Samsung has just announced its Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+ flagship smartphones at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Once again, many of the rumors leading to the launch were spot on: the Galaxy S9 is everything the industry expected it to be, and a little bit more. We had some hands-on time with both phones, and beyond the specs, Samsung has put a lot of work to refine real-world use cases. Let’s take a closer look at what is shaping up to be the most popular smartphone on Android.
Galaxy S9 vs. S9+: the differences
As usual, the Galaxy S9 and S9+ share most of the same attributes. However, the larger size (and price) of the Galaxy S9+ allows for a few additions that make the S9+ a slightly more powerful handset.
- Display size: 5.8” vs. 6.2” (S9+)
- Camera: The S9+ has a secondary Rear Camera with 2X Optical Zoom and fast Bokeh (background blur)
- RAM memory: 4GB vs. 6GB RAM (S9+)
- Battery capacity: 3000 mAh vs. 3500 mAh (S9+)
- S9: 147.7mm x 68.7mm x 8.5mm, 163g
- S9+: 158.1mm x 73.8mm x 8.5mm, 189g
Although the user experience of each phone might be slightly affected by the above technical specs, the larger screen, and the secondary camera represent the biggest perceptible difference. Obviously, the battery size can be a big deal, but most people understand that one very well already.
Industrial Design: incremental changes
For 2018, Samsung isn’t making a huge overhaul on a form-factor that has proven to be highly popular with the Galaxy S8/S8+/Note 8. In many ways, it makes sense, and it’s hard to blame an OEM for keeping what was essentially the best industrial design, while some competitors have been selling the same phone design for several years. However, some changes will have a significant impact on the day-to-day utilization:
- Fingerprint sensor location: the fingerprint reader is coming to the center of the phone, right below the camera module. The Galaxy-8 series had it placed to the side of the camera, making it a bit odd to find the sensor at first. It was also a bit too high up on the phone.
- The phones are a bit smaller. Samsung removed 1.2mm in height on the Galaxy S9 and 1.4mm on the S9+. Since the S8 was already a very compact phone, for the computing power, one can appreciate that the S9 is 20%-30% more computationally powerful and a bit smaller.
- Stereo speakers: There’s one speaker at the bottom and the call-speaker is now also a loudspeaker – both are tuned by AKG acoustics, now a Samsung company. Samsung also made the audio output 1.4X louder, and when we tested the sound quality, the music had noticeably more “body” than on the S8. Samsung has licensed the Dolby Atmos audio CODEC, which is sound renderer, which is great for surround audio. Atmos can be enabled globally in the settings.
Design DurabilityAs one may expect, both the Galaxy S9 and S9+ are IP68 rated, which means that dust cannot get into the phone and that they can be submerged into water for ~30m (1 yard deep) without sustaining water damage. Water is a common reason why phones die, so it is an important feature to have.
The Galaxy S9 curved glass design gives it a unique luxurious look, but it also makes it relatively prone to glass cracks if you drop it on a hard surface. 50% of the shocks happen on the corners and edges when a phone lands (we looked it this in length and explained why phones crack). As the edges feature glass, the risk of cracking is more elevated. We recommend using a case, which will reduce the risk greatly. It’s up to you.
The Galaxy S9 has not received any shocks and vibration certifications such as the MIL-STD-810 certification. At the moment, it is quite uncommon for phones to have it, but some devices such as the LG V30 / LG V30S do pass some tests originally designed for military hardware transportation.
Design conclusion"THE VERY BEST DESIGN IN THE SMARTPHONE WORLD"
The Galaxy S9 industrial design should be considered to be the very best design in the smartphone world. It is beautiful, feels great in hand and is one of the most difficult to manufacture with high-quality materials. Even if we look at it from a purely technical standpoint while ignoring the aesthetics, the Galaxy S9 design provides an extremely high computational density (performance/size), camera performance and one of the highest battery density per cubic-inch (CU) – it is about how much can be done with so little space. Beauty and brains, as one might say: this is the total package.
Samsung’s Galaxy S9 Super-AMOLED display has the same size as last year’s Galaxy S8, and from a superficial observation, the image quality is very comparable. Only a deep technical analysis and measurements would reveal more subtle differences in color rendering. The more visible improvement might be the increase in brightness by about 15% to ~700 NITs if we measured it in the real-world (we’ll know for sure when the first retail units hit).
A brighter display is great for many reasons, but the most compelling is the ability to see a clear image, outdoors, on a sunny day (or with sunglasses). These are very common use cases, and the difference with a regular 300-450 NIT display is very obvious.
Because it is based on OLED technology, the Galaxy S9’s display has an unbelievable contrast ratio with deep (“true”) black pixels and vivid colors. The Galaxy S series has been consistently rated as to have some of the best mobile displays, and this one looks no different. In fact, while reviewing the Galaxy Note 8, we noticed that the brightness uniformity was out of this world, and we expect the Galaxy S9 to behave the same way.
