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Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus review: The best Android phones around

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·Technology Editor
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Samsung and Apple. Apple (AAPL) and Samsung. Every year the tech behemoths play the same tit for tat game with their flagship smartphones: the Galaxy S series and iPhone. But with their handsets coming closer and closer to parity, the companies are turning to new tricks to distance their devices from each other.

With the iPhone X , Apple introduced its FaceID facial recognition scanner and augmented reality-powered Animojis. And now for the Galaxy S9, Samsung is trying to place its camera at center stage by adding a mechanical iris to capture better low-light photos.

But just as Apple copied some of Samsung’s features for the iPhone X, namely its edge-to-edge display and wireless charging, Samsung has copied features from Apple. Specifically, the S9 comes with Samsung’s new Intelligent Scan facial recognition and AR Emoji functions, which, you guessed it, ape Apple’s FaceID and Animojis, but with less than stellar results.

Despite that, the Galaxy S9 , and its larger stablemate the S9 Plus, offer more than enough performance and style to uphold Samsung’s position as one of the top smartphone makers in the world.

The more things change …

The 5.8-inch Galaxy S9 ($719) and 6.2-inch S9 Plus ($839) are essentially mirror copies of the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus . There are some very subtle differences up front, their upper and lower bezels are a bit slimmer, but outside of that, there aren’t any major changes. The power, volume, and Bixby buttons , the latter of which controls Samsung’s Bixby digital assistant, are all in the same place as they were on the S8 and S8 Plus and the S9 and S9 Plus are water-resistant like their predecessors.

Flip the phones over, though, and Samsung aficionados will notice one much-welcomed change: the fingerprint reader has been moved from next to the camera as it was on the S8, to just below it .

Samsung wisely chose to move the fingerprint reader to below the S9’s camera.
Samsung wisely chose to move the fingerprint reader to below the S9’s camera.

The previous layout was cumbersome to say the least. Each time I reached for the fingerprint reader, I’d end up running my finger across the camera’s lens. It also meant that the reader felt unnaturally high up on the phone. Most smartphone makers try to put the reader closer to the phone’s centerline to make it easier to reach.

The S9 and S9 Plus’ readers are far easier to reach and tap, and I haven’t found myself confusing it for the camera once. It sounds like a small change, but it makes a difference if you rely on the fingerprint reader to unlock your handset.

That’s not the only way you can unlock the S9, though. Samsung has also added an updated facial-recognition feature, called Intelligent Scan, that allows you to open your S9 or S9 Plus by looking at the handsets. It’s the same basic idea Apple uses for the iPhone X’s FaceID, but Samsung’s offering is less consistent than Apple’s.

Samsung’s Intelligence Scan works by alternating between using facial recognition and the phone’s iris scanner to detect that you are who you claim to be. Previous Samsung devices had facial recognition and iris scanning, but this is the first time they’ve been combined.

You’ll know the feature is active because a red light will illuminate above the phone’s display. I actually dislike seeing the light, since part of the fun of Apple’s FaceID is that it feels almost like magic when the phone would unlock with no indication of the techno-wizardry taking place behind the scenes.

An indicator light on the Galaxy S9 illuminates when Intelligent Scan is active.
An indicator light on the Galaxy S9 illuminates when Intelligent Scan is active.

I used the iPhone X for several months and can only think of a handful of times when FaceID hasn’t worked. Most of the time that involved situations like laying in bed or when there was too much direct sunlight to my back. But I’ve generally been able to hold the iPhone X in a variety of angles and it’s unlocked with ease.

Intelligent Scan worked well most of the time, but I ran into issues where it wouldn’t recognize my face and told me to hold the handset at eye level. It’s not like this happened all the time, but it was enough for me to take notice and made me want to use the phone’s fingerprint reader more than Intelligent Scan.

One area of smartphone design where Samsung has consistently excelled has been the company’s screens, and that’s no different with the Galaxy S9. The handset’s curved Super AMOLED display is as gorgeous as ever. Colors jump off the panel and blacks look perfectly empty. Apple’s iPhone X also has an AMOLED panel that’s certainly beautiful, but colors on the S9 looked deeper and more realistic.

The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus have LCD screens, which produce attractive colors, but aren’t nearly as rich as those found on the S9 or iPhone X.

