ONE COMPANY, TWO phones, and both of them look a lot like their predecessor. The Samsung S8 line was fantastic, and although the S9 is more of the same, it’s more of the same but better. You only have to gently poke at the surface though to find differences between the two models, making it an alluring prospect if you’re looking for a new handset, though the marginal differences will only tempt those who live on the cutting edge to consider upgrading.
It’s a game of ‘spot the difference’ when comparing the S9s and S8s. There are a few slight changes that make a big difference, though, starting with the materials used. The fact they use Gorilla Glass 5 is a big step forward, as it means both are better abled to withstand knocks and drops.
Turning the S8 and S9 models over to reveal their backs will reveal the main difference: the fingerprint sensor has been moved below the camera, rather than being located to the right of it. Thankfully, it is more accessible, and now easy to land a finger on it.
Samsung continues to offer a headphone jack, located on the bottom of the phone to the left, so you can easily slip the phone into your pocket with a pair of earbuds connected, and both phones benefit with a slot for a micro SD. Unfortunately, the Bixby button remains, and feels like a volume switch when blindly sliding your finger down the side.
The S9 packs a 5.8-inch screen and very little bezel above and below the display, and it’s easy to manage one-handed while still offering a lot of screen to look at. The Plus, meanwhile, is a phone for big mitts. The dimensions have changed by a few millimeters to reduce the top and bottom bezels, making the 6.2-inch phone a tiny bit shorter than the S8 Plus. You’ll have to stretch your fingers to touch the corners of the screen furthest from your grip — navigating Google Maps on the go, for example, can be a cumbersome affair.
FULL SCREEN AHEAD
Colour reproduction, brightness, and clarity of the screen are all faultless in our eyes, and Samsung has managed to make the Super AMOLED technology deliver images that are more true to life than ever. Both display a Quad HD+ resolution (2,960 x 1,440), yet still look outstanding at the default Full HD 1080p. It’s the combination of the futuristic-looking curved edges, vibrant colours and high contrast ratio that make it pop.
However, while the display technology is good, auto-brightness still has issues. The devices always err on being too bright, and that’s a battery-sucker. Both phones learn your brightness preferences, noting when you boost or dim the screen in certain situations, and mimics those settings for you in similar conditions.
On the Galaxy S9+, its tall 18.5:9 aspect ratio has set the standard for all-screen smartphones. We also appreciate the fact that Samsung has created a screen that fills 90% of the front of the S9+. There’s very little bezel here, and no notch whatsoever, which makes it feel like you’re holding one large, beautiful light beam in your hand.
The rear snapper is an obvious difference between the two phones, as the Plus is gifted with a dual-lens setup compared to the single on the S9. The Note 8’s dual-lens camera feature is embedded in the Plus, which gives it a telephoto lens for optically zoomed-in photos without distortion. This second lens also enables bokeh-rich ‘Live Focus’ portrait photos that never seem to be flawless, but are on par with the background blurring effects the Google Pixel 2 and iPhone X are capable of.
The main key upgrade is the fact that the sensor can now switch between an aperture of f/1.5 (for great low-light shots) and f/2.4 (for better brighter scenes), while improving the intelligence of the sensor so that it can analyse and improve your images more effectively.
In bright light, the pictures from the Galaxy S9 duo are nothing short of superb; there’s a sharpness, brightness and surprising quality. Being picky, some of the images we’ve taken lack a real pop of colour — Samsung has seemingly decided that it wants its cameras to produce images that are more natural-looking, but this comes at the expense of vibrancy at times.
The other new feature is the super-slow-motion camera, which can capture 960 frames per second, turning a 0.2-second instant of movement into a six-second long slow-mo clip. In bright light, it’s exceptional — as long as you’re either holding the phone steady or are ready on the trigger.
AR EMOJI AND BIXBY
Samsung’s answer to Apple’s Animoji is here on the Galaxy S9+ with the debut of AR Emoji. This uses the front 8MP camera to analyse a 2D image of you and then maps more than 100 different facial features to a 3D avatar. Samsung’s take on AR masks do mirror facial expressions onto a customisable avatar, but do so rather stiffly using its single camera and software-based algorithms. AR Emoji movement can’t compare to Apple’s iPhone X TrueDepth camera array, and our AR personas failed to look like us no matter how many times we ran through the creation process — the novelty quickly wears off.
Bixby is back and improved, but acts like a smart student who routinely fails to listen. Google and Apple’s assistants do a better job of picking up on what you’re saying, but Bixby Vision breaks ground with features like live translation. You can decode a foreign language sign or menu by pointing your camera at the text you want translated — all without snapping a photo and waiting for it to translate. It’s good news for travelers, though you’ll need data to power this internet-connected feature and its Google Translate backend is far from reliable. It’s helpful in a pinch.
New to the S9+ is the fact that the face unlock and iris scanner biometrics now work at the same time to unlock the phone. This is Samsung’s answer to Apple’s Face ID tech, and it works most of the time. Whenever our eyeballs and mug were looking down at the phone, it opened very quickly, except when we were walking in bright sunlight — and that’s just the sort of situation where you’ll want to recheck Google Maps or quickly reply to a message to say: “I’m on my way.”
The extra cost compared to the (still terrific) Galaxy S8 is going to be tough for some people to stomach, as you’ll get a lot of the features here on the S8, as long as you don’t mind some finger gymnastics to get to the fingerprint scanner on the back.
There are also three big obstacles to owning the Galaxy S9+. First, it’s a big phone meant for big hands. If you’re not into that, go with the normal-sized S9 for its one-hand-friendly operation, even if you like the extra screen space, RAM and battery life. Second, it’s more costly than the S9; it’s a lot to pay for 0.4 inches of extra screen space and more power. Third, the Galaxy Note 9 is expected in August, and the Note phones are historically slightly bigger and noticeably better than Samsung’s S-level flagships, and include a handy S Pen.
Of course, if you want a really big phone right now, you’re not going to find one better than the S9+. It’s our favourite phone for people with big hands and big wallets.
SAMSUNG GALAXY S9
From $1,199 (64GB) www.samsung.com/au
Android 8.0; 5.8-inch; Super AMOLED @ 2,960 x 1,440 (570ppi); Samsung Exynos 9810; Mali G72 MP18; 12MP rear dual-camera; 8MP front camera; fingerprint reader; IP68 dust and water resistant; 3,000mAh non-removable battery; 14.8 x 6.9 x 0.8cm; 163 g
SAMSUNG GALAXY S9+
From $1,349 (64GB) www.samsung.com/au
Android 8.0; 6.2-inch Super AMOLED @ 2,960 x 1,440 (529ppi); Samsung Exynos 9810; Mali G72 MP18; 12+12MP rear dual-camera; 8MP front camera; fingerprint reader; IP68 dust and water resistant; 3,500mAh non-removable battery; 15.8 x 7.4 x 0.8cm; 189g