By the end of last year, it looked like we were entering a new age of smartphones: All signs pointed to the era of the $1,000 premium phone. In late August, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Note8, a beautiful phone, but one that rang in at $929.99. Apple followed in early September with its new flagship iPhone X, which received as much chatter for its $1000 price tag, as it did for its Animoji.
So last week, as Samsung prepared to launch its new smartphones, the Galaxy S9 and S9+, I fully expected them to come at a similar price. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case. Instead, the S9 and slightly larger S9+ are comparable to the cost of their predecessors, the Galaxy S8 and S8+, at $719.99 and $839.99 respectively.
And here's the best news: The S9 and S9+ are every bit as premium as their competitors. They're packed with top-notch cameras and stereo capabilities even rockstars would find impressive. Ahead, a breakdown of the S9+'s best features.
The S9+ has a gorgeous, edge-to-edge Infinity display that makes streaming shows on your phone a pleasant viewing experience. The Dolby Atmos surround sound, which is built into both the S9 and S9+, takes any streaming experience to the next level: The audio is powerfully loud and all-encompassing, making for a far more immersive experience. Think of watching something on the Galaxy S9+ versus other smartphones like watching something on IMAX versus a regular movie theater: You feel like you’re in the action.
Other components that you've come to expect in Samsung's Galaxy line are all here: Water and dust resistance, fast charge capabilities, a headphone jack, and fingerprint sensor. After receiving complaints about the fingerprint sensor's location to the right of the camera on the S8 and S8+, Samsung moved the sensor below the camera. I still found myself accidentally smudging the lens when I went to unlock the phone, but I didn't do so as often as I did on the S8+.
Samsung made it clear even before last week's unveiling, subtly titled "The Camera Reimagined", that its focus with the S9 and S9+ is on the lens. This makes perfect sense. Most of us are smartphone photographers, and we've come to expect a lot from the cameras that sit in our pockets. After all, they're the ones we're using to capture the moments that make it to Instagram, and a blurry or noisy shot isn't going to cut it.
Both the S9 and S9+ up the ante with a dual aperture lens that Samsung compares to a human eye. Just as your iris expands in dim conditions to let in more light, the lens does the same to improve images shot in darker settings. The company said users can expect 28% better reception to light and 30% less noise thanks to a feature called multi-frame noise reduction, which takes 12 photos and combines them into one hi-res shot.
I can't say whether those percentages are exactly correct, but I can say that my nighttime shots were far clearer and brighter than they've ever been before. While noise isn't completely gone, I noticed an improvement in the selfie shot above with the S9+ (right) compared to the one shot with the iPhone X (left). It's easier to see my face in the S9+ shot and you can make out the trees in the background in more detail. The colorful lights in the image on the right are also closer to how I remember them looking in real life.
There was an improvement, though a slightly less noticeable one, when I reversed the camera to take in the scene in front of me. The slick pavement, trees, and deep blue sky are more vibrant in the S9+ photo (right) than they are in the slightly washed out-looking iPhone X photo (left).
Take It Slow
I can honestly say that I've never taken more slow-motion videos than I have in the past week. That's not just because I was testing the S9+, which touts a new super slo-mo video feature — it's because I had so much fun playing with the new shooting mode that I wanted to use it whenever possible. If something in my frame of vision was moving, you better believe I was shooting it in slo-mo. Falling snow, cookie batter being mixed, and morning coffee pours turned into stunning moments worth watching on repeat.
There are two ways to shoot super slo-mo video with the camera app: Manual mode or auto mode. Manual requires you to start recording and then press a super slo-mo button when you want to capture a few seconds of action in slow motion. With Auto, you'll see a box appear onscreen and slow-motion will only begin recording once motion detected in that box.
I tended to prefer manual mode, since I had some trouble getting the motion in my frame to hit the box directly in auto mode. However, if you know exactly where the motion in your scene is going to occur, I could see auto being useful. It is helpful to have a tripod when shooting slo-mo: In the clip above, which was not shot with one, my shaky hand interrupts the mesmerizingly slowly falling snow.
I found the edit tools especially useful, in particular, the one that allows you to cut your video to the exact moment of slow-motion perfection. It's also fun to play with the loop, reverse (used above), and swing effects, which are similar to the features you can use with Apple's live photos.
AR emoji are Samsung's answer to Apple's Animoji. In theory, the idea is a good one: Create more realistic-looking Bitmoji-style characters based on a user's selfie. In practice, though, I don't see myself using my AR emoji often, if ever at all. That's because I find mine a little creepy looking.
While I was impressed that my AR emoji almost looks like me, I don't like this animated version of myself. I don't mind speaking as a robot or dog with Animoji, but watching my AR emoji speak or give a thumbs-up in one of the 18 GIFs that are automatically created when you first make your doppelgänger, felt a little bit like watching a Pixar film gone very, very wrong.
However, that's not to say some people won't have fun with AR emoji — they're just not for me.
If you are buying a phone for the camera, you can't go wrong with the S9+. Its ability to capture low-light images and shareable slo-mo videos puts it at the front of the already competitive smartphone camera race. At under $900, it's also a little more affordable than its competitors.
Like most Samsung phones, the S9+ comes packed with many apps that make the screen seem unnecessarily cluttered, but that isn't a make or break — and neither are the AR emoji. If you're in the market for a new phone, this is one option you should seriously consider.