Samsung Galaxy Note 9 full review

Like clockwork, Samsung has launched the Galaxy Note 9, the big-screen, stylus-toting cousin of the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus. It looks a lot like the Note 8, but despite the hype we think the upgrades are significant enough to make this Samsung’s best phone alongside the S9 Plus.

While headline changes are the (variant depending) yellow S-Pen with Bluetooth, a bigger battery and improved cameras, the general look, feel and performance of the Note 9 means this is Samsung’s most refined Note to date.

Since the launch of the iPhone X the idea of a £1000/$1000 phone is less alien now, and that’s roughly the price you’ll pay if you want a Note 9 off contract. But it’s such a pleasure to use, such a complete smartphone, that it feels just as justified as Apple’s price tag.

Like any phone though, it’s not without its flaws. Here’s our full Note 9 review.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9: Price and availability

As expected, the Note 9 was unveiled at an Unpacked event in New York on 9 August.

It's available to buy now and starts at £899. That price will get you a 128GB model but you can opt for 512GB if you can afford £1,099.

In the US it’s on sale for $999 or $1,249 depending on your storage preference.

Galaxy Note 9: Design and build

  • New colours
  • No notch
  • Keeps headphone jack
  • Heavier
  • New fingerprint scanner placement

The Note 9 is a stunner right out the box. Yes, it’s a big phone, but we expect that by now with the Note range. By slimming the bezel ever so slightly Samsung has stretched the screen up from 6.3in to 6.4in, but the dimensions of the phone are practically the same as the Note 8.

The Note 9 comes in Midnight Black or Lavender Purple with matching S Pen, and Ocean Blue with a yellow S Pen. There's also a Metallic Copper option in some countries. 

You’re probably going to want the blue one with the yellow pen, but we also really like the purple, which is a light metallic hue and looks great. Samsung continues to use Gorilla Glass 5 on the front and back. The back of the blue and purple models shimmer beautifully, while the black version remains duller. 

We were hoping for an in-screen fingerprint scanner as phones like the Vivo NEX already have this tech. It seems we'll have to wait for the Galaxy S10 to get it from Samsung, but the sensor is in a much better place below the cameras rather than next to them as it was on the Note 8. It’s still a slightly small, fiddly sensor compared to other phones though.

The Note 9 has those familiar Samsung curves with the so-called Infinity Display, but it has put on weight. It's 205g and we generally don't like it when a phone feels like we’re carrying a brick, but there's a good reason for it here, and the phone is slight enough to feel manageable – but this is a two hand phone for most tasks.

At 161.9 x 76.4 x 8.8 mm it’s going to stretch most pockets, but its heft makes it feel totally premium. A larger 4000mAh battery, up from 3300mAh, is the main cause for the weight increase. If there's something we don't might extra weight for, it's longer battery life. 

The phone feels even more luxurious than the Note 8, with grippier metallic edges to the chassis and a better oleophobic coating to the back of the device meaning noticeably fewer fingerprint smudges though it still gets pretty greasy back there.

It's interesting to note (ha) that Samsung continues to buck two major trends in the phone world. The Note 9 has a headphone jack but doesn't have a notch in the screen compared to the iPhone X and many other Android phones this year. 

We're very happy with both these things and hopefully signals that notches are not always necessary, seeing as Samsung can deal so elegantly without them. 

Its sides are graced by a speaker, USB-C port, S-Pen silo, volume and power keys and a pesky, unmappable Bixby button.

Galaxy Note 9: Specs and features

  • Better S Pen
  • New processor
  • More RAM
  • Up to 512GB storage

Although the Note 9 might look pretty similar to the Note 8, it comes with a number of upgrades and new features that go some way to justifying the higher price.

Screen

The screen is bigger at 6.4in but that's only marginally different to the 6.3in size used before. It’s a 2960 x 1440 Super AMOLED and the level of detail, brightness and clarity is stunning. Samsung has managed to outdo itself again and this is, at release, the best display ever on a smartphone.

The familiar Infinity Display means curved edges with a Quad HD+ resolution and the best brightness in direct sunlight of any phone on the market alongside the LG G7 ThinQ

Processor, memory and storage

The new model also gets a specs boost in the engine room. Samsung has stuck with a split strategy for processors in different markets, so many countries will get the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 while the UK and others will get Samsung's own Exynos 8910 (the model reviewed here).

