I’ve spent the past week with the Samsung Galaxy S9, the latest flagship phone from Samsung and available March 16, at $700 for the S9 and $830 for the S9+. In the market for a phone? Here are the questions you should be pondering before you lay out your money.
Are You Thinking of Switching From the iPhone?
If you’ve been in the Apple ecosystem for years, you’ve likely got hundreds or even thousands of dollars invested in apps and various services like iCloud. The Galaxy S9 will do nothing to ease the sunk cost there — and paying again for actually useful apps like Dark Sky on Android is grating. More importantly, if you live your life in iOS Messages, you’re going to need to stay on iPhone, period. Apple holds all the cards here, and there’s nothing the S9 offers that makes it compelling enough to jump if you’re happy with the iPhone.
That said, if you’re thinking of switching, you’re likely unsatisfied with where the iPhone is headed, whether it’s the lack of a headphone jack, the loss of the home button without a great replacement, or just the general rise in cost. There’s never going to be a perfect time to jump ship. Sunk costs are sunk costs. The S9 will be the year’s most popular Android phone for a good reason: They make very, very good flagship phones while managing to keep the price somewhat in the realm of reasonable.
How Much Do You Use Your Phone As a Camera?
Samsung’s big push this year is the camera. On both the S9 and the S9+, that means you rear dual-pixel camera shooting at 12 megapixels with autofocus and optical image stabilization. What phone nerds will love, however, is that the S9’s main rear shooter features a mechanical aperture that lets it shift from a f/1.5 (lets in a lot of light) to f/2.4 (lets in a little less for bright daylight scenes). It’s fun to watch the little aperture open and close a few times, and you can shift the aperture back and forth in a Pro shooting mode. You’ll quickly notice, however, if you use Auto mode (which I imagine 99 percent of users will) that the camera mainly sits at the f/1.5 setting and uses a low ISO to soak up as much light (and detail) as possible.
Still, it works. Here’s a shot from my very dim basement, taken with the S9+, the Pixel 2, and the iPhone X, respectively, where the S9+ picks up more detail with less grain:
In standard daylight shooting, I found the S9 to take extremely solid photos. That said, when it comes to comparing the top three phones — the Pixel 2, the S9, and the iPhone X, it’s a difference of degree, not kind. Here’s a shot from my kitchen, taken on the S9+, the Pixel 2, and the iPhone X.
The iPhone X shot is slightly warmer, and the Pixel 2 shot looks “better” in some ways thanks to some software post-processing, while the S9+ probably comes closest to reproducing the actual colors of the scene. All of these smartphone cameras are taking really great pictures — it’s largely a matter of taste.
There’s also a “Super Slow Mo” option, which lets the phone take 960 frames per second slow-motion video for about 0.2 seconds real time. It lets you do some really lovely stuff, like this shot I got during a snowstorm:
But the short real-time duration of when that 960 frames per second slo-mo kicks in makes for a frustrating experience. It’s hard to tap the button manually at just the right moment, and unlike with more traditional slo-mo, you only get one shot — you can’t go and stretch out different parts of the video into slo-mo. There’s an auto feature that is supposed to trigger as soon as there’s motion in a specific part of the viewfinder (think: someone jumping into a pool), but I found it difficult to use in action — it usually kicked in before the real action occurred, and snapped back out of slo-mo when what I wanted to capture was actually occurring. The video itself is also a bit grainy in any sort of low light and only 720 in a world where anything under 1080 video starts to look a little weird and dated.
Finally, there’s some “Visual AR” meant mainly to compete with the iPhone X’s very cool Animoji. But the S9 doesn’t sport all of Apple’s front-facing IR face-mapping wizardry, and tries to get by on pure visual AI. It’s semi-impressive how far they get, but the ersatz Animoji just lack the expressiveness and 1:1 fluidity that makes Animoji the first thing you show off when handing around an iPhone X. There’s also the ability to create your own AR avatar, which falls very, very far on the wrong side of the uncanny valley — I got some weird Sims 4 version of myself maniacally grinning back at me, and felt somehow like I was being mocked.
If you use your phone to take a lot of photos, the S9 will serve you well for nearly everything. (The camera rating site DxOMark gave it its highest score ever, and goes into a lot more detail about how the camera succeeds and fails.) But some of the gimmicks you’ll likely see in advertisements for the S9 are just that: gimmicks.
How Much Do You Watch Stuff on Your Phone?
Do you burn through whole seasons of shows on your phone, or play a ton of mobile games? Or do you mainly use it to flip through social media, texting, and not much more? The S9 has the best screen of any smartphone I’ve used, including the iPhone X — which shouldn’t be surprising, since even the iPhone X’s screen is made by a different wing of Samsung. By default, the AMOLED screen is set to to display in 1080, but you can kick that up to 1440 in the screen settings (though it’ll drain battery slightly faster if you are burning through a season of something on your phone). Especially after the issues the Pixel 2 and LG V30 suffered with their POLED screens, the difference is especially noticeable, and if you do watch a lot of Netflix on your phone, it’s going to look the best on an S9.
