Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus Review

Key Features

  • Review Price: £869
  • 6.2-inch quad-HD+ OLED display
  • Dolby Atmos speakers
  • 3500 mAh battery
  • AR Emoji
  • 12-megapixel camera with variable aperture

 

Pros

  •  Feels great for a big phone
  •  The OLED display is great and highly customisable
  •  Numerous camera features on offer

 

Cons

  •  Iterative upgrade
  •  AR Emoji are just bad
  •  Some lag with Samsung’s software

 

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Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus – Design

Samsung’s radical transformation of its ‘S’ series last year was the start of a new trend in phone design. While there had been attempts to rid phones of a thick bezel before, none felt quite as natural and well-thought-out as Samsung implementation. For example, the LG G6 felt unfinished with its poorly circled screen edges, and Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 2 sacrificed functionality by forcing you to flip the phone around to take a selfie.

 

However, Samsung’s switch to a bigger screen in a smaller body actually worked. So much so, that even though everyone else appears to be idiotically copying the iPhone X’s notch, Samsung has stuck with virtually the same design we saw last year.

There are a few changes, though. The bezel at either end of the display is now marginally thinner, the aluminium is tougher, and the Gorilla Glass 5 coating the display is ever so slightly thicker. This last point is key for me – my S8 suffered a smashed screen simply from being knocked off my sofa onto a carpeted floor. The S9 Plus is also heavier and thicker than the previous device – although I challenge anyone to notice this unless they have a ruler and scales handy.

Arguably, the biggest design rethink is the positioning of the fingerprint scanner. Instead of being positioned almost on top of the camera sensor, it now sits below it – and as a result it’s much easier to hit. Saying that, this remains a pretty poor fingerprint sensor, which takes a noticeable moment to register my digit and take me to the homescreen. It’s also very small, meaning you’ll often hit and miss for a few days until you get used to it.

The Galaxy S9 Plus still looks and feels great in spite of the recycled design. I remain a fan of the curved edges of the display that melt away into the aluminium rim, with the glass back equally curved to help it fit in your hand. It’s a big phone – I’d opt for the regular S9 if you want something more pocketable – but it doesn’t feel as big as it should when you’re holding it because of the excellent design.

The back has a clean look, with a single Samsung logo accompanied by the new dual-camera system and a heart-rate sensor. My black unit is an absolute smudge magnet, far more than the black iPhone X, picking up grime and oily residue more than most. While I believe the benefits of a glass back outweigh the negatives, it’s still a pain.

You’ll find a dedicated Bixby button below the volume rocker, with the lock-switch on the other side. I dislike the fact that the extra button can only be used with a virtual assistant – I turned it off completely after a day of use – but Bixby remains a huge push for Samsung and I was naive to think it wouldn’t return in the Galaxy S9 Plus.

Samsung’s phones have always been packed with features, and the Galaxy S9 Plus continues in this vein. You’ve got a water-resistant body (IP68), a haptic-feedback home button, microSD slot, QI and PMA wireless charging – and a headphone jack. Yes, the trusty 3.5mm port stays, and you can even get the S9 Plus with a hybrid dual-SIM slot if you buy direct from Samsung.

Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus – Screen

Having seen a few poor OLED displays in recent Android phones from LG and Google, it’s great to finally have one that lives up to expectations. The 6.2-inch 18.5:9 AMOLED panel packs the same quad-HD+ 2560 x 1440 resolution as before, but it’s now brighter and even more stunning.

Samsung’s OLEDs are the best, and this particular panel really shines in the customisations. The default Adaptive mode is great, but since switching to the full DCI-P3 colour-gamut-toting AMOLED Cinema option, I’ve enjoyed it even more.

I’d say this mode gives the Samsung device a look that’s more iPhone X – dialling back a little with the blue hues and giving a warmer overall feel. I’ve found it much kinder on my eyes, too. There’s also a Photo mode that covers the Adobe RGB gamut, and a Basic mode that covers the sRGB scale.

The burst of colour and vibrancy on this screen is sublime, but can at times appear a little oversaturated – but his nothing that can’t be fixed with a bit of tinkering in the settings. Viewing angles are fine, and outdoor visibility is great, although the shift to blue that’s common on OLEDs can be seen here.

There’s full support for HDR content from Prime Video and Netflix, plus a brightness-boosting mode for giving SDR content extra gloss. I’ve kept this off, though, since it almost makes regular YouTube videos look too bright plus it chomps through the battery.

 

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Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus – Performance

There are many reasons that the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus is among the best Android phones on the market, but performance isn’t one of them. This isn’t because it lacks for speed, because it is super-quick. More because there are just so many fast Android phones these days, and as such, what I’m really interested in is how it will perform after a year or two – an area where Samsung phones have disappointed recently.

As expected, the S9 Plus internals have been updated. It features a Snapdragon 845/Exynos 9810, 6GB of RAM (4GB on the smaller model) and 64GB storage. The new chip powering the phone – which in my case is the Exynos – features an improved CPU and GPU, the ability to record super slow-motion video, and a few other tricks too.

In terms of benchmarks, there’s an improvement over the Snapdragon 835/Exynos 8890 from last year, but the S9 Plus can’t match the iPhone X for numbers. See the benchmark table below for the full scores.

I’m more concerned about real-world usage, and I can’t say that there’s a huge difference between the Galaxy S9 Plus and S8. Apps open quickly, games play without lag or dropped frames, and everything feels super-smooth.

However, annoying jolts of lag occur on launching the Bixby AI and some of Samsung’s own apps feel like they’re hanging a moment or two more than I’m used to. It’s odd to have that moment of slowdown on such a high-end device and it’s made more obvious when you consider how smooth it is elsewhere.

