The Note 9 phone starts at $1,000 for both unlocked and carrier-specific models, so it’s firmly in “make it rain” territory, as it’s on-par with the iPhone X now, and more expensive than the Google Pixel 2 XL ($849) and the iPhone 8 Plus ($799). But you get a lot for that money: a 6.4 inch, Quad HD+ (1440 x 2960) super AMOLED display, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 octa-core processor (or Exynos 9 if you’re outside the US), two rear cameras (one of which has a dual aperture), and a whopping 4,000mAh battery. The base model comes with 128GB of storage and 6GB of RAM, though the upgraded model—which runs $1,250—comes with 512GB of storage and ups the RAM to 8GB. Coupled with an expandable microSD card slot, that means you can theoretically have up to 1TB of storage on your phone, which is just bonkers (in an “impressive-but-why?” kind of way).
Galaxy Note 9 – Design and Features
The Note 9’s body hasn’t changed much from its predecessor, apart from some subtle tweaks to the curvature of the screen and the feel of the edges. The display measures 6.4 inches diagonally, sports an extra-wide 18.5:9 aspect ratio, and Samsung’s curved “infinity” edge display, which gives the phone an immersive, bezel-less appearance along the sides (even though it technically still has bezels on every side).
The curve doesn’t really add a ton of functionality that you couldn’t have on a normal flat display, but it contributes to the phone’s premium feel, and gliding your finger in from the edge is a treat. That said, the infinity display does feel like it introduces a bit of extra glare.
Galaxy Note 9 – Camera Performance
The Note 9’s camera received a few upgrades, both in hardware and software. Arguably the most useful and impressive feature is the dual aperture camera, which can switch between F/1.5 and F/2.4 on the fly. This allows for much more light to enter the lens, meaning even dark shots are salvageable. Even when using Live Focus (aka portrait mode)—which is usually problematic in low light—the Note 9 produced a great looking photo (below, left), especially when compared to the iPhone 8 Plus’ lackluster results (below, right).
On the software side, Samsung has built a few artificial intelligence features into the camera as well. The new Scene Optimizer, which is turned on by default, will adjust color tones, saturation, white balance, and other characteristics based on what you’re taking a photo of. It can recognize 20 different types of subjects, including food, portraits, animals, trees, mountains, sunsets, and snow. In my experience the feature worked decently well, bringing out a bit of extra color in things like flowers and other greenery. In the below comparison, the Scene Optimizer is disabled on the first photo, and enabled on the second photo. Just make sure you want it turned on, because you can’t disable it after you snap a photo—only before.
Galaxy Note 9 – Security
Note users will immediately notice the newly-relocated fingerprint scanner on the Note 9, which now resides below the camera on the back of the phone. This is far better than last year’s Note 8, which inexplicably put the sensor next to the camera—meaning you had to awkwardly adjust your grip to reach it, and you’d constantly smudge your lens when you missed the Note’s tiny sensor.
Galaxy Note 9 – Battery Life
Two years after the exploding Note 7 fiasco, Samsung is ready to start pushing battery boundaries again, giving the Note 9 4,000mAh of juice—700mAh over the previous models. Samsung promises “all day battery life,” though depending on your usage, this may be nothing new—My Pixel 2 gets “all day battery life” pretty much every day under moderate usage. The Note 9 gave me a similar experience. I used it as I would any other phone: sending emails and text messages, playing the occasional game, taking photos and video, and browsing Facebook or the web for a couple hours over the course of the day. When I was working on a PC, I let it sit on the desk. By the time I went to bed, the battery was usually just below 50%. And, thanks to Android’s Doze feature, it was pretty close to that when I woke up, too.
Is it mind-blowing battery life compared to other flagship phones? Not really—but the Note’s premium specs and beautiful display are going to drain battery a lot faster than its competitors, too, so that enormous battery is a necessity if the Note wants to keep up with its competitors. And with both wireless charging and Quick Charge 2.0-compatible wired charging, it’s easy to keep the battery topped off pretty much all the time.
Galaxy Note 9 – The S Pen
The S Pen has been fundamental to the Note line for years, and with the Note 9, it got a big upgrade. It’s always been more than a writing instrument—it could translate words on a web page, take partial screenshots, and more—but now its usefulness even extends beyond your phone’s screen. With Bluetooth Low Energy built in, it can now act as a remote control from up to 30 feet away. You can press the S Pen’s button to snap a photo (or double-press it to flip the camera), pause or play media (even in non-Samsung apps like Spotify or YouTube), scroll through images in your gallery, or advance slides in a presentation when hooked up to Samsung DeX. You can even hold the button to launch an app or perform some other activity, which is customizable in the phone’s settings.
Using the new S Pen was predictably convenient. Taking photos is easily the most obvi
ously useful feature: no longer do you have to awkwardly hold the camera and press the shutter button during selfies with your friends—you can just press the S Pen button with your other hand. It’s a seemingly small thing that just makes life a little easier.
The S Pen’s battery lasts for 30 minutes in standby mode, or 200 button clicks, and it begins recharging as soon as you put it back in the phone. Samsung says it takes less than a minute to charge, so unless you’re in the habit of leaving the S Pen lying around, you shouldn’t ever have to worry about battery life—I certainly didn’t.
Galaxy Note 9 – Gaming
I’m a big believer in cheaper, lower-specced phones, and think more people should give them a chance. Unless, of course, you’re a gamer, which is where phones like the Note 9 really shine. Not only do games look great on that big, gorgeous display, but you have the specs to drive just about any Android title you can get your hands on—including mobile versions of desktop favorites, like Fortnite.
The Fortnite beta was a bit too janky when I tried it out, but graphically-intensive games like Shadowgun: Legends ran smooth as butter. Best of all, after a half hour of gaming, the phone was just slightly warm to the touch—not sizzling like some other flagships can get. Samsung uses a “water/carbon” cooling system in the phone along with an “AI algorithm” to keep things running smoothly, and it seems to work just fine.
On top of that, the Note 9 includes all of Samsung’s other game-centric features from previous Galaxy phones: the Game Launcher combines all your game shortcuts into one screen and lets you tune performance on occasions you’d rather save battery, while in-game tools allow you to mute notifications, record gameplay video, and lock the navigation bar.
Put simply, if you’re a mobile gamer, the Note really shines, with one exception; the speakers. Stereo speakers are certainly better than mono sound, but the Note 9’s sound a little uneven since the bottom speaker seems to fire louder than the earpiece. Plus, it’s a little too easy to cover the bottom speaker while holding the phone in landscape mode. It’s a small annoyance and one that goes away as soon as you connect a pair of headphones, but it bears mentioning.