Wednesday, 9 January 2019
Samsung Galaxy Note9 (512GB)
Device after device reveal themselves and slip through my hands, usually moving on, or back, but very few seem to stick. The units which do are usually ones which instead of being 'nearly there' like the OnePlus 6T 256GB for example, are more likely to have features that I personally value highly, even if I have to live with one or two that irk. Like a good AOD, speakers, built-in storage, timely updates and so on, much of which I have written about previously and blabbed on about on PSC.
Over the last few months I have been thinking more and more about my love/hate relationship with Samsung and how I have become a little discontented with the constant payoff of Vanilla devices in lieu of the interesting feature-factor. I've had Pixel devices in, and Nexus before them, and they feed the need for a pure Google experience and updated software but often fail in the excitement department, leaving an itch that still needs scratching.
As we know, the payoff for wandering off-piste can certainly be a move away from Google's purity, Vanilla, Stock Android, or whatever you want to call it, but the benefits can be a more interesting device, though one which demands commitment and a grasp of the slalom (though hopefully not too far away from the main slopes). I recently bought a Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 with S Pen and Keyboard - and it hasn't annoyed me at all - more so, I've enjoyed using it and embracing the stuff at which it's good. So, could this be the time to sell up, burn bridges, raise the (sizeable amount of required) cash for an expensive all-singing Samsung phone too?
I've written before about the deep-rooted need to have huge amounts of memory and keep as much stuff with me as I can, even if for only occasional use. Safety net. And when I have no home router/broadband of my own to use, maybe it's more reasonable than for some. So the quest is for as much memory as I can shake a stick at, in my pocket. The 256GB OnePlus 6T has not scratched that itch I think maybe because I know that there's more out there - and there were still boxes not ticked! The 512GB of the Note9 plus microSD Card expansion, puts four time more storage in my pocket as I have on my Windows laptop! As I write, I've filled half of it with media and 120 DVD .mp4's on my memory card!
In the Box
The box holds an inner-box (which, incidentally, is TPU-case sized, but only has a leaflet inside - tight Samsung), a SIM Card Tray eject tool, USB-A (F) to USB-C (M) connector, microUSB (F) to USB-C (M) connector, power-brick, USB-C (M) to USB-A (M) cable, spare nib (and removal tool) for the S Pen and a pair of (nasty-looking in-ear-canal claustrophobic) AKG 3.5mm braided-cabled ear buds. Amazing that for this amount of cash, they couldn't stump-up for a TPU case. The Note9 itself is buried in sticky plastic - not only the usual back and front, but also around the edges, sides and between ports. I wonder if doing all that cost more than a cheap TPU would have cost! Still, it adds to the already premium look and feel of the product.
Big is Beautiful
The first thing that strikes you when you get it out is the height. It's a tall 18.5:9 ratio and it certainly feels tall. It doesn't feel disproportionately wide, however, and I can get my finger/thumb to meet around it (with no case). It's about a quarter of an inch taller than my Moto Z3 Play but surprisingly, is about the same width, though fatter. It's even slightly taller than my Razer Phone, not quite as wide and about as fat (though the Razer is of course very 'blocky'). Against the OnePlus 6T, it's slightly taller, slightly wider, slightly fatter and measured up with the Nokia 7 Plus, slightly taller, about the same width but certainly fatter. Bottom line is that this is a big phone, make no mistake, and as we shall see, makes the most of that. The Note9 is a heavy 201g which is up there with Razer Phone territory.
Around the Phone
I have the Ocean Blue 512GB version here with 8GB RAM, though the more popular one is clearly the cheaper (by about £250 as I write) 128GB/6GB version. In the hand it feels very classy indeed. The blue is a lovely deep shade and sweeps around everywhere that there's no glass. On the left side is the volume rocker and Bixby button, top, SIM Card Tray, antenna cut-outs and microphone, right-side just the power button and on the bottom, 3.5mm audio-out socket, USB-C socket, microphone, speaker and S-Pen, which clicks-in-out and with this blue model is a bright yellow colour. All the buttons click firmly and feel well made. On the back is a slightly proud camera lens island with flash and sensors, with a fingerprint scanner below in a small'ish oblong in keeping with the phone's design-language. Front and back are symmetrical as the glass gently curves around the corners, not outrageously like some previous Samsung models or the Nokia 8 Sirocco. On the front, there's an ear-piece speaker at the top alongside the other sensors, which doubles up as the partner speaker for the bottom one. We'll come to that. It's a beautifully made phone which feels like it's expensive and apart from that cost, the main physical problem for people will no doubt be the overall size in the pocket.
