Samsung always swings for the fences with their Note line up and it should because it is quite literally its biggest phone of the year. Not every year can be a home run though. Most people have all but written off the Galaxy Note 9 as nothing more than an incremental upgrade. They would not be wrong, but even minor upgrades can have a big impact.
A little about this review
The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 used in this review was provided courtesy of AT&T and used on their network for the past three weeks.
Read More: First 10 things to do with your Note 9
Not much has changed here, if you liked the design of the previous Note 8 then you’ll enjoy the Note 9. Samsung is back with the same glass sandwich with metal chamfered frame they’ve been using for the past couple of years now. Just about every phone maker has jumped on this trend, and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
By utilizing this same design Samsung has also retained some of the best features of the Note 8 such as the IP68 waterproofing, wireless charging, and near flush camera design. However, it also retains some of the flaws of this particular design.
For example, the glass back is a fingerprint magnet and no matter how tough Gorilla Glass 5 is, glass is still glass and is less durable than a plastic or metal back. The Galaxy Note 9 does have some improvements though.
The fingerprint scanner is now in a much better location in the center of the phone. While it is much easier to reach now, it could be a little lower and larger. It is still a little too high and you run the risk of overreaching and smudging the camera lens with them so close in proximity to each other.
The screen is also slightly larger than the Note 8 and as always it is gorgeous. Others can get close but no one can compete with the beauty of a Samsung AMOLED panel. It is sharp, the colors are vivid, and the blacks are inky.
Samsung regularly wins awards from DisplayMate for having the best displays of the year and it is a title well deserved. Plus, you’re getting a slightly larger screen in essentially the same sized body. It’s really hard to complain about that, especially when they do it without an obnoxious notch.
The Note series simply wouldn’t be the same without the S-Pen. It is a unique feature that Samsung offers that no other phone on the market comes close to replicating. Regardless, Samsung continues to search for ways to enhance and improve the experience. This year we saw the Galaxy Note 9 S-Pen get its biggest upgrade ever in the form of Bluetooth LE.
With Bluetooth LE built in the S-Pen can now act as a remote providing features. By pressing once, long pressing, or double pressing the button you can unlock your phone, launch the camera, take photos, control media playback, control Powerpoint presentations, and more. Samsung even allows you to customize these actions in the settings menu.
The one downside of this upgrade is that Bluetooth devices run on battery power. Similar to Bluetooth speakers and headphones the S-Pen now has a battery inside that must be charged. The good news is 40 seconds of charging is enough to give the S-Pen 30 minutes worth of usage.
Fortunately, if the battery dies in the S-Pen all of the old features still work. You will only lose the ability to use the button to launch apps or control them.
Read More: Tips and Tricks for the S-Pen
Even with all the tricks, the S-Pen is capable of old and new. I still can’t find much of an excuse to use it. Whenever I have a Note phone I always have to force myself to use the S-Pen. Once I send it back I never once miss having the S-Pen. For all intents and purposes, the S-Pen is nothing but a gimmick to me. However, that is only my personal opinion as I’m sure many others out there use it and love it.
The Bixby button is back and is just as useless as ever. Samsung is determined to force this on their users whether they want it or not. At best this is a worthless button and at worst the button is a major annoyance when you trigger it accidentally.
If only Samsung were to allow a little customization of the button similar to the button on the S-Pen. You don’t have to allow us to assign it to Google Assistant but at least give us the option to assign other actions to it.
Unfortunately, the apps that once made this little button more useful by reassigning it do not currently work with the Galaxy Note 9. Nor do you have the option to disable the button in the Bixby settings like in previous phones. Hopefully, by the time this review is released or sometime in the near future this will change. Until then, we must live with Bixby getting in our way.
Yes, the headphone jack is still there. Once again Samsung bucks the trend of nixing the headphone jack and forcing wireless audio on their customers. As an avid music fan who owns several wired and wireless headphones that I use regularly, I dread the day that Samsung and LG give in to this trend. Thankfully, that day has not come yet and I don’t have to live the dongle life.
Continuing with their improvements over the Note 8, Samsung has made the stereo speakers even better this year on the Note 9. Between the bottom firing speaker, earpiece speaker, and Atmos processing the Note 9 sounds fantastic. I wouldn’t say it can compete against a phone with true stereo front facing speakers, but the Note 9 gets closer than ever to being one of the best sounding Android phones.
Bravo to Samsung for making the 128GB model the base model for the Galaxy Note 9. This doubles the amount from the previous Note 8 and Samsung also sells a 512GB version. If you really want to go overboard then you can take advantage of the microSD card slot and carry a whopping 1TB in your pocket by adding a 512GB microSD card.
Samsung is notorious for their software skin most commonly known as TouchWiz or Samsung Experience. The name Samsung Experience does it the most justice because that is what Samsung is trying to provide its users. When you use a Samsung phone it is distinctively different from stock Android. Samsung is also the only handset maker to include a skin on an Android Go phone.
This is one way Samsung brands themselves and sets their phones apart from others in the marketplace. However, there are things to love and things to hate about the Samsung Experience.
Some of the things I love are all the extra features that are added to Android. These include extras such as themes, a customizable always on display, calibration options for your display, a sound equalizer, dual messenger, video enhancer, one-handed mode, multi window, and much much more.
