Samsung’s Galaxy S series flagships invariably have remained one of the most anticipated smartphones for the past few years. This time, however, there was much more at stake. For starters, the new Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus have to fill the boots of a blockbuster predecessor. Second, the company has been getting swamped by iPhone’s growing demand in the premium market, especially due to the iPhone X whose sales led to a record-breaking quarter for Apple in spite of what analysts were calling “average sales”.
Samsung, instead of a radical makeover, however, decided to play it safe and mend the things it got wrong with the Galaxy S8. The new Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus are largely incremental upgrades with new camera features as their cornerstone. We got to spend a brief time for both the phones, here’s what we think of them so far.
From the outside, you’ll be hard-pressed to differentiate the new phones. They hardly feature any design changes except for the repositioned fingerprint sensor which is no longer in that odd location beside the camera lens. They are a hair thicker than the S8 and S8+ but a bit lighter. The presence of the same all-glass waterproof build means both of them are still fingerprint magnets, unfortunately. On the bottom, you will find a USB Type-C port, and to the left of that, there’s a trusty old audio jack. With the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus, Samsung has also finally added stereo speakers which they say are roughly 40% louder than the Galaxy S8 duo.
The Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus retain the glorious tall screens on the front and leave minimal room for bezels on the top and bottom. Both of them inherit the iris scanner from their bigger sibling, the Note 8 but on the S9 and S9 Plus, it can function in conjunction with the face data from the selfie camera to offer a more secure alternative to the fingerprint reader. Speaking of the displays, there’s a 5.8-inch one on the S9 and a 6.2-inch on the S9 Plus. Both of them are Super AMOLED and feature a resolution of 1440 x 2960 pixels. The screens can be kept always on as well and have a layer of Gorilla Glass 5.
Underneath, the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus come all the power you would need. There’s a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 or Exynos 9810 octa-core processor, 4GB RAM on the Galaxy S9, 6GB RAM on the Galaxy S9 Plus, and 64/128/256GB of internal storage which is expandable. One of the primary differences between the S9 and S9 Plus is the battery size. The former has a 3000mAh battery and the latter runs on a 3500mAh pack. Both of them are compatible with wired as well as wireless quick charging.
Out of the box, the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus come with Android 8.0 instead of 8.1 which is a little disappointing. The company has still layered it with a thick skin of its own that itself is mostly unchanged. Bixby is still here with its own dedicated physical button on the left, and it can now translate text in real time through the camera app. Sadly, it didn’t quite work for us except for the time when we pointed it at “Galaxy” which it instantly converted to “akashganga”.
The camera is where most of the new features are, however. Unlike last year, the S9 and S9 Plus have different setups as Samsung has taken the Apple approach by reserving the dual-camera arrangement for the Plus variant. The S9 has a single 12-megapixel sensor, but the S9 Plus has another 12-megapixel telephoto lens for enabling 2X optical zoom. Both of them have the ability to switch the aperture to either f/1.5 or f/2.4 whenever necessary. For instance, if the scene is too bright, the camera will make use of the smaller f/2.4 aperture which brings much less light into the lens than f/1.5.
The other headlining feature is something called “AR Emojis” which lets you build eighteen different animated emojis of yourself. You can even manipulate a bunch of digital avatars like Mickey Mouse, animals and forward the clips as GIFs. While the latter feature works as advertised, the 3D avatar it carved out for us wasn’t even close to accurate. Perhaps, Samsung would improve the quality in a forthcoming software update.
The Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus can also record slow-mo 720p videos at 960fps, but here as well, we ran into a few issues primarily concerning the interface. For capturing this kind of clips, your object needs to big aligned with this small yellow box in the viewfinder which can be a tad annoying unless you’ve pre-planned the shoot. While it’s too soon for us to comment on the picture quality, we did notice that the camera had trouble dealing with bright lighting which resulted in overexposed outcomes.
With only a couple of minor new features, the road to success won’t be a piece of cake for the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus. However, the S9 series starts at $719 which is roughly $300 cheaper than Apple’s iPhone X and that just might be enough for them to sell, at least until the next Note comes out. Of course, it all narrows down to how well they perform in real life scenarios and more importantly, whether the variable aperture helps Samsung catch up with what the iPhone X and Pixel 2 are capable of.