Samsung has also added stereo speakers to both the S9 and S9 Plus. And they sound surprisingly good for smartphone speakers. Next to the iPhone 8, 8 Plus and X, the S9 and S9 Plus produced more vivid sound. At their max volume, the iPhones sounded somewhat tinny. I don’t expect most people will spend much time using the S9’s speakers, but they’ll definitely work in a pinch.

Shooting in the dark

Samsung wants the Galaxy S9’s standout feature to be its improved camera, and it largely succeeds. The S9 comes with a 12-megapixel rear camera that, for the first time on a Samsung device, has two aperture levels thanks to a mechanical iris that can increase or decrease the amount of light the cameras let in.

The idea is that the camera will let in less light in bright settings and allow more light in in dark settings. Photos I took using the S9 in my darkened living room looked clearer than those taken with the iPhone X, Google’s (GOOG, GOOGL) Pixel 2 or Samsung’s Galaxy S8. A picture of my cat sitting on his scratching post showed off his white coat and the fine lines separating tufts of fur. The S9 was even able to capture the subtle stripes in his grey fur.

The Galaxy S9’s low-light photos are stunning.
The Galaxy S9’s low-light photos are stunning.

The iPhone X’s shot wasn’t nearly as clear as the S9’s and was noisier and couldn’t capture the cat’s stripes. The S8 and Pixel 2, however, were significantly worse, producing more pixelation than the X. Those results stayed consistent when I took photos of a pair of action figures and a person. I did, though, notice that the S9 and iPhone X’s flash shots were just about equal.

The iPhone X’s low-light shots aren’t terrible, but can’t match the S9’s.
The iPhone X’s low-light shots aren’t terrible, but can’t match the S9’s.

The S9’s low-light shots aren’t without issue, though. When my cat moved with the lighting low my images turned into blurry messes. So don’t expect to get brilliant action shots in such settings.

Action shots taken with the S9 in low-light turned out blurry.
Action shots taken with the S9 in low-light turned out blurry.

Outside, the S9’s produced fantastic photos of everything from trees and street signs to buildings and bicycles. Details were spot on and there was no pixelation to be found.

That said, Apple’s iPhone X produced more saturated colors than the S9. Normally, it’s Samsung’s phones that capture deeper colors, but the iPhone X does that job now, and it’s fantastic.

Images captured with the S9 were crisp and colorful.
Images captured with the S9 were crisp and colorful.

This isn’t a difference that will make or break your buying decision. In fact, it’s so slight that you’d only notice it if you put the phone’s photos side-by-side. Still it’s worth noting for consumers who are extra particular about their phone’s cameras.

The iPhone X’s camera captured richer colors than the S9’s.
The iPhone X’s camera captured richer colors than the S9’s.

This time around, Samsung has also added a new super slow-motion mode to its camera. The feature, which can be triggered manually or automatically, lets you shoot short burst of slow-mo video that you can then turn into .gifs. When it works, the S9’s slo-mo videos will hypnotize you with how they turn the most insignificant movement into a seemingly new experience. Snow falling, pigeons flapping their wings, it all looks incredible.

The problem is, that the automatic mode is so finicky that if you don’t line up the motion perfectly with your camera and remain completely still, it won’t activate. I tried to get videos of pigeons flying away from pedestrians walking down the street, but never managed to succeed. Samsung showed off the feature during a demo of the S9, but that isn’t the same as a real-world scenario.

Thankfully, manual mode lets you shoot slo-mo video of whatever you want. But because the camera is capturing so many frames per second, you can’t record a ton of footage at once, only a few seconds.

Apple’s slo-mo video mode lets you continuously record video in slow motion giving you longer videos. It’s not nearly as slow as Samsung’s slo-mo videos, but I’d be able to record more content than go for the slower speed.

Samsung also equipped the S9 Plus with a dual-lens camera setup for telephoto images. The S9 only gets a single lens.

Augmenting reality

Like the iPhone X’s Animoji feature, which uses the phone’s front camera to transform your face into an emoji that moves with your actions, Samsung is rolling out an augmented reality emoji of its own called AR Emoji.

AR Emoji uses the S9’s front camera to copy your facial movements onto an animated emoji in real time. But Samsung’s AR Emojis aren’t nearly as fluid as Apple’s Animojis. There’s something about the way the AR Emojis move and their mouths don’t quite match up with your speech as well as Apple’s Animojis.

