Tech Guide

Samsung's Galaxy S9 is a worthy rival to the iPhone X

Key Points
  • Samsung's Galaxy S9 features a great camera, good battery life and tons of bells and whistles.
  • It's a nice upgrade if you have a Galaxy S7 or older, but Galaxy S8 owners don't need to make the jump.
  • Samsung needs an iPhone X-like product in its Galaxy S range.
Samsung Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+ review

Samsung's Galaxy S9 is the best phone to launch in 2018 — so far. It's loaded with more features than most people will ever use (or perhaps even want).

There's something for everyone in the Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+, which I'll refer to simply as the Galaxy S9 for ease. The display is the best I've ever seen on a phone, it finally packs stereo speakers, and, yes, still has a headphone jack.

However, I don't think that it's necessary to upgrade from other great phones that launched in the last year.

The good

The Galaxy S9 and Galaxy S9+
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Almost everything about the Galaxy S9 is perfect, which is probably why the design hasn't changed drastically from last year's still-great Galaxy S8. Depending on the model you choose, you're getting either a 5.8-inch display or a 6.2-inch screen on the Galaxy S9+. The larger model has a bit more RAM, which should theoretically make running lots apps more fluid, and has a camera with improved zoom. If you like big screens, get the 6.2-inch model.

Samsung loaded both phones with Android Oreo, the latest major Android release from Google, which is great, though it may be a bit overloaded with customizations.

The screen and stereo speakers are perfect for watching movies
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You'll finally get stereo speakers for the first time ever on a Galaxy device, which means you hear audio from the top and bottom or left and right while holding the phone. You'll no longer muffle games or movies while holding the device with two hands. The speakers are nice and loud and balanced, at least for a phone. They're noticeably better than my iPhone X.

Samsung also kept the headphone jack, which means you don't need to rely on dongles or Bluetooth headphones. Both models come with 64GB of storage — enough for saving apps, music and movies for most people. There's also still the option to expand storage using a microSD card, which is a nice plus.

Samsung's fast charging system also juices up the phone quickly, so you don't need to spend hours at the outlet. There's also wireless charging, allowing you to drop it on a wireless charging pad instead of plugging it in, which is a convenience I've grown accustomed to from earlier Galaxy devices and the latest iPhones.

A lot of focus was placed on improving the cameras this year, and they don't disappoint. Most folks probably won't see a massive difference between the Galaxy S9 and iPhone X cameras, which means Samsung did a good job. The lens is particularly good in low-light situations, like a pub or at dusk. You also get fun features like the ability to shoot portrait mode, though it doesn't seem to do as well as the iPhone X in this case. Finally, there's a new 940fps slow-motion mode that records really fun clips intelligently: Just turn it on and take the picture and the phone will detect movement and take the best slo-mo shot it can. You can save these as GIFs, too, for sharing.

There are plenty of options for unlocking the phone, including a secure iris scanner, a slightly less secure fingerprint reader and face unlock, which Samsung says is more of a convenience than a security option. All worked well in my tests and I preferred face unlock since it was fast, even if it's not as secure as Apple's Face ID technology.

Finally, unlike most other phones currently on the market, it will support next-generation Gigabit LTE networks that will begin rolling out in the United States this year. Think of it as a bit of future proofing for when these roll out: You'll be able to download movies and games much faster when you're not on Wi-Fi.

The bad

AR Emoji on the Galaxy S9
Todd Haselton | CNBC

There are a few things I don't like, but they're not really forward facing and not generally a huge problem.

Samsung copied Apple (it denies this but it's clear as day) with its own take on Apple's Animoji. The feature is called AR Emoji and it's silly at best. I snapped a picture of myself and then the Galaxy S9 created a cartoon version of my face, though it didn't really look like me. You can use these in text messages, but they're so strange that I felt goofy sending them. Apple's Animoji are much more animated and fun, even though they don't try to customize to your face.

AR Emoji
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Samsung's smart assistant, called Bixby, made its debut last year on the Galaxy S8. It wasn't good then and it still isn't good now. It's sluggish and most folks are better served by Android's built-in Google Assistant for most tasks. Samsung added a couple of new features to Bixby, like the ability to point your camera at foreign languages and translate them in real time, which is fun but isn't enough to warrant a recommendation for Bixby overall.

Galaxy S9 or iPhone X?

Apple says this is the strongest glass used on a smartphone
Todd Haselton | CNBC

I don't normally compare Android phones with the iPhone because the product ecosystems are so different — you're either investing in Apple or Google software and products — but I've heard a lot of questions from friends and family which phone is better. There's no question the Galaxy S9 is a worthy Android rival to the iPhone X, with a great screen, camera, wireless charging and more. If you're buying an Android phone and don't like Apple products for whatever reason, this is a safe bet.

Should you buy it?

Pink, black and blue models will launch in the Untied States
Todd Haselton | CNBC

Yes, if you're coming from a Galaxy S7 or older phone. While there are lots of appreciated upgrades, most folks who already own a Galaxy S8 or even a major phone that launched in 2017 probably don't need to upgrade.

This brings up a larger point: Samsung's Galaxy S9 feels a lot like the move from the iPhone 7 to the iPhone 8. It's an upgrade, but not really a huge bump in a lot of ways. Samsung needs something in the Galaxy S range that pushes the boundaries a bit more, like the iPhone X does in Apple's lineup.

Maybe next year.