Samsung Galaxy Note 9 hands-on preview: $1000 well spent
Samsung is building for the state of the market, not the state of the art.
Sitting down to write my impressions of the Galaxy Note 9, I’m struggling to figure out where to start. Picking up the glass monolith, it’s instantly recognizable as yet another Samsung flagship — so I’m having a tough time deciding how to find anything interesting to say about it that hasn’t already been said about Samsung’s last four flagships.
In that respect, the Note 9 isn’t all that exciting. Whether you follow the industry as closely as I do or you’re just an average smartphone buyer that does a little research every couple of years, you aren’t going to be blown away by the Note 9’s core principles. It generally looks the same, has the same software, and leans on the same basic features as each Galaxy since the S7.
But don’t let that take away from the fact that the Note 9 is shaping up to be a downright powerhouse of a phone. Samsung has, once again, crafted incredibly beautiful hardware. The phone is huge, packed with the latest specs, and sports all of the features anyone could want. For the first time in a few years, Samsung is actually doing something entirely new with the S Pen. And a few of the critical issues with the Note 8 have been addressed. This isn’t a simple refresh — it deserves attention.
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The look and feel
Galaxy Note 9 Hardware and specs
At its core, the Galaxy Note 9 is mostly a Galaxy S9+. In terms of basic specs, features, connectivity, capabilities, buttons and ports, the phones are indistinguishable. The Note 9 has the same Snapdragon 845 processor, 6GB of RAM and supporting radios for LTE, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It has the same stereo speakers, headphone jack, microSD card slot, USB-C port, buttons and fingerprint sensor. The cameras are entirely identical in terms of hardware. It charges at the same speed, both wired and wireless. It’s water and dust resistant to the same IP68 specification.
|Operating system||Android 8.1 OreoSamsung Experience 9.5|
|Display||6.4-inch Super AMOLED, 2960×1440 (18.5:9)|
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 845|
|Expandable||MicroSD up to 2TB|
|Primary rear camera||12MP Super Speed Dual Pixel, OIS, f/1.5 or f/2.4|
|Secondary rear camera||12MP, OIS, f/2.4, telephoto lens|
|Front camera||8MP, f/1.7, auto focus|
|Connectivity||Wi-Fi 802.11ac MIMO, 1.2Gbps (Cat-18) LTE, Bluetooth 5.0 LEANT+, NFC, GPS, Glonass|
|Audio||Stereo speakersDolby Atmos3.5mm headphone|
|Charging||Quick Charge 2.0Fast Wireless Charging (15W)|
|Security||One-touch fingerprint sensorIris scannerSamsung KNOX|
|Dimensions||161.9 x 76.4 x 8.8 mm201g|
|Colors||Ocean Blue, Lavender Purple (U.S.)Midnight Black, Metallic Copper (intl)|
This isn’t particularly surprising or even upsetting; the Galaxy S9+ is a wonderful phone with all of the features and power you’d need, so building the Note 9 from that foundation is great. But it can’t be entirely identical, right? Correct, there are some improvements — and they’re in areas that will make Note fans swoon.
Samsung has finally decided to give the Note a much-needed battery bump — all the way up to 4000mAh, which is 14% larger than the Galaxy S9+ and 21% larger than the Galaxy Note 8. It always felt a bit odd that the power user-focused Notes have had relatively small batteries, and Samsung has addressed it. Given how the Galaxy S9+’s battery life has been pretty good, adding another 14% for the Note 9 running the same specs should translate directly to more people having worry-free all-day use.
Love local storage? The Note 9 has you covered. The base storage for the phone has been doubled to 128GB, which is impressive in itself. But what’s really cool is the upgraded model that offers a whopping 512GB of storage. And this isn’t just some special edition model for certain markets — it’s available globally, including from U.S. carriers. The upgraded 512GB model also makes a bump up to 8GB of RAM, which is of dubious value right now (just as it is in the OnePlus 6) but gives you some future-proofing potential, on top of bragging rights. The microSD card slot supports cards of that size (and larger), so with currently available tech you can throw an extra 512GB in the phone for over 1TB of total storage. Even if you want to keep things reasonable (and under $100) and get a 256GB microSD card, that’s 768GB of storage … in your phone. I find it hard to believe anyone needs more than that right now.
The hardware isn’t unique, but it’s near-perfect in materials and execution.
Samsung doesn’t have much of a story to tell in terms of materials or design this time around. It’s no secret that things haven’t changed demonstrably since the Galaxy S7, and the Note 9 only makes incredibly subtle changes from the Note 8 and Galaxy S9+. The metal frame has gone back to being a bit more … metal feeling, with a lightly textured finish and a nicely chamfered edge that makes it stand out a bit. But it’s still sculpted to flow gently into the curved glass on both sides of the phone. It’s big and feels amazing, but it doesn’t provide anything new or exciting on the hardware front.
