Just last Friday, I was among the first in Singapore (and indeed, the world) to receive the Samsung Galaxy Note 9. That’s a pretty big milestone, not least because Samsung’s Note series devices have always been considered the best Android phones available on the market.
The excitement was real: a 4,000mAh battery, improved cameras ported from the Galaxy S9, a very impressive 6.4-inch QHD Super AMOLED display, along with an improved S Pen stylus that now packs Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) for more utility.
There’s plenty here, and we’ll start with the display. Amongst the largest and brightest on the market, the display on the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 has delivered a truly immersive experience with radiant colours, deep blacks. Pumping enough nits to outshine the tropical midday sun here in Singapore is no mean feat, but the Note 9 does it.
There’s no notch, and bezels on all sides have shrunk. An eagle-eyed commentator observed that the sides have actually got thicker than on the Note 8, but that’s not noticeable.
It’s good, and I would venture to say the best display available on any smartphone, period. But no device or feature is without its downsides. Tilting the device in any direction casts a blue tint on the display, significantly more so than almost all smartphones I’ve had my hands on recently. It’s not a deal breaker, since you’d most likely be viewing it head-on.
The other issue I ran into was the curved profile of the display. This feature, though beautiful and potentially responsible for the narrow side bezels, meant unfortunately that the screen space available for the S Pen to ink was, in reality, 2mm narrower on either edge. The curved edges were also not as sensitive to touch, meaning on-screen elements near the edges were slightly more difficult to interact with.
The S Pen stylus
I’ve got too many good words for Samsung’s S Pen on its Note series. It is sensitive, natural and feels great in the hand. For reference, I’ve got really tiny hands and I give all my writing implements a death grip. The S Pen is (very understandably) slim, but feels rigid in the hand. With its rectangular cross-section, it should fit into most hands positioned correctly, though I’m certain that big-handed individuals might find it too svelte or short.
The hardware button works a treat, doubling up to summon the eraser on the note-taking application. With the new BLE technology squeezed on board, the S Pen works well as a remote control for your phone, helping you achieve very useful tasks. It was able to help trigger the camera for a selfie when I popped it into a tripod, and was also useful to quickly and unintrusively file through my gallery to show off the images while the phone was in the hands of my friend.
The S Pen itself requires power, and I had run out once during my limited time with it. However, it uses a capacitor in the place of a battery, which means it charges really fast, delivering 30 mins of power with around 40 seconds of docking.
You’re able to seamlessly dock your phone to a monitor (or a projector), so you could easily use your Note 9 to deliver a presentation. The S Pen’s ability to take control of the slide show is immensely useful, especially as a back-up for that super-important brief you have to deliver.
Battery and power
The 4,000mAh battery was one of the highlights of the Note 9, and I was thrilled to have a phone that truly lasts a full day. The Note 9, however, is a big phone, which means there’s plenty of space to fit in a larger battery. The large battery, however, does not deliver a commensurate increment in battery life – more powerful internals, and a much larger display (albeit AMOLED), contribute to the power-hungry nature of the device.
I got about the same use as mosy other flagships I’ve tested, at slightly under a day with sporadic entertainment consumption.
Fast charging works as well as the next 2018 flagship smartphone, but I found its wireless charging capability (with a Samsung fast charging dock) to be rather slow as compared to other equivalent phones.
The phone handled heat very well – so Samsung’s claims about the efficacy of their unique water carbon cooling technology weren’t moot, after all.
The Note 9 I received was the version intended for the Asian market, which sports Samsung’s proprietary octa-core Exynos 9810 chipset. I’ll get to it: based on my limited time with the devices, the Exynos is not as powerful as the Snapdragon 845. The Mali G72 on board the Samsung also pales in comparison to the Adreno graphics found on most Snapdragon flagships.
I encountered a few frozen apps within my five days with the phone. Not of the momentarily frozen kind, either – they were the type that required me to kill the app.
I’ve just reviewed the LG G7+ ThinQ, which had a Snapdragon 845 chipset on board. I found its flat-out, effortless capability in such a light, compact form factor to be an . The Exynos 9810 didn’t perform well on benchmarks, coming in behind its Snapdragon counterpart.
Despite this, on AnTuTu, the Samsung, at 83,553, beat LG’s CPU score of 72,347. For GPU, the Samsung’s 94,680 loses out to the LG’s 98,229. Other benchmark applications reflected a slight advantage to the Snapdragon chip. Lucky Americans.
I’ve never been keen on the rendition of the image output of Samsung’s devices. On the Galaxy Note 9, the images are crisp, with sufficient contrast and notable dynamic range, especially for a small sensor.
The portrait mode on the Galaxy Note 9 works extremely well, with a remarkable edge detection system. Unlike the iPhone X, which seems to work by recognising faces in the image and emphasises the focus on the face, the Note 9 instead renders the entire plane of focus sharp.
It isn’t perfect, but comes close. A chainlink railing closeby melted into the background blur, but the image, in general, looked appealing with beautifully-rendered bokeh balls.
Performance in low-light situations is some of the best I’ve seen on smartphones. Some slight artificial sharpening can be observed, especially on fine details. However, images still retained colour depth and vibrancy, while even small details like fur and whiskers were well-rendered.
The wide-angle 12-megapixel camera on the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 features a dual aperture of f1.5 and f2.4. However, with a super-fast maximum shutter speed of 1/24,000, the Note 9 would be able to perform well even in bright daylight. Personally, I did not notice any specific advantage this feature, that was first found on the Samsung Galaxy S9, imbued to its images.
I’ve never been a fan of the Samsung Experience, the brand’s custom UI skinned over the Android innards. At its present iteration 9.5, the visuals remain largely the same, but the overall usability is remarkable.
From the lock screen, the always-on display gives plenty of utility while remaining minimalist, displaying everything you need and nothing more. A useful feature is a hard-press home button that lets you unlock the phone without having to press the wake button or use your fingerprint in the back.
This is rather useful when using the phone flat on a desk. A stronger-than-normal press on the square home button brings you to the lock screen, where facial and iris detection is able to accurately read your facial features even from a slight angle.
The fingerprint sensor is slightly laggy, and I found that the facial+iris recognition system actually worked better than it in good lighting.
The Bixby button seems to have lost its ability to be shut off, to my intense dismay. I found myself accidentally activating this feature many times, without any ability to disable it.
I had grown fond of LG’s family of flagship devices. Retaining the 3.5mm jack and emphasising absolute audio performance with a top-notch DAC (digital-to-audio converter).
The Samsung doesn’t have any audiophile-grade components, but some software enhancements made my listening experience very enjoyable. It does still feature a 3.5mm jack, which you can enjoy with the AKG earphones bundled in the box. But the highlight is in the software: with Dolby Atmos surround sound, and a tube amplifier emulator, I found myself thoroughly appreciating my listening experience. These enhancements work well over Bluetooth audio devices too, which is rather convenient since I rarely lug my clumsy wired IEMs these days.
The stereo speakers also deliver great audio, especially for entertainment purposes like while gaming or watching videos. One channel is located on the underside as pictured in the image above, while the other is located at the earpiece.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 9’s high price would deter most users: the 512GB unit I received, which retails SGD1,728 is a steep price proposition for what it offers. But for what it’s worth, it’s an excellently-specced device.
Its Exynos chipset lets it down slightly in benchmarking, but it isn’t fully indicative of its true performance in real life applications.
With its beautiful display (probably the best in the market), well-implemented stylus capabilities, the Note 9 dominates a particular use case and market segment.
The version in 128GB retails at SGD1,398 and is available in Singapore in Midnight Black, Ocean Blue and Metallic Copper.