The Galaxy Note series has been Samsung’s definition of bigger is better and this year it got a tad bit bigger and a wee bit better.
Taking a big leap from an already fabulous Note 8 could be difficult for a smartphone, but Samsung’s juiced up more than just the innards here: we’re talking about the S-Pen which works using a low-powered Bluetooth connection. Opening another possibility of using the Note in different ways.
After spending two weeks with Samsung’s best flagship smartphone, I am certain of two things - firstly, this is a smartphone that can do everything and secondly it's not for everyone. Sure it's an incremental upgrade from last year’s Note 8 and much of Samsung’s S9+ quirks have trickled down into the Note 9 but what you get is Samsung’s best flagship summarised into a 6.4in phablet.
Tighten your seat belts, we’ll be delving deep into the nitty gritties of this flagship’s capabilities and how it performs as a daily driver.
Design: No nonsense design
If you were to pit the Note 9 against the Note 8 in a game of 'spot the difference' on the last few pages of your daily newspaper, you’d probably spend the whole time scratching your head. We’ll make it clear.
The Note 9 maintains that curve appeal on the side edges while the chin and forehead shave off slightly over the Note 8. It’s notable that with everyone jumping on the notch trend, Samsung is dead serious about not shifting to Apple’s way of doing things.
The glass back is still a fingerprint magnet although thankfully the fingerprint sensor has been moved to a much easier to reach position. However, it feels as if the fingerprint scanner is somewhat small even when it's the same size as the S9+. We wished it was a tad bigger. I was rather enjoying the Intelligent Scan that uses your mug and eyes to unlock but it still blasts that blaring infrared light from the top to get through even in the darkest areas. In the end, I settled for the convenience over preference.
We even got to try out our job-losing deadly drop test. It's where we accidentally chuck the phone out of a moving rickshaw after a heavy night of drinking and watch it land on the asphalt after a few tumbles on the opposite side of the moving traffic. Ah, a horror story if you're a tech lover and quite a spine-chilling experience for a reviewer like me. I almost wrote my resignation by the time I jumped out to pick the phone up but to my surprise, the Note 9 came out with minor scratches on the back and no major denting on the side metal frame either. It would've survived even better if I had put the Silicone case that comes in the box but pah! I wanted to feel the ₹68K worth of glass and metal sandwich on my palms all the time. Still, I wouldn’t recommend hauling it around like a drunk monkey because, I got lucky. If it fell on its screen, I wouldn’t be writing this review.
There’s obviously that famed headphone jack with stereo speakers that fire crisp and quality audio. It’s one of the more refined audio outputs we’ve heard on a smartphone with clear mids and a balanced bass.
Screen: love at first sight
The screen is by far the most amazing thing about any Samsung flagship and the Note 9 is no exception here. Just like the S9+, the Note 9 gets a solid 2960x1440 resolution that’s compressed into a 6.4in display which is just 0.1in bigger than the Note 8.
The colours on the OLED screen look amazing and well saturated with text as pin sharp as it can get. My personal experience with this screen has been quite addictive, shifting down to 1080p resolution to save on battery was a nightmare because I could clearly tell the difference in the downgrade. Not that the screen is bad on 1080p resolution, no sir, the fact the 2960x1440 resolution looks so good that even as I wake up every morning to the same phone for two weeks, I fall in love with the screen all over again. True story.
We played a little Fortnite and Asphalt 9 on this and it was brimming with punchy colours and amazing contrast. As for Netflix, the 6.4in is quite the palm-sized cinema even against the brightest outdoor lighting. You can change the colour temperature and saturation in the menu because Samsung by default puts it on a rich enhancing colour mode for extended colour joy and while as a reviewer I got a little nitpicky, my folks at home were quite fascinated by it. There’s your audience, Samsung. Even the Gorilla Glass withstood that nasty drop and also a deliberate throw into the pool. We’ve put that video on our Instagram so you can watch it and freak out all the same.
S-Pen: Bluetooth wizardry
The S-Pen is what distinguishes the Note series from every other smartphone in the market right now. It is the only smartphone with a stylus and now with the Note 9 it has achieved Bluetooth capabilities. This is one of the major tell between the Note 9 and the others in the Note series.