Then there is the ability to create your own AR Emojis. Instead of using an animated rabbit or cat, you can make an AR Emoji that resembles you. At least it’s supposed to resemble you. Everyone I tried using the feature with ended up with an AR Emoji homonculus. None of the AR Emojis we created looked much like us at all. Sure, mine had a beard and I could add glasses, but it could have been any other white guy with glasses and a beard.

My AR Emoji looks nothing like me.
My AR Emoji looks nothing like me.

Where Samsung’s augmented reality software succeeds is with its Bixby Vision feature. Using the company’s Bixby assistant, you can do things like translate text into English, or another language; virtually try on makeup and look at a plate of food and get an approximation of its nutritional value.

The real-time translation was particularly impressive, as it was able to read both printed and handwritten text and then lay the English translation on top of it. You can also translate English into other languages, which can be helpful if you’re in a foreign country and are trying to communicate with someone. Google has a similar feature, but Samsung’s was still amazing to see.

Bixby Vision Makeup lets you virtually try on different types of makeup ranging from lipstick and eyeliner to foundation and flush. When you find the look that you like, you can tap the Makeup button and automatically purchase the appropriate styles from Sephora or Covergirl. I’m not one to wear makeup too often, but after using this feature, I think I might make it part of my everyday morning routine.

This is definitely <i>the</i> color for me.
This is definitely the color for me.

The one problem I noticed with the feature is that you can’t smile or really move your face very much while trying on the makeup. That’s a bit of a bummer since I desperately wanted to take a screenshot of myself making a duck face with hot pink lipstick. Oh well.

Bixby Vision Makeup makes it easy to virtually try on and then purchase makeup.
Bixby Vision Makeup makes it easy to virtually try on and then purchase makeup.

Bixby Vision food is also a surprisingly helpful addition to the S9’s camera portfolio. One of the problems with tracking the kind of food you’re eating with apps is that meals like salads, or mixed nuts are hard to log. With Bixby Vision Food, you simply point the camera at a plate and it will tell you the nutritional value of what you’re eating.

I pointed the camera at everything from an apple to a plate of mixed nuts, and it was able to accurately provide me with the amount of the item I should eat. Bixby Vision wasn’t always right on its first attempt at identifying a food, but it always provided additional guesses for what the food might be, which usually nailed it.

Now I can feel even worse about overeating. Thanks, Samsung!
Now I can feel even worse about overeating. Thanks, Samsung!

Now I can feel even worse about overeating. Thanks, Samsung! Performance and battery life
The S9 and S9 Plus pack 8-core processors, but the S9 only comes with 4GB of RAM, while the S9 Plus gets 6GB. That’s the first time Samsung has decided to gift its larger handset with a performance boost over its smaller brethren. That said, I didn’t notice any issues while using the S9. Apps ran smoothly and games looked great.

The S9 and S9 Plus also come with your choice of 64GB, 128GB or 256GB of storage, as well as a microSD card slot for additional space. In other words, you shouldn’t run out of storage space with either handset.

Samsung has loaded the S9 and S9 Plus with the latest version of its Android overlay, and while it looks great, I still prefer using basic Android versus any manufacturer’s modified version of the operating system. Sure apps look fine, but Google’s always seem more fleshed out, while Samsung’s are too busy.

As far as battery life goes, my original S9 review unit seemed to have issues with its battery which caused it to deplete faster than normal. Samsung assured me that my device likely had some kind of problem and sent me a replacement unit to address the issue. I’ll update this review with my experience with that device when I test it.

Update: My second S9 proved the issues I had with the first one was an aberration. I used my handset throughout the day and the battery was only down to about 50%.

Should you get it?

Samsung’s Galaxy S9, and S9 Plus, are incredible phones, and easily capture the crown as the best Android devices out there. It’s low-light camera bests the competition’s, its Bixby Vision Food, Makeup and Translation are welcome additions, and its display and performance are top-notch. There are some missteps, though, with the AR Emoji and finicky Intelligent Scan, but they can be overlooked since you’re not likely to ever use AR Emoji and the handset still has a fingerprint reader.

If Samsung relied solely on Intelligent Scan to unlock the phone, that would be a major issue, but having to tap the sensor every now and then isn’t a huge problem.

Still, I don’t think this is the phone that will convince Apple fans to ditch the iPhone, especially when the iPhone X is such a fantastic device.

If you’re looking for an Android phone, the S9 is the way to go. If you’re beholden to Apple, stick with your X.

More from Dan:

Email Daniel Howley at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.
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