Hands on: Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review

The Note 9 is all about going big with a lot of minor upgrades

What is a hands on review?
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Our Early Verdict

Bigger than previous Note phones in every way, the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 has a larger screen, heftier battery and a massive 1TB of storage option. The camera is poised to be better and the Bluetooth-connected S Pen can activate customizable shortcuts remotely. But its price matches (and even tops) what you’ll pay for an iPhone X.

For

  • Beautiful 6.4-inch Infinity Display
  • Big battery and storage options
  • Promising camera enhancements
  • Bluetooth S Pen shortcuts

Against

  • Expensive
  • A lot of small upgrades
  • No HDR video recording
  • Expensive (just to repeat)

The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 is a little bigger, a little more colorful, and a little more powerful than all prior Note phones, but be warned: it’s also a lot more expensive.

Update: The Note 9 launch event was nearly a week ago, and we're wrapping up our review testing. Read below for our update near-final thoughts on this smartphone.

Everything that happened at Samsung Unpacked

It’s the biggest Android phone that will grab your attention in 2018, with a sizeable 6.4-inch Super AMOLED display, a huge 4,000mAh battery for all-day performance, and up to 512GB of storage and 8GB of RAM.  

Slot in a 512GB microSD card (which Samsung will gladly sell you), and you can have the first mainstream 1TB phone in your hands. You won't get to use all of that as the system data and existing apps will take up some of that space, but it's unlikely you'll be disappointed with the amount of storage on your phone.

Good news – the Note 9 doesn’t actually feel any bigger than last year’s 6.3-inch Note 8, and it inherits a bunch of this year’s 5.8-inch Galaxy S9 and 6.8-inch Galaxy S9 Plus features. 

The camera is better, with a dual 12MP rear setup that has dual-aperture technology, and can record Super Slow Mo videos. AR Emoji is back with some finer avatar customizations, but rest assured, your avi will still look nothing like you, according to our early tests.

Exclusive to the Note 9 camera are automatic scene optimizer and flaw detection features that enhance photos (Samsung has a habit of rolling these features out to older phones later on). 

The S Pen now has Bluetooth for remote-controlled shortcuts that, unlike the Bixby button, are customizable. Want to pose for a photo 30 feet away? This S Pen can help you do that and more.

Bad news – the price feels much bigger. Get ready to pay iPhone X-level prices for the entry-level 128GB and 6GB model. Ouch. The Note 9 is meant for power users, according to Samsung – the physical size, storage size, price, and battery capacity all tell us that. 

The company sees Note 9 buyers as people who spend a lot of time on their phone and want the best of the best – they buy the best AV receiver, the best TV, and so forth.

We’re continuing to test the Note 9, but we can already tell that it’s a contender to unseat the Galaxy S9 Plus as our top smartphone recommendation – that is, if you want to own a giant, feature-filled phone with a stylus and hate saving money. 

Ongoing Samsung Galaxy Note 8 deals are the biggest threat to this upgrade that, ironically, is all about going big in a variety of small ways.

Check out our hands on video below to see the Galaxy Note 9 in action:

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 release date and price

  • Release date is August 24, with an iPhone X-like price
  • $1,000 (£899 / AU$1,499 / AED 3,699) for 128GB/6GB
  • $1,250 (£1,099 / AU$1,799 / AED 4,599) for 512GB/8GB

The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 release date is on August 24, sooner than anyone had expected a year ago. The Note 8 came out on September 15 in the US and UK last year (September 22 in Australia and Middle East). 

Why the early Note 9 release date? The theory is Samsung wants to rush it out to beat the iPhone 11 and iPhone 9 announcement expected for early September.

Talking of Samsung competing with Apple, the Note 9 price rivals that of Apple’s handset, rather than undercutting it as we'd hoped. 

The Note 9 price is $1,000 (£899 / AU$1,499 / AED 3,699) for the phone with 128GB of internal storage and 6GB of RAM, and $1,250 (£1,099 / $AU1,799 / AED 4,599) for 512GB and 8GB of RAM. 

Yes, that entry-level 128GB configuration does double the iPhone X's 64GB of storage for the same price and is therefore a better value, but it's also a hike of $70 (£30) over the Note 8 launch price. So it depends on how you look at it.

Samsung will sell the phone unlocked in the US on release day, and also through carriers like Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. Pre-orders in the US began on August 10. 

