Nearly a year later, the Galaxy S9 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 , which Samsung will launch Feb. 20 in San Francisco.
While that means the Galaxy S9 and the larger Galaxy S9 Plus 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.
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
- 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 are either half-baked or fundamentally flawed.
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 (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 Samsung.com, 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.
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|
*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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
New selfie focus mode sometimes blurs the wrong thing
The Galaxy S9 pretty much maintains the status quo for selfies, producing shots of your face you'd want to share. I tend to go back and forth on the way Samsung applies a skin-softening "beauty" filter by default. It's important to respect reality, but most people don't really want to see every line and pore.
I did have fun trying out the new Selfie Focus mode, which uses software -- and not a second lens -- to create a depth effect with the front-facing camera. The problem here is that blur is far too aggressive and always smeared out my hair along with most of the background. The iPhone X and Pixel 2 were more forgiving.
The Galaxy S9 has a dizzying array of camera modes to choose from -- but what really makes you dizzy is how quickly you can accidentally swipe into other camera modes from the one you really want to be in. Maybe the sensitivity is tuned too high? Either way, it's frustrating when you use the camera as often as I did.
Super-slow-mo video sacrifices resolution
The videographer for my friend's wedding once said "slow motion is emotion," thanks to its power to turn mundane events like a kid slurping from a drinking fountain or a horse galloping through a field into powerful scenes.
That's what makes the Galaxy S9's use of super-slow-motion video work. Slowing video to 960 fps really stretches out those frames, so 0.2-second of super-slow-motion video 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. The automatic settings did a poor job capturing the exact part of the action that we wanted. You'll have far better results if you set this up manually, which is admittedly more daunting if you're new to the feature.
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. The one issue is that the frame rate makes for some big video files. Samsung adjusts for file size by dropping video quality to 720p HD, which looks a whole lot mushier than your typical 4K or even 1080p HD video capture.
For slow-motion at 240 frames per second at a 1080p resolution, you can still go into the camera settings and use Samsung's regular slow-motion tool, if you're just as happy backing off on all that super-slow emotional intensity.
Design is a winner, and that purple color -- wow
Samsung hasn't drastically changed the Galaxy S9 design from last year's S8, and that's perfectly OK, especially after such a radical redesign the year before. I love how the S9's tall, narrow proportions fit my hand, and the 5.8-inch AMOLED screen is even brighter than last year's (15 percent brighter, in fact).
What confuses me is that screen resolution isn't as advertised right out of the box. It's set to a lower resolution of 2,220x1,080 pixels, not at the 2,960x1,440 maximum -- you have to adjust this yourself. This isn't the first time Samsung's done this, but if you're expecting that WQHD+ resolution the second you start up your phone, that's not what you're getting.
The biggest design change is on the back, where the fingerprint reader moves to below the camera module. This corrects the worst design mistake of both Galaxy S8 phones and the Note 8. On those phones, you had to direct your finger to the right of the camera, which is a weird motion for righties and lefties alike. Why didn't Samsung just center it in the first place? I have no idea.
It makes for a much better placement now, but the small, shallow, plastic divot isn't the easiest to find by feel. This is a small thing that a case will probably fix, but it's frustrating that the world's largest Android maker still hasn't nailed something so basic that almost every other major Android phone maker gets right.
The Galaxy S9's bezel has shrunk another 1.2mm overall, which doesn't make an enormous difference, but I'm not complaining. Samsung keeps the headphone jack, a rarity in a world where the majority of phone makers now ditch it for USB-C only. I'm less thrilled that the Bixby Voice button on the phone's left spine continues to map to Bixby services only, instead of to any app.
Samsung sees Bixby software as a unifying force among all of Samsung's phones, TVs , refrigerators , stoves and so on, so this likely won't change any time soon. You can still use Google Assistant instead of (or in addition to) Bixby Voice by long-pressing the home button.
By far the best and boldest thing about the Galaxy S9 is the color. It sizzles in purple, which really helps those supple curves stand out. Color looks deep, rich and ever-changing, thanks to the way the glossy glass catches the light. Of course that means it also builds up all the fingerprints. The S9 also looks awesome in coral blue.