At the bottom right is the S-Pen housing which can be summoned with a push. This time the button on the S-Pen can be customized for various functions by tapping or holding down the button to perform two separate functions in apps. For now the functionality is limited to Samsung’s own apps like pressing down the button to launch the camera app and double tapping to change between rear camera and selfie mode and then a single click to capture photos.
It’s very basic for now but Samsung has opened the floodgates to allow app developers to utilize this S-Pen’s potential. It can be used to control Windows’ presentation slides and other apps with come downloaded in the phone, but who uses a smartphone to deliver slideshows during a presentation?
The S-Pen works for 30 mins in Bluetooth mode and charges fully in 40 seconds. Don’t worry, if you’re in the middle of doodling, the S-Pen will work perfectly fine passively too without any charge. People who love the Note series for the S-Pen will love everything about it here all the same.
The Ocean Blue variant which we got for the review currently, houses a yellow coloured S-Pen. It’s the rebel among the Metallic Copper and Midnight Black which have the same colour as the smartphone.
Performance: Too big on everything
There’s plenty of power under the hood. The Indian variant has Samsung’s own Exynos 9810 processor that’s sitting inside coupled with 6GB or 8GB of RAM depending up on what storage you pick.
The starting storage option is 128GB with 6GB of RAM and the 8GB RAM variant has an overwhelming 512GB of storage. That’s more than most laptops these days and you can even add more with a memory card to push it up to 1TB!
Obviously it's one of the most powerful smartphones in the market right now with performance levels not even slightly shuddering to the most intensive apps and games. We played a heavy bit of Fortnite and Alto’s Adventure and the Note 9 did not stutter on me even once. I would switch to replying on WhatsApp mid gaming and resume back to playing like nothing happened. This level of multitasking from a smartphone is quite exceptional and very positive for the long run. Samsung says the Note 9 uses ‘carbon water’ cooling to keep the temperatures on a low-low and during our review period it worked perfectly. Under intense gaming loads the smartphone does get a tad bit warm but it’s nowhere close to pinching your soft skin.
The OS is every bit Samsung as you’d expect. There are still plenty of Samsung’s own apps and loads of tweaking and customizations available in the settings. I switched to Nova launcher to clean things out a bit but I was already high on the learning curve of Samsung’s OS to deal with another skin atop. Needless to say, if you’re new to Samsung’s take on Android, there’s a slight bit of learning curve but once you get the hang of things you can work your way around. Those customization options help too. Although Samsung is notoriously late on delivering newer versions of Android every year.
Battery: big Lil’
The 4000mAh battery sitting inside the Note 9 is a precious resource. It’s the biggest yet on a Samsung but sadly, that big battery doesn’t keep up with the bold claims from Samsung. It managed to stay with me 12 to 13 hours during my regular day that included two hours of Netflix consumption during commute and some fairly light texting and Instagram scrolling. On heavy use the battery drains faster than beer on a Saturday.
Okay, I might have exaggerated that a bit but for a 4000mAh battery the Note 9 is not keeping up as much as I expected. Doodle for a couple of hours with the S-Pen and you’ll watch the battery drain real quick. It’s all very subjective here, the Note 9 is a performance beast but that performance comes with a depleting battery. The problem here also lies in its stunning display. You can get stingy and scrape through by setting the resolution down to 1080p or putting it on Ultra Saving mode but what’s the point? That ₹68K will pinch when you have to carry the charger around.
Though if you do run out of juice real quick then it’s got you covered with Quick Charge 4.0 and wireless charging should that be your fancy.
Bixby and DeX: Still there, still need polish
The Bixby button is still here and yes, you cannot remap it. Samsung’s AI butler has got slightly better than last year and the new Bixby menu is more accessible this time. It’s got some neat tricks and one of them is being able to do string multiple commands to one word is quite useful but the process is not very polished. For instance, I had Bixby shut off always-on display, put sound profile to vibrate, turn on blue light filter and all the alarms by just saying ‘Goodnight’. While after waking up, all these settings would revert and I would even get a weather update just by saying ‘Good morning’.
This is something I personally found logically useful from an AI in the real world scenario and it actually made my life easier but it's still not a polished process. Most of the times Bixby wouldn’t do one or two things from those commands and instead of doing everything quietly, it goes on about how it completed its each task as it does it. So, I was still staring at the screen and waiting for Bixby to complete and talk before I could put the phone down and get some sleep.
