[Review] Samsung Galaxy S9 – Powerful camera meets premium design

[Review] Samsung Galaxy S9 – Powerful camera meets premium design

There are only a few phones on the planet at this point in time that can boast of a lineage as venerable and as storied as Samsung’s Galaxy S-series phones. Their new Galaxy S9, which will hit stores in Malaysia this coming March 15 is the latest successor to the line and has quite a reputation to live up to indeed.

At a glance, it doesn’t look all too different from its predecessor the Galaxy S8, taking instead a conservatively iterative approach to design which retains much of the S8’s design language but the S9 improves on it in a few key areas.

The three colours that the Galaxy S9 and S9+ will be available in for the Malaysia market - Midnight Black, Coral Blue and Lilac Purple

The three colours that the Galaxy S9 and S9+ will be available in for the Malaysia market – Midnight Black, Coral Blue and Lilac Purple

The S9 comes with a similarly sized and specced 5.8-inch Super AMOLED Quad HD+ display with breathtakingly slim side bezels and a mirrored glass finish on the rear that comes in one of four different colours globally with Malaysia getting the new Lilac Purple, Coral Blue and Midnight Black finishes. Our test unit came in a shade of Coral Blue, a popular hue of recent vintage that has made earlier appearances in prior Samsung phones like the Note FE.

In terms of its dimensions, it’s not all that different from the earlier Galaxy S8 with similar button placement and dimensions with most of the upgrades being under the hood though it is slightly thicker and heavier by 10g. Like the S8, the S9 also has IP68 water resistance which enables the phone to shrug off showers and immersion in up to 1.5 meters of water for up to 30 minutes, tops in the off chance you fall in the pool or get hit hy rain.

The left side of the Galaxy S9 hosts a volume rocker and the dedicated button to summon Bixby

The left side of the Galaxy S9 hosts a volume rocker and the dedicated button to summon Bixby


The volume rocker and Bixby button are still on the left of the phone. The right side still has a power button while the top still retains the SIM card tray. The 5.8-inch Super AMOLED Quad HD+ display is still the same resolution and 18.5:9 aspect ratio as its predecessor while the base still retains the USB Type C charging port and speaker grilles.

The base of the S9 retains a 3.5mm audio jack, a USB Type C port and a speaker to complement the one placed just above the display.

The base of the S9 retains a 3.5mm audio jack, a USB Type C port and a speaker to complement the one placed just above the display that offers stereo sound.

Where it improves things is the repositioned rear fingerprint sensor that has been redeployed to the base of the camera. Another subtle addition is the inclusion of stereo speakers tuned by AKG with one firing forwards just above the top display bezel and a bottom firing one at the base of the phone; this is a first for the Galaxy S-series phones and goes a long way to making the S9 a complete package when it comes to enjoying music, movies and gaming.

When held, the S9 offers superb tactility and is compact enough to comfortably allow your thumb and forefinger to access the majority of the screen without having to reposition your hand. The rear-centre mounted fingerprint reader also makes it a darned lot easier to unlock the phone when held. As expected, build quality is impeccable with a beautiful heft and feel that speaks volumes of the amount of effort put into its construction.

The repositioned rear fingerprint sensor on the S9 is emplaced beneath the camera and has a slight groove to make it easier to find by touch.

The repositioned rear fingerprint sensor on the S9 is emplaced beneath the camera and has a slight groove to make it easier to find by touch.

Perhaps the only quibble here is that the mirrored finish is a fingerprint magnet and the phone is slippery to wield though it’s something easily resolved with a casing.

Galaxy S9 Specifications and Performance

Within the 8.5mm thin casing hewn of glass and metal, Samsung has crammed in a 5.8-inch 18:5:9 aspect ratio Super AMOLED infinity display that has 2,960 x 1,440 pixel resolution and a stunning 570ppi. The display is also HDR ready which means it plays nice with high dynamic range content.

