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Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus review: Excellent, not monumental

Everything else

In addition to camera-related upgrades, Samsung introduced a new audio setup this year. The S9 has stereo speakers — one firing down from the bottom edge and one forward from the screen. This boosts the S9’s volume, making it easier to hear what people are saying in your videos and games. It definitely helped when trying to share funny YouTube videos in a crowded restaurant.

For those of you who like watching trailers and movies on your phone, you may also appreciate improved audio quality thanks to the Dolby Atmos-enhanced virtual surround sound. But honestly, I didn’t find it radically different except for the boost in volume.

Samsung also tidied up the phone’s face, masking the array of sensors above the screen and trimming the bezels. These changes are subtle, and you wouldn’t notice them without putting an S9 directly next to an S8. More immediately noticeable is the new location for the fingerprint sensor, which now sits comfortably within reach below the camera, instead of right up next to it. Hallelujah!

Something else you won’t catch until you’re actually using the phone is the new Snapdragon 845 processor. Just on benchmarks alone, the S9s generally performed almost twice as well as the Pixel 2, although, to be fair, Google’s phones are using last year’s CPU.

Like previous Galaxy S flagships, the S9 Plus handles multitasking well. I had no problem jumping between the Bixby Vision, Instagram and Gallery apps, or creating AR Emoji after AR Emoji. Multitasking with split-screen windows was also smooth, and I breezed through several satisfying rounds of Tekken. The only lags I encountered had more to do with waiting for Bixby to finish thinking than general performance.

The Snapdragon 845 is also supposed to squeeze about 30 percent more life out of the battery than last year’s 835. Anecdotally, this seems about right. The S9s have the same size batteries as the S8s, but generally last at least a day-and-a-half before throwing up a low-battery alert. In the 10 days or so that I’ve had the S9+, I still haven’t had time to run a formal battery test, but we’ll be sure to update this review with the numbers once it’s complete.

The competition

It doesn’t feel fair to compare the S9 and S9+ to the usual suspects. After all, the Pixel 2, iPhone 8 and LG V30 are last year’s phones, using slightly older (and slower) processors. As some of the first phones to pack the Snapdragon 845, the S9s have a clear speed and power efficiency advantage.

The only other phone that sports that chipset is Sony’s Xperia XZ2, which can record 4K HDR video. That’s a feature Qualcomm touted highly, but strangely enough, the Galaxy S9s don’t appear to offer. It’s a significantly different phone from the S9, though, with a greater focus on multimedia consumption than photography. We also haven’t fully tested it. For now, if you’re deciding between the two, it’s best to hold off until we can properly review the Xperia.

Another phone to consider is the LG V30S ThinQ, which is a strange follow-up to last year’s V30. It adds AI camera features that help you take better photos by identifying what you’re trying to shoot and automatically changing the relevant settings. It also adds a “bright mode” that uses an algorithm and merges pixels to brighten a scene. It’s hard to tell how effective this is yet — our hands-on showed no significant benefits from having that mode on. What’s strange about the V30S is that, barring a RAM boost, its hardware is no different from the original V30. You don’t even get a new CPU and the accompanying performance improvements.

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