Arguably the most highly anticipated Android phones for the year are finally here. Samsung on Sunday announced the Galaxy S9 and the Galaxy S9 Plus at Mobile World Congress, both of which feature a beautiful edge-to-edge design, a revamped camera, and the latest and greatest Qualcomm processor.
It's not unusual for Samsung to release special editions of their flagships throughout the year. While these phones typically don't start making appearances until a little later in the year, it looks like Samsung is starting early for the Galaxy S9.
Dutch website Let'sGoDigital first reported on a partnership between Samsung, Vodafone, and Red Bull Ring to create limited-edition Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus smartphones with a Grand Prix theme. The limited-edition phone comes with a custom racing-themed shell that connects to the phone via NFC. Each week the phone is updated with a custom Grand-Prix themed wallpaper. Users will also receive monthly curated content on the limited-edition phones as well. The phones are only available through Vodafone for users in the Netherlands.
As you might have expected, Samsung is also following Apple's lead with Animoji. Samsung's take on the feature is called AR Emoji, and it basically allows your face to turn into moving, animated characters through the front-facing camera. You can create your own AR Emoji, and these will also be generated as an animated sticker pack for you to use in your messaging apps, and can even be "pinned" to the S9's Always-On Display.
A partnership with Disney also means that S9 and S9 Plus owners can control some of the House of Mouse's most beloved characters. Samsung announced on March 16 that the first of these characters to grace the S9's AR Emoji would be the legendary pair themselves: Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Users will be able to access the pair immediately from the moment that they gets their phones, and will be able to use the two to create personalized messages for family and friends, that can be saved for sharing with anyone via the AGIF standard.
While only Mickey and Minnie Mouse are currently available, Samsung has promised that more characters from The Incredibles, Zootopia, and Frozen will unlock over the coming year. If you're looking for more in-depth instructions on how to set up your AR Emoji, we've set up an AR Emoji guide just for you.
Samsung's phones have had a heart rate sensor and health app S-Health for a few generations now, but it's clear that Samsung is looking at even more ways it can help users to focus on their health. S9 and S9 Plus owners will be able to use the stress and blood pressure tracking abilities of My BP Lab, as well as be able to take part in an exclusive study of adults in the U.S.. On logging into the app for the first time, users will also be asked to participate in a three-week UCSF research study on their sleep, exercise, diet, and other elements of their health.
Thanks to the Samsung Galaxy S9's amazing optical camera system, users will be able to track their health easily and accurately, and the app will provide them with tips and advice to improve their general health, and offer insights based on the data it learns. Users will be able to see their stress levels on each day of the week, and perhaps learn how to manage their stress better for a healthier self.
At a first glance, you might find it a little hard to tell the Galaxy S9 apart from its predecessor, the Galaxy S8. It's got the same Super AMOLED Infinity Display, including the same Quad HD+ resolution, and the same display size -- 5.8-inches on the Galaxy S9 and 6.2-inches on the Galaxy S9 Plus. Upon closer inspection, however, you can see some subtle differences -- like the fact that the bezels are slightly smaller, and that the fingerprint sensor on the back has been repositioned to be more accessible.
While we love the glass-over-metal design of the Galaxy S9, you'll definitely want to invest in a good case. Although Samsung boasts this year's flagships are more durable than the S8, the difference appears to be minimal. SquareTrade, a company that offers extended warranties for smartphones, put the S9 through a battery of durability tests and found that while it is more durable than the S8, significant damage was caused by drops from any angle. In terms of repairability, the S9 has not improved over the last generation.
There have been a few small improvements to the underlying hardware that makes up the display on the S9. DisplayMate recently awarded the Galaxy S9 the highest ever score on its display tests, awarding Samsung's latest its highest ever “Excellent A+” rating. The breakdown is exhaustive, but amongst the improvements from the S8 that were noted was the increased brightness, the close-to-perfect color accuracy, and a user-adjustable white point. They're not exactly additions that you slap on a billboard, but they all add up, and it's clear that Samsung has created a smartphone with a world-beating display. Check out our favorite Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus screen protectors that'll help keep it shining.
You also still get a Bixby button on the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus. Now, the Bixby button has been a little controversial considering you can't reprogram it, but Samsung promises that it has been working to make Bixby better. We'll have to test the phone to see if that's true.
The phones may not be all that different from the Galaxy S8, but they're still attractive, and now refined. If you were hoping for a major redesign, perhaps hold out for next year's Galaxy S10, or even the flexible phone Samsung expects to release in 2019.
You'll find a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor powering both Galaxy S9 devices, but apart from the newer and more powerful processor, the specifications are practically the same as the Galaxy S8. The Galaxy S9 features 4GB of RAM with 64GB of storage, while the Galaxy S9 Plus offers 6GB of RAM with the same 64GB of storage. Both devices offer a MicroSD card slot, so you can expand upon that storage if you so choose.
