Sam­sung Galaxy Note 9: The best never felt so bland

With great power comes lit­tle ex­cite­ment.

PCWorld (USA) - - Reviews Acer Predator X27 - BY MICHAEL SI­MON

The Galaxy Note 9 is Sam­sung’s pas­sion­ate love let­ter to Note fans. It has in­sane specs, a gi­gan­tic, gor­geous screen, a Blue­tooth-pow­ered S Pen, and a head­phone jack—all crit­i­cal fea­tures for the kind of An­droid user that Sam­sung is tar­get­ing with a Note up­date. For devo­tees of the ph­ablet, the Note 9 is a dream come true.

But once you get past the me­ga­hertz and gi­ga­bytes, the Galaxy Note 9 doesn’t bring much to the ta­ble be­yond what’s in the Note 8 ( go.pc­world.com/gnt8). Granted, that phone was one of 2017’s best hand­sets, but a lot has changed in a year. In a post-iphone X world ( go.pc­world.com/ fxrv), a re­cy­cled de­sign, been-there cam­era, and gim­micky S Pen aren’t re­ally

enough to jus­tify a price hike that pushes the phone firmly into four-fig­ure ter­ri­tory.

Even with up­graded specs across the board, the Note 9 feels very much like a phone we’ve seen be­fore. Note fans may love it, but very few of them will be in love with it.

A PRE­DICTABLY GREAT DIS­PLAY

The most in­ter­est­ing thing about the Note 9’s de­sign is its color op­tions. In the U.S., you can only buy it in blue or pur­ple, choices that will more than likely split along gen­der lines. Oth­er­wise, if you’ve held a Galaxy Note 8, you al­ready know how the Note 9 feels. It’s taller and box­ier than the Galaxy S9+ and a bit heav­ier as well. The Note 9 weighs 12 grams more than the S9+ (which in turn is heav­ier than the S8+), a no­tice­able in­crease, es­pe­cially when try­ing to use it with one hand.

But with a 6.4-inch, 1440x2960 AMOLED screen, it’s un­likely most peo­ple will use their Note 9 with­out grip­ping it tightly with two hands. That’s a tenth of an inch big­ger than last year’s phone, and it’s butting against the max­i­mum this form fac­tor can han­dle with­out be­ing un­com­fort­ably large. At about 6.4 inches (161.9mm) tall, the Note 9 is ac­tu­ally a touch shorter than last year’s phone, and it’s only a skosh wider at 3 inches (76.4mm, 2mm more than last year). Still, the whole pack­age feels sig­nif­i­cantly larger than a phone like the 6.25-inch One­plus 6, which mea­sures just 6.1x3.0 inches (155.7x75.4mm). So next year’s model will need to trim the fore­head and chin if the Note plans to con­tinue grow­ing.

The back of the phone is nearly the same as well, with one no­table change (other than the color). The lo­ca­tion of the fin­ger­print sen­sor has been moved again, and it’s now be­low the cam­era rather than next to it. That makes it more likely to reach with­out smudg­ing the lens, but it’s still too high and too small for my fin­gers. It’s al­most com­i­cal now how Sam­sung just can’t get it right.

In the mean­time, the Note 9 has a

pre­dictably ex­cel­lent screen. Plenty of su­perla­tives have been writ­ten about Sam­sung’s dis­play tech­nol­ogy, and if any­thing, it’s a vic­tim of its own suc­cess. It’s hard to dis­cern much of a dif­fer­ence be­tween the Note 9 and the S9, and in some in­stances, I ac­tu­ally found the S9 had richer col­ors and smoother gra­di­ents upon up-close in­spec­tion. But re­ally, there isn’t much to com­plain about here. Sure, it would have been nice to get a 120Hz op­tion like the Razer phone, or a true edge-to-edge de­sign, but there’s no deny­ing the Note 9 has one of the best dis­plays you can get at this or any size.

ALL-DAY PER­FOR­MANCE, FOR THE MOST PART

Sam­sung has made a big deal about the specs in­side the Note 9, but un­less you spring for the $1,250 model (which bumps the stor­age to 512GB and the RAM to 8GB), you’re not go­ing to see too much of a dif­fer­ence over its peers. The $1,000 Note 9 has 128GB of stor­age and 6GB of RAM, the same specs avail­able for less in the One­plus 6T and Galaxy S9+, and it per­forms as you’d ex­pect, which is to say it can han­dle pretty much any­thing thrown at it.

