Are camera improvements and AR tricks enough to keep Samsung at the top of the heap?
You probably don’t need a 4,000-word review to tell you that the Galaxy S9+ is a good phone. Now that everyone’s got all of the Note 7 jokes mostly out of their system, we can mostly agree that Samsung makes good phones. The S8 was great, and the S9 builds on that success in a number of ways.
The new phone is mostly an evolution of its predecessor. There was no great back-to-the-drawing-board moment in its creation. This is not Samsung’s answer to the iPhone X (and really, the Note line already fills that role in a number of ways). It’s true the company may be a victim of its own hype.
The “Phone Reimagined” signs that greeted us ahead of launch in Barcelona were suitably hyperbolic, but for better or worse, that’s the hype cycle we’re living in these days. Samsung claimed to have reinvented the phone this time last year when it showed off the S8’s Infinity Display.
The fact of the matter is that the S9 finds the electronics giant mostly refining things on its flagship. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the phone’s design language. I have the S8+ and S9+ sitting side by side on my desk as I write this, and I’d defy you to tell me which is which without turning over the phones. If you squint, you can see that the bezels are a fraction of a millimeter smaller on the new phone.
Flip them over and you get a better idea of what you’re working with. There are two camera lenses now, aligned in a vertical configuration — and the fingerprint reader has moved down below. The company is continuing to tweak its imaging system and responding to user feedback over little complaints from the last gen. People kept putting their finger on the camera as they fumbled to wake up their phone, so Samsung fixed it.
In spite of what Samsung may tell you, the S9 isn’t a reimagining of anything. It’s a refinement of the leading Android handset. There’s not enough here to compel most S8 owners to upgrade, but if you’re due for a refresh, Samsung’s handset is still the one to beat.
If I was a lazier writer, I’d recommend you read the design section of my S8 review so we could all just skip ahead to the new bits. Still, I’ll try to keep this bit pretty short, because we’ve got a lot of camera to talk about in the paragraphs ahead. The long and short of it is that before the iPhone X, there was the Infinity Display.
It didn’t quite do away with the bezel as we know it, but the design, combined with Samsung’s longtime love of curved glass, brought us right up to the edge. Samsung openly mocked the iPhone X’s notch once again at last week’s unveil. It wasn’t subtle, but then, Samsung rarely is. Apple may have had the last week at MWC when practically every other company happily embraced a notch-filled future.
Until phone companies come up with a better solution to the phone and front-facing camera conundrum (I keep saying “ban selfies,” but no one ever listens to me), it’s either going to be a notch or bezel. Samsung’s dug its heels into the latter, shaving an almost imperceptible amount off its predecessor’s. Perhaps it’s the ultimate sign post of the state of the mobile industry that the world’s largest companies are battling over that reaming few millimeters.
Samsung’s other big Apple mocking moment was a jab at the headphone jack. The iPhone ditched it and never looked back. Perhaps it’s stubbornness that’s kept it on Samsung’s flagships, as many other companies have gone Apple’s route. When I spoke to ZTE ahead of MWC, a rep for the company admitted that the end of the jack is all but an inevitability at this point. But honestly, can you blame Samsung for holding on? After several generations of openly mocking Apple, giving in would be a bit embarrassing.
Of course, that kind of about-face shouldn’t get in the way of moving forward. Remember when Steve Jobs said “no one is going to buy a big phone?” Or heck, when Google made fun of the end of the headphone jack a generation before dropping it? But carrying the S9+ around for the past week reminds me that I still miss the option.
I bought a cheap pair of wired headphones for the plane ride home. There’s still something to be said for the simple plug and play capability there. Bluetooth headphones have come a long way in the past couple of years, but dealing with battery issues and the uncertainty of pairing is still a headache. Sometimes you just want to plug in a pair of wired headphones and be done with it.
The back of the phone is glass once again. Because that’s all the rage, and also, it’s a lot easier on wireless charging. Samsung gave us a black one to go with our S8+ plus. The new purple is pretty eye-catching, but beggars can’t be choosers, I guess. And besides, even with Gorilla Glass, I’m going to strongly advice that you think about picking up a case for that $720/$840 phone.
That said, Samsung has made some improvements to the phone’s overall durability. This isn’t the CAT phone, sure, but every little bit helps. The company has reportedly swapped the old aluminum for a stronger variety and made the phone sightly thicker and heavier in the process. But honestly, as with the bezels, you’re really not going to notice the difference.
