Adrian Weckler gives a hands-on review of Samsung's new iPhone rival
Samsung has unveiled its new Galaxy S9 and S9+ flagship smartphones.
The new devices look almost exactly the same as the current S8 models (with similar 5.8-inc and 6.2-inch screens).
So what’s their big calling card?
One feature: the camera.
Samsung has massively boosted the camera’s low light performance, with almost a third more light getting in than the existing Galaxy S8 (which is already one of the top camera phones).
Independent.ie’s time with both phones was limited to about an hour of hands-on testing. But we were fairly blown away by the low light photography of the devices.
Pending a longer test, it looks like Samsung may have retaken the cameraphone lead from Apple’s stellar iPhone X and iPhone 8 Plus devices.
The upgrade comes largely due to the new processing capability under the S9’s hood. Whenever the handset detects low light conditions, it automatically reduces the aperture of the main 12-megapixel camera down to an astonishing f1.5, meaning the camera lets more light in than any rival.
The phone then keeps its low light mojo going by taking 12 separate shots in the instant you think you’ve taken one photo, thanks to new oomph from the 64-bit, octacore 2.7Ghz processor. It then goes through each of the 12 shots in milliseconds, blending the clearest frames with the least ‘noise’ (the fuzzy effect you see when you try to take a photo in very poor light) to create one super-clear photo.
The results, which we’ve looked at, are fairly incredible for a smartphone. Detail on items in a dimly lit room or tube stand out clearly and can be brightened up with relatively little noise on display.
The phone also adds super slow-motion video at 960 frames per second, which is replayed back at 720p, the junior level of high definition. This many frames per second is enough to turn 0.2 seconds of recording into 6 seconds, creating a smooth slow motion snippet.
(Samsung isn’t the first to shoot slow motion at this rate, as Sony’s top Xperia handsets have been able to do it for around a year.)
Shooting slow motion (usually at 240 frames per second) is common on many smartphones these days. The biggest challenge is usually trying to figure out when to start and stop recording. Samsung’s clever software lets you choose a square box in the screen and when anything ‘passes through’ this box in your video, it automatically triggers the slow motion recording snippet.
File sizes are generally no bigger than normal video clips, either, because of compression and file management.
The only thing to know about all of this is that, as with other slow motion effects, it doesn’t really work in poor light. A higher resolution (1080p) slow motion standard is available at 240 frames per second. Otherwise, the S9’s camera shoots 4K at up to 60 frames per second, a very high-end, high resolution standard.
Part from the this, the camera arrangement is similar to that on the S8 and S8+. The bigger phone has two rear cameras, both of which have optical image stabilisation. The telephoto lens isn’t quite as friendly to low light, with an f2.4 aperture.
Both the S9 and S9+ sport an 8-megapixel front-facing selfie camera. Samsung has added an augmented reality (‘AR’) emoji feature to try and liven things up a little. The idea is that the front-facing camera sensor takes a good look at your face, asks you to smile and then presents you with an animated version of yourself. Once you accessorise (skin tone, hair colour, clothes and glasses) you can then watch it mimic your expressions. The idea is that you can save and share your messages as Gifs or messages, spendable to contacts that use any type of phone.
Clearly, the feature is supposed to compete with the iPhone X’s Animoji. In our limited experience so far, the facial movements aren’t as accurate (or as funny) as Animoji, but it’s possible that some will view this as a fun addition.
There are a few other things worth mentioning on the Galaxy S9 and S9+. The first is the speakers, which are 40pc louder than the audio speakers on the current S8. Samsung has Dolby Atmos embedded here and the results are genuinely impressive. While this won’t replace your home stereo speaker, it’s enough of a jump to act as a standalone radio, podcast speaker or even Spotify speaker for a small, enclosed area.
Another thing that might become very useful is that Samsung has embedded its SmartThings app into the phone with the intention of simplifying its smart device ecosystem. At present, there are a couple of competing Samsung smart control setups with the result that plenty of us have to pause a second to guess which control setup works with which system. With Samsung promising that everything it makes will be connected by 2020, the new idea is that you can buy a Samsung telly and it will automatically glean from your Galaxy smartphone which wifi network to connect, as well as making it easy to ‘throw’ content (such as photos or videos) from the phone to the TV with no more than one or two taps.
The battery sizes on the Galaxy S9 (3,000mAh) and S9+ (3,500mAh) are exactly the same as on the current S8 and S9 models, so we’re not expecting any big difference in performance. At present, the Samsung phones are pretty decent on this score, though not as long-lasting as models such as Huawei’s remarkable Mate 10 Pro, with its 4,000mAh battery.
Oh, and did we mention there’s a headphone jack? There is. Samsung clearly doesn’t believe that conventional wired headphones are finished, yet.
Both of the new phones are water and dust “resistant” without being quieter at the level of some other handsets. Both support gigabit LTE (4G), which some operators are striving towards over the next two years.
Finally, there’s a new colour: ‘lilac purple’. Samsung claims that this is “on trend” partly because a similar shade (‘ultraviolet blue’) was “voted Pantene colour of the year”. Okay, whatever. Maybe it’s this year’s ‘rose gold’. The other two colours the phones are available in are ‘midnight black’ and ‘coral blue’.
Pre-orders for both the Galaxy S9 and S9+ start on Feb 25th with the phones due to hit shop shelves on March 16th. Samsung says they’ll be operating a global trade-in program against older models.