Samsung Galaxy Note 9 Review: No Compromises

Samsung Galaxy Note 9
$999.99 (starting)
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The Good

Bright • high-res HDR screen • S Pen doubles as remote • Long battery life • Loads of storage • even on the base model • Loud • bassy stereo speakers

The Bad

Really expensive • Doesn’t ship with Android 9 Pie • Hit-or-miss camera AI features

The Bottom Line

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 is pricey, but it’s the only flagship Android phone with every feature under the sun.

Samsung’s Galaxy Note 9 is a perfect fit for exactly one type of user: Somebody who wants every smartphone feature under the sun and won’t balk at spending $1,000 to get them.

If that doesn’t sound like you, the Note 9’s an easy skip, plain and simple. But, if you’re nodding your head in agreement, Samsung’s latest flagship Android phone offers a lot — more than any other Android phone, even — despite the barely changed exterior.

SEE ALSO: Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S4 is the first Android tablet that gets productivity right

There are two ways to look at the Note 9. The first is that it’s just another iterative version that looks like the previous Note 8 — whoopty-doo, how boring, it’s like Samsung didn’t even try this year? But this perspective judges the Note 9 merely on its lack of cosmetic changes, not on its actual features.

Which brings me to the second way to critique the Note 9 — one that’s realistic and reflective of device usage — and that is non-flashy features such as performance, battery life, and storage capacity are more valuable than a new profile. In other words, it’s what’s inside that counts.

A thousand bucks may seem like an outrageous sum of money to spend on a phone, but Samsung’s actually offering a whole lot more with the Note 9 than, say, the iPhone X, which starts at the same price.

As far as really expensive phones crammed full of features goes, Samsung’s tipped the scale in its favor (for now).

A big, lovable phone

If I could travel back in time and tell my younger self Samsung would still be making Galaxy Note phones and improving the S Pen seven years later, I think I would be dumbfounded.

Not only did Samsung correctly predict “phablets” would become immensely popular, but it has somehow managed to keep innovating the S Pen.

The Note 9 does not hit the reset button on the Galaxy Note’s heritage. Its design is evolutionary, but while it’s yet another iteration on the “glass-and-metal sandwich,” it’s more refined than ever before.

Many of the tweaks made to the Note 9 are subtle. The metal frame has a diamond-cut chamfer that’s reminiscent of a past era of phone design. It’s a really small change, but it makes the slightly wider body a little grippier in the hand.

Weirdly enough, all of the physical buttons on the edge of the phone are all positioned just slightly higher on the body of the Note 9 than they were on the Note 8. I’m not sure why Samsung made this change, but it makes harder to adjust the volume if you don’t have long fingers.

The Note 9’s screen is a 6.4-inch Super AMOLED display (0.1 inch bigger than the Note 8’s), and the edges still sport that distinctive curve. However, there’s yet another tiny change that most people won’t notice at first: The curve is even less pronounced so that there’s more flat display area to use the S Pen on.

As you’d expect from Samsung, the Note 9’s display is excellent. Content looks crisp on the 2,960 x 1,440 screen iPhone users may complain about how warm the Note 9’s screen looks, but I don’t mind it at all.

I also don’t mind the Note 9’s top and bottom bezels. Sure, the Note 9 technically doesn’t match screen-to-body ratio like the Oppo Find X, but it’s a pretty trivial complaint.

The Note 9 also borrows a few upgrades from the Galaxy S9. The fingerprint reader on the back is now (thankfully) located below the dual cameras instead of next to them. The improved dual cameras themselves are plucked straight from the S9 (more on that in a bit). And there’s now AKG-tuned stereo speakers that have better bass than on the Note 8.

These small refinements are on top of Samsung staples such as an iris scanner, IP68 water- and dust-resistance, fast wired and wireless charging, expandable storage, and a headphone jack.

And this isn’t even the end of the list. The Note 9 also has the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chip, more RAM (6GB or 8GB), a ridiculous amount of storage (128GB or 512GB), and a souped-up S Pen that’s now a remote.

The only thing I wish it came with is Android 9 Pie. But alas, it ships with Android 8.1 Oreo. The software is still fast and smooth, but I’d love to see Samsung release faster updates for its new phones.

There’s just so much in the Note 9 that I can’t even name another phone that has all of these features. If this was Samsung’s first Note, you’d be right to question its size and its features, but it’s 2018 and large phones are the norm. You already know if you’re a big phone person or not.

I’m personally not — I’ll take an iPhone X or Galaxy S9 over their larger brothers any day — but every single time I use a Galaxy Note, I realize there’s very little stopping me from making the jump, especially when there just are almost no compromises.

The large battery is back

The last time Samsung pushed its luck with a big battery was on the Galaxy Note 7, and that ended up with explosions, global recalls, and then it’s eventual discontinuation.

Samsung pulled a stunning recovery with the Galaxy S8 and then the Note 8, but did so with smaller batteries that, fine as they were, didn’t thoroughly crush its competitors in the ground.

The Note 9 marks a return to a big battery — the largest on a Note — with a 4,000 mAh cell Samsung says lasts “all day.”

The most demanding of users will indeed be able to get through a full day. On my first day of use after setting up the Note 9, I took it off the charger with 100 percent at 7 a.m. and it didn’t drop to 10 percent until around 9 p.m.

Day one involved a lot of checking email, Instagram, Twitter and reading news with Feedly and Google News throughout the day, texting, streaming Spotify for about four hours, and watching a YouTube video here and there. I used the S Pen as much as possible.