Like the S7 and S8, the new S9 also has an optional Always On mode for the display that gives you essentials like the time, date and other critical notifications via a monochromatic readout that appears constantly onscreen for a minimal trade-off in battery life.

Under the hood, the phone runs the latest Android Oreo 8.0 overlaid with their Grace UX user interface on the latest Exynos 9810 octacore processor. For Malaysia, the Galaxy S9 has 4GB RAM and 64GB of expandable storage. While variants with more storage do exist elsewhere, Malaysia only has the 4GB RAM/64GB storage version available. The microSD card slot on the hybrid SIM card slot supports up to 400GB cards which is plenty.

In terms of synthetic benchmarks, the Exynos 9810 processor offers markedly better performance over its predecessor the Exynos 8995 running in the S8 and Note8. In Antutu Benchmark v7.0.4, it yielded an impressive score of 243,307. In 3D Mark’s Sling Shot Extreme benchmark, it snagged a score of 2,871 with Vulkan API and a score of 3,221 with Open GL ES 3.1. 

 In GeekBench, the S9 yielded an impressive single-core score of 3,736 and a multi-core score of 8854 which outstrips older generation phones like the Galaxy S7 and it’s Exynos 8890 SoC by a significant margin. On PCMark, which tests its capabilities in standard work scenarios it got a respectable score of 5,256.

Day to day use was exceptionally fast and snappy with apps and websites opening in seconds with nary a hint of lag. On the gaming front, the phone proved extremely competent and ran games like Asphalt 8: Airborne and Modern Combat 5 with silky smooth frame rates and luscious visuals. 

Multitasking was handled with deft aplomb and even with Snapseed open we managed to putter around Facebook, swap to YouTube constantly and then work on Google Docs without slowing down. While its larger sibling the S9+ has more RAM, the stock S9 was more than capable of handling everything thrown at it with deft aplomb.

The Galaxy S9's Super AMOLED display proved to be vibrant enough to capture the hues of these multi-coloured rubber bands.

The Galaxy S9’s Super AMOLED display proved to be vibrant enough to capture the hues of these multi-coloured rubber bands.

The S9’s touchscreen is par for the course for Samsung’s Super AMOLED displays, serving up a luscious visual extravaganza with beautifully vibrant hues and pin-sharp detail along with superbly deep blacks onscreen. Screen legibility under daylight was excellent as well. If the colours onscreen doesn’t quite suite your tastes, you can still tweak it down to the exact red, green and blue levels you want in the settings.

…build quality is impeccable with a beautiful heft and feel that speaks volumes of the amount of effort put into its construction

Samsung’s stereo speakers which are the first time it has ever been incorporated in a Galaxy S series phone proved to be loud and pleasantly detailed enough to share your taste in music and cinema (or lack thereof) with everyone within three paces of you on the MRT.

It won’t beat dedicated speakers or cans but as far as integrated phone speakers go, they proved extremely capable. If you need a bit of private listening, you can still use the provided pair of AKG ear buds via the 3.5mm audio jack at the base of the S9.

Galaxy S9 User Experience and Bixby

Samsung’s Grace UX user interface hasn’t changed much here with minimal bloatware bar the inclusion of the Microsoft office suite which you can disable to save space. There’s a bit of overlap as Samsung has also included their own browser which has an interesting advantage – you can install a number of extensions. For now, the majority of these extensions are ad and pop-up blockers which go a long way to helping save data, sanity and time when web browsing though hopefully the selection will improve in time.

Bixby can now translate text on the fly, tell you the provenance of a bottle of wine or tourist attraction and identify what an item is.

Bixby on the Galaxy S9 can now translate text on the fly, tell you the provenance of a bottle of wine or tourist attraction and identify what an item is.

One of the key areas that Samsung improved on was Bixby Vision and to that end, the phone is, with the provision of an internet connection, able to translate text on the fly just by pointing your camera at signage you don’t recognise. This comes in extremely handy if you’re in a foreign country and need to order something off a menu though you can still opt for Google Translate as an alternative.

