Samsung Galaxy Note 9 Review: Android’s Most Note-Worthy Phone in Nine Points!
Still crazy amazing after all these years...
Well before 6-inch displays were mainstream, there was a series of smartphones that made the word phablet trendy. Samsung introduced the Galaxy Note series back in 2011 when smartphones were supposed to be compact and a 4.0-inch display was considered scandalously large – well, the first Galaxy Note came with a (then) massive 5.3-inch display and stylus. And against all odds, it succeeded, emerging in many minds as the challenger to the iPhone. While many smartphones tried to follow in its footsteps, none could really keep up with the series. And although displays have steadily got bigger and operating systems and UIs have evolved, the basic essence of the Note has remained the same all through these years: a big display and a stylus backed up by high-quality hardware. The Galaxy Note 9 is not different from its predecessors in this regard – it, too, comes with a big display, a stylus, and a spec sheet that any device would be proud of. We have been using the device for almost two months now (yes, delayed we know, but hopefully, this is still relevant, as this is one of the most asked about devices out there), have seen our share of updates, and our conclusions can be summed up in nine (appropriately) points:
1. Design and display: Familiar as ever, stunning as ever
When it comes to basic design, it seems like the Note 9 has borrowed a few pages from its predecessor’s design book. It broadly follows the same design language as the Note 8 but comes with a few changes. The front of the smartphone is dominated by a 6.4 inch super AMOLED display with 18:5:9 screen aspect ratio (alert: no notch, as Samsung continues to believe in its edge to edge display) and a screen resolution of 1440 x 2960. The display of the Note 9 is definitely one of the strongest points of the device. The unapologetically large AMOLED display is not only one of the brightest displays we have seen on a smartphone but at a time when the likes of Apple, Google, and even OnePlus are trying to make AMOLED displays more realistic, it remains one of the most brilliantly colorful we have seen. It delivers deeper blacks which offer better contrast, and while it overdoes warm colors like reds, yellows, and oranges a bit, nothing seems far too away from reality. With thin bezels on top and base, the screen on the side curves out, giving it the edgy Note feels. The bezel above the display carries the front facing camera, the earpiece coupled with a few sensors while the one below the display remains bare.
Well, now that we have covered the glass on the front, let us get to the glass on the back, both of which are topped with Gorilla Glass 5. Flip the smartphone around and the biggest difference between the Note 8 and the Note 9 will hit you straight away. The company has this time placed the fingerprint scanner below the camera unit as opposed to the Note 8 where the scanner was positioned just alongside it. This prevents the camera unit from getting smudged every time you try to unlock the device – a major problem on the Note 8. Below the scanner is the company logo.
That said, this is pretty much the only major visible difference on the back. The slightly protruding rectangular shaped camera unit and its placement near the top of the smartphone remains the same. The glass black on the Note 9, just like the Note 8, remains a fingerprint magnet. We had a constant urge to wipe the back of the phone all the time because those smudges just will not leave you alone. It is a good thing that the phone comes with a clear cover in the box.
Glass on the front, glass on the back, and sandwiched between these two glass-y layers is the chamfered aluminum frame, giving the device a break from all the glass. The left side of the smartphone holds the volume rocker and the Bixby launcher while the right side carries the power/lock button. The top holds the hybrid SIM card slot and the base the S Pen, the speaker, the USB Type C port and the 3.5 mm audio jack. The aluminum frame gets points for making the devices a little less slippery to hold and also adds solidity to the Note 9 – speaking of which, the device has an IP68 rating, making dust and water resistant. Measuring 161.9 x 76.4 x 8.8 mm and at 201 grams, the Note 9 is anything but petite (it is taller than even the iPhone XS Max, which has a larger display), though it does come in a shiny, sleek frame. It looks familiar? Definitely. But who is complaining?
2. S Pen: Dat scribbler is now a Bluetooth controller
The credit to introduce big screen goes to the Note series but while other manufacturers have managed to catch up with Samsung in that department, the one area where Samsung still has the lead is the stylus zone. The company not only made a phone with a stylus at a time when people (including a certain Steve Jobs at Apple) were poking fun at the stylus but has also worked to improve it over the years. And that reflects in this year’s S Pen features. Along with its ever famous note making, screen writing abilities, which it does very well indeed (it remains one of the most sensitive styluses we have handled), the S Pen now comes with its very own Bluetooth which allows it to act as a handy remote control, giving it a few very cool party tricks of its own.
