Samsung Galaxy Note 9 hands-on review

From water cooling to a supercapacitor, the Galaxy Note 9 overflows with tech

The sum of the Galaxy Note 9’s parts make it the killer phone you’ll want this year.
The sum of the Galaxy Note 9’s parts make it the killer phone you’ll want this year.
The sum of the Galaxy Note 9’s parts make it the killer phone you’ll want this year.

Highs

  • Beautiful, large screen
  • Massive battery
  • A.I. Scene Optimizer is promising
  • Strong performance
  • S Pen offers remote control

Lows

  • Expensive
  • Bixby still exists
  • No Android 9.0 Pie

Year-to-year, Samsung phones don’t seem exciting. The improvements are often marginal and the designs hardly change. Individually, however, these phones are incredibly polished, and filled to the brim with features and high-quality components. Reading the specs sheet alone, it’s jaw-dropping how much tech Samsung can fit inside.

From afar, the new Galaxy Note 9 may feel like a miniscule upgrade over its predecessor, but the sum of its parts make it a killer phone. Is it inspiring like the iPhone X? No. Does it have the most recent version of Android? No. But it’s still a damn good phone. Here’s why.

Refined design, beautifully large display

It’s tough to tell the difference between last year’s Galaxy Note 8 and the Note 9 from the front. Blindfolded, it’s impossible to tell the two apart in the hand as well. Like the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus, it’s all about refining the design.

Samsung has slimmed the bezels surrounding the screen ever so slightly on the Note 9, allowing for a larger 6.4-inch screen as well as a tiny drop in height. The Note 9 is still a little wider and thicker, but it’s tough to notice. There’s a bit of bezel on the bottom, and the sensors in the top bezel don’t stick out like a sore thumb anymore.

The power button is on the right edge, with the volume rocker on the left, above the infamous Bixby button. They’re incredibly clicky, and all the buttons are easy to access. A headphone jack sits on the crowded bottom edge, next to the USB Type-C charging port, bottom-firing speaker, and S Pen. The speaker works with the top earpiece to produce stereo sound, and you just push on the S Pen to pop it out. We’ll get to the new features with the stylus later.

The edges of the Infinity Display curve into the rear, making the phone feel comfortable to hold, and the flat edges on the sides help with maintaining a tight grip. It feels like you’re holding an expensive remote control.

It all looks more elegant and professional.

The 6.4-inch Super AMOLED screen will keep you glued to the screen. Its 2,960 x 1,440 pixel resolution is brilliantly sharp, and colors appear vibrant with inky blacks. Samsung makes the best smartphone displays, and we certainly think this one might be its best.

The glass rear of the Note 9 is where noticeable changes have occurred. The fingerprint sensor is now in a more sensible place below the dual-camera module — it’s much easier to reach. Within the camera module itself, the middle camera is bigger than the one to the left. There’s a flash and other sensors packed on the right edge. It all looks more elegant and professional.

Like almost all high-end Samsung phones, the Note 9 is IP68 water- and dust-resistant, so it will be able to survive underwater up to 1.5 meters for about 30 minutes.

Galaxy Note 9 pink and blue s pens
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The new colors elevate the Note 9 even further. There’s Lavender Purple and Ocean Blue, and we’d pick Ocean Blue largely because of its fun, contrasting yellow S Pen. The Lavender Purple model only comes with a purple S Pen, but it still looks gorgeous.

There’s not much visually different about the Note 9 over its predecessor, which doesn’t make it as exciting, but it still oozes luxury.

Killer performance for gaming, Android software

Almost every flagship smartphone of 2018 has Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 processor inside. The Galaxy Note 9 is no different, but it will likely have an edge over the competition thanks to a new water carbon cooling system. Yes, there is actual water in the phone, though incredibly miniscule amounts. Samsung said the thermal spreader is also three times bigger, which should keep the processor cool during intensive tasks like gaming. It will be fascinating to test how well this system works.

galaxy note 9

Samsung’s not only trying to target professionals with the Note 9, but gamers as well. One of the world’s most popular game — Fortnite: Battle Royale — is launching on Android for the first time, but Samsung Galaxy owners (S7 and up) will exclusively get access for 30 days, starting today. The game will then become available on Epic Games’ website, rather than the Google Play Store.

This phone will be able to handle anything and everything you throw at it.

In our brief time with the phone, we didn’t notice any performance problems at all. Apps launched quickly, and scrolling through apps and the Android 8.0 Oreo interface felt smooth. This phone will be able to handle anything and everything you throw at it, and we’ll do more testing to see how it handles Fortnite and other intensive games.

There are two models of the Note 9 available: One with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, and one with 8GB of RAM and 512GB storage. That massive storage upgrade also means a higher price tag, but we don’t know by how much yet. The phone also supports a MicroSD card slot, so you can add even more space if you need it.

There’s not much difference in software here over the Galaxy S9 — it’s Samsung’s Experience launcher over Android Oreo, though we’d have liked to see Android 9.0 Pie considering Google just released it. It’s unclear yet when Samsung plans to push the update to the Note 9.

Bixby is still present, though Samsung has yet to share which improvements the virtual assistant has received to make it a little more useful. We’ll likely hear more at the launch event in New York City.

