Samsung first introduced the Galaxy Note series in 2011 with a huge stylus-driven 5.3″ screen and a direct appeal to power users who wanted more than current small-screen devices could offer. Today a variety of smartphones with screens larger than 5.3″ are available bearing a ‘Plus’, XL or other monikers to differentiate them.
However, through the years Samsung has maintained focus on a few key items: large screen, high performance, and functional stylus. The latest iteration features the largest display ever on a Samsung phone, a huge battery, and the best stylus I have ever used.
The Galaxy Note9 was released on August 24th and I have had a few days to work with it, so let’s step through some of the features and see what works and what still has room for improvement.
The Galaxy Note9 is huge, make no mistake: it is larger than the Note 8 in all dimensions – slightly thicker, taller, wider and heavier.
Look – you really need to know what you’re getting yourself into with one of these things. They pack a lot of power into a relatively small space, but this is still one of the largest smartphones available – it needs to be to pack in the huge screen, large battery and powered stylus.
Samsung once again leveraged the 1440 x 2960 pixels, 18.5:9 ratio SuperAMOLED technology used in last year’s Note 8, but this year they increased the screen to 6.4″, meaning that the pixel density actually drops to 516ppi (pixels per inch) – a difference you will never notice.
But aside from raw pixels, what you WILL notice is how incredibly rich and vibrant everything looks displayed on that screen. Colors are saturated, blacks are black, and everything just looks sharp and clear – sure, this is something we have gotten used to in recent years, but I feel that Samsung keeps iterating their OLED manufacturing performance to great effect on devices such as the iPhone X and Note9 in ways earlier devices cannot approach.
The phone is protected with Corning Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and rear, with a sturdy metal frame around the outside. This has become common for smartphones with wireless charging, but still means you have a slick fingerprint magnet that should really be put in a case.
If you do not care about the stylus, you really shouldn’t be looking at the Note9. Seriously – while the phone is incredible, it is the stylus that is the ultimate differentiator. And if you DO care – Samsung really delivered!
The S-Pen has graduated from a passive device to powered multi-function controller. You can use it to open the camera and take pictures, control music playback, change slides in Powerpoint and plenty of other functionality – and it is in the hands of developers with the new Pen SDK.
And you lose nothing for the new functionality – it is still precise and comfortable, and the perfect size for using every day. I am excited and thrilled to spend a bunch of time exploring the S-Pen features.
One of my complaints about the Galaxy Note 8 was the battery life – it felt like no matter what I did I ended up with concerns about my battery running down. Switching to the iPhone X that concern disappeared instantly, and I am happy to say that in my first few days with the Note9 I have not seen a problem with quick battery dissipation.
Technically Samsung increased the battery size from 3,300mAh to 4,000mAh, non-removable as has been the case since the Note 5.
How is it possible that in 2018 we’re still even talking about a fingerprint sensor? Because Samsung botched things so badly with the Galaxy Note 8 (and the S8 as well!). The Note 8 had me wondering who actually sat in a decision-making meeting and said: “YES, let’s position the fingerprint sensor in such a way that each of the dozens of times per day a user unlocks the device they can hunt around the back of the phone and smear the camera lenses?” It is every bit as bad as it sounds – suddenly lens cleanliness is something you are micromanaging, and the location makes unlocking inefficient.
So is it safe to assume the Note9 is better? Yes, but …
Yes, Samsung moved the sensor to below the camera array, but only JUST below one of the camera lenses. For me, I have now changed to swiping UP rather than down to try to avoid greasing up my camera for when I need it. Better, but still needs work – for me, they should have moved it at least a half-inch lower.
I have always compared Android phones to Windows PCs – great specs, start off wonderfully, then performance erodes and you are doing TLC and tricks to try to get things back to solid performance. For the Note 8 I never got that feeling in nearly a year of use, and so far the Note9 is just stunning in terms of performance. I have gotten used to split windows and quick-jumping between apps and the Note9 has performed well without a single issue across these first few days.
I found the rear cameras on the Note 8 to be powerful and functional, producing good images in a variety of settings. My first tests of the Note9 show the same – with a bunch of new AI-based features that should help take better shots, but I haven’t put those through the paces yet so cannot comment.
Here are a few shots I have captured so far:
The first is of flowers with a sunny day in the background, where the AI seems to have re-balanced things to make the flowers darker and made the outside light less prominent.