If you are big on selfies but hate to juggle between holding the phone and finding that volume button, the S Pen on the Note 9 is just the superhero you were waiting for. Now that the S Pen is bundled with Bluetooth, you can click on the button present on the Pen to take pictures. There are no annoying setups and you do not have to find your way through the settings to turn the feature on. Not just this, the S Pen can be used as a clicker to change slides during a presentation, play, and pause songs and play the next song and a host of other things. Now, because it comes with a tiny mind of its own, naturally, the S Pen becomes a little device that needs a battery to operate. The stylus does not come with a separate charger or require a specific charging process. Unlike the Apple Pencil which needs to be charged separately, the S Pen feeds on the battery of the Galaxy Note 9 itself – just slip it into the slot on the base of the device. For some, it might be just another thing slurping up the phone’s battery but we think it is a neat trick which makes the process of owning a stylus easier. In addition to that, the battery on the S Pen is not too big in numbers, anyway, which should not put any pressure on the device’s battery. That said because the stylus has a very small battery it can be used for about half an hour at a stretch, which might irritate some prolific note takers, even though it recharges really fast (half a minute to recharge it fully).
One little negative—we think the S Pen does not really look premium. The minute you take it out, the S Pen looks like an adopted kid who is trying very hard to fit in an extremely affluent family. The plastic yellow combined with slight gold that we received in our blue unit, throws the premiumness of the device out of the window the minute it pops out. The button on it was hard to find and we were often scared of misplacing and losing it whenever we used it as a Bluetooth controller. It also slipped out a few times as there is not magnetic attachment in the slot for the pen and all of it really depends on the push and click. We really wish Samsung would put a little more heft to it. But that said, it remains THE best stylus in phone-land by miles – writing and sketching with it on that large display is an absolute joy. Mind you, we think the Bluetooth tricks do not add that much real value to it.
3. Hardware: Top notch, with no notch, as ever!
In keeping with tradition, the Note 9 comes with a staggering spec sheet. As we pointed out, it boasts a massive 6.4 inch super AMOLED display with aspect ratio of 18:5:9 and screen resolution of 1440 x 2960 pixels (although it is set on a lower resolution – full HD+ – by default, and to tell the truth, we did not notice a massive difference). Both front and back are topped with Gorilla Glass 5 to save the smartphone from bumps and bruises. In India, the smartphone is powered by Samsung’s Exynos 9810 Octa-core processor. It is paired with 6 GB RAM and 128 GB storage. There is 8 GB/ 512 GB variant of the device as well. The storage can be expanded up to 512 GB further – getting one of the variants into the 1 GB storage zone. Memory is not an issue with this one for sure.
In the camera department, the Note 9 comes with a two 12 megapixels sensors comprising the primary camera placed on the back paired with LED flash while an 8-megapixel camera sits on the front for selfies and video calls. One of the two 12 megapixel sensors is a wide angle lens which acts as the main camera. It comes with f/ 1.5- f/ 2.4 variable aperture, similar to the one we saw on the S9. The second camera is a telephoto lens with a f/2.4 aperture which offers 2x optical zoom. Both lenses come with OIS but only the wide angle lens sports PDAF while the telephoto lens comes with autofocus only. The front facing camera comes with f/1.7 aperture, which is rather larger for a selfie shooter.
Oh, and if you think that the Note 9 feels heavy, that is because it comes with a large 4,000 mAh battery. It is still relatively rare to see 4,000 mAh batteries in high-end smartphones, so we must applaud Samsung for the move. It comes with support for fast charging and also supports wireless charging. The phone has dual SIM connectivity, but one of the SIM card slots is a hybrid SIM slot, which seems a bit of a compromise at such a premium price point. Other connectivity options include USB Type-C, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, and NFC. And running on top of this is Android 8.1 (Oreo) topped with Samsung’s in-house Samsung Experience 9.5 UI – Android Pie is expected shortly too. All of which makes this one of the best-specced devices out there, although some will wonder why Samsung does not release the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 avatar of the device in India.
4. Camera: Dem S9+ feels…good ones, really!
The cameras on the Note 9 are pretty impressive, not just in terms of numbers but in terms of performance as well. The camera set up on the Note 9 is pretty similar to the one present on the Galaxy S9+. The combination of wide-angle lens with variable aperture and telephoto lens with 2X zoom takes us straight back to the S9+’s camera composition.
