Meet the new boss: it’s got a dual camera this time around.
Such is the Samsung Galaxy S9+’s overwhelming familiarity it owes as much of a spiritual debt to Apple’s iPhone 6S and 5S handsets as it does to its predecessor. With the same design and broadly the same specs as the last year’s Samsung Galaxy S8+, you’re probably wondering what’s new here though.
Wait. I mentioned those dual cameras already, didn’t I? If the Galaxy S9+’s glacial approach to change has you twinging with disappointment then that can only mean only mean one thing: you’re already the proud owner of a Samsung Galaxy S8. Because compared to pretty much every other big phone available there’s almost no topping the Galaxy S9+. It’s super-smart, super-powerful and, yes, super-similar to what came before it.
So how does it compare to the good ol' fashioned Galaxy S9 and where does it rank in the grand pantheon of smartphone behemoths? I’ve spent a week with the thing to find out.
A special thanks to Vodafone UK for lending us a sample handset for this review
Samsung Galaxy S9+ camera
By far the biggest difference between the Galaxy S9 and S9+ is that dual 12 megapixel camera with dual-pixel autofocus and optical image stabilisation. And if you’ve already got the similarly specced Samsung Galaxy Note 8 then even this won’t come as a great surprise.
Giving you 2x optical zoom, this snapper goes a long way to making sure your holiday vistas don’t turn out to be a blurry mess every time you want to capture something in the near-ish distance. It’s the same setup that you get on Apple’s Plus-sized iPhones and I’ve always found it to be useful enough if inessential. Mainly because you still need to be reasonably close to your subject for that 2x zoom to make a difference. So if you’re stood at the back of a gig and take a snap, you could still reasonably claim you were at an Oasis reunion show for all anyone will be able to tell.
This isn’t a slight on the Samsung Galaxy S9+ though as its dual camera is just one element of its thoroughly accomplished photographic performance. You see this phone also shares the dual aperture setup seen on the smaller Samsung Galaxy S9 that’s meant to allow for better-judged photos in a variety of lighting conditions. So this camera can switch between f/1.5 and f/2.4 on the fly, cranking open the aperture fully for low-light shooting, then closing it back up again when the sun comes out.
Does it make a difference? Well, to cut a long and quite technical story short, it does in low light where shots are clearer and sharper than they were on the fixed aperture Galaxy S8. If your Instagram feed is basically a timeline of where you were drinking last night, then your bar shots are gonna be better than ever before. And given night time photography is an area where all phones have tended to struggle, this is quite a big deal.
In everyday conditions, it’s harder to notice a step up in image quality. Snaps are still well-judged with so much detail that you have to zoom right into the pixels to spot any limitations.
HDR is incredibly fast too, with live view showing what your shot will look like before you even hit the shutter button, while multi-frame noise reduction stacks multiple frames on top of each other to reduce imperfections by upto a third. If you keep the S9+’s camera app set to auto then it’s near-on impossible to complain its point-and-shoot results.
When experimenting in its Pro mode, there’s a little bit leeway for quibbling. When using a f/1.5 aperture for close-ups in brighter conditions it isn't hard to spot the fringing and lack of sharpness at the edge of the frame. And when you’re really getting down to brass tax, Google’s Pixel 2 still has the edge for definition and clarity.
Make no mistake, the Galaxy S9+ has a truly superb camera that few others can compete with. Last week a friend was showing me his holiday photos from Machu Picchu and I could scarcely believe they’d been shot on his Galaxy S8. The S9+ should be capable of even better and that’s the important thing to focus on here.
Its selfie cam isn’t half bad either. With the same 8MP sensor and f/1.7 aperture as last year’s Galaxy S8, it’ll capture your pouting in all its glory with clear, detailed photos that’ll go down a treat.
As for video? The S9 is now capable of shooting 4K footage at a borderline excessive 60fps, along with super slow-mo footage at 960 frames per second. You’ll need plenty of light around to get the right results, but needn’t rely on having the reflexes of a gazelle to get the job done. Draw a box anywhere onscreen and the phone will start recording as soon as it detects any movement. Smart.
Samsung Galaxy S9+ AR emoji: Turn and face the strange
Since Apple seems to have found great deal of success in selling its £1,000 phone on the strength of its ability to recreate your face in the shape of a poo emoj, Samsung is attempting to do something similar with its latest creation: AR Emoji.
Unlike the iPhone X’s Animoji, AR Emoji are created in your likeness rather than that of a unicorn, alien or fox. You simply scan your face using the S9+’s camera and then the phone does show off your newfound cartoon visage in a variety of overdramatic scenarios, from bursting into tears to blowing a kiss. It’s all good clean fun for about five minutes until you’ve finished customising your virtual character, decide to move on with your life and never touch the thing again. Especially since you can’t send the things over WhatsApp or Slack.
