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Samsung's Galaxy S9 isn't blowing you away? Just you wait

Samsung may be playing it safe by focusing on the GS9's camera, but it likely will take bigger risks later this year.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Samsung's Galaxy S9 is all about the refinements. So forget about any big leaps -- at least for now.

The device, along with its bigger sibling, the S9 Plus, made its debut Sunday at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona. The phones, which hit stores March 16, feature improved audio capabilities, thinner bezels around the display and the ability to send animated emojis similar to Apple's Animojis. The updated camera lets you shoot video and photos in "super slow-mo" and low-light conditions, while Samsung finally adds a dual-lens shooter for the Plus model.

What the phones don't feature are dramatic design changes, unless you count the new lilac purple color.

The minor physical changes underscore the fact that it's getting more difficult to shake things up year after year -- particularly when you have a franchise as successful as the Galaxy S line. Apple got away with minor changes to its iPhone franchise for three years straight, and last year's iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus only swapped out the aluminum back for glass. Instead of going for a radical design change, Samsung is playing it safe this year with its focus on the camera.

It's a far cry from last year's Galaxy S8, which featured a dramatic new look that dropped the home button and removed much of the frame around the display. At the time, Samsung was looking to rehabilitate its reputation after the Galaxy Note 7 flare-up. It needed to pull out all the stops for that device.

Not that the Galaxy S9 is aimed at GS8 owners. If you have a Galaxy S7 or older device, the design tweaks are significant. And while Samsung has long had a reputation for cramming too many features into its devices, the biggest changes with the S9 are ones consumers will actually use, especially the improved camera and better audio, which makes watching a video feel more immersive.

The Galaxy S9 is "an iterative improvement with very little radical change," Global Data analyst Avi Greengart said. "For other vendors that might be an issue, but not Samsung. This is building on the Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus, which were already extremely competitive."

Still, Samsung has been known for its hardware innovation, and it's unlikely the GS9 will represent the pinnacle of its advances this year. The company tends to take more risks with its Note lineup and, of course, there are persistent teases that a foldable phone could be coming.

Picture time

It's the camera that makes the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus stand out from their predecessors.

"We have reimagined the smartphone camera," DJ Koh, head of Samsung's mobile business, said in a press release about the new devices. He added that it allows users "to shoot the best photos and videos anywhere" and instantly share them with family and friends. 

"The most important function of a phone is not making calls, it's to capture the fleeting moments that express what you want to say in an instant," Koh said Sunday during Samsung's press conference. 

Well, maybe not completely reimagined. The addition of that second lens for a 2X optical zoom on the Plus model brings it inline with the feature set found on the iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X, as well as with a number of other Android phone makers who added dual-lens cameras to their phones last year. Even Samsung's own Note 8 has two camera lenses. 

But there are some unique tweaks. The main camera on the back of the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus is a dual-aperture device that physically changes based on different lighting situations. It lets in 28 percent more light to allow crisper, clearer photos in low-light situations and prevents washed-out images when it's really bright.

A feature called multi-frame noise reduction results in 30 percent less noise, that graininess you see when taking photos in dark conditions. The camera's "super speed dual pixel sensor" has its own dedicated processing power and memory to stitch together 12 distinct images into the best possible photo.

A super slow-mo option lets you capture video at 960 frames per second. You can either start recording on your own, or the new motion-detection feature senses movement in a frame and automatically begins to record for you. You can save the file as a video or a shareable GIF. In comparison, an iPhone records slow-motion video at 240 frames per second.

Consumers increasingly base their smartphone purchases on the quality of the camera, something that will work in Samsung's favor. Including dual lenses in the S9 Plus instead of the smaller phone also could get you to buy the pricier phone, similar to how Apple enthusiasts gravitate towards the iPhone Plus model.

The dual lens is "the biggest deal of all," Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi said. "They'll [likely] get the same effect as Apple with its 7 Plus."

A foldable future?

The Galaxy S phone may be Samsung's most important product line, but it's typically not the device where it takes huge risks.

If you're looking for all the bells and whistles, there are the Galaxy Note devices, which have traditionally launched in late summer or early fall. They tend to feature new innovations before they make their way to the S line. That included the iris scanner, which first appeared in 2016's ill-fated Note 7, and dual camera lenses, which debuted in last year's Note 8.

One rumored feature that didn't show up in the Galaxy S9 was a virtual fingerprint reader under the front glass. Samsung instead changed the location of the fingerprint reader on the back of the device, making it more user-friendly than it is on the S8. (CNET's Jessica Dolcourt called the older location, right next to the back camera lens, "aggravating.")

The next Note device, likely called the Note 9, "will have all the risky stuff that didn't make it into S9," Moor Insights & Strategy analyst Patrick Moorhead said. "It's a lower volume device, so Samsung can take bigger risks."

Then there's the expected foldable phone. Samsung in 2016 filed a patent for a phone that folds in half, and late last year, the head of Samsung's mobile business said the company would launch such a phone once it resolved "some problems."

Samsung said during its latest earnings report at the end of January that it "will continue its efforts to differentiate its smartphones by adopting cutting-edge technologies, such as foldable OLED displays."

Koh, speaking with CNET after the Galaxy S9 launch in Barcelona, said Samsung was making progress on the device but is working to be sure it isn't just a gimmick.

"I need complete confidence that we're delivering the best user experience when we're launching a new category," Koh said. 

Even if we will be able to fold our Samsung phones later this year, the vast majority of us will still be looking at the S9.

Update at 11:25 a.m. PT: Adds comment from Samsung mobile chief. 

Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus: Hands-on with Samsung's iPhone X fighters.

MWC 2018: All of CNET's coverage from the biggest phone show of the year.