Samsung Galaxy Note 9 full review: amazing battery life, best Android camera and finally a speedy user experience
The Note 9’s 4,000mAh battery is the largest in a non-Chinese phone and a Snapdragon 845 processor means Samsung’s UI can finally be described as smooth. The fingerprint scanner still doesn’t feel right though
The exploding battery fiasco practically killed the Galaxy Note 7 release in 2016, but Samsung has put that firmly behind them.
The company has given its latest flagship, the Note 9, a 4,000mAh battery, which is 700mAh larger than last year’s Note 8 and 500mAh larger than the company’s latest S Plus counterpart, the S9 Plus. More important, however, is that it is the battery with the largest capacity in a non-Chinese flagship phone.
Other than this major battery bump, the rest of the Note 9’s improvements are subtle, borderline inconsequential. So will the Note 9 be enough to keep Samsung at the top?
Design and hardware
Other than a relocated fingerprint scanner and a display that is 0.1 inches larger, visually there is almost no difference between the Note 9 and Note 8.
The in-hand feel is mostly the same too, as the screen size difference is minuscule. If you’ve held a Note 8, you’ve held a Note 9. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; both the Note 8 and 9 are very well-built devices, if a bit bulky and blocky.
Moving the fingerprint scanner to below the camera on the back of the phone is an improvement over last year’s universally hated side placement, but it is still harder to use than just about all other phones out there. Samsung, likely in an attempt to keep a consistent design language, opts for a tiny rectangular sensor shape instead of the circular shape that almost all other brands use. The scanner location is also still a bit too high up the back of the phone, and the groove is very shallow, making it hard to find by feel.
The rest of the hardware is expectedly great, though some nitpicking is possible.
The 6.4-inch Super AMOLED panel is again the brightest and most vibrant in the business, but the bezels around it look dated compared to devices like the Oppo Find X.
The S Pen stylus now has Bluetooth functionality that brings new tricks (which I’ll get to later) but is still made of plastic and feels mighty flimsy (I accidentally snapped one in half last year).
There’s also the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chipset that’s inside – it is still the most powerful Android processor for now, but the Snapdragon 855 and Huawei’s Kirin 980 are just around the corner.
Software and features
The Note 9 runs Android 8.1 with Samsung’s custom firmware on top. The software hasn’t changed much since last year’s design overhaul, so those who have used a Samsung device recently will know what to expect.
Pulling out the S-Pen still brings up the floating stylus menu, offering features such as live on-screen translation and screen annotation.
What’s new this year is that the S-Pen can be used as a Bluetooth remote control. Pressing the stylus button while in the camera app, for example, will take a photo. Press it when music or video is playing, and the media will pause. Samsung says it will allow third-party app developers to build their own features too.
Another new feature on the Note 9 is AI scene recognition. First introduced by Huawei in last autumn’s Mate 10, the Note 9’s cameras will detect what it is looking at and tweak images accordingly. But because it lacks the power of Huawei’s NPU (neural processing unit), the Note 9 can’t recognise objects as fast or as accurately as Huawei’s phones – for example, on more than one occasion it misidentified a cat as a dog; Huawei’s phones almost always gets that right.
However, Samsung’s AI algorithm is less aggressive when it comes to making change to photos for the sake of it, something Huawei’s phones can be guilty of. In a lot of shots, I couldn’t tell the difference at all between an AI-boosted image and the untouched version.
Battery life and performance
Both of these areas are where the Note 9 shines. Battery life on the Note 9 is much improved over the Note 8 and S9 phones, almost always lasting an entire 12-hour day of heavy use during my testing period. In fact, the Note 9 has by far the best battery life of all non-Chinese phones I’ve tested in recent years.
This won’t be a big deal to people who use Chinese phones – the Huawei P20 Pro and Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S still last longer than the Note 9 – but lots of Americans and South Koreans will be sold on the Note 9’s battery life alone.
In terms of performance, for years Samsung’s custom firmware has been known for being among the heaviest Android skins, to the point that it often bogs down performance.
This year, the combination of the Snapdragon 845 processor and 8GB of RAM finally offers enough power to withstand the bulky software (there is a 6GB version as well, but I tested the higher-end variant).
The Note 9 is the fastest and smoothest Samsung phone I’ve ever tested, to the point that it almost rivals the king of fluidity and speed, the OnePlus 6. This is a major improvement on Samsung’s part, as the 2017 and 2016 editions of the OnePlus phones ran circles around Samsung models from the same period.
There isn’t much to talk about regarding the Note 9’s cameras. The phone has the same variable aperture, dual 12-megapixel set-up as the Galaxy S9 Plus, with the only addition: the AI scene recognition, which doesn’t do much anyway.
I have spent months thoroughly testing the S9 Plus’ camera and putting it up against its competitors. My conclusion for that camera can be recycled to describe the same one on the Note 9: Samsung’s 2018 camera is arguably the best all-round Android camera, but specific areas lose to rivals. For example, Huawei’s P20 Pro takes more spectacular lowlight images and more detailed zoom shots; the Google Pixel 2 XL, meanwhile, can snap better bokeh portraits.
In previous years, giving a “buy or don’t buy” recommendation for the Note line was a relatively straightforward affair: if you need the stylus, get the Note; if you don’t, save your money and get the Galaxy S phone instead.
But the Note’s significant battery bump this year brings a tangible improvement for user experience – you will no longer have to lug around a portable battery pack with you as with all previous Samsung phones.
Dimensions: 161.9 x 76.4 x 8.8mm
Display: 6.4-inch 1,440 x 2,960 Super AMOLED
OS version reviewed: Samsung Experience 9.5 over Android 8.1
Processor: Snapdragon 845
Cameras: 12MP f/1.5-f/2.4 variable aperture lens with a secondary 12MP f/2.4 telephoto lens; 8MP front-facing camera
Memory: 6GB or 8GB RAM; 128GB or 512GB ROM
Colours: Black, blue, purple, copper
Price: HK$7,698 (6GB RAM/128GB ROM); HK$9,798 (8GB RAM/512GB ROM)