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Galaxy S9 IRL: What it's like to use Samsung's gorgeous new phones

For 2018, Samsung's new super phones get variable aperture cameras and fix the placement of their fingerprint reader. But they keep a familiar look and feel.

A bold new camera, cutting-edge processor and a fix to a galling ergonomic pitfall -- all in a body that looks nearly identical to last year's model.

That, in a nutshell, is the Samsung Galaxy S9 (with a 5.8-inch screen) and its larger step-up model, the Galaxy S9 Plus ($800 at Amazon.com), which sports an even bigger 6.2-inch screen. 

Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus

The Galaxy S9 takes the all-screen design to new heights.

Sarah Tew/CNET

You can preorder them March 2 at prices starting from $720 in the US for the standard S9 and $870 for the S9 Plus, depending on your carrier

The phones are unquestionably beautiful, but what do we get with these slightly curved, all-screen specimens?

Update, 28 Feb. at 10:28 a.m. CET: Adds a quote from Samsung on Intelligent Scan.

On the surface, it looks as if Samsung has only incrementally refreshed last year's Galaxy S8 ($540 at Amazon.com) and S8 Plus. But the 2018 models sport a serious camera upgrade that includes two lenses for the S9 Plus and a variable aperture for both phones that's designed to capture much better low-light shots. (I'll test the hell out of the cameras in my full review, coming soon.)

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The second improvement is more of a fix. Samsung moved the fingerprint reader from the side of the rear camera to the center of the phone's back, fixing what was without a doubt the Galaxy S8's most maddening design flaw. Last year's model made you stretch your finger awkwardly to hit the fingerprint target. No more.

I also approve of the S9's headphone jack, a feature practically extinct on other high-end phones. And it's added enhanced stereo surround sound, thanks to a microphone acting as a second speaker. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chipset inside promises at least 25 percent faster processing speeds than 2017 Android phones, as well as longer battery life. (Note, as per usual, that depending on your local region, you could have a Samsung Exynos 9810 processor instead.)

I loved the wild-card bursts of color in coral blue and lilac purple on the phone's body, which jolt the Galaxy line from its monochromatic stupor. (Yes, you can still get the S9s in sedate black or gray.) And the two phones keep tried-and-true high-end phone features such as waterproofing (rated IP68), wireless charging and support for external microSD storage.

So, yeah: All the good stuff you'd expect is here, which is why I walked away from my Galaxy S9 hands-on time feeling great about these two phones. That said, I felt that Samsung fell flat when it came to countering the two big features of its archrival, the iPhone X ($1,000 at Cricket Wireless). The Galaxy S9's Intelligent Scan unlock option doesn't measure up to Apple's Face ID, and Samsung's AR Emoji feature lacks the charm and verve of iPhone's animojis -- they came off as eerie and unfinished. More on that below.

This rivalry with iPhone features is important because Samsung's marquee handsets stand in direct competition to the iPhone X8 and 8 Plus. In a landscape where premium phones are more similar than they are different, Samsung has struggled to capture the same cultural zeitgeist as the iPhone, or introduce headline-grabbing innovations like Apple's Face ID and gestural navigation. That nifty in-screen fingerprint reader would've been just the ticket, but it's MIA here.

Will the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus stand up to the iPhone X, Google Pixel 2 ($649 at Google Store) and others? Are they worth an upgrade from the Galaxy S8 and older phones? Keep reading for price, preorder and sale dates, and all the details. 

Updated Feb. 27 with unboxing photos and additional hands-on video ("Seven Galaxy S9 tricks you'll want to know now"), both below.

Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus price and sale date

Preorders begin March 2 and the phones go on sale March 16, for more than last year's S8 and S8 Plus -- that's the dual-aperture camera tech talking. Carriers and retailers will announce local prices. 

For example, we know that the S9 goes for between $720 and $800 in the US, with the S9 Plus ringing in for between $840 and $930.

Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus

The S9 and S9 Plus cost a little more than last year's models.