Our unit was the 6GB RAM/128GB storage option but the more expensive version available hits 8GB/512GB. It’s of the first phones to have 512GB on board and underlines Samsung’s belief that the Note customer requires more storage than many modern laptops.

Samsung calls the Note 9 '1TB ready' as you can add up to 512GB via the microSD card slot. That’s some serious media management should you want to carry around an entire music and video collection with you at all times.

In our use, the Note 9 was faultless for performance and finally feels as fast as a Pixel 2 XL and OnePlus 6. The only slowness we saw in comparison is Samsung’s use of animations between app switching and opening, which can make the software feel slower than the bare bones approach taken by OnePlus.

We benchmarked the phone against the Note 8 and S9 Plus, as well as the iPhone X, OnePlus 6 and Huawei P20 Pro – phones using those companies’ choice of top end processor at the time of the Note 9’s launch.

The Geekbench test measures pure processing power, GFXBench looks at different levels of GPU processing and frame rate, while Jetstream is a browser benchmark. It’s clear that the Note 9 is an exceptionally fast phone here and the differences are negligible. Even if it looks like the iPhone is more powerful, you won’t notice a difference in real-world use – we didn’t.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 benchmarks

Connectivity and audio

This phone has every extra feature you’d hope for considering the price: fast charging, wireless charging, IP68 waterproofing, NFC and 4G LTE.

It’s a bit disappointing that the Note 9 ships with a Quick Charge 2.0 charger when Android rivals mostly ship with 3.0 and are even compatible with 4.0. It means that while not as slow as a bundled iPhone charger, the Note 9 will charge slower than the OnePlus 6, Pixel 2 and others.

A brilliant upgrade on the Note 8 are the stereo speakers – one on the bottom edge and one in the earpiece. Like most phones, the drivers are too small to discern actual stereo separation, but the extra volume boost is much appreciated.

Call quality is top notch with voices coming through particularly clear over 4G and Wi-Fi. And Intelligent Scan, Samsung’s melding of face unlock and iris scanning, is faster than ever.

S-Pen

It’s top-notch specs all round (without the actual notch) and Samsung has gone one further by improving the already excellent S-Pen. Adding Bluetooth Low Energy tech, you can now use the stylus as a remote for things like taking photos and selfies and clicking through presentations.

It’s also fully customisable (unlike the Bixby button on the left edge of the phone) so you can use it how you like. 

The S Pen only takes 40 seconds to charge once slotted into the phone and lasts for 30 minutes for its remote control duties. You can still use the old direct-to-screen functions when it's dead, though.

Hovering over menus and icons often displays what the action will be before you tap, and being able to take the S-Pen out when the phone is locked to scribble a note down is still fun and useful. But it’s still a niche thing to want from a smartphone and while some might see it as convenient, most people will prefer to keep on using the normal notes app and typing stuff in.

If you want to take group selfies (or luxurious head to toe selfies, nach) then the S-Pen is your best friend, working as a remote shutter perfectly.

But the S-Pen is still something that is fairly black and white – you’ll either love it or forget that it’s there. The advantage of note taking by typing is you can copy and paste it quickly cross-apps, or write whole passages on your phone.

Samsung wants you to write notes down with the S-Pen and save them, and if that works for you then you’ll love it, but what you can then do with those notes is limited. As an artistic tool, even a 6.4in display is fairly restrictive. You’ll be better off with the 10.5in Galaxy Tab S4 if drawing is your game.

Cameras

Like the S9 Plus, the Note 9 has dual rear cameras with dual aperture and OIS. In fact, they are the exact same sensors: the variable aperture 12Mp f/1.5-2.4 main and a 12Mp f/2.4 for 2x optical zoom and depth sensing.

New technology for the Note 9 specifically includes Flaw Detection and Scene Optimiser, which in simpler terms tell you if you’d taken a blurry photo and selects the best scene mode for the shot.

The low-light prowess of the S9 Plus is ported over here, and it’s a noticeable step up from the Note 8 for this reason. Images are wonderfully crisp, devoid of the saturation that mars the otherwise excellent shots on the Huawei P20 Pro.

Colour reproduction is stunning on the improved display, though Samsung camera app is still too crowded and unintuitive. Sure, you can do a lot, but it’s a steep learning curve to find it all.

