AT LAUNCH, the Galaxy Note, with its 6.4in an OLED display, positioned itself as the go-to smartphone for those after a big-screened device. Since its unveiling, however, the market has grown; Huawei last week revealed the Mate 20 Pro with its 6.39in screen, and Apple recently launched the iPhone XS Max with its Note-trumping 6.5in screen.
We’ve spent a month with Samsung’s latest flagship to see if it can keep hold of its crown as king of the so-called ‘phablet’ market, or whether its largely incremental updates mean buyers should start to look elsewhere.
The Galaxy Note 9, although marginally heavier at 201g compared to 195g, is strikingly similar to its Note 8 sibling. You’ll find the same metal frame (albeit with a slightly different finish), the same horizontally-aligned dual camera setup, and the same near the bezel-free front; Samsung boasts that the bezels have been trimmed down on the Note 9, but the change is barely indistinguishable from the Note 8.
This lack of change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, as Samsung’s tried-and-tested design formula – an aluminum frame sandwiched between Gorilla Glass panels – gives the Note 9 a premium, grippy feel in hand. And it’s worth noting that while the handset is slightly heavier than the Note 8, it features an identical footprint, so it’s no fatter than its predecessor.
And like the Note 8 before it – and as you’d expect for a phone that’s going to set you back more than 800 quid – the Note 9 is IP68 certified, which makes it both dust and waterproof. We’ve suffered a few tumbles with our handset, and while it’s picked up a couple of scratches, it’s remained largely intact.
Elsewhere on the Note 9, you’ll find a power button on the right edge, with the volume rocker on the left, above the infamous Bixby button. On the bottom, you’ll find a USB-C charging port, a headphone jack (!), and a slot for the handset’s S Pen. And while we’d have liked to see an in-display fingerprint sensor – a feature found on Huawei’s Mate 20 Pro – we have no major gripes with Samsung’s rear-mounted alternative.
While the design of the handset hasn’t changed, its accompanying S Pen has been given a major rework. It now ships with Bluetooth LE connectivity baked-in, which means you can now use it as a makeshift remote, as well as for drawing obscene images on the Note 9’s display.
This adds features, including taking selfies and group pictures, pausing and playing music, and presenting slides. There is some third-party support, including Spotify, though hopefully more will be added in the future as it’s certainly not reached its full potential yet.
We thoroughly enjoyed using the S-Pen, and its note-taking accuracy and handy screen-off memo feature made us ponder why a bundled stylus is a rarity among modern flagship smartphones.
The Galaxy Note 9’s slimmed-down bezels allow room for a bigger 6.4in Super AMOLED display, which packs the same 18.5:9 aspect ratio and 2,960×1,440 resolution as before.
The QHD+ screen, which features the same curved edges as last year’s model, is unsurprisingly gorgeous. Samsung has long led the market when it comes to smartphone displays and the Note 9 is a great example of this; it delivers sharp, punchy, and vibrant colors, while the AMOLED tech ensures that, just as on previous Samsung flagships, blacks are deep and inky, and brightness levels are off the charts.
Software and performance
The Galaxy Note 9 ships with Android 8.1 Oreo. While some will be disappointed at the lack of Android Pie, Samsung has typically overlaid Google’s OS with its own custom ‘Experience’ UI.
While the skin is much less obtrusive than Samsung’s TouchWiz UI of old – and didn’t appear to slow down the device – you’ll still find quite a lot of pre-loaded guff and duplicate apps. Along with Microsoft apps and a Fortnite installer (woo), a folder of pre-installed Samsung apps equips you with a second browser, app store, and email apps – and we much prefer Google’s alternatives.
Bixby, of course, is also pre-installed, and Samsung claims that its AI assistant is now more intelligent and “conversational” than before. We don’t agree, though, and found the AI assistant lacking compared to Google’s own Assistant offering; it often struggled to understand us (maybe it’s our accent…), threw up irrelevant results, and, worst of all, it can’t be switched off.
Samsung’s Intelligent Scan is also onboard, which like Apple’s Face ID, lets you gawp at the smartphone to unlock it. However, it’s not as speedy – nor accurate – as the tech found on the iPhone X, and we often found ourselves reverting to the fingerprint scanner instead.
Powering everything along is Samsung’s own 10nm Exynos 9810 processor (or Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845, for those of you in the US). And, as an early teardown revealed, this chip is paired with a “notebook-class” water carbon cooling system, which Samsung claims will protect the Note 9 against overheating and allows the smartphone to run at peak for longer periods.
The Galaxy Note 9 is a beast on paper, too. In the AnTuTu benchmark app, the handset scored In Geekbench 4, it earned a single-core score of 3,343 and a multi-core score of 8,016, compared to 2,379 and 8,393 scores raked up by Google’s Pixel 3 XL.
The Galaxy Note 9 boasts an identical dual camera setup to its S9+ sibling (12MP f/1.5-2.4 main and 12MP f/2.4 for 2x optical zoom and depth-sensing) complete with dual aperture and OIS. Samsung has stuffed in a couple of new features though, including Flaw Detection and Scene Optimiser, which tell you if you’d taken a blurry photo and selects the best scene mode for the shot.
Compared to its Note 8 predecessor, low-light performance has been noticeably improved, and just like last year’s flagship, images remain impressively crisp and sharp, full of detail and devoid of the saturation that can often be found on flagship Android mobiles.
The Galaxy Note 9 packs a hefty 4,000mAh battery, a huge upgrade compared to the 3,300mAh battery found inside the Galaxy Note 9. While this resulted in a slightly chunkier chassis – it’s worth it, as our Galaxy Note 9 hasn’t yet failed to make it through a day without at least 15 percent juice left. The same can’t be said for our iPhone X.
The Galaxy Note 9 may have more competition in the so-called phablet market, but in our opinion, it still remains king.
We have our gripes with the handset – largely Bixby and Samsung’s unnecessary software add-ons – but the good easily outweighs the bad. The screen is gorgeous, the cameras continue to impress and the handset boasts one of the most impressive batteries we’ve tested this year.