Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus review
The Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus is the most advanced big phone you can buy today thanks to its oversized screen and superb cameras, even if it all looks identical to last year’s S8 Plus.
Without dramatic changes to the design, it’s only an iterative update to the S8 Plus – but it’s an iterative update to an Android phone that’s been sitting near the top of our best phones list for the past 11 months. That’s important to remember.
We’ve tested the Galaxy S9 Plus for nearly two weeks, and its low-light photos and big screen are the two most obvious highlights. It’s still Samsung’s grandiose 6.2-inch curved ‘Infinity’ display that will sell you on this more expensive phone over the 5.8-inch Galaxy S9, but both handsets have an improved 12MP camera that boasts a f/1.5 maximum aperture.
This is the first camera phone with such a wide aperture, giving the S9 and S9 Plus low-light and noise-defeating powers that are more advanced than those of even the Google Pixel 2, our previous best phone camera.
The S9 Plus benefits from rear dual-lens camera, too, giving it the same telephoto capabilities as last year’s Note 8 (the S9 has one lens on the back). It can also capture super-slow-motion video at 960 frames per second if you’re serious about video and, if you’re not, uses its 8MP front-facing camera to paint your face with AR Emoji props and masks.
Samsung has listened to the negative feedback regarding last year’s handsets, and has wisely moved its offset rear fingerprint sensor to a center-aligned position. It’s a more natural location, although you may not even need it thanks to more secure face unlock and iris scanning onboard. Addressing another shortcoming of the S8 Plus, Samsung finally gives its flagship phones stereo speakers for superior sound.
If you’re thinking an emphasis on stereo speakers, face unlock, AR Emoji and vertically stacked 12MP dual cameras sounds as if these are Samsung’s take on iPhone X features, you're right. The S9 Plus tries to match everything Apple can do, but at a larger screen size and with a 3.5mm headphone jack – and it also bests the Google Pixel 2 XL’s low-light photography.
What’s interesting is that Apple’s and Google’s handsets aren’t the fiercest competition for the S9 Plus – it’s Samsung’s own phones. The now-cheaper Galaxy S8 Plus is an incremental downgrade, ideal for anyone put off by the high S9 Plus price, while the Galaxy Note 9 is likely six months away, perfect for early adopters who have ample cash and a penchant for the S Pen and a slightly bigger screen. That positions the S9 Plus at the top temporarily.
Watch our Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus hands-on video below
- Want to see all this at a smaller size and price? Read our Samsung Galaxy S9 review
Samsung Galaxy S9 release date and price
- Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus release date: March 16
- $840 (£869, AU$1,349) marks a jump in price
- It’s still cheaper than an iPhone X
The official Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus release date is Friday, March 16, with pre-orders having opened on February 25 in the UK and Europe, and March 2 in the US.
Its price is more expensive than last year's S8 Plus in the US and UK. In the US, it costs $839.99 for the S9 Plus unlocked through Samsung's official website. That's only $10 more expensive than the S8 Plus, but it’s now $120 more expensive than the normal-sized S9. The gap is widening.
Of course, US carriers like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint will break this into digestible monthly fees, though Verizon and AT&T charge $100 more in the long run. But just about all American carriers are offering $350 for recent phone trade-ins.
In the UK, the Galaxy S9 Plus costs £869. That's a big price hike over the S8 Plus, which cost £779 at launch. That's £90 more in one year. Ouch. In Australia it costs AU$1,349.
EE in the UK has announced that the S9 Plus is now available for pre-order. Its Essential plan starts at £150 up front and £63 per month for 4GB of data. If you upgrade to the Max plan you get 60GB of data plus two years of access to the BT Sports app for £78 per month. Additionally, buyers can get £250 off by trading in their Samsung Galaxy S7 or Galaxy S7 Edge.
- Samsung’s elegant-looking glass-and-metal smartphone design returns
- Small changes: center-aligned rear fingerprint sensor; stereo speakers
- You won’t notice the dimension differences from the S8 Plus
The Galaxy S9 Plus is the most stylish-looking smartphone you can buy thanks to Samsung continuing its design ethos of melding two glass panels with a metal frame. It doesn’t look very different from the S8 Plus, but that doesn’t matter unless you’re upgrading every year and demand annual newness.
