Keeping secrets in the mobile industry is pretty much impossible these days, even if you’re a juggernaut like Samsung. So it’s no surprise the multitude of rumours and leaks about the Galaxy S9 and S9+ were right on the nose. But they’re rumours no more. Samsung’s unveiled its pair of new handsets in Barcelona this evening, a day ahead of the mobile industry’s annual showcase, Mobile World Congress. Here’s what you need to know.
Low-light, camera, slow action!
We’ve long been fans of Samsung’s smartphone cameras. Sure, colours tend to be oversaturated compared to Apple’s more subdued and natural take on image reproduction, but Samsung’s low-light performance tends to leave iPhones — and its Android rivals — in the dust (and the dark). That trend looks set to continue thanks to Samsung’s new f1.5-f2.4 variable aperture. Why does that matter?
When it comes to cameras, the wider a given aperture the more light hits the sensor, which means both better performance in poorly lit conditions and better subject isolation and background blur. For a smartphone camera, f1.5 is a ridiculously big aperture. Add software-based “multi-frame noise reduction” and we’re expecting great things.
There’s a single, optically stabilised rear shooter on the Galaxy S9, but a dual-lens setup (with dual optical image stabilisation) like that of the Note 8 on the S9+ offering a regular field of view and a telephoto one. In addition to 4K video capture (in the newly popular space-saving HEVC video format, if you wish), Samsung’s brought super slo mo shooting to both handsets in the S9 range with the option to capture 1080p video at 960fps (something rival Sony first showed off at last year’s MWC).
Getting to the camera and navigating its settings has also had a lick of paint. Double pressing the power button will open the camera, and swiping up or down on the screen in the camera app switches between the front- and rear-facing snappers.
Look to unlock and make a silly face
Iris scanning on the Galaxy S8 was a bit hit-and-miss, and the fingerprint sensor’s placement next to the camera was a nuisance that resulted in a greasy camera lens more often that it did an unlocked phone. With the S9, Samsung’s addressed both problems. The fingerprint sensor is where it belongs — centred beneath the rear camera — and the new “fusion biometrics” feature uses a combination of iris and face scanning for security.
The same face-mapping technology is also behind another feature that’s new to the S9 range: AR Emoji. If you’ve seen Apple’s Animoji on the iPhone X this will seem very familiar. Except, where Apple’s emoji mapped to a users face are limited to a dozen or so animated animal heads, Samsung’s bet the farm, so to speak, offering a far wider selection of animated surrogates to choose from.
And, if a disembodied animal head isn’t your thing, you can also create an AR Avatar, a 3D virtual version of yourself. Snap a selfie, let Samsung’s software animate it, customise your avatar’s attributes and outfit, and share the resultant GIF or movie file to the platform of your choice. It feels like a cross between the Bitmoji app and Animoji.
Sound and (Bixby) vision
Samsung’s stuck to a 5.8in display for the S9 and a 6.2in for the larger S9+. Both are AMOLED+ displays with aspect ratios of 18.5:9. Given how vibrant and crisp the S8’s display is, that’s nothing to gripe about. What has changed is that Samsung’s managed to disguise the array of sensors squeezed into the top bezel above the display, and its snuck in a pair of stereo speakers — one at the bottom of the device and the other behind the earpiece at the top — that include Dolby Atmos tech.
In a brief hands on with the S9 we were impressed by the sound separation in a sample video. In other words, that guy who insists on watching YouTube without headphones on the Gautrain has never had the opportunity to be more annoying. But if you are that guy, your content has probably never sounded so good. For extra effect, we recommend taking advantage of the IP68 rating and watching things in the bath.
Samsung says the speakers are “tuned by AKG”, as are the earbuds supplied with the S9/S9+ (Samsung owns Harmon, which in turn makes AKG kit). The previous gen of in-box buds were leagues ahead of the basic buds supplied with most phones, so we don’t expect this time around will be any different.
Bixby, Samsung’s digital assistant, has gotten the update treatment too. Its “smart vision” has been refined in what Samsung’s dubbed “Bixby Vision 2.0” and there’s a new live translate feature reminiscent of the camera mode in Google Translate. We’ll bring you more about Bixby — and whether it now justifies the existence of its dedicated button beneath the volume rocker — once we’ve had more time with it.
Hues, cases and when you can have ’em
The S9 and S9+ will be available in four colours, Midnight Black, Titanium Grey, Coral Blue, and the brand new Lilac Purple. Pre-orders open tomorrow (26 February) at all the operators and at Samsung’s retail stores. Those customers who pre-order either handset will get in on Friday 9 March, a full week before it appears in stores on 16 March.
Anyone buying one of the new handsets from any channel will receive a R500 voucher for Samsung accessories, and orders placed before the end of March will get six months of Samsung’s Mobile Care for free.
The S9 will be offered with 64GB of storage, while the S9+ will come with 128GB. Both devices support microSD cards up to 400GB.
While there’s a basic, clear case in the box, Samsung’s confirmed it’ll be offering three official cases in South Africa. The first is the LED view cover (R1,189) that displays pertinent info when closed. The second is the protective standing cover (R799) that includes a built-in kickstand, and the third is a HyperKnit cover (R639) made from the same material so popular with sneaker makers today.
As for the pricing of the handsets themselves? We’re going to have to wait until the operators announce their packages tomorrow for that, but we imagine it’ll be in the region of R13,000 for the S9 and at least R15,000 for the S9+.
[UPDATE: We’ve had confirmation of local recommended retails pricing. The S9 will retail for R14,599 and the S9+ will retail for R17,999]