REVIEW: Samsung Galaxy Note9. An embarrassment of riches? Or the Note8 on (some) steroids?

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We had the honour to be invited to the launch of the Samsung Galaxy Note9 in New York, plus the UAE launch for good measure – the latter even resulting in one of the wildest Facebook Lives I’ve ever done.

Now, after all the formalities, we finally got our own unit to test.

Samsung’s new stylus-wielding gizmo is back, and you’d obviously expect something pretty neat for this go-around. The eighth device in the Note series (again, there was no Note6) was billed as one built for power, so that pretty much gives us a clue of what we’re about to encounter.

Enough of the intro. And buckle up; this will be quite long.

TALE OF THE TAPE

 Galaxy Note9  Galaxy Note8
 CPU  Exynos 9810 Octa (Emea)

Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 (US, LatAm, China)

 Exynos 8895 Octa (Emea)

Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (US, China)

 Display  6.4″ Super Amoled, 83.4% ratio,  1440 x 2960, 18.5:9, 516ppi  6.3″ Super Amoled, 83.2% ratio, 1440 x 2960, 18.5:9, 521ppi
 RAM  6/8GB  6GB
 Storage  128/512GB  64/128/256GB
 Camera  Main: dual 12MP, f/1.5/f/2.4, OIS; Scene Optimiser

Front: 8MP f/1.7

 Main: dual 12MP, f/1.7/f/2.4, OIS

Front: 8MP f/1.7

 Battery  4000mAh, water cooling system  3300mAh
 S Pen  Air View, Bluetooth remote control  Air View
 Price  Dh3,699/Dh4,599  Dh3,399/Dh3,599/Dh3,799

 

Let’s be honest here: aside from a handful of eye-catching bump-ups, the specs of the Note9 are what we can consider token upgrades from the Note8. I’m betting (and I guess everyone is) that Samsung is saving some real neat stuff for next year (a little more on that later).

The display and overall design is practically the same, save for that teeny-weeny 0.1 inch difference against the Note8 – enough to make it Samsung’s biggest device to date:

But there’s reason to celebrate: Samsung finally decided – finally! – to move the fingerprint sensor to the centre. I had a real beef with its placement to the right of the dual-lens camera system. Shukran, Samsung, seriously.

The display on the Note9 is, still, a sight to behold, bright enough to light up a dark room. Viewing stuff on it won’t give any problems to your eyes, as the screen is crisp and smooth, with the Infinity Display splendidly spread out from edge to edge. Still, the bezels on top and below are still thick. Balance is the key here; it may look a bit awkward if the screen was slid all the way down while keeping the bezel on top. Either that, or Samsung doesn’t have any plans of slapping in a notch up there.

THE GOOD STUFF

Now, going back to those eye-catchers, there are a couple of things that stand out here: storage and battery. Basically, what Samsung did here was double the storage on both the base and high-end model – eliminating, in the process, the need for a version with ‘only’ 64GB. You now have a choice between a 128GB underling and a 512GB monster. Add the fact that you can slot in a 512GB microSD, and you have in your hands a 1TB juggernaut. You also get a 2GB bonus in the RAM department with the latter.

You also get an AKG headset, plus two USB-B-to-USB-C connectors straight out of the box.

That would mean you may not even have to delete any of your data for a long time – maybe years, if you plan on sticking with this device for that long. Of course, this will depend on how much stuff you, well, stuff into your device; I’ve been using a 256GB smartphone for almost a year now, but I haven’t even breached the 100GB mark, considering the fact that I take a lot of snaps and record videos because of my profession. A 512GB storage is best meant for those who (a) post anything on social media left and right, or (b) won’t let any moment pass, especially with the family (and the adorable kids). (Let’s stick in a ‘c’ here: also for those who are too timid to delete things or transfer them to another storage device or computer.)

And if you’re still wondering why there are two types of chips listed, let’s answer this once and for all: both have integrated modems in them that are different, tailored to which country the device will be used, depending on the type of cellular technology and spectrum used in that place. But relax; Samsung’s in-house Exynos chip is at par with Qualcomm’s latest.

You’ll also notice Samsung’s pumped up its battery, making the jump all the way to 4000mAh. This definitely proves that they’ve gotten over the Note7 (for those who have been living in a cave for the past couple of years, here’s what happened to its 3500mAh battery); last year, with the Note8, they toned down the battery in an apparent precautionary measure, but went gung-ho again with the Note9, thanks to one interesting element: water.

Samsung added what they dubbed a water carbon cooling system in the Note9. Let’s be clear, though: this innovation has been in the company’s flagships since early-2016’s Galaxy S7 (right before the Note8), though it has never gotten this much attention with the Note9.

