Samsung Galaxy Note9 Review
Possibly the most attractive smartphone Samsung has built
What is the Samsung Galaxy Note9?The Galaxy Note series from Samsung began in 2011. The Note is a large-screen phone/tablet hybrid (let's not say phablet, please) and its been getting steadily larger with pretty much each generation. This is the eighth Note (there was no Note 6, you see) and the series is infamous for the Note 7. It was released in 2016 and within weeks of going on sale, multiple devices caught fire. The phone was recalled, adjusted and re-released… and more of them caught fire.
As the battery was deemed partly to blame for this tendency to catch fire, and for the serious damage it did to Samsung's reputation, the next model, the Note8 was deliberately pretty timid, with a smaller battery.
Storage on this phone is off the charts
Now, the Note9 boasts the largest battery Samsung has ever put in either its Note or S ranges, the biggest screen yet and an enhanced version of that S Pen stylus which partly defines the Note range.
Storage on this phone is off the charts: you can choose one with 512GB built in, and a memory card means you can expand this to an unprecedented 1TB. Now you need to find something to do with all that space.
One other thing: it's also the most expensive Note yet.
DesignFrom left, the 2017 Samsung Galaxy Note8, spring 2018's Samsung Galaxy S9+ and the 2018 Note9
This is possibly the most attractive smartphone Samsung has built. It follows the same industrial design language as the Samsung Galaxy S9 and last year's Galaxy Note8.
That means flagship build quality with every element looking and feeling premium. A display with carefully rounded corners that stretches almost to the top and bottom of the phone - and no notch! - and which slopes down at both the phone's long edges. The Note differs slightly from the S in the steepness of the slope. The Note has a display that's flat almost to the edges and then falls off steeply but still at a curve.
That's because of the Note's S-Pen stylus - a wider flat surface makes it easier to write near to the edges.
That display means there's no room on the front for a fingerprint sensor so that sits on the rear of the phone. Like the S9+, here the sensor is below the dual camera array. This is a definite improvement to last year's Note8, where the sensor was alongside the camera lenses. The previous placement resulted in frequent, by which I mean almost constant, smudging of the lens as your finger sought out the sensor on the back while you were looking at the front of the handset.
Samsung has managed to squeeze so much screen into so little phone
Compared to the Note8, the edges of the Note9 are a little thinner, so they feel a little sharper in the hand.
But, as ever with the Note series, Samsung has managed to squeeze so much screen into so little phone that though there's a 6.4in display here, it feels comfortable in the hand. Though I'd say it's still worth feeling it in your mitts before you buy - it will still be too big for smaller fingers.
On the bottom edge of the Note9 is the slot for the S-Pen which fits flush in the right-hand corner. More on this unique stylus later. And the final design point: also on the bottom edge is a headphone jack, something that is becoming a Samsung speciality. Among flagship phones, only OnePlus routinely includes this connector now.
DisplayThe screen on the Note9 is 6.4in, that's 0.1in bigger than last year's phone in a body that is 1.6mm wider, 0.2mm thicker and, surprisingly, shorter by 0.6mm. In other words, it feels and looks pretty similar to last year's model: you'd be hard put to tell the two apart just by looking at the front.
Comparing the Note9 to the S9+ released in the spring, the display here is 0.2in bigger, again pretty similar. In short, unless you want the S-Pen and its features, the S9+ is probably big enough.
It's a beautiful display, extremely high-resolution with 1440 x 2960 pixels on a display with 18.5:9 ratio and 516ppi, which is higher than the iPhone X, for example.
Nobody makes better OLED phone panels than Samsung
It's OLED, and nobody makes better OLED phone panels than Samsung - after all, they've been doing it longer than anyone else. Colours are vivid and bright without being over-saturated (though they're heading in that direction). Black shades are irreproachably solid and dark. And off-angle colour, when you turn the display away from you is reasonably stable, way better than most rivals.
