Best Android phablets
Lots of smartphones have large displays, but these are the best big screen phones you can buy today. HENRY BURRELL reports
Most phones with displays over 5.5 inches are considered phablets, but in recent times phones have got taller and thinner displays in order to fit in larger overall displays. Most of the phones in this buying guide have these taller aspect ratios as they are known
Not all phones with large screens could be considered ‘big’ though – despite its 5.7in screen we wouldn’t consider the regular Galaxy S9 to be a phablet, because its tiny bezels mean it’s not a huge
handset, yet we would consider the iPhone 8 Plus a phablet with its 5.5in screen, a regular 16:9 display aspect ratio and big bezels.
Samsung, Huawei, LG and others all have phones that require two-handed use most of the time, such is the size of their displays. But big phones have other great benefits like larger batteries and the pay-off is often well worth it. Though some need the large battery as the big screen drains the cell faster.
Watching films and TV becomes much more pleasant on a large screen phone and you’ll find yourself appreciating the photos you take even more when viewed on a big, vibrant display.
Take into account that the number of pixels will be stretched over a larger screen area, so a Quad-HD screen will be appreciated here more than it would on a compact phone. That said, though, even a full-HD screen will look crystal clear on a big phone – just watch out for anything lower in resolution than this.
1. Google Pixel 3 XL
Price: £869 inc VAT from fave.co/2zqZkf0 Read our review on page 19.
2. OnePlus 6
Price: £469 inc VAT from fave.co/2x12Z4Z It’s four-and-a-half years since OnePlus released its first phone, and the firm is already on its eighth
handset. The OnePlus 6 arrives a point where notches are all the rage and while it might not have every feature a phone can have, it’s still an amazing deal.
If you’re familiar with the OnePlus 6’s predecessor, the 5T, then this isn’t a huge departure in terms of design and build. It’s largely that phone with a collection of tweaks and improvements.
The headline news is that the phone is made from Gorilla Glass 5, but has a metal border with glass on the front and back. Three different finishes are available: Midnight Black, which has the classic OnePlus look; Mirror Black is heavily polished and has that quintessential glass look and feel; while Silk White, has both white and pink tones thanks
to crushed pearl along with a soft powder finish to the touch similar to the original OnePlus.
Despite rumours of wireless charging – which requires glass to work – this is not a feature of the OnePlus 6. The glass is there for a premium look and feel only, and there’s a silicone case in the box to help protect it.
The phone certainly looks and feels like a flagship device (and the antennas are more hidden now), but there are downsides. The device is, for example, more slippery in the hand and, particularly with the Mirror Black model, the glass shows up fingerprints.
We were hoping that this would be the first waterproof OnePlus phone, but unfortunately this isn’t the case. It does offer improved water resistance, so no IP rating, but it will cope better in the rain or an accidental drop into a puddle.
Some smaller things to note before we move on include the fact there’s still a headphone jack and that the camera array, which still sticks out, has moved to the middle of the phone above the fingerprint scanner – this is a slightly different shape.
Finally, the Alert Slider has moved to the right side of the phone above the power button, so you can use it with your thumb – sorry left handers.
The OnePlus 6 is the same size as the 5T (156.1x75mm), but slightly thicker and heavier – 7.75mm and 177g aren’t bad, though.
Despite having the same footprint as the 5T, the OnePlus 6 offers a larger screen thanks to much
smaller bezels – it’s now 6.28in rather than 6.01in. The phone uses with the same Optic AMOLED technology, so the main difference is the notch at the top.
The resolution is slightly higher at 2,280x1,080 due to that extra bit of screen and the new 19:9 aspect ratio. That might be lower than the Quad HD resolutions on more expensive phones, but for most people this is plenty good enough.
Opinions on phones with notches are split, but we’ve found that you do get used to it and OnePlus gives you the option to hide it if you prefer. This makes the background black, while still displaying icons that are dimmed, so it provides a different style.
The main goal here is to offer as much screen as possible and an 84 percent screen-to-body ratio is a decent effort. It just means that such a large screen can be tricky to use one-handed seeing as our hands aren’t getting bigger to match the trend.
