review

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 Review – A Little Too Conservative, But We Still Love It

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 Review

A Little Too Conservative, But We Still Love It

Samsung has had quite a bit of a roller coaster ride with their Galaxy smartphone series lately. Of course, it all started off with the devastating news of the Galaxy Note 7, moving on to releasing a much better Galaxy Note 8, plus the low sales volume of the Galaxy S9+ amongst other things. The next Galaxy Note has become a very important device in Samsung’s Galaxy line-up to fix their sales volume, and to get right back on the premium smartphone race. So, does the new Samsung Galaxy Note 9 has the capability to stay in front of the line? Let’s find out in this full in-depth review.

The Galaxy Note 9 in Malaysia is offered in 2 variants – the base model which equipped with 6GB RAM and 128GB of internal storage will run you at RM3699, while the upgraded model with 8GB of RAM and 512GB of internal storage will costs a whopping RM4599.

Specifications:
Samsung Exynos 9810 Octa-core (4 X 2.7GHz + 1.8GHz)
6/8GB RAM, 128/512GB internal storage, microSD support up to 512GB
6.4-inch Super AMOLED display, 18.5:9 display ratio
1440 X 2960 pixels, 516 pixels-per-inch
12MP + 12MP rear camera, f/1.5-2.4 switchable, video recording up to 4K 60 frames-per-second
8MP front-facing camera, f/1.7 aperture
4000mAh battery

Unboxing

As per usual, the Galaxy Note 9 is pretty much packed with everything you’ll ever need right out of the box. Our Midnight Grey version comes in a black packaging, and once the packaging is opened, you’re presented with a box – which includes a SIM tray removal too, documentations and a case, and the device is sitting immediately below the box. The rest of the packaging comes will all the usual bits – including a USB Wall Adapter, a USB-C cable, a USB-C to USB-A adapter, USB-C to microUSB adapter, an AKG branded earphones and some different-sized ear tips to go with it.

Design

Still the Note that we loved.

If you think the Galaxy Note 9 looks familiar, well, you’re not alone. The Galaxy Note 9 walks on the same route as the Galaxy S9+ – mostly based on previous model, but with minor changes. Most of the look & feel that we like on the Galaxy Note 8 remains on the Note 9, but it does have some changes. The overall dimensions of the Galaxy Note 9 stays pretty much similar than that of the Galaxy Note 8, but now a little, but noticeably wider. It’s still a big device (this is still a Galaxy Note after all), but it will fit in most hands, and for some reason, looks much better than the Galaxy Note 8, despite having their design pretty similar.

The Galaxy Note 9 still shares the same premium materials that we loved. On the front is a large piece of Corning Gorilla Glass, with their infamous curve on both sides with gives it that edge look and feel. The back of the device continues to be made out of the same material, with the edge as well. The metal construction in between the glass gives it a very solid and premium feel, and is now slightly thicker to make picking up the device easier. The Galaxy Note 9 might have gained a little weight in the process, but at 200-grams, it’s marginally acceptable for such a large device.

The Galaxy Note 9 now sports a 6.4-inch display on the front, and while it does take up most of the space up front, there are now small, but noticeable bezels on both sides, which are appreciated in this case to reduce accidental input, which are pretty common for previous Galaxy smartphones. The area on the top and below the display remains minimal, and the top continues to house the Iris scanner, earpiece, front-facing 8-megapixel camera and a couple of sensors.

On the left, there’s the Volume buttons, and of course, the Bixby button remains. The power button is to the right.

On the top there’s a removable SIM tray, which has 2 slots – one for a primary nanoSIM card, while the secondary slot is a hybrid slot – which will take either a second nanoSIM for dual-SIM functionality, or a microSD card for storage expansion. There’s no IR blaster on the Galaxy Note 9.

On the bottom, we’re glad to see that the 3.5-mm headphone jack remains. The USB-C port remains at the bottom for power and data, along with a loudspeaker. Of course, following the tradition of a Galaxy Note device, the hole which holds the S-Pen is to the right.

