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Two steps forward, one step back

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I’ve been testing Samsung’s new Galaxy S9 and larger, slightly stepped-up Galaxy S9 Plus ($839.99 at Amazon.com) for over a week. And while I’m 85 percent certain that these beautiful, powerful phones are two of the best that money can buy, the remaining 15 percent of me is disappointed that the world’s largest Android brand couldn’t do a little better.

From a bird’s eye view, I see top-of-the-line specs combined with excellent design, internal speeds and outdoor photography. Samsung’s hardware remains at the top of the market, which makes the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus excellent all-rounders that can handle the usual roster of activities and last a work day on a single charge.

These are all superb reasons to buy a Galaxy S9 if you’re upgrading from an older phone such as the Galaxy S7, OnePlus 3, iPhone 6 and so on. Skip it if you have a Galaxy S8 ($578.95 at Amazon.com). It’s too close to make the update worthwhile.

It’s when you dive into the details that some nagging problems snap into focus, and these could break the experience for certain people. For example, the industry-first dual aperture lens that Samsung put in both Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus phones absolutely makes photos as bright as promised, but it also often makes them blurry. And the 3D avatars and new face unlock tools meant to match similar features in the iPhone X ($1,199.99 at Amazon Marketplace) are either half-baked or fundamentally flawed.

While it’s easy to overlook or simply avoid its weaker additions, Samsung wants these particular tools to set the Galaxy S9 apart from the competition — and from the Galaxy S8 before it — and they just don’t live up to the claim. These fumbled details cost the Galaxy S9 CNET’s rarely given Editors’ Choice award, but it’s still a terrific phone in the ways that matter.

We’ll continue our deep-dive testing into the S9’s camera quality and durability from all angles, and will revisit the review if Samsung makes major software updates to its headliner features.

You should feel good buying a Galaxy S9 or S9 Plus, and for a lot of people, one of them will be the phone to get. That said, avid mobile photographers will get better low-light photography out of the Google Pixel 2 ($629.99 at Amazon Marketplace) and 2 XL. If you crave cutting-edge security, the iPhone X has tamper-proof face unlock cornered for now, although iris unlock on the Galaxy S8 and newer is still secure. And the OnePlus 5T is a much lower-cost alternative if you’re looking for a better-than-basic Android device for less.

Stick around for a breakdown of what the Galaxy S9 does really well, where it falls short, how much it costs, how it differs from the S9 Plus, a look at the main features and how it compares to other top phones.

Editors’ note: Ratings are tentative until we complete final testing, including ongoing camera and battery tests.

What the Galaxy S9 does really well


    Andrew Hoyle/CNET
  • Bright, 5.8-inch AMOLED screen with a dual-curved display. It feels great.
  • It looks awesome in lilac purple and coral blue. You can also buy it in midnight black and titanium gray.
  • Fast Snapdragon 845 processor gets tasks done, handles graphic-intensive games (some models use Samsung’s Exynos 9810).
  • A full battery should take you from morning to night. Navigation and streaming will drain it faster.
  • Bright, pretty outdoor photos with the 12-megapixel camera.
  • Dual-speaker system makes for loud, rich audio.
  • Good old-fashioned headphone jack!
  • Improved placement of the fingerprint reader makes mobile payments more convenient.
  • Wireless charging and water-resistant rating (IP68, and it passed our dunk test) give it an edge over most phones, just like previous Galaxy models.

Where the Galaxy S9 falls short

  • Dual-aperture camera makes many low-light photos unrealistically bright and blurry. There’s less contrast and texture than other phones have.
  • The 3D avatars you make with AR Emoji track your expressions poorly and need far more customization options.
  • Intelligent Scan, a new unlock option that uses your face, isn’t secure and doesn’t seem to solve an existing problem.
  • The camera switches too easily among modes, which is frustrating when you’re not where you want to be.
  • With super slow-motion video, automatic mode isn’t that useful, and image quality is lower-resolution than regular slow-motion.
  • Lacks the second rear lens of the step-up S9 Plus. This is by design, so Samsung could give the S9 Plus an advantage.

Galaxy S9 price: How much will it cost you?

One look at the price tag will tell you the Galaxy S9 is no discount phone. In some countries it costs about the same as last year’s Galaxy S8. In others, it’s more expensive. Available for preorder now, you can pick up the Galaxy S9 in person on March 16.

Keep in mind that prices fluctuate throughout the year based on retailers’ seasonal discounts and other promotional deals, so patient shoppers may find it for less.

Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9 Plus prices

Galaxy S9 Galaxy S9 Plus
Price off-contract (USD) Varies: $720-$800 Varies: $840-$930
Price (GBP) £739 £869
Price (AUD) AU$1,199 (64GB), AU$1,349 (256GB) AU$1,349 (64GB), AU$1,499 (256GB)

This deep dive will help you sort out the US carrier pricing breakdown at launch

The Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus will sell in lilac purple, coral blue, midnight black and titanium gray, but not every country will get every color. For example, the phones won’t initially sell in gray in the US.

What is Trade Up and Save?

Samsung wants to drum up upgrades through a global trade-in program called Trade Up and Save. You’ll get credit for turning in your old phone and buying a new Galaxy. Run through Samsung.com, Trade Up and Save is separate from other carrier and store offers. In the US, you can earn up to $350, but the total will vary by country.

Read more about Galaxy S9 trade-ins.

Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 PlusSamsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus

The premium-priced Galaxy S9 is cheaper than the S9 Plus.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Galaxy S9 vs. S9 Plus: What’s the difference?

If you’re deciding between the two new Galaxy S9 phones, rest assured that you can’t really pick wrong. That’s because they share most of the same core features, with a few exceptions, including their size, weight and price.