S9 Camera: the star of the show
With a marketing message that says “Camera Reimagined,” Samsung needed something solid to back it, and the Galaxy S9 and S9+ camera systems are extremely advanced and performant, here’s why:
The main camera placed in the back is a 12 Megapixel camera (with OIS), backed by a powerful camera sensor, probably a Sony. Samsung said that it has a dual-pixel autofocus system (the most powerful AF form on mobile) and a new dual aperture of f/1.5-f/2.4 (similarly to the Samsung W2018 $2000 flip-phone). Finally, this new sensor has on-board memory that allows ultra-fast shots, including 940 FPS videos for amazing slow-motion capture.
For photography purposes, the f/1.5 aperture is extremely important. The aperture number is derived from the relative size of the hole that lets the light in the camera, to the sensor. It is not a direct size measurement, but it’s a good proxy number as long as we compare mobile cameras and sensor of relatively comparable dimensions. An aperture of f/1.5 lets ~28% more incoming light to the sensor than the S8’s f/1.7 aperture, according to Samsung. As you can imagine, this is incredibly useful for low-light scenes.
Given that the Galaxy S8/S8+/Note 8 was already the #1 or #2 shooter (depending on whether you liked the Google Pixel 2 “style” of photos, or not), the Galaxy S9 is shaping up to be the best camera phone when it comes out this March.
The dual 1.5 / 2.4 aperture might be handy in bright light situations and when you want less background blur, just like on any other camera (f/1.5 yields more natural blur). I have not looked at the maximum shutter speed, so I’m not sure if there are instances where there is “too much light” coming in, but if the situation arises, switching to f/2.4 easily solves itshock by reducing the amount of incoming light.
Note that the aperture can either be 1.5 OR 2.4. But nothing in between. It is already amazing to have such a mechanism inside a tiny camera module. Making its transition from one to the other smoothly seems like an impossible task, but maybe in the future…
Incredible low-light capabilities
When we had some hands-on time with the phone, it was possible to compare the low-light capabilities of the Galaxy S9. Samsung even has a demo apparatus which consists of a very dark box with a dimly lit image inside. You can take a photo with your phone, and with the S9 to compare the results, and wow: the low-light performance is beyond any other phone. The image above shows the noise level difference between the Galaxy S8+, arguably the best low-light shooter of 2018 against the S9+ : the difference is clear as day.
Obviously, the S9 also beat our test Galaxy Note 8 easily in terms of brightness and noise levels (that’s no easy feat). This is such a powerful demo that Samsung will let the general public try for themselves (at some retail location) against their current phones. There is no doubt that the picture comparisons will be very shocking for some users.
The photo we took of this bottle below highlight the difference very well. As you can see, the Galaxy S9 produces images with minimum noise, even when compared to the Note 8, which can be considered as being the best in 2018, along with the Pixel 2. The white balance is also more accurate and reproduces the original bottle color with a higher fidelity."THE LOW-LIGHT PERFORMANCE IS BEYOND ANY OTHER PHONE"
Samsung pointed out that the low-light capabilities of the Galaxy S9 are helped by a multi-frame noise reduction algorithm. This kind of technique has been made famous by the work done on the Google Pixel camera. I think that both Samsung and LG (among others) have also used it last year, but the new sensor’s capabilities may allow more frames to be captured, thus giving more potent data to the algorithm.
The Galaxy S9 multi-frame low light capture can snap up to 12 photos (divided into 3 groups of 4 pictures) and combine them to produce a lower-noise photo.
Super-slow motion: reloaded
As we said earlier, the Galaxy S9 is capable of capturing videos at up to 960FPS. This is a relatively new capability that was previously only available on select Sony XPERIA phones equipped with the Sony IMX400 camera sensor. 960 FPS video represents a LOT of data, and the reason why it is possible now is that the camera sensor contains embedded memory that allows for an extremely high capture rate… until the memory is full.
As you can imagine, this rate cannot be sustained for more than a second or two. It is therefore extremely hard to “time” the capture to the exact moment you want. This is something that users have struggled with when using the first Sony phones equipped with 960 FPS recording."SAMSUNG'S 960 FPS SLOW-MO IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF USABILITY"
Samsung has made 960 FPS slow-mo much more usable by having the camera determine “when” to trigger the 960 FPS recording, instead of asking the user to. Given that the reaction time for a human is ~1s or so, the camera app can react a thousand times faster when it sees fast motion in the scene. This works by having the camera “detect motion” in a specific area of the scene, represented by a rectangle. Samsung’s 960 FPS Slow-Mo is a great example of usability.