Samsung has made small, but meaningful, changes on the back of its new phones. You’ll find the fingerprint sensor on the rear again, but now it’s aligned in the center, below the camera. The S8 Plus had a much-maligned offset scanner adjacent to the camera, and it was hard to blindly unlock your phone without smudging the camera lens. This is an improvement, although we found the fingerprint sensor pad smaller than the ones on most other Android phones.
You can choose one of four colors, including the new standout Lilac Purple. Other S9 color options at launch include Midnight Black and Coral Blue in the US, UK and Europe; there’s also a Titanium Gray hue available in other countries. Our Midnight Black review unit was a mess with fingerprints, even though we wiped it down between photos. It’s another reason to invest in a stylish Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus case.
And that’s it design-wise – you won’t readily notice anything else that’s new on the outside of the S9 Plus. The dimensions have changed by a few millimeters to reduce the top and bottom bezels, making the phone a tiny bit shorter than the S8 Plus, but it’s still a really big phone.
You’re still going to have to stretch your fingers to touch the corners of the screen furthest from your grip – navigating Google Maps on the go, for example, can be a cumbersome affair – so if you’ve been hesitant to buy into big-screen phones your best option is the smaller Galaxy S9. This is a big phone meant for big mitts.
Unlike many of its rivals, Samsung is standing by both the 3.5mm headphone jack and the microSD card slot. It’s also giving us a second year of the Bixby button on the left side of the phone to call up its digital assistant. No, you still can’t remap this button to your liking without third-party software and, yes, you’ll still hit it thinking it’s the nearby volume-down key.
- 6.2-inch Quad HD+ Super AMOLED curved screen
- 90% of the front of the phone is now screen
- No in-screen fingerprint sensor here
Samsung’s 6.2-inch display on the Galaxy S9 Plus is as expansive as it is impressive. It’s unchanged from the company’s previous Infinity Display – but that's held up to be a fantastic screen, so that’s okay with us, too.
Its tall 18.5:9 aspect ratio has set the standard for all-screen smartphones. It can display a Quad HD+ resolution, yet it still looks outstanding at the default Full HD 1080p. It’s the combination of the futuristic-looking curved edges, vibrant colors, and high contrast ratio that make it pop.
We also appreciate the fact that Samsung has created a screen that fills 90% of the front of the S9 Plus. There’s very little bezel here, and no notch whatsoever, which makes it feel like you’re holding one large, beautiful light beam in your hand.
That beautiful beam of light is prone to occasional false touches, which we experienced due to a combination of the curved screen and our firm grasp of such a big phone. It’s no fun watching text messages disappear only because our pinky finger glanced the backspace key (which happens to be right near the edge) while we tried to clutch this massive 6.2-inch display.
There’s no in-screen fingerprint sensor, even though we’ve seen Chinese phone makers debut the technology already. That highlight may be saved for the Note 9, or perhaps the Galaxy S10.
- Samsung’s answer to Apple’s Animoji is a little half-baked
- Easy to save and share on any third-party application
Like it or not, Samsung’s answer to Apple’s Animoji is here on the Galaxy S9 Plus with the debut of AR Emoji. This uses the front 8MP camera to analyze a 2D image of you and then maps more than 100 different facial features to a 3D avatar.
Samsung’s take on AR masks do mirror facial expressions onto a customizable avatar, but do so rather stiffly using its single camera and software-based algorithms. AR Emoji movement can’t compare to Apple’s iPhone X TrueDepth camera array.
The good news is that it’s easy to send AR Emoji messages to friends. Samsung has chosen to record your expressions (whether a custom message or a pre-made one) in the universal GIF format. Friends/former friends who own non-Samsung handsets will be able to enjoy/loathe your constant AR tomfoolery.
The feedback from friends? Our AR personas failed to look like us no matter how many times we ran through the creation process, and we found AR Emojis to be the least convincing reason to buy the Galaxy S9 Plus – the novelty quickly wears off.
