My Samsung Galaxy S9+ arrived yesterday afternoon, and I’ve spent the time since setting it up and, most crucially, doing a bit of low-light photography tests.
Let me get the obvious out of the way first. This handset is absolutely stunning. It is both state-of-the-art and art, if you catch my meaning, a device that is both functionally impressive and pretty to look at.
And because my wife uses its predecessor, the Samsung Galaxy S8+, I’m able to do some useful side-by-side comparisons. I’ll save the details for my coming review, but the long story short will not surprise anyone: If you are using an S8/S8+, there is absolutely no reason to upgrade this year. Physically and functionally, these phones are virtually identical, the differences either subtle or non-existent. Save your money and see what’s coming down the pike in early 2019 instead.
For everyone else, however. My God. What a phone.
It’s big. And I don’t just mean that from a size or weight perspective. For better or worse, Samsung really overloads its flagship handsets with a lot of “stuff,” and that’s true both physically (with the packaging and accessories) and virtually, in the software and services it bundles.
On that latter point, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s all negative—indeed, many will prefer Samsung products for this reason—but only that it’s a lot to digest, to learn, and to understand. Even those who are familiar with Android, especially the pared-down Android that Google provides with, say, its Pixel phones, will find that they will need days of exploring, experimentation, and training. There’s just so much in there. It’s overwhelming.
It’s also worth the effort. Hidden in Samsung’s levels-deep menus, you will find a cornucopia of functionality that simply is not provided by pure Android.
For example, you can choose different system fonts, including a bolder font that resembles the effects of bolding the system font in iOS, an effect I greatly prefer.
As with OnePlus, Samsung provides for various icon styles, themes, and other customizations, and it provides an online marketplace for buying new items too. (Yes, that’s good and bad. Get used to that theme.)
There are Samsung-specific niceties, too, like the Apps Edge functionality that provides yet another way to launch commonly used apps. And, even more uniquely, app pairs, so that you can launch two apps together onscreen at the same time.
Likewise, there are more dubious Samsung entreaties, such as Bixby, its voice-activated digital personal assistant, Samsung-branded apps like Calendar and Mail, Samsung services like S Health, and more. Much of which, yes, duplicates functionality that is already provided by Android.
I will try to get to all of it, to actually use all of it. If only to see where Samsung’s overreach is welcome. And where it is not.
For now, let me focus on the two things that I think matter most. The design, which is amazing. And the camera, which, yes, is also amazing.
Like its predecessor—one might say exactly like its predecessor—the S9+ is a gorgeous, premium smartphone that absolutely justifies its price tag. This is in stark contrast with the even more expensive Google Pixel 2 XL, which does not share the same level of fit and finish or design acumen.
Looking at the two side-by-side, they are, of course, similar. Tall, thin form factors, with small bezels. Curved screen corners. The same basic form factor.
But Samsung pulls ahead of Google on so many levels that it’s almost comical. The overall fit and finish of the Samsung are in a different, um, galaxy as that of the Pixel 2 XL, in the same way that a Mercedes outclasses any Chevy.
The S9+’s body is sleek and without hard edges, aside from a subtle ridge next to the display on each side. I assume these are there for cases to latch onto, and the Google has them too; they’re just harder-edged and less elegant on the Pixel.
The curved screen corners, which look so ham-handed on the Pixel 2 XL—almost like Google simply applied a sticker over the normal rectangular screen—look natural and organic on the S9+. And they actually curved past the natural edges of the device, giving it a cool and unique “infinity pool” look. On the Pixel, the curved edges start where the display ends. It’s a fake where the Samsung is the real deal.
Both devices are the same basic size, and if you look at them side-by-side, they appear to be roughly the same height. But the Samsung is much thinner side-to-side, too, giving it a more elegant look. And the display is noticeably taller than that of the Pixel 2 XL. You have more room to work with, and that’s especially true if you hide the navigation bar at the bottom, and option that is not available in the Pixel 2 XL’s pure Android.
And then there’s that camera.
As you may have seen, DxOMark recently awarded the Galaxy S9+ as the smartphone having the very best camera overall. In doing so, it narrowly beat out the Pixel 2 XL that I’m currently using (and otherwise suffering with). So this handset, which was already very interesting to me, suddenly became a candidate for me to actually use day-to-day. If this camera pans out, I’d consider replacing my Pixel.
