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Samsung Galaxy S9

It's hard to believe it's been two years since I got my S7. So with contract renewal time here, I decided on a Samsung S8 as my next phone, because the Orange website quoted me nearly €350 for the S9+, and close to €300 for the S9. I didn't want to spend that sort of money on a phone.

At the shop, the girl looked at my eligibility and quoted me about €160 for an S8. But, wait, there's a special offer. The S9 is a hundred euros off and I can claim a hundred euros back via an offer (need to post back paperwork and stuff). So the S9 costs a shade under €200, with half back "in about ten weeks after dossier treated".
It was a hard decision. An S8 for a hundred and sixty, or an S9 for two hundred outlay and a hundred back. Gee... it's a tough call. ☺


The S9 is mostly the same size as the S7. It's a little bit taller because the display is some weirdo shape (1440×2960) in order to have "soft buttons" that can come and go, with compatible apps able to use the full screen space. This is, I must say, a better solution than having stupid "notches" and the like.
The phone carries 64MiB onboard, and the slot-in tray can carry either two SIMs or a single SIM plus µSD card. I swapped the card from my old phone. It has a dodgy sector (and Android seems unable to deal with media faults so files get corrupted) so I have a new 32GB card, but not had the time to restore the files from backup. I've more or less treated the SD as read only for ages, so it's not a pressing concern.
Thankfully Samsung has also chosen to retain the 3.5mm headphone jack. This is a good thing. Why? Because I was working outside earlier while listening to Eagle '80s. My bluetooth headphones are now on charge. If I wanted to sit down and watch some episodes of The Expanse (on Prime Video), I'd use what exactly? Since I have a jack socket, I can use wired headphones. No problems.
The USB connector is an odd shaped thing. It's USB-C. Because, I guess, standard micro USB just isn't good enough any more. This isn't really a surprise, as it's been known for a while that those tiny USB connectors just can't deliver much power - which is a problem when you have devices such as the RaspberryPi using it as a power source and expecting to have stuff hanging off the USB ports on the far end of the Pi. USB C can handle around 100W. Plus, something that's always useful, USB C can be inserted either way up. No squinting to figure out which way to shove in a tiny fragile plug into the tiny fragile socket.

There are no buttons on the front. Those that are present are virtual buttons. On the sides, a power button (double-press to call up the camera), a volume up/down pair, and an extra button dedicated to "Bixby". Bixby is Samsung's virtual assistant. I never used SVoice, I doubt I'll use Bixby... but it seems ridiculous to dedicate an entire button (and all the engineering that such a thing involves) to a feature that may or may not even be wanted. Sadly it isn't possible to remap the button (without fully installing Bixby and agreeing to share personal data with who knows).
The fingerprint sensor is on the back, conveniently next to the camera lens. It's pretty easy to get the phone going with a fingerprint (just placing a finger there will be detected so the phone can unlock itself super-quickly) but the placement right beside the camera lens is... odd. I guess it simplifies the engineering, but I can imagine wiping off the lens to be a regular action.
Up there too is the pulse monitor.

In terms of processing grunt, it's a Samsung Exynox 9 processor running four ARM Cortex-A55 cores at speeds up to 1794MHz as well as four Cortex-M3 cores at up to 2704MHz. They're all 64 bit ARMv8.
There is 4GiB RAM (LPDDR4X), and 64GiB Flash (52.55GB available).
The display is a 5.8" panel (that works out as 132mm by 64mm if you hold the device horizontally). With a resolution of 2960×1440, that works out to be about 428 pixels per inch. The display is, like the S7, a bright and vivid AMOLED and it is controlled by an 18 core Mali-G72 GPU (capable of running from 260-572MHz).

The phone is, like most these days, equipped with two cameras. The rear camera manages up to 12.2 megapixel (4032×3024) photos (though I have it set to a 9.1 megapixel (4032×2268) 16:9 mode as I prefer that shape), and up to 8.3 megapixel (3840×2160) UHD video - and thanks to the extra processing grunt, videos can be saved in HEVC (H.265) format to save space. I won't, as my S7 is the only device I own capable of playing HEVC. The PC can't even really cope with FullHD in H.264 format! The camera has a mechanical iris allowing a choice of f/1.5 or f/2.4 (focal length of 4.3mm) which means that it can choose how much light enters the camera. You see, because smartphone sensors are tiny compared to the likes of DSLRs, they need to let in as much light as possible to take good night/low light shots, but letting in too much light affects their capabilities in bright light. In short, no camera with fixed aperture is going to be capable of excelling at both. Typically lower ISO (sensitivity) and fast shutter speeds are used to compensate, however the better solution is to have an aperture that can change to suit conditions. It is also useful to have manual control of the aperture because there is a direct relationship between the focal length and depth of field, so playing with these can great interesting bokeh effects (bokeh is where arguably more attention is paid to the arty out-of-focus blurry parts of the picture than the stuff that's in focus). In short, a wider aperture gives a shallower depth of field, so backgrounds are even more blurred.
Samsung's offering is a binary choice - you have f/1.5 (half closed) or f/2.4 (fully open). This is likely due to the complications of getting a variable aperture into such a tiny package in the first place. I have yet to put the phone through its paces. Sunlight photos I've taken are bright and vivid.
Video can do a variety of sizes, with FHD and UHD in 60fps options. All except UHD 60fps and 1:1 offer hardware stabilisation. HD and FHD offer tracking autofocus and add-on effects. Interestingly there is no longer any VGA quality resolution. It looks like 480p is being put to bed (and just such a shame that the world settled on compatibility with the inferior American 480 line format rather than the European 576 line formats...but that's a historical thing).
Zooming is digital, and offers up to 8× with the expected increase in artefacts.

