Here’s what you need to know about Samsung’s newest flagship smartphone, the Galaxy S9, in five words: The device plays it safe.
The S9, which arrives in stores this month, looks nearly identical to its immediate predecessor, the Galaxy S8. It is essentially a replay of last year’s big Samsung phone — with a few tweaks.
The main differences are an improved camera and a feature called AR Emoji, which uses a photo of your face to create an animated version of yourself making various expressions, like crying in a bathtub or shaking your head. The phone’s price is steep: $720 or, for a version with a slightly larger screen, $840.
That’s underwhelming when you consider that Samsung, the largest phone maker, has been on the bleeding edge of smartphone innovation. The South Korean company was the first to bring us “phablets,” or big-screen phones, and it popularized phones with digital pens.
The Galaxy S9 serves as a reminder that you don’t need to buy a new phone every year (even though the carriers want you to). Cherish and maintain your gadgets, and upgrade to the Galaxy S9 only if you feel like splurging on a device with a powerful camera.
But there’s also good news: The new AR Emoji is pretty handy for a tech reviewer like myself. So after a week of testing, here’s how I rated the Galaxy S9’s new features, using a series of AR Emoji.
Last year, Apple’s iPhone X introduced Animoji, the ability to create animated emoji that mimic your facial expressions. Samsung’s response is AR Emoji.
To set it up, you smile with your mouth closed and snap a photo of your face, and the phone software creates a computer-generated image of you. You then choose an outfit, facial hair and accessories like glasses. From there, the software creates animated stickers of your emoji conveying various expressions, like blowing a kiss, giving a thumbs up or flashing a peace sign.
There’s a problem: The emoji look creepy. It’s like taking a photo and a cartoony 3-D image of yourself and mashing them together. The result is a phenomenon that robotics experts describe as “uncanny valley” — the image looks fake, but it also bears close resemblance to a person and causes psychological discomfort.
Suzanne De Silva, a director of product strategy and marketing for Samsung, compared early reactions to AR Emoji to the transition from older television technologies to newer ones.
“There was this adjustment period where people said, ‘Why does TV look hyperreal now?’” she said. “And perhaps that’s exactly what we’re seeing in the introduction of AR Emoji. Maybe it’s an adjustment period.”
If what you want are custom emoji, there are better options. Bitmoji, an emoji maker acquired by Snap in 2016, generates flat cartoon emoji of you. The cartoon stickers are cute and fun to use, and there are many outfits and expressions to choose from.
So would I buy this phone for AR Emoji?
Critics gave last year’s Galaxy S8 phone rave reviews, with one caveat: The fingerprint sensor was a few millimeters to the right of the camera lens. That awkward placement made it easy to bump into the camera lens when trying to unlock the phone.
For the S9, Samsung listened to feedback and moved the fingerprint sensor to a better place: below the camera. In my tests, I rarely bumped into the camera when unlocking the phone. That’s a win.
If you thought Siri or Alexa was inadequate, wait till you try Bixby, the virtual assistant that Samsung introduced last year. To set it up, you create a Samsung account, and you hold down a button on the side of the phone to activate it.
Bixby is unreliable. It took me three tries to open the phone camera with the command “Open the camera” before it accomplished the task. I also asked, “Bixby, what can you do?” On my first try, there was an issue connecting to Samsung’s server, and on my second try, Bixby replied: “Maybe a few things here and there, but I’m learning every day.” Yeah.
Samsung said it was listening to people’s comments on Bixby.
There is a better option: Google’s Assistant, which is a more capable, mature virtual assistant. Unfortunately, you can’t modify the Bixby button to summon Google’s Assistant instead. Your only other option is to disable the button.
The Galaxy S9 has what Samsung calls a dual-aperture camera system. The aperture is the opening in the camera sensor that lets in light.
Typically, phone makers make the aperture as large as possible to let in more light. But Samsung’s new phone has a mechanical aperture that adjusts to different lighting conditions: In scenes with bright light, it will step down to the narrower aperture to avoid overexposure, and in low light, it will automatically change to a wider aperture to draw in as much light as possible.
In my tests, photos in bright light came out extremely crisp and clear — I was surprised that in one photo of my dog, Mochi, the camera even captured beads of saliva on her snout. Yet in other photos, Samsung’s camera software appeared to oversharpen or oversmoothe some textures like patches of grass or the dog’s fur.
In low-light settings, photos looked excellent. In pictures I shot of friends in dimly lit restaurants and cocktail bars, their faces were nicely lit up, and backgrounds looked natural. So when you ask a waiter to take a photo of you and a group of friends at the dinner table, make sure the waiter uses the Samsung — and leaves the flash off.
I especially enjoyed using the camera to shoot photos of food. In the camera app, a “Food” mode slightly bumps up the saturation to make colors warmer and the food look more enticing. In a photo I took of a homemade loaf of bread, Food mode made the brown crust appear more appetizing, and in photos I took of a plate of arepas, it made the tomatoes look redder and an avocado slice greener. Instagram fans who obsessively document their meals will love this camera.