Bixby also now has the ability to read a label on a vintage or a tourist attraction that you’re pointing the camera at and tell you more about it. Its prior ability to identify an item you point it at onscreen is still here though it doesn’t seem to have enjoyed radical improvements. Most of the time it will simply refer you to similar looking items on Pinterest.

Bixby’s other functions remain mostly the same including its deep integration with the hardware of the S9 so you can order it to do specific things verbally like increase/decrease volume, open apps, set timers and the like. If Bixby doesn’t float your boat, you can still opt for Google Assistant though it isn’t as tightly integrated with the higher functions of the phone. All in, these new Bixby features are pleasant to have but non-essential. Where the Galaxy S9 knocks things out of the ballpark though is its rear dual aperture camera.

Galaxy S9 camera performance


The main claim to fame for the Samsung Galaxy S9 is its vaunted rear Dual Aperture camera that can mechanically and automatically switch apertures from f/1.5 to f/2.4 depending on ambient light conditions much like the Mark 1 human eyeball. Essentially, this ability to swap apertures allows the Galaxy S9 to get much better snaps in low light and generally better detail without it being washed out when you’re shooting in very brightly lit areas. That they’ve managed to implement this in a phone this slim without it grotesquely bulging out is a triumph in precision engineering.

The Galaxy S9 is able to tackle the most beloved photography subject for Malaysians in an able fashion - food shots - and it even has a dedicated mode just for it.

The Galaxy S9 is able to tackle the most beloved photography subject for Malaysians in an able fashion – food shots – and it even has a dedicated mode just for it.

While it’s able to swap apertures automatically, you can opt for Pro mode where you can control which aperture setting you want as well as other factors including ISO and shutter speed. The only quibble here is that you can only choose between two f-stops and aught else in between.

The Galaxy S9 can switch apertures from f/1.5 to f/2.4 automatically depending on ambient light conditions.

The Galaxy S9 can switch apertures from f/1.5 to f/2.4 automatically depending on ambient light conditions.


On auto mode, the S9’s camera was exceptionally competent and picked the right aperture settings every time. Shots in daylight were exceptional with excellent detail and tasteful colour saturation.

Where it trumps all comers is in low light photography – you know, restaurants, sunset shots and twilight snaps after dusk – the artistic stuff that all but the best smartphone cameras would struggle with. Check out the shots captured with the S9 below to see how it handles backlit conditions, colours and, of course, food.

The S9 manages to tackle the challenge of low light photography in an extremely able fashion with computational and hardware solutions serving up great shots with surprisingly good detail, managing to even surpass the S8’s 12-MP f/1.7 camera by a comfortable margin.

The larger, pricier Galaxy S9+ adds in a second camera with 2x optical zoom and the ability for a ‘Live Focus’ shot which offers slightly more creative options though the Galaxy S9 itself is more than capable of handling the vast majority of scenarios that you’d need to take pictures in.



The rear camera is also capable of capturing 4K UHD video at 60fps in addition to the main star attraction – slow-mo video capped at 960fps at 720p resolution. In slow-mo mode, you can stretch out 0.2 seconds of action into 6 full seconds onscreen. To make it work, you designate an area onscreen via a glowing box where the action will happen. Once something fast moves into the area, the phone starts capturing slow-mo video. This setup helps to address the limitations of human reflexes though you’ll need to preplan shots beforehand for best results. You can also opt to manually trigger slow-mo video the old fashioned way though you’ll need to have some degree of prescience or blazing fast reflexes to avoid missing the action when it happens.

 

Captured slow-mo videos in daylight are pretty darned good given its 720p limitations. Slow-mo videos in low light or indoors had less than ideal results with quite a bit of noise ; nonetheless this feature remains an interesting novelty that’s fun to showcase at parties.



The front selfie camera has the usual array of tricks including a surprisingly subtle make-up mode that refreshes tired mugs with a smattering of virtual makeup. It also retains the panoramic wide selfie mode and has a convincing looking Selfie Focus mode that defocuses the background for a more pleasing shot. Rather than a dedicated flash, the phone flashes the touchscreen white for temporary illumination. The bright f/1.7 aperture ensures selfies and wefies have sufficient amounts of detail and skin tones are rendered in a relatively accurate fashion in daylight while low light shots are pretty respectable as well.

