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

We've played with Samsung's flagship new phones and here's what's new: AR Emoji, changing apertures, super slow mo and dual camera is Plus only.

Josh Miller/CNET

We didn't get a ton of time with the Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus. Not yet, at least. But Samsung's made one thing totally clear: The biggest new thing is the camera.

New software, hardware and processing add up to a few key differences. We won't know how big of an impact they'll really make until we write our full review. But I can tell you the key things to keep in mind and what those cameras felt like when I tried them out.

The S9 Plus has dual cameras, but the S9 doesn't

If you want "the best camera" this cycle, get the S9 Plus. It has dual 12-megapixel cameras, much like the Galaxy Note 8 last year. One has 2x zoom and one has 1x, both have optical image stabilization. The S9 has a single 12-megapixel camera.

It's a shame that while the S9 has most of the same camera advantages as the S9 Plus, it doesn't have the dual camera. It's reminiscent of the difference between Apple's iPhone 8 and 8 Plus. If you want Samsung's best phone camera, it looks like the Plus will be the answer. But that will mean buying a larger phone. Stay tuned to find out how the cameras compare in a full review, however, because these impressions won't even scratch the surface of future real-world testing.

Now playing: Watch this: Samsung Galaxy S9's new cameras have a bunch of new tricks
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The rear camera now has an adjusting aperture

Phone cameras don't usually have apertures that change to let in more or less light. DSLRs and eyes do. The Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus can autoswitch from f2.4 to f1.5 as needed, which is a unique trick. 

The advantage is that it could let in lots of light for low-light shots -- up to 28 percent more than the S8, according to Samsung. Or it could let in less light for more detailed, less noisy photos when you're outside in the sun. It also means photos shouldn't look as washed out in bright light. Test photos taken in Samsung's contained demo zone looked crisp and vibrant. Everything always looked great, no matter the lighting condition, in a continuation of the Galaxy S8's low-light strengths.

The 8-megapixel selfie cam hasn't changed much

Like the rear cameras, expect a new ISP and added DRAM to reduce noise in photos and improve speed and focus for pictures. But Samsung isn't promising anything else particularly new for your selfies.

samsung-galaxy-s9-2400-6558

Best for extremely short surprising things you're expecting to do soon.

Josh Miller/CNET

Super slow motion: A crazy frame rate for short spans of time

The S9 and S9 Plus have a new camera mode that really, really slows down action videos. It can shoot at 960 frames per second. But there are some caveats. The mode only records at 720p, and it only records about 0.2 seconds of super slow motion footage at a time. 

The mode starts at 30 fps, then waits for a motion trigger to capture at 960 fps. After that, it goes back to 30 fps. Unlike slow motion modes in other phones, such as the iPhone, you can't adjust the super slow-motion duration afterwards. But you can loop the moments or run them backwards, like Live Photos on the iPhone. Expect roughly 6 seconds of slowed down action. It looked great when popping a party favor or spinning a fidget spinner. Will it be useful in everyday life?

You can either start recording a slow-motion video on your own, or wait until 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 shareable GIF, or you can set it as your phone's wallpaper. In comparison, an iPhone records slow-motion video at 240 frames per second (which the S9 can still do, too).

Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus

Instant Rogermoji.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Samsung's answer to the iPhone X's animoji isn't great

AR Emoji is a new camera mode: Take a photo with the front or rear camera, and a Bitmoji-like version of yourself is generated, along with a variety of generated GIFs you can send to friends. Or you can animate your new animated emoji-self like an Apple animoji by recording yourself blinking and talking. 

The face animation was pretty rough when I tried it, and didn't recognize my smiles, but it got my frowns. Blinking was fine. I became a bunny, a crazy blue fish-thing, and tried Snapchat-like filters that added animations and face effects such as added hats.

Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus

You can animate cartoonish things with your face, too, and record clips, but it's not as smooth as Apple's animojis.

Sarah Tew/CNET

It's fine and sometimes it was fun to play with. But my virtual avatar didn't look a lot like me (it was more flattering), and the recordings didn't convey much of my emotion.

Samsung says it will be adding new partners for AR Emojis, including Disney.

Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus
Sarah Tew/CNET

Expect speedier, faster-focusing photos

Samsung's new sensor with dedicated DRAM, ISP and accelerated processing promises higher-detail photos. It pulls from 12 pictures that get compressed into a higher-quality image in a split second. Samsung says there's about 30 percent less noise than photos shot with the S8. I took a few test shots around a fairly well-lit room and got great results, but didn't get to see what it would do in low light. I took snapshots quickly and without much blur. Is it as good as what the Google Pixel 2 can do, or is it better?

Samsung did have one impressive demo to show off low-light photos: A canister with a tiny house and cars inside. With the naked eye, you could make out what appeared to be a tiny house, but as CNET's Shara Tibken noted, she couldn't pick up the colors or details of the objects in the canister. When we used the Galaxy S9 camera to shoot into the canister, it captured the red roof of the little house and cars driving in a circle around it. (I shot photos of the canister but didn't get to see inside it myself and couldn't use another phone to compare it with.)

There's memory on the image sensor to process photos and video faster

The image sensor in the S9 and S9 Plus has an interesting feature: dedicated DRAM (dynamic random access memory). That means the sensor has its own memory to store images and video, letting it process them much faster. 

It allows the camera to capture super slow-motion video, as well as shoot 12 images quickly and then combine them into one perfect shot. The camera's hardware actually captures 12 photos then splits them into batches of four images. Software on the phone then takes the best out of those and combines them into the best image. The DRAM lets the camera process images four times as fast as last year.

Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus

Just scannin' some broccoli.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Samsung's Bixby Vision has a few new tricks, too

Bixby got off to a slow start last year, but Samsung's added some clever new visual camera-driven AI modes. Bixby Vision originally identified landmarks, types of wine, products and translated text. It could also tell you what the items are and, in the US, send you to Amazon to buy them.

In the S9, the translation feature gets supercharged, with Bixby incorporating Google Translate's Word Lens effect to turn printed signs and text into other languages on the fly. It will be able to translate live from 54 languages and 63 currencies. Other effects replicate what other apps can do, but are incorporated into one launchpad. You can apply virtual makeup to yourself and then buy it right from your phone (Sephora and CoverGirl will support this in Bixby Vision), or you can scan food for quick calorie counts and food logging.

Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus
Sarah Tew/CNET

A shopping mode will scan items and let you buy them. Nordstrom and Sam's Club will be two new partners for that feature. And a new "place" feature gives you information and directions based on what you're currently seeing through your camera lens.

Google Lens, Google's camera-based AI/AR platform, achieves a few similar tricks using the Pixel 2, and is now rolling out to other Android phones, including Samsung's. It's unclear how good Bixby will be in comparison.

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