Make no mistake: The Samsung Galaxy S9+ is the single best smartphone available today. It boasts a gorgeous design, a superior camera, and some truly useful and unique software and services. It’s even reasonably priced compared to other flagships handsets.
What’s not to love?
In this age of copycat designs, Samsung’s flagships remain, ahem, a notch above the competition. Yes, the market has flocked to adopt the tall, 18.5:9-ish edge-to-edge displays that Samsung pioneered. But none have duplicated, let alone surpassed, the elegance and sophistication of the original.
So Samsung’s design goals for 2018 were simple: Make small design tweaks only because that’s all that was required. And when I compare my Galaxy S9+ to my wife’s Galaxy S8+, I have to look pretty close to see any differences in the basic design.
Like its predecessor, the Galaxy S9+ sports a gorgeous and richly-contrasted 6.2-inch Super AMOLED display running at 2960 x 1440 pixels. That display gracefully curves around the left and right edges of the device in a way that seems almost impossible. And its curved corners elegantly match the device form factor and blend nicely with the minimal bezels at the top and bottom.
According to Samsung, those minimal bezels are even more minimal than before: The display now occupies 83.68 percent of the of the front of the device, compared to 83.32 percent for the S8+. I guess I believe it. But I can’t see the difference.
What does make a difference, of course, is that display. The Galaxy S9+ is far more “all screen” than the iPhone X, which features both thick bezels and an intrusive notch, is the centerpiece of the Galaxy. And it’s far more elegant and pretty than that of any other smartphone I’ve used. It’s what draws you in, and it’s what keeps you there. It is, no doubt, the reason most people buy this handset. And the main source of regret for those who do not.
And it’s not just pretty.
The display is liquidy-smooth to the touch and frictionless in a way that other displays are not. The home screen icons and other on-screen elements seem to float above it as you swipe. The overall effect is magical and mesmerizing.
There are also functional elements to the curved display sides. Samsung, unique among Android phone makers, provides an amazing edge lighting effect for notifications. And there is an edge software panel that—like everything else Samsung makes—can be configured to your heart’s content. Or turned off entirely if you find it to be too busy. Your call. (More on these and the many other Samsung software innovations later in the review.)
It’s not until you turn the Galaxy S9+ over that you see the one meaningful design difference between it and the S8+. Responding to criticism that the rear-mounted fingerprint reader on that device was far too close to the camera and could cause mid-presses and smudgy photos, Samsung moved the fingerprint reader to a better location.
Better but still not ideal. Now, the fingerprint reader is below the camera system, which is good. (It used to be right next to the camera, on the right.) But it’s still too damn close to the cameras. As with the S8+, I’ve found that using a case helps here because your finger can fall more naturally into the hole for the reader.
But it should still be a bit more physically separated from the cameras. I’d leave the reader where it is and move the cameras up to a back corner on future phones, Samsung.
Speaking of a case, the other design element worth discussing is the body material, which is mostly glass with aluminum accents. It’s both beautiful and professional-looking, for sure. But the glass body—which enables wireless charging—picks up smudges far too easily and makes the handset slippery to the touch. So you’ll want a case, not just to protect against smudges, put to protect against the inherent fragility of this design. It’s a shame because I’d love to leave it naked.
Hardware and specs
The Samsung Galaxy S9+ raises the bar for what constitutes smartphone flagship in 2018. (Or, as Ford says of its F150 trucks, it is the bar.) There isn’t a single component in this device that doesn’t scream class and performance.
It starts, of course, with the 64-bit and 10 nm Qualcomm Snapdragon 845, at least here in North America. This is an octa-core (8 core) system on a chip (SoC) with four performance cores and four efficiency cores, and it runs at 2.8 GHz, compared to the 2.45 GHz of its Snapdragon 835 predecessor. It’s bolstered by an Adreno 630 graphics processor, which is a step up from the Adreno 540 in last year’s flagship.
I don’t feel much of a performance boost in day-to-day usage (where I’m comparing it to the Google Pixel 2 XL with which I’m most familiar). But you can see the results in the Geekbench benchmark, where the S9+ delivers a score of 2325 in the single core test and 8166 in multi-core. By comparison, the 835-based S8+ hits 1807 in single core and 5790 in multi-core. That’s a significant performance boost, particularly in multi-core.
The built-in storage hasn’t changed year-over-year: Samsung still provides 64 GB of internal storage and you can augment that with up to 400 GB of microSD storage, vs. 256 GB for the S9+. Some may argue that this phone should have been bumped to 128 GB, but I don’t see the need: I have never come close to filling the 128 GB in my Pixel 2 XL, and never will.
RAM, however, has improved dramatically: It’s up to 6 GB, compared to just 4 GB for the S8+. That’s a 50 percent improvement and will likely play as big a role in ongoing performance as does the processor upgrade.
Battery capacity, at 3500 mAh, is unchanged year-over-year, and pretty much matches the norm for this class of device. That said, the Huawei Mate 10 Pro provides a beefier 4000 mAh battery that should provide more endurance. That said, I have never experienced any issues with battery life.
The Galaxy S9+ likewise sets the bar from a connectivity standpoint.
It provides LTE-Advanced Pro cellular connectivity at Cat 18 speeds, meaning that it can theoretically achieve 1.2 Gbps download speeds, assuming you can find a carrier that offers such a thing. Not to mention ideal conditions. But the point here is that the S9+ has the headroom to adapt to whatever improvements your carrier may offer in the next few years.
Beyond LTE and the device’s near-universal support for multiple CDMA/GMS/UMTS/LTE bands, the S9+ also provides Bluetooth 5.0 and NFC, and the aforementioned wireless charging, which is of course of the most popular Qi variety.
From an audio perspective, you will find decent-sounding stereo speakers with a bit of bias towards the right (bottom) speaker, which is typical for smartphones. There’s also a headphone jack as God intended, and support for audio over USB-C. I have a growing collection of USB-C audio dongles that I use mostly for testing purposes, and the Galaxy S9+ works with all of them. (The Pixel 2 XL does not.)
But wait, there’s more
In part two of this review, I will focus on the camera system and the device’s photographic prowess. More soon!