 

Galaxy S9 AR Emoji


One particular feature that is key to the S9 is its augmented reality emoji aka AR Emoji that lets you create animated versions of your visage or of someone else for use in animated GIFS on social media. Getting your own emoji created is a straightforward task. All you have to do is to snap a portrait shot of yourself. The phone then animates this cartoon avatar which you can then kit out with a limited selection of hairstyles and clothing.

Results are somewhat mixed with some users who tested the AR Emoji mode getting spot on avatars while others less so. Once you’ve kitted your AR emoji out however you see fit, you can then save it as a set of animated GIFs covering a gamut of reactions that you can use on Facebook, Whatsapp, WeChat and whatnot.

You can also opt to animate a cartoon character with the use of your facial features via the selfie camera as your avatar. Other than creating your own AR Emoji, options are sparse at the moment with only the choices on hand to embody being an anthropomorphised cat, dog  and a rabbit as well as a variety of masks. As it stands, it is an amusing novelty for awhile though it’s not the main reason you’ll be plunking down cash for the S9.

Galaxy S9 Battery Life, Price and Conclusion

 

The Galaxy S9 doesn’t upgrade the size of its battery over its sire and it is still similarly sized at 3,000mAh though the provision of the new Exynos 9810 processor along with a host of optimisation tricks that they’ve implemented have helped to ensure equal and slightly better endurance that can last a day before needing a juicing.


Given a modest usage scenario that involved a few minutes of Facebook videos while waiting for the commute, regular usage of Whatsapp and Facebook throughout the day from dawn to dusk, emails and getting a Grab car or two with the GPS on, the Galaxy S9 handled it like a champ and managed to have enough juice to make it back home from a 9-hour workday.

Should you need extra endurance, the phone also has a Low Power mode that lowers the screen resolution and processor speeds to eke out just a bit more juice. There’s also an ultra power saving mode that cuts down everything non-essential, limits the display to mono and usage down to a handful of apps to radically enhance battery endurance though this is unnecessary unless you’re out in the sticks.

For those holding onto a two or three year old phone, the Galaxy S9 represents a worthwhile and significant upgrade. Those with  circa-2017 phones may find the S9 more of an incremental improvement in terms of performance though the S9’s camera stands out as it tops anything ever integrated into a smartphone.

While they are innovative, the Galaxy S9’s augmented reality features like the new AR Emoji and Bixby’s new AR interactivity options remain interesting novelties; hopefully they will become more fleshed out in later updates.

As far as the current crop of phones go, the Galaxy S9 doesn’t come cheap at RM3,299 with various permutations of the larger Galaxy S9+ costing more.  Justifications aside, and there are plenty, making the leap to a Galaxy S9 nets you a beautifully made phone with great performance and one of the most powerful smartphone cameras ever made.

What we liked – Excellent display, superb rear dual aperture camera, waterproofing, great stereo speakers, novel AR Emoji
What we didn’t – A bit slippery to hold, not cheap
We say Samsung’s Galaxy S9 is their finest phone to date with a sleek form factor that integrates one of the best cameras mounted on a smartphone along with exemplary performance across the board. If you’re keen on a larger display, more storage and a slightly better camera, the Galaxy S9+ beckons.

Specifications
Price RM3,299
Display 5.-8-inch Super AMOLED, 1,440 x 2,960 pixels, 570ppi
Processor Exynos 9810 octacore
OS Android Oreo 8.0
Memory 4GB RAM/ 64GB storage + microSD card
Camera 12-MP w/ dual aperture (f/1.5 and f/2.4) with LED flash, OIS (rear) / 8-MP w/ f/1.7 (front) with screen flash
Battery 3,000mAh
Size/Weight 147.7 x 68.7 x 8.5 mm / 163g