The phablet’s massive, beautiful screen, excellent performance and new Bluetooth stylus will have Note fans salivating
The king of the big, powerful phones is back for another generation, but is the new Samsung Galaxy Note 9 still the phablet to beat?
The Note series pioneered the big-screen smartphone in 2011 and over the last seven years it has been made larger and more feature-packed with each new version. Where the Galaxy S9 series is Samsung’s top-end phone for normal people, the Note 9 is the powerhouse for those that need the answer to the question “can I do that on my phone” always to be yes.
Place the new phone next to the Note 8 and you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference, until you look a bit more closely.
The bezels are slightly smaller and the aluminium band around the sides slightly more prominent. The dual-camera system now sits slightly proud of the glass back and the fingerprint scanner has been moved from alongside the cameras to below them. It’s a tiny change but makes a huge difference for usability.
The screen is the best you can get on a smartphone, with bright, bold colours, inky blacks and great viewing angles. The Note has always been Samsung’s showcase for its best screen technology.
The massive screen does have its downsides, though, as it makes the Note 9 fairly difficult to handle without two hands. If any phone would benefit from a ring or finger grip on the back, this is it. Samsung should have included a hand strap like the ones that came with phones in the early 2000s. It could sit next to the headphone jack.
- Screen: 6.4in quad HD+ AMOLED (516ppi)
- Processor: octa-core Samsung Exynos 9810 or octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 845
- RAM: 6 or 8GB of RAM
- Storage: 128 or 512GB + microSD card
- Operating system: Samsung Experience 9 (Android 8.1)
- Camera: dual 12MP rear cameras with OIS and dual aperture, 8MP front-facing camera
- Connectivity: LTE, Wi-Fi, NFC, wireless charging, Bluetooth 5, GPS and Iris sensor
- Dimensions: 162 x 76.4 x 9 mm
- Weight: 205g
Long-lasting peak performance
Like the Galaxy S9, the Note 9 has a different processor, depending on where you buy it. The European model has Samsung’s own Exynos 9810 chip and was the version tested, while the North American model has Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 processor, which is used in the OnePlus 6 and other top-end phones released in 2018. Performance should be similar between the two versions, although there may be discrepancies at the extremes.
The Note 9 is arguably the best performing Android device on the market, and is capable of maintaining that maximum performance for much longer without overheating, which was very noticeable in Shadowgun Legends compared with a Pixel 2XL or OnePlus 6.
Its performance as a desktop computer using Samsung’s DeX system, connecting the phone to a monitor via a standard USB-C to HDMI cable, was surprisingly good. Chrome viewed on a 1080p monitor handled very large and demanding web apps better than most cheap PCs.
Battery life was solid, but somewhat disappointing given the large 4,000mAh capacity battery, matching the performance of the Galaxy S9+, which has a 12.5% smaller capacity battery. With the screen set to its maximum resolution of QHD+ the battery lasted an average of 25 hours between charges or an hour longer with the screen set to FHD+ resolution.
That was while using the Note 9 as my primary device with the always-on display active, while browsing and using apps for five hours with well over a hundred notifications, reading comics in Marvel Unlimited for 60 minutes, and listening to about five hours of music via Bluetooth headphones.
For comparison, Huawei’s 6in Mate 10 Pro can last two full days between charges under similar conditions. It’s possible that the North American version of the Note 9 with the Qualcomm processor may have longer battery life.
Samsung Experience 9.5
The Note 9 runs the latest version of Samsung’s modified Android called Samsung Experience 9.5. It’s based on Android 8.1 Oreo instead of the recently released Android 9 Pie, which is disappointing but not entirely unexpected.
It looks and behaves similarly to the Note 8 or Galaxy S9+ with Samsung Experience 9. There are a few useful additions for the stylus and large screen, such as the pop-out Edge apps, advanced split-screen multitasking and the ability to pop-out apps to run as windows over others – all features present in the Note 8.
On the whole the software on the Note 9 feels like Samsung’s best optimised yet, with smoother performance all round. It’s not quite as snappy as a OnePlus 6 or Google’s Pixel 2XL, but it feels as if Samsung has done a better job of limiting lag all over the system.