The colors, at least, are unique to the new phone. In the U.S., we’ll be choosing between “Ocean Blue” or “Lavender Purple,” both of which being notably different from previous hues. I like the blue a lot, especially with its exclusive contrast-colored yellow S Pen, but the purple is appealing to anyone doesn’t want something so harsh. Samsung will also be releasing a standard “Midnight Black” color alongside a new “Metallic Copper” for international markets — unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see these in person.
It isn’t possible to get better specs than this right now.
When you set a Note 9 next to a Note 8 face-up, you can’t tell them apart. The Note 9 is imperceptibly wider and thicker, which is a necessity due to the also imperceptibly larger display — now up to 6.4-inches from 6.3. The display is gorgeous, but in the same way its predecessors are; it’s an 18.5:9 2960×1440 Super AMOLED panel with the same wonderful characteristics we’ve come to expect from Samsung. That means it’s poised to once again be the best smartphone display available today.
Flip the phones over and you notice the one notable change: fingerprint sensor placement. It’s now positioned below the camera arrangement, and from everything I can tell it’s the same as the Galaxy S9’s. It has the added advantage of being physically separated from the cameras, which makes it easier to find and use without accidentally reaching too far and smudging the camera lenses — but I’ll argue it still isn’t as ergonomically optimal as some others, like the Pixel 2 XL’s. But let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth here, because this is a dramatic improvement from the Note 8’s situation, and I applaud it.
How it works
Galaxy Note 9 Software and experience
When you go into the Note 9’s settings you’ll see a bump up to Android 8.1 Oreo and Samsung Experience 9.5, though you wouldn’t actually know any changes had been made unless you really got into the nitty gritty details with a Samsung Experience 9.0 phone beside it. Interface-wise, this is typical Samsung. I’m sure there are subtle feature changes, but none of them were big enough for me to notice or for Samsung’s representatives to point out.
The only notable software changes come in two areas: the S Pen and the camera — the former being quite important, and the latter less so.
This is the extra-capable S Pen the Note line deserves, offering far more than just writing and drawing.
So it’s true: the S Pen is now Bluetooth-enabled and able to work wirelessly for extra features. We all had different expectations and speculations about how it’d work … and, they mostly came to be. At the core of it, the S Pen is the same basic size and shape before, but it now has a small supercapacitor (effectively a high capacity, low voltage battery) to provide power for a short period so it can connect to the phone over Bluetooth.
That supercapacitor provides 30 minutes of connectivity, and up to 250 clicks before it needs to be recharged. But that’s nothing to worry about, as it goes from 0 to 100% in just 40 seconds while in the phone — and it remains at 100% so long as it’s inside. Even if the S Pen’s battery dies, it still works as a writing implement on the screen exactly as it does on previous Notes.
The depth of the interaction is that you can use the S Pen’s button to perform actions on the phone. A long-press on the button can launch any app, and then depending on the app you can perform additional actions using single- and double-clicks of the button. For example in the camera, a single click captures a photo while a double-click switches between the front and rear cameras. Samsung has configured several of its built-in apps to work with the S Pen — including Powerpoint, Gallery, Camera, Voice Recorder, media playback and more — and each one offers configurability of 1-4 different actions for both single- and double-click actions.
At its base level, the S Pen’s button functions just like a play/pause button does on a pair of Bluetooth headphones, meaning you can easily use it in an app like Spotify to control your music from a distance. But more advanced features in third-party apps will have to wait a couple months, as Samsung will release an SDK for developers to integrate this feature into their own apps if they desire. Even if you don’t get the extra functions in third-party apps, Samsung has built a compelling experience here. You can easily see these features being used on a regular basis, even though they’re extremely simple. And importantly for Samsung, it starts to expand the S Pen’s appeal beyond just writing and drawing to further functions that anyone could find useful.
Let’s cut through the marketing message: the cameras are identical to the Galaxy S9+.
Samsung is talking a big game about the Note 9’s cameras, but let’s cut through the marketing message from the start: they’re identical to the Galaxy S9+. The sensors, lenses and hardware support are all the same as the flagship from earlier this year. Just like the specs discussion above, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth noting that Samsung hasn’t made any hardware upgrades. The only thing that’s changed is the software, and not even the interface itself — there are merely two new “AI” camera features called “scene optimizer” and “flaw detection.”
