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Samsung Galaxy Note9 Review – The Blockbuster Sequel

This is the eighth Galaxy Note phone and by now surely everyone knows exactly what they are getting into when they purchase a Note. From the first ever Note to the latest one, it has always been about the larger-than-life display, the S Pen experience and the best hardware on any smartphone at the time of release. The Note9 is, of course, no different – check, check and check. Nothing more, nothing less.

See also: Samsung Galaxy Note9 First Look: If It Ain’t Broken

Except that’s not entirely true. If Samsung is selling us the Note8 on the promise of “newness” – the new Infinity Display, the new dual rear cameras, etc – With the Note9, Samsung is selling us the idea of “more”. More of what we already have. More of what we love. But at the risk of being seen as staleness creeping in, Samsung did put in a few minor new features to the Note9 so it isn’t merely a boring specs bump upgrade. You can only do so much to your best product in a short span of a year.

In short, the Note9 has more screen (albeit a very tiny upsize), more RAM, more storage, more S Pen features and more battery capacity, in the same overall body design for the second year running. It does not make for an exciting reading in a year where we have witnessed the likes of triple rear cameras, in-display fingerprint sensor, pop-up camera and heck, even a whole stealth camera system on a futuristic-looking moving structure.

But put the Note9 amongst all of them, and the evergreen phablet will probably trump them all when it comes to the complete package and in terms of day-to-day usage. “Complete” has always been the overused choice of word that many reviewers and users alike used when they describe the Note series. As cliché as it may sound, the Note9 is without a doubt the most complete smartphone in the market today.

Let’s do another take on what the Note9 is, shall we? Best display on any smartphone as rated by DisplayMate, RAM as high as 8GB, Snapdragon 845, whopping 512GB of onboard storage (if you opt for the pricier model) that can be further topped up to a monstrous 1TB with a 512GB microSD card, biggest battery on any Samsung phone yet, a better media player with stereo speakers, a heavy gaming-capable phone (thanks to its new water-carbon cooling system) and a literal PC desktop (with DeX) in your pocket. Oh and did we mention that it is still one of the best mobile productivity tools with an unrivalled stylus experience that is now better than ever with new remote control capabilities for work (in a presentation) and for leisure (watching videos, taking group pictures and selfies, etc)? What more could we as smartphone users ask for?

Is the Note9 a perfect smartphone then? Almost, but not quite there yet. As much as Samsung has improved or upgraded almost all areas of the device, the lack of major upgrades to the camera might disappoint some quarters who want to see new innovations in this fiercely competitive segment. Samsung ports the same dual aperture camera setup from the Galaxy S9+ to the Note9 and adds in two new software features. Scene Optimizer and Flaw Detection are welcome additions but they are not the sort of game-changing upgrades people crave for. At most, they help produce slightly nicer-looking pictures with better optimised colors and such but the results aren’t going to be too different from what the S9+ produces.

While Flaw Detection works at it intended (though its ultimate usefulness in letting you know about flaws that you can certainly see for yourselves is up for debate) Scene Optimizer can be a hit-or-miss affair, at least in my own experience testing out the phone. It is not always accurate in picking out the correct scene and hopefully with future software updates it can be fixed and further improved.

Scene Optimizer works as it should most of the time, but it can also misses the mark, as evidenced in the bottom (third) picture.

Little niggling problems show itself in other areas too. In numerous occasions I got prompted to reconnect the S Pen even though the stylus was tucked in its rightful place in the holder all long. Other than that, I’m still not entirely sure to how much degree the water-carbon cooling system helps in heavy gaming. Running Fortnite on the phone was smooth-sailing but the device did get warmed up fairly quickly. To Note9’s credit, there are reports of older Samsung phones like the S8 and S7 getting uncomfortably hot running the same game so the cooling system does appear to do its job.

We couldn’t really test Bixby 2.0 as the full service “is not available yet” during our time with it (or it might be a geographical issue) but judging from other reports, it doesn’t seem to elicit much enthusiasm either. Just stick with the Google Assistant option if you’re into virtual assistants.

All these little quirks however do not detract from the overall experience, which has been nothing short of superb like many past Note phones have delivered over the years. Special mention to stereo speakers which hugely improved the multimedia consumption experience. The external speakers in past Samsung phones have always been one of my biggest complaints and its nice to finally see Samsung addresses the issue here.

The now more-capable S Pen has quickly found its first good use from me. Hooking the Note9 up to play Youtube videos on my TV via Google Chromecast and using the stylus as a remote control to play/pause videos is a favourite use case of mine, and that’s just an example of how the expanded capabilities of the S Pen can bring fresh new life to the good old stylus. With some customisation options afforded, each user can use the S Pen remotely in entirely different ways from the others. That has never been with the case with the S Pen of old which is primarily used for writing and doodling stuffs. Also, goodbye selfie/wefie countdown timer. 

The S Pen battery lasts in and around 30 minutes and once it dies down, charging it up (by simply slotting it back into the device holder) in a short 40 second window will instantly give it another 30 minutes of usage. Your workflow isn’t going to be interrupted much. Speaking of battery, the 4,000mAh battery does make a significant difference to day-to-day usage. Without going into anything heavy duty or continuous usage over a prolong period of time, the Note9 can easily last more than a day without charging and a two-day battery life is a reachable goal. Like all previous Samsung flagships, the Note9 can be charged up quickly wired and wirelessly.

Ultimately, there aren’t much negative to say about the Note9. Samsung busts out all the right (albeit safe) moves in giving us all the things they know we love and ask for. Things like bigger storage and bigger battery are forever in the wishlist of every smartphone user ever and these are the factors that will convince people to part with their hard-earned money. If you haven’t got a Note8, or a S9+, is the Note9 worth the buy? Hell yeah. Android phones don’t come better than the Note9 at this moment. What if you do own a Note8/S9+? I’ll say hold on to it for a few more months at least (till February/March of next year when the next big thing from Samsung drops) unless the allure of the bigger battery or the new S Pen is too tempting.

Getting the Note9 is like watching a movie sequel to a blockbuster hit. You know exactly what you’re getting into. There might be a couple of new characters or elements to spice things up a little or add new angles to the story but the overall structure (the winning formula) largely stays the same. And you go into the movies expecting nothing less of what a big-budget sequel delivers in spades – bigger, better and louder.

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