Over the weekend, my usage was significantly lighter, and the battery almost made it from Saturday morning into Sunday morning. I didn’t check email as much, and I avoided looking at Twitter and reading the news. I still texted a whole bunch, listened to about two hours of Spotify, played the 3D racing game Asphalt 9 Legends for an hour or so, and watched in about three hours of YouTube. My S Pen usage also dipped — I only used it for jotting notes with the Screen-off Memo feature and to show my friends the nifty camera remote.

The Note 9’s battery is a stamina champ for my needs, but if you’re glued to your phone every second of the day, you still might want to take a plug-in break at some point. Or judiciously manage your power-consumption settings; for instance, I usually left its brightness at around 50 percent (it’s still plenty bright). I also switched to WiFi whenever it was available.

Bumping up the resolution from the default FHD to QHD and increasing the brightness will drain the Note 9’s battery quicker so keep that in mind.

If you’re absolutely sucking down power like there’s no tomorrow, there’s always fast wired and fast wireless charging to keep the Note 9 juiced up.

Fun new S Pen tricks

Just when I thought there wasn’t much more Samsung could improve on its S Pen, it goes and adds Bluetooth Low Energy to the stylus and turns it into a wireless remote.

For non-artists like me, the S Pen’s remote features (good from a distance of up to 32 feet) are far more useful than how many levels of pressure the tip can respond to (FYI, it’s 4,096 levels) or that it’s also IP68-rated.

Nothing wrong with a fine-tipped stylus that’s really responsive for writing, drawing, or creating a GIF, but using the S Pen as a remote control for taking selfies, or advancing images in a photo album (good for presentations), or Spotify or YouTube controls? Those are all things I could see myself using more often personally and for work.

My favorite S Pen remote feature is using it to take selfies and group photos — I showed it off to some friends and they all were pretty amazed — but it’s still really early days. Who knows what kind of remote features developers will come up with once they get their hands on the S Pen’s SDK. I can already imagine it being used as a controller (albeit a very limited single-button one) for games. Flappy Bird with an S Pen, anyone?

The color-matching ink in the standby note-taking Screen-off Memo feature for each Note 9’s S Pen (yellow ink for yellow S Pen on the Ocean Blue, lavender ink for the Lavender Purple) is also a nice touch.

AI to help lazy photographers

I’m not going to spend too many words on the Note 9’s cameras. Hardware-wise, they’re the exact same camera modules as on the Galaxy S9 .

On the front is an 8-megapixel camera with f/1.7 aperture. Around back, there’s a pair of 12-megapixel cameras. The main shooter is a wide-angle lens with “variable aperture” that switches between an f/1.5 and f/2.4 aperture and the second camera is a 2x telephoto lens with an f/2.4 aperture.

For in-depth comparisons on how the cameras compare to other phones like the Galaxy S8, Note 8, Pixel 2 XL, and iPhone X, you can basically just refer to the sample photos in our Galaxy S9 and S9 review.

The Note 9’s cameras mainly have software changes. Following LG and Huawei, the Note 9 uses on-device AI to detect a number of different scenes. This “Scene Optimizer” feature can recognize up to 20 different scenes such as food, plants, buildings, nighttime, landscape, pets, etc. and then process them differently.

Scene Optimizer is turned on by default and although the AI does identify scenes very quickly most of the time, it also missed a lot on a cloudy and rainy day. I really wasn’t blown away by many of the results. Certainly, some photos are a little more vibrant and have more contrast than without Scene Optimizer turned on, but they’re so hit-or-miss that you’re better off turning it off and editing the photos yourself.

There are two ways I can think of that Samsung could have made this whole AI camera thing better. Either make the feature something you can quickly turn on from the camera view as opposed to in the camera settings. Or have the camera shoot two photos: one that’s scene-optimized and one that’s not.

Scene Optimizer is good for lazy photographers or casual shooters who may not know how to or don’t want to edit their shots. But this is the Note 9 we’re talking about here. It ain’t a device for amateurs.

The other new camera feature is “Flaw Detection,” which tells you if your shots are blurry, or if somebody’s blinked, or if the lens is dirty right after you’ve taken a photo. It’s useful, but the blurry-shot reminder gets annoying fast. I mean, you have to be a real idiot if you can’t tell your photos are blurry or someone’s blinked.

Neither Scene Optimizer or Flaw Detection are what I’d consider must-have features for the cameras. I turned both off right away and didn’t look back.

All about the basics

I can understand why anyone might look at the Galaxy Note 9 and yawn. It’s not a flashy phone. Every feature upgrade Samsung’s made from the Note 8 is more practical.

I’m starting to feel like Samsung has really changed and has shed the arrogance that led to the disastrous Note 7. The Note 9 is faster, the battery’s bigger and lasts longer, there’s more storage, and the S Pen’s new remote feature function is neat. But the phone’s also a little thicker and a little heavier.

There’s a double standard when it comes to reviewing phones. Companies like Samsung are ripped apart for over-innovating with impractical gimmicks or copying others. At the same time, they’re blamed for not innovating enough if they simply release products with mostly internal upgrades that are too similar to previous ones.

It’s all but impossible for Samsung to win these days. There’s just no pleasing everyone. Samsung’s damned if it does something different and damned if it doesn’t.

At the end of the day, the Note is two things: a really great phone and a really expensive phone. It’s not the best value — that’s the OnePlus 6. It doesn’t necessarily have the best cameras — a lot of people still swear by the iPhone X or the Pixel 2. And if you don’t need the S Pen, you can save a few hundred bucks with the Galaxy S9 or S9 .

However, the Note 9 does have more features than even some of the most premium Android phones or the iPhone X. If having it all is what you want in a phone, the Note 9 is worth the money, especially when other phones are removing features while increasing prices.

Source: Mashable