Now I’m not really the target audience for this kind of gimmickry but given the choice between texting my mates with a Nintendo Mii-like cartoon or a lifelike turd I’m gonna go for a Number 2 every time. Otherwise I’ll just stick with good old fashioned emoji.
Samsung Galaxy S9+ display: Scan the difference
If custom emoji tend to lose their intrigue in near-on an instant that the S9+’s AMOLED display can keep you entertained for years on end.
At 6.2in with a 1440 x 2960 resolution - that adds up to a whopping great 529 pixels per inch, nerds - the screen is almost in a league of its own when it comes to phones. Only the iPhone X can compete with the brightness, contrast, fidelity and all-round awesomeness on show here, and guess what? That screen was made by Samsung too.
As is Samsung’s wont, colours on the S9+ are saturated to the extent that they’re not entirely lifelike but I don’t mind this at all. It just means pictures and video pop that little bit more in the palm of your hands are arguably easier to pay attention to when you’re in a crowded train carriage on the way into work.
Although it might seem like you’re staring at a QHD image, it’s worth remembering the S9+ is set to the lower Full HD+ resolution by default. If you want to hit those QHD you’ll need to head into the phone’s settings menu and be prepared to sacrifice some battery life as well.
Of course, since the S9+’s screen has a 18:9 aspect ratio so that it retains those gloriously skinny bezels we saw in the S8. As well as proving a stellar fit for the footie highlights or a quick episode of The Good Place, the S9+’s screen is huge part of why this phone looks quite so good. Until last year, we hadn’t seen anything like it and 12 months on the novelty remains intact. Even if the Google’s Pixel 2 XL, Huawei Mate 10 and and OnePlus 5T have now gotten in on the action too.
As brilliant as the Samsung Galaxy S9+'s screen is, it's also this phone's greatest drawback. At 6.2in it's so big most people are going to have to use this phone two-handed or invest in a super-durable case for the thing lest it accidentally slip out of their digits. Having already smashed one rather pricey phone this year - sorry about that again, Google - just using the S9+ was enough to bring me out in a cold sweat.
Stretching across that vast expanse of screen feels takes a fair bit of fun out of using this phone and taking calls with a claw-like grip wasn’t all that comfortable for me either. So make sure you wrap your hands around the thing before you buy it and get the Galaxy S9 if it's not not a great fit. And if you still want those dual cameras? Tough luck, I'm afraid.
Samsung Galaxy S9+ design
The downside of every phone-maker chasing as bigger screen as possible with those all-important skinny bezels is that a lot of handsets really do look similar these days. While the S9+ doesn’t stand out to a huge degree from this near-identikit company its curved edges and ludicrously shiny backside render it distinct enough from the competition, if not last year’s S8+.
Aside from a repositioned fingerprint scanner and that new dual camera there is essentially no design difference between these two phones. Even the questionable Bixby button remains in place on the S9+’s aluminum frame, should you really need to call upon Samsung’s smart assistant in an instant. Spoiler alert: you probably won’t.
Still, not having a fingerprint scanner sit directly next to the S9+’s camera lens means you won’t risk smudging it everytime you unlock your phone. Makes sense doesn’t it? Not to Samsung when it was making the S8. Anyway, it’s been fixed now and all is right with the world.
Better still, you probably won’t use it all that much thanks to the Galaxy S9+’s new Intelligent Scan that unlocks your phone based on a combination of face and iris scans. It’s not as secure or accurate as Apple’s FaceID, but is less finnicky than stretching your finger out across the back of a phone and generally gets the job done so long as you're stood in reasonably good light. When you’re in dim conditions it can take absolute age to get going, and may even end up asking you for your PIN anyway. Annoying.
Elsewhere if you can get on with the Galaxy S9+'s larger than life trappings, then it's general aesthetic should suit you well. I love the way its screen’s glass curves around the edges of the phone, while it's classy glass back does the same so the S9+ sits comfortably in your hands. At a weight of 189g, this phone isn't especially heavy for its size either.
Sat on the safe cushioned confines of a sofa, you can sit with it through as many YouTube videos as you please without feeling the need to put the thing down out of exhaustion. Something that's especially handy since its AKG-tuned speakers sound pretty decent - for a phone - and crank up to 1.4x louder than before.
And if you want to listen via a pair of cans instead? Don't worry, Samsung has kept the headphone jack on place again and this phone is IP68 water-resistant again. So it can take a drink in your toilet bowl for a good half hour before really freaking out.
