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Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus review: is this 2018's best phone?

The iPhone X set the bar high. But Samsung's phone is cheaper. And may just have trumped Apple's high-end handset.

Pros

  • Camera is terrific. Makes light of shooting in the dark
  • Facial security works brilliantly
  • Screen is great. And sound is brilliant and booming.

Cons

  • It's nigh-on identical to the Galaxy S8
  • Battery life could be a bit better

First impressions and design

  • Lovely all-screen design, very similar to last year’s S8
  • Rear fingerprint scanner underneath the camera lens
  • Comes in three attractive colourways

This time last year, Samsung blew us all away with the radical redesign of its 2017 flagships. With an all-screen front, embedded home button and tiny bezels (edges), the Galaxy S8 range looked wonderfully, refreshingly different from all phones that had come before it.

Fast-forward 12 months, and most of the major manufacturers have followed suit, with each new release sporting a similar infinity display to that on the S8.

Pick up the Samsung Galaxy S9 on O2 £35 per month, plus £150 upfront. Find out more: Samsung Galaxy S9.

Prefer the S9 Plus? We've got it for £44 per month and £180 upfront. Find out more: Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus.

So, on first seeing the new S9 and S9 Plus, it really doesn’t have the wow factor of the S8. After all, it doesn’t look that different to last year’s model. Or, indeed, to most of the phones that came out last year.

Having said that, it’s still lovely to look at. After all, the design that we coveted in 2017 is still probably the best and most intuitive around. Not a notch to be seen.

And when you look closer, there are definitely a few subtle improvements to the way it looks that will improve the user experience.

For one thing, the lower bezel (edge) is noticeably slimmer. We’re only talking a couple of millimetres at most, but when it comes to pocket-sized devices, every little counts.

By minimising the bottom bezel, Samsung has managed to fit the S9 and S9 Plus with the same-sized screens as those on last year’s S8 range whilst making the handset itself more compact. Which is handy for people who struggle to use big phablets one-handed.

The fingerprint scanner is once again on the back of the handset to make way for the impressive infinity display. But, instead of being next to the camera lens as it is on the S8, it has moved to sit below the lens on the S9.

Samsung S8 vs S9 hero image

This may seem like a somewhat insignificant change but it actually makes a big difference. With the S8, I, along with countless other users, found myself constantly pressing the camera lens by mistake. But put it below the lens and you can unlock your phone in a rush without smudging your camera.

The devices themselves are made of aluminium, with a tough Gorilla Glass 5 screen. So they look great, feel strong and won’t scratch easily.

In true Samsung style, the S9 and S9 Plus have a sleek, glossy finish which can be a bit of a magnet for smudges. Despite this though, they’re pretty easy to grip and still look shiny even after a long day of heavy use.

It’s currently available in three colourways: midnight black, coral blue and a new shade of lilac purple. There’s also a silver model on its way later this year.

Build Metal and glass
Weight 163g (S9), 189g (S9 Plus)
Dimensions 147.7 x 68.7 x 8.5 mm (S9), 158.1 x 73.8 x 8.5 mm (S9 Plus)

Screen and sound

  • Bright, crisp infinity display
  • Dual stereo speakers for surround-sound
  • Amazing speakers

Although at 1440 x 2960 pixels, it’s the same screen as last year’s, the S9 still looks fantastic by anyone’s standards. The colours are crisp and bright without being oversaturated and the image quality is crystal-clear.

The 18.5:9 aspect ratio gives you a cinema-style widescreen in your pocket. Which not only makes the phones perfect for split-screen apps, but it also gives you a fantastic viewing experience when you’re streaming your favourite films and TV shows.

Speaking of which, the S9 is the first Samsung smartphone to feature surround sound stereo speakers. And they really are something to shout about.

Tuned by audio specialists AKG, the dual speakers on the front of the phone deliver a much louder, fuller, clearer sound than anything we’ve heard on a Samsung device. And makes them worthy competitors to the latest flagship phones from the likes of Google, Apple and Sony.

Samsung Galaxy S9 split screen

While I can listen to music on my single-speaker S8 without disturbing anyone in the office, the S9 won me dirty looks from the noise police, even after I tuned the volume turned down to less than half.

