Samsung Galaxy S9+ Review Part 3: Unique Software and Features

Posted on May 22, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Android with 27 Comments

Samsung Galaxy S9+ Review Part 3: Unique Software and Features

In the Galaxy S9+, one can clearly see Samsung’s smartphone ambitions writ large: The firm wants to control the entire experience. And that leads, at times, to unwanted duplication and to confusion.

But it’s not all bad: Samsung’s aggressive competitive aims have also triggered a smartphone renaissance. We can trace the current market fixation on tall 18:9-ish displays with minimal bezels and curved edges to Samsung’s decision to adopt this format in its flagships. Even Apple has jumped on board with its own similar—if somewhat lacking—iPhone X.

But as I’ve noted in the past, Samsung still manages to elevate its devices above those of the competition in meaningful ways. No other smartphone maker has achieved the level of refinement found in the Galaxy S9+, and one needs only to use this device side-by-side with any pretender to see the difference. It’s immediately obvious.

There are subtle differences too. The simple act of swiping a finger down the Galaxy S9+’s display reveals a silky smoothness that is not present on the more pedestrian Google Pixel 2 XL that I use as a daily driver. The Samsung isn’t just prettier, doesn’t just provide a superior design. It’s better.

Samsung’s elegant Always-On display.

But the controversy begins when you start using the device: Samsung, more than any other mainstream Android licensee, customizes the software experience to an almost pathological degree. Some of its additions are both unique and well-conceived, like the special lighting effects and software panels that take advantage of the Galaxy S9’s superior curved display edges. Some are, well, pointless: Samsung duplicates so many stock Android apps and features that its phones can seem confusingly overwrought with superfluous nonsense.

Documenting all of these unique features is a fool’s errand. And while I’m still struck by the sheer number of differences between Samsung’s take on Android and the stock OS that Google provides, most users will never know or care about such things. To much of the smartphone-using world, the Samsung experience is it. And these devices sell well enough that my questioning of Samsung’s tactics seems somewhat moot.

But here’s what really stands out to me after over a month of use. As you might expect, there’s some good, some bad, and, yes, some ugly.

Visuals

I’ve long meant to write to the topic of “stock,” and of my personal preference for sticking with the original software that is provided with a device or PC. With Android, this refers to the entire software stack, which includes the launcher—what most people think of as the home screen—but also the all apps experience, the Google feed, notifications, the lock screen, and more.

Samsung … Well, they screw with virtually all of those system components. And yet … I like it, for the most part. The look and feel of Samsung’s software interfaces, which extend across all of those user interface elements I noted above features a consistent typographic and iconographic treatment that, to my eyes, is quite pleasing.

In fact, one of the best things about the Samsung visual design is that it exceeds the basic font size and display size configuration capabilities of stock Android by adding a choice of fonts. This is a big deal, and one of the fonts, Gothic Bold, achieves a sort of “semi-bold” appearance that I find quite attractive and very readable. The iPhone (iOS), for example, lets you bold all of the fonts used in the system, which is nice for those with less than perfect eyesight. But the ability to actually choose the ideal font is, well, ideal.

Android++

The Galaxy S9+ arrived with Android 8.0, but the software is so customized that it’s almost unrecognizable. I think of what Samsung does as “Android++.” Their aggressive addition of new user interfaces in Android makes its devices seem like a testing ground for the rest of the community.

And it’s not just all the visual changes, some of which are noted above. No, this goes way more than skin-deep.

Samsung added its own split-screen view, for example, before Google finally formally added it to stock Android. So then it added a new feature called App Pair, which lets bind two apps together into a shortcut/icon and launch them side by side at the same time.

Samsung also provides its own windowing interface, where stock Android only has basic picture-in-picture capabilities, and then only for some apps. (Chrome OS does support windowed Android apps, of course.)

Google Maps, windowed.

Samsung also implements its own unique security and battery saver features, among others. A new Intelligent Scan feature seeks to out-do Face ID on iPhone X: It’s about as fast but it feels unsophisticated and is likely not very secure. Fortunately, Samsung didn’t pull an Apple, and it left its excellent fingerprint reader on the device.

To get a good feel for the Android++ vibe in the Galaxy S9+, just head into Advanced Settings in the Settings app. There, you’ll find a mix of the sublime and the insane: A feature called Smart Stay that will keep your phone’s display on while you’re looking at it, fingerprint reader gestures, a one-handed mode, and about a hundred other “only Samsung” moments await you inside. OK, not a hundred. But a lot.

Home

One thing I really do like about the Galaxy S9+ and other Samsung devices is its unique launcher, called Samsung Experience. It’s elegant-looking and attractive, and it seems to match well with the device’s hardware design. App icons, for example, are an unusual curved-cornered shape that is not quite a circle. (Is it a squircle? Maybe.) But they neatly match the curved corners of the device’s display. I like the look almost in spite of myself.

Like many Samsung software interfaces, the Samsung Experience is almost infinitely configurable. It’s also replaceable if you’d prefer a more stock experience. Again, I usually do. But on the Galaxy S9+, the Samsung Experience just feels right.

(I do reverse the order of the buttons in the navigation bar so that it matches other Android phones, however; Samsung, for some reason, swaps the positions of the Back and Recents buttons.)

Bixby

To say that I’ve not really given Bixby a chance is almost an understatement. And while I agree that this undercuts whatever authority I may or may not have as a reviewer, I’m not giving in to terrorism. Bixby is nothing more than a mad power grab, and it’s one that I believe will be unsuccessful. Regardless of what happens in the future, Galaxy S9+ users will be better off using Google Assistant or even Amazon Alexa, especially for the short term. And that’s true even though neither of those solutions can achieve the same level of integration on this device that Bixby enjoys.

