In the Android world, there is no bigger event than Samsung's yearly launch of their latest Galaxy S devices. It is also one of the earliest on the year cycle with the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+ arriving at Mobile World Congress in late February. Both devices present iterative updates for 2018, with upgrades on most fronts along with some neat feature additions as well as more gimmicky ones.
This review focuses on the larger of the two devices, the Samsung Galaxy S9+. Most of the hardware inside the S9+ is the same as the S9, with the exception of the larger 6.2-inch display (versus 5.8" on the S9), the dual rear camera solution, and a larger battery.
As with previous Galaxy S handsets, there are two variants of the S9+ for different markets. The United States, Japan and China get a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 inside, while the rest of the world gets Samsung’s latest Exynos 9810. Usually there's been little difference between the two chips -- our review unit came with the Exynos SoC inside -- however it appears that's not the case this year with reports about significant differences in performance and battery life between the two, on favor of the Snapdragon version.
The Galaxy S9+ sports a 6.2-inch 2960 x 1440 Super AMOLED display, 6GB of RAM with storage ranging from 64 to 256 GB, a 3500 mAh battery, a rear fingerprint scanner, USB-C, a 3.5mm headphone jack and more. The camera system is a 12-megapixel primary sensor with a dual aperture lens, paired with a 12-megapixel telephoto zoom camera, both with optical image stabilization.
From a design perspective, Samsung hasn’t made any significant changes with the Galaxy S9+, for better or worse. The design still sees glass on both the front and rear, with a metal edge around all sides. On the front and back the display and glass curve in to the edges. And like with the Galaxy S8, the 18.5:9 aspect ratio display occupies a significant portion of the front panel without the need for a ridiculous notch.
Samsung has come a long way on improving their phone designs and it's made some of the best handsets on the market for the past few years. The Galaxy S9+ is a beautiful handset, the curved glass looks fantastic, the metal edges feel great, and there’s a near seamless high quality construction.
However the slipperiness of the Galaxy S9+ remains a concern, as it did with the Galaxy S8. Having glass on both sides and such thin metal edges makes it hard to get a firm grip on this handset at times, and if you place the device on any even remotely smooth surface, the Galaxy S9+ can slide around with ease. There hasn’t been a lot of thought to improving the grip, with Samsung instead continuing to favour beauty over function.
Such large glass panels lead to the same durability concerns I had with the Galaxy S8 line, especially due to the curved edges that expose the glass when dropped. The Galaxy S8 was one of the most fragile phones I’d ever seen: forums and social media are littered with complaints of relatively minor drops leading to shattered displays and expensive repair bills. I can’t see the Galaxy S9 being any different in this regard.
Unfortunately this means I have to make the same recommendation as last time: the Galaxy S9+ requires a case. Most other phones I’m comfortable using without protection, but the Galaxy S9+ with its curved edges need additional protection to save yourself from the pain of a cracked screen. When you’re spending nearly a thousand dollars on this handset, you really don’t want it to break from minor incidents, and as Samsung’s design doesn’t protect against this, you’re left with no option but a case that unfortunately hides some of its beauty.
And while I’m at it, I may as well point out the ports along the bottom edge are not properly aligned. This is a small nitpick, but on a premium handset that’s otherwise well designed, it’s disappointing to see a few alignment issues. On the other hand, I’m glad to see the use of both USB-C and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Samsung remains one of the few companies that haven’t caved into removing the headphone jack.
Samsung has made a handful of meaningful design upgrades. The fingerprint sensor on the rear is now in a sensible location below the camera: you won’t smudge the lens every time you try and use it now. There’s also facial recognition that uses a combination of the iris scanner and front facing camera, which is neat to have but not as fast as the fingerprint scanner. Face unlock needs to be as fast and accurate as Face ID or Windows Hello to make it worth using; the Galaxy S9+ is not quite there yet.
The other major change is the upgrade to stereo speakers, using a combination of a bottom firing driver and the smaller speaker above the display. These are some of the best sounding speakers I’ve used on a smartphone, with better clarity than a phone like the Pixel 2 XL, which has pretty decent front facing speakers. There is a slight balance issue with the Galaxy S9+, as the bottom speaker provides more bass than the top speaker, however it’s not as noticeable as I expected, even in a landscape orientation.
The ideal implementation is still dual front facing speakers, as it’s still reasonably easy to block the bottom edge speaker when holding the Galaxy S9+ in either orientation. That said, it’s hard to go past the quality the Galaxy S9+’s speaker solution provides.
It’s great to see Samsung continuing to provide IP68 water resistance for submersion in up to 1.5m of fresh water for 30 minutes, though you shouldn’t use the phone in salt water. There’s still a microSD card slot to complement internal storage options (especially great when you can add 128GB for a mere $40! take that iPhone owners) and there’s also still a heart rate monitor for use with Samsung Health.
Unfortunately there’s still a Bixby button that cannot be remapped in the stock software to anything useful, though it can be disabled. The amount of times I accidentally pressed the Bixby button was quite high, so I’d rather this button either didn’t exist, or could simply be programmed to open whatever application I like. Bixby is improving, but it’s not good enough to warrant a dedicated hardware button on a space-limited smartphone.