Although this may not win you friends at work, it does mean that you won’t have to fork out for a Bluetooth speaker when you’re listening to music at home or in the car.

And if you’re the considerate type who wants to listen without disturbing anyone, you’ll be pleased to know that Samsung has once again gone against the grain to include a 3.5mm jack.

So you can keep your trusty wired headphones without the need to invest in a bulky adaptor.

Size 5.8 inches (S9), 6.2 inches (S9 Plus)
Resolution 1440 x 2960 pixels
Technology Super AMOLED

Features

  • Improved facial recognition tech
  • Updated Bixby Vision camera
  • AR emojis with personalised avatars and Disney characters

Samsung Galaxy S9 facial scanner animated avatar AR

While the S9 and S9 Plus may not look greatly different to their predecessors, this year’s flagships have a lot going on beneath the surface that makes them much more advanced than last year’s models.

One of the main criticisms of the S8 range was the less-than-secure facial recognition tech and iris scanner designed to keep your phone safe.

Although you can unlock last year’s Samsung with just a blink of your eye or by holding the device up to your face, it’s by no means as seamless as it sounds.

Very often, my S8 doesn’t recognise me, particularly in poor lighting conditions or when I’ve just woken up and my face is partially obscured by my duvet.

More troublingly, it can actually be fooled by a photo of my face instead of the real deal. Meaning that anyone could potentially hack into my phone, so long as they had a mugshot of me.

Not so with the S9 and S9 Plus though. By combining its facial recognition tech with the iris scanner, Samsung has created a faster, more secure form of biometric security.

Setting up facial recognition security is easy and takes about 30 seconds. It’s just a case of letting the front-facing camera scan your face and switching it on in settings.

When Samsung’s works, which we’d say was about 99% of the time, it unlocks the phone in a fraction of a second. That’s a major improvement from the S8, where we found the fail rate could be as high as 50%.

Perhaps most importantly, this time around I wasn’t able to trick the facial scanner with a picture of my face.

The iris scanner struggled a little bit in low-light, though. In which instances, you can unlock the phone with the rear fingerprint scanner.

Samsung Galaxy S9 fingerprint scanner hero size

Happily, this is far more sensibly located this time around (you’ll find it just under the rear camera) and it’s much easier to locate and reach than it was on the S8.

Elsewhere, Samsung’s voice assistant, Bixby, is still front and centre with this year’s flagships.

Undeterred by the resistance from a lot of Samsung users, the dedicated Bixby button is once again present and correct on the left-hand edge of the S9 and S9 Plus.

But with some key upgrades to Samsung’s virtual assistant, it might not be long before we’re all firing up Bixby on the regular.

Bixby Vision now comes with a Live Translation mode, which does exactly what it says on the tin. All you need to do is point the Bixby Vision camera at some foreign text and it’ll translate the words into your native language automatically.

In the tests we’ve done with it, Bixby Vision has no trouble reading different font types and sizes and can translate large chunks of text in a matter of seconds.

Another new feature of Bixby Vision is that it can tell you how many calories are in your food. Again, all you need to do is point the camera at the object and the information will appear on the screen.

This is incredibly helpful if you’re calorie-counting or trying to shift a few pounds. But it’s pretty much guaranteed to suck all the enjoyment out of your Krispy Kreme.

Elsewhere, Samsung has once again bested Apple with a superior range of animated emojis. Late last year, Apple proudly unveiled a range of emojis that can mirror your facial movements and mimic your voice so you can send personalised animated clips.

With the S9 and S9 Plus, Samsung has gone one better with its own AR Emojis. And there’s no better way to beat the competition than with a sprinkle of Disney magic.

Samsung Galaxy S9 AR Emoji female

Yes, that’s right folks. Samsung has partnered with the House of Mouse to let us star as our favourite Disney characters in our very own animations.

All you need to do is fire up the camera, select the AR Emoji mode and choose from a range of animated avatars. Once you’ve got your character sorted, you can record yourself talking and pulling faces and the character on the screen will copy you.

