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SAMSUNG GALAXY NOTE 9 REVIEW: MORE, MORE, MORE
The most of everything, including price
Samsung’s Galaxy Note phones have always been about more. More screen, more battery, more specs, more power, more features; if you want more of something, the Note is the phone to get. It’s a phone designed and built for the power user who won’t settle for anything less.
The new Note 9 gives the most more of any Note phone. It has the biggest screen, the fastest processor, the biggest battery, the largest storage, and the most features.
And it also costs the most — the Note 9 starts at $1,000 and goes up to an eye-watering $1,250. It’s easily the most expensive Samsung smartphone ever sold in the US and the most expensive Android phone on the market right now. To get the most, you’ll have to pay the most.
What the Note 9 doesn’t offer is anything new — unlike Note phones of prior years, it doesn’t debut any new technology or design ideas. It just takes everything that Samsung’s been doing with the past few versions of its phones and turns it all up a notch.
I don’t think this lack of new stuff is necessarily a bad thing — the Note 9 is the best phone Samsung has ever made and arguably the best Android phone you can buy right now. But it’s not for everyone.
The Note 9 doesn’t look much different from the Note 8. It has the same overall design, with curved glass on the front and back, and a metal frame. The glass is not as curved as on the Galaxy S9, and it has squarer corners, which gives the Note 9 a larger footprint than Samsung’s other phones. This is a big phone, and there’s no getting around it: if you don’t like oversized phones or want something that can be used in one hand, this isn’t the device for you. Either way, it’s very well made and feels as premium as a $1,000 phone should.
One appreciated change from the Note 8 is the placement of the rear fingerprint scanner. Instead of being up near the camera, it’s now below it, which makes it much easier to reach with your index finger. But because the Note 9 is such a large phone, it will still be hard to hit for those with smaller hands.
The first bit of more you get with the Note 9 is more screen: the 6.4-inch panel is larger than any screen on a premium Samsung phone before it. It’s only a smidge bigger than the Note 8’s 6.3-inch panel, but Samsung was able to shrink the bezels above and below the screen even further, so the Note 9 isn’t meaningfully larger than last year’s phone, despite its bigger display. It also doesn’t have a notch or cutout at the top of the display, which bucks the trend of phone design this year and is sure to make some people happy.
The display itself is exactly what we’ve come to expect from Samsung: it’s a bright, colorful, pixel-dense OLED panel with deep blacks and great viewing angles. It’s easily the best screen available on a smartphone right now and is just gorgeous to look at, indoors or out.
Inside, the Note 9 has more storage than any other Samsung phone: the base model offers 128GB of space, while the more expensive version has a whopping 512GB. Both versions have microSD card slots, so you can get up to a full terabyte of storage on your phone if you’re willing to pay for it. It’s also worth noting that Samsung is offering twice as much storage as the iPhone X at each price point.
But the most important bit of more you get with the Note 9 is more battery life. At 4,000mAh, the Note 9’s battery is the biggest the line has ever had, and the largest battery you can get in a Samsung phone. That’s 500mAh bigger than the battery in the S9 Plus and a full 700mAh larger than the one in last year’s Note 8. It’s also bigger than the battery in Google’s Pixel 2 XL, LG’s V35, HTC’s U12 Plus, the iPhone 8 Plus, or basically any other phone you can think of that’s for sale in the US right now.
That translates into true, all-day battery life, even for the heaviest of users that stare at their phones all day long. I’m one of those users and the Note 9 has been able to give me between six and seven hours of on-screen time with my typical workflow, which is considerably more than I get with other contemporary devices. In the week or so I’ve been using the Note as my primary phone, there hasn’t been a single day where the battery didn’t last from the very moment I woke up to the point I went to bed at night. If there’s a single reason to justify the Note 9’s price and size, battery life is it.
The Note 9 is clearly targeted to the person who uses their phone more than average, but if you are a lighter user, I could easily see the phone lasting two or maybe even three days between charges. When it does come time to charge up, the Note 9 supports both fast wired and fast wireless charging, like most Samsung phones have for the past few years. I would have liked to see Samsung improve the wired charging speeds this time around, especially since the battery is so much larger on the Note 9, but I don’t think most people will have an issue with how fast you can recharge the battery.
Like virtually every other flagship Android phone this year, including Samsung’s own Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus, the Note 9 uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 processor. It’s paired with either 6GB (in the entry model) or 8GB (in the $1,250 version) of RAM and it has performed flawlessly in the time I’ve been using the phone. The Note 9 is very snappy and responsive, even in the entry-level model I’ve been testing for this review, and I haven’t encountered any issues with choppiness, lag, or stuttering when scrolling. Apps open quickly and switching between a bunch of different apps is a breeze. But it’s not remarkably better than any other flagship phone I’ve used this year, since most of them are using the same processor. You can get the same level of performance from a OnePlus 6, which costs half the price of the Note 9.
