Review: Samsung Galaxy S9

Review: Samsung Galaxy S9

Samsung is seriously gunning for Apple's customers. Last year's Galaxy ad depicted a forelorn iPhone loyalist slowly falling out of love with his device of choice over the course of 10 years. Like the guy in the commercial, Samsung's matured. It's stumbled, it's learned, it's grown. It doesn't always get things on the first try.

But even though much of what the company aimed for was achieved in the Galaxy S8, the new Galaxy S9 iterates pretty effectively. Is it enough to make a dent in Apple's loyal American market following? I'm not so sure about that. But for many shoppers it'll fit the bill nicely.

An 8 in X's clothes

Don't mind Apple's three flagship lineup—Samsung's over here with two devices (at least until it unleashes the next Galaxy Note). For 2018, you can pick from one of two S9 sizes, 5.8-inches and 6.2-inches. It kind of goes without saying that these AMOLED screens are gorgeous, and per Samsung tradition, completely notch-free. Instead of a small intrusion on the top of the display, the screen simply doesn't touch the top and the bottom of the device's face. OK, so it's not all-encompassingly "edge to edge" but for my money, I prefer the look of this screen over devices like the Essential Phone, with its Mike Wazowski eye and the iPhone X's epic unibrow.

Beth Holzer for Wired
Beth Holzer for Wired

Here's the thing, though—it's a lot like last year's Galaxy S8 in appearance and features. The S9 is definitely an iterative update, but the small things do help this phone feel fresh.

On the inside, the S9 family features the brand-new Qualcomm Snapdragon 845, one of the fastest mobile chips available. Using the S9 daily, I was consistently impressed with its performance. Switching apps, loading tough websites—everything felt super zippy. If you're coming from a two- or three-year-old smartphone, you're gonna grin the first time you fire up Twitter and it instantly snaps to attention.

Running down the spec sheet, there's little that I felt the S9 truly lacks. It ticks the boxes you'd want ticked in 2018—stuff like face unlock, microSD card expansion, IP68 water and dust protection, wireless charging, a headphone jack… Record needle scratch. A headphone jack!? Yep. As aggressively as everyone else is dumping this legacy port, Samsung bravely soldiers on another year with dongle-free analog audio.

So yes, the S9 has just about everything you'd expect from a 2018 flagship, but you won't be spending $1,000 on this device. Starting at $719 unlocked, Samsung's throwing in the kitchen sink. There's no glitzy ultraluxe version for the 1 percent like on the Apple side of the fence—everyone gets the best Samsung has to offer starting at well under a grand.

ZOMG This Camera

The best part of this phone? It's the camera. Engineered by Samsung from the ground-up, it's the first in a modern flagship phone to have a variable aperture. Translation for non camera nerds: It gives you a well-balanced photography experience whether you're in a dim dive bar or outside on a bright, sunny day. Previous smartphones have focused on making the lens as fast—that is, as open to gather as much light—as possible. But the S9's primary, 12-megapixel camera can adapt, blocking out some of the light with a mechanical aperture mechanism that stops the lens down from f/1.5 to f/2.4.

Even if you shoot in the full auto mode, you're gonna get some incredible shots with this camera. I was especially impressed by the S9's tastefully tuned HDR mode, which enhanced dynamic range without making my pictures look ridiculously overprocessed. Fine details like a cat's fur was stunningly rendered, especially when viewed on the phone's AMOLED display.

Low light shooting is always tricky for a phone camera, but I'd rank this among the best. You'll still hit the limits of physics, and software, for that matter. Shots in very dim situations understandably suffer from softness and lack of detail due to noise reduction. But I think many people will be surprised at how many usable shots they'll get if they're switching from even a two-year-old handset.

Then there's the Super Slo-Mo mode. While other phones can capture pretty good slow-motion shots at 240 fps, the S9 grabs bursts at 960 fps, thanks to a special DRAM buffer built into the camera. When it works, it's spectacular. Unfortunately, I felt like it was hamstrung by Samsung's finicky camera app. Either the automatic trigger was too sensitive, or the manual trigger simply refused to fire when tapped. You also need plenty of light to make the slo-mo look its absolute best.

The front-facing camera isn't much to write home about, but there are AR Emoji now—an obvious answer to Apple's Animoji. The phone uses software and the front imaging array to create your cartoon doppelgänger, then record clips to send to your friends or drop in your social feed. It's kinda fun, at least at first. Unfortunately, unlike Nintendo's Miis, you don't have much control over facial features, and there are frustratingly few customizations at this point. My favorite part of the AR Emoji feature suite is easily the auto-generated GIF keyboard—Samsung takes your digital likeness and applies it to a set of hilarious, strange moving images automatically. For what it's worth, this feels more like the evolution of Bitmoji than a feature that's seriously worth upgrading for.

A Note About Android

If you've never owned a Samsung phone, you might be a little surprised when you first start poking around its expansive touchscreen. The company is almost doing its own thing with the Google Android operating system, and the so-called Samsung Experience has some downsides.

Compared to Google's Pixel 2, which runs pure Android, Samsung's OS can feel wholly foreign. Samsung can also be a little behind with updates, so if there's a killer new Android feature you might be left waiting a while. Thankfully, the S9 comes with the latest Android, Oreo, already installed so you start things on the right foot. Then again, you'll see some redundant Samsung software cluttering up the joint from the word go—why use Samsung's generic internet browser when you can get Chrome or Firefox?

What most impressed me was Samsung's Smart Switch utility. This is a super-smart thing to include if Samsung is seriously going after the Apple faithful. This app and a bundled USB adapter let you plug in an iPhone (or another Android handset) and shunt over your messages, pictures, contacts (with images attached!) music, and movies…and it hunts down the apps you have on your old phone and grabs those, too. If you're considering switching away from iOS in particular, this feature helps ease the transition. You'll have to leave your blue-bubble iMessage fam behind, but at least Smart Switch reminds you to turn Apple's messaging service off before making the leap.

A Fine Flagship

The Galaxy S9 certainly proves itself on paper and in use, but there are still some snags that might keep you from embracing it wholeheartedly. Its unconventional approach to Android and slow-to-update software is definitely one reason. But if you're looking to upgrade your phone, especially if you're already a devoted Samsung customer, this one has everything you'd want.

The camera alone is a huge reason to ditch your two- or three-year-old smartphone. Its super-detailed shots put your current clunker to shame. With Samsung's trade-in program going on, you could nab the S9 for as little as $370 depending on what you're kicking to the curb. In my case, making the switch from my tried-and-true iPhone 6s would only set me back $569—and that's for a huge leap in processing and photographic power. Plus, unlike the other popular phones, you still get a headphone jack and it's easier than ever to grab one unlocked, which you should.

If you're on last year's Galaxy S8 or an iPhone 8, you're not going to get a whole lot out of this phone. But if you're struggling along on something significantly older, the S9 will feel like a huge upgrade.

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