In Australia, you can also pick up the Note 9 from the country's biggest telcos, with Vodafone, Telstra and Optus each offering a number of data-heavy plans — we've taken the liberty of comparing Australia's best Samsung Galaxy Note 9 pre-order deals.

Note 9 colors in the US are Ocean Blue with a yellow S Pen (it also writes in yellow for the ultimate color contrast) and Lavender Purple with a purple pen (which writes in purple digital ink). Australian color options have been confirmed as Ocean Blue and Midnight Black. Other regions may get Black and Copper colors, we were told by Samsung – colors are region-dependent.

New S Pen magic tricks

  • Bluetooth stylus has custom shortcuts
  • Great for remotely taking photos, works up to 30 feet away
  • Charges quickly while embedded in the phone

The new S Pen is the star turn of the Note 9 show, capable of performing Bluetooth-connected magic tricks from up to 30 feet away. 

Samsung has managed to squeeze a small battery and tiny Bluetooth Low-Energy antenna into the otherwise unchanged stylus so that it can perform various remote functions, and we're impressed.

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A long press of the S Pen button launches the camera app

A long press of the S Pen button launches the camera app
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Use the central button on the S Pen to switch between front and rear cameras, and snap pictures

Use the central button on the S Pen to switch between front and rear cameras, and snap pictures

What can you do exactly? We were able to remotely launch the camera app with a long press of the S Pen button, flip the camera to selfie mode with a single short press, and snap a group photo with two presses. 

It’s much easier than setting the camera timer, which Samsung hid in the camera settings menu last year, and less awkward than waving your hand in front of the lens to trigger the gesture-initiated camera timer.

Samsung is making S Pen shortcuts customizable. Here are the ideas mentioned:

  • Camera: Flip the camera / take a photo
  • Camera: Flip the camera / record a video
  • Music Player: Play and pause music / skip to the next track 
  • Photo Gallery: Advance to the next photo / cycle back to a previous photo
  • PowerPoint: back and forth through presentation slides

Samsung is putting a software development kit (SDK) out there for non-core third-party apps to take advantage of this shortcut tool, so they'll will be customizable as long as app developers support the functionality. 

The S Pen does need to be charged, but Samsung claims 40 seconds of charge time will net you 30 minutes of standby battery. We found this to be true in our testing. 

There's also a helpful S Pen battery indicator in the notification shade at the top, so you won't be kept guessing how much power you have left. And we found the that keeping the S Pen topped up was much easier than charging the iPad's Apple Pencil. 

Simply embedding the S Pen inside the phone charges it, and when it’s not in use, that’s where you typically put it. The Apple Pencil has nowhere to hide, and walking around with in the Lighting port is rather dangerous. Samsung’s years of stylus-making experience is obvious here.

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Draw the S Pen out of the Note 9 when the screen is off and you'll launch on-screen memo

Draw the S Pen out of the Note 9 when the screen is off and you'll launch on-screen memo
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The color of the S Pen ink is the same as the color of the stylus itself

The color of the S Pen ink is the same as the color of the stylus itself
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Swapping to a Lavender Purple Note 9 and the ink in our color-matched S Pen is the same

Swapping to a Lavender Purple Note 9 and the ink in our color-matched S Pen is the same

The Blue Ocean Note 9 has the more dynamic yellow S Pen for a nice contrast. It writes in yellow digital ink, while the Lavender Purple phone has a purple pen and purple digital ink.

All colors support the same Air Command functionality. You can draw, jot down notes, annotate screenshots, translate foreign text, and send Live Messages (last year's S Pen gimmick), and you can do these actions whether or not the S Pen is charged. Returning  

Samsung says the Bluetooth functionality allows for the evolution of the S Pen, but we can’t help but notice another contrast. 

Shortcuts like snapping selfies remotely can ‘unlock a whole different level of photography’, according to Samsung, and while that sounds useful for dramatic selfies (the example given is laying tired on the couch and taking a hands-free photo), the business-class Note 9 may not be the right audience for that.

It's fun to get both hands in a shot and strike a full-body pose. But We found it hard to find a place to rest the phone and snap a selfie when in front of iconic New York City landmarks. Then we thought back to Samsung's examples. They used a tripod for a group shot and mimed laying on the couch without actually taking a photo – something that would be difficult without a tripod, too.

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It's a great idea in theory and works sometimes, but often we've found a lack of places to rest the phone and plenty of unflattering angles when trying our best. Slide through to see our photo gallery.