Luckily, you can do things like pull the notification pane down by swiping down in the middle of the display rather than having to reach right to the top.
Processor, memory and storage
The OnePlus 6 comes with the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 flagship processor. The firm is known for packing in a serious amount of memory and this handset is no different as you get either 6- or 8GB. There’s no microSD card slot, but you get at least 64GB of storage as standard. There are also models offering 128- or 256GB.
OnePlus’s tag line for the phone ‘The Speed You Need’, and there’s no denying how fast it is. It’s
noticeably quicker in operation than many other phones and benchmark results are up there with (in some cases better) phones a lot more expensive.
Connectivity, audio and biometrics
The OnePlus 6 comes with dual-band 11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0 with aptX HD, GPS and NFC. It’s still a dual-SIM phone and the only change is that it’s now 4G Cat 16, which means it’s the first OnePlus to get Gigabit speeds – you won’t see that in real life, though. Once again there’s a USB-C port, a headphone jack and a single down-facing speaker.
The rear-mounted fingerprint scanner has a slightly different shape to that found on the 5T, but it’s basically the same and works quickly. Most of the time, though, you’ll probably end up using Face Unlock, which is extremely quick, and even works well in low light.
The cameras might have moved position on the back of the phone, but they’re not hugely different to the ones on the 5T. The OnePlus 6 still has dual cameras, one at 16Mp and the other at 20Mp. They are both Sony sensors and have an impressive aperture of f/1.7. The biggest addition this year is that the main 16Mp sensor now has optical image stabilization (OIS) and the sensor is slightly larger to take in more light.
There’s a telephoto option in the camera app for 2x zoom, though this doesn’t switch to the higher resolution sensor, it just crops the image. Instead, the 20Mp lens is mainly used for the depth effect of
portrait mode. You can take photos in 4:3, 1:1 or even 19:9 to fill the screen, but it’s worth noting that aspect ratio will look odd elsewhere.
The front camera is still 16Mp with an f/2.0 aperture and is able to record video at up to 1080p at 30fps.
We like how simple and easy the app is to use, including changing modes and settings.
As you can see in our samples, opposite, the OnePlus 6 performs very well. The camera offers excellent detail, colour, exposure and white balance – in a range of conditions, even low light. It’s not the best phone camera but at the price, you’re getting much better quality than you would normally expect.
In terms of video, you can shoot at up to 4K at 60fps and results are impressive with the OIS doing a decent job of smoothing things out. We would recommend shooting in 1080p at 60fps for the best combination of quality and file size, though.
Slow motion is all the rage right now and although the OnePlus 6 offers 720p at 480fps or 1080p at 240fps, which is half the frame rate of rivals such as the Samsung Galaxy S9 and Sony Xperia XZ2, you can shoot for up to a minute in one go making it easier to capture the moment you’re after.
Like the 5T, the OnePlus 6 has a 3,300mAh battery. We’ve been fans of Dash Charge since it was first introduced and it makes an appearance here. In our tests, it enabled our test unit to reach whopping 55 percent from a 30-minute charge from a dead phone. That’s seriously impressive and for some users that
could be a whole day of usage as promised, if you’re not a heavy user that is.
The phone comes with the firm’s own OxygenOS, which is a stock version of Android 8.1 Oreo. OnePlus hasn’t messed around with the interface and importantly you don’t get loads of bloatware. It does, however, come with lots of little tweaks and additions that have been around for a while, namely the Shelf which is a swipe away from the home screen. This provides quick access to recent contacts and apps, as well as providing useful information such as data usage and available storage.
Customization is good, so you can really use the phone how you like. This means you can, for example, hide the notch, or change the font. The OnePlus 6
also gives you the option to hide or even switch off the navigation bar at the bottom of the screen. The latter means you’ll use gestures that are available already on the 5T via a software update. They’re similar to those used on the iPhone X and the ones coming in Android P, so you swipe up from the bottom of the screen to go home, swipe and hold to open recent apps and swipe from the right side to go back.