You will find more variety to Samsung’s AR Emoji menu the deeper you look, though. In addition to being able to change the gender, skin color, and hairstyle of your human avatar, you can cycle through creative AR stickers, in case you want to go full-on bunny rabbit or wear a more gangster outfit complete with sunglasses, chains, hats and bandanas. This is Samsung’s take on what Snapchat can do, and it’s at least a little more creative.
- Bixby Voice is a very smart assistant that doesn’t always listen well
- Bixby Vision can provide live translations with okay results
- Internet connection required for features to work
The S9 Plus launches with Bixby Voice and Bixby Vision built-in, an improvement over last year’s Galaxy phones that saw Samsung’s AI feature defanged for several months.
What’s here from day one is a sometimes-convincing virtual assistant meant to rival Siri and Google Assistant. It can actually do a bit more by following through on commands – asking it to “Open Twitter and tweet ‘This is what it’s like to be the only one in the @futureplc NYC office on a snow day #SamsungGalaxyS9’” let me dictate my tweet without requiring me to open the app or type.
Apple and Google’s AI can’t follow through like this. However, both can understand me better than Bixby, and that’s a big deal. You see, Bixby kept thinking I said ‘Future peel see’ when I was dictating that tweet, and when asking it to “Send an email to Gareth Beavis with the subject: ‘How’s your Galaxy S9 review coming?’” it got everything right but ended the subject with ‘question Mark.’ Bixby is like a smart student who routinely fails to listen.
Bixby Vision breaks ground with features like live translation. You can decode a foreign language sign or menu by pointing your camera at it – all without snapping a photo and waiting for it to translate. It’s good news for travelers, though you’ll need data to power this internet-connected feature and its Google Translate backend is far from reliable. It’s helpful in a pinch, but we found asking for the English menu so much easier.
Bixby Vision will also continue to name and detail landmarks through location-aware smarts and attempt to identify food – and it now has the helpful (or shame-inducing) power to inform you of the amount of calories in that food. But its ability to correctly name foods is more of a joke than a reliable tool when it guesses that a lollipop is a corndog.
The 8MP front-facing camera is put to use if you’d like a makeover. Bixby Vision has a new makeup mode, overlaying various blushes, mascara, and lipsticks via partnerships with the CoverGirl and Sephora cosmetics brands. It’s an augmented reality feature designed to “guide you through the purchase flow,” notes Samsung. It seems like more of a neat tech demo for your new phone, and not a convincing use of the ‘AI’ buzzword.
- Face unlock and iris scanner now work at the same time
- It works okay, but the success rate trails Apple’s Face ID
New to the S9 Plus is the fact that the face unlock and iris scanner biometrics now work at the same time to unlock the phone. This is Samsung’s answer to Apple’s Face ID technology.
It works most of the time. Whenever our eyeballs and mug were looking down at the phone it opened very quickly, except when we were walking in bright sunlight – and, that’s just the sort of situation where you’ll want to recheck Google Maps or quickly reply to a message to say “I’m on my way.”
We’ve had similar issues with Face ID on the iPhone X and experience more here. Even a 95% success rate out of 100 unlock attempts in a normal day means it’ll fail five times every day, and that’s annoying. Samsung’s face unlock technology has also been spoofed in the past, so enabling it could leave you vulnerable even if it’s not exactly easy to crack.
None of these ‘futuristic’ options are as seamless as unlocking your phone through a good old-fashioned front fingerprint sensor – technology that both companies retired from their phones last year. At least Samsung includes a rear fingerprint sensor as an alternative unlock method.
Here’s something funny we picked up on while testing the S9 Plus: Samsung now lets you optionally hide notification content until the scanners recognize your eyes or face. That’s great for privacy, but as soon as it does recognize you it’ll bypass the lockscreen, and you’ll have to revert to pulling down the notification shade. Apple had a very similar issue when Touch ID Gen 2 performed too well and lockscreen notifications disappeared before anyone got to read them.
- Stereo speakers finally catch up to what Apple did on iPhone 7
- 40% louder than the single bottom-firing S8 Plus speaker
- Still not as crisp a sound compared to iPhone X speakers
You can’t really see it, but the Galaxy S9 Plus, along with the Galaxy S9, has stereo speakers, a first for a Samsung flagship and, frankly, a long- overdue addition for the world’s smartphone leader.