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The photo as a normal selfie should look more like this, at a better angle and with proper lighting. However, getting a full body shot at this level with the S Pen remote would require a tripod.

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No matter what we did, it looked awkward and the photo looked blown out compared to the normal selfie.

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Nope. Not even close.

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Just imagine Matt in front of this awesome shot taken with the rear-facing camera. That's what we were going for with the S Pen remote functionality. Things don't always work out as planned.

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This shot with DJ Gray Rizzy to promote our Samsung Galaxy Note 9 review was better. Not perfect, but his booth did have a spot where we could rest the Note 9 without resorting to having it on the floor or unfurling a tripod.

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One more time for good measure. The point of the S Pen remote camera shutter is to avoid having to ask someone for a photo or whip out a tripod. It's a snap-and-go solution to a full-body selfie. But you're going to have to find a good resting spot for your precious phone.

Enterprise users will find one use case from the new S Pen: running a PowerPoint presentation without having to fetch and pair a Bluetooth remote. Those things one-trick ponies, so if an S Pen can replace this for you, that alone may be worth it.

Everyone can benefit from the Galaxy Note 9 screen-off memo feature, too. It's not a Bluetooth functionality or new (it appeared on the ill-fated Note 7), but it deserves a mention. Pop the S Pen out of the Note 9 when the screen is off and it'll automatically launch a note-taking feature. This allows you to jot down notes, and save them to the phone, without the need to unlock the Note 9 and launch a specific app. It makes noting taking much quicker and easier, and while it may be a simple offering we can see ourselves using it frequently.

We worry that sometimes we may not properly engage the S Pen when returning it to its slot, and it'll fall out without us realizing. It's an action that will likely become more familiar, and thus easier, the more we use it - but it's something we've found a little jarring so far.

Samsung Galaxy Note 9 S Pen hands on gallery

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Your first 1TB-ready smartphone

  • 512GB of internal storage with 8GB of RAM
  • 128GB of internal storage with 6GB of RAM
  • Additional 512GB microSD card can up storage to 1TB

It’s no surprise that Samsung, among top manufacturers, is the first to produce a 1TB-ready smartphone, a capacity that rivals that of most laptops people buy today. 

Samsung makes both the internal 512GB flash drive and a variety of 512GB microSD memory cards.

However, when you turn the Galaxy Note 9 on for the first time you'll find that it's already gobbled up at least 19GB of space. That means that while there's theoretically 1TB of space when the 512GB Note 9 is combined with the same size microSD card, you don't actually have 1TB of space to play with.

This isn't a surprise, as the advertized storage space on any smartphone these days isn't the amount of space you actually have to use - but it does slightly dampen Samsung's 1TB headline.

It's worth noting that the 128GB Note 9 also supports microSD cards up to 512GB in size, giving you plenty of storage scope with this model as well. (hat tip: Ash E)

The Note 9 is billed as the phone that will never run out of physical storage space. Uninstalling games and deleting movies you’ve downloaded isn’t something you’ll need to worry about here – take all the photos you want at full resolution, and all the 4K video you want, no compromise needed. 

8GB of RAM is also likely to work best for Samsung’s Dex desktop mode, second screen workflows, and virtualization software.

DeX itself is easier to use on the Galaxy Note 9, as unlike on the Note 8 where a physical dock was required for it to work, this time round all you need is a simple HDMI dongle for the PC-like desktop experience.

Of course, the 512GB storage and 8GB RAM are what send the Note 9 price skyrocketing; the entry-level 128GB and 6GB of RAM configuration is ‘cheaper’ by $250. 

At these prices, the questions you have to ask yourself are: Do I really need a 1TB phone? Am I going to also spend money on a 512GB microSD card? And will cloud storage make all of this irrelevant in the future?

The microSD slot shares the same tray as the nanoSIM

The microSD slot shares the same tray as the nanoSIM

The 4,000mAh battery

  • Much larger battery at 4,000mAh
  • Galaxy S9 had 3,000mAh and S9 has 3,500mAh
  • Fast Charging and Fast Wireless Charging supported

The Note 9 battery capacity has also been unshackled, breaking through the 4,000mAh ceiling. 

Samsung is finally comfortable enough to give us a larger battery following the Note 7 recall, and it promises that its eight-point safety check will mean no repeat of the fires we saw two years ago.

Battery life is being touted as all-day, and that's for Note power users, which means moderate use should see you into day two without a problem.

While the storage sizes come in two configurations, the battery size, thankfully, is common to both devices. You also get Fast Charging and Fast Wireless Charging capabilities.