When it comes to battery, it's again more of the same. Like last year, the standard-sized phone features a 3,000mAh battery, while the larger Galaxy S9 Plus boasts a 3,500mAh battery. The phones utilize Qualcomm's QuickCharge 2.0, and can charge wirelessly.
The second biggest improvement to the Galaxy S9 over the S8 is audio. Samsung enlisted the help of Harmon's AKG, which is under the Samsung brand, for both the stereo speakers and the included earbuds. The S9 doesn't have dual front-facing speakers -- rather, the bottom-firing speaker works in tandem with the earpiece at the top of the phone for stereo sound. The speakers support Dolby Atmos technology for even more spatial sound.
The first biggest improvement to the S9, is the camera.
Samsung is putting a lot of its marketing budget in advertising the Galaxy S9's camera, and for good reason -- it represents the biggest upgrade to the phone. Like the Galaxy Note 8, the Galaxy S9 Plus has dual cameras. But it's the main camera on both the S9 and the S9 Plus that's more interesting.
The main sensor, which packs 12-megapixels, doesn't have a fixed aperture. It's a mechanical lens, so its aperture swaps from f/1.5 at night, which the lowest-ever aperture on a phone, all the way up to f/2.4 during the day. The camera will switch aperture automatically depending on the time of day, but you can also change it yourself manually in the manual camera mode. The f/1.5 lens will help with low-light photography, while the f/2.4 aperture will provide sharper details in better lighting. We explored the differences between the two modes in our S9 Plus low-lighting test.
Samsung said it also improved its image processing software. A tap of the shutter icon now captures more photos, and Samsung's algorithms are capable of reducing a lot of noise or graininess in low-light photos. Overall, the Galaxy S9 should easily be the best smartphone camera for low-light photography, but we'll need to try it out to back that claim.
The second camera on the Galaxy S9 Plus is also a 12-megapixel lens, but it offers 2x optical zoom, allowing you to take photos of objects further away. It's also utilized for features like the blur mode that Samsung calls "Live Focus," which debuted on the Note 8. If you opt for the standard Galaxy S9, you unfortunately won't get that second lens and these features.
All these improvements seem to have paid dividends for Samsung, as the initial reports of the camera are strong. Camera testing site DxOMark has awarded the Galaxy S9 Plus the highest score ever to a mobile camera in the photo category, with 104 points being awarded to the larger S9, with the excellent noise control, bright and vivid color reproduction, and overall shooting quality as being some of the camera's strongest points. For context, the next highest scorer in the photo category is the extremely capable Pixel 2, which scored 99 points when it was first released. Those results echo our findings in our own tests between the major flagships, so it's safe to say the S9 has an exceptionally strong camera.
The S9 Plus wasn't rated as highly in the video department, scoring 91 -- but that score still puts it within the top scorers in that category. The photo and video scores combined score the Galaxy S9 Plus at an exceptionally high 99 points -- putting Samsung's latest above the Pixel 2's 98 points, and making the S9 Plus the highest scoring camera on a phone yet. This sort of performance from a phone camera really raises the bar in terms of what we can expect from our smartphones.
Samsung also seems to have taken a page out of Sony's book -- the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus can both shoot slow-motion video up to a hefty 960 frames per second, though the resolution is limited to 720p. It can predict the moment you'll want to have slowed down, and artificial intelligence will pair a generic music track based on the mood of the video. You can then easily share these videos as GIF files in three different styles: Loop, Reverse, and Swing.
Last but not least, there are some improvements to Bixby -- specifically Bixby Vision. The Bixby's camera now offers live translation, real-time currency conversion, and the ability to try makeup on your face (after which you can purchase that makeup through Sephora or Cover Girl). Bixby's uses as a shopping assistant don't end there, as Samsung's assistant can also identify objects seen in real life, and offer purchasing options from Walmart, Sam’s Club, and now Lowe’s Home Improvement. You can even point the camera at food and have Samsung estimate how many calories it has -- which can then be ported into S-Health.
Here's the most important part, and it's actually good news. Despite rumors that the phones would increase in price, you'll be able to pick up the Galaxy S9 from Samsung for a cool $720, or $30 a month for 24 months. If you're wanting to pick up the larger S9 Plus, than that can be yours with prices starting from $840, or $35 a month for 24 months. In the U.S., the devices will go on sale on March 16.
If you're upgrading from an older Galaxy device, Samsung is also offering a trade-in program that could net you up to $350 off a new S9 or S9 Plus. You can find all the details of trade-ins and discounts on our full guide to buying an S9 or S9 Plus.
Updated on April 16: Added Vodafone special edition Galaxy S9.