In recent phones, Samsung has featured an always-on display so that when you're not using the phone, the time, date, battery charge and more information are constantly displayed in grey on a black background and at a minimal cost in terms of battery drain.
So, you never have to pick the phone up or wake the screen to check the time. It's a neat feature that many Android phones now have and is particularly useful now the fingerprint sensor is round the back of the phone.
Which brings us to security, and the ways to unlock the Note9.
SecurityThe fingerprint sensor is fast, but because it’s on the back of the phone, you need to have it in your hand to use it. And there's that thing of finding the sensor without looking, though in my experience this is reasonably quick to become familiar.
So, Samsung has built in other ways to wake the phone. You can set a PIN code or password and if you set neither, which is not advised, you can wake the phone just by pressing the Home icon. This is on the display but correlates to a pressure-sensitive area under the glass - it's a feature unique to Samsung.
But there's also iris recognition on the front of the phone, and facial recognition. The innovation that arrived on the S9 and S9+ and is here, too, is that you can use both iris and facial recognition simultaneously, for an unlock system that’s fast and secure. Samsung calls it Intelligent Scan.
It works moderately well but honestly not well enough to be routinely effective, which is the absolute minimum for it be counted a success, I'd say.
As a result, you may see a message asking you to open your eyes more fully or hold the phone more upright as icons wink back and forth and often result in a failure to unlock. Now, of course, this is better than it unlocking for just anyone, but it definitely needs to improve.
The relocation of the fingerprint sensor is brilliant
On the plus side, when it works, it takes you straight to the home screen or the app you were last using, which adds to the feeling of intimacy when the phone has recognised you and unlocked accordingly. On the Apple iPhone X, for comparison, unlocking leaves you on the front page, it doesn't take you to the home screen without another swipe of your finger.
Even though Intelligent Scan works (mostly) for unlocking the display, there are still security elements in most apps which need you to unlock with your fingerprint.
The relocation of the fingerprint sensor is brilliant - it sits lower than on the Note8 (better) and higher than on the S9+ (also better, actually). It's fast and works pretty much every time.
CameraLike last year's Note8 and this year's Galaxy S9+, the Note9 has twin rear cameras, which, like on the iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X, can be used separately or together. The focal lengths differ so you effectively have 2x optical zoom by switching from one lens to the other, something which happens automatically, and very smoothly, as you zoom in or out.
The wide-angle of the two cameras has a dual aperture, which gives it greater flexibility in low light - it chooses which aperture it should use automatically.
Shooting together means you can achieve that elegant bokeh effect where your subject is in fiercely sharp focus, the background charmingly blurred.
The lenses and sensors are the same as on the S9+ but there is a refinement here with the addition of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Samsung's not the first manufacturer to include this capability and it can have strong effects: the Huawei P20 Pro shoots differently depending on whether it's taking a photo of a dog (it emphasises the fur) or a cat (look at those eyes!) and makes the adjustments it sees fit automatically.
In the very top rank of best smartphone cameras
Extra features in terms of AI include a blink warning, letting you know that the photo you're taking will have closed eyes in it. I found this to be a bit hit-and-miss.
The AI maybe adds a little extra to the camera but not much. That doesn't matter because the Note9, like the S9+ before it, has a powerful, fast, versatile camera that delivers great results.
There is much else to like. You can set it so the whole screen becomes the camera viewfinder. This looks fantastic and works brilliantly - though it drops the resolution to a still-acceptable 7.9MP. For full 12MP resolution you'll need 4:3 picture format which doesn't look quite as dazzling onscreen (though the photos may look better later).
It's fast and effective, though sometimes adding features like the flash can lead to some shutter lag.
It shoots 4K video and super-slow motion (at a lower resolution). That means as much as 960 frames per second, which only the Sony Xperia phones can match. What's especially good here is an auto setting. This means it will start the slo-mo when it sees movement in an onscreen area. After all, if it's that fast, you may not be quick enough to press the trigger yourself.
Along with the cameras on the Huawei P20 Pro, Apple iPhone X and Google Pixel 2, this camera is in the very top rank of best smartphone cameras.
