LED-embedded wristbands worn by audience members glinted in the stands of Brooklyn’s Barclays Center last week, producing an effect akin to cell phone flashlights waving in unison to a slow song at a concert. It was a fitting homage given that onstage, Samsung executives filled the role of performer as they presented the company’s latest entry into the mobile marketplace: The Galaxy Note9, a model that is often considered more of a cross between a phone and a tablet — or, the more cringe-worthy term, “phablet” — because of its larger form factor and S Pen stylus.
Everything about the Note9 is big: Big screen, big battery, big storage space, and, not to be forgotten, big price tag. The Note9, which starts at 128 GB, continues the $1,000 phone trend that Apple’s iPhone X established last year. (Despite consumer and stock market qualms about prohibitive cost, the iPhone X has exceeded sales expectations.) The question here is: Are the Note9's upgrades enough to justify that kind of purchase? Here, a look at whether the Galaxy Note9 lived up to its big expectations.
Look & Feel
If you want a phone that fits in your pocket, the Note9 (or, really, any Note model) is not for you. That being said, if you’re on the fence, it’s worth at least trying the phone: The 6.4-inch infinity display screen is just slightly larger than 2017’s 6.3-inch Note8 display, a difference that is not very noticeable, but makes for a more natural streaming experience. I don’t usually like watching movies or TV shows on my phone because of the small screen size, but don’t mind doing so on the Note9, which does a better job of recreating the immersive viewing experience you get when streaming on a larger screen.
The size also makes writing on the screen with the S Pen stylus as easy, and comfortable, as writing in a notebook.
The Note9 is available in two shades. The lavendar purple is a bit too loud for my taste, but the ocean blue, which is more of a purplish blue than a royal blue, is a beautiful, metallic hue that contrasts well with the vibrant yellow pop of the S Pen. If you’re someone who likes a black, gray or even silver phone, however, both colors will likely take you too far outside of your comfort zone.
The S Pen is once again one of the Note’s best features: I experienced no latency when writing or drawing with it and found it useful to leave on-screen reminders with the “Always On” display that Note8 users are already familiar with. What sets the Note9’s pen apart is its new Bluetooth functionality, an addition that feels truly innovative. This allows you to use it as a remote: Hold down the button from as far as 30 feet away from the phone and you’ll open the camera. A single press lets you take a photo, while a double press switches the camera, making it easy to take a selfie from afar.
The camera is just the default app assigned to the pen. Simply go to Settings > Advanced Features > S Pen > S Pen Remote to change the app and the actions associated with the single and double press.
Samsung promised the phone's new, bigger battery was an "all day battery" and I found this to be the case. Even after a full day of using battery draining applications like Google Maps and Instagram, I still had just under 30% left. When my battery did hit 0%, fast wireless charging meant it took around two hours and 45 minutes to reach a full charge. Downloads were speedy, and I never found myself waiting for webpages to load.
The Note9 comes equipped with what Samsung calls an "intelligent camera". When you hold your phone up to take a photo, this camera works to immediately identify the type of "scene" you're shooting, from food to flowers to beaches. Then, a new feature called "scene optimizer" automatically adjusts the saturation, brightness, and other photo qualities depending on what that scene is. The entire process sounds complex, but all happens on the backend: You just need to point and shoot.
Overall, I found that scene optimizer accurately identified the type of scene and provided useful tweaks, although I did need to hold my phone close to the subject at times for it to take effect.
The colors in the Galaxy Note9 photo (left) are a bit more saturated those in the iPhone X photo (right): The green of the lettuce pops and potatoes are a slightly more appealing shade of golden brown. However, the differences between the two were not as noticeable as I expected them to be with the "food" scene optimizer in effect.
Here, I far prefer the Galaxy Note9 photo (left) to the iPhone X photo (right). The colors are brighter and I can make out more details in the background. Initially, the scene optimizer identified this scene as a generic "street scene" instead of "flowers", but holding the phone closer to the greenery corrected the mistake.
In this case, Samsung's photo (left) is slightly less realistic than the iPhone X's photo (right). The Note9 smoothed over all of my skin imperfections and reduced redness, which left me looking washed out. In the iPhone photo, my skin looks closer to the way it does in real life — red spots and all — and you can make out more of the blue in the sky behind me.
Both Samsung and Apple have been working to optimize their cameras for low-light conditions. Here, it's the Note9 that excels, thanks to a dual aperture: The photo (left) clearly lit both faces on a dark Saturday night, while still bringing out details in the bridge and water in the water. The iPhone X photo (right) gave my skin an unflattering, orange glow. Plus, it's hard to make out any of the blue in the sky or water.
A second new camera feature on the Note9 is called Flaw Detection, designed to prevent imperfect photos. Flaw Detection is supposed to tell you, via an onscreen notification, when you have just taken a photo with any one of four, presumably mistaken, qualities: A lens smudge, back light (i.e. the sun or a bright light behind someone), an image blur, or an eye blink. The feature worked pretty well, although it missed notifying me a few times when my eyes were shut. Additionally, no amount of lens smudging seemed to prompt the notification. Still, it did work the majority of the time and is useful to know, even if the detection doesn't work to proactively correct the mistake for you. You'll need to retake the photo, and make sure everyone has their eyes open this time.
The Galaxy Note9 is a phone that delivers what it promises: Speedy and long-lasting performance with some fun and useful camera and S Pen additions. If you're in the market for a new phone and don't want to wait for Apple's September iPhone announcement, you can't go wrong pre-ordering the Note9 now or buying one in-store beginning August 24.
However, the cost is a sticking point. If the $1,000 phone continues, it will be increasingly difficult for people to get a new model year after year. This might be the new reality, but it isn't a desirable one for consumers.