The nice thing about getting the review unit in Barcelona is that I was going to be taking a lot of pictures anyway. The downside is that I became that annoying American tourist who takes smartphone shots of all his meals. I know, I know. But it was for work, I swear.
The reimagined part of the whole “camera, reimagined” bit is improved low-light shooting — a topic that has quickly become the next big battlefield for smartphone makers. And good for them, really. The inability to take half-decent photos in less than ideal settings is a big sticking point for a lot of these companies. Honestly, what percentage of smartphone shots do you take in perfect lighting? A huge percentage of these are snapped in places like bars and restaurants.
For this latest trick, the company actually borrowed from, of all places, its latest flip phone. But since the W2018 is like $2,000 and only available in Asia, you’re going to have to settle for the company’s new variable aperture on the S9. The dual aperture flips between f/1.5 / f/2.4 — what that means, in the simplest terms, is that it’s able to let more light into the lens in a dark setting. The aperture physically opens up to accomplish this. In fact, if you take a close look at the camera, you can see that change take place.
Shortly after Samsung announced the technology, Sony made mention that it was working a new super-low-light technology. Of course, it will be a while before that comes to the company’s phones — and even longer until it arrives on phones people actually buy. Meantime, the S9 represents a solid upgrade from a phone industry that’s largely neglected low-light shooting.
We happened to have an iPhone 8 Plus and Pixel 2 at our disposal and did some low-light shooting in bars around Barcelona last week (again, research). The Samsung S9+’s results are impressive. It’s not quite night and day — but it’s close. The S9 lets in considerably more light and is capable of taking decent pictures in settings that utterly stumped the competition.
Scrolling back through the photos taken last week it’s hard to tell which were snapped in a dim bar — though, in some cases, the white balance does seem a bit off. Even so, the improved camera goes a long a way toward reducing the noise you get in the same setting on most phones. If this means fewer people will be firing up their camera flash in bars, I think we all can agree that this is a win-win.
The other big physical improvement on the camera side was borrowed from another one of Samsung’s phones: the Note 8. One of the key differences between the S9 and S9+ that justifies that $140 price gulf is the inclusion of a second telephoto lens in addition to the standard wide-angle. As with that handset, zoom in enough and it switches over to the second lens.
The difference between digital and optical zoom is huge, and this will go a long way toward improving the quality on those tight shots. That’s probably not enough to warrant the upgrade to the S9+ alone, but it goes a long way toward giving the Galaxy one of the best imaging experiences in all of smartphones. There’s a reason the handset just topped DxOMark’s camera ratings.
Is creepy an emotion?
The camera’s most practical improvements are on the hardware side. But the software upgrades bring a lot more proverbial flash. Take AR Emojis. Given how much the S9 looks like its predecessor, it’s easy to see why the company has leaned so heavily on the new feature in its messaging. That said, I’m not entirely sure that’s the best idea. AR Emojis are creepy. I said it before, and I’ll say it again. It’s the first thing I thought when I saw them, and after spending a week with the phone, my opinions haven’t changed.
Samsung got knocked a bit here for cribbing the feature from Apple. The Animoji comparisons were inevitable. And, indeed, all phone makers “borrow” from one another. Welcome to consumer electronics. Of course, Samsung’s put its own unique spin on the feature, and therein lies the creepiness. Take a selfie, and the company builds a customized emoji, using 100 facial data points.
From there, you customize the hair, clothing and add glasses if you wear them. The selections are still pretty limited on that front, but I’d expect Samsung will add more as it goes along. Once you’re all good and saved, the system automically generates nearly 20 animated GIFs representing various Anime-style emotional states, intended to be shared over social media. I don’t see myself ever using them un-ironically, but then I’ve come to accept when I’m not the target demographic for a thing.
It’s kind of like Nintendo’s Mii — if they suddenly decided to be less cute and set up shop smack in the middle of the uncanny valley. It’s an admirable idea, using the company’s camera technology to create something more customized than the 16 Apple currently offers. But for one thing, the scans don’t offer enough distinction from person to person. And for another, I’m not sure machines can be relied upon to combine real-world 3D imagery and cartoons into something not creepy. Listen, we’ve all seen Blade Runner here. Robots are creepy.
There are other default emojis — a rabbit, a cat and a weird box-headed monster thingy. None match Apple’s offerings for general adorableness, but I wouldn’t worry too much for Samsung. The company scored a major coup by striking a deal with Disney, in spite of the company’s longtime alliance (and board member swapping) with Apple.