Design, display and other specs

  • Expansive 6.4-inch display and minor dimension changes
  • Includes fingerprint sensor, microSD slot and headphone jack

Samsung’s Super AMOLED display doesn’t need to change to look great. It’s consistently the best smartphone screen in the world until the next Samsung phone launches, every year.

We're the only ones who brought a tape measure to size up the 6.4-inch screen. It's really that big.

We're the only ones who brought a tape measure to size up the 6.4-inch screen. It's really that big.

The 6.4-inch Note 9 screen did grow by a tenth of an inch over the 6.3-inch Note 8 display. It’s a change few will notice without breaking out the measuring tape (which we used in our testing). 

The nearly bezel-less Infinity Display is bright and punchy. And, even if the tall 18:9 aspect ratio (or in this case 18.5:9) is on just about every flagship phone in 2018, Samsung’s curved edges are unmatched.

The size of the Note 9 has changed from the Note 8, too, but maybe not how you think. It’s slightly wider, and slightly shorter, than the Note 8, with dimensions of 161.9 x 76.4 x 8.8mm (the Note 8 was 162.5 x 74.8 x 8.6mm). 

It also weighs a bit more: 201g vs 195g. This isn’t a small or light phone, but it is comfortable to hold, more so than the S9 Plus in some respects thanks to its boxy, less rounded-off design.

Here are two features Samsung gives you that you don’t get on a similarly priced iPhone X: a headphone jack and a microSD card slot for expandable storage. 

The Note 9 is IP68 water- and dustproof, and that resistance rating stays the same whether or not the S Pen is embedded. New to the Note 9 over the Note 8 are stereo speakers (just like on the S9 and S9 Plus).

What a difference a year makes

What a difference a year makes

Here’s something else you won’t get from Apple’s top phone: a fingerprint sensor that acts as an alternative to the iris scanner and Face Unlock. 

It’s on the back of the Note 9, and centrally located this time. The Note 8 had a fingerprint reader on back, too, but it was off-center and led to lots of camera smudges. We hated it.

The good news is the fingerprint scanner on the Galaxy Note 9 is much easier to locate, and our forefinger landed nicely on the scanner - although the landing area is a touch on the small side. 

We'd have preferred a larger target area that the circular design offers, but Samsung has tried to keep the aesthetic cohesive on the rear of the Note 9 and we can't knock it too much for that.

The fingerprint scanner is much easier to hit now it's below the camera block

The fingerprint scanner is much easier to hit now it's below the camera block

The Note 9 specs also include a chipset that's an upgrade over the Note 8, giving us what's at the heart of the S9 and S9 Plus: either the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 (US and China) or Samsung Exynos 9810 (everywhere else). It's country dependant, just like the colors, so you have no choice here.

Luckily, we found the chip fast for 3D games like Fortnite on Android and for muti-tasking. Geekbench software gave us a multi-core score of 8,875 whereas last year's phone clocked in at 6,524.

That said, the OnePlus 6 gave us a multi-core score of 9,100, and the iPhone X reigns supreme with over 10,000 in all of our tests. Samsung doesn't have the fastest chip, but it's plenty fast and keep in mind do have the 6GB of RAM version. There may be a bit more to the 8GB of RAM version.

Camera and battery life

  • Inherits the S9 Plus camera dual-aperture features
  • Wide-angle and telephoto dual camera lenses on back
  • AI-backed scene optimizer enhancements show promise

Samsung is carrying over its camera prowess to the Note 9, with low-light defeating and telephoto-zooming camera lenses on the back. 

The S9 Plus gave us a good idea of what to expect, but Samsung is promising even higher photo quality from the Note 9.

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The dual 12MP rear camera uses dual aperture technology to switch between an f/1.5 aperture for low-light photography and an f/2.4 aperture for normal lighting conditions. The S9 Plus gave us positive results even in the darkest settings, boosting its rank as the best camera phone you can currently buy.

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Great bokeh and focus on the food – the camera was able to pick up that the subject was good and it adjusted the white balance automatically

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The Brooklyn Bridge is there, but kind of far away. Time to use the Note 9 telephoto lens.

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The second rear camera lens is dedicated to optical zoom, which gets you two times closer to subjects without actually moving a muscle. The Brooklyn Bridge is the focus of our frame.

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More tests of the Note 9 rear camera zoomed out. There are jet skiers on New York City's East River.

