Samsung Galaxy S9 review: Not perfect, but still a stellar phone

May 3, 2018


Samsung's Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9 Plus were announced in late February and went on sale in the middle of March. Since that time, ZDNet's Matthew Miller reviewed the bigger Galaxy S9 Plus, proclaiming the device is "Android perfection achieved."

For roughly the past six weeks, I've used the smaller Galaxy S9, using it as my only camera to cover Apple's Education Event, and as my daily device for an extended amount of time.

And while I mostly agree with Miller's assessment, the Galaxy S9 does have some flaws. Just how much of an impact on the overall experience do those flaws have? Let's look.

By all accounts, the Galaxy S9 looks nearly identical to last year's Galaxy S8 lineup. The Galaxy S9 has a 5.8-inch Infinity Display that forgoes almost all bezels and wraps around the sides with a slight curve. On the right side of the phone is the power button, with a volume rocker and a dedicated Bixby button on the left side.

Indeed, just as was the case with the Galaxy S8, the Bixby button on the Galaxy S9 is still just as pointless. Granted, Samsung now gives users the option to disable Bixby and its dedicated button, but we still don't have an official option to use the button to launch an app of our choosing.

On the backside of the Galaxy S9 is its 12-megapixel camera, with dual aperture and a fingerprint sensor. The location of the fingerprint reader is one of the only visual differences between last year's model and the Galaxy S9. Instead of placing the reader next to the left of the camera, the Galaxy S9's reader sits just below the camera. The new position feels more natural and is infinitely easier to reach when using the phone with one hand.

Samsung also left the 3.5mm headphone jack alone, setting its smartphone apart from Apple's iPhone lineup and Google's Pixel 2 devices. A USB-C port on the bottom of the Galaxy S9 is used for charging and syncing the phone with a computer. On top of the phone is the combined microSD card and SIM card tray. The Galaxy S9 still has an IP68 rating for dust and water resistance.

The glass back stuck around as well, allowing for wireless charging and for fingerprints and scratches to muck up the look of your phone.

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Inside the Galaxy S9 is Qualcomm's Snapdragon 845 processor, 4GB of memory, a 3,000mAh battery, and 64GB of storage. Starting May 1, customers can preorder a Galaxy S9 with either 128GB or 256GB of storage directly from Samsung. Otherwise, wireless carriers and retailers will only carry the 64GB model.

Read also: Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus: This is how much your new phone costs to build

I have no complaints or issues with the phone's overall performance. Apps open fast, scrolling through apps like Facebook or Twitter is stutter free, and movies look amazing on the phone's screen.

The 12-megapixel rear camera on the Galaxy S9 automatically switches between apertures of f/1.5 and f/2.4. Multiple apertures on a single lens is normally a feature found on dedicated cameras.

The larger f/1.5 aperture is used primarily in low-light situations, while the smaller f/2.4 aperture is more frequently used. When using automatic mode the camera app identifies the scene and switches between the two apertures on its own in an attempt to capture the best shot. Users who like a bit more control can use Pro mode in the camera app to manually select the aperture.

As I previously said, I used the Galaxy S9 as a camera to shoot photos of the Apple keynote in late March. I left automatic mode enabled the entire time, and have zero complaints with the results.

Outside of the awkward lighting situation, I continue to be impressed by the consistent performance of the Galaxy S9's camera. With the iPhone X, I feel as if there are times when I have to do all the thinking about framing, brightness settings, and capturing the shot just right to get the result I want. With the Galaxy S9, I can open the camera app, take a picture, and more often than not, it's going to look how I expected.

The Galaxy S9 Plus boasts dual rear-facing cameras, which is one feature I do wish Samsung had included in the standard Galaxy S9.

Super slo-mo

Not one to settle for regular slow-motion, Samsung opted to add 960fps slow motion capture to the Galaxy S9 lineup. The feature is found in the camera app and has two different capture modes: Manual or auto.

With Auto selected, you set an area on the display where you expect the motion to take place. Once the camera detects motion, it begins recording 0.2 seconds of video. That seemingly minuscule amount of time is extended to six-seconds of video because of slow motion. When using manual mode, as soon as the shutter is pressed, the phone records the same 0.2-second video.

When Super Slo-Mo works, the end result is impressive and gives you a way to see things in motion like you've never seen before. However, conditions have to be just right. For example, a well-lit area -- such as outside during the day -- is practically required. I tried creating a slow-motion clip in a moderately lit restaurant at one point, and the end result was a far too dark video clip.

I've experimented with both manual and auto mode and found that manual mode is the most consistent way to capture a clip. With auto enabled, either the clip started way too early and missed what I wanted to see in slow motion, or the motion was missed altogether.

On the flip side, manual mode takes practice in order to get the timing just right.

Battery life

This is where the Galaxy S9 falls short of perfection. During my time with the phone, I've consistently had to charge the phone shortly after dinner in order to make it until I go to bed; and that's with sitting at my desk, using the phone sparingly throughout the workday.

I rarely experienced any battery life issues with the Galaxy S8, despite it having the same exact size of a battery.

Perhaps Android Oreo has something to do with the rapid drain on the battery, or there's something else Samsung has done with the Samsung Experience tweaks, which the company makes to Android, that's causing poor battery life.

The Galaxy S9 Plus has a bigger battery at 3,500mAh, and would likely be the device I would purchase if I had to make a decision tomorrow.
Android's best?

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The Galaxy S9 is one of the best Android phones currently available, but is it the best? No.

The title goes either to the Galaxy S9 Plus or Google's Pixel 2 XL.

For me, the Galaxy S9 does a lot of things right. Considering the display, the camera, overall performance, and flexibility of Android the Galaxy S9 is a top-notch phone. But poor battery life left me with frustration, and on one occasion, without a phone for an entire evening in a completely different city.

If you refuse to pay extra for the Galaxy S9 Plus, or simply don't want a phone that big (I can't blame you), and opt to go with the smaller Galaxy S9, I recommend picking up a Mophie Juice Pack. I have one and don't leave home without it.