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Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: iPhone X rival is flawless but pricey

Samsung is bringing the fight to Apple, and the Galaxy Note 9 is a top-tier phablet worthy of recognition

  • Long-lasting battery life; Excellent low-light camera performance; New S Pen improvements
  • Very expensive; Little on offer to warrant an upgrade

Samsung's Galaxy Note 9 was an inevitability. Following the Note 8's glowing success last year, the Korean firm's eighth plus-sized phone was always going to make a stylish appearance at some point in 2018, and this new phablet is already tipped to build on the Galaxy S9's award-winning prowess.

The Note 9, though, rather disappointingly, didn't receive the surprise announcement Samsung was hoping for. It was widely reported that the Note 9's launch was imminent and Samsung struggled to keep all the details under wraps, meaning very little was left to surprise anyone when the curtains were finally pulled back.

Now that the new Note is out in the wild, however, I've spent a while with Samsung's flashy flagship and can finally deliver my verdict. Very little has changed, but it's all about refinement rather than revolution this year, and the Note 9 still has the potential to be the best smartphone yet.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: What you need to know

Much like last year's Galaxy Note 8, the Note 9 is a top-end, plus-sized Android phablet, which comes equipped with Samsung's own S Pen stylus for on-the-go note taking. It may look largely similar to last year's phone, but it's the core specifications that are particularly intriguing.

Inside, you'll find Samsung's own Exynos 9810 running the show, along with either 6- or 8GB of RAM and 128GB or 512GB of expandable storage, depending on how much cash you have to spare. The rear camera module is similar to the Galaxy S9's setup, with a pair of 12-megapixel sensors complete with a variable aperture more on how this works, later on.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: Price and competition

We were all taken aback by how much the Note 8 cost last year; 724.17 (excl. VAT) was a sizeable shock to the wallet. Sadly, the Note 9 continues this pricey trend. When the Note 9 launches, you'll be able to pick one up for 749.17 with 128GB of onboard storage or a whopping 915.83 with a massive 512GB of storage.

That's a lot of money, but if Apple can try to justify a four-figure sum for its own flagship, I suppose there's little reason why Samsung can't pull off the same wallet-damaging trick. The iPhone X, clearly, is the Note 9's biggest competitor but if iOS isn't your thing, then Samsung's Android phablet also has to contend with Huawei's P20 Pro, the Pixel 2 XL and Samsung's own Galaxy S9 Plus.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: Design and features

The Galaxy Note 9, rather unsurprisingly, looks remarkably similar to its predecessor, which is a little underwhelming if you were hoping for a more noticeable upgrade. Again, the plus-sized screen wraps around the sides of the device now a Samsung design staple with slightly slimmer bezels bordering the top and bottom of the display.

A horizontal dual-camera arrangement is fitted on the back, with a rectangular fingerprint reader placed underneath. On the right side of the phone you'll find a power button, with the volume rocker and dedicated Bixby button on the left; the last can be disabled. The 3.5mm headphone jack returns at the bottom of the handset, complete with a solitary speaker grille and a USB-C charging port.

It's a tad disappointing that the Korean giant has shed plans for a Vivo Nex S-like in-screen fingerprint reader, and I had high hopes for a fancy foldable device, too. The latter may be little more than the climax of a futurist's wet dream, but it's abundantly clear that smartphone design is becoming rather stale.

Meanwhile, a new and improved S Pen stylus slides into the bottom right of the phone. Samsung's pen now comes with Bluetooth functionality, so pressing the button on the side of the pen can be assigned to certain actions, such as taking selfies, pausing and playing video or presenting slideshow presentations.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: Display

The Note 9 is fitted with an edge-to-edge 6.4in Super AMOLED screen, at a resolution of 2,960 x 1,440. This is particularly special, and while the display resolution is the same as last year's phone, the screen is ever-so-slightly larger and it's just as lovely especially with HDR 10 support.

In fact, according to our X-Rite ColorMunki display colorimeter, the Note 9's screen is capable of producing 100% of the sRGB colour gamut, with an effectively perfect contrast ratio of Infinity:1. No surprises there, of course Samsung's Super AMOLED phone displays have been top-notch for years but it's nice that the Note 9 isn't an exception.

Colours are great, too if a little punchy and oversaturated for my tastes and the phone's maximum screen brightness reaches an eye-blinding 950cd/m2 with the auto-brightness setting engaged. That's ideal if you're busy chasing Fortnite's elusive Victory Royale while you're outside in the glorious British sunshine.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: Performance and battery life

Powering the phone is Qualcomm's latest-generation flagship processor, the 2.8GHz Snapdragon 845, or Samsung's own Exynos 9810 equivalent if you live outside of the US. Elsewhere, you'll find 6GB of RAM inside the 128GB model (just like last year) and 8GB of RAM with the 512GB model. Both variants support microSD expansion which means, effectively, your Note 9 can be fitted with up to 1TB of storage.

The phone also runs Android 8.1 Oreo. While this isn't the latest version of Google's ever-popular mobile operating system, an update to Android 9 Pie is expected in the very near future.

As for comparable benchmarks, the Note 9 is a very capable performer. Storming through Geekbench 4's single- and multi-core CPU tests, the Note 9 offers a massive 37% improvement over the processing power of last year's Note 8, and it's just as speedy in operation as the rest of 2018's fleet of four-figured flagships.

Thanks to a slightly larger, non-removable 4,000mAh battery, the Note 9's stamina is much improved, too. Reaching 19hrs 35mins in our continuous video playback test on the phone's default FHD+ screen resolution, the Note 9 offers a staggering 19% improvement over last year's Note 8. In practice, you can easily hit a day-and-a-half of use on a single charge.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: Camera

The phone's camera specifications haven't changed too much. The Note 9, like last year, features another dual-camera setup on the rear. The first is a wide-angle 12-megapixel f/1.5 camera, while the second has an f/2.4 telephoto lens with 2x optical zoom. Both are equipped with optical image stabilisation (OIS) for super steady shots.

What is new is a f/1.5 aperture that's significantly wider than last year's camera. This allows much more light in brightening up shots and capturing crisper details. And you don't need to do anything to reap the benefits: the camera automatically widens the aperture once the lighting conditions drop below 100 lux, and narrows to f/2.4 for brighter scenes just like the Galaxy S9's snapper.

As you might expect, the results are rather familiar. In our low-light still life test, in particular, the image is crisp and detailed, with perfectly captured colours, while the HDR system does an impressive job of lighting up dark, shadowy areas outdoors. Intricate wispy cloud layers, a notoriously tricky test for any smartphone camera, are captured exceptionally well, and are far better defined on than any other phone camera I've previously tested.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review: Verdict

Samsung's Galaxy Note 9 reaffirms the notion that, sadly, smartphone design is plateauing. Even with the introduction of fancy bezel-less 18:9 screens and dual-aperture cameras, phones in 2018 are prosaic, and neither minor camera improvements nor processor upgrades offer quite enough to divert our disappointment.

And that's a real shame, because the Note 9 is an excellent smartphone. Equipped with all the flagship bells and whistles you'd come to expect from a pricey, top-end handset, the Note 9 is undeniably top of its class. It does most things rather well and a handful spectacularly so. There's just the one thing holding it back; that, at this early stage, there's so little reason to upgrade from any one of 2017's best high-end models especially with that price tag attached.

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