Samsung-owned AKG Acoustics has finely tuned the brand new top earpiece speaker and the returning bottom-firing speaker so that they’re 40% louder than the single speaker on the S8 Plus. And support for Dolby Atmos brings simulated 360-degree sound to the new smartphone.
These two S9 Plus speakers are plenty loud, and sound almost as crisp as the iPhone X speakers in our audio tests. Apple has been outfitting its phones with stereo speakers since the iPhone 7, so we’re just pleased to see Samsung catch up.
The best part about having stereo speakers in the Galaxy S9 Plus? You won’t accidentally mute all sound from the bottom-firing speaker when holding the phone in landscape mode. That’s been a constant issue with past Samsung smartphones.
Interface and specs
- New chipsets are 30% faster and S9 Plus has 6GB of RAM
- Android 8.0 Oreo is here, don’t expect Android P for months
- 64GB or 128GB of internal storage (region dependant)
The Galaxy S9 Plus is the fastest Android phone we’ve tested thanks to the fact that it uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chipset (in the US and China to support both CDMA and GSM carriers) or Samsung’s own Exynos 9810 (globally for GSM carriers).
Both 10nm chips are the latest and greatest in smartphones right now, and they’re coupled with 6GB of RAM, compared to the 4GB in the S9. You’ll have more headroom to multitask on the 6.2-inch screen, enjoy flawless 3D gaming, and run virtualized applications on Samsung Dex.
We saw a 30% speed boost over the S8 Plus and Note 8 performance in benchmarking apps that push the chip cores to their limit. And more importantly, in real-world experience we didn’t see a hint of slowdown. That can change over time with any phone (as applications become more robust), but Samsung outfitted the S9 Plus to be future-proof.
Don’t worry about the overbearing software this year. The Galaxy S9 streamlines menus as part of a fairly bloat-free Android 8.0 Oreo software skin, now known as Samsung Experience (it’s not called TouchWhiz anymore and not nearly as big of a turn off next to stock Android). Just don’t expect the Android P update for months if not a whole year.
We like pretty much everything about Samsung’s version of Android except its default keyboard, which routinely suggests wrong or randomly capitalized words. iOS 11 has this issue, too… maybe this is another way Samsung is trying to emulate Apple in 2018.
You’re getting either 64GB (US) or 128GB (everywhere else) of internal storage in the S9 Plus, and a spot for a microSD card so you can add up to 400GB of additional space. With LG and Apple now upgrading their devices to 256GB (for a higher price), this is the one area in which Samsung has held back, especially in the US. A microSD card becomes a must if you’re looking to shoot an ample amount of 4K video.
- World's first f/1.5 aperture on a phone
- Dual-aperture technology works like the human eye
- 960fps slow-motion video capture is fun, but grainy
Samsung is ready for all of your nightmarish low-light photo scenarios with the Galaxy S9 Plus camera and its new f/1.5 aperture – a world’s first for a smartphone camera.
Its magic is Dual-Aperture technology, which switches between an f/1.5 aperture (pulls in more light for darker scenes) to an f/2.4 aperture (reduces the amount of light captured to keep photos from becoming overexposed). Samsung says its mimicking how the human eye adjusts to light.
The S9 Plus is now able to soak in 28% more light with 30% less noise compared to the S8 Plus. It also has the benefit of Samsung adding DRAM to its image sensor stack, allowing photos to be made up of a composite of 12 frames instead of 3 frames. Samsung has made significant camera hardware changes, as opposed to LG’s pure software AI approach with the new LG V30S ThinkQ, and the results speak for themselves.
All of this groundbreaking camera trickery means it looks as if someone turned on more lights in your dimly lit pub and moody restaurant photos. In fact, you’re going to see the brightest photos yet from a smartphone using the Galaxy S9 Plus, and very little of the noise we’re all used to seeing when phone makers artificially amp up the brightness.