Another similarity the Note 9 shares with the Galaxy S9 Plus is its camera system. The rear camera is a dual 12-megapixel system, with a wide-angle lens with switchable apertures and a telephoto lens for zooming in closer on your subject or creating portrait blur effects. The front camera has 8 megapixels of resolution and autofocus. Since it’s basically the same camera platform as the S9 Plus, images from the Note 9 are unsurprisingly very similar to those from the S9. They are sharp and vibrant, with great low-light performance. Autofocus is lightning quick and there are plenty of modes in the camera app for various effects and video shooting. The Samsung cameras are certainly among the best you can get right now, and it really comes down to personal preference, whether or not you like the way the images look compared to Google or Apple’s cameras.
The Note 9’s camera app does have a couple of new features, adopting some of the auto scene-detecting AI features other phones have shipped with this year. Point it at something and it will try to identify what that object is and optimize the camera settings for it. Samsung says the camera can recognize 20 different types of scenes, including food, portraits, pets, landscapes, beaches, sunrises and sunsets, and more. In my tests, it did a good job identifying animals, food, and plants, and it did so quicker than other phones with similar features. But I didn’t notice much of a difference in the images after it had allegedly optimized them.
I did appreciate the other new feature in the camera app, which gives you a notification if the last picture you took might be blurry or the person in it blinked, so you can take it again.
The Note 9 does separate itself a little from the S9 line with its S Pen stylus. Like every Note phone before it, you can use the Note 9’s stylus to jot down notes, doodle, or navigate the phone’s interface. The new feature this year is the ability to use the button on it as a remote to snap a picture, skip a track in a music player, or advance a slide in a presentation. It’s neat, but as someone who’s never really found much use for the S Pen, it isn’t something that I found very useful. There are S Pen diehards out there who might appreciate these features, though — you probably already know if you’re one of them.
The Note 9 also brings some improvements to Samsung’s DeX feature, which lets you plug the phone into a computer monitor and use it like a desktop computer. Instead of requiring a special dock, you can load DeX with a simple USB-C to HDMI adapter on the Note 9, which makes it a bit easier to get up and running than with an S9. The Note 9 can be used as a trackpad when it’s plugged in to a larger screen, or you can doodle on it with the S Pen and have your drawings show up on the big screen.
But DeX is still DeX, and to really make the most use out of it, not only do you need an external display, you’ll need a keyboard and mouse, too, because the Note 9’s trackpad feature is rather bad. Using DeX, even with all the aforementioned accessories, is still slow, cumbersome, and frustrating, with app incompatibilities and bottlenecks. I liken it to drinking a milkshake through a coffee stirrer: you’ll get some milkshake eventually, but you’ll also get frustrated and end up with a headache. At that point, you might as well just use a laptop like everyone else.
Samsung’s other software bugbears are present on the Note 9, too. It’s running Android 8.1 Oreo, but there’s zero indication when it might get Android 9 Pie, which was publicly released for Google’s phones earlier this month. There are still lots of unnecessary duplicate apps, even on the unlocked model I’ve been using, so out of the box there are two web browsers, two email apps, two photo galleries, and so on.
And there’s Bixby, Samsung’s oft-maligned voice assistant. The Note 9 has a revamped version of Bixby, with an adjusted user interface and deeper integration with third-party services. But like DeX, these improvements are merely skin-deep and Bixby has all of the same problems it’s always had: it’s slow, stupid, and generally not as good as Google Assistant, which is conveniently also on the phone. For example, I asked Bixby to “give me directions to JFK”, and it routed me to a fried chicken joint with “JFK” in the name instead of the international airport. I like fried chicken as much as anyone, but those weren’t the wings I was looking for.
As with Samsung’s other premium phones, the Note 9 has a button on the left side that is dedicated to launching Bixby and can’t be reprogrammed to something more useful. Samsung says that the version of Bixby on the device I’ve been testing is considered pre-release and that there will be a final version available when the phone hits store shelves on August 24th. But I’m not confident that it will make much of a difference.
None of this is to say the software completely ruins the Note 9 experience — most people will find it to be just fine — but at this point, it’s definitely the place where Samsung has the most room for improvement.
The Note 9 rightfully represents the pinnacle of Samsung’s smartphone line. It’s the best of everything, from display, to battery life, to performance and so on. It will likely be at the top of many best smartphone lists this year.
But it doesn’t come without compromises. It is a giant phone, which makes it a non-starter for a lot of people. It has a lot of features that most people will either ignore or find little value in. It has far from perfect software and Samsung has a terrible track record with updates.
The biggest compromise is in its price, which is hundreds of dollars more than what the very-similar Galaxy S9 Plus sells for right now. The S9 Plus has the same camera system; same processor; a nearly as-big, just as gorgeous display; and basically the same software experience. The Note 9 ups the ante with notably better battery life and the S Pen, but only one of those will be universally appreciated.
For the Note 9 to make sense, you need to want more than just “more,” you need to want the most. And having the most will cost you the most.
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