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Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: it works hard and plays hard

Pros

  • S Pen stylus is back and better than ever
  • The camera wows once again
  • The screen and sound pack a punch

Cons

  • It's too big to use one-handed
  • It's a great phone but it comes with a hefty price tag

First impressions and design

  • Huge phone with an impressive all-screen front
  • Rear fingerprint scanner sits neatly under the camera lens
  • Characteristically angular corners give it a more professional feel

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 purple and blue backs camera lenses fingerprint scanner hero size

As soon as I unboxed the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, I was struck by just how big it was. Although only fractionally bigger than its predecessor, the Note 8, and my own big fat phablet, the Galaxy S9 Plus, when it comes to smartphone size, every millimeter counts. And the Note 9 certainly feels a lot larger than my previous Samsungs.

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, there are some definite advantages to having a huge handset. Although you can’t realistically use it one-handed without implementing the One-Handed mode, if you’re writing with the S-Pen stylus, you’ll appreciate a larger surface area to scribble on.

The benefits of a massive screen become even clearer when you’re watching movies on the go. But more on that in a minute. For now, let’s stick to talking about the design of the Note 9.

Already know you want the Note? Go straight to all our best Note 9 deals.

With more angular corners than its more curvacious cousin, the S9, the Note 9 looks like a handset built for business as well as pleasure. Its shape makes it reassuringly easy to hold while you’re using the S-Pen, so you’re less likely to drop it, despite its slippery finish.

As well as being a bigger phone, it’s also undeniably heavier than previous Samsungs. But again this only makes it feel sturdier in your hand.

It’s made of aluminium and Corning Gorilla Glass 5, which protects the device from accidental knocks and scratches. But of course, the ultra-glossy finish is a magnet for fingerprints and the Note 9 is inevitably covered in smudges within seconds of unboxing.

Still, they’re deeply attractive handsets, available in four lovely colourways. There’s the Midnight Black for the traditional user, while the Metallic Copper and Lavender Purple definitely stand out in a sea of identical grey and black smartphones. Our personal favourite though is the Ocean Blue, which comes with a bright yellow stylus that feels reminiscent of making notes with an old-school HP pencil.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 homescreen blue S Pen stylus hero

As with previous generation Notes, the S-Pen stylus pops out at the bottom right-hand of the handset. Which makes it slightly awkward for left-handers, but it’s by no means inconvenient. And we lefties are used to right-handed bias.

Thankfully the rear fingerprint scanner is beneath the camera rather than next to it. But it’s still rather too close to the camera and quite small, so it’s still all too easy to smudge your lens by accident when you’re trying to unlock the phone.

Elsewhere, the dedicated Bixby button is still present and correct underneath the volume rocker on the left-hand side of the phone. And it’s all too easy to press by accident, particularly with a phone this big.

I know, we get it. Bixby is only trying to help. But we find its accidentally summoned interruptions pretty irritating. And worse, you can’t even disable it, like you can on the S9 range. Still, rumour has it Samsung is looking to re-add this function, so we’re hopeful this won’t be a permanent problem.

Build Metal and glass
Weight 201g
Dimensions 161.9 x 76.4 x 8.8 mm

Screen and sound

  • Same ultra-bright screen seen on the S9 Plus and last year’s Note 8
  • Impressive stereo speakers for surround-sound
  • Possibly the best smartphone we’ve tested for streaming movies and music

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 screen Spiderman hero size

When it comes to smartphones, high-end Samsungs have the best screens around. And the Note 9 is no exception. Although it comes with the same resolution as the S9 and last year’s Note 8, 1440 x 2960 pixel super-AMOLED display is just as impressive now as it was on its predecessors. And after all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

As ever, the colours are brilliantly crisp without feeling tacky or oversaturated. Overall, the colour reproduction is as realistic as anything you’re likely to see on a smartphone.

Even more important though, the images are sharp and the screen is bright enough for even the sunniest conditions.

But it doesn’t just look good. With dual surround-sound speakers built into the top and bottom of the device, the Note 9 sounds great too.

Like the S9 before it, the Note 9 has been tuned by audio specialists AKG to give the speakers a rich, full sound. And it gives it the edge over competitors when it comes to clarity and volume too.

It means that I can hear my music loud and clear when I’m in the car or having a shower. But, if you’re having a party, you may need to connect it to a more powerful speaker.

For listening on the go, Samsung has kindly included a pair of wired AKG earbuds. Ordinarily, headphones that come free with a phone aren’t worth listening to. But these AKG ‘phones work surprisingly well for my daily commute by minimising background noise and providing enough volume to be heard easily over the sound of the underground.