The Galaxy Note 9 also de­liv­ers a se­ri­ous bump in bat­tery ca­pac­ity, from 3,300mah to 4,000mah, re­turn the Note back to its pre-re­call brag­ging rights as one of the long­est-last­ing phones around. Bench­marks put it right around 10 hours of reg­u­lar use, on a par with the Huawei Mate 10 Pro, which also has a 4,000mah bat­tery.

But while the Note 9’s bat­tery life is

sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter than the Note 8’s, it’s not a huge break­through over the S9+. It’s just big­ger. There aren’t any neu­ralchip pow­ered AI claims or new bat­tery-sav­ing tech­niques, and you’ll still need to charge it at the end of the day. And while I had a very hard time even getting it into the red on most days, heavy use still re­quired a charge be­fore bed. One par­tic­u­larly long day filled with hours of mu­sic stream­ing and on-screen nav­i­ga­tion suc­cess­fully drained the bat­tery well be­fore my day was over.

That may be an ex­treme case, but Sam­sung’s tar­get au­di­ence with the Note 9 is ex­treme users. The phone will still last longer than pretty much any other phone you can buy, and the mul­ti­task­ing Note crowd will cer­tainly be able to do more for longer. Just maybe not quite all day.

A STY­LUS WITH STYLE AND SUB­STANCE

Bat­tery life isn’t the only way the Note 9 will help users be more pro­duc­tive. There’s also an eas­ier and cheaper way to con­nect to the DEX PC in­ter­face on an ex­ter­nal mon­i­tor. In­stead of a dock or a pad, all you need is a USB-C-TO-HDMI ca­ble. I tried it with a $15 ca­ble from Ama­zon ( go.pc­world.com/cbc6) and it worked as well as it did with last year’s $150 ac­ces­sories. I don’t know how many reg­u­lar DEX users there are, but I sus­pect a high per­cent­age of them are Note users, so this move should en­cour­age adop­tion.

The phone has also got­ten a sig­nif­i­cant up­grade to its sig­na­ture fea­ture: the S Pen. Like the Ap­ple Pen­cil, the S Pen now has Blue­tooth, but it’s not for draw­ing, it’s for dis­tance.

All of the tra­di­tional S Pen fea­tures are present on the Note 9—screen-off me­mos, trans­la­tion, live mes­sage, etc.—and that’s still how you’ll be spend­ing the ma­jor­ity of your time with it. Pop out the S Pen, how­ever, and you will no­tice two things dif­fer­ent about it: It has a but­ton, and it doesn’t come in black or sil­ver. Sam­sung has crafted its new S Pen in

pur­ple and yel­low to com­ple­ment the two new col­ors of the phone. And as a neat touch, the pen writes in its body color on the screen by de­fault.

The Blue­tooth por­tion of the S Pen is de­cid­edly less use­ful on a daily ba­sis, but it still brings a few cool tricks—and loads of po­ten­tial. Un­like other pow­ered sty­luses, the S Pen charges when­ever it’s in­serted into its hol­ster. It only takes about 40 sec­onds to go from zero to full, but it’ll also drain very fast. In my test­ing, I only got to about 420 clicks un­til the S Pen com­pletely ran out of juice. On a few oc­ca­sions I needed to restart my phone after a ran­dom and un­ex­pected dis­con­nect.

But mostly it works well. Click­ing the S Pen’s but­ton lets you launch and con­trol apps, and Sam­sung has built in a hand­ful of func­tions to get you started. The de­fault ac­tion is the most log­i­cal—launch­ing the cam­era and snap­ping a pic—but an SDK should lead to a flurry of third-party app in­te­gra­tions. Sur­pris­ingly, most Sam­sung apps don’t even work with it yet, but hope­fully that will change soon.

NEW BIXBY, STALE OREO

The Note 9 may be the first premium hand­set re­leased in the age of An­droid 9 Pie, but you’ll likely be wait­ing a while to get it. The Note 9 is still run­ning Oreo 8.1 ( go.pc­world. com/n981), so you’ll miss out on a few new fea­tures, most no­tably ges­ture nav­i­ga­tion.

That might not seem like a huge deal now, but once Google’s Pixel 3 ( go.pc­world.com/ gp3r) lands, ges­tures will of­fi­cially be the hot new thing on An­droid, and Sam­sung hasn’t even of­fered a time­line for re­lease yet. My guess is we won’t see Pie on the Note 9 un­til the Galaxy S10 makes its de­but in 2019, so that means the best An­droid phone will be run­ning an out­dated OS for the first six months of its life­span.