Will you want a case? You should. The S9 is made with Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and back, and glass breaks. In CNET's drop test, the glass backing broke, but the screen remained intact. I probably don't ned to remind you that phones are fragile, and a case will help you protect your investment so you'll be less likely to have to live with damage, repair a broken screen, or lose important resale value.
Intelligent Scan is a poor Face ID copy
As with AR Emoji, Samsung's new way to unlock the phone with your face feels like unnecessary filler to (poorly) mimic the iPhone X's Face ID.
Where Apple's Face ID uses 30,000 infrared dots to map your physical features, Intelligent Scan combines two existing unlock mechanisms from the Galaxy S8 and Note 8: face unlock and iris scanning. Face ID is secure enough to accept mobile payments, but Intelligent Scan is not.
The software defaults to the trickable option, face unlock, and only uses the secure option, iris scanning, when face unlock doesn't work, like if the scene's too dark. There's even a long security disclaimer when you first set it up.
Samsung says Intelligent Scan is a more convenient way to unlock the device for people who aren't as concerned about security or mobile payments. I'm not buying it as a real advantage. It just feels like Samsung wanted to add something as a stop gap until it can use a 3D camera scanner like Face ID.
Ironically, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chip inside one version of the Galaxy S9 (remember, the other uses Samsung's own Exynos chipset) has the ability to map faces with 50,000 infrared dots, making it theoretically even more secure than Face ID and just as fast. Samsung and other phonemakers using this chip just need the hardware and software to make it happen.
Speakers sound terrific
Now for some good news. A second speaker on the Galaxy S9 (located with the microphone on the phone's bottom edge) pumps up the volume and makes your music, video clips and speakerphone calls not just louder but also richer.
Samsung says the speaker is 40 percent louder than the Galaxy S8's. I annoyed everyone around me by blasting music and making outdoor calls in loud areas to test it out. It's true, audio is far louder and more sonorous than on the Galaxy S8, which brings it into competition with rivals such as the Razer Phone.
Part of its strength comes from using Dolby's software technology to help equalize the sound. You'll need to toggle this on in the settings or quick settings menu to make the phone sound its best, and you can further adjust the audio profile from the sound settings menu.
Android and other software goodies
Android 8.0 Oreo runs the Galaxy S9, but Samsung always lays its custom software on top. With it comes a ton of extras, some useful, others there for power users to dig into.
One of the best new software goodies is the ability to respond to a text message from a pop-up window. When a message arrives, you see a thin band of color briefly flash around the edges of the screen. You can swipe down on the message to expand it into a messaging window, then respond to the message and close the pop-up and get back to what you were doing. You can also just swipe the message away.
The Galaxy S9 can also turn the display horizontal, so if you're watching a video or playing a game in landscape mode and want to pop out to open a different app, your home screen and app icons shift to the horizontal orientation, too. You turn this on in the settings.
Finally, we see the return of the edge display tab, which acts a a speed dial for your top contacts and apps. Check out even more hidden Galaxy S9 tips and tricks in the gallery and video.
Read this: What Android 9 Pie brings your Android phone
Battery life: Not as long as we had hoped
CNET's battery drain lab test consists of playing a video on loop, in airplane mode and with brightness and audio levels tuned midway, until it croaks. Last year's Galaxy S8 averaged a 16-hour run time over a whopping seven tests, so we expected this year's Galaxy S9 to last about as long, or maybe even longer since the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chip promises greater longevity.
That isn't what happened; in fact, in some cases, the Galaxy S9 battery didn't last as long as last year's S8. While in daily usage, battery life will still take you from morning to evening on a single charge, you'll want to top up before going out for a late night. You'll also want to completely top up the phone at least once a day. Using the fast charger that came in the box, the Galaxy S9 fully recharged from zero in 1 hour, 40 minutes.
My detailed battery testing here: Galaxy S9 battery died sooner than we expected
A few extra tips: Wired charging will always power the phone faster than wireless charging. Resource-intensive tasks such as map navigation and streaming video and music will drain that battery much quicker. Phones hold a greater charge when they're new and lose capacity over time.
Fastest Android phone there is
My review unit's Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chipset helped the Galaxy S9 surpass the competition on benchmarking graphics tests (we used averages of three tests on 3DMark's Sling Shot Unlimited and Ice Storm Unlimited, and GeekBench 4).