We tested it and found it to be great for capturing scenes that go from static to animated, like exploding balloons, pouring water in a glass, object landing on the floor and other things like that. The Samsung Camera app can also record normal video before, switch to 960 FPS slow-mo, and back to normal speed when the slow-mo capability has been exhausted. It was really fun, and every attempt we made was successful. Samsung’s even has a GIF creator to turn slow-mo movies into animated gifs for Social Media sharing.
If you don’t need 960 FPS slow-motion, the phone also supports 240 FPS slow-mo at 1080p, which is only limited by your storage capacity.
Galaxy S9+ gets 2X zoom and Bokeh photos
The Galaxy S9+ size provides enough internal room to add a secondary camera module with another 12 Megapixel Sensor and a 2X telephoto with a f/2.4 aperture. This is a setup that is very similar to the Galaxy Note 8.
This secondary camera provides slightly better zoomed-photo detail preservation when lighting conditions are very favorable. It also serves as a sensor for depth calculations that are indispensable to build background blur via software. Also called Portrait Photography, it is a photographic tool that is often employed by enthusiasts. At the moment, all smartphones require users to switch to a Portrait Mode, and this is not activated automatically as a point-and-shoot feature.
Learn more: Dual Cameras vs. Single Camera
The Galaxy S9 will launch running with Android 8 (aka Oreo), and that’s not a surprise. The overall user interface will be familiar to Samsung users, and there are tweaks here and there. The camera app has easier access to some features. We did not have time to delve into the details, but from the time we had, we think that any Galaxy user will feel at home.
Bixby gets smarter
Samsung has made improvements to Bixby, their AI assistant. The company has revealed that 50% of its user use Bixby in one form or another. While this may be a best-case scenario, it still is a large number. That said, it is not completely surprising since voice assistants can be faster for many tasks, such as setting alarms, and asking straightforward questions such as temperature conversions, weather reports, and many more things.
The feature we liked the most is Bixby’s new text translations with real-time overlay. Previously, users had to take a picture, or some static image and Bixby would translate that. Now, it’s possible to hold the camera at some text and have an overlay which seems like Augmented Reality. I’ve seen other apps do this before, but it’s nice that Samsung has integrated it into Bixby.
Updated Samsung DEX desktop experience
DEX Pad is a dock that turns your Galaxy S9 phone into a desktop computer when connected to a large screen. We have looked at Dex Station and used it with the Galaxy S8 and followed the subsequent upgrades with the Galaxy Note 8. DEX Pad brings major improvements that we want to point out.
DEX Pad has two USB. With these, you can be connected to a faster network, and plug a physical keyboard and mouse combo. There is also an HDMI port to connect a desktop monitor. Inside, DEX has an active fan that will cool down the phone during prolonged sessions. It does not feature an Ethernet port as Dex Station does.
New form-factor: DEX Station looks like a charging cradle, but the 2018 DEX Pad has the phone in horizontal position. Because of that, the handset can be used as a trackpad, and the audio elements (speakers, 3.5mm jack) remain accessible and available. This comes from user feedback that was gathered last year.
The maximum resolution is now 2K instead of FHD, and that makes a big difference in terms of display size and choices that you have. People are more productive with a larger display, and it’s better to have a higher resolution when you use one. Power comes in via a USB-C connector, and the phone is charging while in use.
Finally, Samsung has worked with cloud apps providers (VMWare…) to improve the accessibility of Windows apps via DEX. This is a big one for corporations that want to keep everything, including the OS hosted in a data center. For employees, it is the opportunity to have a very thin client such as a tablet, and possibly a Galaxy S phone.
Samsung has not yet revealed with the new DEX dock would work with older phones. We assume that it is technically possible, but probably requires a firmware update with a lot of DEX changes.
I would love to see Samsung add a simpler option to just connect the Galaxy S9 to a monitor via USB-C to HDMI, and have a cloning mode, or a secondary monitor, like Huawei is doing with the Mate 10/10 Pro. While the DEX experience is certainly more comfortable, there is also a lot to love about a simple, inexpensive and efficient one-cable option.
Unified Face and Iris unlock
With the Galaxy S9, Iris and Facial unlock have been merged into a single feature. You still have to set both up, but they can complement each other depending on the lighting conditions. For instance, Iris unlock works work in the dark because it has an illumination system. On the other hand, bright sunlight can overwhelm the IR. Facial unlock tends to work better in bright light, but not so well in the dark.
The important thing to remember is that facial unlock is still based on a 2D image can is not secure enough for payments. It is also possible to fool it with a print. Iris unlock is more secure than even fingerprints.
The battery capacity of the Galaxy S9 and S9+ are identical to the Galaxy S8 and S8+. While there are phones with slightly higher capacity, it is interesting to note that the Galaxy S phones often feature an excellent battery capacity in relation to their size. As you might expect, the batteries are not user-removable.