In terms of performance, the cameras of the Note 9 are among the best you will get on an Android device. Photographs taken by Note 9 are loaded with detail and the camera produces a great range of colors, especially in well-lit environments. The primary camera is also very fast and hardly takes any time to focus on the subject from a normal distance, although it takes a few seconds to focus in close-ups – it compensates for those seconds by producing some great detail. One of the areas where the Note 9 also delivers impressive results is low light photography. The camera gathers a lot of light in and highlights subjects well even in insufficient light. You might lose out on detail but the subject definitely becomes visible. The problem here is that phone tries to take in as much light as possible making even slightly low light environments a little too bright for our liking. The smartphone also does not handle glare very well, especially in low light conditions. And in keeping with Samsung tradition, the camera also delivers colors that are a little on the warmer side. The reds, pinks and orange often seem brighter than in reality.
The Note 9 also comes with a number of modes that include, Live Focus, Pro Mode, Slow-Mo, and Hyperlapse. And they work very well. We did, however, expect a bit more from the portrait mode. The bokeh in these shots is not as precise as we would have liked it to be, with the cameras often struggling to differentiate between foreground and background in the picture, and messing up the edges of the subject at times.
Samsung has also added a bit of AI magic to the camera of the Note 9. The camera can now detect certain subjects and scenarios and tweak images accordingly. For instance, if you are taking food shots, the camera will enhance the picture accordingly and will bring details and colors as per the category, whereas if you are taking a picture of a flower, it will then highlight petals and leaves more and bring their colors out more prominently. It is not all hype – there is certainly a noticeable difference between AI pictures and normal pictures, with AI photos being generally more detailed, although the colors are often too pepped up (not as much as on the Huawei P20 Pro, though). If you like results that closer to reality, we would advise you resist the temptation to use the AI mode, but if you are color and detail crazy, this feature will be your best friend.
Thanks to optical image stabilization, the videos on the Note 9 are pretty detailed and steady, evening out slight tremors. The front-facing camera on the device is good but will not knock the socks off the competition in this department. Yes, it captures a fair amount of detail but also often makes things a little yellow-ish, which throws color balance out of the window. On the flip side, there are stickers aplenty to change your appearance, and yes, you can create an AR emoji of yourself, although we really think that Apple does it better by sticking only to your facial twitches instead of trying to dress you up! All things considered, if you liked the cameras on the Galaxy S9+, you will love those on the Note 9. And of course, that large display and that stylus make editing images and videos an absolute delight!
5. Performance: A speedy, smooth performer…mostly
Samsung’s Exynos 9810 octa-core chipset coupled with 6 GB RAM and 128 GB storage make a formidable combination. And this reflects in the performance of the device. The smartphone goes through daily tasks like hot butter through a knife. Jumping from social media to texting, to emails, never really seemed like a job as the phone just handled everything with ease. The story remains the same in the gaming zone. It not only handles casual gaming like a boss but also rules the high-end gaming zone like it is nobody’s business. Games like PUBG, Asphalt Xtreme are a treat on the device and the big display only adds to the pleasure. That said, the sound on the Note 9 is not as amazing as we had expected it to be. Sure it comes with stereo speakers but we think the placement of speakers is as such that the volume does not really add up, especially while playing games when sound often gets blocked.
But the Note 9 story is not all roses. While the Note 9 felt extremely snappy and quick during the first month, as we started putting it through more and filling it up with apps and data, it seemed to lose a bit of its speedy charm. No, the lags are not deal breakers and will not make you want to pull out your hair in disappointment, but they are noticeable. This tendency to slow down with the passage of time has been a bane of Samsung’s flagships for a while now and we really wish the company would tackle it, given the stature (and price) of the Note 9. On the plus side, Samsung has been updating the software regularly, and an update to Android Pie is expected even as this is being written. Oh yes, and there is face unlock, iris unlock, fingerprint unlock (now easier to use thanks to the new, more convenient location of the fingerprint scanner) and Samsung’s own combination of face unlock and iris scanning, called Intelligent Scan. All of them work, and Intelligent Scan is just brilliant, although you cannot use it for transactions at the time of writing (good old fingerprint sensors are best there!).
6. UI: More than enough for U and I
The Note 9 runs on Android 8.1 (Oreo) topped with Samsung Experience 9.5 out of the box. Yes, Android Pie is expected soon but the fact that the OS had been released before the device hit the market makes its coming on Oreo a bit of a letdown. Samsung has loaded the smartphone with a number of features and third-party apps. Although unlike in the past when crowded UIs were the hallmark of Samsung devices, this time most of the apps and feature are nestled alway nicely. Open the settings on the device, however, is like opening Pandora’s box which comes with never-ending features. Each setting when tapped leads you to more options and settings. Now some might call this attention to detail or offering more options, but to us, it bordered on the intimidating. There seemed to be options for just about everything, which beyond a certain point can get a little on our nerves.