The dual-camera system on the back is the same as that fitted to the Galaxy S9+. Two 12-megapixel cameras, one wide angle with dual aperture and the other a 2x telephoto camera.
New for the Note 9 is an AI system for optimising scenes for shots, which worked fine when it recognised objects such as food and plants, but often created oversaturated images that look like they’ve been put through an Instagram filters. I turned it off and got better results. The AI is also meant to spot when the image is blurry or your subject has their eyes closed, but I couldn’t get it to alert me no matter how many shots of friends blinking I took.
Lacklustre AI elements aside, the camera is brilliant, capturing a rich amount of detail, even with the telephoto lens, and in a range of lighting conditions. Low light performance was excellent too, as was the 8-megapixel selfie camera.
Another new addition is a Bluetooth-enabled S Pen, which uses a supercapacitor to operate the S Pen away from the phone for up to 30 minutes or so. Slide the S Pen back into the body for a full charge in 40 seconds.
Other than the usual scribbling on screen, you can now press the button to trigger actions on your phone, such as taking a picture in the camera app, pausing music or presenting the next slide in PowerPoint. Hold down the button and you can launch an app too.
I didn’t find it overly useful, but I know that the feature has been on the wish lists of Note users for some time.
- The Bixby button is still there and Bixby still isn’t great – it technically hasn’t even launched in the UK yet so we just get the US version
- Both the phone and S Pen are water resistant to IP68 standards
- To register a fingerprint you swipe down on the sensor once, but you must do so in the orientation you hold the device normally otherwise the results aren’t good
- Intelligent scan, which combines face and iris recognition, works very well, but you still have to use your fingerprint for most apps
- The screen is just about big enough to be a viable replacement for a 7in tablet, but you had better have big pockets
- The stereo speakers are surprisingly loud and good
- Wireless charging remains great
The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 costs £899 for 128GB of storage or £1,099 with 512GB of storage.
For comparison, the 6.2in Galaxy S9+ costs £869 with 128GB of storage, 6.1in Huawei P20 Pro costs £799 with 128GB, the 6in Huawei Mate 10 Pro with 128GB costs £699, the 6in Google Pixel 2 XL with 64GB costs £699, the 6.3in OnePlus 6 with 64GB costs £469, the 5.8in Honor 10 with 128GB costs £369, and the 5.8in iPhone X with 64GB costs £999.
If you need your phone to be able to do just about anything, the Note 9 is it. It has everything and the kitchen sink wrapped up into a massive powerhouse of a phone.
As you might expect that comes with a few compromises, the biggest of which is the sheer size of the thing making it quite difficult to pocket and handle. It also costs a lot, although not quite as much as Apple’s significantly smaller iPhone X.
The camera is great, the screen is amazing, the stylus useful and the myriad features don’t get in the way if you don’t use all of them. You can game for longer at maximum performance than other phones and even use it as a workable light desktop when hooked up to a monitor.
The battery life is good but should be better given the size of the cell, and launching after the release of a new version of Android 9 Pie but running last year’s 8.1 Oreo isn’t ideal.
The Note 9 really isn’t that much different than the Note 8, but is a huge step forward over older models. Note fans should be happy.
Pros: good battery, impressive screen, water resistant, brilliant camera, Bluetooth S Pen, microSD card slot, wireless charging, lasting performance, DeX without the dock, headphone jack
Cons: only Android 8.1, expensive, very big for hands and pockets, fingerprint scanner should be lower down the back, Bixby still not good enough
- Samsung Galaxy S9+ review: the best big-screen smartphone by miles
- Google Pixel 2 XL review: the best big-screened Android experience yet
- Huawei P20 Pro review – the three-camera iPhone killer
- Huawei Mate 10 Pro review: say hello to two-day battery life
- OnePlus 6 review: top-end smartphone for half cost of iPhone X
- Honor 10 review: premium phone that punches above its price
- iPhone X review: Apple finally knocks it out of the park
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