Galaxy S9 review: Don’t fix what’s not broken

Samsung’s Galaxy S9 is their flagship device for 2018, offering the latest and greatest features the company has been working on for years. With that being said, the phone didn’t have a particularly exciting launch since it’s so similar to last year’s Galaxy S8. The design hasn’t changed much, and there aren’t any significant hardware improvements to talk about.

This year is a year of refinement for Samsung, with some new key software features, a polished media experience, and some small tweaks to fine tune their design.

But does that make for a good phone, or a smart upgrade for previous Samsung owners? Let’s dig in and find out.

Design

The Galaxy S9 design is strikingly similar to the Galaxy S8. In fact, looking at the two side-by-side, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. It keeps the same premium glass back, curved display, and sleek design for a second round.

There are a few key differences, including some small tweaks like slightly readjusted power and volume buttons and a fingerprint scanner below the camera module instead of off to the side. The former probably isn’t something you’ll consciously notice, but the latter is such a huge improvement but only because the fingerprint scanner placement on the Galaxy S8 was the worst thing Samsung has done in a decade. Fortunately, Samsung learned their lesson and that gripe has been addressed.

The Galaxy S9 feels fantastic in hand, albeit tricky to hold in certain situations. The edges of the phone are still razor thin, so that’s not any different from it’s predecessor, but I’m still not 100% sold on the ergonomics of the curved display. It’s hard to argue that it doesn’t look slick, though.

The all-glass design has a nice weight to it, and the phone absolutely feels like it flagship, top of the line product. The black model does tend to pick up fingerprints on the back of the device, which is always a problem with glass-backed phones, although going for a different color could probably mitigate that if it would bother you.

You’ll get the power button on the right side, opposite the volume keys and that incredibly frustrating Bixby button on the left side of the phone. Samsung is clearly all in on Bixby, even if that means you’re going accidentally call up the AI when trying to adjust the volume.

The top of the phone houses the SIM tray and microSD card slot, and the bottom sports the fast charging USB-C port and 3.5mm headphone jack, plus one of Samsung’s high powered stereo speakers. The back of the design has a familiar camera design with a heart rate monitor and LED flash off to the side, and the fingerprint sensor below the entire setup close to the center of the phone. Again, that’s a massive improvement.

 

It feels fantastic and looks fantastic, but then again, so did the Galaxy S8.

Hardware

Performance

The US model of the Galaxy S9 uses a Snapdragon 845, Qualcomm’s current top shelf CPU. And yes, it’s still blisteringly fast.

Swiping through the interface and apps is fluid, and the spacious 4GB of RAM on the smaller Galaxy S9 still holds up very well for typical app usage. With that being said, Samsung’s aggressive app management is still here, so if you open anything particularly demanding (like games) you’ll probably notice apps getting flushed from memory more often. The good news is that they’ll boot from a cold start pretty damn fast, so the sheer speed of the processor can offset that a bit.

The screen is fantastic with bright, crisp colors and excellent black levels, which tends to be a signature Samsung thing. Every year they manage to slightly improve the display on their flagship smartphones, and yep, the Galaxy S9 truly is one of, if not the best display on the market. Even with lowered screen resolutions, it still looks phenomenal.

 

One area that Samsung is talking up is in the audio department of the Galaxy S9, as they’ve built in some fancy new AKG-tuned stereo speakers. Speakers tend to be glossed over in 2018 due to the prevalence of Bluetooth speakers and headphones, but the Dolby Atmos compatible Galaxy S9 really sounds fantastic for a device of this size. My memory’s a little fuzzy on HTC’s old BoomSound speakers, but as far as I can tell, Samsung is really close to replicating how good those speakers sounded. It’s loud, full of bass, doesn’t clip at high volumes, and even manages to emulate surround sound surprisingly well for a mobile device.

I almost prefer watching YouTube and other videos on the Galaxy S9 instead of on my home theater system, which packs a full 5.1 surround sound setup and a 50″ 4k TV. That’s how impressive the Galaxy S9 is.

Battery

Samsung stuck with the same 3,000mAh battery from the Galaxy S8, but this year you get a slightly more efficient screen and slightly more efficient processor. So that should mean at least moderately better battery life, right? Well, not quite.

For whatever reason, the Galaxy S9 seems to actually perform a little worse than the Galaxy S8. You’ll probably get a full days worth of usage out of a single charge, but it wasn’t uncommon to need a juice up by the end of the day. It charges incredibly quickly with a USB-C cable, so that’s not the end of the world, but it is strange. Whether it’s something with Samsung’s latest software overlay or a quirk with the Android 8.0 Oreo update I do not know.