Speakers and S-Pen
I was kindly offered the loan for review of a Note9 a few months ago, so as to assess these two areas of interest. I won't roll it all out again, but feel free to click through and read what I wrote then, which is all still valid. Speakers and S-Pen. The missing part of my linked thoughts on the sound there is the earphone output. I really don't like these buds but I cleaned my ears(!) and quickly put them in for a test and they really do sound fabulous. Great for anyone who likes that kind of bud. For me, my AKG big over-ear 'phones sound even more amazingly good.
Samsung Galaxy S9 (Plus) with some differences
Apart from the obvious S Pen, there are large amounts of the Note9's performance and features which replicate that of the Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus so I'll invite you to click through there and read my previous review, to avoid repetition and instead, focus here on the differences. If you can't find it covered here, it likely will have been there!
Glass and Aluminium
The Super AMOLED 6.4" Infinity Display with Gorilla Glass 5 covers the front. No wonder it's big! As we have come to expect from Samsung, the screen is super-bright (though still not as bright and white as the Nokia 8's LCD), super-colourful and can be set to 1440p, 1080p or 720p and colour tint/lean played with via pre-sets or manual sliders. It has a pixel count of 516ppi and as I said, is 18.5:9 in ratio. The visible screen (which has slightly curved corners) is 146mm high by 71mm wide, taking into account the slightly curved edges. It has no Notch of any sort and proudly leaves a little space clear, top and bottom, for speaker and sensors. It's slightly asymmetrical, in that there's a tad more space at the top than the bottom. The glass curves at the edges to meet the aluminium frame, which travels around the device's 'circumference'. The whole device is IP6/8 rated for dust and water.
One of the differentiators between the S8/8/plus/9/plus/Note8/9 is certainly the battery. For one thing, it has to drive bigger screens and service more RAM than some of the others. It has a 4000mAh battery whereas, for example, the S9 has 3000, Note8 3300 and S9 Plus, 3500. The Note9, like the S9 though does have wireless charging and Adaptive Fast Charging (QC2) via USB-C. That does make a difference, and I can confidently get to bed time even if I forget to use a Qi charger in the day. On more specific testing, it seems that we're looking at 24hrs between charges, auto-brightness, 8hrs SoT. As always, that claim depends very much on what you're doing with the phone and clearly, long spells of video recording or other meaty drains will adjust that down. I speak for my own general use.
The non-US version of the Note9 comes supplied with an Exynos 9810 rather than Snapdragon 845 and from what I read, the latter is slightly better for high-flying graphics use, but the former, ahead for everything else. I'm happy with that and can report that this device flies. I can't slow it down, however I try. Up against other devices I have here, doing speed tests (and of course, the difference is often nano-seconds) it's obvious that this chipset with the 8GB RAM is ahead of the pack. Even using the file manager to copy files from drive to/from card is blazingly fast, unlike many devices on which I've tried that task. The 512GB is such a pleasure to have, coupled with my 400GB microSD Card, I almost want for no more space! It's a powerful combination of hardware facilities.
Out of the box, the Note9 is running Android 8.1 with December 2018 Google Security Update, as I write in the second week of January 2019. The Samsung layer over the top of that is Samsung Experience 9.5. There are promises of an imminent Android 9.0 download coming with the brand new OneUI from Samsung, replacing the Experience, so I'll report back when that drops. One thing to note is that for some reason, the user can't turn the Bixby button on the left off, like they can on the S9-series. The best you can do is make it pretty-much immune from accidental presses by assigning a double-tap to activate. Maybe that change will also come in the forthcoming updates. The Bixby thing has pretty much universal dislike that it makes you wonder, like with Moto Voice, why these manufacturers continue to kick against the much better Google-supplied Assistant. I have tried to like it, but, once again, it seems that it's a step too far to sell your soul completely to Samsung, accepting all their services over Google's. But maybe that's what some people (maybe in the far-east?) are doing. Anyway, it's much the same as the S9, so do follow the link, above for more.
Other Samsung Apps
There's so much here to cover that I'm not sure that I can do justice to it, but I'll have a go! Incidentally, the stuff that Samsung adds to the experience, outside of the doubling-up of Google Apps, doesn't feel like bloat - much of it feels like useful additions. Laying aside annoyances like pre-installed Facebook, Yahoo Finance and LinkedIn, the rest are either associated with the S Pen use (see link to review, above) or stuff that I already covered in the S9 Plus review (again, above). Most of this stuff can now be uninstalled if you don't want it (Samsung actually make a point of saying that on their website) and the usual Force Stop and Disable for the rest. They also allow the user to Hide Apps from the App Drawer, so various decisions can be made about whether or not you're going all-in with Samsung or retaining a more generic route with Google's Apps.
