It’s been a little over a week now since Samsung released their latest flagship to the market, the Samsung Galaxy Note 9. When the specifications and designs were first leaked in the weeks building up to the official announcement, I had mixed feelings of optimism and pessimism. Pessimism because, in terms of hardware, the numbers weren’t much better over the previous iteration. That said, knowing Samsung, and given the lack of all-out hardware attack, a lot of the phablet’s success would come down to the software and ecosystem, as well as the experience of both playing out.
The Galaxy S9 made improvements over last year’s S8, but it wasn’t enough to reach the same heights, which was proved in the market in terms of sales. Fast-forward a few months later, and Samsung has once again stirred the pot with the Note 9, introducing a host of new features and making significant improvements to the established set of tools to make fans sit up and take notice. But how does it all play together as a whole and does it have enough to change people’s mind who wouldn’t necessarily consider the Note as a suitable purchase? Let’s find out.
Build and Design
As mentioned previously, one of the aspects of the Note 9’s ‘negative’ aspects leading up to the release had been its design. It’s the first thing many fans and techies alike would have noticed. A direct comparison between the Note 9 and 8 is probably the only way you’ll be able to tell the two apart, but even then, it’s not that easy. Looking at the measurements, there are slight differences. The Note 9 measures 161.9×76.4×8.8mm while the Note 8 measures 162.5×74.8×8.6mm. Those are very slight differences, with only the width, at 1.6mm wider, noteworthy. This adds to the difference in the size of the screen, which I’ll discuss below. In terms of the weight, the Note 9 weighs in at 201g compared to last year’s 195g. Again, nothing really noticeable.
There are also a few changes to the build of the Note 9 over its predecessor. The edges aren’t as curved and pronounced, and the screen doesn’t curve as much compared to the S9 or Note 8. Again, this makes some difference to the screen size. The curve around the device is double-edged, which you can feel when in use. This is particularly noticeable on the sides of the devices, where it feels sharper, although not sharp enough to do any damage. The speaker grills, ports, SIM ports, etc. all remain the same across both Notes. Where there is a change is on the rear, the Note 9, as with the S9, moving the fingerprint reader from the right side of the camera to below it. Not only does it make it easy to use and not continually smudge your camera’s lens, but it also allows you to reach it much easier in one hand on the fly. But maybe it could have been moved just a tad further down, away from the dual-camera housing.
At the end of the day, there’s no getting away from the size of this beast. Having had a few Galaxy Note devices in the past, I’m well aware of the pocket implications of the device. Even still, it takes some getting used to. In use, I felt nervous every time I had it in hand, which I still haven’t completely gotten over. That said, it feels great. The smooth, rounded glass has a premium feel at all angles, from the front to the back. Not since the Google Nexus 4 have I felt a smartphone as good in hand, although a few have come close. The smoothness of the glass, as well as the double-edges curvatures, makes the Note 9 feel great in hand. All of that, and the device still has an IP68 rating making it waterproof and dust-proof. And it keeps this rating whether the S Pen is housed or not.
The New S Pen
Samsung has placed a lot of importance on the development of the new S Pen. And for good reason. For some users, it may seem a gimmick, but there’s actually sufficient functionality to make it worthwhile. Unlike previous S Pen builds, the new device has bright yellow digital ink colour, with various colours for the other Note 9 colour options. Engineers added a small supercapacitor within the S Pen, as well as a Bluetooth low-energy antenna, all the while keeping the S Pen’s signature build as in previous years. This allows it to be used remotely within various applications for different uses. A long press of the S Pen’s button launches the camera app, while a single click within the app takes a photo, and a double click switches the camera to selfie mode. Not all apps currently support the remote capabilities, but there are a few that already do, making it quite a useful tool. The Voice Recorder, Gallery, Media (Music Player), Chrome, and PowerPoint all have shortcuts associated with the S Pen. Examples include the PowerPoint’s functionality allowing users to flick between slides while presenting.
Due to the new features and Bluetooth capabilities, the S Pen includes a battery, which is required to be charged every 30 minutes or so. But that isn’t an issue, as a simple 40-second charge back in its slot is all that’s required to extract another 30 minutes of use. Once it’s been placed back in its slot, the Note 9 will detect when it’s fully charged and won’t overuse the battery. There are also a few other auto-detections from the device that come in handy. The best of these is the alert on your phone when the S Pen has exceeded the distance away from the Note 9 so as not to leave it behind or misplace it.
It’s worth mentioning that Samsung has made their S Pen SDK publicly available to developers to create and update existing apps with the remote functionality. This will help in expanding the customisation and wider reach of software for the S Pen.
In addition to all the new features, Samsung has also overhauled the S Pen’s previous capabilities somewhat, tweaking its accuracy while adding improved sensitivity on the tip to get the most out of more advanced uses such as drawing, calligraphy, and the likes. These extra touches make it easy to use, and use more often at the same time. I spent quite a number of hours getting acquainted with the S Pen, trying my hand at a few sketches, designs, editing and the likes. Samsung has also included a new screen-off memo function, which allows users to capture notes on the go, without first having to unlock the device and open an app. This is good for those quick notes you wish not to forget, and even better than they auto save once you close the or store the S Pen again.
