Samsung Galaxy Note 9 Review
Overall Rating: 9/10
Bright • high-res HDR screen • S Pen doubles as remote • Long battery life • Loads of storage • even on the base model • Loud • bassy stereo speakers
Really expensive • Doesn't ship with Android 9 Pie • Hit-or-miss camera AI features
The Bottom Line
Samsung's Galaxy Note 9 is pricey, but it's the only flagship Android phone with every feature under the sun.
Samsung's Galaxy Note 9 is a perfect fit for exactly one type of user: Somebody who wants every smartphone feature under the sun and won't balk at spending $1,000+ to get them.
If that doesn't sound like you, the Note 9's an easy skip, plain and simple. But, if you're nodding your head in agreement, Samsung's latest flagship Android phone offers a lot — more than any other Android phone, even — despite the barely changed exterior.
There are two ways to look at the Note 9. The first is that it's just another iterative version that looks like the previous Note 8 — whoopty-doo, how boring, it's like Samsung didn't even try this year? But this perspective judges the Note 9 merely on its lack of cosmetic changes, not on its actual features.
Which brings me to the second way to critique the Note 9 — one that’s realistic and reflective of device usage — and that is non-flashy features such as performance, battery life, and storage capacity are more valuable than a new profile. In other words, it's what's inside that counts.
A thousand bucks may seem like an outrageous sum of money to spend on a phone, but Samsung's actually offering a whole lot more with the Note 9 than, say, the iPhone X, which starts at the same price.
As far as really expensive phones crammed full of features goes, Samsung's tipped the scale in its favor (for now).
When we finally got our hands on a Note 9, we weren't overly surprised about the aforementioned mix-up. Although slightly heavier (201g vs 195g), there are few visual differences between Samsung's new flagship and its predecessor - albeit for the repositioned fingerprint scanner, which now sits underneath the handset's horizontally-aligned dual camera system, and the Note 9's slightly slimmer bezels.
This lack of change isn't necessarily a bad thing, though, as Samsung's tried-and-tested design formula - an aluminium frame sandwiched between Gorilla Glass panels - gives the Note 9 a premium, grippy feel in hand. And it's worth noting that while the handset is slightly heavier than the Note 8, it features an identical footprint, so it's no bulkier than its predecessor.
And like the Note 8 before it - and as you'd expect for a phone that's going to set you back more than 800 quid - the Note 9 is IP68 certified, which makes it both dust and waterproof. We'd like to say we haven't managed to test this out yet - but after a fumble involving the Note 9 and a radiator, the handset managed to come out unscathed.
Elsewhere design-wise, you'll find a power button on the right edge, with the volume rocker on the left, above the infamous Bixby button. On the bottom, you'll find a USB-C charging port, a headphone jack, and a slot for handset's S Pen.
While the design of the handset hasn't changed, its accompanying S Pen has been given a major rework. It now ships with Bluetooth LE connectivity baked-in, which means you can now use it as a makeshift remote, as well as for drawing obscene images on the Note 9's display.
The Note 9's screen, if Samsung's marketing guff is anything to go by, is the handset's main selling point. It's slimmer bezels allow room for a bigger 6.4in Super AMOLED display, which packs the same 18.5:9 aspect ratio and 2,960x1,440 resolution as before.
The QHD+ screen, which features the same curved edges as last year's model, is unsurprisingly stunning and delivers sharp, punchy and vibrant colours. And the AMOLED tech ensures that, just as on previous Samsung flagships, blacks are deep and inky, and brightness levels are off the charts.
Software and performance
Although Android Pie is now official and rolling out to devices, the Note 9 ships with Google's Android 8.1 Oreo OS. You probably won't really notice though, as Samsung puts its own spin on Android with its custom 'Experience' UI.
This skin is much less obtrusive than Samsung's TouchWiz UI of old, and you won't find too much pre-loaded crap on the device; there's a bunch of Samsung's own apps including Galaxy Apps, Galaxy Health and SmartThings; a pre-bundled folder of Microsoft apps; and, of course, a Fortnite installer.
Bixby, of course, is also pre-installed, and Samsung claims that its AI assistant is now more intelligent and "conversational" than before. This, however, was untestable during our hands-on time with the phone.
Powering everything along is Samsung's own 10nm Exynos 9810 processor (or Qualcomm's Snapdragon 845, for those of you in the US). And, as an early teardown revealed, this chip is paired with a "notebook-class" water carbon cooling system, which Samsung claims will protect the Note 9 against overheating and allows the smartphone to run at peak for longer periods of time.
Under the hood, you'll also find a hefty 4,000mAh battery - which Samsung claims will last "all day", 6GB or 8GB RAM and 128GB or 512GB storage, which can be expanded up to 1TB if you fork out for a 512GB microSD card.
The camera on the Note 9 hasn't changed too much. Like the Note 8, the handset features a dual camera system on its rear comprising of a wide-angle 12MP f/1.5 lens and a 12MP f/2.4 telephoto lens with 2x optical zoom.
The only major difference is the new f/1.5 aperture, which should make for brighter shots in low-lighting. This improvement wasn't immediately evident during our hands-on time with the phone in Samsung's brightly-lit, sweatbox of a demo space, but we'll be sure to give the camera a proper rundown in our full review.
Samsung claims that the sensors are "more intelligent" than before, with its AI-fuelled camera app now letting you know when an image is flawed; if someone has blinked, for example.
While, for a brief time, we were unable to tell the difference between the Note 9 and its predecessor, Samsung's latest flagship does offer some decent upgrades; from its souped-up internals and its bigger screen to its new-and-improved S Pen and camera tweaks.
However, none of these are major improvements, and we're not convinced these somewhat incremental updates are worthy of the handset's £899 starting price. We'll reserve judgement until we've spent some proper time with the smartphone.
All about the basics
I can understand why anyone might look at the Galaxy Note 9 and yawn. It's not a flashy phone. Every feature upgrade Samsung's made from the Note 8 is more practical.
I'm starting to feel like Samsung has really changed and has shed the arrogance that led to the disastrous Note 7. The Note 9 is faster, the battery's bigger and lasts longer, there's more storage, and the S Pen's new remote feature function is neat. But the phone's also a little thicker and a little heavier.
There's a double standard when it comes to reviewing phones. Companies like Samsung are ripped apart for over-innovating with impractical gimmicks or copying others. At the same time, they're blamed for not innovating enough if they simply release products with mostly internal upgrades that are too similar to previous ones.
It's all but impossible for Samsung to win these days. There's just no pleasing everyone. Samsung's damned if it does something different and damned if it doesn't.
At the end of the day, the Note is two things: a really great phone and a really expensive phone. It's not the best value — that's the OnePlus 6. It doesn't necessarily have the best cameras — a lot of people still swear by the iPhone X or the Pixel 2. And if you don't need the S Pen, you can save a few hundred bucks with the Galaxy S9 or S9+.
However, the Note 9 does have more features than even some of the most premium Android phones or the iPhone X. If having it all is what you want in a phone, the Note 9 is worth the money, especially when other phones are removing features while increasing prices.