The fast charging is a nice addition to offset this, and Samsung is one of the most popular wireless charging phones. The phone also supports “fast” wireless charging, but that’s another instance of something not being quite as impressive as you’d hope. Even using 10W quick charging wireless chargers, there wasn’t a significant jump over regular ol’ wireless chargers, especially not when you consider the difference between a 5W and 10W wired charge.

Software

Love it or hate it, you’re still getting Samsung Experience 9.0, which we all still like to call TouchWiz. I’ll be upfront, I’ve never particularly hated TouchWiz like most of the internet; I like the extra features, although I will concede that the heavy software has caused performance problems in the past.

For the most part, now Samsung’s extra software has scaled back some of its superfluous stuff and doesn’t impact performance, which is also probably partly due to the insanely fast processors and large memory capacities. The Galaxy S9 never seems to bog down under its own weight like we see with some other phones, and there are some genuinely useful features baked in. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be faster running plain, stock Android, but I think the features are a worthwhile trade-off.

Granted, there aren’t any really new features from some older phones, but the features are very useful. Always On display is great and now supports GIFs, Samsung offers customizable fonts and themes for your entire interface, and the company’s own apps for things like note taking, health tracking, and mobile paying all work extremely well, unlike the TouchWiz apps of yesteryear. The Samsung keyboard is one of the few Android keyboards I actually like, too, and it’s jam packed with features, too.

Samsung gives users 15GB of free cloud space to store their photos, notes, and other phone data, plus full device backups that don’t seem to count towards your overall cloud storage limit. The facial recognition is slightly improved from the previous model, using both iris scanning and face recognition to perform an “intelligent scan” and unlock your device. You still get the fingerprint scanner or PIN as a fallback.

 

Another new feature the company has talked up its AR Emoji feature to compete with Apple’s Animoji. It’s weird and it probably would’ve been better if they hadn’t. Bixby also isn’t much improved from last year, and even though it does have some cool and unique features, it still doesn’t hold a candle to Google Assistant.

Regardless, if you need a phone that’s absolutely full of features (some useful, some not) it’s hard to argue Samsung isn’t at the top of the dog pile.

Camera

There’s been a three way back-and-forth with Samsung, Apple, and Google over whose phone can take the best pictures. They’ll all pretty fantastic at this point, and Samsung offers an extremely competitive option in the Galaxy S9.

Easy shots like outdoor photos or decently lit shots all look great on the Galaxy S9. The phone captures a ton of detail and applies Samsung’s traditional deep saturation to photos, resulting in some great photographs without much effort on the user’s part.

Samsung touts the Galaxy S9’s dual aperture to allow the phone to take stellar low light shots, and Samsung is right. Even without much light you can snap some incredible shots with this phone.

If you really want to dive in there’s even a Pro mode in the camera that will let you finely adjust settings to get the perfect shot, although the auto mode handled things without a problem for me.

Closing

Samsung’s Galaxy S8 was a fantastic phone, and the Galaxy S9 is also a fantastic phone. They took the few complaints people had about the older model (like that fingerprint scanner) and fixed them while refining and polishing everything else about the device. It’s arguably the most complete package on the market, and at just $719 it’s plenty competitive with its contemporaries.

With that being said, is it $719 better than the Galaxy S8? Absolutely not. If you’re rocking last year’s model, this incremental refresh doesn’t offer nearly enough to warrant a full upgrade from a still excellent phone. If you’re hanging on to a Galaxy S7, though? I think there’s enough here to justify it.

At this point it’s probably safe to say Samsung has almost perfected their smartphone design and feature set, so the last thing to do is finish polishing up the ecosystem around the phone. They own SmartThings and integrate their devices together as best they can, but that’s really where most of the work is left. Samsung’s update process for their phones is inexplicably slow, for example, and if they want to really give Apple a run for their money, little things like that should start to be the focus.

Platform complaints aside, though, the Galaxy S9 really is a fantastic phone. If you’re due for an upgrade and this is in your price range, this one’s worth the money.

Side note: our review unit used Cricket’s network, which held up remarkably. Right now if you want to pick up an S9 and switch to Cricket’s affordable prepaid plans, you can save $200 on the price of the phone with a port in. That’s a pretty great price and makes the upgrade a bit easier on the wallet.

Buy it now: Cricket, Samsung, Amazon

Accessory reviews: Best Galaxy S9 CasesBest Folio CasesBest Heavy Duty Cases

 


About the Author: Jared Peters

Born in southern Alabama, Jared spends his working time selling phones and his spare time writing about them. The Android enthusiasm started with the original Motorola Droid, but the tech enthusiasm currently covers just about everything. He likes PC gaming, Lenovo's Moto Z line, and a good productivity app.