Sarah Tew/CNET

In the UK, you're looking at £739 for the S9 and £869 for the S9 Plus from Samsung's website. In Australia the S9 starts at AU$1,199, with the S9 Plus starting at AU$1,349.

One thing you should know is that Samsung wants to drum up upgrades by launching a global program called Trade Up and Save. Basically, the company will give you credit for turning in your old phone and buying a new Galaxy. In the US, you can earn up to $350, but it will vary by country.

Samsung's program is separate than trade-in programs from your carrier and other big box stores and websites.

The Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus will sell in lilac purple, coral blue, midnight black and titanium gray, but not every country will get every color. For example, the phones won't sell in gray in the US, at least not at launch. 

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Galaxy S9 versus S9 Plus: What's the difference?

Apart from their size, the biggest difference between the S9 and S9 Plus is the presence of a second lens on the back of the Plus. 

This second lens, a telephoto, is dedicated to creating those depth-of-field portrait shots that blur the background to make people and objects pop. This is Samsung's second phone to catch the trend, after last August's Galaxy Note 8 ($750 at Amazon.com).

Other differences between the S9 and S9 Plus:

  • Size: Galaxy S9 has a 5.8-inch screen; S9 Plus has a 6.2-inch screen
  • Battery capacity: 3,000 mAh versus 3,500 mAh, respectively
  • Price: S9 Plus will cost more, with the price rising by $100 in the US

Changes from the Galaxy S8 to S9

The Galaxy S9 borrows heavily from core S8 features and design, often making fractional adjustments or generational improvements rather than enormous overhauls. That's not bad per se, especially when the S8 was so good overall.

samsung-galaxy-s9-2400-6192

The Galaxy S9, left, moves the fingerprint reader below the camera -- much better than the placement on the Note 8, right, and S8.

Josh Miller/CNET

For example, the battery capacities remain the same as last year's models, but the new Snapdragon 845 chipset promises to eke out a little more battery life by being more efficient overall. Also, while the camera megapixels hold steady at 12 for the rear and 8 megapixels for the front, respectively, additional features and underlying improvements claim to boost photo quality.

  • Slightly slimmer bezels shave off 1.2mm
  • 15 percent brighter screen
  • 6GB RAM for S9 Plus (S8 Plus went up to 4GB RAM)
  • Camera lets in 28 percent more light for dimmer scenarios
  • Dual speaker setup is 40 percent louder than S8 speaker
  • See the full specs comparison chart at the very end.

The big deal with the new camera: Mechanical aperture, portrait selfies, slo-mo video


While the Galaxy S9's camera megapixels hold steady, the camera itself is bundled with new features. The coolest is the mechanical aperture that automatically switches between two aperture settings -- F2.4 for daylight and F1.5 for low light -- to give you better low-light shots.

Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus

The S9 and S9 Plus want to up the game on low light photos.

Sarah Tew/CNET

This part bears repeating: The aperture is mechanical, you can watch it physically move from one setting to another, a change you can see with your naked eye. This feature, previously only seen in DSLR cameras, kicks in automatically, but you can also manually select an aperture in the pro camera settings. We're all excited to see how this plays out against the iPhone X and the Google Pixel 2, our current low-light champ.

The rear cameras continue to support OIS, or optical image stabilization, which helps reduce blur and shake in photos and videos.

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Portrait selfies

Two cameras helps achieve the depth of field needed for portrait shots, but background blur can also occur through a single lens and software, like on the Pixel 2 phones. As with the iPhone X, the Galaxy S9 phones introduce a portrait mode for the front-facing camera. You find it in the camera settings.

Super-slow-motion video

samsung-galaxy-s9-plus-12

The new "selfie focus" mode blurs your background to emphasize your face.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The videographer for my friend's wedding once said "slow motion is emotion." The adage stuck with me, and it's what makes the Galaxy S9's use of super-slow-motion video work.

The Galaxy S8's slow-mo video topped out at 720 fps (frames per second) in HD quality, but the S9 shoots at a peak of 960 fps, which really stretches out those frames. So 0.2 recorded seconds becomes 6 seconds of playback.

