In the endless pursuit of the ultimate smartphone, there’s a new flagship model coming from Samsung. The new phone to beat is the Galaxy S9, which is essentially a new improved version of the previous model. It boasts a spiffier, faster camera for better low-light shots, waterproofing to save you from embarrassment, and (drum roll, please) still has a standard headphone jack! No extra dongles to lose or wireless earbuds that you have to remember to charge.
If you’re wondering, is it better than an iPhone 8, just based on features and a brief hands-on experience, the answer is, yes. Although it’s not likely to make Apple fans switch brands.
The Galaxy S9 as the same Super AMOLED screen (meaning its brighter than standard LCD screens) that curves around the sides. It’s bigger than the biggest Apple iPhone 8 screen at 5.8 inches. The larger Galaxy S9 is 6.2 inches, although I didn’t find it significantly increased legibility.
Other basic skills of the S9 include the ability to record (but not display) 4K video and playback music and movies over stereo speakers that the company says are 40 percent louder than last year’s model. The phone also supports wireless charging (supporting both of the current standards), and you can add more memory on your own via a microSD slot that can handle cards up to 400 GB. Both the S9 and S9+ come with 64 GB of built-in memory.
Samsung focused most of its attention on improving the S9’s main forward-facing camera. Like the previous generation it’s a 12-megapixel camera, but this time it includes more dynamic memory for faster processing and a super slow motion mode.
Effectively the additional buffer allows for faster video processing, which should help reduce picture noise in low light shooting situations (think surprise parties). Samsung has also added a mechanical aperture with two settings, f 1.5 for low light shooting and an f 2.5 for bright environments. (The old S8 had a single f 1.7, a compromise at best.)
The real crowd pleaser among the photo features is a super slow mode that takes 960 shots per second, turning a 0.2-second clip into a 6-second slow motion opus. The clips are in 720p and can be set to trigger automatically when a fast moving object enters a preset area, or you can tap the manual button. Goofy pictures of your dog jumping in slow-mo can be sent to family and friends as animated GIFs.
Samsung is also pushing its version of an Alexa-like digital assistant called Bixby. Bixby has some nifty tricks, such as the ability to translate text on the fly (just aim it at a sign in a foreign country and you’ll get superimposed English), and Bixby can calculate the caloric count of a variety of foods, from doughnuts to strawberries, just by aiming the camera at them.
The Galaxy S9 also has an improved augmented reality (AR) service. Point the phone at a building and you’ll see basic information on the address superimposed on the image. The data is provided by FourSquare, so you’ll often see what stores and restaurants are in the building, with posted hours.
Much of the Samsung Galaxy S9 is specifically designed to appeal to younger users. There’s a create-your-own animated emoji function, for example, that can turn a selfie into a moving cartoon version of your self. You can then post it to friends – maybe even impress the grandkids.
The new phones from Samsung are more expensive than previous models. The S9 without a contract is $720 and the S9+ is $820, both unlocked for all carriers. You will, however, see trade-in offers of as much as $350 in credit when you turn in your current phone. The new Galaxy phones will start shipping to customers and appear in stores on March 16.