A.I. Camera

Samsung’s mantra with the Galaxy S9 was the “Camera. Reimagined.” It’s no surprise the company is sticking with the same system on the Note 9.

The dual-lens module on the rear is comprised of two 12-megapixel lenses with dual optical image stabilization, and one lens has mechanical disks that enable variable aperture. That means the primary lens can switch between f/1.5 and f/2.4 aperture, which will allow the Note 9 to excel with low-light photography. We’ve already seen it in action with the S9 Plus, and the results are fantastic.

The second lens has an f/2.4 aperture, and it can handle 2x optical zoom. It’s also used for Samsung’s portrait mode, also known as Live Focus. From the brief tests we ran, the camera shutter reacts quickly, and photos look great. Does it stand out from the S9, though? Yes, and it’s all because of artificial intelligence (A.I.).

Samsung has injected A.I. into its camera — just like several other smartphone manufacturers like Huawei and LG — which means the camera can detect up to 20 scenes, like a sunset or a pet. “Scene Optimizer” learns these scenes after receiving hundreds if not thousands of similar images, and then it’s taught to tweak the photo to match that ideal scene. For example, if you point the camera at a sunset and snap a photo, the A.I. will know just how to tune the exposure, color, and contrast of the photo to make it look better than ever.

This may just be the best A.I. scene detection tuning we’ve seen to date.

In early tests, photos tuned by the A.I. more often looked better than photos from a Galaxy S9, and it takes less than a second for the camera to identify the scene. This may just be the best A.I. scene detection tuning we’ve seen to date, as the rest tend to mostly oversaturate photos.

A.I. is also used for Flaw Detection. If you take a photo and someone blinked, a popup in the camera app will alert you, suggesting you retake the picture before you put your phone away and lose the moment. It can also identify when there’s a lot of backlight, or when there’s a smudge on the camera.

This is how A.I. should help in a smartphone camera. There’s no work the user has to do, and the changes the A.I. makes are sensible. That being said, you can turn this feature off in the camera settings.

The 8-megapixel front-facing camera has a f/1.7 aperture, and it should take good selfies. You can also access AR Emojis here, in case you want to turn into a Disney character, or someone else.

S Pen and DeX

The S Pen is a crucial selling point of the Note 9, but we’ve never found it to be all that useful (except for drawing). Sure, you can create animated GIFs with Live Messages, or hover over words to translate them, but it’s almost always faster to just use fingers. With the Note 9, Samsung may have finally give the stylus a purpose.

There’s now Bluetooth Low Energy embedded inside the S Pen, expanding its functionality up to 30 feet from the Note 9. This means you can control parts of the phone at a distance, such as moving through a powerpoint presentation; launching the camera and taking a group photo; or changing music tracks. You can customize what you want the button on the S Pen to do all through the Settings menu. It’s intuitive and easy to use, and works as advertised.

Our favorite was placing the Note 9 upright on a table to snap a selfie at a distance, which we can see people doing if selfie sticks aren’t available. What’s better is Samsung is releasing a software developer kit, so third-party app developers can create commands for their apps with the S Pen.

All this means the S Pen does need to be charged, but fret not. Samsung’s engineers have outfitted a supercapacitor into the stylus, which is kind of like a tiny battery that charges in a flash. Store it inside the Note 9 for 40 seconds, and you’ll get about 30 minutes of battery life. You shouldn’t have to worry about battery life too much.

Store it inside the Note 9 for 40 seconds, and you’ll get about 30 minutes of battery life.

The Note 9 also has a productivity-focused trick up its sleeve. Simply plug in a USB Type-C to HDMI cable from the Note 9 to a TV or external monitor, and you’ll launch the DeX Android desktop interface. It’s for a niche group of people, but you can use the phone as a trackpad, and a keyboard will pop up when you need to enter text. It’s especially handy if you want to throw a presentation onto a bigger screen during a meeting — you can continue using your phone without worrying about notifications appearing on the external screen as well.

Massive battery

Despite battery woes that nearly tarnished the Note brand two years ago, Samsung is getting a little bold again by outfitting a large 4,000mAh battery inside the Note 9. It probably explains why the phone is a little thicker, which shows Samsung has learned from its mistake. Either way, this phone should easily get through a day, and potentially half of the next day as well (if not more).

Price and availability

The Galaxy Note 9 will set you back $1,000 for the base 128GB model. It’s clear Samsung is going directly after the iPhone X. This model will be available from Samsung’s website, and retailers such as Amazon, Best Buy, Costco, Sam’s Club, Straight Tal Wireless, Target, and Walmart. You can also purchase it through a carrier, with support from AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon, and Xfinity.

The 512GB model with 8GB of RAM has a eye-widening price tag of $1,250. It’s going to be a tad tougher to find as it’s only available at “select retail locations,” but you can always nab it online at Samsung’s website, or through AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and U.S. Cellular.

The Note 9 may not have a lot of upgrades for Note 8 owners, but it’s packed with top of the line specifications, components, and some handy software improvements. Is it worth the $1,000 price tag? We’ll find out in our full review coming soon.

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