Note that the entire video won't run in slow motion. It'll start and end at the usual 30 fps, with the extraaa-slowww footage in between. You can set this yourself manually or let the program pick for you. 

Once your (MP4) video is set in stone, the S9 will also create an animated GIF that you can share over any messaging app. You can loop it, reverse the order of the action and set the slow-motion GIF as your wallpaper.

Sony's Xperia XZ Premium pioneered this level of slow-mo back in 2017.

Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus

A new tool inside the camera says it'll calorie-count your food.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Bixby Vision can apply makeup and count calories

Bixby Vision is a tool that lives inside the camera app. You can tap the eye icon to bring it up. It handles translations, shopping and other tools through optical image recognition.

Samsung adds a calorie calculator in Bixby Vision (yes, you go through the motions to take a photo of your meal, and it estimates the calorie count), as well as a makeup app that superimposes new makeup colors and looks over your face. Sephora and Cover Girl are the first partners.

Clearer photos

Some additional work under the hood means that photos should have up to 30 percent less image noise, meaning they'll look clearer when you blow them up or zoom in tight. This is because the camera has its own memory, called DRAM, which works four times faster to select the best images from multiple shots. DRAM is also what helps make super slow-motion video possible.

Read more: Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus cameras: Everything you need to know

AR Emoji needs more work to be less creepy

The iPhone X hooked phone owners on the idea of turning their faces into animated emojis of bunnies, robots and, yes, poop.

This is me, apparently, thinking really hard about AR Emoji.

AR Emoji by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Samsung's response is AR Emoji, a feature that scans your unsmiling face to set up a library of 18 stickers you can use to express yourself in messaging apps or any platform that works with the animated GIF format. It's a bit like Bitmoji and lets you customize your avatar's hair and clothes.

You can also record a video message of yourself, either as a human avatar or as a nonhuman, so you could be a rabbit or a Disney character. You swipe from the camera interface to get started, but Samsung also plans to open the feature up to third-party apps. The emoji saves as an MP4 video file.

So far, six CNET editors have tried it out, and the experience was definitely subpar. AR Emojis need to be much more nuanced to feel like "you," and they need to track your smile. The avatars didn't match our skin and hair tones, and were unable to naturally smile when we did. Creepy.

Intelligent Scan is like a less secure Face ID

Samsung shot back at the iPhone X's face unlock tool with an additional unlock mechanism of its own, and stumbles.

Samsung's answer to Face ID doesn't map your face with tens of thousands of infrared dots like the iPhone X does. It combines two previous Galaxy S8 unlock tools into one: iris scanning, which is secure, and face unlock, which isn't.

Initially, Samsung told us that the S9 tries to unlock the phone with your eyes first. If that fails, because you're wearing the wrong kind of sunglasses or the scene is too dark, Intelligent Scan will immediately fall back to face unlock, which will be fast and convenient. Now, the company is saying that "Intelligent Scan will automatically determine the optimal mode of authentication (either Iris or Face Recognition or combination of both) based on your surroundings."

Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus

Your fingerprint and iris are still the most secure ways to unlock your phone.

Josh Miller/CNET

The problem is that face unlock isn't secure, which means that you can't count on Intelligent Scan to be secure all the time, or keep other faces from unlocking your phone.

I just don't get the point of promoting insecure access. You're better off sticking with the fingerprint reader and iris scanner.

What's the DeX Pad and will I need it?

DeX is Samsung's platform for turning a Galaxy phone into a desktop experience. You dock the phone and see the contents on a larger screen.

It's mostly aimed at business cases, as in banks and hotels that could benefit from showing customers the same canned presentations on a smaller device and on a larger screen. Imagine a timeshare presentation, for example, or some mortgage options.

The DeX Pad, the newest iteration, one-ups last year's DeX dock ($50 at Amazon.com) by laying the phone flat. You still plug it in through a USB-C jack, but the new arrangement exposes the phone's headset jack so that's accessible if you're gaming.

