicker. Phones hold a greater charge when they’re new and lose capacity over time.
Fastest Android phone there is
The review unit’s Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chipset helped the Galaxy S9 surpass the competition on benchmarking graphics tests.
In real world use, the S9 kept up blazing-fast speeds. Side by side with the Galaxy S8, the Galaxy S9 is a hair faster in performing basic tasks like loading apps, switching screens and connecting online. These use cases won’t make an enormous difference to your day-to-day, but it’s nice to know that your new phone is one of the fastest around.
Against the competition
The Galaxy S9 earns its place in your pocket, despite Samsung missing some opportunities to bring out the best in its mainstream flagship phone. But if you’re shopping around for other options, here’s how they compare.
Galaxy S9 Plus: Its larger screen, bigger battery and second camera on the back make it a good choice for people who either want a bigger phone or don’t want to miss out on the portrait shot craze. It’ll be a little pricier, but that difference becomes almost negligible over the course of the year or two you own the phone. It shares core features and performance with the Galaxy S9.
Galaxy S8: If you already have a Galaxy S8, the differences between the two phones are so minor, there’s no point in upgrading. If you’re searching for a new phone, however, the Galaxy S8 will save you some money and still perform well. You won’t miss many major features worth having, though low-light photos may appear slightly less bright — though they’ll still be plenty usable.
iPhone X and later: Apple’s top phone costs more than the Galaxy S9 and gives you two ways to unlock the device (Face ID and code) compared with the six ways you get on the S9. That’s not including the no-screen lock option. Still, the iPhone X bests the Galaxy S9 in face-unlocking technology, portrait mode and animations that track your face. The major difference between the two still comes down to Android’s tweakability versus the unity of iOS. Expect security and OS updates to come to the iPhone X first.
OnePlus 6: If all you really want is a sturdy daily driver, the OnePlus 6 checks the boxes for speed and reliability for a lot less than the Galaxy S9’s price. It takes good enough photos and has a portrait photo mode, but you will pass up extras such as waterproofing and wireless charging.
Google Pixel phones: Forget about the Pixel 2, and wait for the Pixel 3 , expected for October. Pixel phones, thought of as “pure” Google Android phones, lack the Galaxy S9’s extra software features, but they’ll be the first to use Google’s newest software and security updates. Samsung phones take much longer to update since the operating system has to work with Samsung’s custom “Samsung Experience” software.