On the back, Samsung has fixed one of the biggest problem with the Galaxy Note 8 – the awfully located fingerprint reader. It’s now right below the camera sensors and in the middle, which is easy to reach with both hands. The camera housing, which houses the pair of 12-megapixel cameras, a dual-tone LED flash and the usual heart-rate monitor, continues to align horizontally, and the bump is almost not visible. The back glass finishes off with a Samsung branding and regulatory stuffs at the bottom.

For our market, 3 colours are available to choose from. Our personal favourite is still the Midnight Black version, which is what our review unit comes in. You can also get your Galaxy Note 9 in Ocean Blue and Metallic Copper. While the Midnight Black and Metallic Copper will come in matching S Pen colours, the Ocean Blue gets a yellow S Pen which stands out among the crowd.

Specs and Performance

One serious powerhouse underneath.

Samsung markets the Galaxy Note 9 as the most power Galaxy smartphone ever, and that it has all the power you’ll ever need when you need it. So, it has quite big holes to fill. Most of the internals of the Galaxy Note 9 is carried over from the Galaxy S9+, which isn’t big news, but good news nonetheless. Samsung’s latest in-house developed flagship processor continues to be used in the Galaxy Note 9. It is pretty close to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 processor, which the Galaxy Note 9 is also offered in, but not for our market. Samsung’s version is also an octa-core unit, with half of its cores clocked at 2.7GHz, while the rest sits at 1.8GHz.

As expected, the Galaxy Note 9 is still a serious performer. In fact, in some cases, it can feel a little faster than the Galaxy S9+, which shares the same processor. The Galaxy Note 9 just takes whatever you throw at it with ease, whether it’s a simple tasks or heavier tasks. This is one of the reason to actually spend more on a proper premium flagship, rather than going for a much cheaper “flagship killer” which has what it takes on paper, but slightly fails in real life. Even the Zenfone 5z, with it’s Snapdragon 845 processor, didn’t come close to the Galaxy Note 9 in terms of performance. Be reminded that it’s still no match for the smoothness of the Apple iPhone (that’s totally in another league), as it’s still an Android device and some third party apps aren’t optimized to take full use of the power that it has. But, it is close enough.

The Galaxy Note 9 also debut’s Samsung’s “Water-Carbon Cooling System”, which brings better heat dispersion and allows the processor to work under load for long time. Compared to the previous Galaxy Note 8, Samsung says the larger thermal spreading pipe allows the Galaxy Note 9 to be 3 times better heat absorption and up to 3.5 times thermal conductivity. And the results do work out. It’s not like there’s zero heat on the Galaxy Note 9, but not only it feels much cooler, there’s no signs of thermal throttle in the long run too.


Samsung Galaxy Note 9 Benchmark Scores: Geekbench 4, Androbench, Antutu and 3DMark

The benchmark scores that we got from Geekbench 4 is unlike anything we’ve seen before. The Exynos processor’s single-core performance pulls really hard, which lands it at a score of a whopping 3700, while the multi-core score sits at 9058. Both scores are pretty consistent on multiple runs.

The Note 9 is packed with 6GB of RAM as standard, which is probably the benchmark these days, and it’s paired to a 128GB of internal storage. Stepping up a notch will get you a whopping 8GB of RAM, paired with another whopping 512GB of internal storage. No matter which variants you’d go for, the speeds are fast, and you can pair it up with a microSD card up to 512GB, which makes the Note 9 one of the very first device to support up to 1TB of storage, combined.

The Note 9 is also loaded with connectivity options. The basics are there – a dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi is included, along with Bluetooth 5.0. NFC is also included, which allows full use of the Samsung Pay mobile payment service. The port at the bottom is a USB Type C port, and unlike the cheaper “flagship killers”, this is an actual USB-C 3.1 supported unit, which takes full advantage of the data & charging speeds that it offers.