The OnePlus 6 might not have everything on the ultimate phone tick list, but that doesn’t really matter. There are more expensive phones on the market with additional features such as waterproofing and wireless charging, but those are luxury items that a lot of people won’t actually use very often. What OnePlus has done is nailed all the most important stuff and made a phone that offers excellent design, specs and performance at a frankly ridiculous price. So for most people, the 6 is an absolute bargain. Chris Martin
• 6.28in Full HD+ (2,280x1,080, 402ppi) AMOLED display
• Android 8.1 Oreo with OxygenOS
• Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 octa-core processor
• Adreno 630 graphics
• 6/8GB RAM
• 64/128/256GB storage
• 16- and 20Mp rear cameras, f/1.7, support for 4K video at 60fps
• 16Mp front camera, f/2.0
• 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi
• Bluetooth 5.0
• 4G LTE (Cat 16)
• Dual nano-SIM
• Headphone jack
• Fingerprint sensor (rear)
• 3,300mAh non-removable battery with Dash Charge • 156.1x75x7.75mm
3. Samsung Galaxy S9+
Price: £869 inc VAT from fave.co/2zw3PEK The Galaxy S9+ might not be the biggest upgrade compared to the Galaxy S8+, but it’s perhaps better than having to wait longer for a new device. Overall, you might struggle to tell the two apart, but there are improvements namely in the camera department, which Samsung says it has “reimagined”.
Since the Galaxy S9+ is an incremental upgrade from 2018’s smartphone, there’s not a huge amount to say when it comes to design and build. In fact, you might struggle to figure out which one is the new model in a side-by-side test unless you’re looking at the new Lilac Purple model. It’s also available in Midnight Black, Blue Coral and Titanium Grey.
At the front, the phone looks near enough identical to the S8+. It’s really no surprise Samsung is sticking to
the gorgeous design that features the Infinity display. The phone is marginally shorter and the firm has made the bezels a tiny bit smaller, though it’s not noticeable. The metal frame’s matte finish looks nicer compared to the S8+’s glossy coat. Another minor tweak is a single slot for the speaker rather than five small holes.
The main giveaway that this phone is the Galaxy S9+ and not an older model is on the rear. First, there are dual cameras, previously a feature only available on the Note 8. The other tweak is the placement for the fingerprint scanner, which is now below the camera array rather than to the side. This was a bugbear on the S8 phones, especially the S8+ where the sensor was quite a stretch to reach.
You’re still at risk of smudging the lower camera, but at least the sensor isn’t annoying low down the phone such as the Xperia XZ2.
So with a near-identical design, Samsung is sticking to an aluminium band with glass front and back. The Galaxy S9+ still offers top-end IP68 waterproofing and gladly hasn’t ditched the headphone jack.
The glass rear looks great when it’s clean, but is a fingerprint magnet and the phone feels slippery in the hand.
We don’t mind that the device is a bit thicker at 8.5mm. Although the S9+ has more tech to offer, it is still a bit unwieldy, and weighing in at 189g it isn’t exactly a featherweight.
The 6.2in screen remains the same as the S8+’s. It uses Samsung’s Infinity Display, so you get an 18.5:9 aspect ratio and curved edges on both sides. A Quad HD Plus resolution (Full HD Plus is used by default,
but you can change it) means images are crisp and it’s no surprise Samsung sticks to its bright (maximum 324cm2) and colourful Super AMOLED technology.
As usual, the screen is always on, so displays useful information without consuming much battery while the screen is ‘off’. You also get the edge panels, which bring shortcuts to apps, contacts and far more by swiping in from the side.
Samsung has opted against using a ‘notch’ at the top of the panel. We’re not sure why others are so keen to copy Apple, and even though some provide a way to switch the feature off, we like the fact Samsung has stuck to the regular style here.
Processor, memory and storage
The Galaxy S+ is powered by the new Exynos 9810 chip. It’s still octa-core, but gets a bump in clock speed to 2.7GHz for the faster four. Power users will be pleased to hear that the S9+ has more memory and storage compared to the S9 with 6/128GB. That’s an extra 50 percent in RAM and double the storage. We have seen a spec sheet with a 128GB model, but this seems to be very elusive at best. There’s less need to use the microSD card slot, which now accepts up to 400GB, but it’s great that Samsung continues to offer the feature where others often don’t.
