Samsung Galaxy S9 Hands-on: An Unremarkable Looking Phone With Remarkable Insides

By Tom Pritchard on at

Today’s the day Samsung fans have been waiting for since the launch of the Note 8 last August. As you’re reading this there should be some sort of businessman or executive on stage revealing the brand new S9 and S9+ to the world. We were lucky enough to spend some time with the phone, all so we can pass on our thoughts to you lovely readers.

I can tell you now, though, if you’ve been paying to any of the leaks - especially the recent ones you won’t find any surprises. They were pretty much spot on.

Samsung Galaxy S9 Specs:

  • 5.8-inch QHD+ Super AMOLED Infinity Display (18:5:9 aspect ratio)
  • 64-bit, Octa-core processor (2.7 GHz Quad + 1.7 GHz Quad)
  • 4GB RAM
  • 64GB Internal storage
  • MicroSD expansion (up to 400GB)
  • 12MP rear camera, with variable aperture (f1.5 - f2.4)
  • 8MP front camera
  • Headphone Jack
  • Stereo Audio (with Dolby Atmos)
  • 3,000 mAh Battery
  • IP68 water/dust resistance
  • Android 8 (Oreo)

Samsung Galaxy S9+ Specs:

  • 6.2-inch QHD+ Super AMOLED Infinity Display (18:5:9 aspect ratio)
  • 64-bit, Octa-core processor (2.7 GHz Quad + 1.7 GHz Quad)
  • 6GB RAM
  • 128GB Internal Storage
  • MicroSD expansion (up to 400GB)
  • Dual Camera system
    • 12MP wide-angle lens, with variable aperture (f1.5 - f2.4)
    • 12MP Telephoto lens (f2.4)
  • 8MP front camera
  • Headphone Jack
  • Stereo Audio (with Dolby Atmos)
  • 3,500 mAh battery
  • IP68 water/dust resistance
  • Android 8 (Oreo)

Design

On the surface there’s no getting round the fact that the Galaxy S9 is a very unremarkable looking phone, unlike its predecessor. The Galaxy S8 might not have been the only phone with a minimised bezel at MWC last year, but the launch of the Infinity Display did change what people expected from a premium phone. The Galaxy S9 doesn’t have anything like that. It is different, but you have to look carefully to notice the subtle changes.

On the front you’ll see a phone with a 5.8-inch QHD+ Infinity display (or 6.2 for the S9+) with the curved edge display and a 16:5:9 aspect ratio. While they both may look like last year’s models, Samsung has managed to squeeze some extras in. Samsung claims to have squashed the bezels back even further than before, but there’s also an array of camera sensors hiding at the top of the phone. Like Apple did with the iPhone X, Samsung has put in infrared sensors that can read and scan your face - and it did it without having to carve off a piece of the screen for a notch.

Whatever your feelings on the iPhone X’s notch, we should all be able to agree that having as much screen space as humanly possible is a good thing.

On the underside it’s business as usual. The headphone jack is still there, the speaker grill hasn’t moved (though it dos have a notch down the middle), and neither has the USB-C port. The major difference is that this isn’t the only speaker grill. Samsung finally added stereo sound to the Galaxy S range, with the secondary speaker at the top of the phone - utilising the same speaker grill as phone calls.

The back of the phone is where most of the changes have taken place, with Samsung moving the positioning of everything again. The fingerprint scanner has been moved underneath the camera this time, with the intention of making it easier to use without flipping your phone over to look. Naturally the S9+ has the added addition of a second camera lens, with the of them stacked vertically rather than horizontally.

What’s this phone for?

Samsung actually has three key goals when it came to developing the S9: enhancing the Camera, Entertainment, and Connectivity. The camera aspect isn’t just about improving the quality of the phones, but also about what the camera can do - since Samsung rightly points out that a lot of modern communication is visually based. Even if you’re not video calling, you’re still sending GIFs, emojis, pictures, and so on. So Samsung felt it was important to turn the camera into something beyond a point-and-click photography machine.

Improving entertainment is all about improving the experience on the go, and ensuring you’re still getting a superior optimised experience when your phone is horizontal. That means notifications are less intrusive when you’re consuming media, and the app tray and on-screen navigation buttons natively switch with the display. There are also audio improvements which I’ll get to shortly.

Finally improving the connectivity is going to be more useful for people who like to smarten up their homes and make everything as seamless as possible. The previous connectivity apps are gone, having been merged together into a single app called Smart Things. Smart Things is there to connect your phone with Samsung smart products and any other Smart Things enabled devices. How many of those will be made by third parties has yet to be seen. Connectivity also includes a new and improved DeX dock.

