Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: the best Android phone I’ve used all year

Samsung

Rating: 8.7/10

Yay:

– The S-Pen is extremely useful

– Gorgeous AMOLED display that puts other screens to shame

– Great low light camera performance

– Improved battery life

– Feature-rich Samsung Experience v9.5 software

Nay:

– Undeniably large and needs two hands to use it comfortably

– Bixby and its associated button is such a waste of effort

– Video stabilisation is iffy

Introduction

In the world of Android phones, most brands tend to play it safe. I think they strongly believe in the saying, “too much of anything, could destroy you.”

But Samsung has a different take on things, especially when it comes to the Note series of smartphones. The company literally crams so many features inside the Note series phones that sometimes you wonder if you actually need all of them. Samsung leaves no stone unturned and this year’s Galaxy Note 9 is no different.

I’ve used this phone as my daily driver, and have a very long and detailed review for you.

P.S. Just click on the handy section links on the right-hand side. You can jump into a section of your choice if you wish.

All product shots captured by Nitesh Guleria

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 S-Pen: uniquely useful

I’ve forgotten the art of writing on pen and paper. No kidding. All of my scribblings are captured in digital format and stored in the cloud. And hence, I was apprehensive about the utility of the S-Pen. But boy, was I wrong!

I get the enamour of using the S-Pen and why the Note series has a legion of fans. It is just so handy to slide out the S-Pen and take a note. You can do that even when you the screen is off. Moreover, the S-Pen with its 4096 pressure point sensitivity sometimes feels more lifelike than a real pen.

I also downloaded the PENUP app and did a little colouring because my drawing skills are not exactly great, you see. And, my experience was good. But that’s not it, PENUP is actually an entire social network like Instagram where fellow Note users can come and like your artwork or repost it. That’s when I realised the reach and the scale of the S-Pen.

 

 

But the S-Pen can do one more thing this time. The embedded S-Pen button can now be used: as a slider for presentations, to play or pause YouTube videos, and to take a picture using the camera app. It works on Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) technology and uses a super-capacitor to charge it. So, it takes just 40 seconds to charge the S-Pen, which you can then use for 30 minutes at a stretch.

Overall, my S-Pen experience was great and I was tempted to take more notes in my time with the phone. Also, Samsung has also clearly raised the utility of the S-Pen by including the button. Great job, Samsung.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 design: definition of premium

The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is bigger and chunkier than ever before, thanks to the slightly larger display and a bigger battery. At 8.8mm thickness and 210gms, the Note 9 is a behemoth that people with dainty hands won’t be able to use with ease. It is a phone that requires two hands to use it comfortably.

But as far as the glass sandwich industrial design goes, Samsung has once again kicked it out of the park. I can never get bored of the curved edges on the rear and the front. The glass used to make the phone is protected by Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and the rear. This glass is reinforced by a thin metal railing and Samsung bundles a silicone case in the box if you are worried about protection.

 

The phone has a USB type-C port at the bottom flanked on either sides by the 3.5mm jack on the left and the speaker+S-Pen slot on the right. The hybrid SIM card tray sits on the top.

Furthermore, the Note 9 has an actual pressure sensitive Home button that apes the iPhone’s 3D Touch mechanism only around the bottom part. It works well, and I ended up using it a lot subconsciously.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 design: there are some quirks

And, this is where I start nitpicking about the design. Firstly, the SIM card tray is made of plastic. That’s such a big letdown in a phone, which is otherwise oozing with a premium feel. Secondly, the Bixby button — which cannot be remapped or shut off — is placed on the left edge below the volume rocker. I have inadvertently triggered it so many times, it is not even funny. Especially when you want to take screenshots, there is a great possibility that you will hit the power button and the Bixby instead of the volume down button.

Another small issue I have the design is the oddly placed camera sensors inside the camera module on the rear. For all the design consistencies followed across the device, the placement of cameras looks odd. Very odd. But thankfully, the fingerprint scanner on the rear is easy to reach as it is now placed below the camera module. This scanner is adequately fast but the OnePlus 6 has a scanner that is far more responsive.