I’ll have a lot more to say about the S9+ camera in my review, and of course, I still have much more testing to do. But I was able to verify an assumption I had made about how its new camera system would work in low-light conditions. And this will have a very direct impact on my own decisions about this device.
As you may know, Google’s recent phones—the Nexus 6P and 5X, and the first-generation Pixel and Pixel XL—have all had, in their day, the very best camera available in smartphones. Key to this prowess, in my opinion, is their performance in low-light conditions, and if you’ve seen my low-light photos on Instagram or here on the site, you know what I mean: Google just gets this right.
The way it works is that you focus on a light source in an otherwise dark environment, such as when you’re in the dark, literally, outside or in. This light source can be a street lamp, a candle, lights from a store or cafe, or the backlighting in a bar. The Google phones will not so much lighten the lights, if you will, as they darken the darks. And the effect is often magical.
The Galaxy S9+, meanwhile, features a new two-lens camera system that offers a first: An automatically variable aperture in which a second aperture setting that lets in more light will be triggered in low-light conditions. The idea is a good one: You can take a photo of people, objects, or a scene in low-light and get a great photo without needing a flash. (And blinding your subjects and, just as bad, those around you in the process.)
My theory was that this is what most people would want: You’re outside or in a dark restaurant or bar with friends and you take a photo, and it comes out well-lit instead of a dark blob. But this also runs contrary to how the Google phones have worked, where you get this incredible HDR-like effect with dark darks and light lights. In other words, the Pixel 2 XL gives me the shot I want, but the S9+ would likely give the shot that most people would want.
In my admittedly limited testing so far, that is exactly what has happened. The S9+ can take great low-light shots, but the light up the scene in ways that are contrary to reality. And in many cases, those photos take on a weird softness.
Here’s a great example: Some candles in the fireplace. The Samsung version of this shot is actually pretty great, but it’s soft and that reddish color was not present in real life.
With the Pixel 2 XL, we get a better picture: It lacks the softness of the S9+ photo, and the colors are completely accurate.
The thing is, many would actually prefer the Samsung version, and if you were using only this one smartphone, which would be normal, I think most would be happy that this shot came out at all.
A better example: It’s getting darker and I’ve stepped back from the fireplace so that you can see three light sources. Here’s the Samsung version.
Again, it’s artificially lighter than it was in real life, and softer looking. But being able to see the room at all without a flash would probably impressive people.
Until they saw the Pixel 2 XL version of the same shot, which better depicts the darkness, colors, and sharpness of the real scene.
I’ll be testing the camera a lot more, of course. But the short version is that it appears to be excellent, and even these low-light shots that I find lacking would please most. There is also a ton of other camera functionality I’ve not yet written about, including some manual controls that somewhat close the gap with the Pixel 2 XL (with the resulting complexity of using manual controls).
There are other advantages, and other differences.
The S9+ features a headphone jack, as God intended. Having suffered through innumerable audio issues thanks to the Pixel 2 XL’s terrible USB-C connection and/or dongle, I can’t express enough how happy I am with this. Damn Google for following Apple down this rabbit hole and not getting it right. (Apple’s dongle always works fine, at least.)
The S9+, like the Pixel 2 XL, picks up stereo speakers, an improvement over last year’s mode. They sound great to my ears, and a quick viewing of the middle of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, with the screen configured for an HDR-like high-color mode, made me reluctant to put it down.
The S9+ ships with “only” 64 GB of storage, but it does at least include microSD expansion, a feature the Pixels lack. (My Pixel 2 XL came with 128 GB of storage, however, and at great cost.)
There are miscues too, of course.
The fingerprint reader, while relocated to a better position below the cameras, is still far too close to those cameras.
And I’ve already touched the bottom camera at least once and no doubt left some greasy residue on its lens as a result. A case will help, but then that was true of the S8+ too.
Here, the Pixel 2 XL has the right design: Not only is the camera physically separated by distance from the fingerprint reader, it’s up in a corner of the device, and not centered over the reader. You would never touch it by mistake while groping for the fingerprint reader.
The Galaxy S9+ features an all-glass body, no doubt to accommodate wireless charging. That’s useful, I guess, but the phone is more slippery as a result. I prefer the Pixel’s matte body, which presents a less slippery feel.
Anyway, it’s been less than a day. I still have so much to explore, and so many more features to figure out. I’ll check back soon.