The company has topped this with a lot of third-party apps including Microsoft apps, social media and sharing apps. Yes, we understand that some apps are needed to support the S Pen functionality, which is not baked into standard Android, but by and large, it is just too much (hey, there are four ways to unlock the phone using your face, your fingerprint, your iris and a combination of face and iris!). Even with the stylus, there were times when we actually got confused at the number of things which would pop up when we accidentally hit the button on it. Which is not to say that all the features are useless – the smartphone comes with a one-handed mode which allows you to use the device with one hand (duh!), handy when you consider how big the phone is. There are also different modes to give you the best experience and improve battery performance (optimized mode, gaming mode, entertainment mode, high-performance mode) in different scenarios. Then there is DeX, which comes inbuilt in the Note 9, and allows you to connect the Galaxy Note 9 to a monitor and with a Bluetooth keyboard, give you a pretty smooth desktop experience (yes, it actually works, although the battery drains very fast indeed). There is a lot happening in the Samsung UI world and while it is managed better than before, we still think the phone’s UI needs to control the population of its features and apps. It could start with that dedicated Bixby button – we hardly ever used it, accustomed as we are to “Ok, Google!”
7. Battery: Not quite living up to the numbers
The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is big a phone and with such big displays come the need for more power, this power is offered the phone by a massive 4,000 mAh battery present under the hood. And well, it can easily see off a day of heavy-duty work. Which does not sound too bad on paper but frankly is not too far ahead of what we have seen on other devices with smaller batteries. The Huawei P20 Pro’s 4000 mAh battery easily gave us a day and a half of battery life and the Poco F1, which also features a 4000 mAh battery, also lasted comfortably more than a day. Is that Note 9’s big display really draining its battery? We wonder. No, we would not call the battery a disappointment but we expected much more from that 4000 mAh figure, considering what we have seen other devices do with similar sized batteries. And before you ask, that is a day of battery life when we have kept the display resolution at FHD+ (2220 x 1080) and have not pushed it to its WQHD+ (2960 x 1440) limit. No, the phone does not heat up too much so there is no need for alarm in that department, buys considering how battery life was a strength of the Note series (barring one edition), we seriously were expecting something much better.
8. Price: The Note got affordable…comparatively
Samsung has released the Note 9 in two different variants— one comes with 6 GB RAM and 128 GB storage while the other comes with 8 GB RAM and 512 GB storage. And well, the prices of these would have seemed rather stiff when the phone was released in late August in India – the 6 GB/ 128 GB variant is priced at Rs. 67,900 while the 8 GB/ 512 GB model is priced at Rs. 84,900. However, fast forward to today, and you see the iPhone XS starting at Rs. 99,000, the XS Max starting at Rs. 1,09,900 and the Pixel 3 starts at Rs 71,000 and the Pixel 3 XL gets underway at Rs. 83,000. Even the iPhone XR which some call “relatively affordable” starts at Rs 76,900. Now, factor in the fact that even the Huawei P20 Pro, which is showing signs of its age, is priced at Rs 64,999, and you can see why the Galaxy Note 9 finds itself in the rather strange position of being one of the more affordable premium Android flagships. Yes, it is still much expensive than the likes of the Poco F1, the Asus Zenfone 5Z and of course, the darling of those who adore budget flagships, the OnePlus 6. But then, thanks to its combination of hardware and software (and that stylus), Note 9 remains a very different product. We never thought it would be this affordable compared to a Pixel or an iPhone. We are not complaining.
9. Conclusion: To buy or not to buy…is not the question!
Which brings us to the final point: should one consider investing in the Samsung Galaxy Note 9? We had frowned at its price when it was launched but two months down the line, we cannot help but concede that it represents very decent value for money. Not just because it starts at a price that is lower than what the likes of the new iPhones and Google Pixels are charging, but because it even now remains a very unique product. In a world that is going touch crazy, the Note stubbornly keeps faith with the stylus. And makes a damn good case for it in terms of sheer functionality (we just wish it was better designed really). If you can ignore its occasionally slightly sluggish behavior over time and can forgive (or maybe even learn to love) the feature-heavy UI, the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is the phone for you. It does everything that you would expect a high-end flagship to do. Plus it offers something that none does: a stylus, and not just any stylus, but a very intelligent stylus. Throw in very good cameras, DeX functionality, that magnificent display and you can see why we think that Note 9 remains one of the most Note-able devices out there. And given its price tag (or rather, that of its competitors), buying it is less questionable than it has been for a while. The best smartphone under Rs 70,000? By a mile. And easily one of the best at any price point.
A friend of ours was considering purchasing an iPhone XS. He asked us: “This is a great phone. But what about the Galaxy Note?”
If that does not tell you the story, nothing can.