And of course, rather than following the trend Apple started back in 2016 of getting rid of the headphone jack, Samsung has included one at the bottom of the device. So you can plug in your AKG earphones, or any other wired headphones, without having to faff about with an adaptor or splash out for an expensive wireless option.

Size 6.4 inches
Resolution 1440 x 2960 pixels
Technology Super AMOLED

S Pen stylus

  • The S Pen now has Bluetooth tech so it can be used as a remote
  • Take selfies with the click of a button
  • Impressive battery life and charges with the handset

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 S Pen stylus closeup hero size

As ever, the feature that sets the Note aside from its competitors is the S Pen stylus. And, unlike previous iterations, this S Pen can interact with the phone without touching it.

So, instead of only being able to perform the functions of a regular stylus, this year’s S Pen can be used as a remote control to interact with the handset from as much as 30 feet away.

This is undoubtedly very impressive. But is it useful?

Well, more so than you’d think.

First off, you can use it to take selfies that can fit more in than the length of your arms or selfie stick will allow. With a distance of 30 feet to play with, you can fit so much more into your snap, whether it’s a huge group of people, or loads of extra scenery.

All you need to do is set up the camera, get into position and, once you’re ready, press the button on the S Pen and it’ll take the photo.

But of course, this does come with a couple of problems. The most pressing of which is leaving your pricey device unattended while you pose for your picture 30 feet away from it. There’s no real solution we can see for this, except to stay close enough to your phone that you’re able to prevent someone from trying to snatch it.

The other problem is finding a way of getting the phone to stay upright while you take the photo. It took several attempts to get it to keep it balanced long enough to take some selfies.

Samsung recommends using a tripod, but that’s extra gear to cart around with you and they can be quite fiddly to set up.

Still, even with these issues, it still gives you scope for cramming more people and things into your selfies.

As well as being able to control the camera, you can also use it as a remote when you’re streaming movies or music. With just a click of a button, you can play, pause and skip tracks.

While this is pretty cool, it’s not a game-changer. After all, although it’s useful to be able to flick through songs without having to get up, it’s rare that you’d have the S Pen in your hand without having the handset on your person as well.

Where it really does come into its own though is if you do slideshow presentations on the regular. Instead of having to search your office for a Bluetooth remote, you can stream the presentation from your Note 9 and flick between slides by clicking your S Pen.

It might not be a significant plus for the average user. But the Note 9 is at least partly aimed at business people, who will no doubt find this a real advantage.

The S Pen talks to the phone using a Bluetooth Low-energy antenna. Which means you can control the Note 9 remotely without using up much of the S Pen’s battery.

In fact, we found that charging the S Pen for a minute gives you enough battery life for 230 button clicks, or 40 minutes of standby battery life. Which is marvellously efficient.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 S Pen stylus penup colouring hero size

Handily, as soon as you pop out the S Pen, a battery indicator for the stylus automatically appears on the right-hand side of the notification bar. So you’ll be able to tell when it’s running low.

And when it needs boosting, all you need to do is insert it back into the device and it’ll charge automatically.

Of course, the Note 9 also comes with the standard S Pen features we remember from previous-generation Notes.

Take the S Pen out when the screen’s locked and it’ll open the screen-off memo app. This does exactly what it says on the tin: you can scribble over the screen and the phone will automatically save your notes for you to use later.

For even more functions, take the S Pen out while the screen is unlocked. Samsung’s tried and tested S Pen icon is once again on hand on the right-hand edge of the device whenever you take the S Pen out.

It gives you the option of making and reviewing notes, as well as translating text, taking screenshots and, my own personal favourite, the PENUP app, which lets you doodle and colour in pictures to your heart’s content.


Camera

  • Dual-aperture tech ensures fantastic results, even in low-light
  • Artificial intelligence makes your photos pop without any fuss
  • Bokeh Focus mode on front and rear cameras to give you perfect portraits every time

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 camera in action hero size

Samsung has brought all the brilliance from its S9 camera to the Note 9.

Packed with an impressive 12-megapixel dual-lens main camera, the Note 9 has an excellent Live Focus mode. This blurs the background of the image while bringing the subject into razor-sharp focus. This effect gives you perfect portraits without any fuss.

You’ll be able to find an equivalent portrait mode on most mid-range and high-end smartphones. But it’s still one of the best we’ve tested.

The feature that really sets this camera apart from its competitors is the f/1.5 dual aperture. Using a shutter that will open and close to let in more light in dark scenes or close to limit the amount of sunlight on a bright day, the Note 9 works in much the same way as the human eye. And it gives you incredibly detailed and accurate photos, even in low-light.