As you can see in our benchmarks, the S9+ impressively breaks the 9,000 barrier in Geekbench 4, which isn’t too far off the iPhone X. Graphics, tested at the default Full HD Plus resolution, are excellent, too.
Overall, it’s exactly what we’d expected from a flagship phone at this price and with these specs.
In the real world, the S9+ is a smooth performer and there are plenty of other areas where phones are different in 2018, so don’t worry about the numbers too much.
Fingerprint and Iris sensors
As mentioned earlier, the fingerprint scanner has been moved to a much more sensible location below the camera. It’s a lot easier to find with your finger without stretching too much, although there’s still a risk of smudging the lower lens. Samsung has also made it easier to add fingerprints as you only need to swipe three times per finger – we did it in just two.
There’s still an iris scanner, something which we’ve not been a fan of on previous Samsung phones. However, Intelligent Scan means you can use it in combination with facial scanning. It’s a lot better than previously, but rival face unlock systems, including those from Apple and OnePlus, are still better.
Connectivity and Audio
Top-level connectivity means the S9+ is packed with the tech you’d expect, including dual-band 11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, NFC and GPS.
There are also plenty of sensors, including the pressure sensor in the screen that is used a sort of physical home button. The Galaxy S9+ still comes with features such as a barometer and heart-rate monitor, which not many phones have.
The change comes in the audio department as the smartphone now has stereo speakers. They’re still tuned by AKG and Samsung has also teamed up with Dolby to offer Atmos, a feature you can toggle to provide a bigger, more spacious sound.
They’re not the best speakers on the market, but are a lot better than before. Plus, we’re pleased that Samsung has kept the headphone jack.
As teased with its ‘The Camera. Reimagined’ campaign ahead of the launch, it’s the camera on the Galaxy S9 phones that’s had the biggest upgrade.
The rear Super Speed Dual Pixel camera is still 12Mp, but has an innovative mechanical aperture akin to a dedicated DSLR. This can automatically adjust between f/2.4 down to f/1.5, depending on the lighting conditions you’re shooting in.
The Galaxy S8 was an already impressive f/1.7, so this is a nice step up. Samsung says it means 28 percent more light. The phone can also now use information from 12 photos shot at once to reduce noise by 30 percent.
Compared to the S9, the plus models brings with it an additional lens. Like the Note8, it’s a telephoto lens with a 12Mp telephoto with an f/2.4 aperture – great if you like getting a closer shot without using digital zoom. Overall, the Galaxy S9+ is an impressive all-rounder for photography and video). The camera app is easy to use with different modes and excellent results from simply firing it up and shooting in auto.
Shots are detailed, crisp and nicely exposed, though it’s not the best camera out there in great lighting conditions. The Pixel 3 XL can provide better contrast and detail in darker areas. We’re nitpicking, but we have to at this level.
The Galaxy S9 is a better performer in low light, though, and that dual aperture is handy when you don’t want the shallow depth of field enforced by a wide aperture.
The Galaxy S9+ can now match Sony for super slow motion at 960fps (at 720p), which means you can watch 0.2 seconds of footage over six seconds.
Such a short period of time can be hard to capture, as we found on the Xperia phones, but Samsung has a clever motion detect which automatically starts the super slow motion when it, er, detects motion in a user selected area of the frame.
It works really well and you can even record up to 20 slow motion sections in one video.
It terms of regular video, the S9+ is a decent performer. The phone features optical image stabilization (OIS), which helps keep things nice and smooth. By default, it will record at Full HD, but you can switch it up to Ultra HD at 60fps if you want (and
don’t mind larger files and a limit of five minutes). Selfie fans will still get decent photos from the frontfacing 8Mp f/1.7 camera, which now has a feature to rival the iPhone X’s Animoji. Samsung’s version is called AR Emoji and created a character based on you.
It instantly created 18 preset Gifs, but you can customize your own with the front camera, winking and frowning to your hearts content. You also don’t need to worry about who you’re sending them to as they don’t need an S9, too. They’re easily accessible from the default keyboard, which is handy.
The problem comes when you want to animate the AR Emoji yourself using the front camera. What is accurate tracking on the iPhone X is jittery and poor on the S9+. It’s not enough to put us off the phone though as the feature is a gimmick and a minor part of the overall experience.