The new DeX Pad design also lets you use the screen as a touchpad and digital keyboard, instead of a mouse and physical keyboard. You can adjust the resolution and sensitivity. The DeX Pad is also compatible with the Galaxy S8, S8 Plus and Note 8.

samsung-galaxy-s9-2400-6210

Decisions, decisions.

Josh Miller/CNET

So should I preorder the Galaxy S9 or what?

My hands-on time with the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus was long enough to get a sense of the new features, but not long enough to thoroughly test either device. I don't have a final opinion on the S9, but I do have some general suggestions.

Preorder if you're a Samsung fan with an older phone

You'll see the most speed, design and camera improvements if you're upgrading from a 2016 phone or earlier -- especially if you're dying to taking portrait photos. In that case, the larger S9 Plus is your best bet. If you can live without portrait pics, the S9 is a smaller device that will also save you a little cash over the Plus model.

If you're on the fence, wait

If you're not in dire need of a new phone the moment the S9s become available, wait for my full review to see which cons you can live with and which pros you can't live without. 

If you want the iPhone X's Face ID or animojis...

It's not looking like the S9 phones will cut it. Samsung's AR Emoji and Intelligent Scan clearly need work. But if neither of those features do it for you, no matter. They amount to tiny additions that will be easy to ignore and shouldn't make much difference in day-to-day use.

Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus specs versus iPhone X and Google Pixel 2 XL


Samsung Galaxy S9 Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus Apple iPhone X Google Pixel 2 XL
Display size, resolution 5.8-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels 6.2-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels 5.8-inch; 2,436x1,125 pixels 6-inch; 2,880x1,440 pixels
Pixel density 570ppi 529ppi 458ppi 538ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.81x2.70x0.33 in 6.22x2.91x0.33 in 5.7x2.79x0.30 in 6.2x3.0x0.3 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 147.7x68.7x8.5 mm 158.1x73.8x8.5 mm 143.6x70.9x7.7 mm 157.9x76.7x7.9 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.75 oz; 163g 6.66 oz; 189g 6.14 oz; 174 g 6.17 oz; 175 g
Mobile software Android 8.0 Oreo Android 8.0 Oreo iOS 11 Android 8 Oreo
Camera 12-megapixel Dual 12-megapixel Dual 12-megapixel 12-megapixel
Front-facing camera 8-megapixel 8-megapixel 7-megapixel 8-megapixel
Video capture 4K 4K 4K 4K
Processor Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor (2.8GHz + 1.7GHz), or Octa-core Samsung Exynos 9810 (2.7 GHz + 1.7 GHz) Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor (2.8GHz + 1.7GHz), or Octa-core Samsung Exynos 9810 (2.7 GHz + 1.7 GHz) Apple A11 Bionic Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (2.35Ghz + 1.9Ghz)
Storage 64GB, 128GB, 256GB 64GB, 128GB, 256GB 64GB, 256GB 64GB, 128GB
RAM 4GB 6GB Unlisted 4GB
Expandable storage Up to 400GB Up to 400GB None None
Battery 3,000mAh 3,500mAh Unlisted 3,520mAh
Fingerprint sensor Back Back None (Face ID via TrueDepth camera) Back
Connector USB-C USB-C Lightning USB-C
Headphone jack Yes Yes No No
Special features Dual-aperture camera, water-resistant (IP68); super slo-mo video; wireless charging; iris scanning Dual-aperture camera, water-resistant (IP68); super slo-mo video; wireless charging; iris scanning Water resistant (IP67), wireless charging, Face ID Google Assistant; unlimited cloud storage; Daydream VR-ready
Price off-contract (USD) Varies: $720-$800 (64GB) Varies: $840-$930 (64GB) $999 (64GB), $1,149 (256GB) $849 (64GB), $949 (128GB)
Price (GBP) £739 £869 £999 (64GB), £1,149 (256GB) £799 (64GB), £899 (128GB)
Price (AUD) AU$1,199 (64GB); AU$1,349 (256GB) AU$1,349 (64GB); AU$1,499 (256GB) AU$1,579 (64GB), AU$1,829 (256GB) AU$1,399 (64GB), AU$1,549 (128GB)

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