The front camera is a little less powerful. It supports HD to QHD (2560×1440) in video formats. It claims to support stabilisation but I couldn't see the camera element moving as I gently shook the phone, so I'm guessing it's a software based method. The camera offers up to 8 megapixels (3264×2448) for photographs, with a focal length of 2.92mm. The camera is intended for selfies so has a variety of selfie modes plus an option to create a freaky emoji based upon a photo of you.
That said, the camera can also be used in tandem with a special (infra-red?) lamp to read your irises, as an alternative way of unlocking the phone. It's pretty quick in indoor light (and sometimes will even work with glasses on) but it's useless in outdoor light.

The battery is 3000mAh. I've not had the phone long enough to see how it fares in use, suffice to say that powering all that tech means that frequent use of the phone would benefit from access to a charger. If it's anything like my S7, it'll have fairly aggressive power management that will try to learn what apps you use and how you use them.


The traditional sort of Android home screen, only longer...
You can see space for an extra row of icons (compared to the S7 where the layout was transferred from).
The background picture is cherry blossom along the Meguro River.


Those are the basic hardware specifications. In terms of what's actually offered... well... to be honest I'm a little disappointed actually.

Let's get the quibbles out of the way. The three big issues I have are:

  • There's no video editor
    What the hell, Samsung? You offer a really amazing imager which is even capable of recording (HD) action for something like 0.2 seconds at 960 frames per second. Yeah, I had some fun lobbing stones into the pond to try that out. ☺
    The thing is, there's a flexible camera and plenty of recording modes. The S7 was a great package that offered all of this along with a pretty decent video editor (far better than what I have on the PC!) built right in. I mean, assemble my footage, build the final video, throw it at YouTube. It was so simple to create videos right there on the phone. Pretty much ever single video I've uploaded in the past two years (which is most of them) that combine multiple shots and fade between them were edited on the Video Editor / Movie Maker.
    Okay, the video editor had its quirks, but come on - the one that runs under Ubuntu is so crash prone I rarely bother with it. Why, when my phone just gets it right?
    Why was this project stopped? The video story editor is... not eve remotely close to being a useful replacement.
  • Still no dark theme
    It defies belief that Samsung can create their own custom SoC, highly compacted memory devices, and all the hardware to make an ass-kicking phone, but they still can't offer a choice of light and dark theming. What the hell? You know there are some of us that think all that white is nothing short of awful. Here's a hint, I'm writing this text in Zap on RISC OS and it is white text on black (with HTML markup colourised).
    Now, don't get me wrong, Samsung has a variety of themes available for download but these come with their own issues. My current theme is a freebie called "Material Dark" (Cameron Bunch), but the supplied icons are seriously ugly, so after insalling that I then went to re-install te default icon set (and noticed the odd virtual buttons with more logical ones). That's an incredible amount of hassle when all I want is "less white".
    But let's not stop there. Apparently when Android 9 rolls out, Samsung plan to get rid of the free themes from their store. What the hell? Those are the sorts of tactics one would expect from a company in financial trouble! And, no, I'm not going to "buy" a theme. Not because I'm a tightwad, but because I believe the simplest way to keep bank information safe is to simply not give it out - Google doesn't have my bank information either. No, I don't buy apps.
    In terms of the theming, what would be the best idea would be if Samsung made their theme designer app openly available with it able to work in one of two modes. Developer mode will be as it is now (with all the approved dossier stuff that is currently undertaken) and a User mode where things can be tweaked (like creating a dark theme). The difference? Themes created in user mode will be keyed so that they can only be installed on the phone that created the theme.
    I note, by the way, the removal of the option to have an image backdrop in the messaging app. Why?
  • Facebook
    Given all the Cambridge Analytica and privacy issues regarding Facebook over the past couple of years, it seems quite incredible that Samsung would accept to preinstall that shit into their flagship phones. Thankfully it was possible to "Disable" the two Facebook apps. It would have been better to not have them present in the first place. I mean, it isn't as if users aren't able to find it on app stores if they want.
    For me, I saw the lack of Facebook on my previous Samsung phones as a positive point.


Finally, a landscape mode, with varying degrees of success for the widgets...


And now we're getting to the crux of the problem and why I am disappointed in the S9. What I see is a lot of stuff my S7 can do that is harder/not possible on the S9. Don't get me wrong, it's a great phone. I watched stuff off Prime Video last night and it was a great looking display. Playing that flight simulator, fluid motion and responsive. But, the thing is...
When I got my S5 Mini, I understood why Apple picked on Samsung all the time. The S5 Mini was usable out of the box, properly useable. Unlike the Sony (Ericsson) devices that I had used previously. For me, the S5 Mini was a game changer.
My S7 was another game changer. It was like everything I wished the S5 Mini could do, taken up to eleven.

The S9? Slightly different shape. Maybe some interesting camera stuff to play with, but the overall behaviour has reached a point where there isn't actually an awful lot to distinguish between them. My S7 had four A53 cores running at up to 1586MHz. The S9 has four A55 cores clocking up to 1794MHz, so it is a little bit faster. The display is... a little wider (held horizontally) but it's the same amazing-looking AMOLED with stupidly high resolution as offered on the S7 (and probably the S8). The phone is waterproof, there's more onboard Flash, and it's a pretty impressive camera. But, you know, it's basically an S7-plus-plus, isn't it?


Photo of phone playing "The Expanse".



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David Pilling, 21st February 2019, 13:40
The 960fps camera made me go look at prices, SIM free 709 quid. Presumably the prices above are on a contract and you're quoting the up front payment.
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