Samsung’s R&D department must have breathed a sigh of relief when it got through 2017 without a hiccup. After a rocky previous year, the S8 and S8+ were the successes Samsung needed, and the triumphant return of the Note series was the icing on the cake.
But what now? After adopting a trailblazing change in form factor with the S8 family, what could Samsung do to continue grabbing headlines – the good kind, of course – in 2018?
In some ways, by not changing very much at all. In the S9 (and S9+), Samsung has taken a rather Apple-like approach, by overhauling little and tweaking everything.
That means if you’ve got an S8 at home, you might not feel inclined to rush out and trade it in. But if you’re upgrading from an earlier phone or from another brand, Samsung’s careful refinements make the S9 a pretty impressive package indeed.
After introducing its longer, slimmer 18.5:9 screen ratio in the S8 family, Samsung has stuck with it in the S9. Not surprising, considering most of the smartphone industry has since followed suit.
This means that to look at, the S9 is very much like its predecessor, slathered front and back in glass, with the front screen curving around at its edges to meet an aluminium frame.
The result is a near bezel-less display left to right, and Samsung has even pushed back the bezels to the top and bottom in the S9, by embedding the infrared sensors in the display. The result? More screen and no notches.
There are no buttons to blemish the front display of the S9, with a volume rocker and power button on the side, and the fingerprint scanner on the back of the phone. This has been refined and re-positioned compared with last year’s somewhat awkward placement.
Now it is lower, and placed directly underneath the camera for a more ‘balanced’ design. It feels much easier to reach when holding the phone, with no shift in grip required. It’s easier to set up now too, requiring you to run your finger over the pad just three times for it to register each one.
As with any Samsung phone of late, the S9 feels supremely put together, and at 189g, it remains lightweight too. The glass back panel, which allows the S9 to charge wirelessly, does mean you’ll be constantly cleaning away grubby fingerprints, though
There are three colour choices coming to the UK – midnight black, coral blue and the new signature colour, lilac purple.
With the S9 sticking with the 18.5:9 screen ratio, you get a lot more screen than you expect, given its size. It is considerably slimmer than the iPhone 8 Plus, for example, but squeezes in a bigger 5.8in screen (with the S9+ pushing this to 6.2in, by comparison).
It uses the same Quad HD (2960 x 1440) display as last year, and also continues with its HDR Mobile Premium certification, meaning you can watch compatible content on Netflix and Amazon with punchier colours, and better detail in the shadows and highlights.
While we weren’t able to look at any HDR content in our short time with it, we did get to look at a few pre-loaded SDR video clips, and the S9’s display looked as punchy and detailed as ever. Blacks look inky deep thanks to the AMOLED display at hand, and there is plenty of brightness to go at too, so you shouldn’t struggle with it in sunlight.
Samsung’s normal colour balance options are present and correct for tinkerers, but it remains to be seen if it can match the iPhone for overall colour handling. That’s something for the full review, but for now we’ll say that there looks to be plenty to like from the S9’s screen.
More after the break
Amidst all the tinkering that’s gone on under the hood of the S9, the camera is probably one of the things that’s seen the biggest changes.
While the S9+ gets an iPhone-esque upgrade to a dual-camera system, the standard S9 sticks with just the one. But worry not – there’s still plenty to discuss here.
At first glance, it might not seem so. On paper, it has the same the same 8MP f/1.7 selfie camera on the front and the same 12MP sensor on the back, complete with dual-pixel autofocus and optical image stabilisation on the latter. So far, so 2017. But the S9 also has a new feature to add to its arsenal – a dual-aperture lens.
Instead of using one fixed aperture, which most manufacturers have been pushing lower and lower to improve low-light performance, the S9 can switch between two. One is for those low-light situations, dipping down to a market-leading f/1.5 for a phone (letting in 28% more light than the S8), while the other – at f/2.4 – is for lighter scenarios, anything of around 100 lux and above.
The thinking behind this is that while a wide aperture is great for lighting up dingier environments, in brighter ones, it can actually affect colour saturation. So to keep well-lit snaps looking punchy, the S9 will skip between the two, all without you needing to reach into the manual menu to change it.