As much as the Samsung Galaxy S9+ is a well-built phone and looks deserving of the wad of cash you'll spend on it, it's not my favourite handset to lovingly gaze at. Mainly because it holds onto the same aesthetic we first saw four years ago with the Galaxy S6 Edge, and I’m a little bit bored of it now. Especially now Google’s Pixel 2 XL has been made to resemble an actual panda. That’s some next-level design genius there.
Samsung Galaxy S9+ power and battery life
As the most expensive incarnation of Samsung’s flagship phone, it’s no great surprise that the Galaxy S9+ is one of the most powerful handsets you can by. By combining the latest Exynos 9810 processor with 6GB RAM, there’s little this phone can’t do in a breeze.
Honestly, I doubt was really pushing my S9+ with my usual routine of flitting between YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp. This is a handset with the power to act as a makeshift PC if you plug it into one of Samsung’s DeX stations. Only heavy duty media editing and properly high-end are gonna make it break a sweat, and chances are you’re not gonna bother with any of that when Alto’s Odyssey and Snapseed will make do.
What’s the point of owning such a blisteringly fast phone? Well, it should still be reasonably speedy in two years time when you come around to upgrading, which is helpful if you wanna hold off on that process for a few months and save some cash.
Thanks to a more efficient processor than ever, battery life should hold up as well. With a 3500 mAh capacity, the Galaxy S9+ can happily trundle on for a working day and a bit right now. That’s a bit more than what you’ll get with the standard S9, but it’s not a major leap forwards either. At least you really do get a lot more storage with the S9+: 128GB compared to 64GB on the standard S9. So that’s plenty of space for your 100% legally acquired TV show files. Wink.
Samsung Galaxy S9+ software and UI
Having earned a reputation for cramming its phones with a huge amount of software-related gimmickry, Samsung has dialled back its more excessive tendencies in recent years and this remains the case with this year’s iteration of Samsung’s TouchWiz UI. Running on top of Android 8.0 Oreo you don’t get anything drastically new from the OS, but the improved notifications, adaptive icons and battery optimisations are all worthwhile.
Coming to this phone from a Google Pixel 2 - the small one - I still found there to be a few too many prompts to tweak the settings or explainers for features I’ll probably never use, but that's really just me nitpicking. Stuff like picture-in-picture for video, frame rate-boosting Game Launcher and Edge Panel shortcuts that make the most of the S9+’s curved screen are all worth having. And most of these features sit in your phone’s background until you’re ready to use them.
Wondering what’s new with Bixby? Samsung’s AI assistant can now translate foreign text in real-time via the camera app, as well as shooting selfies, toggling settings and jump into apps using your voice. Then again, Google Assistant can do a fair bit of the same stuff already and I’ve never really been one for using AI assistants with my phone anyway. Unlike with an Amazon Echo, it’s usually easier just to type out your request instead of speaking it out loud.
If you’re going to spend near-on a grand on your next phone, there are only a few handsets worth getting. Either new Samsung Galaxy S9, the Google Pixel 2 XL and the iPhone X. Everything else isn’t worth bothering with, because for that kind of money you should be getting the absolute best.
Getting a Pixel 2 XL will get you the best camera and has the best take on Android but its OLED screen isn’t quite as pristine and doesn’t offer the same caliber of viewing angles. The iPhone X has the joint-best screen with Samsung’s S9s and the fastest performance thanks to its A11 Bionic chip but costs a minimum of one thousand pounds. One. Thousand. Quid.
And as for the Samsung Galaxy S9+? Well, it’s best all-rounder with no major weak points beyond its sheer size and a sometimes iffy Intelligent Scan feature that can easily be circumvented via its fingerprint scanner. Honestly, there’s no ‘bad choice’ when you’re buying a phone of this kind of calibre but the either S9 ranks as the safe option here with the least amount to get annoyed about. It’s the only one with a headphone jack for heaven’s sake.
Samsung Galaxy S9+ verdict
When I first picked up the Galaxy S9+ I was certain it would be the better phone of the two new Samsungs. Now I’m not so sure. Dual cameras aside, there’s barely any difference between the two phones and I just find the standard S9 easier to hold. To me at least, that’s a bigger deal than being able to zoom in a little bit more than normal on your photos.
If the S9+ is a better fit for you, then you’ll have quite the phone on your hands. Especially if you didn’t get ahold of a Galaxy S8 last year. ‘Cos when you add up all of this handset’s myriad charms it’s a truly awesome proposition with a superb screen, handsome design and one of the best cameras around. That’s a level of refinement that only the iPhone X and Google Pixel 2 XL can come close to. Plus, this phone won’t set you back a thousand quid.
So while Samsung’s Galaxy S9+ truly is a little bit boring, it’s exceptionally good. And one of those qualities outweighs the other by quite some margin.