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Each year we look to Samsung's Galaxy S release as the smartphone that will be purchased by the masses and it is clear that the Galaxy S9 Plus will be one of the best smartphones of 2018.
It may be an evolution of the successful Galaxy S8 Plus, but it improves in areas that fans specifically requested, proving that Samsung listens to its customers and is intent on making the best smartphone for everyone.
The S9 Plus has a fingerprint scanner smartly positioned on the center back below the dual cameras, enhanced audio capability with stereo speakers tuned by AKG, a dual camera experience, and an improved facial unlock method.
This is the first Android smartphone to launch with the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor in the US. The processor brings the X20 LTE modem supporting 1.2 Gbps wireless network downloads, an improved Bluetooth 5 radio, and more.
I was sent a Midnight Black S9 Plus to test and plan to spend the next few weeks using it to help decide if I trade in my iPhone X for a Coral Blue S9 Plus at T-Mobile through its Jump On Demand program. Retail box contents include a USB Type-C to USB-A connector, a USB Type-C cable, AKG-branded earbuds with 3.5mm jack, and a SIM/microSD tray ejection pin.
It's not surprising to pick up the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus and quickly confirm that Samsung can create fantastic hardware. It is actually a bit surprising to find such an elegant piece of hardware with the best specifications of any smartphone available on US carriers at the same price as last year's S8 Plus when we have the Apple iPhone X starting at $1,000.
Thankfully, Samsung continues to include a standard 3.5mm headset jack, along with a solid pair of AKG earbuds in the retail package. The stereo speakers, one through the handset speaker and the other out the bottom, improve the audio experience. In comparison to the Apple iPhone X and Huawei Mate 10 Pro, the Galaxy S9 Plus is still in third though. The iPhone X sounds the best out of the three.
The volume button is positioned on the upper left with a new dedicated Bixby hardware button placed just above the middle of the left side. At this time when you press the button the Galaxy S8 Plus will launch Bixby cards. In the near future, pressing this button will launch the voice assistant.
The power button is on the right side and the quick shortcut to launch the camera with a double press is still supported. I was a bit disappointed to still see 64GB of internal storage, but the microSD card accessible via the top tray is a less expensive way to add serious storage capacity. A USB Type-C port is located between the headphone jack and second speaker on the bottom.
High end flagships today often employ a dual camera setup. We saw this first with Samsung last year on the Galaxy Note 8 and see it continue with an improved dual camera arrangement on the S Plus. It is a 12 megapixel variant with dual pixels for improved low light performance. The Galaxy S8 camera was one of the best last year and the S9 Plus continues to offer excellent performance. The dual cameras are nearly flush with the back, with just a slight raised edge around the camera lens. The fingerprint scanner is positioned below the two cameras, which is much more useful than the offset fingerprint scanner we saw last year. The flash and heart rate sensor are positioned to the right of the cameras.
The iris scanner is positioned above the display and is a very secure system for a variety of applications. Samsung's new Intelligent Scan system pairs the iris scanner with the facial recognition system in order to help you unlock your phone quicker with a trade-off in the level of security.
The always-on display (AOD) on Samsung Galaxy devices continues to set the standard for these types of displays. There are several available options for the AOD, including different clocks, custom photo selector, use of GIFs on the AOD, and the ability to also customize the lock screen with these same options.
After a week of using the S9 Plus as my primary device while traveling across the country and back, I am able to go a full day with a single charge of the 3,500 mAh battery. It appears that battery life is about the same as the Galaxy Note 8. The fact that the Galaxy S8 Plus has wireless charging support means that my device is topped off most of the time since it is convenient to just set the S9 Plus down on a wireless charging pad while at my desk. While it is not an essential feature, wireless charging works well for me to keep my devices fully charged without touching a cable.
The Bixby button is still present, but this time Samsung gives you the ability to disable it for launching Bixby Home with a single press. You can still swipe over to a Bixby home screen panel or even choose to hide this and never even see Bixby Home if you desire. A press and hold of the Bixby button will still launch the Bixby voice control utility though. I know Bixby isn't popular with most folks, but it is a very powerful assistant if you give it the time needed to fully understand its capabilities.
The Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus runs Android 8.0 Oreo. The eval unit I tested included the 1 February 2018 Android security patch. Samsung has been great at providing regular Android security updates, but don't buy a Samsung Galaxy if you want to always have the latest version of Android. Samsung provides more on Galaxy devices than you will find on stock Android phones so you should buy a phone you know you will be happy with at the time of launch.
You can choose to have your home screen appear with just widgets and selected apps or have all apps appear on a home screen panel, similar to an iPhone. You can also choose to have a 4x5, 4x6, 5x5, or 5x6 grid appear on the home screen panels so that you can fully optimize the space available to you on the large 6.2 inch screen. The apps grid can also be either 4x6 or 5x6.
Similar to the Huawei EMUI and Apple iPhone experiences, swiping down from anywhere on an open area of the home screen panel will take you to the app launcher with a search bar at the top to help you quickly find and launch apps.
You can also press and hold on the virtual home button to launch Google Assistant. Tap on the recent apps button to choose which apps to launch in split screen mode. With 6.2 inches available to work with, you can be productive on the S9 Plus with two apps open side-by-side.
Like the Galaxy Note 8 and other previous Galaxy devices, you can swipe in from the right side to access Edge panel widgets and functions. The Note 8 brought us App Pair in order to have a one button shortcut to launch two apps on the display at once. That is now present on the S9 Plus too.
There are some Samsung apps included on the device, including Galaxy Apps, a web browser, file explorer, Samsung Health, Samsung+, an email client, calendar, contacts, image gallery with editing tools, messages app, SmartThings, Samsung Themes, secure folder, Samsung Notes, and Samsung Pay.
The email client is excellent for keeping my work Exchange account separate from my personal Gmail account. The image gallery is more functional than Google Photos, with advanced editing and creation tools available to the user.
Mobile phone memory lane: What was your first device?
The camera performs well with plenty of modes in the camera software to help you get creative and share your experiences in photos and video. These include food, panorama, pro, live focus, auto, super slow motion, AR Emoji, hyperlapse, food, and more than can be downloaded from Samsung. Samsung improved the user interface in the camera so that now you simply swipe right and left to switch modes. Filters, stickers, and other effects are also available on the bottom row of the viewfinder.
Super slow motion is the newest feature and one that makes the S9 Plus unique when compared to other phones on the market. It supports 960 fps and has the ability to automatically detect motion and capture that motion in a series of up to 20 short clips. Those clips can then be shared as GIFs.
There are a ton of camera settings accessible via the gear icon. These include voice control, floating camera button, motion photo, editing camera modes for the rear and front-facing cameras, photo and video resolution, and more.
Bixby Vision is also present in the camera by pressing the small Bixby Vision icon in the bottom left of the viewfinder. Bixby Vision now supports makeup, text, image, shopping, location, food, wine, and QR code utilities.
Price and competition
Rumors indicated we might see the S9 Plus launch at well over $1,000 as the Apple iPhone X was possibly pushing flagship prices over this psychological level. Thankfully, the S9 Plus is priced at $840 from Samsung and T-Mobile with other US wireless carriers adding on $50 to $80 and bloatware.
The Apple iPhone 8 Plus is priced at $799 and $949 while the iPhone X is priced at $999 and $1,149. The Huawei Mate 1 Pro is priced at $799.
Daily usage experiences and conclusion
My T-Mobile SIM has lived in the Galaxy S9 Plus for the past week and it is going to be a difficult decision next week when it hits my local T-Mobile store as there is not a single lacking function or feature in the S9 Plus. The Apple iPhone X also strikes a nearly perfect balance, especially with the iOS app experience. Another week or two of using the S9 Plus will help me make an informed decision.
I tested out the AR Emoji functionality. It's pretty silly and not something very useful for work, but may appeal to the younger crowd. The super slow motion results were interesting, but I need to find more subjects to shoot with it. The GIF sharing functionality is still a bit difficult to use as you have to go into the editor separately from the video viewer and then edit things to share the GIF. I still need to spend more time with super slow motion because I think there are more efficient ways to use this functionality.
Phone calls over the past week were perfect, I regularly maintained a connection while my coworker with an iPhone 7 Plus on T-Mobile lost signal, I took lots of photos on my trip with the S9 Plus, and never once felt something as missing from my mobile experience. The rear fingerprint scanner performed flawlessly and my frustration with the offset fingerprint scanner from last year's models is gone.