For the Note 9, Samsung has fixed the awful-located fingerprint reader. Now it’s located in the centre, just below the camera modules, and as usual, it’s a glass unit. It’s rightly sized, and as usual, fast and responsive. Like the Galaxy S9+, setting up the fingerprint reader is too easy, and all it requires is a swipe down on the sensor, and it will work reliably from that point onwards.

Like the Galaxy S9+, the Note 9 is also fitted with what’s called an “Iris scanner”, where it’s infrared scanners will scan your irises for unlock, which works pretty well. It does require the device to be held at a certain distance from the face, or it won’t work. There’s also regular face recognition using the front camera, and like the Galaxy S9+, both can work simultaneously if one of them can’t work due to the surrounding conditions. While there’s still a little delay, we feel like it’s easier just to press the power button and use this method to unlock, especially when the phone is placed on a flat table.

Since this is a Note device, we can’t forget the star of the show – the S Pen. The overall design of the S Pen remains unchanged from the Galaxy Note 8. It does still have a clicky button on top, along with another functional button closer to the tip. For the Note 9 though, the S Pen has been upgraded with Low-Power Bluetooth connectivity. Now not only you can use it as a regular S Pen, you can use it as a remote control to trigger the shutter button and control a slideshow, amongst other things. Samsung claims that a less than a minute charge will allow around 30 minutes of use. As per usual, there’s loads of pressure levels and very accurate tip, and having a stylus in such a large phone actually makes a lot of sense.

Display

Still the SuperAMOLED that we loved.

Samsung devices are really well known for their display technology and quality, and on the Note 9, it’s no slacker too. On the front, the display has been bumped to 6.4-inches, and it still has that curve effect on both sides. The aspect ratio remains at 18.5:9, and we applaud Samsung for not going towards a notched display. The resolution also remains at 1440 X 2960, and you’re still getting a very crisp and sharp display, since it has more than 500 pixels per inch. Text and images looked really sharp.

Part of the amazing display is also contributed by Samsung’s Super AMOLED panel that we all loved. As per usual, the colours are vivid, and makes colourful content pops really, really well. For some people it might look a little artificial, but we’d like to think that the colours are pretty accurate. For the Note 9, some work has been done on it so that more brightness can be dialed in, which allows easier use under sunlight. The display on the Galaxy Note 9 alone has already won some awards, including YouTube for rating the Galaxy Note 9 as one of the best content consumption device.

Samsung has also included lots of software settings which allows you to adjust the display to your specific desire. Screen mode includes 4 settings – adaptive display, AMOLED cinema, AMOLED photo and Basic. Adaptive display is what it came with, and probably best at sticking at it as it will automatically adjust the display based on content that’s displayed on the screen. You can also play with its display tone. The settings also allow you to change its screen resolution between 720p to its full 1440p, for sharper displays or better battery life.

Speaker

True stereo speakers.

The great display on the Galaxy Note 9 is also accompanied by a good speaker system. For the first time in the Galaxy Note series, Samsung’s stereo speaker system that debuts with the Galaxy S9+ is found on the Note 9. The stereo speaker system has 2 channels – one on the bottom-firing loudspeaker, and the other from the earpiece. Unlike some of the smartphones out there, both speakers do actually have the same loudness for a more realistic stereo experience. We can easily give a big straight-A for the speaker on the Galaxy Note 9, as not only it’s loud, it’s got it’s bass and clarity leveled right, and it’s really an immersive experience when it comes to watching videos.

The Note 9 also includes Dolby Atmos amplifier, and does have various software tweaks to allow you to adjust the output audio to external devices.

Camera Performance

Dual cameras, dual aperture, dual capture.

Samsung thinks that the camera system on the Galaxy S9+ is good enough, and hence they’re also implementing it on the Galaxy Note 9. The same pair of 12-megapixel sensors are seen on the Galaxy Note 9, one with standard angle, while the other unit is a telephoto unit. You’ll be sticking to the main camera for most of the time, and the 52mm in the telephoto lens is mainly there for zoom and bokeh photos. Both cameras do have auto focus and hardware image stabilization.