Dual aperture is also joined by multi-frame noise reduction, which helps keep pictures looking clear and sharp in low light. It sees the camera take 12 pictures at once in darker surroundings (the S8 only took three), and then divide those 12 snaps into stacks of four for processing.
Each stack creates a master photo from what was captured by correcting the image pixel by pixel - it's then put up against the master photos from the other stacks to be corrected even further.
That might sound like a lengthy process, but it’s done within the time it takes you to press the shutter button and take the picture, with the results promising 30% fewer artefacts than before.
We had a brief demo during our hands-on time, and the results certainly looked impressive. Going head-to-head with what looked to be a Google Pixel 2, both phones took a picture of a wall of flowers in a very dark room. Not only did the S9 lighten up the image much more convincingly than the Pixel 2, but also when zoomed in, it showed more detail and less noise. Of course, we’ll withhold final judgement until we can try it out in our own time, but early impressions look very good indeed.
One last new feature to mention is the super slow-mo video mode, a feature we first saw on last year’s Sony Xperia XZ1, and which Samsung is doing here – with its own twist of course.
Offering a ridiculously slow 960fps at full HD (regular slow mo is 240fps), it can turn a 0.2-second clip into six seconds long. And with Automatic Motion Detect, you can select an area of the screen for the camera to track for movement, and once it does, it will begin recording in slow motion without you needing to flex a finger.
On the music side of things, Samsung continues to support high-resolution audio up to 24-bit/192kHz and DSD files too, as well as the 3.5mm headphone jack. Unfortunately, there was no music for us to have a listen to during our brief hands-on time, so we’ll have to wait and see if Samsung has finally managed to match Apple for rhythmic timing in our full review.
It bodes well that Samsung hasn’t ignored this area of its handset though, with new stereo speakers tuned by AKG that are louder, clearer and fuller bodied than the single speaker on the S8.
Dolby Atmos sound is included for the first time too, and comes with the ability to switch the effect on and off. The result is a slightly wider, but ultimately less solid sound, which we imagine we’d keep off for the majority of the time. However, we’ll be sure to put it through its paces more come our full review.
To keep things moving smoothly, Samsung has fuelled the S9 with its brand new Exynos 9810 octa-core processor, supported by 4GB RAM and a singular 64GB (plus microSD) storage option. It’s as slick as ever, with no stutters or hiccups, even when swiping around the menus and apps at speed.
The S9 gets a 3000mAh battery for juice too, the same size as the S8. Though it wasn’t the best battery performance we saw last year, it should get you through a day of regular usage if its predecessor is anything to go by, and comes with both fast and wireless charging, using the Qi standard.
Other returning features of note include Samsung’s DeX docking system, for using your phone with a keyboard and mouse, waterproofing to an IP68 rating (up to 1.5m for up to 30 minutes), and an improved Bixby Smart Assistant, with new capabilities including the ability to translate text in real time via the camera.
One new feature of note is the AR Emoji functionality, which sees you building your own emoji character – a little like a Nintendo Mii or one of Snapchat’s Bitmoji – to create a more personalised emoji experience on the S9.
To do so, open the AR Emoji app to have the camera scan over 100 reference points on your face. It builds your emoji automatically, which you can then tweak and customise to your liking later on. Ours wasn’t exactly spot on in its looks, but it was recognisable enough for the task at hand – putting our results into pre-programmed emojis to send on Facebook Messenger or Whatsapp.
You can save several faces to switch between, and as well as the list of static emojis, you are also able to record animated GIFs of your emoji’s face in realtime, too.
Sure, it’s a bit of a gimmick, but if you thought Apple’s Animoji was cool, you might find yourself delving into this feature too.
Without flexing too many major muscles, Samsung has rustled up a pretty polished successor to the S8, with a handful of carefully considered tweaks, all built into one of the best designed smartphones you can buy.
The improved camera is certainly one of the areas that’s seen the most steps forward, but while its other spec changes might look small in isolation, they each do their bit to nudge the S9 along to being a better phone than ever.
As ever, we’ll be interested to see how that screen performs with our video tests, not to mention whether Samsung has finally managed to match Apple for its sound performance.
Pre-orders for the Galaxy S9 start on February 25th and general sale begins on March 16th, with a price tag of £739 SIM free. We can’t wait to get our hands on it for our full review.