I have tried really hard to stick with Samsung's Launcher - with some success. The most annoying thing is the sideways-scrolling of the App Drawer! But brain will adjust. If you're into Health stuff, there's a heart rate sensor here, which in my testing works perfectly via the finger-sensor by the camera, and a whole bunch of other stuff, some of which Google has picked up on for Pixel, like wellbeing type things. Armed with some other Samsung fitness gear, I guess the fanatic could be away with that. And that's a recurring theme here. As I said before, bury yourself into this stuff and you can come out with a rounded mobile experience. Pick and choose, yes, stuff is still good, but not as good as for those who sell their soul!
Smart Things is kind of Google Home for Samsung. I have done no testing with that as I don't have any gear with which to test it! If you sign up for Samsung Pass, you can use your biometrics to sign into all sorts of Samsung hardware, software and services. In order to do this, you have to also get into bed with Samsung Knox, as the security agent. See how the whole thing 'spiders' out?
Samsung Themes, as I was saying in my S9 Plus review, allows the user to get rid of those nasty-looking Back, Home and Recents buttons for whichever you fancy. Pixelize Theme does the job nicely and is free. Soundcamp for Garageband, Kids Mode, Smart Call to control your phone calls and ID spam, Cloud, Gallery, the list goes on for those who really want to get buried - so do check my other reviews for more. Then there's some other useful stuff. Like a dedicated Video App and Music App. And some of these Apps are now not pre-installed, so you have to go and get them from the Play Store. Anyway, I think you get the idea. There are surprises, solutions, services and Apps at every turn, which Samsung have made available to the user who wants them. They have clearly in many cases nicked ideas from other phone makers, but then who doesn't!
I feel inclined to do a separate review of DeX. It's a complicated beast and there's enough here to be focusing on with the rest of the device, so I'll post that as soon as I've explored it as thoroughly as I need to. Watch this space!
The main cameras are a pair of 12MP units, both with OIS, one with two aperture possibilities of f1.5 and 2.4 and the other, a fixed f2.4. The first one shoots at 26mm in full-frame terms and the other, 52mm with 2x zoom. There's all sorts of bells and whistles in the camera, as you'd expect from Samsung and the resulting output is right up there with the best of the best, if not quite grabbing the crown. The fun bit is being able to shoot super slow-motion video at 960fps, though only at 720p. The selfie is an equally capable 8MP f1.7 camera. Dive into settings inside the camera app and you'll find 1001 different options, settings, toys, AI (Optimiser), tracking, HDR, AR, Voice control, the list goes on and on - and frankly, I think most people reading this would likely turn most of it off! The Pro Mode is excellent for controls and options, with close focus being about 2" or so.
As usual, I'm going to point you to Steve Litchfield's coverage of all things camera, which he's assessed much better that I can in his Phones Show. Go and watch Samsung Galaxy Note9 and Samsung Galaxy S9. As for me, the results for my purposes are quite superb, the shots stand up to close scrutiny and for those wishing to push mobile phone photography another step closer to 'proper' cameras, this is certainly a good place to land for now.
The Note9 ticks almost every box that you could possibly want ticking in a phone in 2019. I particularly love the 512GB+microSD, the AOD options, the LED Notification light survival, 3.5mm audio-out, as much as I say I don't need it, it's better to have than not have, fabulous (faux) stereo speakers output with Dolby Atmos, HDMI-out and DeX options, class-leading biometrics, some really smart Smart stuff to pick and choose from, oodles of bells and whistles throughout the main Settings and within Apps galore to play with and tweak to stop any boredom setting in before it's time to upgrade, super-fast chipset, attention to Game-centred options with water-cooling, far more than good cameras, excellent screen, great battery life, beautifully built body, the S Pen for those who want/need it, the list again, goes on. It's far more than a jack-of-all-trades because it's master-of-many too!
The case against it seems to be far outweighed by the stuff for it! Yes, it would be nice to get that Bixby button re-assigned to Google Assistant, it's a big and heavy device, bad for some, payoff of media consumption great for others, it's at risk of being confusing for people - but Samsung are addressing that by the aforementioned pulling back on pre-installing stuff - and it is, of course, expensive. Before spending out this kind of money, you have to be sure that it's what you want to do - or have a good Returns record!
The bottom line for me was about the hardware. The sound. The S Pen. The storage. The connectivity. The AOD. The battery. More boxes end up being ticked than pretty much anything else on the market, certainly Android. Can I get used to the Samsung 'way' and leave Vanilla behind? Armed with my Tab S4 alongside, I certainly can't say it's not interesting. What comes along with OneUI will give us a glimpse of the future - how much further Samsung can pull in the reins and make things even more comfortable for people like me who appreciate the benefits of the Vanilla experience too. I shall be sure to report back when it arrives and look forward to it very much. For now, I'm loving it and am completely sold on becoming a Samsung fanboy! Now, how long's that returns window..!
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