On the good news front, you can install Google Assistant and configure it to appear when you long-press on the Home button. And it responds to “Hey, Google.”

In the bad news department, Samsung provides a dedicated Bixby button on the side of the device, and this cannot be configured to launch other assistants or apps, it can only be disabled. (Which I did.) And there is no way to get the Google feed, which is technically part of the Google app, when you swipe to the left of the home screen. Instead, an inferior Bixby feed, which is somewhat similar to the interface on OnePlus handsets, appears. And this one can’t be turned off.

That may not be a big deal for some. But it’s the closest thing to a deal-killer for me on this device. I rely on the Google feed, and I use it every day to find new articles to read, which I save to Pocket. It’s become kind of indispensable to me. And in real-world terms, this means I must think “Google app,” and then find and launch it when I wish to view this feed. This is how things work on the iPhone, too, and it’s not ideal.

That Bixby has its tendrils all over the Galaxy S9+ is somewhat depressing: You’ll even find it in the camera app, where a feature called Bixby Vision can detect items seen in the viewfinder and identify them. It’s allegedly useful for identifying products (try this in a Best Buy, I dare you), places, food, wine, makeup, or similar images, and can be used to scan QR codes and translate or extract text from a scene.

And I did test this one a bit. You have to manually choose the item type, which is tedious, and the recognition speed varies by item. English text was extracted from the viewfinder very quickly, which is good.

But products identification is slow and many were misidentified; it thought an Illy coffee canister was “cosmetic cream”. But most products were simply unknown to Bixby. It doesn’t even recognize a banana.

For the future, we’ll see whether Samsung’s market power and influence triggers a Bixby surge. But I doubt it.

Edge UIs

The wonderfully curved Galaxy S9+ display isn’t just a pretty face: Samsung also provides two interesting software interfaces that really show off this unique hardware in useful ways.

The first is called Edge lighting, which kicks in when certain notifications trigger. By default, this effect is configured only for the Messages app, and it uses a basic lighting style in which the entire edge of the display pulses in blue to let you know about an incoming text. But you can, of course, add notifications for any apps you like. And even more impressive, you can actually customize the look and feel of the edge lighting to match your own tastes. You can choose between multicolor, glow, glitter, and other effects, any color (including colors that automatically match the app triggering the notification), various levels of transparency, and more.

The second feature, called Edge panels, provides a variety of stacked panels—basically vertical toolbars of icons—that can appear when you swipe in from the right edge of the display. Samsung provides a variety of default edge panels, including Apps edge, People edge, Weather, and others, and you can use multiple panels by just swiping again and again.

Both features can be turned off if not needed—and both of the people I know who also use a Galaxy S9+ did turn off edge panels—but I appreciate the effort here. Unlike the software duplicates noted below, these features are genuinely unique and seem well designed.

Duplicate software

And now we get to the ugly. Because with rare exception, if there is some part of Android that Samsung can replace, it does. And in those that it cannot, it often simply creates a duplicate app or service. It’s like the software version of cancer.

Well, maybe that’s not fair: Some of these Samsung apps are pretty useful. But there’s just far too much duplicate crap in there, too: There are Samsung email, calendar, and contacts apps. A web browser called Internet. A file management app, a Notes app, a reminders app, and a picture viewing app. The only thing missing is a maps app, and you gotta think that’s coming soon.

Samsung Internet app.

Samsung even has its own online store called Galaxy Apps because of course it does. A Samsung+ app for help and diagnostics. A Smart Switch app for customers coming from other phones. A Smart-Things app for controlling smart home products and a Samsung Gear app because everyone who owns one of these phones obviously has a Samsung smartwatch too. Also, a Samsung Health app, which at least ties into the Samsung Knox security controls.

Samsung Gear app.

You also get Samsung Phone, Messages, and Camera apps, of course. A Samsung image editing experience when you take screenshots.

Samsung screenshots experience.

A custom Samsung context menu when you press and hold on home screen icons. Custom wallpaper, themes, widgets, and Home screen settings interfaces, including a Samsung Themes store where you can pay for wallpapers, themes, icon sets, and Always-On displays.

Samsung Calendar app.

Good luck with all that.

Conclusion

The Galaxy S9+ is a showcase for Samsung’s hardware design prowess and it sets a high new bar for competitors to come up short against. The handset’s camera, too, is excellent, and while it falls just short of the standard set by the Google Pixel 2 XL, it comes closer than any other phone I’ve tested, and will likely be a major upgrade for most buyers.

Unfortunately, the software picture is decidedly more mixed. Some Samsung customization efforts do succeed nicely, but others just provide experiences that duplicate what’s already built-in to Android. For some reason.

What puts the Galaxy S9+ over the top, however, is the total package. The elegant curved display is enhanced by software features that are truly unique and useful. Virtually everything in the phone is customizable, and those who plumb the depths of the available options will no doubt come away with the perfect, personalized experience. I still react viscerally every time my Galaxy S9+’s display lights up: This is a gorgeous, high-performance monster that works (almost) exactly the way I want.

As such, the Samsung Galaxy S9+ is highly recommended.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Superior display
  • World-class design
  • Excellent performance and specifications
  • Excellent camera system
  • Stereo speakers
  • Speedy fingerprint reader has been moved to a better location
  • Reasonable pricing

Cons

  • Bixby is a mess, cannot be fully replaced
  • Too much duplicate Samsung software and service

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