S PenThe latest S Pen looks broadly similar to previous styluses from Samsung. Except now you can get a cute yellow one, if you choose the blue-finish Note9, which is the classiest of the three available finishes (the others are black and lavender).
But in fact, it's quite different from before thanks to improved connectivity using Bluetooth. This means it needs recharging, but, don't worry, it charges every time it's in the phone and 40 seconds of charging gives 30 minutes of use, Samsung says, and which sounds about right.
The button on the S Pen's side is very useful. Tap it to remote-trigger the shutter on the camera, switch to the next slide in a presentation and so on.
As you withdraw the stylus it launches a series of S Pen-friendly apps Not everyone needs a stylus, but if you do, there's much to like about the S Pen, though personally I still find it a little too slender for easy use.
However, since you can write notes on the Note9 screen, even if it's in standby mode, it's worth mentioning that Note9 is an excellent, stable surface thanks to the nearly flush camera unit: you couldn't do this on the iPhone X which, because of the protuberant lenses, rocks when you press on it!
BixbyBixby is Samsung’s rival to Apple’s Siri voice assistant. It’s getting smarter and more capable but it's really not yet a competitor to Alexa or Google Assistant, say.
You can control pretty most actions on the phone using your voice, instructing Bixby to open apps, there's Bixby Vision which can recognise things in photos and so on, but it still feels like a technology in its infancy.
FeaturesThis phone, like most recent Samsung flagships, is waterproof. It has wireless charging that works at quite a rate, all the more impressive given the size of the battery it's charging. And there's that expandable memory. As mentioned above, the Note9 comes with either 128GB or a whopping 512GB built-in memory and supports memory cards of up to 512GB, meaning up to 1TB of storage capacity is available!
Then there's DeX, Samsung's system that turns your smartphone into a desktop computer. Well, almost. You need a separate monitor, a mouse and external keyboard for this to work, and a standard USB-C to HDMI cable. It's an interesting and still strange use case, that you'll find yourself with an accessible monitor, keyboard and mouse rather than a hotdesking computer, but you never know. Perhaps Samsung is ahead of the curve and this kind of way to use your phone will become more prevalent.
PerformanceDepending on the model you choose, there's either 6GB or 8GB of RAM on board, so no surprise this is enough to keep the phone running smoothly. The higher RAM is on the higher-capacity handset, unsurprisingly.
Samsung uses fast processors in its phones, as you'd expect for a handset at this price. The Exynos 9810 Octa, an own-brand chip, is certainly speedy.
Running on the previous version Android Oreo 8.1
Maybe it could be even faster and even more of a performer, if it had the latest operating software. After all, if you have a Google Pixel 2, you can already run the latest OS, Android Pie. Samsung's phone is, of course, technically capable of handling the latest software but will have to wait for an update, instead running on the previous version Android Oreo 8.1.
- Glamorous design
- Outstanding camera
- Wireless charging
- Fast processor
- Great battery life
- Useful S Pen
- Too big for some hands
- Not everyone needs a stylus
Samsung Galaxy Note9 ReviewSamsung's phones, with the exception of the Note 7, have grown better pretty consistently. The design isn't wildly different from the last few Note handsets, or Galaxy S, for that matter. But this is a highly evolved design, matching in-hand comfort with strong ergonomics, especially now the fingerprint sensor is in the best place yet (if a fingerprint sensor really must be on the back of a phone).
It looks great, and works tremendously, offering fast, reliable performance whatever you throw at it, handling video playback, demanding games and power-hungry apps with ease.
The S Pen is very useful, though not everyone will need one. As styluses go, it's the best yet from Samsung.
Well, that stands for the whole phone, though there are issues.
The facial recognition is not great, Bixby is best avoided and, oh yes, it's a heck of a price.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £899.00
Call and Signal Quality9
Email, Browsing, Calandar, Contacts8
App support and functionality7
Value for Money6
Our Review Ethos
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