Samsung's new flagship phone comes with a slew of new camera features. WSJ’s David Pierce took the new phone for a spin at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco.
Nobody makes better-looking phones than Samsung Electronics . Last year’s Galaxy S8 was a particular gem of a device, glassy and stark with that “infinity display” stretching almost entirely across the front. It was thoughtfully designed on a level only Apple used to be able to achieve. As a result, it flew off shelves.
So why change anything? Nine versions in, Samsung feels it has landed on the right design for its Galaxy S phones. A company spokeswoman compared Samsung’s approach to the way a luxury car maker might build new models: Nip and tuck, but don’t change what people already love. The S9’s updates include a smaller bezel, brighter screen, faster processor and relocated fingerprint reader.
The S9 comes in two sizes: The standard model has a 5.8-inch screen, and the S9+ a giant 6.2-inch screen. Photo: David Pierce/The Wall Street Journal
If you already have an S8, you aren’t missing much and don’t need to spend roughly $800 for the S9 or upward of $900 for the S9+ when they hit stores this month. Almost anyone else will welcome the upgrade.
Yet I still find myself frustrated by this phone. Samsung paired this lovely hardware with half-baked software. I love Android and use it every day, but I don’t like any of what Samsung does to it. If Samsung would just get out of its own way, build hardware and let Google handle the software, the S9 might be the best phone on the market. Instead, I found myself longing for simpler, smoother features to better suit this good-looking phone.Coming Into Focus
Most of Samsung’s engineering this time around went into the camera. The S9 and S9+ both have 12-megapixel cameras on the back, and the S9+ adds a second camera for taking photos with more zoom. I can’t say these phones always take better pictures than Google’s Pixel 2 or Apple’s iPhone X, but overall they’re just as good.
Samsung’s Galaxy S9 has a 12-megapixel camera on the back with a mechanical aperture. Photo: David Pierce/The Wall Street Journal
Where the S9 stands out most is in bad lighting, like at a concert or in a dimly lit aquarium. That’s because the S9’s camera has an actual mechanical aperture. The aperture controls the amount of light allowed into the camera lens, which in turn controls how bright your photo can be and how much of that creamy-background bokeh effect you can achieve. Shooting at a super-bright f/1.5, as the S9 does by default in low light, I got half-decent photos. On other phones, they’d have just come out black.
That’s hardware improvement. Samsung’s track record for software changes is a lot rockier. For example: You can use the S9’s selfie camera to create an emoji in your likeness, or goof around with lenses that add an augmented-reality hat or mask to your face. But the features don’t work as well as similar ones on an iPhone or in Snapchat. Everyone’s emoji kind of looks the same, and the faces move like badly dubbed cartoons.
Samsung’s AR Emoji feature can be fun, but everyone looks kind of similar, and the lip-syncing doesn’t work as well as on the iPhone X. Photo: David Pierce/The Wall Street Journal
The new phones can capture video in the slowest-mo you’ve ever seen on a smartphone: 960 frames per second, four times the iPhone’s slo-mo rate. But it feels like the feature was added by the marketing department, not the phone designers. It’s really hard to capture exactly the right moment at that speed, and you can’t change what you’ve captured after the fact. And if you’re in anything but perfect lighting, all you’ll be shooting is darkness. I much prefer Samsung’s old, 240-frame-per-second way of doing slow-mo, which remains in the settings menu.
Good luck finding it, though. (Okay, I’ll help: Go to Camera > Settings > Edit Camera Modes > Rear Camera.) Samsung crammed too many options and modes into the S9’s camera. It takes at least a half-dozen swipes to get through all the capture modes, and finding the right sticker or ISO setting takes forever. Samsung should do less, do it better and make it all easier to figure out.Too Much of a Good Thing
Samsung’s approach has always been to say yes to every nascent tech and user desire. (“You want 45 different ways to unlock your phone, and a screen bright enough to burn your eyes out? Sure!”)
Samsung installs many apps that duplicate available Google-made apps, which can lead to a confusing user experience. Photo: David Pierce/The Wall Street Journal
The S9 isn’t missing anything—it even still has a headphone jack. And a slot for additional MicroSD storage. It charges via USB-C or a wireless pad. You can unlock it with your face, your irises or your fingerprint. (I love having all three options.) It has a fast processor and lots of memory. It’s waterproof but still beautiful, thin but still lasts all day. There’s no obvious deal breaker here anywhere.
But then... I use the phone. And I start to go slightly nuts.
The first time I used Google Assistant to set an alarm, the S9 asked me which app I’d like to use. Wait, what? Turns out there are two, both named Clock, both willing and able to serve you. (Samsung doesn’t pre-install Android’s Clock, but it might download during setup if you previously owned an Android phone.) You’ll have to make a similar decision about whether to use Chrome or Internet; Email or Gmail. Do you want Google’s Play Store, or Samsung’s Galaxy Apps? What about Photos or Gallery? I could keep going.
The emoji gets it: Samsung made a terrific phone with the S9, but cluttered it with too many features that don't work well enough. Photo: David Pierce/The Wall Street Journal
Android isn’t the problem here. In fact, Android is the solution. Google has turned its once-messy operating system into a fluid, coherent, useful tool for all sorts of devices. The Pixel is the best Android phone not because of its design or battery life, but because it’s the purest expression of what Android can be. The S9 bests the Pixel’s hardware in almost every way but collapses under the weight of Samsung’s duplicate apps and bizarre interface overhaul.
As far as I can tell, Samsung could have done two things to really improve upon the S8. It could have dreamed up some wild new idea about smartphone hardware—maybe a flexible screen?—that moved everything forward again. Or it could have spent the year refining and simplifying its software, to make the phone simpler and more fun to use.
Instead it cooked up a whole new round of not-quite-finished features, and tossed them onto the already toppling heap. As it turned out, I like holding the S9, and I like looking at it. I really like all the Instagram likes I get from pictures I take with it. I just don’t like using it very much.
Corrections & Amplifications
Samsung doesn’t pre-install the Google-made clock and calculator apps in the Galaxy S9, as suggested in an earlier version, although they might download automatically during setup. Samsung does preload Google’s email, web-browser, photo and app-store apps. (March 9, 2018)