The main camera also has a party trick up its sleeves – Dual Aperture mode. It’s aperture hardware allows to switch between f/2.4 or f/1.5 depending on the conditions. For normal conditions, it will set at f/2.4 for sharper images and better depth of field, while in low-light conditions, it will automatically switch to f/1.5 to allow more light to enter the sensor, which allows for images to be bright, low noise and improving overall image quality. You can also toggle it manually in PRO mode.


Image comparison between f/2.4 and f/1.5 with similar ISO and exposure.

There’s also Scene optimizer, which is basically the same “AI scene recognition” found on other smartphones. It can detect up to 20 scenes, knowing what they are and adjust various colour settings to make the image look better. There’s a toggle in settings which can turn it off or on.

As expected, the Galaxy Note 9’s camera performed very well. You can expect really sharp images, with the details properly rendered. The over-rendering issue on previous Samsung smartphones are mostly gone. The scene detection did a rather great job at knowing what scene the camera is pointing at, thus slightly changing its colour settings to make it look better. The colours are rich, and pretty true to life. The HDR feature kicks in at the right time to even out the lighting, and it works pretty well too.

As for low-light photos, as we’ve said on our Galaxy S9+ review, Samsung’s solution is probably one of the best in the business right now. Having hardware-actuated aperture change opens up more light to enter the sensor without needing to bump up the ISO or hold the device for a longer time. The compromises on low-light images is pretty much non-existent compared to daylight photos. Images are still sharp, with very little details compromised, but the colours are still on point and very bright. Like the Galaxy S9+, it could still use a wider dynamic range though.

Samsung has also worked hard on their new flaw detection feature. It’s smart enough to detect accidental blinking of eye or motion blur, thus advising you to take another picture again. It will also advise on cleaning the lens if an image looks blurry, or turning HDR on for images with bright backlight, if it’s not set to turn on automatically.

The live focus mode on the Galaxy Note 9 also allows you take pictures with simulated blur effects to the background of a subject, and it uses the telephoto lens. On the Note 9, we are pretty amazed by it. Most of the time it’s able to get the shape and distances right, and while it is fine with subjects of different distances, try to stay away from complicated shapes. Most of the time, the effects do seem convincing, and looks miles ahead of other cheaper devices. It has dual-capture too, in case if you do not like the picture with bokeh effects, a regular image with the regular camera are also stored.

Much like the Galaxy S9+, the Note 9 will shoot 4K videos, at a maximum of 60 frames-per-second. The details are really there, and there’s loads of it, plus it’s really well rendered. As expected, it doesn’t struggle at all, even at 60 frames-per-second, it’s really smooth. In this case, we do really recommend sticking at max settings even though the file size is huge, as shooting in 1080p does result in smaller file size, but does take away some of the details too. Having both hardware and software stabilization works wonders for the Note 9 (even though the software stabilization won’t work in 4K 60fps).

While most phones come with a slow-motion video mode, the Note 9, like the Galaxy S9+, comes with what’s called a “Super Slow-mo” mode. It will record up to 0.4 second, at up to 960 frames-per-second, at 720p resolution. It can be manually triggered, or automatically triggered once it detects some movement in a preset yellow box. It works really well in automatic mode for most of the time too. The final video won’t have any audio on it, and the post-processing tools in the gallery app allows you to put music over the video. You can export it as a video, or an animated GIF.