But the Note 9 camera isn’t identical to that on the S9 Plus. Samsung has refined the software to bring us even better images. And with the subtle use of subject recognition, the camera adjusts its settings to best suit the subject you’re photographing. So you can get professional-looking shots without any effort.

The telephoto zoom is also worth mentioning too, as it lets you capture more detail from further away.

Around the front is a rather flattering selfie camera that has a Selfie Focus mode to help you achieve that bokeh (portrait mode) effect.

Samsung seems to have cut back on its make-up filters for the Note 9. Perhaps they figure that businesspeople don’t need to superimpose flawless eyeliner and blush onto their regular faces. And they might have a point.

I’m rather glad to see the inclusion of AR Emoji though. And, alongside Mickey and Minnie Mouse, you can now also get the Incredibles and the cast of Frozen as cartoons that you can animate using your face. A must-have for all right-minded career folk.

Camera 12-megapixel camera
Optical image stabilisation Yes
Unique features f/1.5 aperture and super slow-mo videos


Performance and battery life

  • Incredible 512GB of storage, with capacity to boost to over 1TB
  • Huge battery keeps this powerhouse device going all day long
  • Latest version of Android Oreo straight out of the box

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 app tray hero size

The Note 9 is a big, powerful phone with a storage capacity to match. The standard version comes with a plentiful 128GB of storage, which will doubtless be more than enough for most users.

But if you go for the pricier model, you can get a staggering 512GB of storage. And you can boost this with an additional 500GB using a MicroSD card. So that’ll be over a terabyte of memory. Which will give you more than enough space for anything you could want.

The 512GB handset has 8GB of RAM, while the standard 128GB Note has 6GB of RAM. Whichever you go for, you’ll find the phone’s performance lightning quick, even when multitasking.

The Note 9s come with Android Oreo 8.1 out of the box. Which, with its clean layout and clever optimisation, has long been a favourite among fans.

But with Android Pie on its way, bringing with it longer battery life and gesture controls, we’re hoping it won’t be long before the Note 9 gets an upgrade.

The Note 9 is powered by a huge 4,000mAh battery. Which, as you’d expect, easily gets you through a full day of heavy usage on a single charge.

RAM 6GB or 8GB
Battery capacity 4,000mAh
OS and version Android 8.1 (Oreo)

Durability

  • Super strong Gorilla Glass keeps it free from scratches and scrapes
  • IP68 waterproof rating
  • Sturdy aluminium and glass construction

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 waterproof hero size

High-end Androids tend to be pretty sturdy. And the Note 9 is no exception.

With a dust and waterproof rating of IP68, the phone can survive for up to 30 minutes in as much as 1.5 metres of water. And even more impressive, this statistic still stands when the S Pen is out.

This means that, whether you’re using the stylus or not, the Note 9 will cope with being dropped in the washing up or getting covered in flour without being affected.

Equally useful is the tough aluminium frame and the shatterproof Gorilla Glass 5 screen. Which means that it’s pretty difficult to damage. Whether you accidentally drop it or keep it in the same pocket as your keys, it’ll likely come through it all scratch-free.

Waterproof rating IP68
Protection Corning Gorilla Glass 5

Value and verdict

  • S Pen stylus is better than ever
  • Remote S Pen is more useful than you’d think
  • Same screen as last year’s Note 8 but still brilliantly bright
  • Big battery keeps you going all day
  • Incredible storage capacity, particularly on the larger edition
  • Impressive camera, particularly in low-light
  • Rear fingerprint scanner now sits beneath the camera lens
  • Android Oreo 8.1 already on-board
  • Combined iris scanning and facial recognition tech for tighter security
  • It’s a high-end phone with a price to match
  • Ideal work phone

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 S Pen stylus purple and blue homescreens

The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is undoubtedly one of the best phones around. It’s a huge handset with the memory to match. And the S Pen stylus makes it the perfect business tool for busy executives.

The standard 128GB model comes in at £899 SIM-free, while the whopping 512GB version costs an eye-watering £1,099.

Still, considering that the 256GB iPhone X premiered with retail price of £1,149, the Note 9 is undoubtedly better value, with a superior camera, brighter screen and longer battery life. And if you want a powerful Android device, this is the best you can get at the moment.

Don’t have a spare grand knocking around? You can get the Note 9 on a monthly contract. Prices start at around £51 a month with nothing to pay upfront. And these come with very generous data allowances too.

Convinced you need Samsung’s biggest and best phone? Take a look at all our best Note 9 deals.

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