Along with the Star Wars AR it brought to the Pixel 2, Disney seems to be trying hard not to play favorites. That will ultimately mean great things for AR Emoji adoption, assuming, of course, that they’re implemented in a less creepy way than its current offering. I’ve got faith in Disney’s tight grip on intellectual property — they’ll likely look good, which will ultimately mean users will continue to engage with the tech after the purchase of the phone.
There’s no date on arrival, but the offering will include Mickey and Minnie, along with some Pixar names. The Incredibles flashed on the screen — no surprise, given that a sequel is due out in July. It’s a nice marketing play for Disney, leveraging the flagship from the world’s largest phone maker.
Hopefully the company won’t regret it too much when online videos with the company’s iconic mouse saying truly filthy things surface on social media immediately after launch. I’m not saying I’m looking forward to it, I’m just saying that I’ve learned to expect the absolute worst from my fellow humans.
Taking it slow
Sony took another not so subtle dig at its press conference, noting that it had Super Slow Motion on its phones a year before Samsung. But again, the key differentiator here is the fact that people actually, you know, buy Samsung phones. As such, this is the first time a lot of people are going to get their hands on the technology.
During a briefing, Samsung compared the tech to The Matrix’s “bullet time.” This is not that, of course. For one thing, it’s just the one camera. But it is, in fact, very neat. Honestly, it’s the most fun I had testing the phone out over the past week. Like any good new camera toy, it makes you hyper aware of your surroundings as you look for little things in life that might look cool, slowed down.
The new tech is a pretty radical update over Samsung’s earlier slow motion, bumping it from 240 to 960 frames per second. That’s 32 times slower than regular footage and four times slower than standard slow motion. You’ll invariably find yourself shooting all sorts of weird mundanity you wouldn’t think to video in a million years at regular speed: water pouring into a glass, pigeons on the street. It’s a good way to instantly look like a weirdo to strangers, but screw ’em, it’s for science.
By default, the feature sports a small square in the middle that automatically fires up Super Slow Motion when it detects action. Results will vary in that bit, depending on a number of factors, including how far away the action is. It’s nice to have the setting to fall back on, so you can keep the phone steady with two hands, but more often than not, I found myself just doing it manually.
Once shot, the phone packages the video nicely, creating three separate looping GIFs and adding royalty free music to the main video. Honestly, though, they all end up looking super moody and I just want to add that “Mad World” cover from Donnie Dark to really complete the package.
The fact that light flickers at certain frequency only adds to the effect. Shooting in Heathrow proved next to impossible under the oppressive airport lights. Low light, on the other hand, was a non-starter. The feature requires a lot of light to work properly, so don’t expect to go shooting any Super Slow Motion in restaurants or bars.
A few other features are worth calling out here. Food Mode offers some nice beauty shots of your lunch. I’m generally happy how these turned out, though some of my co-workers found them to be a bit oversaturated. Auto-focus speed has improved, as promised, and stickers are a fun augmented reality addition to the offering.
Samsung’s been on something of an AI shopping spree over the past couple of years. Even so, the company’s smart assistant has had a tough time playing catch up to Alexa, Siri and the rest. Even so, Bixby stumbled pretty hard out of the gate. Samsung needed to deliver a compelling reason to choose its offering over Android’s default, Google Assistant. Instead, Bixby was half-baked when it arrived on the S8.
The company’s made some key in-roads since then, including, most notably, the eventual arrival of voice functionality. Certainly Bixby has some grand ambitions, fueled by acquisitions like Viv. But that kind of thing doesn’t amount to a whole lot if your assistant isn’t suited to day-to-day activities.
On that front, Bixby’s still got a lot of growing to do. We sat in a circle at our Airbnb in Barcelona, asking a spate of questions to Bixby, Siri, Assistant and Cortana (TechCrunch knows how to party), and Bixby had trouble competing. In general, those other assistants are better suited to answer simple questions.
I also found myself flipping Bixby’s voice recognition to its highest sensitivity. As the company notes, the more sensitive you make it, the more likely it is to get triggered accidentally, but I found that was the best way to ensure a response.
Of course, Bixby’s much more tightly integrated into the daily Galaxy experience. A right swipe on the home page will bring up the Bixby landing page, which aggregates all sorts of content from the phone, including social media messages, health stats and local offerings from Maps. Of course, this also can be accessed via the devoted Bixby button, which is back for some reason.