Bixby Vision is an existing feature but it’s now improved with things like live translation, better recognition for places and food features like calories and recipe suggestions. It’s handy as the feature is built into the camera app but while some elements are useful, others are just gimmicks.
Another advantage over the regular Galaxy S9 is that you get a larger battery here – 3,500mAh compared to the S9’s 3,000mAh.
The Galaxy S9+ will comfortably last a full day of average users and lighter users might even get a day and half out of it. In the Geekbench 4 battery test, the S9+ managed an impressive seven hours and 55 minutes with an efficiency score of 4,750.
That’s similar to the LG V30 and more than a hour longer than most flagships. The S9 managed six hours and 38 minutes as 3,890.
Once again you have the option to charge over USB-C or with wireless charging – both offer fast charging. In our usual test, the S9+ managed a decent 38 percent in 30 minutes starting from zero. That’s two percent more than the regular S9 despite having a larger battery.
Moving onto software and the Galaxy S9+ comes preloaded with Android 8 Oreo. Things are pretty much they same as last year with only small tweaks, the main things come inside the camera app, which we’ve already detailed.
Samsung has preloaded the Galaxy S9+ will plenty of apps, but nothing too annoying or intrusive – they’re the usual selections from Google and Microsoft, so you’ll likely use most of them regularly. We’d still like the ability to uninstall them, not just disable though.
Tweaks come in the form of a new landscape mode, so you can carry on using the interface lengthways to browse your home screen panels or your apps. A notification system means you’ll still see what’s going on but in a subtle way at the top.
A new SmartThings app is a nifty way, similar to Google and Apple Home apps, to combine multiple apps into one. It means you have one place to handle all the connections to and features of other Samsung devices such as televisions.
Those wanting to use the Galaxy S9+ for productivity can make use of the new DeX dock, which means the phone can be easily plugged into a monitor for a desktop-like experience.
The docking station is now flat, so the screen can be used as a trackpad or keyboard, and it will be around two-thirds the price of the original.
The Galaxy S9+ is a gorgeous and almost flawless phone, offering premium specs and features in a sleek and well-made design. There is the issue of it being very similar to its predecessor, but we’re glad Samsung hasn’t dropped the headphone jack and introduced a notch – if it ain’t broke.
It’s easily one of the best smartphones money can buy but a key question is whether you should get it over the regular S9. The answer is yes, but only if you can afford the extra cost, don’t mind the larger size and will make use of the additional features such as the second rear camera. Chris Martin
• 6.2in (2960x1440, 529ppi) Super AMOLED capacitive display • Android 8.0 Oreo • Exynos 9810 Octa processor • Octa-core 4x 2.8GHz Mongoose M3 and 4x 1.7GHz
Cortex-A55 CPU • Mali-G72 MP18 GPU • 6GB RAM • 64/128/256GB storage, microSD up to 256GB
• Iris/fingerprint scanner • Dual rear-facing cameras: 12Mp (f/1.5-2.4, 26mm, 1/2.55in, 1.4μm, Dual Pixel PDAF) and 12Mp (f/2.4, 52mm, 1/3.6in, 1μm, AF), OIS, phase detection autofocus, 2x optical zoom, LED flash • 8Mp front-facing camera: f/1.7, autofocus, 1440p, dual video call, Auto HDR • 802.11ac Wi-Fi • Bluetooth 5.0 • A-GPS, GLONASS, BDS, GALILEO • Micro-USB 3.1 Type-C • Non-removable lithium-ion 3,500mAh battery • 158.1x73.8x8.5mm • 189g 4. Huawei Mate 20 Pro Price: £899 inc VAT from fave.co/2q8bvJb Read our review on page 45. 5. Samsung Galaxy Note 9 Price: £899 inc VAT from fave.co/2BTVkIj Like clockwork, Samsung has launched the Galaxy Note 9, the big-screen, stylus-toting cousin of the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus. It looks a lot like the Note 8, but despite the hype we think the upgrades are significant enough to make this Samsung’s best phone alongside the S9 Plus.
While headline changes are the (variant depending) yellow S-Pen with Bluetooth, a bigger battery and improved cameras, the general look, feel and
performance of the Note 9 means this is Samsung’s most refined Note to date.
Since the launch of the iPhone X, the idea of a £1,000 phone is less alien now, and that’s roughly the price you’ll pay if you want a Note 9 off contract. But it’s such a pleasure to use, such a complete smartphone, that it feels just as justified as Apple’s price tag. Like any phone though, it’s not without its flaws. Here’s our full Note 9 review.
The Note 9 is a stunner right out the box. Yes, it’s a big phone, but we expect that by now with the Note range. By slimming the bezel ever so slightly Samsung has stretched the screen up from 6.3- to 6.4in, but the dimensions of the phone are practically the same as the Note 8. It comes in Midnight Black
or Lavender Purple with matching S Pen, and Ocean Blue with a yellow S Pen. There’s also a Metallic Copper option in some countries.
You’re probably going to want the blue one with the yellow pen, but we also really like the purple model, which is a light metallic hue and looks great. Samsung continues to use Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and back. The back of the blue and purple models shimmer beautifully, while the black version is duller.
We were hoping for an in-screen fingerprint scanner as phones such as the Vivo NEX already have this technology. It seems we’ll have to wait for the Galaxy S10 to get it from Samsung, but the sensor is in a much better place below the cameras rather than next to them as it was on the Note 8. It’s still a small, fiddly sensor compared to other phones though.
The Note 9 has those familiar Samsung curves with the so-called Infinity Display, but it has put on
weight. It’s 205g and we generally don’t like it when a phone feels like we’re carrying a brick, but there’s a good reason for it here, and the phone is slight enough to feel manageable – but this is a two-hand phone for most tasks.
At 161.9x76.4x8.8mm, it’s going to stretch most pockets, but its heft makes it feel premium. A larger 4,000mAh battery, up from 3,300mAh, is the main cause for the weight increase. If there’s something we don’t might extra weight for, it’s longer battery life.
The phone feels even more luxurious than the Note 8, with grippier metallic edges to the chassis and a better oleophobic coating to the back of the device meaning noticeably fewer fingerprint smudges though it still gets pretty greasy back there.
It’s interesting to note that Samsung continues to buck two major trends in the phone world. The Note 9 has a headphone jack but doesn’t have a notch in the screen compared to the iPhone X and many other Android phones this year. We’re very happy with both these things and hopefully signals that notches are not always necessary, seeing as Samsung can deal so elegantly without them.
Its sides are graced by a speaker, USB-C port, S-Pen silo, volume and power keys and a pesky, unmappable Bixby button.
The screen is bigger at 6.4in but that’s only marginally different to the 6.3in size used before. It’s a 2,960x1,440 Super AMOLED and the level of detail, brightness and clarity is stunning. Samsung has
managed to outdo itself again and this is, at release, the best display ever on a smartphone. The familiar Infinity Display means curved edges with a Quad HD+ resolution and the best brightness in direct sunlight of any phone on the market alongside the LG G7 ThinQ.
Processor, memory and storage
The new model also gets a specs boost in the engine room. Samsung has stuck with a split strategy for processors in different markets, so many countries will get the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 while the UK and others will get Samsung’s own Exynos 8910 (the model reviewed here). Our unit was the 6GB RAM/128GB storage option but the more expensive version available hits 8GB/512GB. It’s of the first phones to have 512GB on board and underlines
Samsung’s belief that the Note customer requires more storage than many modern laptops.
Samsung calls the Note 9 “1TB ready” as you can add up to 512GB via the microSD card slot. That’s some serious media management should you want to carry around an entire music and video collection with you at all times. In our use, the Note 9 was faultless for performance and finally feels as fast as a Pixel 2 XL and OnePlus 6. The only slowness we saw in comparison is Samsung’s use of animations between app switching and opening, which can make the software feel slower than the bare bones approach taken by OnePlus.