It’s very difficult to fault the Note 9’s updated S Pen. While it doesn’t meet the overall precision of Apple’s Pencil, there are a few advantages it has over its rival – for starters, it can easily store away within the Note 9.
Screen and Display
On the face of it, there’s nothing new with the Note 9’s screen and display. But if you look a little closer, you’ll notice a few small changes. To start off with, and as mentioned previously, there’s slightly more real estate to play with. Samsung has increased the size of the Note 9’s screen to 6.38” (listed as 6.4”) from last year’s 6.32”. The 0.6” may seem insignificant, but if you consider that it’s measured diagonally, it is noteworthy. In addition, the development team has managed to squeeze the extra bits into basically the same dimensions, as listed above. As such, when comparing the two phablets side by side, you’ll notice that Samsung has manage to decrease both the top and bottom bezels. It’s not as if it needed shaving. While the team has managed to extend the screen-to-body ratio up to 83.4%, it’s still behind the S9+’s ratio of 84.2%.
It may appear near exact on paper, with a Super AMOLED panel with a 1440x2960px resolution display, there are some differences. Due to the increased screen size, the pixel density drops a bit to 516ppi. That said, the smoother Gorilla Glass 5 panel somehow seems brighter, more colourful, and just better to look at with a direct comparison to the Note 8 viewing the same images. Tests have indicated that the brightness on the new panel is up over 25%, with contrast up by 32%. It’s just a joy to watch movies, play games, or simply just to stare at the screen in awe.
While it needs no pointing out, it may be worth mentioning that there’s no ‘notch’ on the top end of the screen, as has been the trend in 2018 after last year’s Apple iPhone X launch. The extra bit of screen can actually be used. If Samsung made the decision to completely remove the front-facing camera for a completely bezel-less face, I’ll be all in support of that.
Performance and Battery Life
When it comes to internal specifications, the Note 9 includes the same SoC as that fitted to S9+. As a refresher, that is: Exynos 9810 Octa-core (4×2.7GHz Mongoose M3, 4×1.8GHz Cortex-A55) with a Mali-G72 MP18 GPU. The unit received for review includes 6GB of RAM with 128GB internal storage. That, however, is dwarfed by the souped-up unit, which will sport 8GB of RAM and a massive 512GB internal storage. When you consider that Samsung is also working on a soon-to-be-released microSD card flash memory with 512GB capacity, it will give the Note 9 a potential physical storage of 1TB – a world first. That’s just insanely massive. It will, however, come at a premium price if this is something that interests you.
Going back to the CPU processing power, you won’t find the device winning any speed tests or set the benchmark world alight. Far from it. As I’ve mentioned in a few previous smartphone reviews, it’s not all about all-out computational power to throw at solving the puzzle. Smartphones have been overpowered for years now, with sufficient computational prowess to take an astronaut to the moon and back. What Samsung has done well was to build the Android framework around its Exynos SoC, eking out more from it than the S9+. In terms of the benchmarks, the Note 9 outpowers the S9+ variant, which isn’t surprising. What is surprising, however, is that the S9+ variant with the Qualcomm SoC is far superior than both. With the iPhone X and OnePlus 6 also topping the benchmark scores, respectively, Samsung doesn’t seem to want to compete for such honours, instead aiming to deliver a more well-rounded experience through its software and ecosystem.
Samsung has bolted on a non-removable, li-Ion 4,000mAh battery to the Note 9. That’s up from the Note 8’s 3,300mAh and the S9+’s 3,500mAh battery. Both previous batteries were good, and able to keep a power user going throughout the day. But that wasn’t good enough for the team. The additional 500mAh may not seem much, but the engineers have also taken care to increase the battery capacity for the first time since the Note 7 recall. Battery was slated at surviving all day, and it went beyond my initial expectation. Being a power user myself, switching between WhatsApp, work calls, a few games, social media, a few photos, and countless amount of website browsing over WiFi, many of my previous daily drivers required a twice a day charging schedule. That’s gone. Apart from a few occasions, if I fully charged the device before leaving to work, I was able to continue my regular usage patterns and only plug it in again the next morning, with still a decent amount of battery left over to get to work if needed. Samsung has lost the title of fastest charging battery tech to the likes of Huawei and OnePlus, but the device is still capable of recharging within two hours from 0-100%.
The Note 9 comes preinstalled with Android 8.1.0 Oreo. With Android 9 Pie having been released a few weeks prior, there were some fans holding out that the company would be releasing the Note with the latest Android OS, but that wasn’t to be the case, and not something that I would have expected within such a short turnaround. In recent years, there’s always been a worry about the delay in upgrade rollouts to Samsung smartphones, with many South Africans still awaiting the Oreo upgrade on their S8 and Note 8 devices. Based on research, and having history of Samsung devices, this wasn’t an issue for me having manually installed some of the latest updates, which always leads me to believe that issues were a combined delay between Samsung and our local network operators.