Camera

The big changes to the S9 do come with the camera, with the main lens offering a variable aperture that switches between f2.4 and f1.5 aperture. That process is automatic, dependent on the ambient light, and an either/or situation. You don’t need to toggle the switch yourself, nor can you flick to an aperture part-way between the two. The change happens thanks to a mechanical switch inside the sensor, which you could compare to an iris since Samsung was trying to emulate the human eye as much as possible. As the ambient light decreases to anything below 100 lux, the mechanics open up to 1.5 and lets more light onto the sensor. Above 100 lux and it closes up, reverting back to f2.4.

But aperture isn’t the only thing that’s been improved. The S9 lets in 28 per cent more light than the S8, while also reducing the amount of photo noise by 30 per cent. Like the S8 last year, the Galaxy S9 doesn’t take a single photo and leaves it at that. Instead it takes multiple photos and merges them together, pixel by pixel, to produce an amalgam that incorporates the best aspects of each photo. The S8 took three photos to merge, but the S9 ups that to 12. Those 12 merge into three lots of four, and then again down into a single image.

Galaxy S9 (right) via Google Pixel 2 (left) in a near-dark environment without flash

All of these changes are possible thanks to DRAM integrated into the image sensor and signal processor, with some help from machine learning and AI to continually improve the process

The other major change to the camera is the inclusion of ‘Super Slow-mo’ which promises to be four time slower than traditional slow motion video. The video runs at 960 frames per second (at 720p resolution) which Samsung claims is enough to slow a 0.2 second video down to 0.6 seconds.

The most interesting thing about Super Slow-mo is that the process is automatic. Provided you have the Super Slow-mo setting active the camera will be able to detect motion within the on-screen reference box. When it does, and it’s filming, it’ll automatically activate the Super Slow-mo so you don’t have to worry about toggling it yourself. You can do it manually if you want to, but it’s not mandatory.

Super Slow-mo will also automatically add music to the video, which can either be one of 35 pre-recorded tunes (that aren’t going to flag up any automated copyright bots) or any of the tunes you have on your phone. It also has multiple effects, including lopping, reversing, and more.

Biometrics

Samsung was quick to stress the fact that it doesn’t believe in taking features away from people (not anymore, at least), so it’s got a wide range of biometric security options available for people to use as and how they see fit. All of them, in fact. It’s keeping the fingerprint and iris scanning capabilities around, in addition to facial recognition.

Samsung didn’t go into huge amounts of detail with how the phone recognises your face, other than the fact it uses IR somewhere along the way. It doesn’t feel as advanced as Apple’s FaceID, and S9  doesn’t have you move your head around. Instead you have to hold the phone in front of your face and let it figure out what you look like. It had a bit of trouble with me, but it got there in the end and was quote happy to open up the phone quite quickly. The speed varied a bit, but the slowest unlock wasn’t more than about a second.

Samsung also has what it calls Intelligent Scan, which basically means the facial recognition and iris scanners are running at the same time. It’s designed for convenience so people will still be able to use their face to unlock the phone in a variety of conditions - since iris and facial scanning might not function well in certain environments or if you’re covering your face.

With Intelligent Scan I was able to open up the S9 with my eyes closed or half of my face covered, but not both. It’s also not a case of the features running together for extra security, it’s an either/or.

The S9 was quick to tell me that I had to choose between Iris and facial recognition, though, which confused me for a minute. It wasn’t until I spotted that Intelligent Scan has its own separate toggle that I realised what was going on. Not sure I understand the logic behind that, because it feels deliberately counterproductive.

Facial recognition and Intelligent Scan aren’t the only changes to the biometric security. While Apple may seem happy to ditch TouchID, Samsung’s gone out of its way to ensure the fingerprint scanner is the best it can be. In fact, it barely takes anytime to add new fingerprints. The first time I tried I swiped down on the scanner once and it was done. Just to be sure I’d done it correctly I tried again with a different finger and that took two attempts. If you’ve ever registered your fingerprints on Android you know it can be a huge pain in the arse to get to 100 per cent, but  the opposite is true with the S9 - and that is a very good thing.

Animated Emojis

Apple spent a bunch of time announcing animojis last year, which made use of the face-scanning camera tech to turn people into cats and stuff. Samsung has launched something similar, though the purpose is to enhance communication by personalising and animating the emojis people send. Apparently 5 billion emojis and 1 billion GIFs get sent every day, so Samsung has developed a way of making it more personal rather than simply flicking an image of a flat yellow face or a GIF of Ryan Reynolds looking disgusted.