One thing you will be getting with the Note 9 is a new ver­sion of Bixby. Sam­sung has en­hanced Bixby’s abil­i­ties to tap into apps and nat­u­rally con­verse and con­tex­tu­al­ize, so it’s more like Google As­sis­tant and Alexa. In

my test­ing of an early ver­sion, Bixby’s great­est strength is still its abil­ity to search through the Set­tings app, but it’s def­i­nitely im­proved since last year. One bum­mer, how­ever: Sam­sung has taken away the abil­ity to dis­able the Bixby key in the new ver­sion.

Which begs the ques­tion: Do we re­ally need a third as­sis­tant on our phones? With Alexa and Google As­sis­tant just a tap or voice com­mand away on the Note 9, Bixby needs to be both per­fect and pi­o­neer­ing to com­pete. Even if it were per­fect and pi­o­neer­ing (which it isn’t), it’s an up­hill bat­tle. It’s a fight Sam­sung thinks it can win, what with the Galaxy Home speaker and all, but un­til that day ar­rives, Note 9 users will be happy to know Google As­sis­tant still lives in­side the home but­ton.

OLD CAM­ERA, BET­TER PICS

The cam­era on the Galaxy Note 9 is the ex­act same one you get with the Galaxy S9+. That’s a break from tra­di­tion and a huge step side­ways from last year, which brought dual cam­eras with op­ti­cal im­age sta­bi­liza­tion and 2X op­ti­cal zoom for the first time.

It’s not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing. The Galaxy S9+ has one of the best cam­eras you can get in

a smart­phone, and it gives the Note 9 an im­prove­ment over the Note 8, with dual aper­ture and super–slow-mo record­ing. But for Note fans who have come to ex­pect a cam­era that pushes bound­aries, there’s noth­ing here that’s par­tic­u­larly ex­cit­ing. The only exclusive fea­ture is an Ai-pow­ered scene op­ti­mizer that ad­justs the set­tings based on one of 20 pre­set scenes for things like food, na­ture, and sun­sets. It works well, as I’ve doc­u­mented in my AI cam­era shootout ( go.pc­world.com/aicm), but it’s hardly any­thing rev­o­lu­tion­ary.

There’s also a flaw de­tec­tion fea­ture that uses AI to no­tify you if some­one has blinked or is blurry in a pic. It only works with por­traits and self­ies and it’s kind of gim­micky, but it mostly worked in my test­ing. How­ever, it needed ex­treme blur­ri­ness and nearly fully closed eyes to ac­ti­vate, but I sus­pect it’s the kind of thing that can get smarter over time. Ei­ther flaw de­tec­tion or scene op­ti­mizer can be turned off in the set­tings.

When I pit­ted the Galaxy Note 9 against the Galaxy S9 and Pixel 2, the Note con­sis­tently cap­tured more de­tail, re­al­is­tic col­ors, and sharper over­all images, par­tic­u­larly in low light. But it’s not any­thing you’re go­ing to no­tice un­less you’re metic­u­lously com­par­ing pics side by side.

The Note 9 def­i­nitely has one of the best cam­eras you can get in a smart­phone, but the dif­fer­ences be­tween its cam­era and the cam­eras in phones that cost hun­dreds less is sub­tle. And with the new iphone and Pixel right around the cor­ner, Sam­sung might strug­gle to con­vince buy­ers that the Note 9 cam­era is worth the phone’s price tag.

The screen on the Galaxy Note 9 is sim­ply stun­ning—but we al­ready knew it would be.

The lo­ca­tion of the fin­ger­print sen­sor on the Galaxy Note 9 is slightly im­proved, but it’s still not ideal.

The Galaxy Note 9’s giant bat­tery means it’ll last all day (most of the time).

The Galaxy Note 9’s S Pen charges when it’s in­serted into the phone.

Doodling is the same with the Galaxy Note 9’s new S Pen—ex­cept now it’s in pur­ple or yel­low by de­fault.

Bixby has a brand-new in­ter­face on the Galaxy Note 9.

With scene op­ti­mizer on, the Note 9 cap­tured both the light­ing and color of these flow­ers, while the Galaxy S9 (cen­ter) was slightly over­ex­posed and the Pixel 2 XL (right) over­com­pen­sated for bright­ness.

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