The front-facing 8-megapixel camera is lifted straight off the Galaxy S9+ too. Not only it has HDR mode, it has auto-focus ability as well, so you can easily make sure that you face is in focused at all times. The image quality isn’t something to shout about. The colours are alright and the details are fine, but it could use some more dynamic range, and it tends to overexpose at times. But as a selfie camera goes, it’s not too shabby. There is some software beautification that you can play with, and as per usual, we recommend the lower settings.

via GIPHY

The camera app on the Note 9 remains unchanged from the Galaxy S9+. The different camera modes are to the left, which you can switch between by swiping up and down, while the shortcut toggles, Bixby, shutter, preview and record buttons are to the right. In pro mode where’s lots to play with – including exposure, white balance, focus mode, photo mode, shutter speed and aperture as well as ISO. It will also detect movement and tracks it to keep it in focus. Lastly, doesn’t matter whether you’re shooting photos or videos, you can capture it in the display’s native resolution in 18.5:9 format.

Software

We’re glad to see that the Note 9 comes with Android 8.1 Oreo right out of the box, and of course, being a Samsung device, they’ve included their Samsung Experience 9.5 customization on top. In most cases, they look, feel and work like previous, more recent Samsung devices. As per usual, it looks simple and classy, and everything is where you’d expect them to be. There’s not much bloatware to be found as well – most of which are the essentials that you’ll need. There’s really nothing to complain about, especially when it performed quite well too.

Battery Life

The battery life is also one of the key upgrades on the Note 9, where Samsung is proud of the fact that they can cram a 4000mAh battery in it. Samsung is claiming that it can go on a full day of use on a single charge, and for us, we got pretty close, but still less than what Samsung claimed. We think that part of the problem is caused by the Always-On Display, which does seem to sip the power a little. As good as the device look with the feature turned on, we’ve decided to switch that off. Plus, some of our third-party apps that we need seemed to have been playing in the background for a little bit. But overall, for most people, a day of usage on a single charge isn’t hard to achieve.

The Note 9 does come with quick-charging technology, even though it’s not really the latest that the market can offer. So charging times isn’t going to be blazing fast, but still somewhat acceptable. Let’s not forget that there’s a huge 4000mAh battery in the device, so Samsung should really consider adding the latest, fastest charging technology in their devices. A 30-minute charge will get a flat battery to around 37%, and a full charge requires around 1 hour and 50 minutes. It also supports Qi Wireless Charging too, and Samsung does have a wireless charging accessory that will charge multiple devices at once.

Our Verdict

For most people, the Galaxy Note 9 isn’t all that appealing – it’s just a slightly-tweaked Galaxy Note 8 with Galaxy S9+ internals in it. It isn’t hard to see how boring the Note 9 can be, and how conservative Samsung has been lately. To be fair, we kind of feel the same thing, and we’re actually asking for more. But, even though it’s priced at the top end of the smartphone market, it definitely is worth it’s price. There’s just the sense of premium, solid and powerful feel that even a “flagship killer” can’t provide. The Note 9 isn’t just like a holiday romance, and the more time we spent with it, the more we wanted one. We could yawn at how conservative Samsung is taking their approach, but the Galaxy Note 9 still takes the crown for now, but maybe not for long.

One thing I’ll advise – just stick to the cheaper model, as 6GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage is more than enough for most people, and no matter what, you can expand that storage with a microSD card. The more expensive model might sound a little crazy to most people, so unless you have spare cash on hand, the cheaper variant is still the one to go. As for its competitions, no one out there offers a built-in stylus, as for normal devices, Huawei’s P20 Pro or Sony’s recent Xperia XZ2 Premium are great alternatives to the Note 9. You can also add in Samsung’s own Galaxy S9+ into the comparison if you don’t fancy the S Pen, but in this case, we’d recommend just go for the Note 9. If you’re looking for cheaper alternatives, Vivo’s NEX and OnePlus 6 is probably some of the closest.

Things we like:
• A powerful machine
• Display is gorgeous
• Overall great content consumption device
• Long battery life
• Stays pretty cool under load

Things we’re not sure of:
• Even with quick charging, it’s slow to charge.
• Camera can be laggy at times
• Quite heavy
• Design a little boring
• Overall unappealing upgrade

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