Do You Have an Galaxy S8 or S8+?
Congrats. You have a really nice phone, and while the S9 is also a very nice phone, there’s no reason to upgrade a year later.
Should You Get an S9 or an S9+?
The big difference between the S9 and the S9+ is now a lot like what you see on Apple’s side of the fence: dual lens cameras on the larger phone, and a single lens on the smaller. The dual-lens allows for a few neato effects, but its main use is as a telephoto lens — you can get a little bit of optical zoom in before using digital zoom. The big improvements in the cameras carry over to both models, so the dual lens, much like the S9+’s larger screen, is a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have. I also found the glass-backed S9+ pretty slippery without a case. If you find larger phones a pain to hold, get the S9 — you’re not missing much compared to the S9+.
Are You a Serious Android Person?
If your skin crawls at the idea of using the Nougat OS in 2018, you’ll be relieved to know that the S9 ships running Android Oreo 8.0. But while Samsung has gotten better about attempting to hijack Android into a Samsung Experience, it still ships with a ton of apps that are essentially “Google apps, but Samsung.” While Samsung’s native browser is okay, other stuff, like a Galaxy App Store that’s meant to somehow compete with the Google Play Store can (and should) be quickly thrown away. There are compelling reasons for Samsung to add this stuff to their phones — but there are none for you as a customer to use them. You can shift most of this back to stock Android pretty easily, but it’s a pain to do so. And while the S9 ships with a current version of Android, it historically is bad about keeping current with Android updates — S8 owners are only getting a six-month-old Oreo update now.
Do You Care About an AI Assistant?
First of all, I would say nobody should care about an AI assistant — there isn’t one on the market that’s so compelling as to make that smartphone the obvious choice, even if Google’s Assistant is currently running circles around everyone else’s.
Samsung’s voice AI assistant Bixby has improved since its ignominious debut, mainly as a way to quickly interact with your phone. I found myself using it for things like turning the S9 into a mobile hotspot or quickly sharing photos, but unless you’re constantly digging deep into the menus of your settings, that’s where the utility ends. There’s some visual AI stuff, like auto-translating text or estimating the calorie count of food you’re pointing your camera at, that I found spotty to use in the real world. And there’re still some really, really dumb parts of Bixby. Swiping left brings up Samsung’s version of Google Now, powered by Bixby, but by default it is full of crap like random Samsung themes and Flipboard stories, with none of the relevancy you get from Google Now. There’s some extremely weird and patronizing idea where you gain “experience points” for using Bixby in order to “level up” and gain cool stuff like, uh, Bixby voice backgrounds? And Bixby gets a dedicated button below the volume rocker at a time when physical buttons on phones are rapidly disappearing. Third-party apps like bxActions let you remap the button to more useful stuff, like getting at the very nice camera or just opening Google Assistant.
Do You Love Wired Headphones (or Just Hate Bluetooth)?
After bouncing around from a Pixel 2, an iPhone X, and an iPhone 8 for the past eight months (the extremely glamorous life of a gadget reviewer!), one of the greatest pleasures of the S9 is one of the simplest: it still has a 3.5-mm headphone jack. I’ve largely acclimated to the ideas of charging up headphones and that wireless headphones will sometimes cut out badly when I step onto city streets or a big open and crowded space, but, man, it is nice to be able to just plug in a pair of decent headphones and go. The S9 comes pre-packaged with a pair of AKG earbuds that are already a huge step up on what most flagship phones ship with. No matter what Apple, Google, LG, or a host of other competitors put out, the best flagship phone that ships in 2018 with a headphone jack will be the S9. If that matters to you — and I found out it mattered a lot to me — buy this phone.
The Bottom Line
If you’re happy on your recently purchased iPhone, or are just locked in enough to Messages and other iOS features that leaving would be a pain in the ass, there hasn’t been an Android phone yet that can make up for losing that. But if you’re rocking an iPhone 6 or older and are leery of where Apple is headed, I would highly recommend at least playing around with an S9 when you pass by a local carrier store or find yourself at a big-box electronics store.
If you’ve been on the Samsung Galaxy train for a bit but missed last year’s S8 upgrade, the S9 proves out the value of patience. Upgrade with confidence; you probably already know how to get around the parts of Samsung that aren’t great (the software) and appreciate what is (the hardware). And if you just need a very good smartphone and don’t care as much about the camera, I get the feeling you’ll be able to pick up a Samsung Galaxy S8 for relatively cheap in the near future.
The hardest choice probably comes down to those who bought in with a new phone within the last year — it’s easy to recommend an upgrade if you’re limping along on a four-year old Galaxy S6, but there’s no real reason for anyone to jump from a Pixel 2 or last year’s S8, and I’d probably hesitate if you’re happy on a something like the original Pixel.
The Samsung Galaxy S9 is the best Android smartphone I’ve used. If you’re in the market for a flagship phone, want a great camera, like headphone jacks, are okay with using Android, and don’t mind shifting around some extra Samsung bloatware, the Galaxy S9 is a great purchase. I just so happen to be in the center of that particular Venn diagram, so I’ll be picking one up for myself.