 

 

 

And since this is a Samsung Galaxy flagship device, you also get other security options. There’s Samsung’s trademark Iris scanning and face scanning. And, you can also use intelligent scanning which uses a combination of both to unlock your phone. It works well and all, but the phone recognised me even when my eyes were closed.

In total, the Note 9 is the culmination of years and years of a design refinement by the engineers at Samsung. But, there is still some distance to go before we achieve peak Samsung Galaxy Note design.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 display: the best on any phone

One of the best things about the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is its large 6.4-inch QHD+ Super AMOLED display, which has no notch. There are very tiny bezels on the top and the bottom, which makes the screen very immersive for watching videos and playing games.

The display is crisp, bright and the viewing angles are super impressive, with very little colour shift that is common with most AMOLED panels. In the Settings, you will also find the option to change the colour scape. By default, Samsung uses the Adaptive mode which is vibrant and lush. You can switch to Basic if you like. This mode gives you more natural colours, that are true to life but dull.

 

 

If my assessment of the Note 9’s display isn’t enough, DisplayMate has rated it the best on a smartphone. DisplayMate’s extensive technical testing is an industry-wide standard, and honestly, I prefer their testing standards over even DxOMark’s for smartphone cameras.

Even if that doesn’t suffice, just go and check one in the store. I can guarantee that you will get wowed instantly. If you don’t…well, I can’t do much about that.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 multimedia: Netflix and chill was made for this phone

Now, my observations on the display are not over yet. One of the interesting things about the Note 9’s display is the over 1000nits (1150 nits) of brightness and support for HDR10 videos. The phone has also been rated as YouTube’s signature device to watch videos. I watched an 8K HDR video on the Note 9 (which played back at 2K btw) and I was positively stunned at the deep blacks and the insane colours. It was truly stunning.

Moreover, there is a video enhancer mode that essentially turns the brightness setting to max when you are inside a compatible video player/streaming app. It worked with YouTube, Netflix, and Prime Video.

 

 

Oh, and let’s not forget the Dex mode is now available to use without a dock. All you need to do is hook a USB Type-C to HDMI (male) cable and you are good to go. It works extremely seamlessly.

The Note 9 has stereo speakers with the earpiece acting as the other speaker. It is a full and rich sound that I have no complaints about but the Pixel 2XL has a much louder sound. You also get Dolby Atmos for phone built inside the Note 9. Honestly, I didn’t see any difference in sound quality with Atmos on. The sound quality through the 3.5mm jack is warm and pleasing. I used a FiiO FH5, which is generally easy to drive, and the sound was fairly expansive and good. However, the LG G7 ThinQ+ is still undoubtedly better thanks to its dedicated quad-DAC.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 software: you won’t even use half of the features it packs in

The Note 9 runs on Samsung Experience version 9.5 on top of Android 8.1.0 Oreo. Samsung has clearly improved the hardware-software optimisations and the animation speeds from the days of Touchwiz. I really like the new nimble OS. Allow me to tell you what’s great, and what’s not:

 

 

What’s good:

  1. Edge lighting is such a cool feature. I really cannot get over it.
  2. So, is the Always-On display that is perfect on an AMOLED display.
  3. There are so many additional gesture-based features in the Settings. For example, the fingerprint swipe to bring down notifications never gets old.
  4. In case, for some reason, you want two Messenger apps of the same kind, you can do so using the Dual Messenger mode.
  5. Samsung is at the top when it comes to smartphone security thanks to all the fortification by Knox, which comes built-in inside the phone. It is useful for enterprise IT managers, but for end consumers even the Samsung Pay is protected by Knox security.
  6. The initial setup is seamless. You can pick and choose which Samsung app you want to use. Using the bundled USB Type-C to Type-A connector, you can easily transfer stuff from your old phone to your new one with ease.

