Samsung Galaxy S9 review: The Galaxy S10's arrival means a cheaper Galaxy S9 for you

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The Good The Galaxy S9 once again proves Samsung's formula of a gorgeous 5.8-inch screen, sexy dual-curved design and terrific camera for well-lit shots can't go wrong. Whiplash-fast speeds, wireless charging and water resistance complete the package. And it looks stunning in purple and blue.

The Bad Low-light photos often look blurry and lack the fine texture and contrast of competing phone cameras. The Galaxy S9's camera frequently, accidentally switches between modes. 3D avatar software is tragically bad, and a new face-unlock tool is inherently insecure. The Galaxy S9 costs more than 2017's Galaxy S8.

The Bottom Line The Galaxy S9 can still hold its own among 2019's smartphones, but wait for it to go on sale after the Galaxy S10 launch.

8.2 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Camera 8
  • Battery 8

Nearly a year later, the Galaxy S9 ($190 at Walmart) is still an excellent phone that delivers some of the best hardware, performance and photography of any handset you can buy today. But it's about to meet its replacement in the Galaxy S10 ($500 at Walmart), which Samsung will launch Feb. 20 in San Francisco.

While that means the Galaxy S9 and the larger Galaxy S9 Plus ($319 at Walmart) will no longer be the most competitive phones for 2019, there's also good news for anyone shopping around for a deal. Samsung, the carriers, and retail stores usually lower the price of previous models. 

The Galaxy S10 could also be more expensive than the Galaxy S9 was at launch, creating even more potential savings between the two devices. Samsung has steadily raised its phone prices since 2016, and there are elements within the Galaxy S10 that will cost Samsung -- and you -- more money, including an in-screen fingerprint reader (rumored, but very likely) and the faster Snapdragon 855 chipset inside (confirmed). 

Samsung's upcoming Galaxy S10 is also rumored to have as many of six total cameras, and perhaps a 3D front-facing camera to unlock the phone with a secure scan of your face.

These would all be exciting changes to nudge the Galaxy S10 toward the future while a small portion of the population ventures to try Samsung's upcoming 5G handset and daring foldable phone. But for those who'd rather sit back and wait for the kinks to be worked out -- and save a buck while doing it -- will find a powerful, faithful phone in 2018's Galaxy S9.

Now playing: Watch this: 2018 was the year of the phone. It's only getting better

If you're buying a new phone, you should also check out the Google Pixel 3, OnePlus 6T and iPhone XS ($899 at Amazon), some of our other top phones of 2018.

Editors' note: This review first posted March 8, 2018 and updated most recently Feb. 5, 2019. You'll find our original Galaxy S9 review below.

What the Galaxy S9 does really well

    Andrew Hoyle/CNET
  • Bright, 5.8-inch AMOLED screen with a dual-curved display. It feels great.
  • It looks awesome in lilac purple and coral blue. You can also buy it in midnight black and titanium gray.
  • Fast Snapdragon 845 processor gets tasks done, handles graphic-intensive games (some models use Samsung's Exynos 9810).
  • A full battery should take you from morning to night. Navigation and streaming will drain it faster.
  • Bright, pretty outdoor photos with the 12-megapixel camera.
  • Dual-speaker system makes for loud, rich audio.
  • Good old-fashioned headphone jack!
  • Improved placement of the fingerprint reader makes mobile payments more convenient.
  • Wireless charging and water-resistant rating (IP68, and it passed our dunk test) give it an edge over most phones, just like previous Galaxy models.

Where the Galaxy S9 falls short

When you dive into the details, some nagging problems snap into focus that could break the experience for certain people. For example, the industry-first dual-aperture lens that Samsung put in both Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus phones absolutely makes photos as bright as promised, but it also often makes them blurry if there's any movement. And the 3D avatars and new face unlock tools meant to match similar features in the iPhone X ($400 at Amazon) are either half-baked or fundamentally flawed.

Now playing: Watch this: The Galaxy S9 put up a good fight in our drop test

While it's easy to overlook or simply avoid the Galaxy S9's weaker additions, Samsung wants these particular tools to set the Galaxy S9 apart from the competition -- and from the Galaxy S8 before it -- and they just don't live up to the claim. 

  • Dual-aperture camera makes many low-light photos unrealistically bright and blurry. There's less contrast and texture than other phones have.
  • The 3D avatars you make with AR Emoji track your expressions poorly and need far more customization options.
  • Intelligent Scan, a new unlock option that uses your face, isn't secure and doesn't seem to solve an existing problem.
  • The camera switches too easily among modes, which is frustrating when you're not where you want to be.
  • With super-slow-motion video, automatic mode isn't that useful, and image quality is lower resolution than regular slow-motion. Stick to manual mode.
  • Lacks the second rear lens of the step-up S9 Plus. This is by design, so Samsung could give the S9 Plus an advantage.

Galaxy S9 price: How much will it cost you?

One look at the price tag at launch will tell you the Galaxy S9 is no discount phone. In some countries it costs about the same as last year's Galaxy S8. In others, it's more expensive. At this point in the Galaxy S9's lifecycle, you should start seeing that price dip, especially as the holidays approach.

That's because prices fluctuate throughout the year based on retailers' seasonal discounts and other promotional deals, so patient shoppers may find it for less.

Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9 Plus prices at launch

Galaxy S9 Galaxy S9 Plus
Price off-contract (USD) Varies: $720-$800 Varies: $840-$930
Price (GBP) £739 £869
Price (AUD) AU$1,199 (64GB), AU$1,349 (256GB) AU$1,349 (64GB), AU$1,499 (256GB)

This deep dive will help you sort out the US carrier pricing breakdown at launch

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 don't sell in gray in the US.

What is Trade Up and Save?