The most obvious difference is the second camera lens on the back of the S9 Plus, a telephoto lens that’s dedicated to creating those depth-of-field portrait shots that blur the background to make people and objects pop.

If you know you want a phone with a larger screen, or prize taking portraits, the S9 Plus may be worth the cost bump. I find the smaller S9 more comfortable to hold and use, but the S9 Plus isn’t a strain.

Differences between the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9 Plus

Galaxy S9 Galaxy S9 Plus
Display size and pixel density 5.8-inch, 570ppi 6.2-inch, 529ppi
Dimensions (inches) 5.81×2.7×0.33 inches 6.22×2.91×0.33 inches
Weight 5.75 oz; 163 g 6.66 oz; 189 g
Battery 3,000mAh 3,500mAh
RAM 4GB 6GB

*See full comparison chart at the end.

The S9 Plus also costs more, though the price difference between the two phones varies by retailer. If you’re considering the Galaxy S9 Plus, check out my full review to help you narrow down your choice.

Read more about the Galaxy S9 Plus and S9 differences.

Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 PlusSamsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus

The Samsung Galaxy S9, left, and Galaxy S9 Plus.


Sarah Tew/CNET

Galaxy S9: Dual aperture camera highs and lows

The camera is the Galaxy S9’s one real doozy of a feature. It’s the first to bring a mechanical dual-aperture lens from DSLRs to the much tinier mobile phone, a feature that’s designed to let in more light, reduce image noise and generally make your photos a lot better.

Dual aperture means that the camera physically switches between two settings of the aperture, the opening that lets in light. A narrower F2.4 setting is used for brightly lit shots, and automatically jumps over to a wider F1.5 aperture in low-light situations like a dim restaurant or your living room while you’re watching a movie.

On the Galaxy S9, the aperture physically changes size when the camera detects low light, automatically toggling you back and forth between the F2.4 and F1.5 settings, though you can manually adjust this yourself in Pro mode. Samsung says that the camera lets in 28 percent more light for dimmer scenarios, and it shows.

So far, three CNET editors have taken scores of photos on the S9 and S9 Plus, which share the same 12-megapixel, dual-aperture camera. We all agree that the S9 takes the brightest low-light pictures we’ve ever seen, with less graininess than other phones. The camera correctly picked the right aperture setting for our low-light shots. The Galaxy S9 is tuned to switch apertures into low-light mode at around 100 lux, which is said to be the equivalent of a dark, overcast day.

On a clear, sunny day, the Galaxy S9 takes excellent shots.


Andrew Hoyle/CNET

But image quality on those darker scenes has its trade-offs. Time and again, low-light photos were either too bright (like daylight) or tinted yellow. Slower shutter speeds (1/10, 1/11) let in more light, but also caused subjects to blur with even the slightest provocation. The Galaxy S9 often took scenes with plenty of detail on the subject, but then glossed over background edges, textures and contrast.

So far, I’ve found that many of the Galaxy S9’s low-light photos are usable. The Google Pixel 2 and 2XL, however, remain the best phones for taking consistently excellent low-light pictures.

As for all the outdoor, indoor and daylight photos that don’t fall into the low-light bucket, these retain Samsung’s generally excellent image quality and processing. 

The Galaxy S9 tends to make colors more syrupy than they are in real life, but edges are often clean and contrast is usually pretty high. On balance, you’re going to be pretty happy with the pictures you take.

AR Emoji needs better face tracking and customization

“Oh no, no.” “That’s scary.” “Why are my lips quivering like I’m on the verge of crying?”

These were typical responses of the 17 CNET editors (and counting) who have so far used Samsung’s new AR Emoji feature.

Found in the camera app, Samsung’s answer to the iPhone X’s animojis scans your face and creates a 3D avatar that you can use in precreated animated GIFs and in videos you record and share.

But where animojis proved the concept that mimicking your features is fun, AR Emoji proves how it can quickly go wrong. Setup is fast, but the results are, in a word, creepy.

You have limited customization options for hairstyle, clothing and accessories. But AR Emoji squashes genetic diversity. There’s no curly hair, for example, or realistic shades of blond or red. The narrow skin tone palette could inspire a searing essay on ethnic representation in the digital world. You have your choice of one body type.

s9-ar-emoji-jd-1s9-ar-emoji-jd-1

This is me, apparently, thinking really hard about AR Emoji.


AR Emoji by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The animations themselves are juddery and barely track real expressions. Real Jessica smiles. AR Emoji Jessica grimaces. Real Jessica keeps a still face. AR Emoji Jessica quivers.

In more than once instance, it bordered on offensive. “It looks like I’ve had some real sort of nerve problem,” one CNET editor said.

This is very much a first-generation attempt at getting into the AR selfie game. I’m hoping that the San Francisco startup behind AR Emoji will push improvements — quickly. But broadening the range of skin tones or adding realistic hairstyles won’t fix AR Emoji’s fundamental problems.  

At the end of the day, its synthetic-looking representations bear such little resemblance to the people who are supposed to identify with them, it would have been better if Samsung just left it off the phone.

New selfie focus mode sometimes blurs the wrong thing

samsung-galaxy-s9-face-iris-intelligent-scan-unlock-2samsung-galaxy-s9-face-iris-intelligent-scan-unlock-2

Selfie focus tends to blur hair.


Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Galaxy S9 pretty much maintains the status quo for selfies, producing shots of your face you’d want to share. I tend to go back and forth on the way Samsung applies a skin-softening “beauty” filter by default. It’s important to respect reality, but most people don’t really want to see every line and pore.

I did have fun trying out the new Selfie Focus mode, which uses software — and not a second lens — to create a depth effect with the front-facing camera. The problem here is that blur is far too aggressive and always smeared out my hair along with most of the background. The iPhone X and Pixel 2 were more forgiving.

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