The stream’s not particularly useful in and of itself. It’s really not too dissimilar from any number of content aggregation streams countless manufacturers have built into Android in an attempt to differentiate themselves from the competition. It is, however, a handy way of keeping track all of the various third-party apps you’ve integrated into the service. Also, Samsung has thankfully finally unified all of its myriad smart home offerings into a single, easy to use Smart Things app, similar to Apple’s Home offering.
Where the assistant does manage to stand out from the competition (save, in some cases, for Google) is with Bixby Vision. The feature isn’t really fully integrated into Bixby — in fact, it seems more like a branding opportunity than anything for the company. But name aside, it’s a really cool feature with a broad range of applications.
Text was the one I was most looking forward to, wandering the streets of Catalonia. When it’s working perfectly, the phone harnesses Google’s smarts to create an augmented reality translation that lays over real-world text. Really, really neat. The system works with 54 input languages and 150 output.
Live translation is spotty. It understandably takes a bit of time, as it has to send and receive information from the cloud. The text overlays also look a bit like a ransom note, but beggars can’t be choosers for a feature like this. I found the feature to be more miss than hit in augmented reality mode, so ultimately I ended up using the phone to convert signage into text and translate it that way. It’s a longer route, but ultimately a lot more helpful.
The Not Hot Dog-esque Food feature is impressive, as well, identifying food stuffs and giving you a rough approximation that you can add to the Samsung Health app. Like translation, it’s similar to something Google offers up in Lens. There’s also a Makeup feature that overlays eye shadows and lipsticks from companies like Sephora to see what you look like in a new shade.
Both are extremely impressive showcases for technology, but ultimately feel more novel than useful.
The S9’s display is the same resolution as its predecessor — a Quad HD 2,960 x 1,440. That works out to 570 PPI on the 5.8-inch S9 and 529 PPI on the 6.2-inch S9+. Attempting to top that resolution is a fool’s errand, but the company that also supplies displays to its chief competition happily made some tweaks to the screen’s color accuracy. The OLED recently took DisplayMate’s top honors, and rightfully so. It’s lovely.
The speakers have been souped up, as well — a welcome addition, given that the feature so often gets short shrift from phone makers. The volume gets much louder, and when you flip the phone into landscape mode, the earpiece doubles as a stereo speaker. Of course, the same disclaimer that you get on all phone speakers is needed here: It’s fine for watching YouTube videos, but you’re going to want some headphones if you plan to listen for any extended period of time.
Thankfully, Samsung’s acquisition of Harman means the phone ships with a pair of AKG earbuds with silicone tips that are way, way more comfortable than Apple’s default pair. And yes, no adapter required.
The phone includes all of its predecessor’s various biometric unlocking options, but adds Intelligent Scan to the mix. The feature combines iris and face scanning into one, defaulting to the best option based on light level. It starts with your face and moves to the eyeballs if the lighting sucks.
It works a lot better than relying on iris alone, but as has been noted, it’s not secure enough to tie to things like mobile payment. And if you’re really concerned with the potential for other people to get into your phone, I’d recommend other methods.
Here in the States, you’ll be getting the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 — a feature that’s likely behind the company’s decision to announce the phone at Mobile World Congress last week, in order to stay ahead of the competition. Both models ship with 64GB of storage, augmentable via a microSD chip (up to a whopping 400GB). The S9 sports 4GB of RAM and the S9+ bumps that up by 2GB, which should be more than enough power for most users.
Samsung continues to be cautious on the battery front after flying too close to the sun, once upon a time. The S9 sports a 3,000mAh unit, while the S9+’s is 3,500. Not the largest around, but I was able to effectively get nearly two days of use on a single charge for the S9+.
As ever, Samsung’s additions are some combination of genuinely useful and some “why not” features. The S9’s got enough small but meaningful tweaks to keep the device at the top of the Android heap, and perhaps best of all, Samsung’s managed to price it at $720/$840 — not cheap by any stretch of the imagination, but considerably less expensive than the iPhone X’s $1,000 price tag.
Bixby still needs a lot of love and those AR Emojis are, to borrow a phrase from my people in Northern California, “hella creepy.” But all of those new software additions are nothing if not ambitious and point to a company trying out some genuinely interesting stuff in spaces like augmented reality. They’re not all hits, but they’re never not interesting.
As far as upgrading from the S8 — unless you’ve found yourself in some sort of Brewster’s Millions-style scenario where you suddenly have to part with a lot of cash with comedic consequences, I’m going to say hold off on that one. For everyone else ready to upgrade to a shiny new Android handset, however, the S9 maintains Samsung’s spot at the top of the heap.