Samsung Galaxy S9: Hands-on with the world's best phone - Stuff

Samsung Galaxy S9: Hands-on with the world’s best phone

Let’s address the elephant in the room first, shall we? On a visual level, not much has changed between the Galaxy S8 and the newly-revealed Samsung Galaxy S9. It’s quite an Apple-like move for Samsung to make — the looks are the same but the insides are what has changed. But how much?

Not a colossal amount, as it happens. If you made the upgrade jump last year, you’re not going to be champing at the bit to do the same in 2018. But if you missed the Galaxy S8 boat last year, this one’s for you. It might have even been a better idea to wait, as the S9 ups its game and fixes the (very) few things that we didn’t really like in its predecessor.

Make no mistake, the Galaxy S8 deserved its spot as the best smartphone of 2017 but we’re all but certain that the S9 is going to claim its spot once the handset hits the market. There’s not going to be much of a fight for first — that’s what happens when your hardware is just that good.

And based on first impressions, that’s exactly what the Samsung Galaxy S9 is.

CAMERAS: SEEING DOUBLE

Samsung has left the outside (and a few other locations) alone but there is something they they have changed: The camera.

Samsung might be sticking with the same 12MP pixel count we’ve grown accustomed to (and the dual-pixel autofocus and optical image stabilisation from the S8) but it has one feature that you won’t see elsewhere: a dual aperture lens.

Every other smartphone out there uses a fixed aperture, meaning that there is a limit to how much light a given sensor can get into a shot. Light: good. No light: bad. But also Too much light: bad. Actual cameras, the kind that have knobs and dials and a man with loads of pockets holding them, use a variable aperture to account for the amount of light available. The aperture used is determined based on how bright or dingy the surrounding area is. And now Samsung’s giving you that option in their flagship.

A dual aperture that can switch between f/1.5 and f/2.4 means the Galaxy S9 can offer more detail and better contrast in its photos in varying conditions — something that the phone already was no slouch at. The aperture switch will occur whenever ambient light is below 100 lux — basically a heavily overcast day — giving you even better images in some less-than-stellar conditions.

But wait, there’s more! Samsung given the slicing, dicing, dual aperture functions a partner: multi-frame noise reduction — which automatically stacks multiple shots to get rid of up to 30% of image imperfections. Google’s Pixel 2 does the same thing and it’s one reason why the Pixel 2’s camera is so good.. We’re looking forward to testing the two side-by-side but the S9 already looks to be taking one heck of a smartphone image.

There are differences to be had, though. Samsung hasn’t opted for an image signal processor (ISP) like the one found in Google’s Pixel Visual Core, or a dual camera setup like the one in the iPhone X — unless, that is, you spring for the more premium Galaxy S9+. Which camera will prove to be the best of the lot? We’re not comfortable answering that without some extensive head-to-head time. Samsung wants to take the crown, though, and they’ve thrown as much as they can at winning it.

What about video? Some changes are afoot, with the ability to shoot super slow-mo for up to 6 seconds. Which sounds like a short period until you notice that you’re shooting at 960 frames per second. Caught someone taking a high-speed football to the side of the head? You’ll be able to see the delicate interplay of emotions and shockwaves travelling across their faces in perfect detail. And you don’t need to be quick on the trigger to capture the impact. The S9 will start recording when it detects motion in a set frame.

There is something completely unchanged, the front-facer from the Galaxy S8. The same 8MP sensor and f/1.7 aperture is sticking around this time, which isn’t a wrench because the S8’s selfie camera is already great. We might find ourselves repeating that sentiment a little, especially when it comes to the phone’s design.

SCREEN AND DESIGN: THE MORE THINGS CHANGE…

There are some internal changes to look forward to with the S9 but you’re not going to notice any of them jumping out all obvious-like. Samsung have taken a page from Apple’s book and keep the visual language the same for what is… essentially… an incremental update. If this handset had come from Cupertino, it might have had an ‘S’ at the end of it. The S9 is essentially the S8 on a visual level, with a relocated fingerprint scanner and some new colour options.

We’re mighty happy about that relocation, by the way. The S8 put its fingerprint scanner right next to the camera sensor, a position that annoyed at launch and proves to still be an issue a year down the line. We’re pleased then the the S9 has moved the fingerprint scanner below the camera lens — this is one instance were we don’t mind being like everyone else, especially if it means that we don’t have to keep clearing fingerprints of the camera.