Read More: 9 Tips and Tricks for your Note 9
Samsung also includes a couple of extra software goodies which work in conjunction with their hardware. S-Health, for example, uses the sensors on the back near the camera as well as other sensors in your phone to help you keep track of your health.
Samsung Pay also deserves a special mention thanks to the use of Magnetic Secure Transmission (MST) technology in its phones. Thanks to this wonderful technology you can make mobile payments at almost any terminal that accepts a debit or credit card. This by far is one of my favorite exclusive features and I love being able to pay with my phone almost anywhere.
Some of the reasons to hate the Samsung Experience come in the form of delayed OS upgrades and in general some performance lag. In my opinion, all of the advantages outweigh the disadvantages and I prefer a phone packed with more software and hardware features.
As I mentioned, one of the drawbacks of Samsung’s heavy software skin is performance lag. Fortunately, the Snapdragon 845 SoC and 6GB of RAM offer quite a powerful duo to combat any sluggishness. In my usage, the Galaxy Note 9 was the quickest and snappiest Samsung phone I have ever used. It might still struggle to keep up with some phones running lighter skins, but overall I didn’t notice any lag or performance quirks and it kept up with everything I threw at it.
For those interested in the stats when I personally ran AnTuTu it returned a score of 283533 and Geekbench reported a single core score of 2435 and 8760 for multi-core performance. This ranks the Note 9 as one of the top five fastest phones out right now.
The same 12MP dual camera setup with dual focal lengths from the Note 8 returns on the new Note 9. This time gaining a new trick with the variable aperture. We first saw this in the Samsung S9 models where the aperture on the main camera can switch dynamically from f/2.4 to f/1.5.
The reason for the dynamic aperture is because when you shoot with a lower aperture such as f/1.5 it keeps less of what’s in the frame in focus. Using a variable aperture allows you to shoot f/2.4 in abundant light keeping more in focus while only switching to f/1.5 in low light allowing the camera to absorb more light.
On top of having a variable aperture, Samsung also makes use of two different cameras giving you options for a 2X optical zoom and portrait modes. In my experience, this dual camera setup works better than the single-camera portrait modes. Due to providing a greater range to capture the subject in portrait mode and offering a warning when it won’t work.
One thing to note is the 2X optical zoom camera has significantly worse camera quality in low light conditions. If you are trying to take photos in a low light situation you’ll get much sharper and detailed photos if you use the regular camera. Check the full view of the samples below for an example of this.
Samsung also includes a new software enhancement to the camera in the form of scene optimizer. After taking many samples and comparing them, it seemed to me scene optimizer no matter what scene means make it darker and add a yellow tint. That doesn’t always result in the best photo, and generally, I preferred to leave it turned off.
Where it was most helpful was for detecting flawed photos. For example, if something moved and was blurred or someone blinked it would pop up a message immediately after saving the photo giving you plenty of time to snap another.
As far as overall photo quality is concerned Samsung always has one of the top cameras on Android. General second only to the Pixel phones and in my opinion that is the case here as well. The Note 9 continues on with this tradition and if you’re looking for the second best camera with the most features available then you’re looking for the Note 9.
View More Photos on our Google Photos Album
The front-facing camera much like the rear-facing camera is feature packed. This 8MP f/1.7 shooter includes autofocus, beauty modes, built-in stickers, AR emoji, and a portrait mode.
It includes just about everything you could need or want for a selfie camera except for a portrait lighting mode similar to the iPhone X. Personally, I’d prefer a portrait lighting mode over all of these useless stickers and AR emoji.
Unlike the rear camera that provides a decent second place to the Pixel phones, I find the front-facing camera is significantly worse than the Pixel phones. It is entirely due to Samsung’s over processing of the photos, where even with all the beauty filters set to 0 the images still come out soft.
If you were to try the Google Camera app for selfies then the results are much sharper with far better contrast. Which leaves me very disappointed in the front facing camera on the Note 9 unless using third party software.
With the jump to a 4000mAh battery, I was ready to be impressed by the Note 9. To my disappointment, I wasn’t quite blown away by the battery life. That doesn’t mean battery life isn’t good, on the contrary, it is quite good. I was easily able to end my days with 5 hours of screen on time with at least 30-40% of battery life remaining. If I was a little more conservative I could even see almost up to two full days of usage.
You might wonder, what is there to be disappointed about then? The answer to that question would be that all of this is done on the FHD 1080p resolution. While other phones such as the Pixel 2 XL and LG V35 are able to accomplish similar or dare I say better battery life using QHD resolutions with smaller batteries.
If you increase the resolution to QHD on the Note 9 then you’ll see closer to 6 hours total screen on time. Without a doubt, that’s still great battery life and most general users will be pleased. Personally, though, I expected more from the upgraded battery.
Despite a couple of qualms here and there the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 will have no trouble ranking as one of the best phones of 2018. It is fast, it’s premium, it has a great camera, it has great battery life, and it has a new improved S-Pen. There were only a few reasons I could come up with to not buy this phone.
First off, it is $1000 dollars which is no easy sell but unfortunately, this is becoming more common in the smartphone market. Another reason would be that you have a Note 8 and have no complaints about the battery life and no use for a Bluetooth S-Pen. Then there’s the final reason, which is you love the Pixel phones for stock Android, fast updates, and the best camera on Android.
Beyond any of these reasons, the Galaxy Note 9 is going to be one of the top two phones of the year and if you can afford it, then get it. Outside of the price I could not find any one flaw that would prevent me from buying and loving this phone.