You might need to click on the photo to view the album below:

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 camera test  

Battery life

One of the best things about the Note 9 is its battery life. It is a country mile ahead of the 3300mAh cell of the Note 8, packing 4000mAh into an only marginally thicker frame. 

The trade-off is totally worth it. On average we found the Note 9 gave us four and a half hours of screen on time on a full charge with brightness on auto, using tens of apps at once and streaming Spotify to Bluetooth headphones over 4G and Wi-Fi.

Less intense usage sees the Note 9 pushing an hour longer than that, and we never once worried about finding a charger – something that frequently happened when using the Note 8. 

In the Geekbench 4 battery test with brightness set to 120cd/m2 and screen not dimming (our standard test), the Note 9 lasted seven hours and 27 minutes. That’s a tad under the Galaxy S9 Plus at seven hours 55 minutes, but the screen here is bigger.

It’s a great score considering the OnePlus 6, LG G7 and HTC U12+ lasted for much less time, and it’s great to see Samsung getting a 4000mAh battery into the phone after the Note 7 disaster.

Galaxy Note 9: Software and apps

  • Android Oreo 8.1
  • Samsung Experience 9.5
  • Great S-Pen integration
  • Bixby still awful

Straight up, Bixby is still bad. Only available, still, in US English or Korean, it frequently misunderstood our English accent (and some colleagues’ American ones) and couldn’t give answers.

To sum it up neatly, three examples of how to use Bixby pop up when you turn it on. For us, one was ‘What is the time difference between Paris and London’ (we are based in London). We tapped on it, and were given the below screen, where it brought up the time difference for East London in South Africa:

Bixby sucks, and what sucks more is that on the Note 9 you can’t turn off the dedicated Bixby button. It has never been remappable, but on other Galaxy phones you can disable it, but not here, meaning about a third of the time we pull the Note out a picket, we accidentally press the button and load up Bixby.

Bixby Home to the left of the home screen is still awful, with huge tiled apps that are clunky and not as customisable as we’d like. Just ignore Bixby and use the Google Assistant.

The Note 9 ships with Android 8.1 Oreo and Samsung Experience 9.5 (formerly TouchWiz). It is largely a similar design language from the last two or three years of Samsung phones but in its current state is a pleasure to use – if a long way off from stock Android.

We hope it will get an upgrade to Pie at some point in 2018. But Samsung tends to drag its heels somewhat with software updates and the Note 8 will probably get Android P after OnePlus and Sony phones at least.

The software is largely the same as on the S9 phones but as well as the S Pen features mentioned above, the Note 9 has DeX built-in. This means you don't need to buy a separate docking station to run Samsung's desktop experience on a monitor. You just need an HMDI to USB-C cable to plug the phone into a monitor and the Note will display its software like a Windows desktop.

Of course, you also get other Samsung things like Bixby and AR Emoji, and in recent years Samsung has become better at pushing Google apps to the user rather than doubling up with Samsung alternatives. 

But the software skin is quite heavy compared to stock Android, and we found the Note 8 slowed down a tad over the course of a year. Hopefully the Note 9 will be a different story as it zips along out of the box.

Verdict

The Galaxy Note 9 is probably the best phone in the world at the time of its launch but it's not for everyone. It is a power user's device, with features hidden under the surface that the average person doesn't want or need.

It does all the basic stuff to an incredibly high standard - the display is incredible (truly) and the cameras are improved, as long as you like the way Samsung processes images. 

If you love iOS you'll get the iPhone XS Max but if you made it down this far the review, you'll probably opt for the Note 9, won't you. Good choice.

Specs

Samsung Galaxy Note 9: Specs

  • Android Oreo 8.1
  • 6.4in 2960x1440 Super AMOLED, 516ppi
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 or Samsung Exynos 9810
  • Adreno 630 or Mali-G72 MP18
  • 128GB/512GB storage
  • 6/8GB RAM
  • 12Mp dual cameras, f/1.5-2.4 and OIS, f/2.4
  • 8Mp f/1.7 front facing camera
  • 802.11ac Wi-Fi
  • 4G LTE
  • Dual nano SIM option
  • GPS
  • NFC
  • 4000mAh battery
  • IP68 waterproof
  • 161.2 x 76.4 x 9 mm
  • 205g

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