One area where performance has improved markedly is audio. Not only does the Galaxy S9 Plus retain the headphone jack – making it one of the only 2018 flagships to have the 3.5mm port – but it also updates the speakers.

The downward-firing speaker found along the bottom edge of the S8 remains, but in the S9 Plus it’s now joined by a front-facing unit that’s positioned above the display. This works in a similar way to recent iPhones, pushing the audio towards you rather than it becoming muffled in your palm.

As with any high-end flagship, there’s support for 1Gbps LTE download speeds (where available), Bluetooth 5 and storage starts at 64GB. Samsung will be selling a 256GB model of the S9 Plus too, but you’re probably better off sticking a high-speed microSD card (up to 400GB supported) into the slot than paying the extra.

Call quality is fantastic and comfortably better than the iPhone X or Pixel 2 XL I use frequently. Signal strength is impressive too, as is Wi-Fi performance.

Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus – Software

Even though the Samsung Galaxy S9 runs Android 8.0 Oreo, it’s almost unrecognisable from Google’s original design of the software. This is as much a Samsung operating-system as a Google one, with its upsides as well as downsides.

Samsung’s software is slickly designed, offering attractive icons and fluid movement between your app drawer and notifications panel. The Google Now panel has been ditched for Bixby Home, but you can always turn this off if Samsung’s voice assistant isn’t for you.

Bixby is virtually the same as before, with its only new capabilities being able to translate words through the camera. We’ll have to wait for Bixby 2.0 to arrive later in the year to see if it gets any better.

Android on Pixel devices feels simple, but here it’s jam-packed with extras. I appreciate the sheer number of customisation options Samsung provides. These range from altering the screen resolution to saving battery to tweaking the performance of games.

Samsung’s battery-saver mode remains one of the best. There are plenty of security options, too; the ability to have duplicate messaging apps if you use the phone for work, and a great Secure Folder for private files. There’s so much going on here that at first it can feel overwhelming.

Little has changed with regards to the methods for unlocking the device. Iris and facial recognition are available to you alongside the fingerprint scanner, but none feel quite as sophisticated in operation as Apple’s Face ID. There’s noticeable judder as the phone finds your face/eyes and a bright red light beams into your retinas if you use the iris scanner.

I’d have liked Samsung to look to the iPhone X for gesture control, too. Having becomes used to swipes required to navigate iOS, it feels a bit old-fashioned to go back to the rigid set of software keys.

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Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus – Camera

Much of the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus’ success revolves around its camera. It’s the only aspect of the phone that really feels like it’s seen a significant update, and if you’re someone who has an S8 then it’s likely the only feature to make you consider updating your device.

The S9 Plus’ new 12-megapixel camera now has some dedicated RAM inside the sensor to speed things up. The pixels have the same 1.4 µm size as before, plus dual-pixel autofocus and optical image stabilisation.

The big change is in the aperture of the lens. Instead of being fixed, as is true of the majority of cameras on other phones, it can move between f/1.5 and f/2.4. This means that, in theory, the phone should use the wider f/1.5 aperture when there isn’t much light and switch to the f/2.4 for everything else.

F/2.4 might seem like a very wide aperture, but having it as an option makes complete sense to compliment the f/1.5 alternative. I have used a few phones with really wide apertures, notably the LG V30 and Huawei Mate 10 both of which have f/1.6 lenses, and they struggle with ensuring landscape shots are detailed the further out from the middle they go. For example, if you take a photo of a mountain view, the details will begin to get softer in the picture around the sides. Having both lens available avoids this being an issue.

If you stick with the ‘Auto’ camera mode, then you’ll unlikely notice the switching aperture. When’s it light and bright the camera will shoot in f/2.4, widening to f/1.5 when the light drops below about 10 lux, like a dark restaurant or bar. You can achieve more granular control if you swipe over to ‘Pro’, where you can switch between the two. Unlike many Huawei and Honor phones, the element inside the S9 Plus’ camera physically widens when you switch; it isn’t simply a faux software tweak.

The inclusion of all this fancy optics tech is pointless if the results are poor, however. Thankfully, the images shot with either the Galaxy S9 or S9 Plus are mostly very good. They’re colourful, super-detailed, and the focusing system is fast and accurate.

Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus – Battery Life and Verdict

Aside from the overall size, price and camera, the biggest difference between the two Galaxy S9 flagships are the size of their batteries. The 3500mAh cell inside the Galaxy S9 Plus is a nice upgrade over the 3000mAh cell in the regular S9, but considering it has that much bigger 6.2-inch display, you’ll still be reaching for that charger every night.

Major advances in battery life have basically died for Samsung since the Note 7 fiasco, and the S9 Plus offers the same endurance as its predecessor.

You might find that you can stretch the device beyond that, depending on how you use the phone and which settings you tweak. If you want to eke out more juice, you can reduce the resolution (it’s set to 1080p by default) or limit performance when you’re playing games. In addition, there are some fantastic power-saving modes on offer, which make a real difference if you can live with the sacrifices.

Also beware of modes that drastically reduce the battery life. For example, the Video Enhancer mode boosts the brightness of the display to create a faux-HDR effect when using apps such as YouTube, Netflix or Google Play Movies. With this on, however, an hour of video watching depletes the cell by nearly 20%.

Charging is via the USB-C port on the bottom of the device, or through a Qi wireless charging pad – an accessory you’ll have to buy separately. Charging is about 50% faster through a cable, but the convenience of just popping the phone down on a charging pad is great.

Verdict

The screen is stunning and the camera is clever; but this is still only a minor update in the Galaxy series.

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