Other software changes include an update to Bixby, Samsung Pay, Fortnite (an exclusive for a limited time), AR emoji capture, the new S Pen features (as discussed above), DeX, along with numerous other small changes. Starting with Bixby, Samsung has tweaked the AI experience, hoping to engage users from an automated experience as it learns your traits and uses of the device. There’s also a notable performance upgrade to the overall experience, allowing it to open quicker from the homescreen, while also delivering a slightly better UI, and integration into 3rd party applications. Despite all the tweaks, however, it doesn’t match Google’s and Apple’s assistants, and has some catching up to do when it comes to how the software interacts from a voice-command perspective. Improvements across the board, as well as contextual commands are great, but not being able to recognise a wider variety of requests poses a few challenges.
Samsung South Africa is also finally in a position to officially launch Samsung Pay in the country, having partnered with a significant amount of businesses, as well as extreme levels of testing before confidently starting the rollout process. I’ll be touching more on this in the coming weeks.
Samsung has been pushing its shared experience with the DeX for a while now, having gone through three iterations to reach this latest build. Instead of the previously required adapter or docking station, now all you’ll need is a USB Type-C to HDMI cable or adapter and you’re all set to convert your smartphone into a portable desktop. Even better than the new built-in capability is the fact that Samsung also gives you the option of continuing to use your device as a smartphone while in DeX mode, allowing you to use both. The device can also convert into a trackpad when using DeX, or make use of the S Pen to capture notes or drawings right onto the screen. Unfortunately, there are a few limitations. If you use a 3rd-party cable or adapter, expect to only get the 720p experience, whereas the official Samsung cable allows you to boost this to 1080p. The biggest limitation, however, is that you still require a keyboard (and possibly a mouse) as well as a spare screen lying around. Mind you, there are a few Bluetooth mouses available on the market that allows you to connect to more than one device at a time, switching by means of a simple click of a button. The Logitech MX Anywhere 2 is one such device.
Interestingly, within a week of receiving the Note 9, a security update was available to download and install, which means pre-orders will be met with an immediate option to update the firmware. Is this a sign of change in the firmware and software patches in the months to come?
When it comes to camera capabilities, Samsung has always featured at the top, or very near there with each of their flagship smartphones. The Note 9 carries the same hardware as that of the S9+, a dual 12MP rear camera with a variable-aperture tech, which allows the camera to switch between an f/1.5 aperture for low-light environments, or an f/2.4 aperture for well-lit conditions. In addition to this, the second camera then allows 2x optical zoom support, providing sharp, focused, clear photos. Other features include optical image stabilisation, auto-HDR, panorama, auto-focus, as well as new AR emoji features. Where the camera comes to life is not the hardware, but an improved AI system, creating the best shots for all conditions with its new auto scene-detecting AI. All that is required is to point and shoot, and the software is capable of choosing the focus object, as well as the type of scene you’re shooting – from food to portraits, pets, action shots and the likes. The great part of all this is that it does it within milliseconds and you may not even realise what’s happening in the background. At times, I tried switching to the professional camera mode, but wasn’t able to match the auto-scene detection settings. The most notable use of this was the photos I took of the night sky. Even with the surrounding street lights washing out the scene, the camera was able to focus on a section of the screen, and enhance the image so I could actually see the stars – sometimes better than the naked eye. Even with the noise in the image, it’s better than anything I’ve seen previously on a smartphone.
Other interesting aspects to the updated AI capabilities include the image alerts, which let users know when there are flaws in the shot and includes blinking, not smiling, among others. The app will then prompt you to retake the photo, or attempt to fix it my mixing it with a previous capture or the same scene. In addition to this, it’s also capable of detecting when your finger is obstructing the lens, or even when there’s a smudge that needs cleaning.
The biggest gripe with the camera, however, is that you won’t be able to record using 4K HDR modes. Even worse is the fact that many other leading Android smartphones have already adopted this new trend, which means that Samsung is currently lacking in this department. Only time will tell if a software upgrade in the near future may solve this. With social media video content quickly on the rise, it would make sense to try and rectify this sooner rather than later.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 on paper doesn’t do much to set the world alight. Its specifications match that of one or other previously released Samsung smartphone. What it does do, however, is improve on that hardware in almost all aspects, from a brighter display, better CPU performances, better AI for the camera, an improved DeX experience, and best of all, the new S Pen capabilities and upgrades. At the start of 2018 I created a wishlist of tech I would need to improve certain aspects of my life including my design work. The initial wishlist contained four devices that I would require to optimise my work life. In the Note 9, I’ve easily managed to remove two of those said devices off the list, saving me quite a bit in the process. At a retail price of R18,999, the Note 9 is not cheap, but given the new features and additions, I would highly recommend it. The Note 9 challenges you to do more for longer, and that’s exactly what I did.
A few snaps from the Note 9’s camera: