Samsung didn’t leave too much up to the imagination at MWC this year. The hardware giant took a little wind out of its own sails back at CES when it announced it would be launching its latest flagship sometime this month.
And then, of course, the invites went out, bearing a giant number “9” that was either some off-handed homage to The White Album’s most inscrutable track or a less than subtle indicator that the Galaxy S9 (and, for that, matter, S9+) was on its way.
The handset was shown off in all its virtually bezel-free glory at tonight’s big press conference in Barcelona. It’s a rare turn for a company that’s grown accustomed to launching handsets on its own terms, but the stars aligned with Qualcomm’s latest super-powered chip, the Snapdragon 845, and Samsung clearly didn’t want to be left behind.
The Galaxy S9’s debut almost makes you feel sorry for everyone else with a dog in the fight this year at Mobile World Congress, because the game was really over before it started. For some it is probably a taste of what it must feel like to have your movie open against a Star Wars film. In the world of Android handsets, Samsung is the biggest and blusteriest — a bankable, big-budget powerhouse.
To stretch that analogy a little further, the Galaxy S9 is more Force Awakens than The Last Jedi — which is to say, we’re not talking about a radical departure. In fact, you’d probably be hard-pressed to spot too many differences in terms of industrial design this time out. If the phone is indeed the iPhone X killer many were hoping for over the past couple of weeks, it’s courtesy of some of the software-related tricks the company has squeezed in.
Of course, Samsung has no reason to rush into any sort of radical design change. The company notched up a notch-less win last year with the introduction of the Infinity Display, a virtually (but not quite) bezel-free design that hides a virtual home button behind the screen. The displays are essentially the same as their predecessors, at 5.8-inch and 6.2-inch, respectively — both Quad HD+, Super AMOLED.
The first thing I saw when I stepped foot on the Barcelona streets this week was yet another teaser for the handset, sporting the words “The Camera Reimagined,” and indeed, imaging continues to be the primary battlefield on which the smartphone wars are being fought. Perhaps the most welcome addition on this front is improved low-light shooting. That’s undoubtedly the most requested feature on the camera front.
We got to play around with it a bit and the results are pretty impressive at first glimpse. There’s a dual aperture mounted in the rear camera of the S9 and rear wide-lens camera on the S9+ that switches between F1.5 – F2.4 when you need to let more light in for dark settings, like bars and restaurants, offering a 28 percent increase in light. If you take a close look at the rear of the camera, you can actually see the aperture expand and contract as you switch between settings — it’s particularly notable when you have to zoom in.
It actually appears to be the same variable aperture that Samsung debuted on the W2018 flip phone, of all things — leave it to Samsung to introduce its latest cutting-edge camera tech in a flip phone. What this means as far as day to day use is up to 30 percent less noise in photos taken in less than ideal circumstances.
Also new — but definitely more on the novelty side for a majority of users — is Super Slow-Mo. The trick was the highlight of last year’s Sony Xperia XV, but now it’s on a phone that, you know, people will actually buy. Like Sony’s version, the S9 slows things down from the standard 240 FPS to 960 (4x slower), and it makes a world of difference — a Samsung rep described it as going from standard slow motion to something akin to The Matrix’s Bullet Time. An overstatement, sure, but the result is definitely impressive.
The effect is greatly improved by the presence of Motion Detection, which, as advertised, waits until it detects movement in the frame in order to start shooting — after all, a few extra seconds are a lifetime in Super Slow-Mo Land. Once recorded, users can use one of Samsung’s 35 song clips as background, or let the software use its AI to attempt to figure out what fits best.
Speaking of AI, Bixby is finally starting to get some truly useful updates this time out. Samsung’s smart assistant got off to a slow start, particularly in the wake of Siri/Alexa/Google Assistant, but it’s finally starting to come into its own. Far and away the most impressive bit — and the thing I’d really like to try on this trip to Barcelona — is Live Translation.
It’s similar to what Google’s been offering with Lens, and it’s about as close as you’ll come to a killer app for the frequent travel. Hold the phone up to a sign and it will translate it in a few seconds. The system works with 54 input languages and 150 for output, using augmented reality to overlay words over the original text.
The translations aren’t great — as evidenced by the “You’re welcome feed the animals do not” — and the text looks a bit like it was cut out of a newspaper for a ransom letter, but it’s an impressive and useful tool nonetheless. The system will also work with 63 different currencies, offering up a real-time exchange rate — though that feature wasn’t available during our trial.
There’s also a fun little feature that overlays estimated calorie counts after identifying food stuff, Not Hotdog-style. It will then feed that information into Samsung Health. Interesting footnote to all of this: I asked if these augmented reality features were built using ARCore. Turns out Samsung just developed everything in-house here, in spite of a recent partnership between the companies. This Bixby development must predate that deal.
AR also plays a bit role in Samsung’s long-rumored Animoji competitor. In fact, Samsung’s calling it AR Emoji — decidedly less catchy than the name Apple landed on. There are cartoon characters here that respond to your movements and speech in real time, like Animoji — in fact, Samsung managed to land a much coveted deal with Disney. No doubt Apple’s kicking itself for not managing to score Mickey and friends for its own offering, but between this and the Star Wars AR it introduced for the Pixel, Disney clearly didn’t want to play favorites.
The real stars of the AR Emoji offering, however, are its 3D personalized avatars. The cameras take a detailed map of the user’s face, using it as the basis for a 3D character. From there you pick your clothes, hair, glasses and the like, as you would with a Nintendo Mii. I’ll be the first (and probably not the last) to say it: they’re kind of creepy. Samsung hasn’t quite figured out where it wants to play in the uncanny valley on this one. Something to think about for the Galaxy S10, I guess.
There also are a pair of stereo speakers tuned by AKG. Samsung deserves a bit of credit here for giving some love to an often neglected piece of the entertainment equation. The speakers will switch to stereo when the phone is held in landscape. It’s notably louder than the last generation, as the company showed in a demo — it is still not something that’s going to be replacing the use of a Bluetooth speaker, but should be handy for short video and music sessions.
And yes, the headphone jack is back — not that it ever went away. Samsung’s holding onto that output with dear life, after mercilessly — and understandably — mocking Apple for dropping it a few generations back. In spite of launching a solid pair of Bluetooth sport headphones in the IconX, it is a small but important differentiator for the company.
Apple’s forward thinking plans have always included a manner of planned obsolescence built in, while Samsung’s philosophy revolves around an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to hardware. Likely the company will eventually swallow its pride and drop the jack, but that doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon — and plenty of customers are no doubt overjoyed by the decision — especially since the company purchased Harman and started bundling halfway decent earbuds with the phone.
Unlocking via iris, face and fingerprint scanning are all back, naturally. There’s also an unlocking method called Intelligent scan, which combines iris and face unlock in one, defaulting to a different method based on lighting. A new Dedicated Fingerprint feature, meanwhile, ties different fingerprints to unlock the device’s secure folder, so information can still be secure on a shared device. And, one imagines, someone will have to cut off two of your fingers to really get into your phone’s good stuff.
There are also more differences between the S9 and S9+ than there were with past generations. Both phones have a default 64GB storage (expandable up to 400GB via the Micro SD slot), but the 9+ has a healthy 6GB or RAM — two more than the 9. As touched on above, the S9+ plus also adds a wide angle lens to the camera offer. Oh, and the batteries are different, too, naturally at 3,000mAh on the S9 and 3,500mAh on the S9+. That’s the same as the last generation. Samsung’s clearly still playing it safe on the battery front after, well, you know.
The S9 runs $720, and the S9+ will cost you a full $120 more, at $840, unlocked — not cheap, exactly, but a fair bit less that Apple’s premium offering. If that’s still too rich for you blood, the company’s also offering two-year financing at $30/$35 a month, respectively.
The phones go up for pre-orders on March 2 and start shipping the 16th. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, Verizon, Cricket Wireless and MetroPCS will all be carrying the phone — along with the new Xfinity Mobile, if that floats your boat. The phone also will be available through the big-name retailers, including Best Buy, Amazon, Costco, Sam’s Club, Target and Walmart. Color availability depends on where you buy the phone — unless, of course, you buy it unlocked, in which case you can get it in, Midnight Black and Coral Blue and the lovely new Lilac Purple.
For businesses, Samsung will also be offering an Enterprise Edition of the phone in Midnight Black.