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72 hours with the Samsung Galaxy Note 9: the camera, battery, and screen

We've spent 72 hours with the Samsung Galaxy Note 9, including a weekend full of non-stop testing in preparation for our full Note 9 review. 

There's a lot to tell you already.

We first unboxed new $999 (£899 / AU$1,499 / AED 3,699) Android phone live on Facebook on Thursday, taking your questions as we set up the device. We then launched the camera app to snap photos with the Bluetooth S Pen as a remote-control trigger.

From there, we used the screen in direct sunlight and took notes – copious notes, of course – regarding the battery performance and how quickly the Note 9 recharged. There's certainly more good than bad to say about this smartphone.

Here's what we've uncovered in the first 72 hours.

S Pen camera shortcuts are fun, except...

Remotely taking photos with the new Bluetooth-enabled S Pen is like performing a magic trick, and does indeed open up new shots shows both your hands. That's been great, as Samsung proclaimed on launch day.

I don't know if a business-focused smartphone buyer is the right audience for this, but we had a bunch of fun testing it out after work on Friday. It expanded my use time with the S Pen beyond doodling some notes every once in a while.

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Our buddy Abbas Ali is testing out the remote functionality, too.

And yes, you can customize the S Pen shortcuts, but I found remotely triggering the camera to be the best use of its Bluetooth capabilities. This isn't the new feature that will make you rush out to buy the Note 9 if you have a Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus or the Note 8. However, if you have an older phone or are due for an upgraded on a contract, you'll get a kick out of it too.

Two things we learned you should be aware of:

First, the shortcut trigger on the S Pen is actually the tiny S Pen button near the tip of the stylus. It's not the clicky end cap like we thought (and had hoped). We love clicking that non-functional cap (it's a really bad habit). It would have made for a more natural remote shutter trigger. Sadly, it remains non-functional.

Second, and more importantly, I had a hard time finding a place to rest the phone in order to take meaningful remote shots. Too often, my photos – either with a bridge in the distance or actually on a New York bridge – didn't have a resting spot for the phone. There was always lot of concrete or deep water nearby. The Note 9 is waterproof, but not that waterproof.

The S Pen camera remote function has made me realize that, for selfies, my arms are the ultimate tripod. Posing for photos with both arms in frame means I have to find a new way to stand up my phone. Maybe Samsung can fix that next.

I have started using a Samsung Galaxy Note 9 case to remedy this last problem. The S-View flip cover case doubles as a tri-folding stand for the Note 9. I'm going to start using that more as I begin to trust it'll stay together. I'll report back with more epic photos and videos... or a Note 9 broken phone.

Is the Note 9 camera really better?

We've taken a few dozen photos with the Galaxy Note 9 camera and also matched them up with other devices on our best camera phones list. This includes the iPhone X, Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus, Google Pixel 2, and last year's Galaxy Note 8.

We're still amassing more bright scenic photos as well as the all-important low-light shots and reserving final judgment until that happens. In the meantime, here's a side-by-side comparison of some phones we've been carrying alongside the Note 9.

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Note 9 Empire State Building (night)

Samsung Galaxy Note 9

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S9 Plus Empire State Building (night)

Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus

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Google Pixel 2 Empire State Building (night)

Google Pixel 2

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Note 8 Empire State Building (night)

Samsung Galaxy Note 8

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iPhone X Empire State Building (night)

iPhone X

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Note 9 steak

Samsung Galaxy Note 9

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iPhone X steak

iPhone X

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Note 9 Empire State Building (cloudy day)

Samsung Galaxy Note 9

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iPhone X Empire State Building (cloudy day)

iPhone X

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Note 9 Manhattan

Samsung Galaxy Note 9

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iPhone X Manhattan

iPhone X

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Note 9 Williamsburg Bridge

Samsung Galaxy Note 9

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iPhone X Williamsburg Bridge

iPhone X

We also now have a collection of smartphone cameras with telephoto lenses on them. Secondary optical zoom lenses are on the Note 9, S9 Plus, Note 8, and iPhone X. You'll notice that the Google Pixel 2 isn't a part of this telephoto gallery:

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Note 9 telephoto

Samsung Galaxy Note 9

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S9 Plus telephoto

Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus

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Note 8 telephoto

Samsung Galaxy Note 8

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iPhone X telephoto

iPhone X

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Note 9 telephoto

Samsung Galaxy Note 9

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iPhone X telephoto

iPhone X

The big screen is great, even in sunlight

I was walking across the Williamsburg bridge on a bright, sunny New York City day this weekend, taking the scenic route to dinner (just for the Note 9 photos and the exercise). Was I making good time? I checked Google Maps.

Normally, on a clear summer day, seeing my smartphone screen would mean I had to find shade just to see the screen. With the Note 9's big, bright 6.4-inch display, I didn't have that problem and I didn't have to adjust the brightness. The phone responded to the environment, bringing the brightness up to the maximum level. Everything was so easy to see because of the size and brightness. I really enjoy that aspect of Note phones.

The brightness bar turned from the normal blue color to red to indicate that I'm burning some extra battery life and the phone may run a bit hot. But seeing my screen without having to adjust the settings while squinting at a dull display gave me a 'it just works' moment. Yes, Google's Android 9 Pie update has some smart auto-brightness functionality coming, but this Samsung Android 8 Oreo phone has this feature built-in now and one of the brightest phones screens ever made to go along with it.

Battery life has been excellent

We're still running battery life tests on the Note 9 and I want to get several additional full days of use out of the Note 9 before drawing final conclusions on its longevity. But so far the 4,000mAh battery capacity may be my favorite Note 9 feature.

It's not a flashy party trick like the S Pen customizable shortcuts, but like the bright screen, it helps you become more productive throughout the day. And really, that's what the Note 9 is all about: productivity. Samsung has positioned this device as the one for people who use their smartphone the best. So it gets Samsung's biggest battery in a flagship device.

Recharging the phone is fairly quick, too. We checked the battery percentage every 15 minutes, from 0% to 100%. We'll do it again before coming to a conclusion on recharge speeds.

  • 15 mins: 17%
  • 30 mins: 37%
  • 45 mins: 52%
  • 60 mins: 70%
  • 75 mins: 83%
  • 90 mins: 90%
  • 105 mins: 98%
  • 1h 49 mins: 100%

We have to put the numbers into context a bit. It's fast, but not the fastest charging phone among top flagship handsets. Why? Remember, it has a bigger battery than most mainstream phones (excluding phones in China that never come West, and excluding battery-focused variants, like 5,000mAh phones from Asus and others).

Three days of testing tells us this is a powerful phone with exceptional battery life. We just have to nail down how well it stacks up to the competition. Oh, and have to ensure it doesn't repeat the Note 7 fire incidents.

We're updating our thoughts on the Note 9 everyday, so be sure to check back as we continue to review this phone with a steady stream of hands-on impressions.

Check back soon for our 96-hour update.