Samsung wants to drum up upgrades through a global trade-in program called Trade Up and Save. You'll get credit for turning in your old phone and buying a new Galaxy. Run through, Trade Up and Save is separate from other carrier and store offers. In the US, you can earn up to $350, but the total will vary by country.

Read more about Galaxy S9 trade-ins.

Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus

The premium-priced Galaxy S9 is cheaper than the S9 Plus.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Galaxy S9 vs. S9 Plus: What's the difference?

If you're deciding between the two new Galaxy S9 phones, rest assured that you can't really pick wrong. That's because they share most of the same core features, with a few exceptions, including their size, weight and price.

The most obvious difference is the second camera lens on the back of the S9 Plus, a telephoto lens that's dedicated to creating those depth-of-field portrait shots that blur the background to make people and objects pop.

If you know you want a phone with a larger screen, or prize taking portraits, the S9 Plus may be worth the cost bump. I find the smaller S9 more comfortable to hold and use, but the S9 Plus isn't a strain.

Differences between the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9 Plus

Galaxy S9 Galaxy S9 Plus
Display size and pixel density 5.8-inch, 570ppi 6.2-inch, 529ppi
Dimensions (inches) 5.81x2.7x0.33 inches 6.22x2.91x0.33 inches
Weight 5.75 oz.; 163g 6.66 oz.; 189g
Battery 3,000mAh 3,500mAh

*See full comparison chart at the end.

The S9 Plus also costs more, though the price difference between the two phones varies by retailer. If you're considering the Galaxy S9 Plus, check out my full review to help you narrow down your choice.

Read more about the Galaxy S9 Plus and S9 differences.

Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus

The Samsung Galaxy S9, left, and Galaxy S9 Plus.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Galaxy S9: Dual-aperture camera highs and lows

The camera is the Galaxy S9's one real doozy of a feature. It's the first to bring a mechanical dual-aperture lens from DSLRs to the much tinier mobile phone, a feature that's designed to let in more light, reduce image noise, and generally make your photos a lot better.

Dual-aperture means that the camera physically switches between two settings of the aperture, the opening that lets in light. A narrower F2.4 setting is used for brightly lit shots, and automatically jumps over to a wider F1.5 aperture in low-light situations like a dim restaurant or your living room while you're watching a movie.

On the Galaxy S9, the aperture physically changes size when the camera detects low light, automatically toggling you back and forth between the f/2.4 and f/1.5 settings, though you can manually adjust this yourself in Pro mode. Samsung says that the camera lets in 28 percent more light for dimmer scenarios, and it shows.

So far, three CNET editors have taken scores of photos on the S9 and S9 Plus, which share the same 12-megapixel, dual-aperture camera. We all agree that the S9 takes the brightest low-light pictures we've ever seen, with less graininess than other phones. The camera correctly picked the right aperture setting for our low-light shots. The Galaxy S9 is tuned to switch apertures into low-light mode at around 100 lux, which is said to be the equivalent of a dark, overcast day.

On a clear, sunny day, the Galaxy S9 takes excellent shots.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

But image quality on those darker scenes has its trade-offs. Time and again, low-light photos were either too bright (like daylight) or tinted yellow. Slower shutter speeds (1/10, 1/11) let in more light, but also caused subjects to blur with even the slightest provocation. The Galaxy S9 often took scenes with plenty of detail on the subject, but then glossed over background edges, textures and contrast.

So far, I've found that many of the Galaxy S9's low-light photos are highly usable. The Google Pixel 2 and 2XL, however, remain the best phones for taking consistently low-light pictures with excellent contrast, texture and color reproduction.

As for all the outdoor, indoor and daylight photos that don't fall into the low-light bucket, these retain Samsung's generally excellent image quality and processing. 

The Galaxy S9 tends to make colors more syrupy than they are in real life, but edges are often clean and contrast is usually pretty high. On balance, you're going to be pretty happy with the pictures you take.

Read this: Epic camera showdown with Galaxy S9 Plus, iPhone X, Huawei P20 Pro and Pixel 2

AR Emoji needs better face tracking and customization

"Oh no, no." "That's scary." "Why are my lips quivering like I'm on the verge of crying?"

These were typical responses of the 17 CNET editors (and counting) who have so far used Samsung's new AR Emoji feature.

Now playing: Watch this: Galaxy S9's AR emoji: How good are they?

Found in the camera app, Samsung's answer to the iPhone X's animojis scans your face and creates a 3D avatar that you can use in precreated animated GIFs and in videos you record and share.

But where Apple's animojis proved the concept that mimicking your features is fun, AR Emoji proves how it can quickly go wrong. Setup is fast, but the results are, in a word, creepy.

You have limited customization options for hairstyle, clothing and accessories. But AR Emoji squashes genetic diversity. There's no curly hair, for example, or realistic shades of blond or red. The narrow skin tone palette could inspire a searing essay on ethnic representation in the digital world. You have your choice of one body type.

Read this: The Galaxy S9's worst feature was made by Oscar winners

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

AR Emoji by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The animations themselves are juddery and barely track real expressions. Real Jessica smiles. AR Emoji Jessica grimaces. Real Jessica keeps a still face. AR Emoji Jessica quivers.

In more than once instance, it bordered on offensive. "It looks like I've had some real sort of nerve problem," one CNET editor said.

This is very much a first-generation attempt at getting into the AR selfie game. I'm hoping that the San Francisco startup behind AR Emoji will push improvements -- quickly. But broadening the range of skin tones or adding realistic hairstyles won't fix AR Emoji's fundamental problems.  

At the end of the day, its synthetic-looking representations bear such little resemblance to the people who are supposed to identify with them, it would have been better if Samsung just left it off the phone.

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