The way consumers use smartphones is changing, so the tech giants say, with photos and videos posted online having replaced calls and texts as the main way to communicate.
In response, flagship smartphones are increasingly focusing on cameras as the centrepiece of their device, and Samsung’s new Galaxy S9 is a fine example of this.
The phone, along with larger sibling the S9+, has not dramatically changed in appearance from last year’s S8. Samsung has instead directed its attention to adding professional-level camera tools such as super slow motion and dual aperture to power better low-light photography.
This has been combined with some entertainment in the form of AR Emoji – personalised avatars that sit somewhere between Apple’s Animoji and Snapchat’s Bitmoji, offering users an animated version of themselves that can be shared with friends.
This creates an interesting buying scenario when considering the S9.
It looks identical to last year’s S8 – a very, very good phone in its own right but a phone from last year, nonetheless. Plus, a great camera is important to some, but not to others.
Users are now also keeping hold of their smartphones for longer, so incremental updates like those made to Samsung’s flagship will understandably tempt some consumers to remain patient for now.
So, should you buy the Galaxy S9?
The camera is the heart and soul of what makes the S9 the impressive phone that it is.
New technology Samsung calls dual aperture dramatically improves the phone’s ability to take pictures in low light.
It works by adding a second, wider aperture setting to the camera lens, which automatically opens when a dark scene is detected, letting more light into the sensor and ultimately making dark images brighter.
The results are hugely impressive, with night photography significantly clearer and more detailed images than any of the S9’s rivals – including the iPhone X.
It’s actually a joy to use.
The new slow motion video feature is also a good addition to the camera’s range of features, the automatic motion detection tool helping to ensure that no moment, no matter how fleeting, is captured in slo-mo.
The handset itself is still a great piece of design – it’s the same all glass and metal with a curved edge display that makes for a sleek, stylish look that made the S8 such a good-looking phone.
It’s still true today, and makes the S9 the best Android device you can buy.
Using AR Emoji
It will happen more than you might expect. Samsung’s answer to Animoji and Bitmoji turns a selfie into an animated avatar that can be shared as a GIF via a message or social media.
The process is fun, and one that lends itself to the phone being passed around friends keen to see their animated selves.
In fact, it’s often the first feature you’ll show friends when giving a tour of the device.
The animations can vary wildly in accuracy, but that feels like half the fun – the other half is looking through the automatically created GIFs for each face and using the face-tracking features to animate your new personal emoji for unique short videos.
Over the course of more than 10 days of testing the S9 performed very well when it came to battery life.
The device houses the same 3000mAh battery as the S8, and offers similar levels of performance, comfortably lasting a day – even with heavy usage.
The new fingerprint scanner is also sharp, as are the iris and facial recognition scanners that can also be used to unlock the device.
The latter scanners are not the quickest we’ve ever encountered, but they’re fast enough to unlock the device before you finish reading a notification on the lock screen.
In general use, the S9 is also a solid performer, with quick app loading times and expanded landscape orientation support – a small touch that’s been long requested and comes into use surprisingly often.
Virtual assistant Bixby has also been upgraded, the best part of which is Live Translation, which uses artificial intelligence and the S9 camera to instantly translate signs and menus.
It’s a step forward for Bixby, which has been lagging behind the other virtual assistants available. The AI still lacks the versatility of an Alexa or Google Assistant, but there are signs of improvement in the S9.
These are all small and perhaps unspectacular updates – at least from what is normally expected from a new flagship device.
With the price of the S9 starting at £739 if bought outright – and £869 for the larger S9+ – upgrading to this new flagship is not a small commitment.
For some, the apparent lack of fundamental changes to the phone at first glance will be enough to convince them to stick rather than switch.
However, the S9’s camera is the best we’ve used on a smartphone. It’s enough of an improvement to act as a multiplier for the rest of the device – you want to pick it up and use regularly.
Dual aperture has made genuinely quality photography in poor lighting possible, for the first time to this level on a smartphone.
In an age where Instagram Story updates and immaculate selfies are the staple way to communicate, having an industry-leading camera will be an appealing prospect to many.
But users are holding onto their phones for longer these days, with profound innovations needed to entice many to part with their current device.
On this point you can see why the S9’s camera upgrades might not be enough on their own.
However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the S8, from which much is borrowed for the S9, was the best Android phone of last year.
That’s still true in 2018 thanks to the incremental updates offered by the S9, and as a result, it’s more than worth an upgrade.