This is a Galaxy S9 review. After 2 weeks of dedicated use I can definitely see the benefits over my now crippled Galaxy S8, but I can’t recommend it as a value purchase. Here’s why: the battery life is shockingly poor. Yes the camera is a big improvement and I still very much enjoy the minor design tweak, but I also value battery endurance quite high and this fails spectacularly at that.
Wait, let’s back up a little. If you haven’t read my first impressions post I’ll give you the quick rundown. Galaxy S9 builds on the design and feature set of its predecessor with crucial upgrades to processing power (Exynos 9810) and rear camera quality. That rear camera is now equipped with a variable aperture (lens opening) which can switch between f/2.4 and f/1.5 (the widest lens opening on a smartphone). The theory is that you use the tight aperture for good lighting and the wide aperture in low light conditions to allow more light to enter the lens which means a faster shutter speed (the amount of time the image sensor is exposed to light), resulting in a sharper picture.
That all this is powered by mechanical aperture blades is and impressive engineering feat. Even more so when you consider that the image sensor is stacked with RAM and there’s barely a camera bump. A stacked sensor enables on-chip buffering which unlocks 960 frames per second super slow motion as well as adding an extra edge to image processing. That’s where the S9 really shines.
Combining that wide aperture with improved multi frame image processing (takes 14 images and combines them) makes this a very capable low light camera. When you dive into the manual controls you can create some stunning night time photos.
A lot of reviews site the variable aperture as a marketing gimmick because it shouldn’t really make a difference on such a small sensor, but I argue that f/2.4 comes into its own in harsh lighting conditions. Because the light rays are a lot tighter coming in you get far better sharpness, which is great because Samsung oddly dialed back on over sharpening in the image processing.
But yes, there are many moments when the difference between the two aperture settings is almost indiscernible – which is probably why the camera defaults to f/2.4 in Auto mode in all but really low light conditions. These two pictures were taken 30 minutes before sunset, in manual mode with all settings except aperture set to automatic. You try and decide which is which.
Outside of the camera improvements Android Oreo (8.0) overlaid with Samsung Experience 9.1 is a snappy interface. Samsung has long set the trend for UI convenience features and many of the TouchWiz ideas have filtered through to Android. I’m still experiencing app crashes and other minor bugs (the fingerprint sensor frequently becomes non-responsive), but still hopeful that a software update is around the corner now that retail units are shipping to customers.
But the almost unforgivable current issue is the standby battery drain. A more efficient processor and the Oreo improvements should’ve made this device better than the S8, but that just isn’t the case. I consistently only get just about 3 hours of screen on time and my real world battery rundown test saw the phone only manage 15 hours of total light use. On camera test days it only managed 7 hours and died within 6 when I really went hard at it with Football Manager Mobile 2018 and tons of slow-mo video. That’s 3 hours down from last year’s Galaxy S8 in similar conditions.
What’s worse is that Galaxy S9+ owners (dual rear cameras, 3 500 mAh battery, 6 GB RAM, 6,8-inch screen) are also complaining about terrible battery life. For a phone that still “fast” charges at the relatively slow Quick Charge 2.0 speeds (38 per cent charge in 30 minutes), this is a big misstep that almost ruins the entire experience. Although, I’ve also been spoiled by the class-leading endurance of the Huawei Mate 10 Pro.
At R15 500 and R18 000 for the S9 variants the device delivers that premium experience in spades. It is still the most feature complete smartphone on the market (even the retail box is packed with goodies like a silicon case, earphones and a fast charger) and the camera improvements push it to the truly elite tier of flagship devices. The trade-off you’re making is poorly optimised launch software and battery management. If you’re willing to pay that price then you will be very happy.
You could always compare prices on pricecheck.co.za to find the best deal and then pick up a 3M skin like mine from MTN stores nationwide.