You can swipe right from the home screen or tap the Bixby button to access Bixby Home that curates a personal feed based on your apps, notifications and what Bixby feels would interest you from the daily news. Basic app notifications aside, the news and video recommendations is absolutely off target and not even slightly close of Google’s on-point recommendations.
The Samsung DeX has become extremely accessible over the previous Gen. Now you can simply use any HDMI to USB Type-C connector and plonk it on the screen to experience Samsung’s desktop version of Android powered by the Galaxy Note 9. The adapter wire doesn’t come in the box so we didn’t get much time to use this feature but during our hands-on session it looked fine. There were a couple of hiccups while working on a PowerPoint presentation but we don’t see anyone using this feature as much. Although it’s good to know that Samsung is actively trying to improve on this feature, baby steps right? Who knows, maybe someday we’ll actually see a laptop shell powered by a smartphone like Razer tried.
Camera: Never disappoints
The Note 9 carries the same snappers that were there on the Samsung Galaxy S9+ and that’s not a bad thing. When we tested the S9+, the camera was fantastic and we’re pretty sure about the Note 9’s snapping abilities as well.
The dual aperture rear camera is here as well and it does the same trick of stacking multiple shots to reduce noise too. The 12MP + 12MP dual rear camera has OIS and 2x zoom. The front 8MP camera is the same too and can snap stunner selfies as usual.
It goes without saying the images come out absolutely amazing. We tested the camera out in different conditions and it's simply too good for point and shoot. While a professional photographer friend of mine happened to use the Note 9 while I was testing it and was fairly impressed by the manual capabilities. He could conjure up some really impressive edits in Snapseed with them too. It goes without saying that the camera is well versed to act as a point and shoot for dummies and at the same time provides much needed room to play with in manual mood for shutter bugs like me and my friend. Unlike iPhones that don’t usually offer anything more than the standard fare in the default camera app to tinker around.
In terms of picture quality, Samsung has really dialled down on the oversaturation and vivid contrast habit from previous generation. Photos come out well saturated and sharp. Although the Huawei P20 Pro’s camera is still better at some things, the Note 9 maintains consistency.
The Live Focus mode lets you take portrait shot of anything and everything and I must say, the separation of the subject from the background is very remarkable. It even manages to work around spectacles that usually confuse the camera and blur out the background that is seen through the glasses on a person’s face. This sometimes causes the smartphone to blur out tiny portions of glass frames on a person’s face but the Note 9 had no trouble working around this. The front camera is great too, but lacks the same bokeh fidelity of the rear cameras.
The smartphone is waterproof and dustproof so we even tried giving it a good dunking and clicked a few pictures underwater. The trick is to hold down the shutter button and sink your phone in afterwards to take burst shots of your friends doing weird poses underwater. Honestly, I don’t know why Samsung doesn’t introduce a screen waterlock feature to better take pictures underwater or around it. If you find a clear pool with perfect sunlight dipping in, the Note 9 can capture some serious stunners underwater as well.
Being very careful not to abuse the AI word, the Samsung camera can now detect if anyone has blinked or if the shot has come blurry and then recommend to take another shot immediately. It can even detect several different scenes in the frame and adjust settings accordingly but there isn’t much of a difference in shots here. Sometimes it slips in more-than-necessary saturation but I preferred it to be off.
It can shoot at 4K with 60fps but without OIS and auto tracking. If your YouTube career is suffering then you can still manage 4K recording with OIS but at 30fps. There’s also super slo-mo that can shoot at 960fps essential stretching out 0.2 seconds of action into a 6 second long video.
Samsung Galaxy Note 9 verdict
The Samsung Note 9 is filling that niche that most people might overlook as overpriced or over-powered (if that’s even a thing). That is quite frankly true but with each iteration of Galaxy Notes, that niche is slowly spreading wider because of all the possibilities that come with the Note series.
It’s a proper Phablet-sized smartphone with an overload of features that make this flagship truly a one and only flagship. Most of that credit goes to the stylus and its way of concising all-you-need features to people jotting slideshow presentations during meetings to on-the-go doodle fingers.
And here’s what Samsung’s Note does different from other smartphones and we don’t see that as a bad thing. While it makes it loud and clear as well that the size is not for everyone’s mitts and if you’re looking for something cheaper without a stylus then the Samsung S9+ is the obvious choice. However, the battery life is not at par with the other flagships in the range which could’ve been a game changer.