But holy crap do they look terrifying. It’s like someone took emojis and catapulted them into the depths of the uncanny valley. Mine doesn’t even look like me:

The emojis are created using your personalised, customisable avatar, which itself is derived from a 2D image of your face. The process supposedly maps 100 facial features onto that image, which is then used to create miniature reaction GIFs. 18 of them are preloaded and accessible by a button at the top of your keyboard, but you can use the camera and sensors to convert your current expression into a 3D facsimile.

So you don’t need to hunt for the perfect reaction GIF, you can just make one with your own face. The use of the term GIF is key too, because these are GIFs. They’ll work with any app that already has GIF support, and you can send them to people who don’t have an S9. They just can’t respond with one of their own.

Bixby & Bixby Vision

Bixby is still here, and the dedicated button is still lingering around like Piers Morgan’s career. Samsung’s main focus was on Bixby Vision, though, which uses the camera app in conjunction with Bixby to do a variety of different things - the main being translating text.

While Samsung claims Bixby offers the only live translation service that doesn’t require any extra steps (it doesn’t), it does seem to work better than Google’s Translate app - or at least it did with the scatterings of French text Samsung had on hand. It’s faster, and the on-screen text was a hell of a lot neater than the mess Google has a tendency to throw at you. But functionally? It’s basically the same. Easier to get to (it’s in the camera app), but still the same. Especially since Bixby uses Google Translate to convert words.

Also included in Bixby Vision is an AR mode that shows you nearby points of interest, which also works inside whether you’re looking at those places or not.

There’s also a QR code scanner, image search, wine bottle scanner, and AR makeup like you might find in Snapchat.

Sound

Finally the last big announcement Samsung revealed for the S9, in addition to the stereo audio, is the inclusion of Dolby Atmos surround sound. It’s 3D, immersive sound designed to make your media experience as great as possible - in line with Samsung’s emphasis on improving entertainment.

Sound hasn’t always been that great on Galaxy phones, but the S9 is a massive improvement on what came before. Even if you turn off Dolby Atmos, the stereo speakers alone offer significantly better audio quality that what came before. I know because I tested against the Galaxy S7 there and then, and the difference is more than noticeable.

Even so, stereo audio on its own can’t compete with Atmos. It’s louder, clearer, and altogether brilliant - even if the content itself hasn’t been optimised for 3D audio. It’ll also work through the headphone jack, provided, of course, that you have Atmos compatible gear, and functions with local files and streamed content.

However, while USB-C headphones do work with the Galaxy S9 Atmos will not. Not at launch anyway, and neither will calls. Basically if you have a pair of USB-C headphones that you want to use for whatever reason, you can only use them with media and bog-standard features.

DeX

DeX has had a radical overhaul this year, changing from last year’s standing dock in favour of something new entirely. The basics are the same, since it takes your phone and turns it into a desktop of sorts, but this year the phone is lying down horizontally so you can use it as a touchpad. That means you can control what you see on screen without having to use a mouse.

Unless you want to use a mouse that is, because everything’s basically the same as it was before. There are two USB ports for plugging in accessories, HDMI output, and obviously a USB-C power slot to power everything. The differences are that there’s no ethernet this year (defended because your phone has wireless connectivity anyway), and DeX is capable of handling multiple resolutions including wide QHD and sub-HD resolution.

There’s not a huge amount of change here, but Samsung did reveal that DeX will also offer a virtual keyboard on your phone - it just won’t be available at launch. DeX also doesn’t let you use your phone as a second screen, so anyone hoping that particular rumour was true is going to be disappointed.


While the Galaxy S9 certainly looks unremarkable, and has an unremarkable Android experience, Samsung has done a lot to ensure that the phone itself is a big improvement over what came before. It’s about improving the phone experience, rather than making any leaps with the design. The design was fine last year, and it’s fine this year, but the inside has been fine-tuned to improve the way people use the phone.

Is it worth buying? If you have an S8 or a similar bezel-less phone, I’m not so sure. Samsung isn’t really offering anything new. The important features are all available elsewhere in other phones from other companies, so it’s a case of weighing the Galaxy S9 against the competition. You also have to consider the price. The Galaxy S9 wil cost £739, while the S9+ will cost £869.

If you want one, pre-orders will open at 6pm tonight, following the end of the Unpacked press conference in Barcelona. Both phones will be available in three colours: Midnight Black, Coral Blue, and Lilac Purple, and anyone who pre-orders will get their phone early, as usual, on 9th March. Anyone who doesn’t will have to wait until 16th March.


Gizmodo UK is in Barcelona at MWC! Keep up with all the latest announcements from the show floor right here.