Samsung Galaxy S9 review

Perfect camera. Perfect size. Samsung's Galaxy S9 (mostly) nails the big stuff

The Galaxy S9 is a perfect-sized phone with a fantastic camera and great performance.
The Galaxy S9 is a perfect-sized phone with a fantastic camera and great performance.
The Galaxy S9 is a perfect-sized phone with a fantastic camera and great performance.

Highs

  • Excellent display
  • Great 5.8-inch size
  • Good speakers
  • Strong performance
  • Stunning low-light camera

Lows

  • Battery life is lower than competition
  • Slow Android updates
  • Camera not as versatile as S9 Plus

DT Editors' Rating

Small smartphones tend to not get much love. They often aren’t as feature-packed as their larger counterparts, which is why it was refreshing to see the only differences between the original 2016 Google Pixel and Pixel XL, as well as last year’s Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus, were the size and battery.

Unfortunately, trends show things are quickly going back to the norm. The Pixel 2 XL differentiated from the Pixel 2 with a bezel-less design, and the Sony Xperia XZ2 Compact doesn’t have wireless charging or the new Dynamic Vibration System found in the larger Xperia XZ2. And with the new Galaxy S9, you won’t find the versatile dual-camera system that’s present in the larger Galaxy S9 Plus. Are the extra features in the Galaxy S9 Plus worth the money, or will you be satisfied with a smaller phone? Let’s take a closer look.

Interested in the Galaxy S9 Plus? Check out our in-depth review.

Small and compact

The Galaxy S9 is the perfect-sized phone. It’s easy to wrap our palms around this smooth 5.8-inch device, and our fingers ergonomically rest on the curved edges along the S9’s frame. The power button on the right edge sits in an easy-to-access position, as does the Bixby button on the left edge. It’s a shame we’ve turned off Bixby’s functionality, so the button remains useless — more on that later.

Despite the small size, the volume rocker on the left edge is still a little too hard to reach, just like it is on the Galaxy S9 Plus. We have to shuffle the phone a little lower to tap it.

On the bottom edge of the phone is a USB-Type C charging port, with a bottom-firing speaker and a headphone jack. You’ll be pleased to learn that Samsung finally uses stereo sound — the top earpiece works with the bottom-firing speaker for AKG-tuned, Dolby Atmos audio. Music is easily room-filling, with rich, clear sound, but weak bass. It’s a step up from Samsung’s previous smartphones, but dual front-facing speakers like those on the Pixel 2 would be an even better addition — we often end up covering the bottom-firing speaker when holding the phone in landscape mode.

The Galaxy S9 is the perfect-sized phone.

The back of the S9 isn’t drastically different from years past. Samsung has essentially flipped its horizontal camera and fingerprint sensor setup vertically, making it easier to place your finger. Sadly, it’s still easy to touch the camera sensor because the fingerprint module isn’t distinguished enough from the camera frame, and both are still too close to each other. Speaking of fingerprints, get ready to carry a microfiber cloth or use a case with the S9 — otherwise you’ll spend countless minutes getting rid of smudges and fingerprints off the glossy, glass back.

Size is the Galaxy S9’s strength here. The S9 is slightly shorter than last year’s S8, but you get the same 5.8-inch screen thanks to the smaller bezels surrounding the display. After going between the S9 Plus and the S9, we much prefer the smaller phone. It’s comfortable and easy to hold, while still being a great entertainment device with a large display and great sound.

In terms of colors, a Sunrise Gold version is now available, alongside Midnight Black, Coral Blue, and Lilac Purple.

Sharp, colorful display, plus speedy performance

It may have been around for a year, but we still can’t stop gazing at Samsung’s Infinity Display. Samsung has taken the effort to mask all the cameras and sensors sitting in the bezel of the phone, making it look like the screen blends in with the edges, which creates a more immersive viewing experience.

The 5.8-inch screen size is the same as the S8, but there are some improvements in the AMOLED panel. Colors are incredibly vibrant, but still accurate, and the screen gets brilliantly bright. The S9 has a Quad HD+ (2,960 × 1,440 pixel) resolution, just like the Galaxy S9 Plus, which means it’s even sharper than its larger brother because it packs more pixels (570 pixels-per-inch to be exact).

samsung galaxy s9 review
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The end result is a beautiful screen that’s perfect for binge-watching the new season of Jessica Jones. The S9 supports HDR10 after all, so apps like Netflix, YouTube, and HBO with HDR10 content look their absolute best on this phone. Sure, the Galaxy S9 Plus has more screen real estate, but we’re happy watching shows and movies on the smaller S9 as well.

The Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus are the first phones we’ve tested with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 processor, and we’re happy to announce the new chipset delivers great performance. Apps open quickly, and moving throughout the user interface is mostly smooth. We say mostly because we have encountered the occasional stutter, which reminds us of Samsung’s TouchWiz launcher days.

What impressed us more is gaming performance. The Snapdragon 845 chip boasts bigger graphics improvements, and it shows. Games like Tekken and The Sims: Mobile run without a hitch, and the phone doesn’t get too warm after we were playing for a while.

Here are a few results from benchmark tests:

  • AnTuTu 3D Bench: 261,876
  • Geekbench 4 CPU: 2377 single-core; 7,982 multi-core
  • 3D Mark Slingshot Extreme: 468 OpenGL; 3,617 Vulkan

The scores are slightly lower than what we received on the Galaxy S9 Plus, and that may be due to the 6GB of RAM in the larger phone — the regular S9 only has 4GB. More RAM is beneficial when you’re doing a lot of multitasking, and it also helps future-proof the phone. Still, 4GB is plenty for most people, and the S9’s scores are way higher than the Pixel 2 and almost all Android flagship smartphones from 2017. Needless to say, the Galaxy S9 can easily handle multitasking, gaming, and everyday tasks without issues. You’ll be satisfied with performance on this phone.

The S9 comes with 64GB of storage, but there’s a 128GB model and a 256GB model available as well. A MicroSD card slot lets you add in more space if you need it.

Who needs a second camera?

The biggest difference between the S9 Plus and the S9, other than size, is the extra camera on the rear of the S9 Plus. Like many other flagship smartphones, the dual-camera system offers features like 2x optical zoom and a Portrait Mode for a blurred background effect, as well as a wide-angle camera on certain devices like the LG V30. You won’t get any of that on the small Galaxy S9, but you do get a killer single 12-megapixel camera with variable aperture.

That doesn’t sound as cool, but you’ll undoubtedly be more than satisfied and impressed with the photos — specifically the low-light photos — the S9 captures. As we’ve explained before, variable aperture is when the camera can switch between two apertures: In the S9’s case, it can switch between f/1.5 and f/2.4.

The aperture is the hole in the camera that lets light into the sensor. The S9’s f/1.5 is the widest aperture available on a smartphone currently, and that means it can absorb a lot of light because the hole is larger (the lower the number, the wider the aperture). The problem with having such a wide aperture is that the details in the photograph are not as sharp. So if you compare a daylight photo taken with the f/1.5 aperture versus the f/2.4 aperture, the latter photo will be far more detailed.

You do get a killer single 12-megapixel camera with variable aperture.

Thankfully, you don’t need to think about any of this because Samsung hides all this complicated mechanical machinery away from the user interface. Simply open the camera app, tap the shutter icon, and the S9 will take a great photo. It will default to the f/2.4 aperture most of the time, so your photos remain sharp, but when it detects poor lighting, it will automatically switch to the f/1.5 aperture. These photos are noticeably brighter than the S9’s competitors, and while they may be a little fuzzy, they’re still excellent considering the lighting conditions. You can also manually switch apertures in the camera’s Pro mode.

What’s even more impressive is Samsung’s multi-frame noise-reduction image processing, which may not sound interesting, but is important. We’ve all taken photos at night only to find a lot of grain or “noise” ruining the picture. When you tap the shutter icon on the Galaxy S9, the phone captures 12 photos it then compiles to eliminate as much noise as possible. When you compare low-light photos with the Google Pixel 2, for example, the difference in noise is astounding, and it always makes for a better photo.

There’s also the Super Slow Motion feature, where you can take 720p videos that are 32 times slower than real life. It’s a fun addition into the camera app, though it does take some getting used to when trying to capture fast-moving scenes. Samsung has also taken a page out of Apple’s book with AR Emojis, mimicking Animojis that debuted on the iPhone X. We’re not fans of how AR Emojis look — though some people on our staff think they look great. More importantly, the motion-capture technology used to create and send AR Emoji videos is not good at all. Animojis remain far superior. Like Animojis, however, we expect no one to talk about this feature after a month.

Left: Pixel 2 XL; Right: Galaxy S9 (click images for original resolution). Photos: Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

We’re genuinely impressed at the low-light achievements here with Samsung’s “reimagined” camera, and the Super Slow Motion addition is genuinely fun. We do still think the Galaxy S9 Plus’ second camera is worth the extra money, though. We kept trying to use the S9-exclusive 2x optical zoom on the regular S9, only because taking detailed photos of objects further away makes the camera so versatile. Live Focus is also a handy and fun feature to have, and the “Selective Focus” software version feature on the S9 doesn’t compare.