Next is a shot from the turn-around point on my morning run, at about 4:30 AM. I have a belt-light (review coming soon!) which is seen in the foreground, but the lights from the condo complex in the distance are noisy and over-emphasized – it was dark and foggy, the picture shows details but is inaccurate.
Finally, from another run this week I grabbed the incipient sunrise closer to the end of my run just before 6 AM. Again the camera AI over-lightens things, but in this case, I don’t mind it so much – it isn’t noisy and looks closer to reality (actually close to what it would look like 15-30 minutes later!
Aside from the fingerprint sensor, the selfie cam was perhaps the biggest failing of the Note 8. The sensor itself has decent specs but takes mediocre pictures. The camera software for the front-facing sensor is also inadequate – whereas I have taken stunning pictures with the rear cameras, I have never taken a ‘great’ selfie, compared with other smartphone cameras. Finally, the glass over the sensor is constantly getting smeared, a problem I haven’t had in years – I seem to get the warning frequently after a run, clean the glass and still get unfocused, crappy selfies.
Right out of the box the Note9 seems to have learned some lessons, as the pictures taken are better than the Note 8 – not as good as the iPhone X, but still workable. I am withholding judgment until I get about a month of running with the Note9 stuffed into my sweaty FlipBelt!
Again I will just post a couple of pictures I grabbed this week:
The first is me in the middle of a run – my hands were sweaty so I took this two-handed, a reminder of how slippery the all-glass front and back can feel! In the picture, you might be able to tell that my Tracer360 light vest is illuminated, meaning it is still dark outside – and that is the moon behind me! In other words, the color and brightness are all wrong. I understand that the AI is trying to make the picture look as good as possible, but there is little left to suggest I was running in the dark!
The other selfie I took was just in my kitchen with daylight streaming in from outside. I like this one much better (and yes, I spend a lot of my non-work hours in running clothes or former running clothes!)
I love the idea of Samsung’s DeX – you plug in a cable or a dock, and you are getting a ‘desktop experience’. I have seen videos running around calling DeX a ‘full desktop computer’ and thought ‘Lighten up Francis’! Yes, DeX provides a better interface for doing tablet/keyboard work like I have been doing with the Galaxy Tab S4, but that is really what you are getting – a better tablet interface.
I like the incremental improvements we’ve seen with the Tab S4 and Note9, and hope that Samsung continues to expand the usability of the DeX system.
Samsung has never been fast with system updates, so when I saw that the Note9 was launching with Oreo 8.1 my first thought was ‘well, at least it isn’t still using 8.0! Unlike Google’s Pixel devices, Samsung users are accustomed to long waits for updates – and I expect nothing different here.
That said, everything about the Note9 works seamlessly, and there is none of the clunkiness or lag that plagues Samsung’s interface in past years. I have yet to feel the need to change launchers or adjust major interface settings.
Bixby … well, I am not a fan of the hard-wired button dedicated to Bixby. I know you can do some things with Bixby that can’t be done with Google Assistant, such as more complex compound commands – but I just have never gone wrong with Google Assistant and find Bixby lacking and inadequate for my needs.
The Galaxy Note9 is a very expensive phone, priced at $999 for the 6GB RAM / 128GB storage version, and $1249 for the 8GB RAM / 512GB storage version. As for value, that is highly subjective based on how much you will use the top-end performance and features specific to the Note.
Samsung has made incremental improvements to the Note9, but I feel it is a much better step forward than the S9 released earlier this year. With that phone the increment felt too small for the price, but with the Note9 you get not just a correction of past mistakes and some incremental performance gains, you get a while new line of functionality in the S-Pen and an overall improvement in the focus of differentiating the Note line once again.
Is it worth buying or upgrading? As always ‘it depends’. If you have a Note 8 and are happy – you can likely wait without any concern. If you aren’t sure you would make use of the S-Pen, perhaps trying a Note 5 or Note 8 for much less money would be a great first step – especially since Samsung has great trade-in deals to make the transition less painful.
Either way, Samsung has released an excellent phone that I consider to be the pinnacle of the Note series to date, replacing my beloved Note 5 in that slot. I look forward to seeing what Samsung brings us next year!
For more information head over to Samsung’s official Galaxy Note9 site.
Source: Personal purchase.
What I Like: Excellent display, solid performance, innovative S-Pen features, improved battery life, DeX without a dock
What Needs Improvement: Fingerprint sensor still awkward, over-zealous camera AI, super-slick to hold (needs a case), questionable upgrade value for Note 8 users, Bixby, expensive