A lot of ink, digital and the other kind, has already been spilled on the new Galaxy S9 smartphone from Samsung. A lot more is going to be splashed around over the rest of the year as Samsung’s newest is used as the benchmark for every other smartphone released in 2018. Nobody’s going to be left out, even Apple’s newest creations will be measured against the S9.
Which could be fitting as Samsung has done what Apple is known for: spacing smartphone releases with an incremental update that’s just an upgrade of the previous year’s model. We present to you the Samsung Galaxy S8 er… S.
Design: We’ve been here before
One of the tricks we started doing the moment the S9 arrived was polishing up the Galaxy S8 and the Galaxy S9, holding them side-by-side and asking passersby which one was the new phone. Unless you noticed the (ever so slight) wear-and-tear, the fact that we forgot some of the packaging plastic on one corner of the S9, or had a chance to look at the reconfigured rear, it’s impossible to tell which handset was the newer one from the front. This may have led to a few confusing situations and a near-blanking of a fully-function personal smartphone.
There is the slightest difference in heft and the Galaxy S9 feels just a tiny bit thicker and wider — which actually happens to be the case. By about 0.5mm in both instances. There’s not much you can spot on a purely visual level. If you put your nose to the front of the still-glorious Infinity Display you’ll notice that the front camera sensor array is different. Flipping the phone over is the sure decider, though. Samsung has put the fingerprint sensor in a far less silly place, beneath the camera sensor. You’re far less likely to rub fingerprints over that fancy new variable aperture. Sadly the dedicated Bixby button, which we killed without prejudice on the S8, still does that thing where it summon’s Samsung’s digital assistant every time you look at the handset funny.
Camera: Looking at it another way
Let’s get one thing out of the way. Selfie camera? It’s the same 8MP one as the S8, to the millimetre. It’s got some new functions, in that it can be used to create your AR Emoji avatar (which all wind up looking like hipsters with the Beauty filter turned up to 11) and it’ll capture some of your facial expressions and replicate them onscreen. We had greater success getting the camera to recognise facial expressions sans glasses and when the camera was specifically positioned. Hold it too low and it thinks your mouth is open, too high and your lips might twitch. You mileage will vary here, we suspect.
The rear camera is the one that we were really keen on coming to grips with. What sort of a difference does that variable aperture, which is able to switch from f/1.5 to f/2.4 when needed, make to your images? Most of the time, very little. It’s only once things start getting a lot darker than you’ll see the wider aperture making a difference to your snaps. Intentionally creeping into the darkest corner of the building and trying to snap detailed images is a nice way to terrify neighbours and possibly summon an urban legend or two but it shows at the end of the day. Taking a photo with the smaller f/2.4 aperture (which can be manually selected, if you’re a photography snob) results in noticeably more grain than the wider f/1.5 aperture in poor lighting. Upshot? Your night out images just got a whole load better, with images that would normally be formless mush picking up a lot more structure in the wider aperture. Plus, it’s fun to watch the Samsung’s sensor transform when it goes from f/1.5 to f/2.4 and back.
But this camera isn’t the one that we’re really excited about. Samsung’s Galaxy S9 Plus, which incorporates this variable system and includes a second sensor for a little dual-cam goodness, is the one that we’re keenest on fiddling with at the moment. Make no mistake, the S9’s camera is excellent. The S9 Plus is going to have the better option, though.
Super slow mo in the S9? Sure, that’s here but you’d going to have to be recording your target and making sure that that whatever is going to be slowed down passes through a little pre-set box on-screen. Steady hands, okay? You’re going to have to intentionally set out to capture slow-motion with the S9, rather than doing it on the fly, but since you can swipe over to the option with a couple of finger-strokes it’s not the end of the world. Even then, it’s going to take a bit of time to get used to the limitations contained herein.
Performance: All systems go
Samsung’s S9 is faster this time around. We’d feel cheated if it wasn’t but the S8 was already so quick that it’s hard to see where Samsung has squeezed out a few extra CPU cycles to dump in front of our eyes. We did run a couple of benchmarks to get a numerical sense of what the Exynos 9810 Octa inside the Galaxy S9 is capable of and the results were… eyebrow-lifting.
Using Geekbench 4 the S9 got a single-core score of around 3670 (on average), whether the phone was set to standard or Performance mode (a mode which exists just so you can say you have it). Multicore scores were a little different though: 8770 when in Performance Mode and 8440 in standard mode. If you’re thinking that the S8 comes fairly close, we reconducted those tests too. The Galaxy S8 manages 2018 and 6526 for single- and multi-core respectively. Not bad at all, Samsung.
AnTuTu was our other port of call and Samsung’s smartphone chewed up and spat out every test that could be thrown at it. The final score of 241 995 may be an impressive figure but it doesn’t compare to watching the S9 render 3D on the fly. The frame-rates were smooth enough that it messed with our vision — we’re just not used to seeing a smartphone act this much like a PC. Using a DeX Station could be a far nicer proposition than we were expecting this year — we’re going to have to try that out as soon as possible.
Software and battery: More familiar faces
By and large the other features are much the same. Samsung’s left in the 3,000mAh battery which served the S8 so well and we’re actually expecting somewhat better efficiency this year — if only a little bit. Some longer-term testing will bear this out. Wireless- and fast-charging are present and accounted for, meaning that you’ll never be left wanting, power-wise. If, that is, you have the original Samsung cable nearby. It still isn’t keen on third-party USB-C chargers.
Android 7.0 is the S8’s OS of choice but the S9 is packing Android 8.0 – which you’d think would make a difference but it hasn’t changed too much on a superficial level. The swipes and gestures mastered over the past year are still functional and most of the shortcuts we’re used to are in the same place. There’s a little more responsiveness here and a sense of less bloat as well — we’re sure that has at least something to do with the fresh Android installation, though.
Samsung Galaxy S9 Verdict
Okay, so it looks just like the Galaxy S8. So what? Have you seen the Galaxy S8? There are far worse things out there to look like. What it does mean is that Samsung might find it difficult to get users to jump on board if those users are already using the Galaxy S8. Even those who are determined to always use the latest and greatest handsets could just alter their wallpaper a little, claim to have an S9, and just make sure that nobody sees the way the camera and fingerprint sensor are arranged on the rear of the phone. They’re that similar-looking.
But they’re not the same thing at all. The Galaxy S9 is a shade faster, on paper and in practise, and the improved camera tech will have the social media-inclined smugly reaching for their pockets every time an elegantly-arranged plate of artisanal salad-and-sawdust arrives at the table. Anyone who hasn’t already got an S8 is going to want to have the S9. For those folks its well worth the upgrade, no matter which handset or ecosystem you’re coming from. The only exception are the people who bought the S8 last year but even they will will be looking as Samsung’s improved model with longing. Hey, at R14,600 a Galaxy S9 isn’t that expensive at launch. Right?