If those two latter features aren’t important to you, then you’ll still be overjoyed with the Galaxy S9’s camera.

Customizable software, but you can’t erase Bixby

The Galaxy S9 runs Android 8.0 Oreo, but it’s layered with the Samsung Experience 9.0 user interface. The software looks far better than Samsung’s old TouchWiz UI, and there’s plenty of customization options to personalize your S9.

Samsung has taken its sweet time to update its devices to the latest version of Android.

For example, you can change the exact color of the clock on the lock screen, not to mention choosing a clock design from a variety of options. The sheer amount of customization options are great, and they don’t feel overwhelming. Most people won’t touch a lot of these settings, but we’re happy to know they are there.

With all this customization, however, you would think Samsung would let people remap the Bixby button. Bixby is Samsung’s artificially intelligent assistant first introduced in the Galaxy S8. It’s meant to be an easy way to perform traditional touch functions on your phone with your voice. It can be handy sometimes, but we’ve generally found the experience to be slower and not as reliable as Google Assistant, which you can access by pressing and holding the home button. Sliding the home screen to the right to open Bixby Home is sluggish, and there never really seems to be any useful information here.

There are a few new additions to Bixby Vision — the camera part of Bixby — including Makeup, Food, and improved instant language translation. The latter two are wonky, and never completely reliable, but we’ve found Makeup to be fun and useful. It leverages technology from a company called ModiFace, and it lets you layer makeup products over your face. If you like the way a product looks on your face, tap the link and you can purchase it from the website. Right now, Makeup has Sephora products, but Samsung said to expect more, like Cover Girl, soon.

While Bixby can be annoying, the biggest disappointment in terms of software is updates. It’s why the Pixel 2 XL remains our top Android phone, because version and security updates are important to us, and Samsung has taken its sweet time to update its devices to the latest version of Android. Android 8.0 Oreo came out back in August 2017, and the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus are still on a beta. With Android P’s first developer preview now available, don’t expect to have it on the S9 or S9 Plus until early 2019. If you care about fast software updates, get a Google Pixel.

Daylong battery life

If you’re a power user, don’t expect to get through a day without charging up the Galaxy S9. After using it heavily for watching YouTube videos, taking photos, playing video games, and browsing the web, we reached 7 percent by 6 p.m. That’s not good at all, and you can easily find better battery life with the competition, especially the Huawei Mate 10 Pro.

If you don’t use the phone as much, you’ll obviously see better battery life. You can also head to the device manager settings to optimize the battery and get as much time out of it as possible. On a light day of use, we managed 38 percent by 5 p.m., starting with a full charge at 7:30 a.m.

The phone supports fast wireless and wired charging, so you have plenty of ways to charge it back to full strength quickly.

Price, availability, and warranty information

The Galaxy S9 costs $720 from Samsung, or you can purchase it on a monthly payment plan. You can also buy it through carriers and other retailers, and you can check out our buying guide for more details and deals.

Samsung offers a one-year limited warranty that protects the phone from manufacturing defects. You can purchase Samsung Premium Care for an extended warranty, as well as other features.

Our Take

The Galaxy S9 is a comfortable and compact phone that offers a fantastic camera and great performance, but is it one of the best smartphones on the market?We do think the S9 Plus is worth it for the second, versatile camera, but the S9’s perfect size makes it hard to ignore.

Is there a better alternative?

Maybe. The Google Pixel 2 is another small phone with fluid performance and an excellent camera, and you get fast Android version and security updates. The problem is that it doesn’t feature a bezel-less design, so it looks quite dated.

If you don’t care about operating system, there’s always the iPhone X, which is smaller than the iPhone 8 Plus, or the iPhone 8. Both are excellent phones with similar strengths as the Google Pixel 2, and the iPhone X has that contemporary, stylish look you want. Check out our best small phones guide for more.

How long will it last?

Expect the Galaxy S9 to last you three or more years. It’s IP68 water- and dust-resistant, so it will survive dips in the pool, but it’s covered in glass, so you might want to protect it with a case. Samsung issues software updates for two years, so you will start to see performance dips by then, especially since the battery will start to depreciate.

Should you buy it?

Yes. If you don’t care about the extra camera on the Galaxy S9 Plus, the Galaxy S9 is an excellent device with a stellar camera, great performance, and brilliant hardware.

Updated on June 20: We’ve added information about the Sunrise Gold color option, as well as the 128GB and 256GB models that are available.

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