There are sacrifices at f/1.5, however. Photos can look over-processed, with smoothed or waxy skin and an overall lack of texture, at night. It’s also easier to spot glaring motion blur, even if your subjects are hardly moving. Photos are brighter than ones we shot on the iPhone X and Google Pixel 2 XL, but Samsung’s camera does like to omit texture in the name of brightness. It really comes down to a photo style preference.
Rear-facing camera samples
The cameras are different between the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9 Plus. Samsung’s larger phone inherits the Note 8’s dual-lens camera feature, which gives it a telephoto lens for optically zoomed-in photos without distortion. This second lens also enables bokeh-rich ‘Live Focus’ portrait photos that never seem to be flawless, but are on par with the background blurring effects the Google Pixel 2 and iPhone X are capable of.
The front-facing camera hasn’t changed from the Galaxy S8 Plus to the S9 Plus, using an 8MP sensor with the autofocus capability that’s so far been unique to Samsung’s phones. Pictures out of this selfie camera are bright, but too high in saturation. Samsung’s tendency to make colors punchy works for everything else, including landscape shots using the rear camera, but it can make skin tones appear slightly more red than the iPhone X’s more natural hues.
The best camera app on a phone
What Samsung does best is create a robust, yet simple-to-operate camera app that’s far better than anything Apple or Google have come up with (LG is a close second). Mode switching is an easy left-to-right swipe almost anywhere on the 6.2-inch viewfinder (the names of the modes appear at the top, making using of the tall screen). Toggling the front and back cameras is an intuitive swipe up or down on the screen, while triggering the selfie camera timer is an effortless open-hand gesture. Maybe the best feature is using the fastest way to launch its camera app: just double-press the physical sleep/wake button and you’re ready to snap your next shot.
4K60fps video and Super Slow Mo video
Samsung has added an option for recording 4K resolution video at 60 frames per second, with a reasonable limit of five minutes. It’s sharp, though this mode lacks optical image stabilization and doesn’t support tracking autofocus. The rest of the resolutions, from 4K 30fps on down, do have OIS and the footage looks fluid, same as last year. Samsung also gives you the option of recording normal-speed video in the new HEVC format to save space.
The biggest Galaxy S9 video highlight, however, is its Super Slow Mo video capabilities. We were able to capture slick-looking super-slow-motion video at 960fps, albeit in a noticeably lower 720p HD resolution. It’s grainy if the light isn’t ideal (and sometimes even if it is ideal, as it's slow enough to ruin office space slow motion video by picking up flickering fluorescent light). But the slow-motion effects are absolutely mesmerizing, matching what we’ve seen from the Xperia XZ1 and XZ1 Compact. The 240fps normal slow-mo video has been bumped up to 1080p Full HD, too.
Samsung told us that slow motion has been the most popular video mode outside of automatic, and here’s one more reason to continue wanting to use it: the S9 Plus has the ability to start recording slow-motion video when it detects motion. Timing the press of the on-screen shutter button is always a pain when recording slow-motion video, and this helps alleviate that problem. It’s not perfect if the motion isn’t obvious enough when passing in front of the on-screen motion-detection box, but it’s brilliant when it all works out.
- 3,500mAh battery
- Same all-day battery life as the Galaxy S8 Plus
- Fast Charging was speedier in our tests
We’ve tested the Samsung Galaxy S9 battery, and it’s a lot like the rest of the phone: it matches what we saw from the Galaxy S8 Plus a year ago. That translates into all-day battery life.
It has a 3,500mAh-capacity battery – the same as last year’s phone – and it’s still bigger than the 3,000mAh- and 3,300mAh-equipped Galaxy S9 and Note 8. It’s the biggest battery you can get in a newer Samsung flagship. We were hoping to eke out a few more hours courtesy of the new more efficient chipsets that power the S9 and S9 Plus, but that hasn’t happened.
Samsung, once again, isn’t pushing the boundaries of its battery capacity, perhaps understandably given its missteps with the explosion-prone Galaxy Note 7. However, it has slightly improved charging times, according to our tests.
In our lab test, running a looped HD video for 90 minutes, the battery sank from 100% to 87%, the exact 13% decrease we saw from last year's Plus-sized Samsung phone. However, it has slightly improved charging times, according to our tests.
