★★★★★ £739 • From www.amazon.co.uk
With the Galaxy S9, Samsung has left the design mostly untouched in favour of upgrading the rear camera. The resulting shots look fantastic, but it needs more than that to justify its titanic price
An impressive phone with a superlative camera, but even that isn’t quite worth the money
CHANCES ARE YOU already know at least something about the Samsung Galaxy S9: leaks, rumours and educated guesses have been rampant, and there were certainly no gasps of surprise when the Galaxy S9 was finally officially revealed at MWC 2018.
It probably didn’t help Samsung’s pre-release buzz that the Galaxy S9 looks so much like the Galaxy S8 (Shopper 353); to an extent, this is a smartphone that builds on previous successes, rather than aims for a complete reinvention. Despite this, it costs £739, making it even more expensive than the infamously dear iPhone 8.
However, there are two key upgrades here: the new 12-megapixel f/1.5 rear camera, which promises to perform better in low light than the Galaxy S8’s camera; and the Exynos 9810 chip, which should offer faster performance.
In any case, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that the general design is so familiar. The Galaxy S8 was an extremely good-looking handset, and so is this, especially now that the top and bottom bezels (which were already the only ones remaining) have been shaved off slightly further. The result is an even higher screen-to-body ratio than on the S8.
The screen itself remains 5.8in diagonally, with the same high 2,960x1,440 resolution and 18.5:1 aspect ratio – and, since this is one of Samsung’s Super AMOLED panels, it looks fantastic. Our X-Rite colour calibrator found it covered 99.3% of the sRGB colour gamut space, with an average delta-E of 1.94, which means you can expect bright, accurate colour reproduction across the board, although images are a tad overexposed in the phone’s default Adaptive display mode.
AMOLED technology also delivers unbeatable contrast levels – our colourimeter reported a perfect infinity:1 score – and the Galaxy S9’s maximum brightness reaches a very respectable 299cd/m2. Switch on auto brightness, and that figure rockets up to a blinding 996cd/m2.
Along the bottom edge you’ll find the same connections as the S8, too: a solitary USB Type-C port for charging and, mercifully, a 3.5mm headphone jack. On the right edge sits the volume rocker and power button, alongside a dedicated button for the Bixby digital assistant, while the combined microSD and nano-SIM card slot is placed at the top. All these slots and ports don’t prevent the Galaxy S9 being rated to the IP68 for dustand water-resistance, either.
The real differences from the Galaxy S8 are on the inside. In the US, the Galaxy S9 includes Qualcomm’s latest flagship chip, the Snapdragon 845, but here in the UK, you’ll get Samsung’s own octa-core, 2.9GHz Exynos 9810 instead, along with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage.
This regional change is fine by us, as the Galaxy S9’s benchmark scores clearly surpassed what we saw from the Snapdragon 845 when we tested the latter at Qualcomm’s offices. In GeekBench 4, it recorded a stupendously high 3,659 in the single-core test, as well as 8,804 in the multicore test – so besides having a good chance of besting every other Android handset to be released in the coming year, the Galaxy S9 manages to improve on its immediate predecessor’s scores by 45% in the single-core and 25% in the multicore test. This is one seriously quick smartphone.
GPU performance is also up on the Galaxy S8: the S9 managed 45fps in GFXBench Manhattan’s native-res onscreen test, as well as 77fps in the 1080p offscreen test.
Notably, it looks as though both Samsung and Qualcomm are still having to play catch-up with Apple in the performance
stakes, as the iPhone 8 still outpaced the Galaxy S9 in both GeekBench and GFXBench. However, if you’d rather stick with Android than switch over to iOS, then this is – and could well be for a while – the most powerful smartphone you can go for.
All that power takes a toll on battery life, however, and with a severity we haven’t seen on the flagship Galaxy phones in a long while. With the screen set to our standard 170cd/m2 brightness and flight mode engaged, we were able to run our video playback test for 14h 23m before battery levels fell flat. That’s decent, but some two-and-a-half hours behind the Galaxy S8.
There’s some good news, fortunately: once the battery hits zero, the Galaxy S9 can be fast-charged to full in just under an hour and a half.
One subtle update that makes the Galaxy S9 much more pleasant to use is the combination of the phone’s iris and facial recognition systems. The Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus introduced these biometric login tools last year, but the Galaxy S9 brings them together, under the name ‘Intelligent Scan’. If you enable this, the phone will try to unlock using one method, and if that fails, it falls back to the other. It’s a simple idea, but we found it greatly reduced the frequency of failed recognition attempts compared to the previous generation. The fingerprint enrolment process has also been improved, so it now takes only two swipes of your index finger to register instead of the 16 dabs it required previously.
Bixby, Samsung’s smartphone AI platform, has had an upgrade, too: it can now translate text in real time via the rear camera. That’s an ability that Google’s Translate app has had for years, but we found Samsung’s implementation faster and more accurate.
Superficially, the Galaxy S9’s camera specs are similar to what went before: you get a single 12-megapixel sensor with dual-pixel phase-detection autofocus and optical image stabilisation. As with the Galaxy S8, there’s no secondary 2x telephoto zoom lens on the regular-sized handset.
What is new is an f/1.5 aperture that’s significantly wider than that of the S8. This lets in much more light, brightening up shots and capturing crisper details. You don’t need to do anything to get the benefit: the camera widens the aperture automatically once the lighting conditions are below 100 lux, which is about what you’d get on a gloomy, overcast day in the UK.
For brighter scenes, the Galaxy S9 can switch to f/2.4 on the fly, so you get a bit more depth of field and don’t have to worry about overexposure. Experienced photographers will be very happy to hear that you can also select the aperture size for yourself in the camera’s Pro mode.
In use, the Galaxy S9’s wide-aperture camera performed remarkably well. Even in pitch-black conditions of around 1 lux, the camera was able to capture a noise-free image, with plenty of detail. This is certainly helped by the image signalling processor’s ability to shoot 12 frames in quick succession and combine them into one practically perfect image.
Indeed, put the Galaxy S9’s low-light images side by side with shots from the excellent Pixel 2, and the S9’s look even better, with superior colour reproduction across the palette. In more camera-friendly lighting conditions, heaps of detail is picked up, and shots are well exposed. The HDR system also does a good job at punching up dark, shadowy areas and softening highlights.
The video hardware gets an upgrade, too. The Galaxy S9 can now record 720p footage at a ridiculous 960fps, stretching 0.2 seconds of activity out into six seconds of video. It’s extremely easy to set up: simply draw a box on the screen, and the slow-motion recorder will kick in whenever movement is detected within that space.
This is also one of the first phones to feature Samsung’s answer to Apple’s Animojis. Unlike the Apple implementation, which maps a predefined emoji on to your face, Samsung’s system allows you to create your own avatar, Bitmoji-style, and overlays it on to your face via the IR camera. It’s a neat idea, but the results may or may not live up to expectations; sometimes the resulting animated characters are decent likenesses of their subjects, sometimes they clearly misjudge certain facial features or hairstyles, and sometimes they just look unsettling.
Even if this isn’t a radical departure from last year’s blueprint, the Galaxy S9 can make the enviable claim of having both the best smartphone camera and the best performance of any current Android handset. That’s nothing to sniff at, although we’re still not quite convinced by the price.
At £739, this is £60 more than the Galaxy S8 was at launch, and now even that has – like many other Android flagships – dropped below £500. This makes it hard to recommend picking up the Galaxy S9 right now, although if that price drops to something more reasonable, it could become much more of a must-have.