 

What could use some work:

  1. Apart from the fact that Bixby is one of the very few Voice-based assistants that allows you to trigger the internal settings of the phone, everything else is mostly useless.
  2. It is high-time Samsung adds a gesture-based UI. I was sorely missing it.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 camera: one of the best set of cameras on a flagship phone

Samsung mostly glossed over the camera details at the launch event because not much has changed since the Galaxy S9+. You get the same 12MP+12MP dual camera setup on the rear. The setup is such that the primary camera works as the wide lens and the secondary camera is the telephoto one that can do 2x near-optical zoom. Megapixels don’t tell the whole story, the primary camera has a large 1.4-micron pixel size and it has a variable aperture that can switch between f/1.5 to f/2.4. Variable aperture is virtually unheard of in phones, and that makes the camera on the Note 9 extremely unique.

(P.S. click on all the images to view in full size)

Let me break down what’s great about the Note 9’s camera and what’s not.

 

Stuff that’s great:

  1. The Galaxy Note 9 captures some extremely stunning shots in low light thanks to the f/1.5 aperture setting. It lets in so much light even in areas where I couldn’t see anything.

  2. The daylight shots are filled with so many details and surprisingly, fairly accurate colours too. Moreover, Samsung keeps the over-sharpening in check, which is awesome.
  3. The Live Focus mode for capturing portraits is really, really good. I managed to get some of the best, most realistic looking bokeh shots using this mode.

  4. The dynamic range is great by default. Nothing to worry.
  5. The sensor can achieve a good depth-of-field by default.
  6. The Note 9 takes the best Macro shots. Period.

  7. Even action shots are easy to capture using the Note 9.
  8. The Manual mode is easy to use, and feature rich considering this is the only smartphone in the world right now that will let you change the aperture at a hardware level.

  9. The 960fps Super Slow-motion video looks stunning when you have ample light.
  10. The new Scene Optimiser mode – which is Samsung’s branding of AI – can identify a lot of scenes and it does it subtly. Also, Samsung has a way of doing “flaw detection” where it identifies if the subject has blinked or moved, or some such.

Stuff that’s not great:

  1. The Super Slow-motion video is a pain to trigger and use. I just couldn’t get the right shot easily. Also, more often than not I ended up with out of focus footage.
  2. The video stabilisation is crappy. I really don’t know how Samsung dropped the ball on that one.
  3. The selfie camera is a letdown, especially in low light where it completely kills details with an aggressive noise reduction algorithm.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 performance: close to the best

In India, the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 comes with the Samsung’s homemade Exynos 9810 instead of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 SoC. The Exynos 9810 has four Mongoose M3 custom cores clocked at 2.7GHz each and 4×1.8 GHz Cortex-A55. The SoC also comes with an integrated Mali-G72 MP18 GPU. You also get two variants: one that comes with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of in-built storage and the another with a whopping 512GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. You also have the option to expand the storage by up to 512GB of storage using the microSD card slot. To keep things cool, Samsung has a large copper pipe inside the phone with a water cooling solution.

In day to day usage, I didn’t face a single hiccup anywhere. Everything runs just fine but I still feel that the OnePlus 6 is much, much faster thanks to the minimal animations on Oxygen OS. Also, despite all that water cooling solution the phone does get slightly warm but never too hot. I have a feeling this is because of dissipation of heat from the water cooling solution, than actual heating up of components. Why do I say this? Because I felt the heat only around the metal edges. And generally, when phones heat up the top portion around the camera, where the processor can be found, tends to get hot.

 

In benchmarks, the Note 9 does incredibly well in Geekbench’s single-core and multi-core scores. The Exynos 9810 CPU is great but the GPU is no match for the Adreno 630. I got a GFXBench score of 85fps on the T-Rex offscreen test which runs at 1080p native. In comparison, I got a whopping 150fps on the OnePlus 6. But honestly, I couldn’t see the difference in gaming because PUBG and Asphalt 9 all ran just fine. Oh, and Fortnite too. For some reason, I didn’t like the game on the phone but that’s just me. I am a PUBG fan all the way.

The RAM management is great too as the phone keeps apps in memory and doesn’t close it in the background, unless you switch on one of the battery saving modes.