Fast Charging the S9 Plus with the included charger for just 15 minutes brings it from 0% to 19%, and 30 minutes gets it to 38%; at 45 minutes, the phone gets up to a comfortable 58%. In the end, it takes one hour and 41 minutes to reach 100%, the same as the Galaxy S8 Plus. But from a dead battery, it charges faster at those crucial lower levels.
Samsung also supports fast wireless charging, and sells a bunch of wireless charging pads. Its Qi wireless charging method still isn’t as quick as wired charging speeds, but it’s faster than you can wireless-charge an iPhone X.
The Galaxy S9 is the best of what Samsung has to offer at a really big size. Its 6.2-inch curved screen is spacious and elegant-looking, even if it appears as if nothing has changed about it.
The S9 Plus features that have been tweaked are important. The fingerprint sensor is now in an ideal, center-aligned spot on the back, the speakers finally give us overdue stereo sound on a Samsung flagship and, most importantly, the low-light-focused camera snaps bright photos in the dark instead of saddling us with a bunch of dimly lit throwaways. We also got a kick out of the super-slow-motion camera. It’s a best camera phone contender, for sure.
The Galaxy S9 Plus also checks all the other boxes for an iterative upgrade: its new chips provide faster performance, it has more RAM, and its virtual assistant is smarter, although still flawed. Color us with a non-surprised face in AR Emoji.
We actually didn’t care for AR Emoji in any way, shape or face-transform. Let’s all pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s a fun demo to show friends at best, and Samsung’s unsuccessful attempt to match Apple’s trending (but also fairly meaningless) technology at worst.
There are three big obstacles to owning the Galaxy S9 Plus. First, it’s a big phone meant for big hands. If you’re not into that, go with the normal-sized S9 for its one-hand-friendly operation, even if you like the extra screen space, RAM, and battery life. Second, it’s more costly than the S9. It’s a lot to pay for 0.4 inches of extra screen space and more power. Third, the Galaxy Note 9 is expected in August, and the Note phones are historically slightly bigger and noticeably better than Samsung’s S-level flagships, and include a handy S Pen.
Of course, if you want a really big phone right now, you’re not going to find one better than the S9 Plus. It’s our favorite phone for people with big hands and big wallets.
First reviewed: March 2018
Not convinced this phone is for you? Check out these instead:
Apple’s latest phone is its most tempting bait in years for anyone who has been thinking about switching from Android to iOS 11. The company has finally given its smartphone a big redesign with an all-screen display, powerful front-facing camera and sensor array, and wireless charging.
Some of these features are old news for Samsung owners, and the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus still eke out a design win with their curved displays and two sizes to choose from. And while Apple has iMessages and a far more cohesive app ecosystem, Samsung has the better price, and a superior camera in low light.
- Read the full iPhone X
Samsung Galaxy S9
Can you handle a smartphone with a 6.2-inch screen and a bump in price? The Galaxy S9 Plus is clearly has the edge over the S9 thanks to its bigger screen, dual-lens camera, more RAM and additional battery life. You also get 128GB of internal storage instead of 64GB everywhere but the US.
That said, if you hate big phones you should immediately turn your attention to the S9 with its more reasonable 5.8-inch display. No amount of extra power will make you love the Plus version if you despise having to use two hands to operate a smartphone.
- Read the full Samsung Galaxy S9
Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus
You won’t be able to tell the difference between the Galaxy S8 Plus and Galaxy S9 Plus from the front. They look identical. So if you’re hunting for a better price, you should still consider the S8 Plus. It won’t get you the best low-light photos, dual-lens camera, stereo speakers or extra chip and RAM performance, but it’s an iterative downgrade for considerable savings.
- Read the full Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus
Google Pixel 2 XL
This is the match-up you’ve been waiting for given that both Android smartphones have powerful cameras. The Samsung captures better low-light photos, but the Pixel keeps more textures intact, even if the subjects aren’t quite as bright. And while the Pixel 2 XL has a modern 18:9 aspect ratio, a sizable 6-inch display and some powerful specs, it’s not nearly as stylish-looking or as fast as the curved 6.2-inch display found on the S9 Plus.
- Read the full Google Pixel 2 XL
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