Newsflash: Samsung’s releasing a new Galaxy Note phone — the Note 9 — and it’s feature-packed as always.
If you have a Galaxy Note 8 or a Galaxy S9 there’s not a whole lot that’s different on the Note 9. Samsung’s upgraded much of the fundamentals — it’s faster, the battery’s larger, and the S Pen has a new bag of tricks — but there’s no one feature that really jumps out.
Refreshing and improving core features isn’t a bad thing, but it makes Samsung look like it’s resting on its laurels.
To be clear, everything I’ve seen suggests to me the Note 9 is a very good phone. It’s Samsung’s best, after all. But if you’re looking for more than internal improvements, you’re not gonna find much on the Note 9.
As predicted, the Note 9’s not cheap: $999.99 for the 128GB model and $1,249 for the 512GB version. In the U.S., it’ll be available on AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint, U.S. Cellular, and Xfinity Mobile, which is apparently a thing, in two colors: Ocean Blue and Lavender Purple. International markets will get two additional colors. Pre-orders start on Aug. 10 and devices ship on Aug. 24.
Fine-tuned Galaxy Note
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that the Note 9 looks a lot like the Note 8. The 6.4-inch Super AMOLED screen is 0.1 inch larger than the Note 8. The curved sides still stretch edge-to-edge and there’s still a narrow “forehead” and “chin” above and below the display.
Aside from barely noticeable bump in size, the screen’s pretty much the same as the Note 8’s. It’s really big, really bright, and really sharp (it has the same 2,960 x 1,440 resolution).
The Note 9’s glass front and back still melt into the metal frame, but this time around the frame’s just a little easier to grip thanks to a chamfer where the glass meets the metal.
On the backside, Samsung has moved the fingerprint sensor from next to the dual cameras to just below it, just like on the Galaxy S9. It’s another small change, but it improves usability.
Those are pretty much all the cosmetic changes on the Note 9. The rest is stuff Samsung nailed several phones ago: headphone jack, IP68 water- and dust-resistance, fast charging, fast wireless charging, and expandable storage.
Faster performance, bigger battery, more storage
As expected, the Note 9 levels-up the fundamental hardware. It’s powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 chip and has a faster “Cat 18” LTE modem, theoretically capable of data speeds up to 1.2Gbps.
Samsung says it’s tuned the Snapdragon chip for better gaming performance. There’s a new “water carbon cooling system” (bet you didn’t know there’s a teeny tiny drop of water inside of Samsung’s phones, did you?) with a 3x bigger thermal spreader to help keep the phone from overheating when the processor and graphics chip are pushed hard.
The 845 chip isn’t shocking (every 2018 flagship is using it). However, the Note 9’s storage configurations are. Storage on the base model has doubled from 64GB to 128GB with 6GB of RAM. And… wait for it… there’s a 512GB model with 8GB of RAM.
That’s twice as much storage as the highest-capacity iPhones and although it’s not the first, it’s one of the few phones in the world with so much storage. If you toss in a 512GB microSD card, you’ll have yourself a phone with 1 terabyte of storage. If that doesn’t blow your mind, no piece of consumer tech ever will.
The Note 9 also has a huge 4,000 mAh battery. It’s the largest battery on any Note (the unfortunate Note 7 had a 3,800 mAh battery). I know: the last time Samsung tried to stuff a huge battery inside a Galaxy Note phone, it literally blew up. Samsung tells me there’s nothing to worry about this time because in addition to its 8-point battery safety check the company has been using on all of its phone batteries (there have been no reported explosions since), those batteries are also checked for safety by Exponent and UL, two third-party companies that test product safety.
The Note 9 also has stereo speakers tuned by AKG — just like on the Galaxy S9. There’s a front-facing speaker in the earpiece and a downward-facing one on the bottom. They sound louder and clearer than the speakers any previous Note, but it’s too soon to say whether they’re better than the Galaxy S9’s.
The S Pen is now a remote
Against all phone trends, Samsung’s S Pen stylus has endured. Samsung has made a number of improvements to the fine-tipped writing and drawing instrument over the years and now it has evolved once again.
For the first time, the Note 9’s S Pen is Bluetooth. It’s still as slender and pressure-sensitive as the Note 8’s S Pen, but now it’s a bonafide wireless remote.
Samsung showed me the S Pen button being used to advance slides in a presentation. I also saw saw it used to launch the camera while the phone’s clipped into a tripod, flip between the front and back cameras, and then take photos. Another use for the improved S Pen: playing and pausing YouTube videos.
The S Pen’s remote functions can be used at a distance of up to 32 feet (10 meters). It’s got a built-in super capacitor that fully charges it up in 40 seconds when it’s inserted into the Note 9. An SDK will be available for developers to program functionality for their own apps.
Samsung’s also added another fun touch for the S Pen. On the Ocean Blue Note 9, the S Pen is yellow and when you use it to write notes directly on the screen when the phone’s in standby mode (thanks to the Screen-off Memo feature), the ink is also yellow. Likewise, the S Pen on the Lavender Purple model has a matching purple color, and the ink is as well.
The S Pen’s new powers are pretty neat. I worry, though, that there’s gonna be a lot more misplaced S Pens since you won’t be slotting them back in immediately after use.
AI in the camera
The Note 8 was Samsung’s first flagship phone with dual cameras and the Note 9 improves on that system with AI.
The Note 9 inherits the dual cameras from the Galaxy S9+. Both cameras have 12 megapixels — one regular wide-angle lens with a “variable aperture” that can toggle between f/1.5 and f/2.4) and another 2x telephoto lens with f/2.4 aperture. On the front, there’s an 8-megapixel shooter with f/1.7 aperture for selfies.
Besides tweaking the cameras for better image processing (i.e. better HDR, less image noise, etc.), Samsung has sprinkled in a new “Scene Optimizer” feature.
By default, the on-device AI uses the rear cameras to identify 20 different types of scenes and then process the photos accordingly. For example, if the camera identifies a close-up photo of a plant, it’ll sharpen the center and pump up the contrast. Or if it detects a landscape photo, it’ll dial up the blue to make the sky pop.
Scene Optimizer is a first on a Samsung phone, but it’s not exactly groundbreaking. Other Android phones like LG’s G7 ThinQ and Huawei’s P20 Pro already have their own AI-infused cameras capable of doing the same thing.
I didn’t get to try the AI capabilities at length, but Samsung says it’s trained the software to tastefully process photos. I’ll have to see for myself when I get a Note 9 to test.
Another new camera feature on the Note 9 is “Flaw Detection.” This one is weird because the camera essentially judges your shots. It’ll actually suggest taking another shot if you or someone blinked, or if there’s image blur, or if the lens is smudged up and needs to be wiped.
I tried it out for sec and it repeatedly failed to detect that my eyes were closed. (Yes, I’m Asian and have small eyes, but that’s fail if you ask me).
Only if you want the best
I only had a brief amount of time with the Note 9. Similar to the Galaxy S9, the upgrades aren’t immediately visible because they’re mostly inside changes. But that doesn’t mean the improvements aren’t meaningful.
Faster performance is always welcome. So is a battery that lasts longer and more storage for installing apps and saving files. These features don’t make for great headlines, but they’re practical day in an day out. Frankly, I’d much rather have these upgrades than a notch just to chase a trend, or some other gimmick (like silly haptic buttons) just for the sake of doing something different.
Not everyone’s gonna need these upgrades to the basics. But if you want them, the Note 9 is more than enough smartphone to satisfy you.