Now you won’t exactly find a miniaturised river or creek flowing inside your Note9. As Samsung explained in a blog post: “When we launched the Galaxy S7, we introduced a new type of water-based cooling into our phones. It used a porous thermal spreader filled with water, which absorbed the heat and turned steam and then carried the heat away through a pipe. Once the heat dissipated, the steam condensed into water again. This system was the blueprint for the Water Carbon Cooling system in the Galaxy Note9, but we wanted to make it bigger and more efficient.”

So, there. And, here:

Safe to say that the Note9 is, well, as safe as it can get.

Anyway, going further with power, our standard one-hour YouTube-at-full-brightness test resulted in 11 per cent of battery life ousted from the Note9 – a nice improvement from the 13 per cent we saw gone in the Note8. However, an interesting tidbit: that figure compares to the 10 per cent drain of the Galaxy S9+’s 3500mAh battery. Before you freak out, here’s an ample explanation why this could be so: the Note9 has a bigger screen and, pound-for-pound, slightly higher specs that requires more power. Nothing serious to see here.

And does the Note9 heat up while being used? Well, the straightforward answer is no, though during our YouTube test, I felt a little of it – but this is standard with any phone; burning power with battery-hungry apps, plus maximum usage of the screen, will definitely cause some heating. I’ve handled devices that heat up more, but it never came to an undesirable point. So, again, relax.

Charging it, meanwhile, is straightforward: from 6 per cent, the Note9 indicated that it would reach full charge in one hour and 35 minutes – though it actually took 10 minutes more to do so. And that’s using the supplied fast charger and cable; by comparison, plugging it into a laptop made it go from 0 to 6 per cent in an agonising 20 minutes. I had no problems getting home with a decent amount of juice left, and it was even enough to make it through the early afternoon the following day.

S PEN MIGHTIER THAN THE FINGER (NOW)?

Ah, the S Pen. My personal foil on the Note series. I still can’t get myself to make use of Samsung’s stylus even on at least 10 per cent of what I’d do on a Note. (My mom, on of the biggest fans of the Note series, will beg to differ.)

So would the version on the Note9 – at least for me – up that percentage?

A bit. Thanks to Samsung blessing it with Bluetooth Low Energy, you’ll be able to use the S Pen as a remote control, which allows you to perform assignable tasks such as snapping pics, maneuvering through photos, voice recording and playing music tracks – even PowerPoint presentations – all within 30 feet of the Note9:

You will find the remote control feature quite handy.

The Live Translate function, among a number of others, is back on the S Pen – inarguably its most handy feature – although sometimes it doesn’t hit the mark at the first instance; hover your pen over some text and see it work its magic:

Oops…

If the S Pen doesn’t suit you for translating and you’d rather point at words, then Bixby is coming to your rescue. Samsung’s answer to Siri and Google Assistant has been improved again, and already speaks English right off the bat. Using Bixby Vision – that’s found in the camera app, but which you’ll have to activate from Bixby Home – point at some words and watch it translate on-screen:

…perfect…

…and oops again.

More on Bixby: well, you can pretty much ask it anything, from your usual queries to finding, schedule something, find restos and directions to get you to places:

And Bixby Home – a place for everything – is that dedicated button below the volume rocker on the left side. (Before I forget, the power button’s on the right of the Note9, on top is the card tray and below are the USB-C and 3.5mm audio ports. Sorry for taking this long to mention these.) There are a lot of things that can entertain and help you out in this space:

Sorry for that seemingly displaced first picture; that’s the rest of the stuff you can do with the S Pen.

You’ll notice Fortnite above; Samsung made some noise when they announced a partnership with the game’s makers. Basically, Samsung is trying to prove that the Note9 can handle the most heavy-duty games out there, so what better thing to do than prove it with one of the hottest titles out there?

Now I don’t play Fortnite, but I did experience it during the Note9’s launch in Dubai. The game was clear as day, and I didn’t notice any lag of sort. They promised console-quality gaming on the Note9, and so far with Fortnite, they’re delivering. Please bring Castlevania to the device.

One last thing about the S Pen: you can also preview items on your device by hovering it over them. And remember, if the S Pen is within range of the Note 9 (about a centimetre at most), it won’t respond to your fingers. I found that out the hard way, surprised that I wasn’t able to use my fingers and the S Pen at the same time with the latter so close to the smartphone.

SNAPPING AWAY

Admit it; you were aching to get to this part.

As seen above, while practically dealing with the same dual-lens 12MP system from the Note8, there are a couple of additions to the Note9’s snappers: a lower f/1.5 aperture – the lower this figure, the more light it can gather inside the system – and Scene Optimiser, which detects the scene you’re taking and automatically adjusts the camera to get the best results; think of it as Samsung’s very own entry into the AI-in-smartphone-camera wars.

