Living with a Samsung Galaxy Note 9

For the past several months, I’ve been traveling with a Galaxy Note 9 as my primary phone. It is, of course, bigger than the company’s Galaxy S9 or S9+, and includes the Note series’ trademark pen. In many ways, it’s simply the most powerful Android phone on the US market today.

Make no mistake about it: this is a large phone, due to the 6.4-inch AMOLED display. The front of the phone is almost all display, as the bezels are quite small. The larger display is better for viewing videos and it looks great—it may well be the best screen I’ve ever seen on a phone.

At 6.38 by 3.01 by 0.35 inches (HWD) and weighing 7.09 ounces, it is noticeably bigger than the S9+ (which measures 6.2 by 2.9 by 0.33 inches and weighs 6.67 ounces) and even a bit bigger than last year’s Galaxy Note 8 (which measures 6.38 by 2.95 by 0.34 inches and weighs 6.88 ounces). In day-to-day use, I didn’t find it much more difficult to carry than the S9+ but the additional width would make it even harder for one-handed use. (With my relatively small hands, I don’t find any current phones very comfortable to use with just one hand.)

The screen resolution is WQHD+ (2960 by 1440), but the phone usually defaults to running at FHD+ (2220 by 1080), as this gives the device better battery life. In practice, it’s hard to tell the difference. There’s also 1480-by-720 resolution, but I doubt most people will use it.

Like the other Galaxy phones, the Note includes an edge display, which Samsung calls the "infinity display." From a hardware perspective, that means the curve of the screen extends slightly around the sides of the phone, which helps make the phone look more rounded, and maybe a bit more futuristic. On the software side, this means that you can set up the phone to launch applications or send a quick text message or phone call to one of your most frequently used contacts by tapping the side of the screen, instead of looking for the application first. It’s cool, and I found it particularly good for setting up two applications in separate windows on top of one another, but I can’t say I’ve used it that much. Galaxy Note 9 (Back + pen) The big distinctive feature of the Note, of course, is the S-Pen. As before, it slips into the bottom of the device, and when you pull it out, you get options to create a quick note, to capture part of the screen (even creating animated GIFs), to send a handwritten note or drawing, or to quickly translate text. You could theoretically handwrite an email, and have it convert it to text, which works better than you’d think, but I didn’t find this really useful.

Of course, you can use the pen for drawing. The S-Pen is quite accurate and great to use for sketching, but I have no drawing talent whatsoever, so I really don’t use it that way. If you can draw, this is a great tool. For me, I find it very convenient to just take a quick note, especially using "screen-off memos"—you don’t even have to unlock the phone.

The big new feature this year is that the S-Pen supports Bluetooth. It has a button that can be used as a selfie shutter when taking pictures, can pause or play music, and theoretically advance slides during a presentation (useful when you cast the screen to a TV or projector). I like the idea, but in practice, I found myself accidentally opening the camera when I was trying to advance the slide. This could be made easier. Overall, the S-Pen has its uses, even if I didn’t feel like I was using it every day.

On this year’s models, the "lavender purple" Note 9 comes with a purple pen, the "midnight black" one with a black pen, but the "ocean blue" one (the one I used) has a yellow pen, and the combination looks striking. Grand Central Terminal Interior – Note 9 Image quality has been one of the big differentiating features on phones this year, but the Note 9 has pretty much the same camera system as the Galaxy S9+, with two rear-facing 12-megapixel (MP) cameras, and an 8MP front-facing camera. Like the S9+ the main rear-facing camera now has a "dual-aperture" system, meaning that it uses f/2.4 for daylight pictures, but switches to using an f/1.5 aperture in low light, while the secondary telephoto (2x) camera just has the single f/2.4 aperture.

One unusual feature is called "Bixby Vision." It’s a button you can press that will let you translate text if you’re looking at a sign or a menu, or tell you about the food you’re looking at. Google Lens has many of the same ideas and is implemented on other phones, but this seemed to work well. While it’s a cute idea, I can’t say I used it much.

It has a good combination of video features, able to take 4K videos at 60 frames per second for up to 5 minutes, or at 30 frames per second for up to 10 minutes. It also has a Super Slow Mo 960 frames per second, albeit for only 0.2 seconds at a time; as well as the ability to take a time-lapse series of photos. It keeps the AR emoji feature—it’s not for me, but others may like it. Grand Central Terminal Exterior Night – Note 9 As with the S9+, I found it took very good daylight photos, and low-light photos that were better than what I’ve seen on iPhones or LG phones lately. In practice, I found it had better low-light pictures than the iPhone—and did a better job at concerts—but that the iPhone X series took superior portrait mode pictures. (I haven’t tried a Pixel 3 to see how well the computational photography works with one lens, though colleagues have told me that’s even better in low light.)

Like most of the flagship Android phones of 2018, the Note 9 uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor for the US model. (Some international models use Samsung’s Exynos processor). The base model, which I used, has 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, while an upgrade offers 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. It supports a microSD card so you can add a lot more storage if you need to (I guess if you take a lot of video). PCMag’s benchmarks show near the top of the class for Android phones this year, about where you’d expect it to be given the processor and display resolution.

The Note 9 supports a lot of LTE bands, so depending on where you are and what carrier you use, you might get higher speeds (through more carrier aggregation) than most other phones. In actual use, I got decent speeds in the New York area (and in Las Vegas during CES), but nothing spectacular.

The version of the Note 9 I’m running uses Android 8.1 with the Samsung Experience 9.5. Over time, most of the Samsung changes to core Android have gotten smaller, though it still comes with a variety of applications of varying degrees of usefulness. (For instance, Samsung’s Calendar app isn’t as useful as Google’s—it lacks a "schedule" or "agenda" view—but you can always just run the Google Calendar version or the third-party app of your choice.)

The most obvious piece of additional software is Bixby—Samsung’s take on the voice assistant. The nice idea here is to let you get things done without launching apps. Theoretically, it knows more about your phone than the Google Assistant, but in practice, I didn’t find it all that helpful. For basic question answering, the Google Assistant, which you can get to by pressing an on-screen button at the bottom of the display, simply seems to do a better job.

You can also see the Bixby Home, but swiping to the right from the main home screen. This shows you your calendar, weather, news, and various activities on your phone. It’s useful but not too different from other choices.

Other features include dual speakers, which is a notable improvement from the Note 8 (music sounds much better); IP68 water resistance; fast wireless charging; Samsung Pay; and Knox security. One very nice feature is the 4000 mAh battery, which has the best battery life of any flagship phone PCMag has tested.

Compared with the Note 8, or even the S9 and S9+, Samsung has moved the fingerprint reader to a better position below the camera. I still prefer the larger buttons on the Pixel or LG phones, but it’s great to see this working. Alternatively, it has what it calls "Intelligent Scan," which uses a combination of face and iris recognition, although this is not generally considered to be as secure as Apple’s Face ID system. In general, I found this works pretty well in normal lighting, but I’ve had it not work in very bright or darker spaces.

One of the most interesting features of the current Samsung […]

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