For those who haven’t touched a Galaxy S8 yet (first off: how have you managed to stay away?) the S9 keeps the curved 5.8in, Quad HD Super AMOLED screen, with that 18.5:9 aspect ratio that provides for those tiny bezels we love so much. Whatever is on-screen, the Galaxy S9 should deliver vibrant colour, with contrast and brightness that means you’ll be able to view what’s on-screen on the brightest of days. Since the handset has an HDR Mobile Premium certification, you’ll also enjoy the likes of high-dynamic range content from Netflix and Amazon.

Want to know how good the S9’s display is likely to be? Only the iPhone X had a better screen than the S8, and Apple’s display was also made by Samsung… that should tell you everything you need to know.

Staying true to the design overhaul exhibited by the S8 is no bad thing. The lightweight, gorgeous design was far too good to just throw away after a single year. Or perhaps even two. We’re looking forward to holding those familiar curved lines for another year, made all the better by the new hardware underneath that elegant glass surface.

PERFORMANCE & SOFTWARE: NO ANXIETY HERE

Hanging onto the good stuff is a continuing theme for the Galaxy S9 when it comes to internals. There’s a brand new Exynos 9810 processor, which should be faster and more efficient than ever before, but everything else is… pretty much unaltered.

There’s still 4GB RAM, 64GB storage, and a 3,000mAh battery which will run you through a day and a half worth of usage — including some video. We haven’t had any hassles with the Galaxy S8 so we see the S9 performing just as well in the day-to-day. No matter what you throw at it.

It’s powerful. So powerful, in fact, that Samsung is releasing an updated DeX station to let users take advantage of all that power. By now you should know the drill — you’ve been able to transform the S9 into a desktop PC complete with a keyboard, display and mouse. Provided you connect those things to DeX and plop the Galaxy S9 down into the arrangement. Flat, this time around, rather than upright. That’s because Samsung will be letting you use the headphone jack as an audio source and even utilise the touchscreen display as a trackpad.

The S9 will launch running Android 8.0 Oreo, layered with Samsung’s own skin and Bixby AI assistant, but in keeping with their recent trend there’s precious little extra software… useless software to get in the way. We might still be a little touchy about the TouchWiz days… Oh, and Bixby also has a new trick — the ability to translate languages onscreen in real-time using the camera app.

Oh, there is one more thing…

AR EMOJI: HEAD TURNER

We should have been expecting this, since the iPhone X got people to talk about two things: Its wallet-wounding price and the fact that you could use the front camera to animate a little character on-screen and send it to people. Samsung had to get into the act too.

Rather than copying Apple’s Animoji, though, Samsung has opted for AR Emoji instead. It still uses the front scanner on the phone but it animates a cartoonish character that bears more than a passing resemblance to the phone’s user. Anyone who has used a video game character creator or who has created an Xbox Live avatar will have some idea what to expect — with added responsiveness, that is.

GALAXY S9: INITIAL VERDICT

Everyone hates car analogies so we might as well give you a little something to dislike here: The Galaxy S9 is like a motorsport team that has finished on top of the podium all season but which still cranked the R&D budget so they could occupy the same space — just faster, next time. Even if it’s only a little.

It’s going to be the same phone, more or less, as the Galaxy S8 — which might sound like a bad thing if you weren’t aware of how brain-meltingly good the S8 is. Samsung hasn’t been sitting on its hands either, they’ve made some very welcome design tweaks and the camera upgrade should allow it to step into the S8’s soon-to-be-vacated spot without much hassle. Whether it stays there is a fight that Samsung will have with Apple and Google a little later this year but honest, in South Africa, it’s only Apple that stands a chance at dethroning the current king.

And if you already boarded the S8 train last year and are battling to get excited about the new Samsung Galaxy S9? Take a look at the Galaxy S9+, which ups the ante with a larger 6.2in screen and a dual camera. For anyone who hasn’t been breathing smartphone specifications for the past year, this will be the best phone they’ve ever seen. Hyperbole? Nah.

We can’t wait to give it a proper hands-on when the device launches on 16 March 2018.

Stuff South Africa's online editor and print assistant editor, Brett Venter has churned out more words on more titles than most journalists will in a career. He's kind of shy.

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