The phones can be fast-charged, and Samsung did mention that they were compatible with Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 protocol.
There is also a fast-charge capability for wireless charging, but it’s not clear how fast it is, especially relative to the competition. This is something that we’re going to start tracking as wireless charging is gaining wide adoption.
System Performance: Maximum Speed with Snapdragon 845
It was no longer a secret: the Galaxy S9 is the first smartphone powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 platform. We had a detailed briefing on it during the Qualcomm 5G Summit in December, and we were able to run some Snapdragon 845 benchmarking apps earlier this month. As you can expect, the results show a “generational gap” between this new Snapdragon platform and anything that came before it on Android.
As you can see from the charts above, there is a significant gap in performance, and this is not even taking into account the changes made on the computing units that are not measured by benchmarking apps since they typically measure only CPU, GPU (and RAM). That’s about half of the computing units present in modern SoC platforms.
As always, the iPhone 8/X processor shows excellent performance in CPU synthetic benchmarks. However, those scores don’t always translate into domination in tests that mimic games such as GFXBench, a popular 3D graphics benchmark that stresses both CPU and GPU.
The other thing that is overlooked by benchmarks is the power-efficiency. Snapdragon 835 had already made huge gains compared to Snapdragon 821, but Snapdragon 845 takes things even further with common use cases such as video playback or 3D gaming/VR. The combination of higher performance and lower power usage (for the same task) is extremely powerful.
We do know that the U.S Galaxy S9 will be equipped with the Snapdragon 845 chip. Others region will have it as well, although the list isn’t defined as of today. In some regions, the S9 will be powered by Samsung’s Exynos 9810 processor. We have not had the opportunity to take a deep look at it but would welcome the opportunity to do so at some point.
The Galaxy S9 will have 4GB of memory, while the S9+ has 6GB, like the Galaxy Note 8. The additional RAM is often sought after by heavy multi-tasking users, and we would recommend it to people who have a lot of apps. For most people, 4GB is often very sufficient. RAM utilization depends on your actual usage pattern, and there is no easy way for a 3rd party to predict how much RAM you will need. If your phone gets very sluggish, you might want to explore that possibility.
The internal storage options are 64/128 and 256 GB (for both S9 and S9+), which can be extended with up to 400GB in microSD storage. The Galaxy S9 uses a microSD interface that should allow for up to 2TB of storage. However, the largest cards used to be as big as 256GB, and now they top 400GB. Samsung has confirmed that they have tested some of those, and they indeed work with the S9 (they should also work with previous phones).
Having a microSD storage can be a huge advantage, especially for those who like to download or capture HD or UHD 4K movies. Although microSD cards are often slower than the internal storage, many applications such as photo and video don’t always require the fastest storage, just lots of it. Memory cards are MUCH less expensive as an internal memory upgrade.
Extreme broadband performance: LTE CAT18, 1.2Gbps
Inside the Snapdragon 845 SoC, there’s a Qualcomm X20 integrated LTE Modem capable of reaching top speeds of 1.2 Gbps. Although we don’t expect you to reach this speed in most real situations at current levels of deployments, higher top speeds are an excellent proxy for better average broadband experience, and that is something you benefit from every-single-minute that your handset is ON.
With carriers accelerating higher-speed LTE deployments to optimize their own radio-band usage, the odds are that the wireless experience for S9 customers will improve significantly over the next couple of years, making this an interesting investment.
Also, the X20 modem supports more LTE bands combinations, thus increasing the odds that carriers at your location will be able to deploy such speeds. There’s no way to know for sure, but carriers do have an incentive to get more people on faster devices so they can serve (and bill) more… The logic is simple: the faster your modem is, and the less you occupy the airwaves. The more customers the carriers can serve with the same infrastructure.
Conclusion: the 2018 smartphone to beat
The Galaxy S9 is a great evolution of the Galaxy S8 design. On the surface, it looks very similar to its predecessor, but under the hood, the improvements of the Camera system, the computing power, and the broadband communications quality are drastic and true next-generation features.
In addition to the hardware changes, Samsung did focus on real use cases that matter to people. Again the S9 camera sets the bar for 2018 with an extreme low-light performance along with slow-motion for all."TRUE NEXT-GENERATION FEATURES"
As Samsung returns to MWC to launch its flagship smartphone, the number of competing launches has dried up. To be fair, it would be very difficult to compete with a smartphone launch in the shadow of the Galaxy S9 right now. However, Xiaomi has announced a Snapdragon 845 phone via Twitter, and Sony has just completed the launch of a high-end phone featuring the same chip.
Pre-orders will start on March 2 and devices will be available on March 16. The price has yet to be announced, but Samsung has already mentioned that it has a trade-in program that can yield up to $350 for your current handset.