We benchmarked the phone against the Note 8 and S9 Plus, as well as the iPhone X, OnePlus 6 and Huawei P20 Pro – phones using those companies’
choice of top end processor at the time of the Note 9’s launch. The Geekbench test measures pure processing power, GFXBench looks at different levels of GPU processing and frame rate, while JetStream is a browser benchmark. It’s clear that the Note 9 is an exceptionally fast phone here and the differences are negligible. Even if it looks like the iPhone is more powerful, you won’t notice a difference in real-world use – we didn’t.
Connectivity and audio
This phone has every extra feature you’d hope for considering the price: fast charging, wireless charging, IP68 waterproofing, NFC and 4G LTE.
It’s a bit disappointing that the Note 9 ships with a Quick Charge 2.0 charger when Android rivals mostly ship with 3.0 and are even compatible with 4.0. It means that while not as slow as a bundled iPhone charger, the Note 9 will charge slower than the OnePlus 6, Pixel 2 and others. A brilliant upgrade on the Note 8 are the stereo speakers – one on the bottom edge and one in the earpiece. Like most phones, the drivers are too small to discern actual stereo separation, but the extra volume boost is much appreciated. Call quality is fantastic, with voices coming through particularly clear over 4G and Wi-Fi. And Intelligent Scan, Samsung’s melding of face unlock and iris scanning, is faster than ever.
It’s top-notch specs all round (without the actual notch) and Samsung has gone one further by
improving the already excellent S-Pen. Adding Bluetooth Low Energy tech, you can now use the stylus as a remote for things such as taking photos and selfies and clicking through presentations. It’s also fully customizable (unlike the Bixby button on the left edge of the phone), so you can use it how you like.
The S Pen only takes 40 seconds to charge once slotted into the phone and lasts for 30 minutes for its remote control duties. You can still use the old direct-to-screen functions when it’s dead, though.
Hovering over menus and icons often displays what the action will be before you tap, and being able to take the S-Pen out when the phone is locked to scribble a note down is still fun and useful. But it’s still a niche thing to want from a smartphone and while some might see it as convenient, most people will prefer to keep on using the normal notes
app and typing stuff in. If you want to take group selfies, then the S-Pen is your best friend, working as a remote shutter perfectly. But the S-Pen is still something that is fairly black and white – you’ll either love it or forget that it’s there. The advantage of note taking by typing is you can copy and paste it quickly cross-apps, or write whole passages on your phone.
Samsung wants you to write notes down with the S-Pen and save them, and if that works for you then you’ll love it, but what you can then do with those notes is limited. As an artistic tool, even a 6.4in display is fairly restrictive. You’ll be better off with the 10.5in Galaxy Tab S4 if drawing is your game.
Like the S9 Plus, the Note 9 has dual rear cameras with dual aperture and OIS. In fact, they are the exact same sensors: the variable aperture 12Mp f/1.5-2.4 main and a 12Mp f/2.4 for 2x optical zoom and depth sensing. New technology for the Note 9 specifically includes Flaw Detection and Scene Optimizer, which in simpler terms tell you whether you’ve taken a blurry photo and selects the best scene mode for the shot.
The low-light prowess of the S9 Plus is ported over here, and it’s a noticeable step up from the Note 8 for this reason. Images are wonderfully crisp, devoid of the saturation that mars the otherwise excellent shots on the Huawei P20 Pro.
Colour reproduction is stunning on the improved display, though Samsung camera app is still too crowded and unintuitive. Sure, you can do a lot, but it’s a steep learning curve to find it all.
One of the best things about the Note 9 is its battery life. It is a country mile ahead of the 3,300mAh cell of the Note 8, packing 4,000mAh into an only marginally thicker frame.
The trade-off is totally worth it. On average we found the Note 9 gave us four and a half hours of screen on time on a full charge with brightness on auto, using tens of apps at once and streaming Spotify to Bluetooth headphones over 4G and Wi-Fi.
Less intense usage sees the Note 9 pushing an hour longer than that, and we never once worried about finding a charger – something that frequently happened when using the Note 8.
In the Geekbench 4 battery test with brightness set to 120cd/m2 and screen not dimming (our standard test), the Note 9 lasted seven hours, 27 minutes. That’s a tad under the Galaxy S9 Plus at seven hours, 55 minutes, but the screen here is bigger.