In real world use, the S9 kept up blazing-fast speeds. Side by side with the Galaxy S8, the Galaxy S9 is a hair faster in performing basic tasks like loading apps, switching screens and connecting online. These use cases won't make an enormous difference to your day-to-day, but it's nice to know that your new phone is one of the fastest around.
Against the competition
As far as I'm concerned, the Galaxy S9 earns its place in your pocket, despite Samsung missing some opportunities to bring out the best in its mainstream flagship phone. But if you're shopping around for other options, here's how they compare.
Galaxy S9 Plus: Its larger screen, bigger battery and second camera on the back make it a good choice for people who either want a bigger phone or don't want to miss out on the portrait shot craze. It'll be a little pricier, but that difference becomes almost negligible over the course of the year or two you own the phone. It shares core features and performance with the Galaxy S9.
Galaxy S8: If you already have a Galaxy S8, the differences between the two phones are so minor, there's no point in upgrading. If you're searching for a new phone, however, the Galaxy S8 will save you some money and still perform well. You won't miss many major features worth having, though low-light photos may appear slightly less bright -- though they'll still be plenty usable.
iPhone X and later: Apple's top phone costs more than the Galaxy S9 and gives you two ways to unlock the device (Face ID and code) compared with the six ways you get on the S9. That's not including the no-screen lock option. Still, the iPhone X bests the Galaxy S9 in face-unlocking technology, portrait mode and animations that track your face. The major difference between the two still comes down to Android's tweakability versus the unity of iOS. Expect security and OS updates to come to the iPhone X first.
OnePlus 6: If all you really want is a sturdy daily driver, the OnePlus 6 checks the boxes for speed and reliability for a lot less than the Galaxy S9's price. It takes good enough photos and has a portrait photo mode, but you will pass up extras such as waterproofing and wireless charging.
Google Pixel phones: Forget about the Pixel 2, and wait for the Pixel 3 , expected for October. Pixel phones, thought of as "pure" Google Android phones, lack the Galaxy S9's extra software features, but they'll be the first to use Google's newest software and security updates. Samsung phones take much longer to update since the operating system has to work with Samsung's custom "Samsung Experience" software.
Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus specs versus iPhone X and OnePlus 6
|Samsung Galaxy S9||Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus||iPhone X||OnePlus 6|
|Display size, resolution||5.8-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels||6.2-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels||5.8-inch; 2,436x1,125 pixels||6.28-inch OLED; 2,280x1,080 pixels|
|Pixel density||570ppi||529ppi||458 ppi||402ppi|
|Dimensions (inches)||5.81x2.70x0.33 in.||6.22x2.91x0.33 in.||5.7x2.79x0.30 in.||6.13x2.97x0.31 in.|
|Dimensions (millimeters)||147.7x68.7x8.5 mm||158.1x73.8x8.5 mm||143.6x70.9x7.7 mm||155.7x75.4x7.75 mm|
|Weight (ounces, grams)||5.75 oz.; 163g||6.66 oz.; 189g||6.14 oz.; 174g||6.2 oz.; 177g|
|Mobile software||Android 8.0 Oreo||Android 8.0 Oreo||iOS 11||Android 8.1 Oreo|
|Camera||12-megapixel||Dual 12-megapixel||Dual 12-megapixel||16-megapixel standard, 20-megapixel telephoto|
|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||2.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 845|
|Storage||64GB, 128GB, 256GB||64GB, 128GB, 256GB||64GB, 256GB||64GB, 128GB, 256GB|
|Fingerprint sensor||Back||Back||None (Face ID via TrueDepth camera)||Back of phone|
|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 3D unlock, Animoji||Portrait mode, notifications toggle, dual-SIM, Dash Charging|
|Price off-contract (USD)||Varies: $720-$800 (64GB)||Varies: $840-$930 (64GB)||$999 (64GB), $1,149 (256GB)||$529 (64GB), $579 (128GB), $629 (256GB)|
|Price (GBP)||£739||£869||£999 (64GB), £1,149 (256GB)||£469 (64GB), £519 (128GB), £569 (256GB)|
|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$702 (64GB), AU$769 (128GB), AU$835 (256GB)|