Monday 16 July 2018

Adrian Weckler: Samsung's S9 Plus rules but S8 users may not want to trade up

The biggest tech launch so far this year may have you wondering whether it's time to upgrade your phone. Technology Editor Adrian Weckler gives his verdict on Samsung's new Galaxy S9 Plus - testing its new features and pitting it against the best on the Irish market

Samsung’s augmented reality emoji feature in action
Samsung’s augmented reality emoji feature in action
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

When we talk about superphones, two models are universally regarded as the creme de la creme: the flagships of Apple and Samsung.

Against this backdrop, can Samsung's Galaxy S9 Plus, which goes on sale in Ireland tomorrow, keep up appearances? Is it a worthy upgrade to the S8 and S8 Plus? Will it compete effectively with the iPhone X?

We've been using and testing the larger of the S9 handsets over the last week and now have a good idea of where its strengths and weaknesses lie.

If you're feeling lazy and just want the review in one line, here it is: this thing has an unbelievable camera, is mega-powerful and looks great - but it feels more like a natural upgrade to a Samsung phone of two or three years ago than last year's (still excellent) Galaxy S8.

A slightly longer interpretation is that the S9 Plus makes for one of the best-ever smartphones that will be coveted by many power users for its incredible screen, decent battery life and lightning-fast engine. But Samsung still has a bit of work to do in sorting out some of its software and proprietary systems, such as its AI assistant Bixby and the host of Samsung apps that get in the way as much as they help the user.

Still interested in more detail? Read on, so: here is a complete review of the Samsung S9 Plus's good and bad points as I've been able to muster from a week's usage. Note that the issues as they relate to the S9 Plus are also valid for the smaller S9 as both models are essentially the same except for the extra screen size, larger battery, slightly more Ram and an additional rear camera on the S9 Plus.

1 CAMERA - 9/10

I'll start with what is probably the biggest actual upgrade in the S9 Plus compared to its predecessor. The S9 Plus's camera system is, frankly, astonishing. I don't think any other phone lens picks up detail so consistently well in low light as this one. The iPhone X and iPhone 8 Plus are superb in low light, but the S9 and S9 Plus match them.

This seems to be because of two factors introduced by Samsung.

The first is that the S9 has what's called a 'variable aperture' on the 12-megapixel lens. When it detects dark conditions, it opens up wider than any other camera can (to a setting of f1.5). Doing this means that it physically lets more light in than other cameras.

It also has a second setting of f2.4 for better, brighter lighting conditions where it can focus on sharpness.

This is the first modern smartphone to pull this 'variable aperture' trick off - almost all other handsets have one constant 'aperture' setting, which they have to make do with.

But Samsung didn't leave it at that. It has mined the S9's extra engine firepower to perform the novel task of taking five photos each time you press the shutter button. The phone then combines the five photos and takes the best bits from each one to eliminate 'noise' artefacts that often make low-light photos look a bit shabby and sub-par.

It's a pretty amazing combination that happens almost instantaneously and is buttressed by optical image stabilisation, which cuts down even further on blurriness or noise.

This process only applies to one of the two rear cameras, the wide-angle 'normal' one. The second telephoto lens has a constant f2.4 aperture which doesn't give you the same low-light performance.

It's not just the raw capability of the camera, either. Samsung has a lot of experience now in how to render photos so that colours and contrasts are balanced well. I found the results really, really good - it was able to render dark and bright colours side by side in a very clear, smooth way.

The only negative I could find with the S9 Plus's camera was that, like other Samsung phones, it sometimes defaults to slightly overexposing features in photos when in automatic mode (which is what almost everyone will use).

This is sometimes a little irritating as you can always brighten something up in a photo, but it's very hard to recover detail from something that's overexposed.

Nevertheless, this also has some impressive video features, most especially 'super slow motion' (at 960 frames per second).

In short, this is now arguably the best cameraphone on the market.

2 BATTERY - 9/10

This is another strong point of the S9 Plus. It has a bigger-than-usual battery (3,500mAh) that lets it comfortably last through a full day's use except in exceptional circumstances, such as a day spent between trains and waiting rooms. In fact, the only phone I've tried that clearly gives better battery performance is Huawei's six-inch Mate 10 Pro (which happens to have a 4,000mAh battery).

Indeed, this is now Samsung's best battery phone since they had to reduce the size of the Note 8's battery in line with design alterations to remedy the overheating defects experienced by the ill-fated Note 7. Once again, this applies to the S9 Plus - the S9's battery life wasn't tested as part of this review.

3 DESIGN - 9/10

Both the S9 and S9 Plus are almost indistinguishable from their predecessor devices, the S8 and S8 Plus. Is this something to put one off? I don't think so. The flagship Galaxy S phones are probably the best-looking handsets on the market (although the iPhone X also has a claim to that title). Samsung's edge-to-edge screen has widely been acknowledged as setting the design template for the newest smartphones, but Samsung still arguably does it best.

Does this mean the design is flawless? To my mind, no - the one disadvantage of the gorgeous-looking curved glass edges is that it makes gripping the phone a little more uncertain, as well making the overall handset a bit slippier. My experience so far is that even a slight incline on a surface you place this on could see the phone start to slide. (Pro tip: don't plop it on top of a bunch of tissues.) Obviously, this can be remedied by a case, which most people will probably get.

There also arguably isn't enough space between the rear-mounted fingerprint sensor and the vertically-aligned dual-camera lenses, meaning that your finger might sometimes stray onto the lower lens by mistake, smudging it. (The fingerprint sensor is a little shallow, too.)

4 SCREEN - 9/10

The 6.2-inch display on the S9 Plus vies with Apple's iPhone X as the best screen on the market. Both are 'Oled' screens as opposed to the LCD displays that most phones have. That means colours render in a better way, as do blacks. Some independent testing outfits (such as DisplayMate) say that the S9 Plus is now the best screen on the market (and even better than almost any high-end 4K TV or monitor) based on in-depth measurement of colour accuracy, brightness, outdoor visibility, and reflectivity. The S9 Plus is certainly crystal clear, bright and luminous to look at and use.

But it may only be side by side with a regular phone that you can really notice the extra resolution and detail that its 3K screen offers. The S9 Plus's display is set to 'full HD' (2220 x 1080) by default, but you can dial it up to 'WQHD+' (2960 x 1440). Again, it's hard to really notice the difference in quality here. But some do. For them, this is probably the phone to get.

5 OTHER FEATURES

(i) Emoji: 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.

(ii) Speakers: these 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.

(iii) SmartThings: 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.

(iv) Storage: both the S9 and S9 Plus come in either 64GB or 256GB versions. They also sport an additional MicroSD expansion slot for an extra 400GB of capacity.

(v) Headphone jack: it has one!

6 CONCLUSION: SHOULD YOU UPGRADE?

If you're a Samsung user with an S7, S6 or older phone, this is a prime upgrade phone. You'll notice the different features straight away. You'll also be very happy with it as this is a superb handset. The same goes for those thinking of a high-end Samsung phone and who currently use another Android device. This is indisputably the top of the pile in Android land.

If you already have last year's S8 or S8 Plus, it's a slightly different story. Other than the camera, there arguably isn't enough to justify replacing your S8 or S8 Plus with this year's model. It looks the same and, other than the camera in low light and some emoji, acts the same as the phone you already have.

Of course, there will be those who simply want the newest model or who can really benefit from the new low-light camera performance. But for most who have an S8, I suspect that there isn't enough that's new with the S9 to justify spending a few hundred euro on an upgrade.

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