Scene optimizer is a great way for Samsung to put a brand on something it’s already doing, cramming in some mentions of “artificial intelligence” and “neural networks” for good measure. It effectively runs algorithms that detect features and objects in scenes, and then automatically changes camera settings to get you the best possible photo of that scene. It can detect 20 scenes in total, including all of the usual suspects like snow, street scenes, night time, animals, indoors, beach, text, landscape, people, mixed lighting, food, plants, flowers, cats and dogs. Scene optimizer is turned on by default and works in the standard auto mode of the camera, and the only indication it’s working is a small icon in the interface showing when it recognizes something.
It’s difficult to discern the differences between photos taken with and without scene optimizer.
It’s difficult to discern the differences between a photo taken with and without scene optimizer, as Samsung’s auto camera mode is already fantastic at detecting scenes and choosing the right settings to get the best possible photo. This feature purports to go even further in that customization based on the actual elements of the scene … but until we can do side-by-side testing I’m extremely skeptical. This is the type of “smart” camera tech we expect to see in every smartphone, and is so often happening behind the scenes anyway — and giving it a brand feels just as forced here as it does on the LG G7 and Huawei P20 Pro.
Flaw detection is legitimately useful with no strings attached. The camera software is trained to detect when it thinks there are major flaws in a photo you just took, including someone blinking, a blurry shot, a smudge on the lens, or poor backlighting. Immediately after taking the photo, you’ll get a pop-up telling you that the photo is likely flawed and you should fix the problem and shoot again. This is useful for those quick point-and-shoot shots where things aren’t thought through perfectly … and could save you from frustration later when you go to review the photo.
Reducing the barriers to using DeX just makes sense — now all you need is a dongle.
Right on the heels of a new DeX interface for the Galaxy Tab S4 tablet, Samsung is making it even easier to use the feature on the Note 9. The DeX desktop-like interface no longer requires a full DeX dock or USB hub — it can now be used with a simple USB-C to HDMI dongle. When connected to a monitor or TV, your phone can act as a trackpad and keyboard for input, or you can simply use the monitor to display information while you use your phone with its regular apps and interface.
Lowering the friction to using DeX is super cool, and once again shows Samsung’s dedication to making the Note 9 a super-powerful phone for doing more than the average phone. But the expectation is that this software will make its way back to the Galaxy S9 and S8 series, probably with their next platform update.
Galaxy Note 9 Hands-on preview
There’s been a common theme across my coverage of the last few Galaxy flagships: Samsung is in many ways a victim of its own success. It’s been making fantastic phones that have so many great specs and features, with so few flaws, for years now. When paired with the general homogeneity that has overtaken the modern high-end smartphone space, there isn’t a whole lot Samsung can do to make each individual model stand out — particularly when you look at the company’s rather rapid six-month release cadence between Galaxy S and Galaxy Note phones.
Samsung is a victim of its own success — this is an amazing phone, yet I’m not surprised by anything it does.
You can’t actually have any complaint about the Note 9 as a product. It’s as close to a perfect power user phone as Samsung’s ever made. The only mark against the phone is purely abstract and theoretical: you can argue that the Note 9 doesn’t push the boundaries in any way or try something truly innovative.
Samsung made the changes it needed to make coming from the Note 8. It rises to the Galaxy S9+’s platform in terms of cutting-edge specs and baseline features including the cameras, stereo speakers and fresh camera hardware. The battery got bigger, the storage was doubled, the fingerprint sensor now has a sane placement, and the S Pen has new functionality. But … it didn’t do anything more than what was necessary to make the Note 9 just a little bit better than the Galaxy S9+. There are so many areas Samsung could’ve made generational leaps to really make the Note 9 stand out from the crowd and help make its $1000 price tag a no-brainer. We could’ve seen an even larger display, proper large stereo speakers, new charging capabilities, different design materials or processes, or altogether new hardware features.
The Galaxy Note 9 is a masterfully executed miraculous technological achievement.
But we don’t, because Samsung didn’t have to — it’s been so far ahead for so long, there’s no reason to push any further than necessary. And despite the fact that it didn’t try anything crazy and new, the result is a phone that’s wonderful, and will crush the competition. The Note 9 has a list of specs, features and capabilities that people ask for every other phone to offer. Every part of the phone matches or exceeds the phones it’s compared to, and leans heavily on Samsung’s industry-leading expertise in displays, cameras, stylus input and hardware design.
The Galaxy Note 9 is a masterfully executed miraculous technological achievement in every way. It’s unsurprising that Samsung is charging $1000 for it — because it’s clearly worth the price.
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Samsung Galaxy Note 9
- Samsung Galaxy Note 9 hands-on preview
- Galaxy Note 9 vs. Note 8
- Where to buy the Galaxy Note 9
- Galaxy Note 9 specifications
- Is the Note 8 still a good buy?
- Join our Galaxy Note 9 forums