So far, only Mickey Mouse is the only Disney character on-board. But if the promotional images are anything to go by, his leading lady, Minnie Mouse, will soon be joining him, alongside characters from Pixar classic, The Incredibles.

Samsung Galaxy S9 AR camera Disney

Although we don’t know when we’ll get Mr Incredible and Co as AR Emojis, it’s likely that Samsung will try to coincide this with the release of the film’s highly anticipated sequel, which is due to hit cinemas in June this year.

Don’t worry if you’re not a Disney fan though. Samsung has also provided a range of other cute cartoon personas to choose from, including a neon-pink cat, a blue robot and a purple dog.

Perhaps most impressive of all is the option to create your own AR Emoji. The S9 and S9 Plus scans your face and pulls out key features, such as your eye colour, skin-tone and hairstyle to create a cartoon version of you.

You can then switch up your look whenever you want, by changing the hair, adding glasses and other accessories and selecting different outfits.


Camera

  • Super slow-mo video shoots at 960 frames per second
  • The first ever f/1.5 aperture on a smartphone dramatically improves low-light shots
  • Dual-lens tech on the S9 Plus finally brings a sophisticated Portrait Mode

Samsung Galaxy S9 camera arcade game

If you’ve read anything about Samsung’s 2018 flagships, you’ll no doubt have heard that the camera is something a bit special. And let me tell you, it more than lives up to the hype.

Both models come with a 12-megapixel rear camera. So far so familiar. But Samsung has included dual-aperture tech that’ll help you get crisp, clear results every time, no matter what time of day it is.

This works in much the same way as the human eye by expanding and contracting in different lighting conditions. So you can accurately capture what you’re looking at whatever the weather.

In well-lit conditions, for example, the camera automatically reduces the amount of light it lets in, thereby making sure your snaps are free from overexposure or glare.

But, in darker conditions, the aperture widens to let in a lot more light. 28% more than the S8 in fact.

In practice, this gives you significantly better results. So much so that it puts stellar cameraphones, such as the iPhone X and the Google Pixel 2, to shame.

Samsung has also included an option to shoot super-slow-motion videos at an impressive 960fps (frames per second). And it has a handy Motion Detection tool that makes it really easy to get great results with very little know-how.

When you fire up the super slow-motion mode on the camera, a box will appear on the screen to help you create your video. It’ll even give you to tips on how to get the best results, like telling you to move closer or step back to fit everything in.

But while the camera on the S9 is pretty brilliant, the S9 Plus is even better. The larger model comes with a dual-lens shooter that’s perfect for portraits.

Around the front, both the standard S9 and the Plus edition come with an 8-megapixel selfie camera that has a lot of different filters and features to make you look Instagram-ready without any effort.

Aside from the aforementioned AR emojis, we suspect the most popular mode will be Selfie Focus. It uses some smart camera tech to add a dual-lens-esque bokeh effect to your self-portraits with only a single lens.

Elsewhere, Samsung has improved its beauty mode by adding an extensive range of makeup filters, including Glamorous, Doe-eyed and Festival, to give you the perfect look for any occasion.

The results are actually pretty good. Certainly much more professional-looking than I’ve ever achieved myself. In fact, this is the first time my eyeliner has ever been on fleek.

Make-up mode Samsung Galaxy S9

Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe it’s the S9’s new Fresh Face filter.

Camera 12-megapixel camera (S9), 12-megapixel dual camera (S9 Plus)
Optical image stabilisation Yes
Unique features f/1.5 aperture and super slow-mo videos


Performance and battery life

  • Comes with the latest version of Android Oreo
  • Good battery life, lasting over a day on a single charge
  • Fast and wireless charging capabilities

Samsung Galaxy S9 in-hand homescreen retail mode

There’s no doubt about it. The S9 and S9 Plus are a dream to use. Both come with powerful processors to keep them running quickly and smoothly even when using multiple apps at the same time.

The S9 has a healthy 4GB of RAM, while the S9 Plus houses an even more generous 6GB. And you can get either one with internal storage options of 64GB, 128GB or 256GB.

