Samsung Galaxy S9 review: Everything is new but the look

This year's flagship phone is the exact reverse of last year's

David Phelan
Thursday 08 March 2018 13:48 GMT
A Samsung Galaxy S9 is displayed with an AR emoji at the Samsung booth at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 26, 2018
A Samsung Galaxy S9 is displayed with an AR emoji at the Samsung booth at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, February 26, 2018 (REUTERS/Yves Herman)

Samsung’s flagship phone series is the Galaxy S, released each Spring. Last year’s model, on sale last April, had a striking new design though many of the features inside were only gently upgraded from previous models.

Now, the Galaxy S9 is here, and it’s done the reverse: a largely similar design on the outside that hides significant changes in hidden elements such as the camera. I’ve been using the S9 and S9+ since they were first announced 12 days ago.

Though the look has been left largely unchanged, this remains a handsome, assured design. The screen slopes down the long sides of the handset so that the image stretches right to the edges which are tapered to make the phone fit more easily in the hand.

The display is long (18.5:9 screen ratio) which also helps with the hand fit: the S9 has a 5.8in display and the larger S9+ is 6.2in but neither feels like it’s going to stretch your mitts too much. Mind you, it’s still worth trying them in the hand before you buy, to make sure.

This year’s phones, by the way, have a bigger screen to phone ratio thanks to a slightly smaller bezel at top and bottom. As Samsung pointed out, it’s managed this fuller screen effect without resorting to the notch found on the iPhone X. But though this means the phones are slightly shorter this year, the difference is hard to spot unless you have both together.

The main change to the look is on the back of the phone and it’s a real improvement. Last year, the fingerprint sensor was moved from the front of the S7 to the rear of the S8, placed alongside the camera. This led to users smudging their finger against the lens while rummaging for the fingerprint to unlock the phone.

Now, after considerable criticism, Samsung has responded by placing the sensor directly below the camera in a central position. I’m still not a fan of the rear-mounted fingerprint system but it’s becoming more popular and this placement works well.

The only other significant visual change is the camera on the S9+. Like the Note8, the larger of this year’s flagship phones has a dual camera: twin 12MP sensors. One is a wide-angle lens, one a telephoto and the two work in concert to give an effective 2x optical zoom. For the first time it means there is a noticeable difference between the two Galaxy S phones apart from their size (the larger phone has 50 per cent more active memory, too).

Oh, there’s one other change to the visuals: it now comes in a cool lilac colour as well as the more demure black and blue options which, frankly, most people will probably choose.

Facial Recognition

Last year, Samsung had facial recognition, fingerprint sensor, iris recognition and password as the main unlock systems for the S8, improving the speed of them for the Note8. Now, you can combine iris and facial recognition systems for a speedy, secure unlock.

It’s an intimate and effective experience, just looking at the phone to unlock it. And it works extremely well, but not as routinely as the iPhone X, for instance, which works very nearly all the time, enough that you feel sure it is going to work. Although the system here is good, I didn’t feel as confident that it would always just work, and often you see a message asking you to open your eyes more or hold the phone more upright. I also found that if the phone was a little further away, it would usually unlock but would take more than a second to do it.

There are other security features on board. For instance, you can use a different finger to unlock a specific secure folder where you could store sensitive data.


The camera is one of the big shout-out features on the new Galaxy S handsets – especially on the twin-camera model but with an important upgrade to the smaller S9, too.

It’s the fact that the S9’s camera (the wide-angle camera on the S9+) has an adjustable aperture, something rarely seen on smartphone cameras.

The aperture automatically switches from an f/2.4 opening to a wider one, f/1.5, when the available light drops below 100 lux, which is about the light of an overcast day.

So, in lower light, this camera really excels. A bigger aperture means more light gets in faster, so a shorter exposure is possible, with less blur as a result. The camera also has a system for improving image quality further by taking multiple shots in quick succession (up to 12 images, milliseconds apart) and using machine learning to discard some and combine others to remove image noise.

The S9 also introduces super slow-mo, which shoots at 960 frames a second, so a 0.2-second burst plays for 3.2 seconds. Sony had this last year on the Xperia XZ Premium, but Samsung adds a canny extra. If you’re shooting something that’s moving really fast – and if you’re not, why would you use super slow-mo? – you need to start at just the right time. On the S9, you indicate on screen where the action is going to fall and place and size an onscreen box.

Then the phone starts recording at normal speed until it sees movement inside the box, and switches automatically to 960fps. It’s clever and works very well.

This is one of the most versatile and capable cameras on any smartphone, with results that can be splendid.

S9+ camera

The twin sensors of the S9+ don’t just mean the equivalent of a 2x zoom. You can, as with the iPhone 8 Plus or iPhone X, for example, shoot both cameras simultaneously, combining the two to create that charming bokeh effect where the subject is in pristine sharpness, the background pleasantly blurred.

This works well and, usefully, here you can change the blur after the event, in case you don’t want it after all (hint: you mostly do).

AR Emoji

The front-facing camera that is involved in the facial recognition system also allows you to take a photo selfie scan which is used to create an emoji based on the way you look. You can adjust the hair, add glasses and so on, and I wouldn’t say the result is exactly a spitting image, but there’s a kind of resemblance.

The AR Emoji (a kind of response to Apple’s Animoji) include dozens of prepared animations where your personal emoji is crying, blowing kisses, or performing one of several corny poses. You can also create animated animals, including a cat with scary teeth. You can also put masks on your face a la Snapchat.

AR Emoji are fun and they do grow on you but they aren’t as slick or as accomplished as Apple’s Animoji.

Other features on the S9 include Bixby, the Samsung virtual assistant which has added knowledge and sophistication since it was first announced. It’s a long way behind Siri on the iPhone or Google Assistant, but now does cool things such as working with Google Translate. Raise the phone to a menu or piece of text in a foreign language and it’ll translate the words on screen to the language of your choice.

The display on the S9 and S9+ is an OLED screen, as usual and it looks great thanks to an exceptionally high resolution (570 pixels per inch on the S9, 529ppi on the S9+) and great colour fidelity, even if you angle the phone away from you.

The glass back means you can charge the phone wirelessly and at speed with a compatible charger. It’s waterproof, as recent Samsung top-of-range phones have been. It has a fast, effective processor which keeps it running at great speed. And it has a battery that lasts easily through a day on both sizes of phone. In fact, if you had a late night and you and the phone didn’t get to rest until the small hours, it’d probably be fine (and readier to go in the morning than you!). You can also add extra memory, up to 400GB, using the memory card slot that sits next to the sim card.


There’s a lot to like in the Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9+, even if at first glance it looks like last year’s model. The improved internals and especially the uprated camera make this feel like a much more powerful and useful device. The price reflects this: £769 or £839 for the S9 and S9+ respectively are full-on opening prices. Though they’re still cheaper than the iPhone X, which is the phone Samsung is hoping to beat.

Click here for EE Mobile discount codes

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