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March 25, 2018

From the Editor’s Desk: From best to boring

by John_A


The Samsung Galaxy S9+ is a perfectly fine device that does little to excite me. So is it me, or the phone?

I’ve been using a Galaxy S9+ for a couple of weeks or so now, and it’s a real challenge to concisely sum up my overall thoughts on this thing. It’s a great phone, probably one of the best Android handsets of the year. And yet its dogged similarity to last year’s model leaves me feeling unexcited. And I’m not the only one.

Perhaps, then, the Galaxy S9 will go down in smartphone history as an example of just how fickle the industry can be, and how Samsung, however good its phones now are, still can’t quite get away with fully emulating Apple’s tick-tock release cycles. A year ago the Galaxy S8 was the new hotness. Now, the same phone with many improvements, which also keeps much of what earned its forerunner such high praise, is considered a tepid upgrade.

I’ve already voiced my disappointment around Samsung’s decision to cut back a few key features from the smaller S9, which is even less of an upgrade than the Plus.

The Galaxy S9 is a great device largely devoid of any meaningful upgrades.

But even the larger, more expensive model seems lacking in meaningful upgrades. The telephoto camera appears identical to the Note 8’s, with the same hit-or-miss “live focus” portrait mode. Even the one big new camera feature, the variable aperture, has been a mixed bag for me. Sure, the S9+ excels in low light, but I’m far from sold in the value of the f/2.4 option, and I’ve even run into a few situations where the narrower aperture can cause problems. On occasion, the S9+ likes to take grainy photos at f/2.4 with an ISO setting of, say, 800, where the f/1.5 option would’ve almost certainly produced a better pic. Some of that’s software tuning, but it still speaks to the questionable value of an adjustable aperture in a phone camera.

Everything else can be had for a lower price (at the cost of a reduced software support lifespan, I guess) in any of last year’s Galaxy flagships. (Especially now that Oreo is rolling out for the S8, S8+ and Note 8 in many countries.) That’s a great thing for consumers, but puts Samsung in a precarious position, and sets up the Galaxy S10 for an almighty fall if there aren’t some revolutionary upgrades in the 2019 model.

Usually, I’d counter by saying the opinion of spoiled tech bloggers counts for nothing when it comes to the real measure of success: sales. Yet the Galaxy S9 seems to have been met with similar ennui at retail, with slower than expected sales reported in the Korean market. I’m not the only one who thinks this generation of Galaxy S phones is just… well, a bit meh. Calling it a failure would be premature and hyperbolic, as well as doing a disservice to what is still a great piece of technology. But it’s looking more and more like Samsung may have played it a little too safe this time around.

That’s going to make the next Note — and whatever foldable thingamy is coming in the next year or so — all the more important.

Anyway, some other notes on a working Sunday:

  • I’ll be in Paris this coming week for the Huawei P20 launch event. If you’ve been following the leaks, you’ll know we’re expecting the opposite of Samsung’s approach with the S9: The P20 Pro looks like it’ll have a pretty radical new design, with an iPhone-style notch, a giant screen, giant battery and a wild new dual-camera setup. As always with the Chinese firm, the question remains: Will the dozens (perhaps hundreds) of tiny software gripes remain? That’s the one area of this product that really needs attention.

  • On a more sober note, I think this is it for Huawei’s U.S. business. Best Buy has stopped stocking Huawei products (including watches and laptops, not just phones), in a move that certainly has a whiff of whatever high-level intervention sank the Mate 10 on AT&T and Verizon. RIP.

  • OnePlus all but confirms we’ll get the OnePlus 6 before the end of April, with the apparent discontinuation of the OnePlus 5T in North America. If so, it’d be the shortest-lived OnePlus phone yet, with just over five months having passed between the 5T’s mid-November arrival and the likely late April window for the OnePlus 6.

  • I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the stability and performance of the first Android P developer preview. It’s not ready to run on your main device, of course. Google doesn’t normally recommend that until the final APIs drop, which we’re expecting to happen around a month after Google I/O. But consider how much of a mess the first Lollipop preview was when it landed — much later in the year — back in 2014. Android P is infinitely more stable. We’ve come a long way.

  • This week we passed 350,000 subscribers on the Android Central YouTube channel. Thanks to everyone for watching. We’ve got some great stuff coming in the very near future!

That’s it for now. I’ll be back with some pre-I/O thoughts in a few weeks!


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