Shots are great in good lighting conditions:

You may have noticed three different shots on the same scene, with varying degrees of brightness. By default, the camera is at Auto mode when you fire it up, and you have the option to adjust the brightness, depending on how much light you have in your situation. In the cases above, the one on top has the minimal brightness setting, the second is at mid-level and the third is at max. Of course, you’ll find this setting handy depending on the scene you’re in.

Here’s the same scene, but this time at night:

If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s this: you must know how to take advantage of Samsung’s best-in-class f/1.5 aperture. By default, the camera opens with the brightness setting at mid-level. But, honestly, the most realistic view of the scene above is the first one. There goes the beef with this innovation: getting too bright won’t be able to convey the actual looks of a scene. Getting too bright will also cause some noise on the shot. But, hey, who are we to complain when we have a setting like this at our disposal?

Here’s one more set, this time taken from my flat on the eighth floor:

The middle and last shots give the impression that the sun is about to show up. But no; matter of factly, these shots were taken around 4AM. The actual scene can be captured with a brightness setting somewhere between the first and second shots.

Here’s the same scene at day; no complaints:

Zoom? There’s no perfect zoom on a mobile device – far from being perfect, to be honest – but here are some hints on the Note9:

Oh, were you waiting for the front camera? Well, it’s still the same good ol’ snapper:

The Selfie Focus feature with bokeh effect – AKA blurred background – is still nice and fun to play with:

The effect tends to overlap to the shoulders at times, so you’ll have to distance the Note9 from you and time your shot properly to get the desired results.

Want that blurry feeling up front? Use Live Focus then. If you use this, there are two more goodies you can do to play with your images after snapping them. First, you can adjust the blur effect (you can also do this before taking a shot)…

…or you can choose between a close-up or a wider angle of the scene:

Added bonus: wide selfie, akin to a panorama shot up front:

I had to bribe these friends of mine with ice cream to be my ‘models’, but we ended up having some club sandwiches. Anyway, mind you, the original file size of this single shot is almost 12MB (by default settings), so you’d better adjust your image size settings before snapping away (unless you’re really confident with a 512GB model).

More shots:

For the real selfie freaks, there are other goodies in the camera app, including AR Emoji. Go ahead and cartoonise yourself:

Seriously.

Before we leave this part, some more things to remember: the Note9’s camera again has Pro mode, which makes your device akin to a DSLR with all those nutty camera controls. You can also wave your hand while taking a selfie to trigger a countdown and automatically shoot, so you don’t have to press the shutter on-screen or the S Pen.

Oh, and one more thing: the 960fps super-slow-motion video is back:

And one more for good measure:

THE REST OF IT

The Note9 is once again IP68-rated, meaning it can withstand dust and water, the latter for up to 1.5 metres up to half-an-hour. Of course, it’s best to preserve it by not taking it out for a splash as much as you could.

The security is also back with not much changes. Aside from Samsung’s very own Knox security platform, you’ll get Intelligent Scan, which is a combination of face and iris scanning. Before you register your likeness, you’ll be asked to wear your glasses (if you do) “for best results”. Here’s what I observed: while Intelligent Scan does work well in good light, it tends to become inconsistent when it comes to really dim situations or total darkness. In the latter, it didn’t recognise me while I had my glasses on (to be fair, the glare on spectacles reflects back to the device), but even if I took it off, I’d either have to open my eyes very wide or just let the scan lapse without it recognising me. Some work to be done here.

Price? Well, you saw them above. I remember last year when Apple announced that the iPhone X was to be priced in the four-dollar figures (fine, technically $999, but you get the point), everyone was up in arms. Samsung has also crossed that threshold with the Note9, and looks like everybody has accepted the fact that this is the direction in which we’re going. But one executive told me a fact of today’s digital life: you get what you pay for. (Fun fact: legendary investor Warren Buffett, some days ago, said that the iPhone is ‘enormously underpriced’. Think about that.)

AND SO…

Well, we could go on forever here, but one thing is clear: the Samsung Galaxy Note9 is a beast in its own right. However, the lack of those wow additions pulls down its rating a bit. The storage and RAM upgrades are nice, but with minimal bump-ups to the rest of its parts, this could well be the Note8 on a little bit of steroids.

However, as I did allude to at the beginning of this review, this could be a signal: we could – no, should – expect something greater next year with the Note10. If you can’t wait for almost a year, then the S10 (almost certainly at February’s Mobile World Congress) can relieve you of your itch. But if you’re really that type who runs on impatience, then mark January on your calendars: word has it that the long-rumoured ‘Galaxy X’ – the purported foldable device– could be unveiled by then.

GOODIES: Excellent display, great camera, buttery-smooth interface, more usable S Pen

BADDIES: Not much wow, Intelligent Scan iffy, Live Translate inconsistent, Bixby takes a while to process commands

 

 

** This article is actually appeared in Khaleej Times

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