Even better though, you can boost either phone up to a staggering 400GB with a microSD card. So you’ll almost certainly never run out of storage space.

The phones both come with Android Oreo 8.0 already installed. So you can expect a clean, fast, optimised Android experience with a simple layout and minimal bloatware.

A nice little addition from Samsung is that you can now rotate the homescreen to use it in landscape mode as well as the traditional portrait mode. It won’t change your life. But it’s actually quite handy when you’re flipping between apps that work better horizontally.

The S9 is powered by a 3,000mAh battery, while the S9 Plus uses a larger 3,500mAh power-pack. Samsung claims that both phones can survive a day and a half of heavy use on a single charge.

We found we’d typically get just under that. Perhaps a day and a bit seems more accurate. That’s broadly average for a smartphone in 2018. So it would have been nice if Samsung could have seen its way to installing a larger battery, rather than keeping the same size battery as last year and attempting to optimising how the phone uses it.

And when it’s time to boost your battery, the devices are compatible with fast charging. So you won’t need to wait long before your phone is back on 100% power. Powering up from zero with fast-charge, we got to 40% or so within half an hour. And up to full charge in about an hour and a quarter.

And you can charge them wirelessly too. Which may not seem terribly exciting. But it’s an extra useful feature that’s nice to have.

RAM 4GB (S9), 6GB (S9 Plus)
Battery capacity 3000mAh (S9), 3500mAh (S9 Plus)
OS and version Android 8.0 (Oreo)

Durability

  • Strong and sturdy handset
  • IP68 waterproof rating
  • Aluminium and glass construction

Samsung Galaxy S9 box image

The S9 and S9 Plus certainly look lovely and they’ve got a lot of great features to justify the premium price tag. But do they have what it takes to cope with an accident-prone owner?

Well, with an impressive IP68 dust and waterproof rating, they can survive for half an hour in as much as 1.5 metres of water. Which means that it should handle the odd fall in the bath and still work fine.

When testing it, the S9 not only carried on running without any issues during a rainy walk to the train station, but it also coped with me dropping in a puddle. On more than one occasion.

Meanwhile, the screen is made of tougher, more shatterproof Gorilla Glass 5. Which kept the screen in-tact each time it slipped through my fingers onto a hard floor. And, after a week of being thrown around in my bag, it still came out scratch-free.

Waterproof rating IP68
Protection Corning Gorilla Glass 5

Value and verdict

  • Amazing camera, particularly on the Plus edition
  • Waterproof and dust-resistant
  • Rich dual stereo speakers are loud and proud
  • Same screen as the S8 range
  • AR emojis are a lot of fun to use
  • Decent battery life
  • Rear fingerprint scanner now beneath the camera lens
  • Improved Bixby assistant can translate text and count calories
  • Android Oreo already on-board
  • Combined iris scanning and facial recognition tech for tighter security
  • It’s a high-end phone with a price to match
  • Dual aperture tech gives you fantastic low-light photos

samsung-galaxy-s9-camera-night

At the time of writing, SIM-free prices for the standard 64GB Galaxy S9 starts at £739, rising to £869 for the Plus model.

Alternatively, you can currently pick up an S9 on a monthly contract from £45 a month with no upfront cost, while a contract for the S9 Plus will cost you at least £51 a month.

So it’s safe to say these phones aren’t cheap.

Having said that, with greatly improved cameras, better biometric security and the loudest, clearest speakers we’ve ever heard on a smartphone, you’re getting a lot for your money.

Considering Apple brought out a £1,000 iPhone last year, the S9 Plus is not the most expensive phone on the market. And it’s certainly one of the best available.

If you’re looking to save money, you can buy last year’s S8 SIM-free for £569 or get it on contract for £34 a month, which is a lot cheaper.

But although the S9 may not look greatly different to its predecessor, it’s got a lot going on beneath the surface that makes it a worthy successor. And if you’ve got the money, you won’t find a better phone.

Want to buy the S9? Take a look at our best Samsung Galaxy S9 deals.

Fancy the bigger version? Here are our best Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus deals.

Category: Reviews
Tagged: samsung, galaxy s9

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