It’s a great score considering the OnePlus 6, LG G7 and HTC U12+ lasted for much less time, and it’s great to see Samsung getting a 4,000mAh battery into the phone after the Note 7 disaster.
Bixby is still bad. Only available, still, in US English or Korean, it frequently misunderstood our English accent (and some colleagues’ American ones) and couldn’t give answers. Three examples of how to use Bixby pop up when you turn it on. For us, one was ‘What is the time difference between Paris and London’ (we are based in London). We tapped on
it, and were given a screen, where it brought up the time difference for East London in South Africa.
Bixby sucks, and what sucks more is that on the Note 9 you can’t turn off the dedicated Bixby button. It has never been remappable, but on other Galaxy phones you can disable it, but not here, meaning about a third of the time we pull the Note out a picket, we accidentally press the button and load up Bixby.
Bixby Home to the left of the home screen is still awful, with huge tiled apps that are clunky and not as customizable as we’d like. Just ignore Bixby and use the Google Assistant.
The Note 9 ships with Android 8.1 Oreo and Samsung Experience 9.5 (formerly TouchWiz). It is largely a similar design language from the past two or three years of Samsung phones, but in its current state is a pleasure to use – if a long way off from stock Android. We hope it will get an upgrade
to Pie at some point in 2018. But Samsung tends to drag its heels somewhat with software updates and the Note 8 will probably get Android P after OnePlus and Sony phones at least.
The software is largely the same as on the S9 phones but as well as the S Pen features mentioned above, the Note 9 has DeX built in. This means you don’t need to buy a separate docking station to run Samsung’s desktop experience on a monitor. You just need an HMDI to USB-C cable to plug the phone into a monitor and the Note will display its software like a Windows desktop. Of course, you also get other Samsung things like Bixby and AR Emoji, and in recent years Samsung has become better at pushing Google apps to the user rather than doubling up with Samsung alternatives.
But the software skin is quite heavy compared to stock Android, and we found the Note 8 slowed down a tad over the course of a year. Hopefully the Note 9 will be a different story as it zips along out of the box.
The Galaxy Note 9 is the best Samsung phone you can buy right now, but it’s also oddly the most niche. If you don’t want all its expensive features such as the S-Pen and huge 6.4in display, then the standard S9 will suit you for around £300 less.
But the Note 9 is supremely powerful with every feature you could hope for, stellar battery life, slick design and amazing cameras.
In the world of £1,000 phones, it’s as good as the iPhone X but a different beast. If its productivity
features and niche software suits you, you’ll love it – but it isn’t for everyone despite its excellence. Henry Burrell
• 6.4in (2,960x1,440; 516ppi) Super AMOLED capacitive touchscreen • Android 8.1 Oreo • Exynos 9810 Octa processor • Octa-core 4x 2.7GHz Mongoose M3 and 4x 1.8GHz
Cortex-A55 CPU • Mali-G72 MP18 GPU • 6/8GB RAM • 512GB storage (microSD up to 512GB) • Dual rear-facing cameras: 12Mp, f/1.5-2.4, 26mm, 1/2.55in, 1.4μm, dual pixel PDAF, OIS; 12Mp, f/2.4, 52mm, 1/3.4in, 1μm, AF, OIS, 2x optical zoom • Front camera: 8Mp, f/1.7, 25mm, 1/3.6in, 1.22μm, AF • 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi • Bluetooth 5.0 • A-GPS, GLONASS, BDS, GALILEO • NFC • Fingerprint sensor (rear mounted) • Iris scanner • USB 3.1, Type-C 1.0 reversible connector • 161.9x76.4x8.8mm • 201g
The OnePlus 6 looks and feels like a premium device
The OnePlus 6’s OS is a stock version of Android Oreo
From the front the S9+ is similar to the S9
Samsung has opted against using a ‘notch’ at the top of the panel
The fingerprint scanner has been moved to below the camera
You can create an emoji of yourself using Samsung’s AR Emoji feature
Samsung has preloaded the Galaxy S9+ will plenty of apps
The Note 9 is a stunner right out of the box
The Ocean Blue Note 9 comes with a yellow S-Pen
Samsung has improved the already excellent S-Pen
The Note 9 comes with Android 8.1