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And now the camera zoomed in on the jet skiers. A 2x zoom isn't always going to do it for you, but it's better than digital zoom, which can great distort photo quality.

The secondary rear camera allows for a 2x optical zoom, giving you sharp telephoto snapshots for when you’re standing too far away. The aperture here is always set at f/2.4, and like the main lens it has optical image stabilization (OIS) to make up for your shaky hands.

The Note 9’s front-facing camera does selfies at 8MP and includes autofocus, a first for a Note phone. Samsung fills its camera app with an endless number of mode options, too: AR stickers, wide group selfies, and Super Slow Motion video at 960 frames per second at a 720p resolution. It’s one of the most robust camera apps in the business, yet easy to use.

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Our first remote photo with the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 camera and the Bluetooth S Pen. It's actually fun and useful.

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Again, all photos snapped with the S Pen while enjoying some pizza for dinner near the TechRadar office.

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Holding the phone and manually snapping photos with the on-screen shutter button? That's so Note 8.

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Here's a building being built. The Note 9 battery lasts a long time, but not long enough to capture its completion in a hyperlapse. 

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Shots are very detailed. We're eager to test out the low-light performance when it gets dark.

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Launching the camera app is still incredibly easy. Just double click the sleep/wake button and the phone instantly opens up the camera app. It's a great shortcut.

Samsung demonstrated that the Note 9 camera identifies and adapts to various subjects with a new scene-optimizer feature. 

It adjusts the white balance and color based on 20 subjects as varied as sunsets, flowers, food, birds, text and so forth. Compared to even the six-month-old S9 Plus, we saw the Note 9 camera exhibit much more detail from a macro flower photo.

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The camera is supposed to understand what it’s looking at, and it uses the same technology to correct flaws, including eye blinking, image blurring, lens smudges, and backlight. 

Sometimes it’ll pick the best photo of the bunch, and other times it’ll have a pop-up warning message, telling you to clean your dirty camera lens.

While rival Android handsets are supporting mobile HDR video recording, we don’t see signs of that here – we’re probably going to have to wait until the Galaxy S10 for superior, color-rich video. 

Obviously, we'll be testing this camera thoroughly as we continue to review the Galaxy Note 9. 

Android, interface and apps

  • Android Oreo, just misses Android Pie
  • Fortnite exlcusive (for a very limited time period)
  • Smasung Pay, Bixby AI, and AR Emoji present

Samsung just missed the Android 9 Pie launch this week, meaning the Galaxy Note 9 comes with Android Oreo. Not that you’d notice, as Samsung puts its own spin on Android.

That’s not a bad thing any more. The Samsung Experience software is well refined in 2018, with helpful cues on how to navigate a deep and complex operating system. It’s much better than the bloated Samsung TouchWiz firmware on its old Android phones, and everyone who hates on the software today likely hasn’t touched a Samsung in years.

Samsung devices (Galaxy S7 and up) will be the first with access to the hit game Fortnite on Android through Samsung’s Game Center app. 

It’s a six-day exclusive (which starts when the Note 9 launches) designed to give other Android users phone envy, as they'll have to wait, and sideload the app when the Samsung exclusivity expires – it won’t be downloadable in the Google Play app store. Beyond that, the Galaxy Note 9 and Tab S4 will receive an exclusive Fortnite skin that lasts forever.

Samsung Pay is the other app worth noting. It continues to be our favorite way to make contactless payments, simply because you can pay for things at credit card machines that don’t normally accept Apple Pay and Android Pay. Why no one has hopped on this is beyond us.

The Bixby AI assistant is here, but was unmentioned and untestable when we first played with the Note 9, and we had to inquire about AR Emoji to get details about the avatar refinements. These are not showstoppers for the Note 9.

Early verdict

The Note 9 offers a lot to like – and a price hike to utterly dislike. The S Pen has new remote-controlled tricks, the maximum storage size is unbeatable, and the battery life and AI-enhanced camera are both promising. 

The latter two perks require more review testing, but our initial impressions are quite favorable.

It’s just that you’ll pay through the nose for this bundle of little upgrades at a time when the Note 8 is a fine phone at a discounted price. When Samsung told us that the ideal user for the Note is someone who wants to own the best AV receiver, Best TV, and so forth, they may have left out the best airplane, the best yacht, and the best sports car.

The iPhone X drove prices to this level, and we complained then, too. Samsung is at least giving you more ‘big’ for your money.

What is a hands on review?

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