 

 

The Note 9’s call quality is pretty good too and it manages to hold on to reception with ease. I took the Note 9 inside a lift and made a call, and the Note 9 could hold on to reception even in such a stressful situation. Even the 4G connectivity in my Airtel connection was pretty good. Really, no complaints whatsoever.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 battery: 4000mAh is a necessity

The 4000mAh battery inside the Galaxy Note 9 is a big bump from last year’s 3300mAh battery inside the Note 8. But if you ask me, the bump was necessary. Because a 4000mAh battery in a phone like the Note 9 is a necessity and not an excess.

In my time with the phone, I managed to get a screen-on time (SoT)of around 4 hours to 5 hours. Nothing more, nothing less. And, the phone lasted me a full proper day of usage when I used the display in FHD+ resolution. But a lot of how much battery life you can get from the phone will depend on how you tweak the settings on the phone. For example, using the full 2K resolution display of the phone, always-on display, and the edge screen effects is bound to drain your battery life faster. But, all these features are so cool on the Note 9’s gorgeous AMOLED panel that I never wanted to switch it off.

 

 

There’s also a handy battery saver mode, in case you want to squeeze more battery life from the phone.

About charging speeds, I got Samsung’s bundled 5V 2A charger to charge the 4000mAh battery from 0 to 100 in 2 hours and 15 minutes, which is pretty good. Also, the phone supports QC2.0 and wireless charging as well, so that’s definitely an advantage.

Should you buy the Samsung Galaxy Note 9?

Here’s an interesting observation. The Note 9, at a 1000 dollars, is the most expensive Android phone in the US right now. But here in India, the most expensive Android phone is the Sony Xperia XZ2. Yup, no kidding. And therefore, the Note 9’s asking price in India feels very justified for all that it packs in, in a single package. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the Note 9 could very well be one of the best value-for-money flagships you buy today.

But yeah, the Note 9 is not for everyone. For folks who want a small and handy phone, the Note 9 will definitely not cut it. And for those users, the Galaxy S9 is a better bet. The fact that it is not as expensive as the Note 9 is an added advantage.

 

 

Let’s compare the Note 9 to a few more phones, shall we?

  1. Let’s take the Huawei P20 Pro first. It is the best phone for still photography with its insane triple cameras on the rear. Also, the battery life is better on the P20 Pro compared to the Note 9, despite the same size battery used on both the phones. But, the phone’s performance coupled with EMUI is not as good as what you get on the Note 9.
  2. Compared to the iPhone X, the Note 9 is cheaper and packs in more features. ‘Nuff said. But then again, for those who want the latest and the greatest iPhone aren’t going to listen to reason, are they?
  3. The Pixel 2 XL. Well, it is old and the Pixel 3 XL is coming soon.
  4. If we look at a cheaper option like the LG G7 ThinQ+, you will have to contend with the UI which is not as good as Samsung’s. But, the LG G7 ThinQ+ has an equally good display and has a stupendous sound output as well.
  5. The OnePlus 6 is still the fastest Android phone out there. And, Oxygen OS with its little embellishments over stock Android is one of my favourite skins too. For its price, the OnePlus 6 is great but it is not going to be a feature-rich experience like the Note 9. If you are willing to compromise on the Note 9’s features, then the OnePlus 6 is a good option.

All in all, the Note 9 is truly the Swiss Army Knife of phones. Like the Genie from Alladin, the Note 9 is here to grant all your smartphone-related wishes.

So, what do you think of the Galaxy Note 9? Do let us know in the comments section below.

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Ershad Kaleebullah
ershad.kaleebullah@u2opiamobile.com

When Ershad isn't writing, he spends time killing virtual zombies on his PS4. Having worked with a slew of renowned publications like PCWorld, Channelworld, CIO, NDTV Gadgets (now Gadgets360), MySmartPrice, The Inquistr, and 91Mobiles, Ershad brings a whole world of experience to Mr. Phone. He is trying hard to convert all the team members into Apple fans but is facing a lot of resistance. Is anyone willing to help?